How Early is Too Early to Sell?

I never enter an ottoneu season with the intention of selling. I don’t think there is ever a need for a multiyear rebuild and so I always hit the auction and Opening Day believing I can compete.

Which makes it hurt that much more when things don’t go well from the start. Every year, I find myself wondering whether it is time to bail on the season with at least one of my teams, and it’s the hardest question to answer. It’s even more complicated in a short, pandemic-afflicted season. And with all the chaos we have seen so far, I am already questioning the path forward for some of my teams.

I am in five ottoneu leagues and my teams are in 10th, 1st, 10th, 3rd, and 12th. There are tough decisions to be made about those teams in 1st and 3rd – how aggressively do I want to buy? do I cut players with future value to add players who can help me fills games played today? – but let’s leave those for another time and focus on the disasters.

Depending on the team, we are anywhere from 4-12 games into the season, and anything that has happened so far could easily be reversed in the next set of games, so it seems to be way too early to make a “sell” call. In a typical year, 10ish games doesn’t even get us to mid-April and I am not even evaluating a decision like this yet.

Even if we prorate those 10ish games to the 16% of the season they account for, we are talking about ~27 games of a regular season. Last year, that puts us around April 27 – still way to early to sell.

But there are complicating factors – both this year and in regular years – that might make me act differently.

The first thing I look at, if I am looking this early in the year is why my team is struggling and if it is realistic to expect that to change. For example, one of my 10th place teams has had presumed starters missing a ton of time and just getting back. My starting 2B (Mike Moustakas) has played only seven games; my starting MI (Didi Gregorius) only four; my top two OF (Juan Soto and Austin Meadows) have combined for one. Jay Bruce, Travis Shaw, and Scott Kingery – expected to play part time roles or fill in on off days – have barely played. But those guys are all coming back and playing now. Dominic Smith, who was a speculative play for me, now appears to have a full-time job. Some of the reliable bats on that team have played, but have underperformed badly – Francisco Lindor, Eugenio Suarez and Shohei Ohtani, I am looking at you.

The pitching on that team has struggled as well, but the picture going forward isn’t as rosy. Charlie Morton had a nice start last night, but velo is still down. Ohtani is done. Steven Matz has been not good. Pablo Lopez finally got his first start. Looking forward, Morton appears to have found something workable, Lopez looked great, I should get Marcus Stroman back, I have added Framber Valdez and Taijuan Walker, and I am excited about Kevin Gausman and German Marquez, plus a strong pen. If the offense hits like it should and the pitching can get to the middle of the pack – I am not done yet.

Now let’s look at that 12th place team. I expected pitching to be a strength in that league – I built a formidable pen (Brad Hand, Roberto Osuna, Giovanny Gallegos and Kevin Ginkel) that has been a massive disappointment. I paid up for two aces – Justin Verlander, who I have since cut given he is likely done for the year, and Stephen Strasburg, who should debut someday. David Price was my #3 and he opted out. Mike Minor has not recaptured whatever he had last year. Matz was awful here, too. James Paxton got cut. I fell so far behind on innings so fast, I gave up on Lopez before he even took the mound. It’s a mess, and most of those guys are not coming back to help.

The offense has, like the other team, suffered from missed games (Shaw, Bruce and Gregorius are on this roster, as is Eric Thames), but the underperformance is even bigger here – Jose Altuve, Franmil Reyes, Eduardo Escobar, Marcus Semien, Shin-Soo Choo, Joc Pederson, and Yasmani Grandal are all guys who should have been high-floor, reliable bats in at least one area (power for Franmil, OBP for Choo, etc.) but have all struggled. The good thing is – these guys could all bounce back. There is still time for the offense, even if the pitching is likely dead in the water.

The other thing I look at in most years is how far back I am – what would it realistically take to start making up ground? In both of these leagues (both 4×4), there is still plenty of opportunity. A single good start in one of those leagues could easily net me two points in ERA. I can gain a couple more in HR/9 with a day or two without a HR. If the offense bounces back, there is space to gain ground.

In the other league, my pitching is suffering from bad luck that should improve – I am leading in K (and not in innings, always a good sign) and middle of the pack in HR/9, but last in ERA and near the bottom in WHIP. Pitchers who get a ton of Ks without too many HR will do well over time. Maybe there are too many walks in there, but I also think there is space for positive regression.

Based on all of that, I am not ready to sell with either of those teams. Or wouldn’t be in a typical year. But, as mentioned, there is another consideration in play this year that wouldn’t be in a typical year – are there enough buyers (or will there be) that I can wait another couple weeks and still sell? Even in a typical year, I sometimes sell opportunistically early on if I think it might be a buyers market or if there are players I think I can acquire in April or May but won’t be able to in June or July.

That’s true this year, but there is the added concern that the season might get cancelled. Or, even if you think there is no way the season gets cancelled (I think it is highly unlikely at this point), there is the impact of that possibility on your fellow managers. An owner sitting in third right now and needing to trade for my Altuve to make the leap to 1st might be hesitant to give up a valuable piece if they are worried the season won’t finish.

There is also the psychological impact of the odd season. Yes, flags fly forever. Yes, you may have the same money or trophy or prizes on the table. But I also know there are managers out there who would prefer to ride what they have, finish 3rd, and go for it in a regular (I hope) 2021, rather than buy now, win the shortened season, and be worse off for 2021.

Then there is the question of whether I am selling Altuve for 75% of a season (assuming I sell now) or for just 7-8 weeks. Both are true – Altuve could still impact another team’s 2B play for 75% of the season and carry 75% of the weight, but he is also only going to be on that roster for those 7-8 weeks, assuming he isn’t a keeper. Will my opponents give me the same value they would for Altuve in May of a typical year? Or in August of a typical year? Or neither?

I also recommend being opportunistic. I have concerns about Morton and like my SP depth on that team, so I am in trade talks to move Morton for help elsewhere. In the other league, I am very high on Didi Gregorius as my SS and that makes Semien expendable – if I can trade Semien for future value (as if I were selling) without taking a big hit on my 2020 hopes, I can effectively start to sell without having to commit just yet. If I thought those teams were definite competitors and unlikely to sell, I wouldn’t be considering either trade right now, but they both work to hedge and help me get a head start on what might be a limited selling window while keeping my options open.

How early is too early to sell? In general, if you a) still have good reason to think your team will improve (and wishing isn’t reasoning: getting Soto back is a reason to believe; hoping that maybe Aristides Aquino will get a full time job and go off like he did last year is not) and b) still have enough time for that improvement to impact the standings, it is too early to sell. The caveat is that you need to be opportunistic and read the room, especially this year.

The net of this is that I think it is still too early to sell for either of these teams, but I am much more worried about the 12th place team. It’s less that the 12th place team is in 12th instead of 10th and more, at this point the path forward – that is what you really want to look at. Both teams could make up ground quickly with improved performance, but I am less confident I’ll get that from the 12th place team. The pitching I was excited about is just straight gone and not coming back. That team is not adding a Juan Soto or Austin Meadows to the lineup. And at this point in the season, that is what you should be asking: what is going to change moving forward to make this team perform better?

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