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Swapping Hitting For Pitching (And Vice Versa)

With the early part of the season past us, and almost 90% of the season left ahead, perhaps it’s time to talk strategy. You’ve drafted your squad and — even though April is a small sample — perhaps you have a clearer picture of your team, and its strengths and weaknesses. You may be out a shortstop thanks to an injury or two, or maybe you’ve suffered from too many Carlos Quentin-induced starting pitching injuries. You had a nice team to start, but now you’ve got a weakness either on the offensive side or in terms of pitching, and you’re ready to make a change.

Well, today I’d like to consider a few possible deals. Oftentimes, we look to trade from a position of strength to cover up a position of weakness. That’s what we’ll explore today: a couple of possible one-for-one (or similar) deals that might be a valuable swap of pitcher-for-hitter or vice versa. Perhaps that will help determine what a reasonable return might be from one perspective when swapping one side of your 5×5 team for another. Always, your mileage will vary based on you league and the population of trade partners available.

Trading a Hitter for a Pitcher

Let’s assume the following scenario: you went big on outfielders during your draft. In addition to the inspired drafting of Justin Upton, you snagged Matt Holliday in the fourth round, and have some strong plays lower on the depth chart in guys like Brett Gardner, Coco Crisp, Mike Morse, and you picked up Chris Davis on the wire. You’re feeling pretty great about your offensive situation, but your pitching is poor and you’d like to add another top-shelf starter. You decide that the eerily consistent Holliday is the guy to deal, so you can get high-end talent in return.

While Holliday isn’t yet off to a stellar start, ZiPS still projects him to finish the season as a four-win player … and most importantly, someone with 22 HR and more than 85 R and RBI — and his peripheral BB% and K% aren’t too far off his career numbers. Over the last few periods at Mock Draft Central, Holliday typically was drafted somewhere between 50-75 overall in mixed 5×5 drafts, somewhere between the fourth and sixth round. That sounds about right to me.

So what should you look for in a pitcher as a result? Personally, I’d look for a pitcher who sits with a slightly higher ADP than the hitter I’m giving up, but also take into account certain other considerations. There are more than a few pitchers who were taken later in drafts, such as Matt Harvey and Matt Moore, who are looking elite in the early goings, but they may be considered a little too hot to pull off an effective trade. In addition, other previously-valued pitchers like Zack Greinke and Jered Weaver may not be looking quite so hot these days, and you may not want to add these guys via trade given their recent injuries.

So let’s see … someone who’s sitting around Holliday’s average draft position, maybe a little higher, who another owner might be willing to pull the trigger on? How about Matt Cain? Cain’s another guy who tends to pop up in the fourth or fifth round of mixed drafts, and looks to be similar to Holliday in a lot of ways — he’s consistent, not very flashy, but incredibly valuable to a contending fantasy squad. In addition, Cain’s off to a bit of a slow start this year as well, getting knocked around in his four outings this season to the tune of a 7.15 ERA. At the same time, Cain’s underlying numbers show that he’s probably not too far off from his typical performance. Given the fact that the strikeouts and walks are coming with the same frequency that they have in previous years, and that he’s really suffering from HR-and-LOB-itis, I wouldn’t discount a return to his usual solid form. Targeting Matt Cain (or perhaps teammate Madison Bumgarner, or Adam Wainwright) might be the right level of ask when dealing a player like Holliday (or Shin-Soo Choo, or Mark Trumbo).

Trading a Pitcher for a Hitter

So let’s look at the other side, a bit further down. In this hypothetical, your team has stacks on stacks of pitching: you drafted Matt Harvey late, and he’s been looking phenomenal, and you picked up Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and A.J. Burnett during your draft. You feel extremely confident in your pitching, so you decide that Mat Latos is expendable in a deal for some additional hitting talent.

Latos is rolling to start the season, despite not yet earning a win for the Cincinnati Reds. With nearly 27.6% of opposing hitters striking out against him, Latos would be a solid add for anyone looking to bolster their rotation for 2013, and playing for the Reds means that he has as good of a chance at adding pitcher wins as anyone else. With an average draft position somewhere around 110-125, he’s one of those guys that usually comes out in the rounds 9-12 of a draft depending on who’s in your league. If it were me, I’d search out someone around the same, or slightly lower in terms of ADP, in order to get a deal done for a strong bat.

If it were me, I’d search out a player with a high potential for reward rather than low-impact, high-probability. If there’s a way to pry a Chase Utley loose (which there might not be, he’s pretty great), I’d search out someone like him. While Utley is unlikely to provide consistent value all season long with his health issues, he’s still so great of a hitter when healthy (all five categories are looking pretty good these days, with three steals already to supplement his potent bat) that he’d be worth starting in any league.

However, if Utley is too rich for a trade partner’s blood, I’d consider looking into a player like Detroit’s Torii Hunter. Hunter had the best offensive season of his career last season, but it looked like an abberation — a late-career last hurrah before slinking off into the dark night of decline. But Hunter’s started blazing hot this season, and while we can’t expect a wRC+ of 178 to hold up, and we shouldn’t expect anything even close, he’s still a solid fantasy outfielder. His batting average can be solid, especially if he can maintain anything close to a high BABIP, he provides a bit of pop, and he hits in a lineup that could mean loads of runs and RBI opportunities.

Though there are much more exciting names out there on the trade market, Hunter might be the best trade target available when dealing a pitcher of Latos’s caliber. I’d also consider targeting players with flaws, like Utley, perhaps along the lines of Pablo Sandoval or Nick Swisher — players who can provide value similar to Latos, but might be a little less desirable than elite talents.

In the end, dealing pitching for hitting can be tough, but I feel like there are a few basic maxims that can help someone make the right moves. First, I tend to value hitting slightly more than pitching, so I’d always expect to receive slightly less “value” when adding a pitcher, partially due to the inherent risk. In addition, remember that if you’re initiating a deal, and trying to move from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness, you may be dealing at a disadvantage and receiving less “value” in that regards as well. At the same time, you can only win your categories by a certain amount in roto — and dominance in one category (or several) can’t win you a championship in a vacuum. I wouldn’t be afraid to make a deal from one side to another, but I’d manage my expectations and target players with upside.