Buying and Selling Clayton Kershaw

A fantasy baseball roster is an exercise in educated gambles. There are some players, like Clayton Kershaw, who are capable of singlehandedly delivering your team to the promised land – especially in a format like ottoneu FG points.

The problem with Kershaw is that he hasn’t delivered on his over $60 price tag these last two seasons. His 2016 campaign was truncated by injury but also featured a career best 7.09 points per inning pitched. He declined in 2017, once again spending time on the disabled list while performing at a merely good 5.56 points per inning.

For those of you who don’t play ottoneu, those values probably don’t mean much. Let’s do the full math. At his very best, Kershaw could provide something like 1,600 points over 230 innings. The bad version of Kershaw is worth about 1,250 points over 230 innings. An injured Kershaw is the worst case scenario. Last year, he supplied under 1,000 points for the first time since 2009.

Top performing pitchers typically produce about 1,200 points. Corey Kluber checked in at 1,289.23 points last year. Chris Sale tallied 1,324.87 points. That means a pristine Kershaw season could give his owner 300 to 400 points completely inaccessible to other owners. The easiest way to win your league is to roster top performers at multiple positions.

True, there are ways to mimic Kershaw by using a lower inning stud like James Paxton with elite relievers, but such an approach is just a different gamble – one that probably costs the same (~$20 each for Paxton, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel) and involves more moving parts.

So, to summarize, Kershaw can do things for your team that no other pitcher can be projected to accomplish. The very same Kershaw hasn’t done this since 2015. His recent failures illustrates the risk involved in this particular gamble.

Here’s where we get back to the title of the piece. Since the start of this offseason, I’ve acquired a $63 Kershaw in one league and traded away a $69 Kershaw in another league. My decision to both pursue and divest the most ace-like ace reflects the state of my rosters.

Buying Kershaw

In my newest league, Dave Cameron’s Screw Cancer, I inherited an incomplete roster with some promising components. The challenge will be to fill the club with enough talent to contend. Up the middle, I feature Chris Taylor, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Manny Machado for a combined $118. Nobody has a stronger middle infield. It’s the rest of the roster that falls short.

I’m of the opinion that it pays to avoid using the draft to acquire premium talent. Everybody seems to think there will be bargains, but they rarely appear. When they do, they’re in the form of $1 to $3 upside plays. I don’t need to save budget to pick some of those players. Since I was sitting on about $200 in spare resources, I decided to pursue $63 Kershaw and $80 Mike Trout. The Kershaw deal came together at the cost of $8 Jameson Taillon and $11 Nick Castellanos. Castellanos was buried behind Machado and Mike Moustakas on my depth chart.

My roster still needs a catcher, three outfielders, a first baseman, three starting pitchers, and a handful of relievers. I have work to do. Adding Kershaw gives me some margin for error if I’m forced to continue seeking upgrades during the season. And if I fall short, I have the option to sell him mid-season (with a loan) at a huge profit. It’s an arbitrageable opportunity that also happens to make it just a little more likely I’ll contend.

Selling Kershaw

In the Screw Cancer league, my purchase of Kershaw was largely facilitated by my cash reserves. In FanGraphs Staff Two, Kershaw has formed an important part of my core. I’ve won the last three seasons against fellow FanGraphers. Now my roster has become excessively expensive. My decision with regard to Kershaw was once again affected by my budget.

Even with marking a number of should-be-kept players as cuts, I was sitting on $425 allocated to 22 players. As a reminder, we have to trim our rosters to $400 for 40 players. There must be a dollar available for every roster spot. Realistically, I’ll also need some spending money during the season. I was essentially forced to trade either $69 Kershaw or $75 Trout. Given that Trout is an inherently safer gamble as a still-young outfielder, Kershaw was the obvious player to market.

In this case, my roster had one glaring hole – shortstop (also catcher but almost everybody has that problem). I ultimately managed to acquire $6 Elvis Andrus and $3 Gleyber Torres for my ace. This really was a best case scenario for me as there were only a few ways for me to patch shortstop that didn’t involve keeping $3 Freddy Galvis. I’m not a big fan of Torres, but I’m sure somebody else will gladly take him off my hands after the draft.

My pitching staff is now decidedly mid-tier – led by Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander, Aaron Nola, Marcus Stroman, and Kyle Hendricks. However, my offense should easily pace the league again in 2018. The only thing standing in my way is injury – and I do have some depth in the form of 2B/3B/OF eligible Scooter Gennett. Moreover, I can now spend $44 on 17 roster spots, giving me a legal roster with plenty of cash for in-season waiver moves.

As much as it sucks to lose Kershaw and his upside, the only alternatives involved dealing Trout or tearing apart the roster. Since I’ll be adding about 17 $1 players in the draft, there’s a good chance I’ll find enough value to trade for more pitching help during the season.

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