Should I make this trade?

With the real season underway, it is time for fantasy advice to turn from the ever-popular topic of the draft to in-season strategic moves. One question I see posed to fantasy gurus all the time is, “Should I make this trade?”

Frankly, and with the exception of challenge trades, you are in a much better position to decide that than even the most expert of experts. You know your team, your opponent’s rosters, how both you and they will behave during the season, and various other insider advantages.

As such, today we will focus on a simple thought process to help decide whether a trade proposal is right for you. This guide is designed for simple roto leagues, although the same methods can be adjusted to any league format.

First and foremost, if you are in a serious league, I highly recommend conducting trade negotiations via email or chat rather than the propose and counter-offer tools offered by the main fantasy sites. In my personal experience, this speeds up negotiations by allowing both parties to propose offers before running the numbers.

Step one

The first step to making a trade is a basic smell test: Is this offer enough? Alternately stated, can I get more for this/these player(s)? We all know people who stop at this step, the kind of fantasy players who will take virtually any offer that smells fair to them. Don’t be that guy!

This step is independent of actual statistical analysis and focuses on how you believe others in your league will assign name value to a player. For example, I am in a 5×5 OPS league. Under such conditions, Ichiro is actually expected to be slightly worse than Rajai Davis, yet it’s very likely that name value could result in an owner getting twice the return for Ichiro. Obviously, the more “expert” the league, the less this comes in to play.

Step two

The second step is a very basic analysis using your personal replacement level. It is quite likely everyone reading this article already employs some form of analysis similar to this. The easiest way to explain this is to illustrate it with an example.

Let’s say you own Adrian Gonzalez at first base, Casey McGehee at third base, and Adam LaRoche is on your bench. Now let’s say somebody offers you Evan Longoria for Gonzalez. This trade offer passes the smell test, since both players were taken at similar picks and costs in most drafts. Next is to test if this helps your team. We can do this with a basic equation:

(Longoria – McGehee) + (LaRoche – Gonzalez) = X

If X > 0, the offer may benefit your team.
If X = 0, the offer appears neutral.
If X < 0, the offer may harm your team.

In practice, you would run that equation for each stat your league considers. Using Oliver projections and a standard 5×5 format, the results of that are -1 run, -3 home runs, -6 RBI, +8 stolen bases, and -.035 batting average (not weighted by expected at-bats). Those results are inconclusive because the third step is to evaluate how the expected changes affect your roto totals.

However, before we move along to step three, there is one important thing to note. Leaning on a single expected stats line is the most simplistic means to using this form of analysis. Some of you may prefer to add sophistication to the model by introducing confidence intervals. I like to set a range of stats that I expect the player to achieve with 50 percent confidence*.

For example, Oliver expects Longoria to score 85 runs. I might think there is a 50 percent chance he will score 75-95 runs. The distribution does not need to be evenly spread around the median, either. Longoria is projected for eight steals, but the range I would set is seven to 12.

*There are other methods to employ a range of expected values that are more statistically robust, but I find this gets the job done for my personal needs. Feel free to leave your own more robust methods in the comments.

Step three

Let’s move along to step three now, evaluating your roto categories. In our previous example with Longoria and Gonzalez, we expected to gain eight steals while losing a run, three home runs, six RBI and about 35 points of batting average (remember that average is a rate stat, so this does not reflect the actual team-wide loss in the statistic). It is possible to dream up scenarios where taking a trade with these outcomes is a positive, negative, or neutral decision.

For example, if a team is strong on paper in runs, home runs, and RBI but lacking in steals, chasing Longoria’s upside on the basepaths may be useful. If a team already has Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Reyes, the other categories are probably more important.

Like with step two, there are various layers of sophistication that can be added. You can consider anywhere between the simplistic perspective of, “I need more stolen bases but have enough home runs” to the time-consuming method of projecting out every owner’s expected stats totals. Things can be made impossibly complex by adding confidence intervals like in step two. Personally, the leagues I play in aren’t for high enough stakes to go far beyond a simplistic approach.

Step four

This brings me to step four, a step that in my experience is criminally underused: Evaluating what your trade does for your opponent. Basically, we are just rinsing and repeating with steps two and three from your opponent’s perspective. Sometimes this analysis is unnecessary. Perhaps you are in second place and your trading partner is hopelessly behind in eleventh. It can even be beneficial to help buried teams if it could take points away from your principal opponents. Just try not to get yourself caught in the cross fire.

At this early point in the fantasy season, even teams that are bad on paper could turn into contenders, so it is probably best to do your due diligence. Returning to our previous example, let’s say the owner trading Longoria also has David Wright while his best first baseman is Lyle Overbay (yes, unlikely). In such a circumstance, you would be giving your competitor a huge boost in four categories, something you probably want to avoid doing.

Circumstances like these are fairly common too, if less exaggerated. I always charge a significant premium when “helping” an opponent, usually by asking for 120 percent of my sunniest expectation for a player.

As an example, my sunny projection for Ben Zobrist this year is 95/22/95/25/.285. I would ask a desperate trading partner to pay for something more like a 110/27/110/30/.305 player. This almost always prompts them to walk away, but unless you have your own dire need, this is not a bad thing. If one of your main competitors wants to trade with you, take advantage of the opportunity to make yourself better at their expense.

In practice, the gains your opponent realize from a trade are likely to be significantly smaller than Gonzalez over Overbay. However, it is still important to remember the ultimate goal of the season, winning. Try not to help an opponent beat you when making a trade. If a trade helps your team but also helps a main competitor even more, you should probably reject the offer.

Concluding thoughts

The purpose of this brief guide is to discuss some methods for identifying when, and when not, to make a trade. One assumption of this guide that is not necessarily true is the ability to form a fairly concise expectation about a player’s final roto stat line. Clearly this will not always be the case.

Furthermore, this is certainly not the be-all, end-all to trading strategy. In fact, you should insert your own techniques, proclivities, and idiosyncrasies into your personal trading strategy. After all, in fantasy baseball, the wisdom of the crowds can have a huge effect on the behavior of owners. If you are thinking outside the box, you may be able to leverage an unexpected advantage. Nevertheless, it is helpful to have a general process in place to help determine when a trade makes sense.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts, questions, or strategies in the comments. Hell, feel free to ask for trade advice, too. Just be advised that you are better positioned to know the correct answer.

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  1. harry Mamis said...

    Dear Sir,
        I appreciate your article, as a   recently retired professional I am just starting to be involved with fantasy baseball. 

      I am 6/12 in a non auction ESPN 5×5 league. My pitcher stats are mostly in first place, but the batting statistics are in the sewer. I understand that you need 8.5 hrs to gain one point. Would you dump one player to free agency who has a projected(ESPN”S) 277 B.A. with 7 HRS for another one who has a projected 256 B.A. with 27 HRS?

        thank you, Dadrsfan

  2. Dingo said...

    @harry Mamis:

    You must be new at this, because you’re making a few easily-corrected errors:

    1. Less than one week into the season is far too early to make roster adjustments based on your current place in the standings.  Elite hitters who have yet to hit a home run this year include Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Hamilton.  Obviously, that’s not going to continue.  You should rely more on your expectations of your players’ full-season performance than what they’ve done in 3-4 games so far.

    2. Speaking of expectations, you shouldn’t rely on ESPN projections, which basically take last year’s performance and adjust a few digits.  This article mentions Oliver projections, but there are several others out there, including ZiPs, CAIRO, and PECOTA.

    3. When comparing two players, you should consider the whole package, not just BA and HRs.  If player 1 is projected to steal 45 bases while player 2 is projected to steal 0, then player 1 will probably be much more valuable than player 2.

    Good luck!

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    To add to what Dingo said, the standings mean nothing right now. Your decision making should come from where you expect your team to finish (this of course requires honest self-analysis which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea) in each category, not where it is now. Come June or July, you can worry about where you actually are in the categories relative to everyone else.

    Don’t focus too much on the averages like 8.5 HR equals 1 point. It’s a good guideline to follow when constructing a team, but I’ve yet to see a league that breaks down so cleanly. In my home league last season you could have gained 4 points with 5 home runs or 1 point with 30 home runs depending on what part of the standings you were in.

    And ditto #2. You’re better off mentally adjusting last season’s statistics yourself than using ESPN’s projections. Oliver (available at THTForecasts) is the only projection system I’m actually comfortable using, mainly because it does so well projecting guys with limited MLB samples. I tend not to need too much projection help for veterans. I’m not paid to plug that either, I really do like Oliver head and shoulders above other projection systems.

  4. George Purcell said...

    Your article has the order precisely reversed, IMO.

    You already know your weaknesses and your strengths.  You should BEGIN by looking over the opposing teams in your league and seeing who has the reversed situation.  You have excess outfielders, they have excess SP, you need Ks, they need HR/R/RBI.  You’ve found a natural trading partner.

    The draft is all about value maximization…but trying to wring every last bit of value out of a guy in a trading situation is a good way to avoid getting what you need.  The guy who fits with you now may trade with someone else to meet that need and then you are no longer natural trading partners.  I’m not saying to just take the first good offer but once you’ve gone through the rosters of the three or four other guys who are natural trading partners you’ll know pretty quickly who matches up in a fair way.

    Always BEGIN with the other guy’s POV—is this a trade that would make me sit up and think about pushing the button.

    Here’s an example I just did.  After my draft I realized I needed another decent SP.  I had some depth at MI I could trade (F. Sanchez, 14th Round) as well as J. Contreras who had dropped to me in the 12th round (12 team NL league).

    I looked over the rosters of the other teams and found three guys who it was clear needed saves or a middle infielder and who had pitchers I would have drafted in that part of the draft had I realized SP would go off the board more quickly than I expected: H. Kuroda (drafted in the 12th), B. Beachey (drafted in the 16th) and J. Jurjains (drafted in the 15th).

    My preference of pitchers was Kuroda/Beachey/Jurrjens.

    I would rather trade Contreras than Sanchez.

    The offers than made sense to the other guy were:
    Contreras for Kuroda
    Sanchez for Beachey
    Contreras for Jurrjens

    The Kuroda one was close but the guy wasn’t ready to weaken his SP that much.  Before I heard back on the Sanchez for Beachey I got a bite on the Contreras for Jurrjens, pulled the trigger, and withdrew the Sanchez for Beachey offer.

    Could I have gotten more for Contreras…in a perfect world, possibly…but getting a SP I liked while keeping my more important batting depth had an immediate, large improvement in my projected standings.  Any of the three deals had that effect and the difference in effect between the deals was dwarfed by just getting one of them done quickly.

  5. Brian Cartwright said...

    Hey, I have Wright and Overbay in our THT league…I just don’t have Longoria to trade away!

  6. Jim C said...

    I got a guy to trade me Roy Halladay for Jay Bruce and Dexter Fowler. I feel pretty good about that one.

  7. George Purcell said...

    Brad, you wrote:

    “The first step to making a trade is a basic smell test: Is this offer enough? Alternately stated, can I get more for this/these player(s)?”

    That is EXACTLY the wrong question to ask because you are bringing in value maximization of your existing player resource as a first order of consideration rather than in at the end.  What’s important is to identify the very limited universe of reasonable potential trades for that player.  Only then can you figure out a satisficing or value-maximizing trade.

    In other words, a trade offer comes in, Player A for my Player B.

    First consideration—does it provide a net benefit to me?

    Second consideration—looking over the league my Player B could reasonably be expected to pair up with the needs and assets of the other teams in a very limited set of ways (including the team who offered the trade).  How does the proposed trade fit?

    That’s important because if there are swaps you’d prefer to make it then puts you in a position to offer them prior to accepting the offer on the table.

    Shorter version:
    Player value is not a continuous function once the draft has occured.  Rather, any player has a limited set of possible values based upon the needs and assets of other players.

  8. Brad Johnson said...


    I see your point. The approach you suggest is “correct” but also impractical. The time it takes to do a smell test is one sniff (or more realistically, the time it takes to open a few player pages online) whereas doing the actual analysis is time consuming, a thorough job of it can take hours for large offers. If you do the smell test first you can often save yourself loads of wasted time analyzing a trade that you should be disinclined to take.

    I don’t like how you formulate your second consideration. You make it sound as though rosters are far more static than they are in practice. Just because a team doesn’t match up with you today doesn’t mean they won’t tomorrow.

  9. Brad Johnson said...

    Let’s not forget three team scenarios. For example (from a recent trade in my home league):

    Team A wants to trade pitching and acquire OF
    Team B wants to trade OF and acquire an MI
    Team C wants to trade MI and acquire pitching

    In reality it was a little more complicated than that with other players getting involved to balance values, but Team A acquired their OF, Team B got an MI, and Team C added pitching via a pair of trades negotiated over a span of several days. This outcome isn’t possible if you restrict yourself to teams that are direct matches.

  10. Brad Johnson said...


    I would too, that’s highway robbery.


    You seem to be wondering about how to identify a trading partner. This rough guide is designed to help clarify the process of identifying whether or not that Contreras for Jurrjens offer makes sense, not how to determine to whom and when to make offers. When proposing a trade, you’re right, consider the other owner’s needs. When analyzing a proposal, you need to calculate your own needs before moving on to your opponent’s.

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