Fantasy Baseball: Does it make sense to sell high on Sean Manaea?

The easiest kind of Fantasy analysis is to call someone a "sell-high" candidate. Ten years ago it might have been cutting edge to look at a pitcher's HR/FB rate and identify impending regression, but that's basic analysis these days.

Even if you don't have BaseballProspectus.com or FanGraphs.com bookmarked, every pitcher's Baseball Reference page has his FIP right there next to his WHIP. It's harder than ever to fool someone.

So, yes, Sean Manaea has some regression coming. Obviously. His 1.23 ERA through five starts is not just out of line with his career norms, it's nearly a run-and-a-half higher than his 3.51 FIP. Digging deeper, there's simply no way he can sustain a .135 BABIP or a 100.0 percent strand rate. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with modern baseball statistics knows Manaea isn't the new Clayton Kershaw.

But what does it mean to say Sean Manaea is a "sell-high" candidate? Selling high is a great idea, because you've banked Manaea's stats to date, and could lock in an even better player for the rest of the season. What does it actually look like, in practice, given that pretty much everyone knows Manaea won't keep this up? 

Maybe you're playing in a league with one of the handful of people left who still look at nothing but ERA and WHIP, and you can offer him Manaea for Chris Archer, and get the deal done right now. If you know that person is in your league, stop reading this right now, get them on the phone right now and make the deal.

For the 99 percent of you who play with competent owners, a bit more nuance is needed. We need to answer a few questions  before figuring out if you should be trying to trade Manaea.

  1. How good is Manaea, really?
  2. What kind of pitcher could you reasonable get for him?

The first answer obviously impacts the second, so let's go there first. Based on how well he's pitched through the first five games, Manaea looks like a very good pitcher, but perhaps not quite an ace. He sports a 3.51 FIP and 3.48 SIERA, implying that with about average luck, he'd still be an above-average pitcher.

He has struck out a career-high 23.1 percent of opposing batters, while walking 4.6 percent, another career-best mark. He has a 48.4 percent groundball rate and has allowed just 32.3 percent of batted balls to be hit 95+ mph, both of which are better than average marks. Even with some regression coming, Manaea looks for all the world like an above-average pitcher.

And he's shown flashes of it before, too. Despite posting below-average strikeout rates in his first two seasons, he has the 18th-highest swinging strike rate among all starters since 2016, so there's been room for growth there. The issue, as I noted before the season, was a lack of consistency – and perhaps confidence – with his secondary pitches

Manaea showed how good he can be Saturday when he has a feel for both of his breaking balls, as he threw 24 sliders and 32 changeups against the Red Sox. He picked up four and six swinging strikes on those pitches in that outing, and has had good results with both pitches in the early going. We've seen stretches where Manaea is feeling both pitches before, and the key to sustained success will be keeping that up.

His current FIP compares to what Jacob deGrom did last season, and while his upside may not be as high as deGrom's ultimately, he's showing he can be an above-average pitcher in his own right. If this is the start of a breakout, a Manaea owner should be excited.

However, if you're not sold, what should you be looking for in return? Manaea entered the season 73rd among starters in Average Draft Position, so the industry as a whole was plenty skeptical. He's obviously helped his cause in the early going, but I'd be surprised if many analysts ranked him inside of the top-40 these days. Any pitcher ranked 40 or higher should be a proper return, right?

Well, not exactly. Would I trade Manaea for Marcus Stroman (36th in starting pitcher ADP at FantasyPros.com before the season) or Gio Gonzalez (39th)? Probably not. I like both, but I'm hoping we're seeing the start of a breakout for a former top-50 prospect with two potential plus secondary pitches. I'm not giving that up for a dependable, relatively low-upside pitcher like Stroman or Gonzalez.

And, you're probably not getting a top-20 preseason pitcher for Manaea, either. Certainly not for the Gerrit Cole, Aaron Nola or James Paxton range of pitcher. Maybe someone in your league has really soured on Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, or Masahiro Tanaka after disappointing starts; I would probably move Manaea for any of them, but I wouldn't feel great about it, given how much all three disappointed last season as well.

That leaves Manaea owners with a relatively narrow range of options to target. Luis Castillo and Lance McCullers are both off to slow starts, and I would value their upside over that of Manaea, to be sure; I might even move him for Rich Hill, despite the latter's early DL trip. But it's awfully hard to find a pitcher I'm confident will be better than Manaea the rest of the way who I could realistically move.

The point is, it's going to be tough to find an offer that is likely to be accepted and presents a clear win for your team. Manaea isn't someone you need to move right away, so unless a move comes along that represents a real obvious win, pass. Don't feel pressured to move Manaea just because he looks like a "sell-high candidate." If you hang on to Manaea, you may just end up a winner in the long run. 

Fantasy Writer

Though he can be found covering three different sports depending on the time of year, there is one unifying theme in how Chris Towers approaches sports; "Where's the evidence?" It doesn't matter how outlandish... Full Bio

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