Is “handcuffing” necessary in fantasy baseball?

As I accepted my first ever Shake ‘N Bake Football Championship trophy this past week, it got me thinking about the similarities between fantasy football and my first love, fantasy baseball. I examined my success on the gridiron and found that there was a direct correlation to my “handcuffing” of my running backs, which got me thinking if “handcuffing” could be useful in baseball.

The term “handcuffing” is well known in the fantasy football community. It is the strategy of taking a backup to a starting player on the chance the starter were to lose his job by way of injury or ineffectiveness. It’s fascinating to watch as natural selection will bring relatively obscure players to the surface. These obscure players can perform similarly to their counterparts and give enough value to salvage seasons in the process.

The inner wheels of my simple mind began to churn, and I posed two questions to myself, “Have you ever ‘handcuffed’ in fantasy baseball?” and “When would you ‘handcuff’ in the future?” My results will follow in the next several sentences.

Have you ever “handcuffed” in fantasy baseball? Before I began writing this piece, I had never heard any baseball analyst suggest the strategy of handcuffing, ever. I don’t know if it’s the difference in the actual games of football and baseball, but you just don’t see too many managers or experts going the “handcuff” route.

The game of baseball is much more of a skill-based game than football. It’s hard to replace Alex Rodriguez’ power with Eduardo Nunez or Zack Grienke’s pitch sequence with Tim Dillard’s. The skill and production would be vastly different.

So I looked over some of my successful fantasy teams that I’ve had over the past few years to see if I ever used the handcuff method and really couldn’t find much. There were a few instances where I stashed rookies like Matt Wieters on the hopes of future playing time, but I, by no means, was starting Greg Zaun while waiting for Wieters to bust out in June.

When would you handcuff in the future? Let me preface this by saying a standard ESPN or Yahoo! League should not look to this strategy. I am only addressing leagues where at least 75 to 80 percent of the player pool is used, which is basically deeper mixed leagues or NL/AL-only leagues.

Maybe it’s my propensity to root for the younger talent as they break into the big leagues, but I can’t think of any better time to handcuff than with a marginal, older player and his backup, star prospect. Here are some examples of handcuff duos I like for 2011.

Russell Martin and Jesus Montero: The last of the big, talented, prospect catcher threesome awaits his chance in Scranton. While Buster Posey wins Rookie of the Year and Carlos Santana cements himself as the Indians catcher for years to come, Montero waits. It’s not his fault.

The Yankees’ brass has used Montero as trade bait for the past two years now. There are rumblings coming out of Yankee camp that he still could be moved for an impact starting pitcher, but with Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria out, the Yanks have even less to gain.

Most thought the move of Posada from behind the plate would bring in the reign of Jesus. The signing of Martin then puzzled those same people. Montero hit .352 after the All-Star break in 2010 and maintained a .220+ ISOPower. You probably couldn’t ask for a better catching prospect except for that whole defense thing.

We play fantasy, and defense doesn’t matter in fantasy. So if you are struggling to find a catcher in your draft, taking Martin and his handful of home runs and steals while you wait for Montero would get the Ben Pritchett Stamp of Approval. I personally would recommend getting a catcher earlier, though. While I am a Montero fan, I am equally a Martin detractor.

Mike Aviles and Mike Moustakas: My love for the “Moose” is well documented in my article, “Overspending for Players in 2011,” so I won’t spend too much time detailing the skills this young man has used to obliterate minor league pitching. His major league equivalents are some of the best we’ve seen in years.

Aviles finished 2010 on a high note, going .333 BA/6 HR/20 RBI in Sept./Oct. He was that good in ’08, then struggled with injuries in ’09. That glimpse he gave us in the final months of 2010 may just point to a return to 2008 levels. I wouldn’t bet on that extreme, but he could be a great fill-in at third until the Royals finally bite the bullet and hand the franchise over to Moustakas.

Aviles should retain his SS position eligibility, also. If you are stretching for CI or waited too long for your third baseman, then this could be a great handcuff situation for you. Note your league settings, as you may have to wait on Aviles to gain 3B eligibility. If that is the case, this handcuff isn’t for you.

Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel: Venters went from a lefty specialist to groundball specialist. He led all relievers with a groundball rate of 70 percent. He had the best OPS on his fastball in the game at .590 (Bill James Handbook min. 125 batters faced). He pitched in 79 games and was still able to keep his ERA at 1.95.

As for his competition at the back end of the Braves bullpen, Kimbrel, he only profiles as the Braves closer of the future. He is blessed with a laser rocket for an arm and was able to handle the transition to Atlanta rather well with a 0.44 ERA and 40 Ks in just 21 innings. He may be the most exciting young reliever in the game behind Aroldis Chapman.

Drafting both Venters and Kimbrel guarantees you the Braves’ closer and another top talent in the pen. Venters could take the job out of spring, but the closing duties will be Kimbrel’s before season’s end.

Francisco Cordero and Aroldis Chapman: It’s hard to debate Cordero’s 40 saves in 2010, but his age is creeping up (35) and his strikeouts and ERA are in a freefall. As stated by Jeremy Greenhouse in The Hardball Times Annual 2011, Chapman’s fastball grades out as the best in the game. His 105-mph pitch against the Padres was the fastest recorded pitch in major league history. What about the other 24 pitches he threw that night? Well, they were all over 100, also. He is an extraordinary talent and should be owned in a deep league whether he is closing or not.

Matt Thornton and Chris Sale: This may be my favorite handcuff of them all because Sale is quite possibly the best young left hander in baseball and should be given the chance to start in 2011. Sale shouldn’t be handcuffed with any expectations other than that he will contribute and be successful whether as a closer or a front-of-the-rotation starter.

At the age of 34, the hard-throwing Thornton isn’t getting any younger. He combined a 12.0 K/9 ratio with a stunning 4.1 K/BB in 2010 and deserves the closer job in Chicago. Sale can close if Thornton falters, but this handcuff has even more value if Sale starts.

To sum all this up, there are better ways to “handcuff” than in the fantasy baseball game. The need for skill is essential for success in baseball. The need for opportunity is more important in football. So I wouldn’t hedge your championship dreams on a “handcuff.” I like this idea of using a stable veteran while waiting on your stud rookie. Let me know what you think or if you have used a “handcuff” strategy in your baseball leagues.

Ben Pritchett is “handcuffed” to his computer right now and needs you to send emails to
to set him free.

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  1. Ben Pritchett said...

    @mechanical turk- We’ll leave hancuffing centaurs to Jeffrey Gross. That’s more his area of expertise.

    @nolan- That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Great example. Feliz has really blossomed as a closer. To think the Braves traded Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Jarod Saltalammacchia, and Matt Harrison for one calender year of Mark Teixeira then traded him for Casey Kotchman and a middle reliever. Makes me sick.

  2. Kevin Wilson said...

    Cool article. I love stuff about strategy as opposed to just Top 50 List stuff. I’d say this practice is, as you said, about opportunity-based talent, thus I think it is very applicable with closers and set-up men, but rare elsewhere in the game.

  3. Ben Pritchett said...

    @DrBGiantsfan- Just a little warning on your possible Keeper/draft strategy. Last night we held a “expert” mock draft, and Carlos Santana jumped off the board in the fourth round as the fourth catcher taken (Mauer, McCann, Posey went prior).

    I’m curious how your keeper settings are handled, but I’m guessing you might want to go a different route if Santana costs a fourth round selection. I, along with everyone else, am a huge fan of Carlos Santana, but he loses some value if he’s not your catcher. Again, he could be good utility if you get to keep him relatively cheaply for next years and beyond.

    Now Wieters is interesting. He still has that stud pedigree, but I wouldn’t overpay or even count on him to be a starter in any capacity other than catcher for your team. As a keeper, he could still pay huge dividends but with McCann as your starter, I would just stash him on your bench if you have one. You surely can find more productive utility players out there, like Brandon Belt.

    I have a column dropping next week on the Impact Rookie/Prospects for 2011. Brandon Belt gets some mention. This may be an interesting article for you if you are Brandon Belt fan.

  4. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Kevin Wilson- Thanks for the feedback. I will definitely take note. I am also a big fan of strategy articles. We’ve all heard these names a billion times. I’ll try to do more of strategy type pieces, but you’ve got to remember that random lists stir the pot. The masses love the lists.

    I promise to sneak some stategy discussion in there just for guys like us. By the way, I plan to have an article on the way I approach a draft room sometime in early February.

  5. Adam W said...

    Handcuffing in fantasy football really only works with running backs, since RBs frequently miss time and a “replacement level” running back (Chris Ivory, James Starks, Danny Woodhead, etc.) can still be very productive in the right system. Handcuffing closers is the obvious parallel in baseball due to the volatility of the position (although not necessarily due to injury), the value of counting stats that are a function of opportunity, and the large number of available players with the skillset to be successful.

    For RBs/Closers, it’s a question of risk. You are significantly lowering the risk associated with owning a given running back/closer by spending a draft pick (or waiver position) and a roster spot on someone that will not contribute immediately.

    The comparison falls apart for position players, though – just as it would for QBs or WRs. Handcuffing Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro on draft day is much riskier than just using a high pick on a shortstop, for instance.

  6. Head 2 Head said...

    Another useful Hardball Times article.

    I am currently drafting in the 15 team 50 round NFBC Slow Draft Draft Championship which has NO free agents. Starting 14 hitters and 9 pitchers. I feel that handcuffs are very important when you don’t have free agents.

    Closers are the best example, but players like Miranda/Allen/Nady/Parra in ARZ can get you 2 starting position players and because they are in position battles they come at a discount. I took Carlos Santana and then Marson in the 40+ round, as if you lose a Catcher it is best to have his backup to get AB’s. Boston SS – both are discounted and the loser will be a super utility.

    I also like to take pitchers from the same staff, with two of the top Tiger SP, I grabbed Galarraga and Oliver, if one of my Tiger SP goes down one of these two should get his starts.

    Many of these “handcuffs” will only play if you lose a starter, but when every run, rbi, win and K matters and you don’t want to start Zeros very many weeks to have a shot at winning.

    I would agree with your statement: “a standard ESPN or Yahoo! League should not look to this strategy.” However, in deep leagues this strategy could lead you to the Championship.

  7. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Adam- Yeah that’s what we’re saying.

    But I could see a few instances where the depth of your fantasy league could cause you to “handcuff” some of your lower level hitters to minimize risk and maximize gain. I was suggesting the Aviles/Moustakas handcuff because I have that much faith in Moustakas breakout potential, and Aviles could cost far less. Aviles acts as a stopgap until Moustakas breaks in. Guys like Scott Rolen, Juan Uribe, and Chase Headley could perform the “stopgap” job as well, but I like Aviles better, and he has 2B/ss position eligibility as well.

  8. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Head 2 Head- You are precisely the audience I was targeting, and I think you are a brave soul for getting involved in a league like that. You’ll have to let me know how the handcuffs work out for you. Thanks for your insight.

  9. Mark Houston said...

    Good article, Ben.

    I won my ESPN Fantasy Football League (Cowboy Nation) because of “handcuffing”. Truthfully, I had never heard the term applied as you use it until I read your article.

    I started the season with Ben Roth@#!�rger and was lucky to pick up Matt Casell and Jay Cutler to cover for him during his suspension.

    Then in a very unwise move, I ditched Ben when he injured his thumb (?). I played a desperation move and picked up Michael Vick gambling that he would start.

    Still, I would not have gotten into the playoffs and won the League if it had not been for using Casell and Cutler on specific weeks.

    I carried three QB’s for at least 9 weeks and in answer to an earlier post found the RB position to be the most stable. (I wouldn’t mind seeing some stats comparing the various positions.)

    I won one of my MLB fantasy H2H leagues using substantially the same strategy……being ruthless in replacing a slumping player with a bench player picked up to specifically to do that job. To win you have to draft well and anticipate slumps by staying up-to-date with The Hardball Times and associates.

  10. James Dickson said...

    I love to handcuff high performance but fragile closers to high performance setup-men

    I did this for years when the Dodgers had the Saito/Broxton show.
    I’ll try and do it again this year for the Capps/Nathan show

    As a general rule, though, the handcuff (e.g. Mike Aviles) isn’t worth rostering in the first place

    A really interesting potential thingy would be to run a Andruw Jones/Granderson platoon!

  11. mechanical turk said...

    Handcuffs?  I guess it depends on your specific baseball fantasy.  As for me specifically, well, when you figure out how to successfully handcuff a centaur you let me know.

  12. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I think this may actually be common practice with closers and closers in waiting.  Brian Fuentes and Fernando Rodney last year would be one example where it might have paid off.  Francisco and Feliz have already been mentioned.  Kimbrel and and Venters as well as Cordero and Chapman are interesting duos for 2011. 

    This isn’t exactly the same, but I seriously thought about drafting Wieters and making him a utility player even though I already had Brian McCann as a keeper last year.  Glad it turned out someone else grabbed him before I could.  With McCann in his last year of keeper status for me, I might try that approach with Wieters or Carlos Santana this year.

    Spring training alert!  The Brandon Belt situation needs to be monitored very closely in the Giants camp this year.

  13. ChicagoStyle said...


    Aviles at third?  Don’t you think the most likely IF arrangement for the Royals goes

    Escobar – ss,
    Aviles – 2b,
    Billy/Kila – 1b

    Otherwise why resign Betemit?

  14. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Mark Houston- I appreciate the praise and the THT plug.

    @James Dickson- I still like Aviles as a cheap option. Your platoon idea is a whole article on its own, although I don’t think I’d bench Granderson. Platoons may be a subject we can dive into at a different date.

  15. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Baltimoron- I think we are saying generally the same thing. There really isn’t an ideal “handcuff” situation for positional players in baseball, but as stated in my article above, there can be a baseball version of taking the vet and waiting for the stud. I think my Aviles love is that he could be worth owning after the Moustakas call whereas like you said alot of the guys you mentioned wouldn’t be rosterable. Don’t get yourself wrong though click that link above or google “Mike Aviles starting third baseman for Royals”. They are leaning towards Aviles starting as the everyday 3B unless Moose tears it up in Spring Training. In reality this will be something we can just prognosticate about when we’ll really just have to wait and see.

    This has been an entertaining roundtable of sorts. It makes for an interesting read. I am really going to try to get more strategy articles in over these months leading into drafts.

  16. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Baltimoron- I love Hanrahan as late value closer. He played alot better in 2010 than his numbers indicated. It’s good to see that he’s getting a chance to close. Hanrahan saw his GB% spike to 47 percent in the second half and his dominance is Marmol level good. Plus there’s a reason why Meek hasn’t gotten the chance at the closer job in Pit (see second half splits). How is control goes, the rest of his skills follow. While is first half was ridiculous, he’s risky. I would just draft Hanrahan and not Hanrahancuff him with Meek. Let somebody else waste their time on him.

    Regarding Bard/Papelbon. I struggled with this one for a minute. I love Bard. He’d be a top 5 reliever if he was actually the closer. Instead, he uses his 97.9 mph fastball (second behind Chapman in the Bigs last year) to blow away the eighth inning. Even though Paps stat line looks terrible, he actually improved as the season progressed. His dominance rose to 12.1, and he stopped giving up so many homers. Papelbon has earned this job over the past few years, and it’s going to take alot for him to lose it. I think he’ll be fine in 2011.

    As for Bard, I believe he’s worth rostering in a deep league as long as you understand that Paps isn’t going anywhere. We’ll just have to watch and dream of when those holds will turn to saves.

  17. The Baltimoron said...

    I don’t know if Hanrahan/Meek is actually a handcuff; it’s really more hedging your bets.  Still, even if I believed in one, I’d still draft the other and see how things suss out come Opening Day.  Closing value begins and ends with opportunity.

    Papelbon/Bard is probably more of a true handcuff situation.  I’m guessing that the person who drafts Papelbon will be a believer and thus will have to take him fairly early.  I think Bard still has value as a setup man, and if I took Papelbon as, say, CL#5, I’d probably be sure to get Bard to protect my investment.

    The real question is, is there really any non-closer battle that warrants a true handcuff, i.e. both players have starting value depending on playing time/injury concern?  I don’t think Russ Martin has starting value anymore, and Aviles and Moustakas play different positions and Mous is coming whenever he’s ready, regardless of what Aviles is doing. 

    At first blush, I’d consider Huff/Belt in San Fran.  Huff could flourish or flop, and it would seem that, if he did regress, Belt could really take over that position and render Huff obsolete.  That said, I’m guessing that Belt is actually drafted ahead of Huff, so not really a handcuff situation there.

    I think Scutaro/Lowrie are the best pure example, as that seems to be a legit battle come Spring Training.  Both players have shown some tools, and the Red Sox starting SS will have value.  I think you almost draft that position if you wait at SS and then basically draft both as “Red Sox SS1” the very definition of a handcuff.

    Other possibilities: Fukodome/Colvin, Rolen/Francisco, Matsui/Carter, Davis/Moreland…that’s all I can think of.

  18. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Baltimoron- I like your positional handcuff examples especially Rolen/Francisco and Davis/Moreland. But your Belt/Huff call may be stroke of genius. I wish I would have included them in this article.

    As for Lowrie/Scutaro, I still like Moustakas/Aviles better. While I agree that Moose will mash his way into the Royals line up by June, I also believe that Aviles will have earned his opportunity to stay in that line up. I see him supplanting Getz at second the moment Moustakas gets the call. So you get two guys that will contribute, whereas the winner of BOS SS sweepstakes will contribute, the loser will be giving Francona a foot rub on the bench.

  19. The Baltimoron said...

    That’s my point with Aviles/Moustakas—I think both guys control their own fates independent of each other.  If Mous hits, he makes the club at 3B.  I think Aviles is the starter at 2B from day one, and if he falls flat, the Royals would give more time to Getz, or perhaps Giavotella at some point.  I don’t see the either/or prognosis that I think you need to consider a situation a handcuff.  Also, I’m guessing Aviles is borderline draftable in most leagues, where as MM is a stud prospect.

    I guess the question is, what is a handcuff?  For me, it’s a guy that’s a backup with little value unless the starter fails or is injured, and he can then produce if given the opportunity.  In baseball it’s rare that you have the depth at any position to have a football-esque handcuff situation.  Most occur with a prospect on the cusp pushing a veteran who may be ready to stumble, thus, the Huff/Belt example.  But in most cases, the guy who loses out on the opportunity isn’t going to be worth rostering.

  20. The Baltimoron said...

    I agree we agree!  However, for as many articles that you can point out that have Aviles at 3B, I have plenty that project him at 2B for the Royals, which I think makes more sense in order to keep him at one place and leave third open for Moustakas.  Regardless, you’d be playing Aviles at MI and Mous at 3B on your fake team, so I don’t see the conflict of interest. 

    You are right that both players have value, but I think that almost goes against my definition of what a handcuff really is.  I don’t consider, say, Thomas Jones a handcuff to Jamaal Charles—they’re just two guys on the same team at the same position that have value (ala Aviles/Mous in your scenario).  I also wouldn’t consider, say, Kenneth Darby a handcuff, because even though he’s clearly the backup to an injury prone stud in SJax, I don’t think he has value even with the starting job (ala your ARod/Nunez).  I see CJ2K/Ringer, Turner/Snelling, or Vick/Kolb as classic examples of handcuffs, guys who are only rosterable because they would have value if the starter gets hurt/slumps.  Then there’s Alyssa Jones, the all-time classic example of Chinese finger cuffs, but that’s a completely different story…

  21. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Not all that different from “handcuffing” is what I sometimes refer to as “hedging.” Sometimes it makes sense to double-up on a player who is a potential one-category monster/ potential total bust.

    It’s not uncommon for me to fall into a team building dynamic where I see that I am laregely unwilling to pay for steals. There are lots of players who are marginal MLB talents but have wheels that are just oh so enticing – if this guy gets 550 ABS, watch out… Joey Gathright, Wily Taveras, Carlos Gomez, and countless others have tantalized us with this theoretical potential over recent memory.

    Last year, I loved Rajai Davis. I thought he had a great chance to lead all of baseball in steals for a pretty cheap price. But, I also knew that he could lose grasp of his job pretty easily. So, I hedged my investment in Davis with a flier on Taveras very late.

    …I know my competitiveness in steal may fall apart at any moment, so let me take a super cheap second risk. If they both work out, I have too much speed and one rides the pine – or gets traded. That’s why steals is a good category with which to play this stategy. There’s almost always a market for a single player who can profoundly influence a category race, even if he is one-dimensional.

    Steals is the offensive yin for the yang of saves, so it comes as no surpsise that this is the example of pseudo-handcuffing I thought of for the offensive side of the ball. Coincidentally, last season Taveras proved a dud, and Davis was up and down but largely doing his job for me. At one point though, the hedge became a handcuff when I had to pick up Coco Crisp, unaware how their playing time situation would shake out. I made a big time move in SBs about 2/3 of the way through the season and it was when I had both of them active. I believe they played a series against Boston where they combined for like 10 steals 4 games.

    I often draft a ton of high risk players late in drafts. Again, while this isn’t exactly handcuffing, the underlying thought process isn’t so different because you’re not expecting all of these picks to work out – it’s just that one’s production isn’t tied to that of the others in any way.

  22. Ben Pritchett said...

    @Derek Ambrosino- I’ll leave the investment management strategies to you. I think “hedging” is probably a more appropriate name and idea for baseball. Hedging your bets and minimizing risk is essentially the name of the game. I guess you should point everyone to that investment “tier” article you just wrote recently, “Diversify your bonds”. You and your banking jargon, I feel like I’m back in college. They do compliment each other quite nicely though.

    @Baltimoron- I have nothing left to say to you until next week. I think you and I would get along assuming you keep your Chinese handcuffs stories to yourself. Funny stuff. I hope that you’ll be this passionate about my Impact Prospects article next week. I know it’ll be another list, but the week after that I hope to have a fun and entertaining column.

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