Is 17 days too soon to give up on winning your keeper fantasy league this year and start building for the next? It wasn’t too early for an owner in my 12-team American League auction league, who phoned me mid-April with a trade proposal. On the block was Justin Verlander, the Tiger stalwart expendable because he’s in the last year of a three-year fantasy contract and will become a free agent at year’s end.
“Doug,” I replied. “You move fast for a team whose nickname is the Ladysmith Slugs.”
The Slugs, though, were determined, and perhaps rightly so: They had no closer and seven dead spots out of 14 among active hitting slots. The only thing that stood between the team and the abyss was a hot start by Vernon Wells.
Some fantasy advocates lament leagues whose owners fold while the chips from the opening ante are still warm. Some go to great and creative lengths to devise rules that punish anyone who might dump this year’s talent for next year’s promise. But I’m not in one of those leagues. I’m in an old-fashioned auction league that embraces tradition. Only the top four teams get cash back. And the only difference between fifth place and 12th is the latter gets top pick in the reserve draft that follows our auction.
So the Slugs lacked the motive to compete this year, and in a league as deep as ours, the opportunity likely was gone too. Each of our league’s teams has a 40-man roster, 480 players altogether or an average of 34 players per AL team. Every starting player is already taken. Most reserves and top prospects, too. There’s just not enough talent left in the free agent pool to climb Everest.
If you’re in such a league too and thinking of cashing in, move at slug speed. Ladysmith slug-speed, that is. If you’re competing with experienced owners, some will see early what Mets General Manager Omar Minaya never has—the writing on the wall. They will move quickly, and if you don’t, you may find yourself in what I call no-man’s land.
No man’s land was a term first used to describe the land between enemy trenches in the first world war, and while some may find our obsession with fantasy baseball equally senseless, I am borrowing the term from another context. In tennis, no-man’s land is between the baseline—the line furthest from the net for those who don’t play—and the service line, which is the line which runs parallel to the baseline about two-thirds of the way to the nest. The area is called no-man’s land because most of your opponent’s shots will bounce near your feet, making it impossible to hit a regular ground stroke or volley. So when you find yourself in no-man’s land because your opponent hits a shallow shot, you should make a quick decision: Rush the net or fall back behind the baseline.
In a fantasy baseball keeper league, you are in no-man’s land when your roster won’t enable you to compete this year or build for next year. The perils of waiting will soon become apparent. In deeper auction leagues, there are relatively few players who offer great production at a low price, and if you wait, they will be gone.
That risk was evident last year in my auction league when I found myself in no-man’s land after I went overboard in my auction strategy of targeting older, injury-risk players because the marketplace over-valued their injury risk. Vladimir Guerrero, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Mike Lowell all spent time in April and May on the disabled list and I saw my chance to compete ebbing away. By June, the owners of two struggling teams began to trade higher-priced stars for players who would be bargains in future years. The shallow pool of low-priced talent was at risk of running dry.
I wasn’t going to win the league and I estimated my chance of finishing in the money was no better than perhaps 20 percent. But I did have intriguing pieces for the coming years: catcher Matt Wieters at $11, first baseman Kendry Morales at $1, shortstop Elvis Andrus at $5, stud pitcher Zack Greinke at $10, pitchers Phil Hughes and Brian Matusz waiting in the wings and Rangers prospect Justin Smoak and Rays prospect Desmond Jennings on my reserve. What I lacked entirely was an outfield keeper, a fatal flaw in deep keeper leagues. There are only 42 full-time equivalent outfielders in the American League and traditional rotisserie leagues have five outfield slots. In a 12-person league, that leaves 3.5 starting outfielders per team and many end up filling their fourth and fifth outfield slots with scrubs.
Looking at the low-priced talent pool, I saw two outfielders worth having: Adam Lind at $3 and Shin-Soo Choo at $5. That day I acquired both in two separate trades, getting Lind for Felix Hernandez, Guerrero and Delmon Young and getting Choo for Vernon Wells and Jorge Posada. All but Posada would be dropped at year’s end because it would be the end of their contract or their salaries were too high to justify keeping. While Posada would be a keeper at $18, he wasn’t the value of a $5 Choo. Later that season I traded a $21 Joakim Soria and $17 Mike Lowell for a $1 David Aardsma.
I’m not suggesting one should trade for next year at the first sign of trouble. My approach is this: Plan deliberately and trade decisively. Here are basic steps to take:
(1) Before the auction, calculate where you need to finish in each category to win your league, using league data from past years to formulate targets. During the auction or soon after, project where you will finish in each category, noting where you exceed, meet or fall short of your needs.
(2) Once the season begins, measure your team’s performance against what you need in year-end stats to win—and forget how your team compares at any moment to others in your league.
(3) When performance varies from projection, determine whether this change is likely to persist. If it is, determine what you need to make up the difference and create a list of players to target, then ask yourself if you hold enough excess value in some categories to entice trades for those players.
(4) If improvement through trade seems attainable, seek those trades aggressively. If it does not, create a list of high-value players and target them in trades.
There is no shame in real sports for a team to rebuild. Should it be any different in keeper leagues in fantasy baseball?