Punt the pooch — when to trade for next year

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?

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  1. Tom B said...

    Why would you use 5 OF spots? Rostering the top 60 OF’s when only 90 start for teams is just, too many.  You don’t roster the top 2/3 of any other position, that’s poor league management.

  2. Mike W said...

    I’m in leagues (NL, AL) very similar to yours, and we usually have one or two people dumping in early May. However, our going rate for stars is two prospects, whereas you appear to get 2-3 good players for one prospect or young player, which means at the auction, young players, given their potentially very high value, should go for more than $1 or $2 or $3, whcih would in turn drive down their value. Extremely deep rosters also flatten the overall price ranges of players. I don’t understand how the equilibrium value at trade of a cheap guy winds up at 2-3 good players.

    We can keep people for up to six years at cheap to middling values, which can be a momentous bargain. We do have players in our leagues who have trouble recognizing the difference in value between an established young player and a prospect, or between a top prospect and some longshot generic young minor leaguer. Nevertheless, if I was in your league, I would spend a lot of money at auction in $2-3 increments to get a bunch of prospects and Lind/Morales guys (2009 version) and store them on my bench.

  3. KY said...

    When we had dumping it became more important in our league to have young players to trade away and less important to be able to predict and correctly value that seasons performance.  Which to us, was less the point of fantasy baseball.

  4. Jonathan Sher said...

    Tom B:
    Thanks for sharing your response.

    (1) Our league is American League-only so there are only 42 full-time equivalent outfielders, not 90.
    (2) Real baseball teams roster backup outfielders. If your goal in a fantasy league to to mimic the challenges faced by a real general manager, then it would seem fitting to roster more outfielders than there are starters.
    (3) I don’t think it’s poor league management to create rules whose intent it to mimic real baseball.
    (4) Some fantasy players prefer shallow leagues in which every player is an all-star or potential all-star. That’s not my cup of tea but I wouldn’t suggest those player have made a poor choice, just a different choice. They may not be interested in tracking marginal starters and prospects.

    Mike W -

    It’s interesting to hear how leagues with similar rules may still value players differently – thanks for sharing the experience of your league.

    Just to be clear, in our league, owners do place quite different values on prospects and emerging young players who have shown something at the major league that is evidence that their potential will be fulfilled. So owners do package multiple prospects for a veteran.

    But in the case of Lind and Choo, both had a strong start in 2009, and Choo has some major league success prior to 2009 while Lind has shown across-the-board improvement from 2007 to 2008. Had either been available at our 2009 auction, they would have gone for prices much closer to $20. But instead they went in auction in 2008, after Lind and Choo had disappointing 2007s.

    So on one side of the equilibrium, players such as Lind and Choo in June 2009 are worth considerably more than prospects. That value increased as the pool of good valued outfielders shrunk to those two—one reason it makes sense to pull the trigger earlier when trading for next year.  On the other side of the equilibrium, all of the player I traded but one had no value beyond 2009. Those players do have value for an owner trying to win in 2009. Their trade value rests somewhere in the middle.

    As for targeting prospects at low prices, in our league that works for true prospects and guys with middling major league track records but not young players that have show some success—even a September call-up success has his price pushed up well above the $2-$3 range. To get players in that range you almost always have to acquire them before they secure a starting position or show some success in the Bigs. The pool of hitter who go for $2-$3 would include guys with no perceived offensive value and guys whose playing time is in doubt.

    I do target top prospects in our auctions in two situations:

    (1) When I have a major league starter who is on my reserve because he still has rookie status. In 2009, for example, I had Brett Gardner on my reserve and obtained Austin Jackson for $1, then activated Gardner and reserves Jackson after the auction.

    (2) I almost always use a spot or two among my nine pitchers for top prospects I scoop up for $1. I do this because established starters are a crapshoot by the time you get to filling your final pitching spots. In 2009 I bought Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Derek Holland for $1 each. This year, with a deeper squad, I had room for one pitching prospect in the auction and again picked up Holland for $1—I think the time in AAA will be great for him and he will pitch well the second half of this year,

  5. The A Team said...

    I’m currently commishing a league in it’s first year that looks similar but has a much shallower format (12 team mixed, 28 rostered (5 BN, 23 active). Our keeper rules are unlimited keeps at a cost of draft price + $7. The design is to make it difficult to keep peaked or hyped players. That in itself makes it harder for owners to get locked into a multi-year cycle of winning or losing.

    We had one guy who missed the auction give up before the season started. His worst trade was Tex, Blake, Jimenez, and Wolf for Ian Stewart, LaPorta, Buccholz, and Yunel Escobar.

  6. Jonathan Sher said...

    KY -

    Your point about valuation is interesting. Is yours’ an auction league? Can you describe in more detail what happened?

    I’m curious because I tend to select more prospects than my rivals in our reserve draft, but I don’t do it in the hope of having trading chips but because I expect some will produce value for my team this year or next. And I’m sure the attention I give to prospects in our reserve draft doesn’t interfere with the task of projecting value for players in the auction.

  7. Jonathan Sher said...

    The A team -

    First, good luck with your league—I hope your friends appreciate the work of a commish.

    Second, I my experience, while I have seen lopsided dump trades, I have also seen lopsided regular trade in which both owners are trying to win this year. I tend to think that weak owners make bad trades regardless of the context.

  8. KY said...

    It seems to me that most leagues have some sort of accepted level of dumping.  What became apparent to anyone who was out of the running for $ was that none of their players they were not going to keep next year had any value to them.  They only had value as trade chips for prospects.  Once this realization happens then the logical thing is to gather as many prospects as you can from the contenders.  We would up with a few “super teams” and “everybody else”.  Yes its an auction and, at that time, you could keep players for $5 more then the previous year.  If at the end of the year I already had 6 keepers but I still owned some trade worthy players I would have no reason not to trade all of them for a player I valued at worth $5 more then his current value next year.  Limiting the number of freezes a team may have does not help as the players still have no value if you are out of it.  You simply trade them for “improved freeze value” in the limited spots you have.  It has always been mystifying to me that this is not a problem in more leagues.  Either the realization that none of you players have value does not occur, or the peer pressure not to dump “too much” must be stronger then it was for us.

  9. Jonathan Sher said...

    KY -

    Thanks for explaining in detail your league dynamics. You pose an interesting question.  A couple of factors come to mind:

    (1) The collective psyche os each league varies. Perhaps your league is dominated by realists and mine by optimists; in the latter fewer players look to dump because they hold out hope for success this year. It would be interesting to see how the introduction of a new owner who doesn’t match the norm for the league affects the trade behavior of other owners

    (2) On thing that limits dumping in my league is the scarcity of great value players one would target in a dump and the general lack of interest in all but the top few prospects. That may be a function of the depth of the league. That scarcity means only a few teams can really dump.

    (3) Another limit for me was the limit on keepers—15 in our league. After trading for Lind, Choo, Aardsma and one more deal for Jesus Montero, there was no one left in the league who was available and who would bump off any of my players who would make the final 15.

    As an aside, my favorite dump trade happened in 2008 with two weeks to go in the regular season. I was in fourth, the last money spot, had no chance of slipping to fifth, and while I was neck-in-neck with the third-place team, I had no chance of finishing first and just a sliver of a chance of finishing second. My third-place rival was more optimistic. So I traded ARod, who was at a price that didn’t make him a value ($55, I think) for Matt Wieters, who my rival had picked up in 2007, and who would be eligible to be signed for 2009-2011 for $11 a year.  I didn’t care whether I finished third or fourth but thought Wieters would be a key piece for me in the future. As it turned out, ARod had a miserable final two weeks, so bad he almost single-handedly gave me third place.

  10. Derek Carty said...

    Tom B,
    Actually, 5 OF is actually kind of the industry standard, at least in higher profile leagues.  Almost any expert league I’ve ever been in (including Tout and LABR) uses 5 OF.  I know 3 is the default for Yahoo! (and perhaps other services), but 5 is also a very common format.

  11. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Tom B,

    Not to gang up on you, but now, it’s my turn to be judgmental…

    If you’re league is using only 3 OF spots, I would hope it’s at least 18 teams deep.

    And, FTR, assuming you use CIs and Util spots, a 12-team league most certainly rosters the top 2/3 of 1Bs, most likely 3Bs as well, depending on the strength of the position (4 years ago, for certain, Now, maybe.) and possibly SS or 2B, depending on which position is stronger.

    By your logic, NL- or AL-only leagues shouldn’t exist unless they use 8-bat rosters with 5 teams in the league.

  12. Tom B said...

    You guys make a lot of assumptions about something I never said.

    There is a key difference between rostering a certain number of players and starting them.  As a quick example, if you are talking about starting 60 outfielders (and probably rostering close to 90 ie. every starting OF in baseball) then your league is very deep.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but 95% of the leagues you are catering articles and discussion to do not even sniff settings like that.  Nothing about “keeper” or “expert” ( and I use that term loosely) leagues infers a ridiculous amount of roster depth.  Leaving zero talent in the FA pools with backups and scrub call-up’s all over the top of the list doesn’t make you an expert, it just means you have to trade for any weakness your team may have.

  13. Tom B said...

    I guess it really comes down to who are you writing these fantasy articles for?  The 30 people in the country that are truly playing in “expert” leagues? Or everyone else?

  14. Jonathan Sher said...

    Tom B –

    (1) Most of the people I know who play fantasy baseball are not experts but still play in leagues that start five outfielders, perhaps because they have played for some time, and their leagues follow what was the original format for rotisserie baseball.

    (2) I don’t know what percentage of fantasy players are in leagues that are deep or shallow. If you are in the latter sort of league, there is a lot of fantasy advice online, but generally, I find the advice to be garbage because those writing it lack an understanding of basics such as sample size.

    (3) There is much less advice available for players in deeper keeper leagues. It’s fair to infer that is because there are fewer people playing in such leagues. But it’s silly to argue that it is a handful of people. I work in a small newsroom in which two colleagues are in fantasy leagues, both with roster structures much like what I have in my league. Neither is an expert but both value advice of the sort that is most relevant to deeper leagues.

    (4) The article I just wrote was about trade dumps that are relevant to any keeper league, deep or shallow. I would hope my audience would include people from both sorts of leagues and your participation is evidence it has.

    (5) This was not an article about the skill set needed to compete in different types of leagues – perhaps I’ll address that another day.

    (6) There are other ways beyond trades to address a weakness in a deep league. These leagues typically include reserve rosters. You use some of those reserve slots in anticipation of potential weakness. As for the free agent pool, it is shallow but not devoid of talent. Two years ago I picked up Mike Aviles after he was called up by the Royals but before he had played more than a game or two. Last year a rival picked up Andrew Bailey before he had cemented his role as a closer. The talent is there. The challenge in a deeper league is that you have to spot that potential talent before it is realized.

  15. Derek Carty said...

    Thanks for the input, Tom B.  The problem is, there are so many different fantasy baseball formats, every article can’t possibly tailor to each specific league type.  I wish we could, but there are just so many different variations of this game.  At THTF, we try to offer a wide range of articles that apply to different leagues and provide the theory that readers can apply to whatever their own specific league type is.

  16. Tom B said...

    I still think the article was a great read, I started running the first “keeper” league between my friends a few years ago so we have already started dealing with our share of dumping/bad trades.  It just struck me as odd to have starting roster positions that exceed even the number of players that start at that position.  My friends aren’t suited for the deeper leagues so I’ve been very mindful of the talent pool in our league to make sure the players we are starting and rostering fall within a certain level of talent (generally the top 1/2 to 2/3 of active players per position).  This way they can compete without having to scour for bench players and hope for an injury or something.  I only wish my friends dedication to fantasy baseball matched my own, we could get away with playing with some expanded roster options and let the real research shine through in the standings. 

    Also, I love that I can get feedback from the real deal writers around here, rather than bickering with the internet heroes on other websites. smile Keep up the great work.

  17. Derek Ambrosino said...

    BTW, Tom, I do wholeheartedly agree that the pedigree of a league is not determined by the league structure but the quality of the owners. In fact, the deeper the league the more opportunity there is to exploit competitive imbalance.

    I actually don’t enjoy very deep or very shallow leagues for opposite sides of the same reason. If I’m left to choose between a dozen really good OFs on the wire, I’m not really excited about making that decision – there’s very little on the line. Conversely, I wouldn’t really want to be searching for simple sources of ABs on the wire, winning the RBI category because my last outfielder drove in 34 runs over 325 ABs, while yours only mustered 26 in 270. I like to be able to flip on the Extra Innings Package and be reasonably confident those on my team will not have to wait until the first double switch of the game to see an AB.

    But, this whole entity that is fantasy baseball is about finding your favorite flavor, and maybe experimenting here and there with a few that pique your interest.

  18. Jonathan Sher said...

    Toffer Peak -

    Thanks for doing the legwork and providing the helpful information and links.

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