Strategy: Playing – and winning – in an inactive league

As I’ve said, I am struggling with writer’s block (in addition to sleep deprivation) recently, so this article would probably be best suited for the off-season or earlier in the season. I do it now, though, to serve as a reminder to those in a league like this: get it fixed next year! Dump the dead weight or seek out a new league entirely. Now is the time to start. If you put it off, you may never get around to making the necessary changes.

My situation

The first thing I’ll say on this topic is that playing in an inactive league should be avoided at all cost. Sometimes, though, it is simply unavoidable. When this happens, you need to know how to deal with it. Regrettably, I played in such a league this year. Luckily, it was my friendly league and the stakes weren’t much higher than bragging rights.

There are four of us who have played for years and pay attention to the league throughout the year no matter what place we are in. We have been cycling through people to fill out the rest of the league, but even when some of these people are close friends of ours, we simply can’t get them to take the league as seriously as we would like. This year turned out to be the worst year yet.

Limited player pool

In the month leading up to the trade deadline, as I was trying to deal, I simply couldn’t find a partner. The needs of the most willing person to trade (who, ironically, has been in first place most of the year) and my team just didn’t match up. By that point, four teams had stopped paying attention all-together. One owner, while paying attention, claimed his team was already perfect and refused to even talk about trading.

Another owner and I had a trade worked out (my Brad Lidge for his injured Miguel Tejada, who would help me in certain categories of need and fill my sub-par SS position), but he mysteriously stopped answering IMs and left my trade proposals on the table for a month and a half (I had to resubmit them every 10 days), even though he was the one who originally suggested the trade. One of the remaining two teams didn’t make a single trade all year.

This left just two teams to trade with, one of which was the first place team I mentioned earlier.

When 70% of the owned player pool is unavailable to you, you’re hands are really tied. Still, you play with the hand your dealt. By making some shrewd moves and successfully implementing certain strategies, I currently sit in second place — just two points back of first place.

Avoiding an inactive league altogether

The most important thing you need to do to avoid a league like this is carefully screen members. If a player didn’t pay attention last year, don’t let him back in. If you can check the records from prospective owners’ previous leagues, do it. If not, ask them plenty of questions to make sure that they won’t stop paying attention, no matter what.

Even once you screen members, though, you can’t guarantee that they will all be willing to do a lot of trading. While two of our members payed attention this year, they refused to trade. As I said before, one wouldn’t even enter a discussion, claiming that his team was already as good as he wanted it. That is just poor play, as there is always room for improvement for any team.

To keep players interested in your league, there are a couple of good options to pursue. The first is to make it a keeper league. If there is more at stake than just this year, teams will be more willing to pay attention and attempt to trade throughout the year, even once they’ve fallen out of contention.

Don’t fall into the trap of making it a concrete keeper league, though, where you can only keep a limited number of players. If your league only allows, say, three keepers, teams who fall out of the race who already have three players good enough to keep might lose interest, thinking that they are out of the race this year and are set going into next year. Try setting up a contract system that allows flexibility with how many players you can keep. This also promotes trading, as teams will try to get players they feel are undervalued at their current price.

Another way to keep interest is to raise the stakes. If every team in your league is required to pay $300, and the first place prize is $1000, there will be less teams giving up so easily.

Succeeding in an inactive league

Well, let’s say you weren’t able to implement all of these ideas into your league and you’ve fallen into an inactive league. Being the competitor you are, you still want to win. Here are some things you will need to do.

1) Have a good draft or auction. In my inactive league this year, there were just five trades made all year. I was involved in three of them. Needless to say, your options are limited if it is difficult to trade. If you don’t have a good draft or auction, it will be nearly impossible to win the league, because your only real means of improving will be through the waiver wire.

In my draft this year, I found such late round gems as Javier Vazquez, Chris Duncan, and Barry Bonds. I also got guys like Jake Peavy and Adam Dunn for a good discount while not getting burned on my early picks.

2) Avoid injuries. Not something you have a lot of control over, but if you get hit with bad luck in the injury department, it may not be possible to rebound. If you knowingly are going into an inactive league, be a little more prudent when drafting. Avoid guys with serious injury question marks.

I didn’t know I was going into an inactive league on draft day, but I did have suspicions. I got pretty lucky with injuries, losing Mike Piazza, Ryan Freel, Jason Giambi, Curt Schilling, and Octavio Dotel for a good chunk of time each, but after that I’ve been pretty solid. I haven’t lost any key players, although the Manny Ramirez news recently isn’t encouraging.

3) Be active. I lead my league in transactions made this year with 43 (and that’s without playing a single match-up, which I don’t usually recommend doing). A good chunk of this was juggling closers. I drafted Octavio Dotel as my only closer this year, but am now sitting in fifth place in saves (my goal) and stand to improve a couple points with a staff currently filled with Brad Lidge, Joakim Soria, C.J. Wilson, Rafael Soriano, and Manny Corpas.

In addition, I juggled my bench a lot and even ended up with a couple eventual starters this way (Ryan Theriot at MI being my favorite). I also used the “waiver wire efficiency” strategy to grab Luis Castillo for runs, recently.

4) Use the Waiver Wire effectively. Not always the easiest thing to do, but you will need to pull it off. Without being able to make trades, the Waiver Wire is the only place you’ll be able to improve your team, making it exponentially more important to use it effectively.

This year, I was able to pick up guys like Ryan Theriot, Khalil Greene, Tim Lincecum, all of my current closers, Alan Embree, Bengie Molina, Mark Reynolds, and Kenny Lofton, all of which contributed a decent amount to my team at some point in the year.

Other guys, like Akinori Iwamura, Edwin Encarnacion, Joaquin Benoit, and Jason Frasor weren’t as helpful. What’s different about these guys was that I cut bait at the right time, when I thought someone else was an improvement. Also, while these guys were, by no means, studs, they really didn’t hurt that bad.

5) Be persistent. As I said, I was involved in 50% of my league’s trades. Constantly talk with the members of your leagues about trades, or just about baseball in general. Soften them up, constantly dropping little hints that you want to trade or by hyping up your players (even those you don’t wish to trade). The more you talk, the more trades will ultimately become available to you. Have some tact, though. If you are annoying when doing this, owners who take things too personally will be less likely to deal with you.

6) Be patient. As recently as the beginning of July, I was sitting in eighth place out of ten. I knew my players were getting unlucky, though, so I didn’t panic. I dumped a couple that I no longer liked, but those that I did, I kept. They have rewarded me since, propelling me to second place.

Also be patient when waiting to make a trade. Be persistent (#5) and flexible (#9) too, but don’t make a move just for the sake of making a move. It’s a fine line to walk, but those who do it well will be successful.

7) Make good trades. Easier said than done. You will be limited in the number of trades you make, so make sure the ones you do make are good ones. You will lose on some — sometimes due only to poor luck — but the key is for the majority of them to bring back positive value. I believe I did that with every trade I made in this league. Here is the list of my trades.
Note: The second set of players came to my team.

  • Pat Burrell for David Bush — May 8.
    I had plenty of OF and Bush had great peripherals. His owner was looking to dump him because of poor surface numbers. I did end up dropping him, though, when my pitching staff became too full.
  • Bill Hall for Troy Glaus — May 31.
    I needed Glaus for my next trade, which was prearranged. I also didn’t like Hall.
  • Troy Glaus/Brett Myers for Garrett Atkins/Kelvim Escobar — May 31.
    I dumped an injury prone player for my favorite 3B sleeper at the time. I also got rid of an injured, no longer starting Brett Myers for starter with nice peripherals.
8) Don’t count your chickens. A trade isn’t complete until it is complete. The Tejada/Lidge trade I mentioned before is one example. I also had a trade worked out at the trade deadline of Tim Lincecum and Kenny Lofton for either Ichiro Suzuki or Eric Byrnes.

I needed runs and steals without killing my other categories and had plenty of pitching. Plus, I was set in ERA, WHIP, and K and Lincecum isn’t great for wins. It actually would have helped the other team too, but he was pretty far out of the race and unlikely to come back and bite me. We had all but agreed on it, then he seemed hesitant, and then he left for a vacation and was incommunicado for a week (past the deadline).

If something like this happens to you, first do everything in your power to get in contact with the other owner and make it happen. If you can’t, keep your composure. Seek out another option, even if it is an inferior one. Don’t be obsessed with what could have been. If you can help yourself, stay rational and do it.

In the case of Ichiro above, there just wasn’t enough time as it was the day before the deadline and no one else was interested in trading. That’s why you need to do your work a few weeks before the deadline. In this league, though, it proved to be nearly impossible (you still have to try, though!).

9) Be flexible and creative. In an inactive league with unwilling trade partners, you won’t always get as lucky as I did with finding nice trades. Sometimes, you’re going to need to make the pieces fit. When someone is willing to trade, you need to beat that horse until it is dead… and then a little more (unless of course you make the trade!).

Also, don’t be afraid to jump ship on certain players.

Be creative. If you can get good value from someone, but there’s a problem (maybe you already have the position filled), ask around the league and see if you can’t spin off the player you already have for a position of need. I had been in talks with the guy I got Atkins from for the whole season about Atkins (persistence!), and for a couple of weeks about Bill Hall. When he heard that I was trading Hall for Glaus, he said he liked Glaus even more, and we were able to work out a very nice trade (for me, anyway).

Keep all options available and always keep your ears open and your mouth moving.

Concluding thoughts

Needless to say, my league will undergo some serious changes this off-season. We’re switching to a keeper league setup with a complex (and fun!) contract system. We’re going to spend the winter scouting out potential new members, so hopefully by this time next year we’ll have a much improved (and deeper) league.

If your league is similar to mine, put the effort into fixing it. If you have a competitive league with a system that really makes you think and strategize, it is lots of fun.

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