If you play fantasy baseball, you know that there are a myriad of different types of leagues that you can participate in depending on your tastes and preferences. Some examples of customizable leagues include rotisserie, head-to-head, points, auction, salary cap, AL only, NL only, mixed league, and others. But one of the most important choices you can make when deciding what type of league you want to join is whether it is a keeper or non-keeper league. In a keeper league, each team owner is allowed to retain a set number of players on their roster for a pre-determined number of consecutive seasons. In a non-keeper league, rosters are refreshed every year and team owners have no long-term rights to a player from season to season.
In order to determine what the general consensus is in terms of preferring keeper or non-keeper leagues, I recently polled 100 people on Facebook, Twitter, e-mail lists, friends and personal acquaintances to gauge the growing trends. The results of the poll showed that 68 percent of fantasy baseball players preferred keeper leagues, 30 percent preferred non-keeper leagues, and 2 percent were either undecided or liked both equally. This did not come as a surprise to me given the trends over the last decade where fantasy baseball players have become more sophisticated and leagues have better replicated real baseball team management. It cannot be denied that people do enjoy drafting players and then having the ability to sign them to long-term contracts and retain them over the course of a set number of years. This was the most common reason given why people prefer keeper leagues. The strategy that goes into deciding who to retain as part of a fantasy team’s long-term planning is a decent simulation of a real baseball general manager. That aspect is something that people clearly enjoy.
A keeper league configuration requires a tremendous amount of strategy, foresight, instinct, long-term planning, intuition, knowledge of minor league players, and guts. Depending on how many players you are allowed to retain, team owners endure much angst in making these crucial decisions. People also need to be conscious of injuries (my condolences to those who already declared retention of Adam Wainwright), injury-plagued players, and players returning from injury. People must also take into account a player’s age, future potential, position on a team’s depth chart, and supporting cast when deciding whether to retain that player going forward.
Depending on which style you choose to play, the actual fantasy baseball draft takes on a different meaning. In a keeper league, younger players who do not have lengthy resumes and are unproven have higher values assigned to them because of their long-term prospects. Signing these young players gives team owners a sense of creating their own dynasty and building for success going forward. This has almost as much intrinsic value as trying to win the league now. In a non-keeper league, the objective of team owners is to select the best players possible for the current season. This comparison applies to both auction and straight draft leagues. Obviously in an auction league, the heightened value of younger players is reflected in the dollar amount spent on those players, whereas in a straight draft, the value is represented by an early round selection. One aspect that is common between keeper and non-keeper leagues is the evaluation of potential “sleepers.” Every year, there are certain unknown commodities that are deemed “sleepers” because of their potential for a breakout season. The criteria used to determine whether someone is a sleeper is completely subjective and arguably arbitrary. But regardless, sleepers are usually a late-round pick in a straight draft or a cheaper purchase in an auction depending on how badly someone buys into the hype. Either way, the evaluation of a sleeper is usually based on the present and not the future.
While there are obvious logistical and pragmatic differences between keeper and non-keeper leagues, the biggest distinction is arguably the evaluation of trades made. In a non-keeper league, there are certain objective criteria that can be used to evaluate a trade and determine whether it is fair or not (note that I said fair—not intelligent). You can look at the players involved in the trade and tell whether it passes the sniff test or not. You can look at the players’ statistics and tell whether the trade has equal value. You can look at the rosters of each team involved in the trade and determine what the motivation might be to make the trade, as well as ascertain whether any collusion may be taking place.
But all bets are off when looking at trades in a keeper league. In keeper leagues, trading away current high-priced talent in exchange for young, up-and-coming players is a perfectly acceptable and common strategy to employ. This is most typical when a team competing for a playoff berth needs a player to produce for him this year, so he would trade away unproven talent to a team looking to rebuild for the future. Does this sound familiar? It happens in real baseball all the time. So when evaluating whether a trade like this should be approved, you cannot use objective criteria like statistics, team rosters, or auction values.
For example, Team A is in second place and needs to bolster its pitching staff to make a run at the league championship this year. Team B is in second to last place in the league and has no chance of earning a playoff berth this season. Team A possesses several younger players who are projected to be stars down the road and under contract for multiple seasons, but they cannot be relied upon at the present time to contribute from a fantasy perspective. Team B possesses current star pitchers who are under the final year of their contract in the keeper league. So Team A offers a package including Aroldis Chapman, Jeremy Hellickson, Mike Moustakas and Freddie Freeman to Team B in exchange for Roy Oswalt and Chris Carpenter.
In a non-keeper league, this trade would never be allowed because the current values of these players is so lopsided. For 2011, Roy Oswalt and Chris Carpenter are light years more valuable than the package of young players. However, in a keeper league format, this trade would be considered fair and equal based on what each team’s needs are. Team A would be acquiring two top pitchers to help his run at a championship this season. He doesn’t care that these players are essentially rentals and do not have as much long-term value. Team B would be acquiring four young players with great upside to build for next season and beyond. This dynamic is exactly what MLB general managers do when deciding whether to trade veteran players for prospects.
When it comes to deciding whether to play in a keeper or non-keeper league, it all depends on your own personal taste and preferences. But beware, keeper leagues are premised on the fact that they will be running continuously year-to-year while retaining most if not all of its league members. There ideally needs to be a commitment in place amongst all league members that they are in it for the long-haul since they are investing in their team not just this year, but for years down the road.
That is why the Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment advises you that the best way to ensure stability is probably to be involved in a non-keeper league for a few years and establish a continuous rapport with the other league members before transitioning the league into a keeper format. This will demonstrate a commitment amongst your league members that they are dependable and consistent with their status in the league, and it also presumes that you have open lines of communication with other league members to discuss those difficult trade scnearios (like the one referenced above). Stability is key to having a successful keeper league because when a team has to be replaced, the new person coming into the league is likely stuck inheriting that team and must make decisions he or she doesn’t necessarily want to make.
The verdict is that keeper leagues are unquestionably more popular and provide unique challenges and opportunities as compared to non-keeper leagues. But if you decide to do a keeper league, beware of the distinctions and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure you are in a league that will sustain itself down the road.