The Verdict: keeper or non-keeper

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.

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  1. Kevin Wilson said...

    Dude, you’re always plugging your site, aren’t you? Is this an ad or an article? Last time you said it was pertinent to the article. This time, it’s just gratuitous no matter how you spin it.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    I’m one of those Wainwright owners. I’m currently looking into trading him with a cheap Pedro Alvarez and Angel Pagan for salary relief.

    And good advice on the keeper front, that’s how my home league came together, we played free leagues for several years and then made it a money, keeper league last season.

  3. Michael A. Stein said...

    @Kevin – I fail to see how my article represents an advertisement.  I was recruited by Hardball Times to write articles about fantasy baseball issues from the perspective of a dispute resolution judge – which is what I do.  That is my background, and when formulating arguments, opinions and a subsequent Verdict (hence the title for my column), it is coming from me wearing the judge’s robe.  If including a link to my site is gratuitous, then I guess we have different opinions on what gratuitous means. There is not one mention of dispute resolution services in this article.  But as I have consistently done in each article I have writtem, the final verdict and any advice proffered comes from the Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment which I embody.

    @Brad – thanks for the comments.  Glad to hear your success story about your keeper league.  I’m sure you’ll find someone patient enough to take Wainwright, especially if you are including Alvarez and Pagan in the deal.

  4. Jack said...

    Starting in my first keeper league this year. Thanks for the good advice. I’m looking forward to the extra dimensions. And feel free to plug your site…no skin off my nose.

  5. Kevin said...

    @Kevin – The reference was hardly gratuitous and why would you care anyway?  Is it so terrible that he’d mention his own site?  When you start spending a good chunk of your time providing free FBL advice, let me know so I can come spam your comment board.

  6. Derek Ambrosino said...

    @Kevin W.,

    I’m going to defend my THT Fantasy brethren on the charges of shameless self promotion. …Had the ultimate recommendation of the article be that all questionable trades be brought to his site for resolution, that would have been pretty egregious. But, that’s not what he did. He simply stated that his standing as the operator of such site is one of the qualifications he has bolstering the opinion he’s about to give. …Certainly, any reader is free to totally discount that qualification as being of particularly relevant merit, but it’s not fair to call this piece and editorial.

    On the topic at hand, I tend to agree that it is best to let a league evolve into a keeper situation. You have to first vet everybody’s commitment to the league; people can’t just up and leave the league. (Some keeper leagues even use rudimentary contracts.)

  7. Steve Shores said...

    Mr. Ambrosino and Mr. Stein,

    The article may not have been shameless, but it was self-promotion.

    I was reading the article to gather information.  I thought it was building to a crescendo of import and then I was abruptly turned off by…“That is why the Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment…”  It stopped me cold. 

    Someone is in a “fantasy” world if they don’t think that was self-promotion, assuming, of course, that the writer is somehow connected to the “Supreme Court…”.

  8. Matt said...

    In a 12 team mixed league (5×5 Roto) I just traded 2 years of Pujols at book value for a package of Domonic Brown, Jeremy Hellickson, Jesus Montero,  Jordan Zimmermann (all $0), and an early 2nd round entry draft pick.  This is my first year in this league and I aquired Pujols through a dispersal draft.  I am quite happy with the trade… but i’d like to get some feedback.

  9. Brad Johnson said...

    That’s a tough deal to evaluate without knowing more about your league. Assuming your roster was already uncompetitive in 2011, that’s probably an OK deal. I would have been inclined to hold onto him until another team had an urgent need because you can definitely get more than a couple top offense prospects, a good pitcher in a tough division, a back of the fantasy rotation pitcher, and an early pick (where the value depends on the player pool) for Pujols. It’s all about finding a team that’s desperate enough.

  10. Matt said...

    Well I feel I did well in the dispersal getting Pujols, Morales, Prado, Figgins, Hardy, Lind, Victorino, LaPorta (C,1B,2B,3B,SS,OF,OF,OF,OF,UTIL).  So my lineup needs a catcher and another outfielder (or 2 depending on how LaPorta fares in a make or break year).

    Pitching I have Halladay, King Felix, Jurrjens, Valverde, and Cordero.  So I needed 2 more starters.

    I initially looked at this team like I had a shot at winning in my inaugural year… but after looking at my cap space I decided I needed to unload someone and Pujols seemed logical as I could only afford him for 2 years (where as Morales I can have 4 years at book value).  Now I need to grab a starting catcher, load up my bench and give it a go.  Do you think I had a shot with Pujols, and what about post trade?

  11. Frankie Due said...

    Objectively speaking, I personally had to do a double take when I was in the middle of reading the article and saw “Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment” underlined as a link. Whether it was self gratuitous or not, I believe it detracts from the quality of the article. No one else on this site has to give their “qualifications” in every article they write. If they are writing for this great website, I trust they have been vetted by the operators of this website and they are qualified. Could the sentence have been more effective if it just said “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…” and if left out the first part of the sentence which said “That is why the Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment advises you…”. Like I said, I had to make a double take and of course, I clicked on the link to see why this is in the middle of the article.

    This is meant as constructive criticism of the writing style. I am not bashing the writer. The content of this article is useful for starting a keeper league. In fact, my main keeper league was started this way 8 years ago.

  12. Michael A. Stein said...

    @Matt – I agree with Brad that you probably could have gotten more for Pujols if you waited to deal him, but I understand why you did it and got some decent value for him.

    @Frankie – I appreciate the constructive criticism. When I began writing for Hardball Times a couple months ago, I felt I needed to explain my background and what I do with Fantasy Judgment as a way to earn the trust and comfort of the readers. When I am writing and giving opinions, it is not just on behalf of myself, but also on behalf of Fantasy Judgment because that is the entity that I embody. This is precisely why I was asked to write for THT. 

    @Matt, Steve and Kevin W – I do appreciate your comments and critique because you obviously are passionate enough to take the time to write them.  Your assessment of what you consider either gratuitous or self-promoting may differ from mine, but that is what makes the world go ‘round.  My writing style, which includes references to the entity that I created and is the reason I have the honor of writing this column, clearly differs from yours.  And that is ok.  But understand that there will be times during the baseball season that my column will focus on actual disputes that are submitted to Fantasy Judgment, which is one of the main reasons why I was asked to write this column. The point is that my column is centered around fantasy baseball issues/disputes/conflicts, which also include logistical, administrative and functional aspects.  I will take your comments into consideration, but all I ask is to be fairly evaluated and critiqued based on the quality of the content and supporting arguments made.

  13. Matt said...

    BA has Montero(3), Brown(4) and Hellickson(6) in the top 10 for 2011 prospects.  All 3 of these guys are major league ready and i’m not convinced I would have been able to get all of them plus a potential top of the rotation guy like Zimmermann and decent draft pick for Pujols in 3 to 4 months time, but I guess that remains to be seen.  I appreciate the feedback and it’s pretty much on par with what I expected.

  14. Kevin Wilson said...

    I like your writing Michael. I think your web site is a cool idea. I read your samples there- they are well produced. I just feel much like what the other commenters said, that the Supreme Court line felt very out of place.

    I just don’t see how being a judge (I assume that is your day job) has any relevance on whether or not to make your league a keeper league. It just doesn’t lend any extra credibility in my eyes.

    I don’t know, far be it from me to sit here from my couch and tell a highly successful website how to run their articles, but to me, it just gave me the twinge of a “Special Advertising Section” in a magazine, if you know what I mean.

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