When injuries strike, strike back

This season has seen a fairly steady stream of injuries, likely single-handedly decimating the hopes of thousands of fantasy baseball managers who had their sights set on their league’s title. From the devastating losses of John Smoltz (season/possibly career over) and Victor Martinez to the multiple-week roster-altering injuries of Troy Tulowitzki, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman, Chris Young and Matt Holliday, among others, this season has been a struggle for the masses who play fantasy baseball.

While many managers are licking their wounds and calling it quits for the 2008 season, the stoic, never-say-die managers who are the backbone of the fantasy baseball nation (and The Hardball Times, of course) are rising up to resurrect their seasons. I am one of these managers.

After having lost many players to injuries in my deep, 12-team league with large rosters (Pat Neshek, Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Chad Cordero, Jason Isringhausen, Ryan Church, Jeff Keppinger, Nick Johnson, Travis Hafner and Leo Nunez), I have gone into a terrible slide. Normally in the top three in this league throughout the season, I have careened all the way down to sixth place in no time, with the ninth-place team not too far behind.

I could have just done what a lot of managers do when their team gets shellacked with injuries—give up and set my lineup occasionally—but that is not in my DNA. Instead, I will make the best of the situation and find a silver lining. This is because every player who is sidelined due to injury gives me the opportunity to sharpen my teeth on the free agent list. The hours of scouring the available player lists, sorting through columns of stats and sifting through a plethora of sabermetrics stats to find that hidden pot of gold that will help elevate my team to the championship that everyone has written me off for… these are the times that make you a stronger fantasy baseball manager.

This is why we play the game.

For those of you who are distraught, just remember that this season is nowhere close to being over. Just look at the injuries in the past few weeks: Jake Westbrook, Albert Pujols, Rickie Weeks, Adam Wainwright, David Ortiz, Chipper Jones, Todd Wellemeyer, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, and more. Just this weekend, perhaps the fantasy baseball draft day steal of the season, Shaun Marcum, was sent to the DL with right elbow pain. These are not the first injuries, and they certainly will not be the last.

I have had to hit the wire pretty hard, too. Some additions have worked wonderfully (Jay Bruce, Justin Masterson, Blaine Boyer, Justin Duchscherer, Dan Wheeler, Dioner Navarro and Edinson Volquez (on April 19, no less), while others have failed to meet my expectations (Evan Longoria, Oliver Perez, Adam Jones, Manny Parra).

Were you the manager to snag Chase Headley? Will you be the one to snatch up Matt LaPorta, David Price or Matt Gamel? These are all potential late season call-ups who can provide immediate impact for injury-depleted teams.

When you can’t beat ‘em, mess with their rosters

This is a favorite strategy of mine when I miss out on a free agent or waiver wire claim. When some team just nabbed a player who could have helped me in my time of injury-induced need, I do a few things:

1. Target my available options to replace the injured player and categories
2. Narrow my options to the three best players who can contribute across many categories, and, if I have many injuries occurring at once, I find multi-position eligible players who contribute in most of the major hitting categories (BA, HR, RBI, OBP, SLG). Generally, I will ignore speed-only guys because they tend to water down my already watered-down-by-injury stats for the week.
3) Make a swift but certain decision to add the player.
4) Without further hesitation, I see if other teams in the league are struggling with injuries, and I target the best players who would fill their needs.

Be ruthless, relentless, and without concern for the well-being of their team.

I know this sounds bad, but hear me out. If my team is struggling to stay afloat, why would I allow other teams to rise above me if I can prevent it? This is the old adage, “The best offense is a great defense.” This is what I am doing—playing defense.

Let’s say that my team has injuries to my starting shortstop, third baseman and first baseman, and injuries to my No. 4 and No. 5 starting pitchers, but I have some serviceable guys to round out my rotation in their absence.

Now, let’s say that a rival team in my league has a big time injury to its No. 1 or No. 2 starter. I know that owner is going to be scanning the wire immediately for help. Why would I let him grab one of the only solid providers of WHIP, ERA, K/9, etc.? Sure, I don’t really need a starting pitcher, but it couldn’t hurt, right?

By grabbing the lone starting pitcher worthy of adding, I force him to roster a worse pitcher, and in essence, I bring him down closer to my level for a while. This is particularly important in head-to-head weekly leagues, such as the one I am speaking about. Teams that face off against this squad can pummel it down the standings closer to where I am. Heck, if I square off against that team and win, it is a huge advantage.

This works especially well when dealing with closers. If a team loses a closer to injury, I have no problem dropping a seldom-used player to add the closer’s replacement. Even if I never decide to use him, it still helps to level the playing field. In most cases, I choose to then offer the player to the manager in the form of a trade—usually to upgrade a position where I have recently suffered a more lengthy injury.

Injured players usually return at some point

Injured players are on and off the DL all season long. While some players sustain serious, season-ending injuries, a vast amount of them are minor and will require only a short time on the shelf. Fantasy managers will often hastily drop players who are injured, not knowing how serious the injury actually is. A lot of times, these injuries can be rid of in two to four weeks, sometimes even less. This leaves a handful of roster-worthy players out there on the free agent list, up for grabs to the savviest owner. This is perhaps my favorite way to bolster my squad—especially when I have injuries on my team as well.

Chances are, the majority of the owners in your league do not understand the injuries to begin with. Knowing this, how can they make a decision to acquire (or reacquire) the player(s) in question?

The answer: they can’t.

This is where reading up on player injuries is paramount—not only reading the latest news on Rotoworld, your local paper, or the hundreds of quality fantasy sports sites out there, but reading more informative analysis of the current news from health care professionals such as me. Even better is when you take the extra initiative to e-mail me. I write back to every e-mail, and promise to get back to you within 24 hours. Most of the time, I get back within a few hours.

Just remember, the injured player you just added could have been someone’s fifth or sixth round pick, or perhaps their prized early-season free agent pickup—and you only had to drop a replacement free agent to acquire him. Meanwhile, the other team could be using an otherwise horrible alternative it found on the waiver wire.

For example, I recently added Mike Gonzalez, Jeff Keppinger (in a number of leagues) to bolster my depleted shortstop position, and Francisco Liriano to round out my banged-up pitching staff (he will be back shortly and is tossing the pill nicely in Triple-A), and Josh Willingham to provide some needed on-base and power skills.

Of course, there are always a few players who are routinely on the DL and are nothing but headaches for fantasy managers, especially those who play in leagues that have yearly roster transaction limits. These are players who constantly tease us with their production—when healthy. These guys are not worth owning (not worth the trouble). Among the infamous ones are Moises Alou, Rafael Soriano and Rich Harden.

The season is not even halfway done, and some managers are calling off the dogs. Not me. My dogs are out scouring the junkyard, looking to add a piece of “junk” to the roster. Remember, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

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