I write a handful of columns each season that I honestly hope the majority of you decide not to read. This is one. Why? Because it is intended for those in keeper leagues who have made the difficult, but honest decision to forego contending this season in lieu of building a foundation to compete in future seasons.
As is the case with most aspects of fantasy baseball game theory, league context is everything. There is not a one size fits all recipe for constructing a keeper list. The type and size of your league dictates your strategy.
Last week in this space, the difference between a keeper and dynasty league was discussed. In addition, the concept of a hybrid keeper-dynasty format was introduced. By means of a brief review, an extreme keeper league favors a compete-rebuild-compete-rebuild cycle as the influx of quality talent from expiring contracts is plush each spring. A pure dynasty league has extremely limited player turnover, and only at the fringes, so the most viable strategy is to spend several seasons putting together a solid foundation that will keep you in contention for multiple seasons. The hybrid format is in between. The type of league should impact the keeper.
We will start with what should be the most obvious scenario, building in dynasty formats. But an often overlooked wrinkle will be offered.
It is clear that young talent should be the objective in keeper leagues. But what is not clear is that the stigma concerning protecting pitching should not be a consideration in dynasty leagues. In fact, the most successful dynasty squads often have the best staff of pitchers that matured together. While some may contend that pitching is a crapshoot and you cannot really scout pitching well enough to know you will assemble a staff of successful arms, there is no way you can do it if you do not even try. Sure, if you freeze 12 pitchers for a few successive seasons, chances are a handful will flame out, but if even half hit the mark, you only have to find a couple more to complete a fantasy staff. And since you can always find closers or aging veterans, a 50 percent success rate works just fine.
The sort of hurlers that should be in your crosshairs are young, talented, but not yet established pitchers on teams contending in your league. Examples are Brian Matusz, Rick Porcello, Jamie Garcia, Max Scherzer, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Ricky Romero, Brett Anderson and Jair Jurrjens. These are pitchers who show serious promise, but do not have the track record a team looking to win should favor. It does not hurt your cause, pardon the pun, if the player is injured but should be fine next season. Look to deal a solid, but aging veteran who will likely not be part of your dynasty in a couple of tears. Some possibilities are Johan Santana, Javier Vazquez, Ted Lilly, James Shields, Roy Oswalt and yes, even Roy Halladay, who will be on the decline when you are ready to rule.
The same idea holds true for hitters. Look to acquire the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Gordon Beckham, Grady Sizemore, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Adam Lind, Billy Butler and Carlos Gonzalez. In exchange, feel free to part with players the ilk of Derrek Lee, Derek Jeter, Jayson Werth, Torii Hunter, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz and Paul Konerko. Heck, if the haul is substantial, dealing Alex Rodriguez should set you up nicely. Don't hesitate to deal multiple names to acquire a single young buck.
Now let us switch to the other end of the spectrum, keeper leagues. The key with building a foundation in a "go-for-it" year is to populate your freeze list with established players at below market value prices. Most look for the cheapest players, often of the "breakout year" variety. While it is fine to take chances and calculated risk is part of as successful squad, leave the risk for the spring draft or auction. Focus on stability for your keepers. As such, aim for quality and not quantity, even if it means entering your draft or auction with fewer than the allowable number of keepers. As opposed to dynasty leagues, it is difficult to suggest names as the price is key, but the notion of targeting injured players such as Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Kinsler, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jimmy Rollins and Kendry Morales is often advantageous. And just as in dynasty leagues, do not shy away from dealing multiple non-keepers to attain that stud keeper. Remember, quality, not quantity.
In between are the hybrid formats. The closer you are to competing, the more you should lean toward stability. If you are still assembling your core, the lean should be toward youth with upside.
The other integral factor when planning a keeper list is understanding the depth of your league. By depth, I mean the level of penetration into the player pool. While there is no textbook definition, the Molina rule comes in handy. A very shallow league has only Yadier on a roster. In deep leagues, someone is the proud owner of Jose. In the middle, someone hopes Bengie still has a little left.
Generally speaking, the shallower the league, the more you want to favor studs. Again, quality trumps quantity as there will be an ample supply of available talent in shallow leagues to backfill your roster. To continue a theme, in order to acquire quality keepers, you may need to upgrade several of your trading partner's roster spots. Use all assets at your disposal to obtain the best possible talent. Top-tier talent wins shallow leagues.
In deeper leagues, the most common mistake is being afraid to freeze salary. The deeper the league, the more inflation rears its ugly head. The best way to combat inflation is to go into your auction with a bevy of high priced talent already on your squad, saving you from having to chase the top talent. A player that you can acquire in a trade with a $40 price tag will skyrocket into the 50s next spring. The trick is being able to pry such a talent from his present owner. Yup, you guessed it. Blow their socks off with a sufficient talent upgrade elsewhere to make it worth their while to part with such a prized keeper.
There is something not often discussed because it is not based on numbers, it is based on the human element. With futures trades, there is no algorithm to determine equity. There is no perfect manner to decide too much or too little. Supply and demand economics set the market. And this dynamic is transient. As more teams fall out of contention, the number of teams looking to rebuild grows, making it more difficult to deal for the prime keepers.
The dirty little secret is dump trading involves a skill not generally associated with fantasy baseball, and that is simply being a better horse trader. You do not have value as your ally. Some people are just better salesman. And some people can be bullied. Granted, this is not a popular notion, but it is the truth. It is also the reason stable keeper leagues are hard to maintain, but nonetheless, the most successful owners in keeper leagues find the balance between being a bully and not negatively affecting the rest of the league.
The point is, your primary concern should be with your squad, not others. Do what it takes to improve your chances of winning and let everyone else worry about their squads. Next week, the final piece in this series will further focus on this human element in an effort to facilitate the bullying and maintain league harmony.
Todd Zola recently merged Mastersball.com with CREATiVESPORTS.com where their combined staff features some of the most successful fantasy players in the industry. Todd's focus is strategy and game theory. He contributes to the Mastersball subscription packages as well as a free blog and is a frequent contributor to the site's public message forum. Todd is a veteran of Tout Wars and LABR and has multiple first place finishes in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship and despite a gruff exterior, has trouble playing the part of the bully and is really more like a teddy bear.