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August 20, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Should I Play for "The Money"?

by Mike Gianella

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Your trading deadline has passed. In your 12-team league, you notice that half of the teams have packed it in and are playing for next year. Your team is one of these teams so you have no chance of winning… at least not this year. However, the more you look at the standings the more you realize that—with a little effort—you might be able to finish in fourth or fifth place. You won’t win, but you might be able to make a little money if everything breaks right.

Should you do it? Even though you can’t win, should you play for a “money” slot?

The knee-jerk response among fantasy experts is almost always no. “Flags fly forever” is a term coined by Cory Schwartz of MLB.com that many experts—including me—use when advising fantasy owners to throw caution to the wind when they have an opportunity to win now. A similar adage that I have espoused for years is “I’d rather finish 12th than finish second.” No one remembers who finished second; if I’m going to go for it, my goal isn’t to finish in a money slot but to win the whole thing. If I have zero chance of doing that, I’d rather pack it in and try again next year.

Is it possible that there could be situations where playing for a small piece of the pie this year is the right move, even after you have packed it in?

Sure. It’s a narrow path, but there are conditions where you could push for a money position without doing significant harm to painstaking rebuilding efforts you went through earlier in the year.

You Need a Foundation
If you already started playing for next year in a deep -only format, chances are strong that you are playing with less than a full complement of players. In a league with 14 offensive slots where the contenders are running 12, 13, or even 14 everyday players out there, you might only have nine or 10 regulars on your team… if you are lucky. Not all of your everyday guys are going to be studs, either. Some of your starters are going to be the worst regulars in baseball.

This is the nature of dumping. To get the Mike Trouts of the world, you have to sacrifice two or possibly three good players in return. This will be fine in 2014 when you can replenish at your auction, but it won’t do you much good now.

If you’re going to try to contend after you have given up, you need a foundation in categories where you can’t lose ground. Ideally, this will be in the qualitative categories. In a standard Roto league, this means having a strong base in ERA/WHIP/BA. Logically, since ERA/WHIP go hand in hand, a strong pitching base is a great start to pushing for a money spot late. I’d go one step further and argue that if you don’t have a strong foundation in these categories, this late push for limited glory probably isn’t worth your time.

In leagues with more qualitative categories, such a strategy might be even more feasible. One expert league I play in uses SLG in addition to OBP, ERA, and WHIP. If you are in a league where 40 percent of the categories aren’t counting categories, it is entirely possible that you can dump and push for a money spot if you’re strong in two of these categories.

(If you’re strong in three or four qualitative categories, this might all be moot, as there is a good chance that you’re in the running for a title).

Be a Scavenger: Free Agent Pool
As mentioned above, the best available talent usually pools on the best teams in a keeper league. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities to improve your team as the season goes along. One way to try to do this is via the free agent pool.

While most of the free agents that come across in August and later aren’t very useful, once in a while a gem comes through. The advantage you have as a non-contender over a contender is the flexibility in your roster to take chances on borderline players who might become solid starters. A top-tier contender probably didn’t have the roster space for a Darin Ruf, but a team in the second division might. Even better, a team at the top might not want to gamble on Ruf, but you have nothing to lose. If Ruf stinks, you’re going to finish ninth anyway. But if Ruf thrives, you’re on to something.

Be a Scavenger: Trades
Some keeper leagues don’t allow trading late. But if your league does allow this, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity.

You are not going to flip the stud keepers you acquired in June for a marginal upgrade now. What you are looking to do is take some borderline guys who you don’t think will be keepers and flip them to an owner who thinks they are. Teams out of the running almost always wind up with a small contingent of guys they couldn’t move to a contender. There aren’t the superstars, but the borderline grinders, who, like Ruf, may or may not contribute. Don’t think Adrian Beltre, think Mike Moustakas.

Focus With Laser Like Proficiency, Grasshopper
If you are going to pursue this strategy, carefully review the categories where you can maintain and the categories will you’re going to lose significant ground. It doesn’t make sense to waste limited FAAB resources on power hitting if you are going to lose 4-5 points in HR and RBI. If there are three teams ahead of you in a tight category that have already dumped, that might be a good category to try and pick up some ground. You can’t push forward in all 10 categories unless you reverse course and try to contend. This isn’t going to work out very well if you already dumped.

From Theory to Application
Much of the advice above is purely theoretical, with at least some of it simply falling in the realm of common sense. How can this be applied to a real life roster?

Table 1: Roster Comparison, Two AL-only Non-Contenders

Position

Team A

Team B

C

Derek Norris

Brayan Pena

C

Victor Martinez

Salvador Perez

1B

Eric Hosmer

Matt Tuiasosopo

2B

Jurickson Profar

Emilio Bonifacio

SS

Maicer Izturis

Brad Miller

3B

Lonnie Chisenhall

Conor Gillaspie

CO

Brett Lawrie

Alberto Callaspo

MI

Brock Holt

Jose Altuve

OF

Kole Calhoun

Colby Rasmus

OF

Chris Young

Engel Beltre

OF

Stephen Vogt

Jarrod Dyson

OF

Michael Brantley

Luke Scott

OF

Don Kelly

David Lough

DH

Mike Morse

Will Middlebrooks

P

Andrew Albers

Chris Archer

P

Alex Cobb

Wei-Yin Chen

P

Yu Darvish

Neal Cotts

P

Jeremy Guthrie

Tommy Hanson

P

Kelvin Herrera

Tommy Hunter

P

Jake McGee

Phil Hughes

P

Chris Perez

Zach McAllister

P

David Robertson

Andy Pettitte

P

Alex Torres

Francisco Rodriguez


In the standings, Team A has an advantage over Team B. But this isn’t the only reason that Team A would have an opportunity to push for a higher place in the standings, while Team B wouldn’t.

Team A is first in WHIP and second in ERA. This owner presumably kept Darvish because he is going to build his staff around Darvish at $36 in 2014. I have some reservations about the wisdom of this decision, but Darvish at the front of his staff leaves him with a strong foundation to say afloat in ERA/WHIP. It also allows him to take some risks with streamers if he wants to in an effort to try and make a run in wins. Offense is where this team is going to have problems picking up points. A healthy Mike Morse would help, but there are too many backups here. Still, a push over some of the dumpers in HR/RBI isn’t out of the question.

Team B is more likely to fade if not disappear entirely as the curtain draws to a close. There are too many back-ups on offense. There isn’t a closer here to speak of. The pitching foundation is weaker, so it is going to be significantly harder to take chances on match-up plays. Where Team A might try to optimize points as I suggested, Team B should simply throw in the towel. There is too much work to be done with this squad to do anything but play for next year.

Conclusions
My general advice is that I still believe this is a bad path for most non-contending fantasy teams. I understand how frustrating it is when you can’t win, but pushing for a “money” finish after you have voluntarily sabotaged your season is counterintuitive. There is also an excellent chance that the true contenders are going to start blowing the doors off in August and for all of your efforts you are only going to finish sixth or seventh anyway.

If you are going to push for a better finish after dumping, look closely at the teams that dumped and how much they might have to lose with their decimated rosters. If you kept enough offense, you might slip ahead of some thin teams, particularly if these owners aren’t active and don’t manage their rosters well. It’s a good idea to be active whether you’re trying to improve your finish or not. Pay attention to players who might be good freezes or, more realistically, trade chips this coming winter.

This alternate path toward trying to finish in the money should be considered a harmless distraction, not a primary goal. Remember, you committed to playing for next year already. Keep your core intact and only push forward if it doesn’t harm your 2014 team. You don’t want to get caught in a cycle of fourth-place finishes because your ego can’t stomach finishing 10th this year.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Dynasty Leagues,  Keeper Leagues

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