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August 11, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Other Competitive Balance Mechanisms

by Mike Gianella

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Last week, I talked about salary caps in auction-style leagues and how they can still allow non-contending teams to rebuild without destroying the integrity of your league. As many of my readers have pointed out, there are several other methods you can use to either curb dump trades or prevent them entirely if you so desire. Over the years, I have used some of these methods in my carryover leagues. Others I have not used but have heard about through either reader feedback or from other fantasy baseball analysts who also play in keeper leagues. The list below is not intended to be comprehensive but offers a guide to different ways you can navigate this issue in your league or leagues.

Salary Floor
A salary cap addresses how much salary a contender may put on his or her roster, but does little if anything to discourage a team at the bottom of the pack from simply vacating its roster and shipping everyone away to another squad. An alternative suggested by many of my readers is a salary floor. Putting a minimum required salary on a team still allows teams to play for next year but prevents teams from simply jettisoning everyone off of their rosters and potentially disrupting the competitive balance of the league.

Advantages: Curtails the most lopsided present-for-future trades while still allowing for these types of deals. Prohibits teams out of the running from simply jettisoning expensive non-keepers off of their rosters after the trade deadline and allowing contenders with the most FAAB or highest waiver claims to swoop in post deadline.

Disadvantages: This method is by no means foolproof. Teams can get around this by using FAAB to obtain an expensive player or players to reach the floor. It is also possible to acquire an expensive bust to simply circumvent the rule. In 2014, think Prince Fielder or Justin Verlander. Dragging a $30-35 Fielder out there week in and week out wouldn’t be palatable to a contender but in a league with a salary floor would be perfectly acceptable.

Salary Escalators
A player traded during the season with a salary under a certain amount would see his salary rise to an agreed upon minimum salary. Ten dollars is sometimes used but for maximum impact $15 is probably a better minimum. For example, Dallas Keuchel was purchased for four dollars at your auction this past March. He is traded during the 2014 season to a non-contender. His salary jumps to $15 for this year and next year as well.

Advantages: Teams can still play for next year but the number of players targeted in trades with future value plummets. Elite players would still have future value under this rule but cheap, marginal keepers who are often used to justify some of the most egregious dump trades would lose their value.

Disadvantages: Curtails trading. Teams in the second division might simply not deal with contenders if they cannot get enough future value if a salary escalator minimizes or eliminates the value of a future chip.

Penalizing Teams at the Bottom of the Standings
One way to try to encourage every team to be at least somewhat competitive is to penalize teams at the bottom of the standings. There are several different types of penalties that leagues can use, including but not limited to:

  • Reducing the number of freezes
  • Deducting future FAAB
  • Deducting future auction money or draft position
  • Financial penalty
  • Lower pick in a farm (minor league) draft

Penalties of this nature can be applied to either the last place team only or teams in the bottom three or four in the standings. Instead of using order of finish, another idea is to use a point threshold for a penalty. For example, in Tout Wars AL and NL, teams finishing with less than 60 overall points lose one dollar in FAAB for every point below 60; a team finishing with 52 points would have $92 FAAB the following season instead of $100.

Advantages: More than any other rule mechanism, implementing penalties for teams finishing at the bottom of the standings or below a certain point threshold gives everyone at least some incentive to play for this season. Weighing how important a strategic disadvantage the following season is versus how much benefit you can receive via trade can add a strategic wrinkle for teams out of contention. Is trading away two studs at cost for an underpriced Manny Machado worth losing two freezes next year?

Disadvantages: If you prefer to punish process as opposed to results, rules like this will fail to accomplish this goal. There are some teams that make every effort to contend and through mostly bad luck simply fail to finish in the first division. Penalizing teams in the second division can artificially create a hierarchy of winners and losers, where the teams at the top are given an unfair advantage against weaker opponents year in and year out.

Eliminate Minor League Speculation
One of the biggest sources of debates in keeper leagues is when a non-contender trades two or three productive major league players for a minor leaguer. Even if the minor leaguer is someone great like Addison Russell, trades like this can still leave a bad aftertaste. “But Russell will be great someday” doesn’t change the fact that in the here and now the owner who had Russell is likely to win the league.

To counteract this, some leagues don’t allow for minor leaguers to be kept from season to season. There are different ways to do this, but the two most common ways are either not to allow for farm systems or to allow only for reserve lists and to force fantasy owners to activate minor leaguers before the end of the season.

Advantages: If you want to have the ability to bid on players like Russell—whether via FAAB if he is called up during the regular season or at your auction if his first exposure to the majors is on the Opening Day roster—then this rule is right up your alley. Otherwise, farm players typically start out with a very low salary and in leagues with long-term contracts are often taken out of the pool for as long as they are in the minors plus their first five years in the majors. If you Russell’s owner, this can be a lot of fun, but it isn’t much fun for the other owners in the league. From a dumping perspective, if Russell’s initial salary is his first auction or FAAB price, it is very likely that you have eliminated him as a low priced trade chip. In many leagues, it is cheap minor leaguers, rookies, or second-year players who are the most coveted and part of the most imbalanced trades.

Disadvantages: Taking away minor league drafts or farm systems takes away the fun of the game for many (including most of the current staff of Baseball Prospectus and the growing number of dynasty league players who read our site). While this mechanism can work very well, why shouldn’t an owner who avidly reads the prospect articles at BP who is savvy enough to pick up the next big thing two years before his arrival be rewarded for good research?

Reduce Contract Time (The “Topper” Rule)
Unless you’re in a dynasty league, there is a limit to how long you can keep a player. Still, these limits often aren’t particularly prohibitive, and depending upon the structure of your league you can keep an active major league player for anywhere from 5-7 years depending on how your league structures long-term deals. The justification for dealing three top players for a cheap Anthony Rizzo isn’t difficult when you know you are getting 5-7 years of a cost-controlled Rizzo.

Some leagues use what is known as the Topper Rule. A player can be kept at his auction salary the following season but there are no long-term contracts. Instead, his owner only has the rights to “top” the player’s auction salary by one in the following year’s auction. So if an owner bought Devin Mesoraco at four dollars in 2013 and then kept him at the same salary in 2014, he would not be able to give Mesoraco a contract at the beginning of 2015. Instead, he would have the right to outbid any owner in the 2015 auction by $1 if he still wanted to keep Mesoraco.

Advantages: It is much more difficult to justify making a lopsided trade for a cheap player if the sole benefit is that you are only going to get one undervalued year of that player. Future trades for players entering what was once a contract year will be eliminated entirely.

Disadvantages: With fewer players under cheap team control, the market value of cheap players in the first year of a fantasy contract will only increase. If the 2013 version of Mesoraco is one of the best options available on the trade market, why wouldn’t a team out of the running give up multiple players for him? The law of unintended consequences could apply here depending on your league. Taking players out of the future market will only increase the price of the few remaining players with next year value.

Can These Rules Work?
As noted above, I have firsthand experience with some of these rules. In other instances, I only have only read about these rules or talked to other fantasy players who use these rules.

In my experience, if you are allowed to carry even one player from season to season, you will still see lopsided present for future trades. Rules like most of those outlined above will make it more difficult for a non-contending team to build a future winner via dump trades but will not necessarily stop the trades from happening. Often, a team out of the running will make the trades anyway in an attempt to obtain any kind of future value. In some cases, the unintended consequences of these types of rules is that the dump trades will be worse, since the non-contending team will obtain less in future value but feel that any future value in a trade is better than no future value.

Mechanisms that penalize the bottom feeders can have a dampening effect on dump deals. However, as noted above this is not always necessarily the case. A fantasy team might consider the cost/benefit of completing a dump deal versus not making a deal and still come out on the side of making a trade.

I have a distaste for giving up and playing for next year and try to avoid it whenever possible, but I dislike the idea of rules designed to mandate my fantasy philosophy and force everyone else to comply. Some fantasy players prefer to build and build and attempt to contend every three or even every four years. This type of approach has often worked to my advantage, as teams that get caught in the cycle of the future seldom ever achieve any kind of success in the present.

If your league finds that present for future deals are utterly distasteful, the best thing to do is to play in a non-carryover league. Short of making every traded player contract expire at the end of the year, it is difficult to legislate dump deals to the point where they will not happen. Smart fantasy players will find the loopholes and make these trades regardless of the rules. Some of the challenge of navigating a keeper league is figuring out how to work the trading climate to your advantage and put yourself in the best position to win. I am a proponent of fewer freezes, but only so my auctions can be more exciting and allow for more choices in the player pool. If I wanted to get rid of dump trades, I would stop playing in keeper leagues. After years of getting aggravated over present for future deals, I have accepted the fact that I prefer keeper leagues to non-keeper, and that building for the future is simply part of the game.

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

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