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August 16, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Fantasy Ethics Revisited

by Jeff Erickson

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Of all the articles I wrote last year, the one that generated by far the most heat, both in terms of volume and in intensity of response, was my piece dealing with the ethical issues that arise in fantasy leagues. I want to revisit the subject this year to address a few more scenarios that have cropped up in my various leagues.

Let me start off by saying that keeper leagues are fantastic-I think they're a far better way to play, whether you're in a roto league, a Scoresheet league, or a head-to-head league. The real skill in building a ballclub is borne out over time. Unfortunately, keeper leagues almost always generate more controversy, almost always centering on trades occurring in those leagues. Kenn Ruby talked plenty about dump trades last week, and while there's a wealth of sub-topics within that subject, there are other issues too.

Disclosure of Contracts

In the RotoWire Staff League, we have the ability to sign players to long-term deals in a standard auction league. More often than not, the idea is that you're locking up an undervalued, presumably younger player, and locking in a profit. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. The player gets hurt, or has a drop-off in performance. Or, in some cases you can just make a bad decision, and overvalue him in the first place. In our league, you're still stuck with that contract. You can trade him and make that contract somebody else's problem, like the Giants did with Matt Morris. You can also cut him and hope somebody else claims him right away. Otherwise, you're on the hook for at least half the value of the contract, for the duration of the deal.

At any rate, in addition to the usual dump trades that you'll see in any keeper league before the trade deadline, other teams will be trying to get rid of their bad contracts. The player in question here had been offered around to virtually everyone in the league. He once was a rising star at a scarce position, but now he's found himself in a pitcher's park hitting well below his now more modest expectations, and recently has been relegated to a part-time role. He's signed through the 2008, at $16 (in a standard $260 cap). All contract information is freely available on the league page.

At any rate, Player X's owner (Team A) was able to dispose of him in a deal to a team that was dumping (Team B). He traded Player X, $10 in FAAB, and a second-round pick in exchange for a player with an expiring contract. After the deal was consummated, including a confirmation e-mail to the league commissioner, Team B then finally looked up the contract for Player X and had trader's remorse, and wanted to back out of the deal. It was his contention that Team A didn't disclose the contract in the course of the offer, so he was misled about the deal.

Does Team A have an obligation to overtly tell Team B (or any other team) what the player's contract is when offering him up? I often will do so in the course of my offers, if for no other reason than to allay any suspicion. I'll couch it this way: "I'll offer Russ Ortiz ($33M, expires in 2009) and a second-round pick for your Justin Upton ($3 next year)."

My practice aside, I don't think Team A is obligated to do that, and certainly shouldn't have to highlight that Ortiz has a bad contract. Team B, a team that is dumping contracts and seeking cheap keepers and picks to begin with, should know to look up Player X's contract info. He didn't look it up on the site, and didn't ask about the contract (and its consequences) until after he accepted the trade offer. Frankly, this was Team B's fault for not doing the proper due diligence, and really he could have been forced to accept the trade as it stood. To help smooth out any possible hard feelings, Team A included an extra $10 in FAAB, but by no means was he required to do so.

Escape Hatches

In a related issue, we've also had owners drop players with long-term contracts and then try to pick them back up for a lesser price, and we've also had other owners drop players in expiring contracts and try to reclaim them at both a lesser price and a fresh contract. Both are clearly attempts to circumvent the spirit of the current contract rules, and while they weren't explicitly prohibited in the league constitution, they shouldn't be allowed. Those two loopholes have since been cleared up in our league.

That leads to a general point-don't try to "out-lawyer" the league. Just because there isn't an explicit ban on what you're trying to do, if it's circumventing the spirit of the rule, it's not going to be allowed. One of the more laborious aspects of a mature league is to try to codify any possible scenario that might arise. Don't be that guy who wants to show how clever he is by finding all the loopholes in the league's constitution. That time is better spent figuring out how you're going to gain two points in saves, or on player evaluation for the future, so you don't find yourself stuck with another bad contract, not to mention some ill will from your fellow owners.

Strategic Trades

When you get into the latter stages of a season, particularly in categorical leagues, which team you trade with is almost as important as the players that are dealt. An ideal trade not only addresses your needs, but also if done right will hurt your top rivals. I had the good fortune of pulling off such a trade in the AL Tout Wars expert league last week. I'm in first place right now, with my lead varying anywhere from three to 13 points. My weakness is in starting pitching, particularly with wins, ERA, and WHIP. I've got a pretty healthy lead in saves (15 above the second-place team in saves), thanks to drafting both J.J. Putz and Jonathan Papelbon. I had just made one trade for John Lackey to address my starting pitching issues, but to make real difference, I needed another "A"- or "B"-level starter. The hard part is trying to identify my trading partner. Many of the top starters are on the rosters of my top two rivals, Matthew Berry (ESPN.com) and Sam Walker (Fantasyland). The trick for me is to find a trade partner that needs a closer, has a starter worth going after, and won't be a threat to overtake me.

Luckily, I found one such trading partner in Ron Shandler (BaseballHQ.com). He had a surging Javy Vazquez and little need for wins, but could gain a few points in saves. More importantly, if he picked up enough saves, he might just possibly catch Matthew in saves (he's currently seven behind with seven weeks to play). Every point counts, so I even made sure Ron knew of my ulterior motive. I ended up trading Putz, Kevin Slowey, and Vicente Padilla (the latter two added at his request) in exchange for Vazquez and Nick Punto. I'm well-aware of Punto's limitations, but I've also had Alex Cora active all season, so at the very least Punto gives me the slim hope of adding two or three extra stolen bases. It's not the perfect trade, and in terms of overall value I might even lose out a little, but given the circumstances, it was a perfect fit.

Are there any ethical issues about trading to hurt your rival? At the risk of being self-serving, I don't think so. There's a difference between trying to improve yourself in one category and making your rival(s) protect themselves in other categories, and making a trade solely for the purpose of hurting your rival.

These are just a couple of the ethical issues in fantasy leagues. Next week we'll address a few more, including what to do when you have an abandoned or neglected team in your league, and how leagues end up dealing with rogue commissioners.

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus." He can be reached here.

Related Content:  Trade,  Out Of My League

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