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May 30, 2008

Fantasy Focus

Keeper League Trade Issues

by Jeff Erickson

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We've had two hotly-debated topics within the RotoWire community the past week. One centered on the merits of keeper leagues versus redraft leagues, and the other dealt with the fallout from a controversial trade in one particular keeper league. I play in keeper leagues (and there are so many permutations of keeper leagues that it's not one-size-fits-all when discussing pros and cons) and redraft leagues, and enjoy both. While there are many good arguments for the superiority of redraft leagues, I tend to prefer my keeper leagues. They reward long-term planning better, they incorporate minor leaguers and the amateur draft well, and they allow teams to stay involved even over the offseason. One of the reasons to play fantasy baseball in its many forms is that it allows us to simulate the process of operating a baseball team, and the greater complexity and commitment that derives from keeper leagues allows us to come closer to that experience.

Unfortunately, the two issues intertwine--more trades are contested in keeper leagues than in redraft leagues, usually in the form of one team "dumping" for the future and trading its stars to another team that's currently contending. By the very nature of the trade, there's an imbalance in the value of the players getting dealt. Teams that aren't involved in the trade can feel cheated, especially if the dumping team didn't offer the star players in question to them or to the league as a whole. By the end of trading season, there's usually a pretty wide gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots." That gap matters less in a rotisserie-style league than in a head-to-head format. If it's a league with both sharks and minnows, the potential for abuse is readily apparent, perpetuating that gap between the two much longer than it would be in a redraft league. These trades open the door for potential collusion, or at least give the appearance of collusion more readily than trades in a redraft league might.

Some leagues have chosen to do away with most of those problems by outlawing trades altogether. That happens fairly frequently in redraft leagues, and certainly in high-stakes national contests like the NFBC (www.nationalfantasybaseballchampionship.com) such a prohibition makes a lot of sense. But I've also started to see this occur more often in keeper leagues, according to the feedback from some of our readers and listeners. While that step will eliminate many of the problems from trades, it's a drastic move that also removes a lot of the fun (and arguably skill) from this hobby of ours. A good trade can address a shortfall--whether it's arising from the draft, or out of circumstance, like an injury or spate of injuries--or, alternatively, let an owner take advantage of a surplus in a certain category or at a position. Trading also rewards owners who have a better judgment of long-term value by letting them act on that judgment. It's also just an enjoyable activity for many, creating another outlet to stay active with your team.

The biggest reason to allow trading in a keeper league, however, is that it's often the best avenue for a team to rebuild for the future. Even the worst teams in your fantasy league have some valuable assets, many of them the higher-priced players on their roster. Teams in the rebuilding process need to leverage those assets to shorten the turnaround time.

There are plenty of other ways short of banning trades to regulate the process. Before we discuss these methods, let me first address a bias of mine. I come from the mindset that a more active league is a better league, and that one where more trades occur is one that's most enjoyable. So, if I'm the commissioner of a league, I'm less likely to propose any rules that restrict trades. I'm on board with having a trade deadline each year, and can see the rationale for moving it up, but short of that, I want to be as laissez faire as possible. I'm wary of rejecting any deal that doesn't rise to the level of collusion. Still, my preferences aren't universal, so here are some of the more interesting methods used to prevent trade abuse:

In-Season Salary Caps: In the RotoWire Staff League, an 18-team keeper league, we've had an early wave of dump trades, leading one owner to bemoan the total salary of another owner who had gone out and paid for that wave of talent that included Jose Reyes and Ichiro Suzuki. The acquiring owner had gone from an Opening Day $260 team salary to his current $387 team salary. Some leagues will impose an in-season salary cap, preventing teams from going on an all-out buying spree on the trade market. One of the trickier aspects of doing that is setting the proper amount for the ceiling. Assuming a $260 draft budget, the usual figures that I've heard range from $300-$360. One of the spillover effects from such a cap is that the contending team will have to try to convince the rebuilding team to take on one of its higher-salaried players to make the deal work.

This concept can be taken to an extreme example by following the NBA's trade rules, where the total salaries traded by each team have to be within a certain percentage of each other. In fantasy leagues, that figure is often around 10 percent. This measure seems to be more punitive to the rebuilding team than the contending team. The best dump trades for a rebuilding team bring back elite prospects or young major leaguers, at the lowest costs, in exchange for a package of higher-priced, more-established players, or a single elite but non-keeper player. Usually there's a pretty wide gulf in the salaries exchanged, and it can be pretty tough for that contending team to bridge the gap without hurting itself in the short run.

Keeping Fewer Players: A team lower in the standings is less likely to take the rebuilding route if it can only keep a small number of players. One of the reasons why dumping is so prevalent in the RotoWire Staff League is that owners can keep up to 15 major leaguers and 10 minor leaguers. I've seen leagues that allow for as few as three players to be retained. This practice seems more common in draft leagues than auction leagues. In such a system, the top minor leaguers have a lot less currency. Again, this approach seems to favor the teams that are already contending. A corollary to this concept is to raise the cost of minor leaguers once they become major leaguers. Raising their cost means that fewer get kept, thus also improving the talent pool in subsequent drafts.

Earlier Trade Deadlines: Force teams to make the decision to contend or dump earlier. You'll almost certainly get more teams trying to contend. It's in our nature to compete as long as possible, until we've emphatically been driven out of the race. A late trade deadline gives the marginal teams an incentive to wait longer to give up the ghost. Along those lines, adding an extra playoff round or pair of spots if you're in a head-to-head league, or flattening the payout structure to include more money spots if you're in a roto-style money league, will also do the trick.

Monthly Prizes: This is one of the more effective and non-punitive measures that I've seen. A much bigger sin than dumping is to become inactive and let a team rot. Teams that leave injured, demoted, or benched players in their active lineups when the cost of replacing them is non-prohibitive can alter the balance of a league just as much as a team trading its talent away can. If you want to keep those losing teams active, give their owners an incentive to compete. They won't be able to win as much as they would from having a competitive team overall, but at least they have the chance to defray their costs.

Penalties for Failure: Has the carrot failed to motivate losing teams? Try using the stick instead. Alter the draft order for next year so that the last place team doesn't automatically get the first pick. Take away a minor league pick for finishing last, or auction dollars. Or if you consider it too harsh to penalize a team merely because it finished last, then penalize it for finishing X points or more beyond the next-to-last team. In money leagues, it's common to make the last place team pay double the entry fee. Or if you already have such a penalty, but the same problems exist, perhaps your penalty fee isn't steep enough.

In our RotoWire football league does, we use what I find to be a pretty fun, yet punitive method; it's a redraft league, but the concept here could easily port over to a keeper league as well. At the end of the season, those involved get together for a steak dinner at a nice steakhouse. The bottom teams in the points standings have to pay for the higher teams in the standings, and the very last place team has to pay for two other teams besides itself. Thus, it's common to see each team scrambling to pick up viable free agents and starting the best lineup it can until the bitter end.

Relegation: The best motivator in sports for avoiding the cellar is what the English Premier League does. The bottom teams every year are relegated into their version of the minor leagues, the next level below, where the potential for revenue is far less than in the Premier League. Thus, there's an intense pressure at the end of the season among those lesser teams to avoid the bottom. I'll admit to a certain lack of sophistication when it comes to soccer, but I think that the entire spectacle, that utter sense of desperation, is fantastic.

Anyhow, my colleague Chris Liss and I were batting around the idea this offseason to see if we could apply it to our Staff Keeper League. There are a couple of teams that frequently fall out of the race and don't actively manage their teams down the stretch. The problem is how to port that concept over. We thought about establishing a second league, and moving the bottom two teams down to that second league each year, while moving the top two teams from the second league up. However, how do you get the owners from that second league to agree to minor league status? It's not as if they're necessarily lesser players. Perhaps if one had a higher entry fee than the other, you could pull it off. But even then, there's the issue of it being a keeper league--you can't make the two teams coming up be expansion franchises, yet they might not want to assume the rosters of the departing teams. This concept would actually work better in redraft leagues. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

With all of those options to consider, it's worth taking a step back to reflect on the fact that one of the great things about fantasy baseball is that it's a mature hobby. There are so many different ways to play this game, and thus so many unique problems that have arisen along with the solutions to address them. I'd love to hear back from you on what unique trade rules you've implemented. Perhaps we'll even invoke some of them in the RotoWire Staff League next year.

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

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Lies, Damned Lies: Eva... (05/29)
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