I am going to go out on a limb and say that if you are taking the time to read this article, you are either in a keeper league of some sorts or that you despise the completely luck-driven fantasy football game and ride your fantasy baseball teams out until the end of the 26th scoring period no matter how well or how poorly they are doing. If so, kudos to you for sticking with your team and not putting it into auto-pilot as others often do this time of year.

Since you have made the decision to stick around, you need to find ways to stay engaged over the final nine scoring periods whether you are up 20 points on your league or down 20 points from a spot in the money. There are several things you can do down the final stretch to help set your team up for 2012 as well as begin your prep for next season earlier than most dream of doing.

Watch every part of the standings: Yes, this statement was brought to you by Captain Obvious. That said, this tends to get overlooked. Everyone in the league needs to be doing this on a daily basis at this point, and you need to be ready to act on things quickly. At this point in the season, it’s all about standings manipulation and whether you can make up some ground somewhere in the standings or wreak havoc on your leaguemates that are contending. It is more important than ever to know where you should hold them and where you should fold them. This week, I was offered a trade in AL Tout Wars to help me in power while taking from my batting average cushion that has grown to ten points above my closest competitor. I am 15 home runs behind the next team in the standings while holding onto a three to five home run lead thanks to Billy Butler’s new-found power this week. The guys I was offered in the trade were two guys that have hit just 14 home runs over their last 407 plate appearances (Jason Kubel and J.P. Arencibia) so I was pessimistic on the deal helping me to close the gap and passed on it.

You can also watch where you are at in the standings to force trades if you are in a league that still permits you to make moves at this point in the season. The worst fantasy trades are often the by-product of desperate owners in the final half of the season that are worried about a team catching them in the standings or seeing their own kind of standings manipulation opportunity. It also helps if you see these opportunities before they do so you can plant the bug in their ear and kick-start the inner fears of those owners. If you’re one of the contending teams, try to notice these things before your competition. You can deal statistics to another team that can pass one of your competitors to force some irrational action on their part as long as you have the statistics to give up. Again, this time of year is all about standings manipulation whether you are a contender or a pretender.

FAAB Activity: If your trade deadline has passed, this is your only way of doing anything to help your team or affect the overall standings. If your team is not competitive and you have FAAB money left, use it! You cannot carry it over from season to season, so even if you are not allowed to make anymore trades, you can still create a bit of league angst by purchasing talent that others are counting on. In one of my local leagues, we do bidding on Friday nights, so none of the trades that happened over the past 48 hours have affected the league yet. We have FAAB coming up at the end of this work week and the ninth place team is the one holding all of the marbles for this process. In our league, our trade deadline does not occur until August 31st, so that owner can buy the talent he wants and then trade it to one of the four teams that is within five points of first place. Odds are, one of those teams is going to make a desperate move that they will regret down the line in our keeper league. If you are in a keeper league, you can sneak in and make FAAB purchases that contending teams cannot make.

We are all familiar with rosters expanding after September 1st, but those call-ups get no guarantee of playing time with that call. Teams that are contending cannot afford to take a risk on a rookie call-up that is only going to see a handful of at-bats or innings down the stretch and will likely be ineffective during that stretch when counting stats are so important. Meanwhile, if you are out of contention, you can take on plenty of those players as long as you can meet your at-bat and innings requirements in your leagues. So feel free to speculate on anything that comes up and see how the 25-man rosters for teams shake out in the off-season.

Closer speculations: Closers come and go each season for most teams, so anytime you can get one cheaply the season before in a keeper league or can scout those players the season before in a reset league, the more beneficial it is for you. Spend the time looking at our player cards and seeing what the contractual situations are for different closers and what the habits have been for these teams in the past when it comes to finding new closers. For instance, the Tampa Bay Rays have had a different pitcher lead the team in saves each of the past seven seasons, so while Kyle Farnsworth was not traded at the deadline, he could be moved during the non-waiver deadline this month as he has an affordable team-controlled option for 2012. If Farnsworth is dealt, Jacob McGee becomes a figure of interest because he remains under team control for next season while Joel Peralta’s contract expires after this season.

This particular strategy tends to get overlooked more often than not, but with 30-40 percent of closers losing their job each season due to injury or ineffectiveness, this is a market inefficiency that deserves more of your attention. Study the numbers, but also study the game tapes. A reliever can have terrific surface numbers, but if his arm angle exposes him too much to opposite-handed batters then he is more likely to remain in the specialist role than he is to become a closer.

Lineups:  I mentioned in the Tout Wars reviews a few weeks ago how the league is setup to encourage activity for all teams through the very end as owners who fail to finish above a certain threshold lose FAAB dollars in the next season. Not all leagues set up their rules as such, but most of you are likely in leagues with people that you know, so it is imperative you do your part and field an active lineup. If you are trying to tank 2011 to set up 2012, that’s your prerogative, but field 23 active players. The Houston Astros appear to be doing this right now as they’ve traded away their two best players and then sent down Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace to call up two new names, including Jimmy Paredes, who was struggling in AA this season but skipped over AAA to join the Astros. Hey, he’s active. If you are going to make a difference in the standings, in some capacity, do it the honorable way and play out the string rather than putting your team into auto-pilot while you pick up your fantasy football study materials to prepare for your draft(s) in a few weeks.

The fantasy baseball season is a grind, whether you are competing or have fallen out of the standings this season. It is a 26-week season that requires daily attention for the serious player, which makes it a much more taxing investment than fantasy football. The best players, whether they are contending or not, make the most of those 26 weeks each season and the above strategies are a few ways they do that.

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Hey not to go off topic but what happened to the week #17 pitching planner?
Hey Jason...great article. I am in the unfortunate spot of being too far out of the money spots in my keeper league but I still play every single day. This is a great time to deal for keepers and speculate on some potential ones too. Last season I created an idea for our keeper league to keep every team more involved once the dreaded fantasy football looms on everyone's (except mine)horizon - it's called Roster Maximization. In a nutshell, we reward the top two teams out-of-the-money spots an additional $20 and $15 auction dollars for the next season for being the two teams who used the most of their roster spots for the year. We use Yahoo so it's pretty easy to see how many games you are behind or ahead, same with innings. It worked wonders last year keeping almost every single team (we had 13 last year and 11 this year) setting daily lineups and making a run at the bonus auction dollars. Carrots over sticks was the thinking and hey, that extra $20 auction dollars is what I am unfortunately playing for now. How it works over the long term has yet to be determined but we did have a 3-way race for the title decided on the last day last season. The two teams with bonus dollars from last year are 5th and 9th this year too so it's not like the extra money gave them a clear advantage. Curious to hear your thoughts on this and SORRY for a long post. I just wanted to make something that added some extra incentives for those owners down in the standings.