One of the still relatively unexplored areas of fantasy analysis is the keeper league. Pre-season prognostication tends to focus on performance in the coming season only, whether it’s in the form of dollar value or stat prediction, and most advice when it comes to keeper league roster decisions can be summed up as: “Hang onto ’em if they’re undervalued.”

Needless to say, there’s a little more to it than that.

I guess I should offer my credentials before I make with the advice-giving. I won the inaugural RotoWire Keeper League (18 teams, 5×5, mixed AL-NL) title two years ago, leading just about wire-to-wire, and followed that up with a third place finish last season (I’d tell you how Joe Sheehan did, but this is a family Web site.) In my home 12-team 4×4 AL-only league I came in second in 2004, missing the crown by a whisker. And in my 10-team 4×4 NL-only league… well, OK, I finished sixth. But it was a purposeful sixth, as I now have Miguel Cabrera, Marcus Giles and some nice cheap pitching to build around.

Which brings me to Guideline #2:

2. Build Around Cheap Pitching

Number two? Wait a minute, what happened to number one? Oh, right.

1. There Are No Rules

Following rules makes you predictable. And no rule can cover every possible situation. If you think something always works, that’s the season it’ll fall apart.

So, no rules. Only guidelines.

2. Build Around Cheap Pitching

Some of the pitchers I’m looking at keeping in the RotoWire Staff League include A.J. Burnett at $10, John Thomson at $5, Joe Nathan signed to a two-year contract at $6, and possibly Kiko Calero at $1, plus Johan Santana signed long-term at $17. My AL team could start the season with three closers (Shingo Takatsu, Francisco Cordero and Justin Speier) for a combined $21, plus Santana (again) at $17 and Rich Harden at $12. And my NL team will include a $5 Oliver Perez, and a bullpen of Trevor Hoffman at $11, Akinori Otsuka at $4 and Mike Gonzalez at $2.

The pattern should be clear: strong bullpens (which has an added advantage I’ll get to later); top starters if you can get them young and affordable, or with suppressed value due to an injury with a predictable recovery time (such as Burnett’s Tommy John surgery); and safe, boring, solid rotation arms such as Thomson if their salaries are at the bottom range of their likely earnings.

Saving all that auction cash through cheap pitching gives you the flexibility to remember Guideline #3:

3. Market Value Is Not Book Value

By ‘book value’, of course, I mean whatever target value you think a player might earn in the coming year, whether you derived it from an off-the-shelf magazine such as, let’s say, the RotoWire 2005 Fantasy Baseball Guide (available in fine bookstores everywhere-and while you’re there, why not pick up a second copy of Baseball Prospectus 2005 in case you spill something on your current one?) or from the sweat of your brow. It should be obvious that your league’s marketplace might value a player differently than you do, but it’s an easy thing to forget once you feel you’ve determined a player’s “worth.”

One of my big pre-season dilemmas is what to do with Roy Halladay in the staff league. He’ll be at $28 next season, which is probably too much for a player coming off a somewhat mysterious shoulder injury, but which I feel is less than he’d go for at auction if I let him go.

(This doesn’t contradict Rule #2, by the way. Once you have a foundation of cheap pitching keepers, you have the luxury of keeping a $28 Halladay if you think it’s worth it. If all you have as potential keepers on your roster are $28 Halladays, though, you’re in trouble.)

The easiest way to determine a player’s market value is one that usually doesn’t occur to most fantasy owners: shop him around. Most owners only initiate trade talks when they want to trade someone. But trade talks don’t just lead to trades. They also lead to a better feel on what the rest of the league feels a player is worth. I’ve already had one feeler put out by another owner in the staff league for Halladay. If I find that there are other owners willing to keep him at his current $28, then I can be sure the bidding on him at auction would push his price north of $30, if not $35.

Even if a player’s salary is already at the top end of what you think he might earn, the league in its collective wisdom might disagree. And that’s a second opinion you should always try to get. Players other owners see as undervalued usually end up being just that–although sometimes you might have to go back into the trade market to realize that value.

4. Be Willing To Keep Expensive Hitters

This is the end product of executing Guideline #2. Obviously if you have cheap bats, you keep them. Protecting, say, Justin Morneau at $9 should be a reflex action, not a decision. But there are always fewer top sluggers and speedsters available at auction than there are roster slots people want to fill with top sluggers and speedsters. This is simply a fact of roto life. The more big bats you can protect and keep out of the auction, the higher the prices will go on the ones who are available.

Also, bats are more predictable and reliable than arms. You’ll occasionally get burned by a fluke injury to the likes of a Magglio Ordonez, but for the most part a guy who produces year in, year out will do it again next year too. So if you keep, say, Vladimir Guerrero at $43, as I will in my AL league, he may not return much of a profit for you, but he probably won’t be much in the red either, and his absence from the auction might drive up the price of Manny Ramirez another buck or two.

5. Examine Every Trade From Both Sides

This is something far too many people forget to take into account, especially in the pre-season. My staff league team has too many potential keepers. We can only protect 15, and candidates for that 15th spot range from a $15 Richie Sexson to Pedro Feliz, Kiko Calero or Yhency Brazoban, all at $1.

So clearly I should try to trade as many of the excess players as I can. After all, they’ll have value to other owners, and letting them go back into the auction would be a waste of that value.

The problem, then, is juggling how much a trade can help me versus how much it helps them. I could simply deal all my extra players for draft picks, but do I really want to give my fellow owners that big a boost? Fantasy leagues are closed systems. You are surrounded by enemies, and you can’t ever forget that whatever makes your enemy stronger will probably hurt you in the long run. If Eric Gagne‘s current owner, nervous about that pending MRI, wants Brazoban as insurance, he shouldn’t get him for nothing. And if he’s not willing to help my team in return, he’ll just have to take his chances in getting Brazoban at the auction.

Of course, goodwill is a valuable commodity in its own right-if an owner has a number of players you covet, making a small sweetheart deal with him in the pre-season can pay dividends later. But you should always have a clear goal in mind when trading away players you can’t use and don’t need. Making a trade for its own sake rarely works out.

6. Be Flexible

This is really just a reminder about Rule… err, Guideline #1 again. There is no one reliable way to build a winning roster. ‘Plans’ are a dime a dozen in fantasy ball, and just about all of them will work if the circumstances are right-or crumble due to unforeseen, and unforeseeable, events.

Last year in my AL league, auction prices for pitching went through the roof. The average price for one of Oakland’s Big Three was about $30, with Javier Vazquez and Curt Schilling in the mid-$30’s. I came into the auction with Santana and Harden… and left without much more on my staff, as I just couldn’t bring myself to throw that kind of money at a starter.

So that’s it, right? Forget it, Jake, it’s Tampa Bay. Time to start planning for next year.

Well, no. I quickly bought up some interesting middle relievers as free agents (Kevin Gregg, Frank Francisco, Matt Miller, those types of guys. BP’s stat pages, such as the Reliever Run Expectation Report can be very helpful in identifying potential value pickups in the bullpen.) I already had Cordero getting saves, so I took a chance and cashed in Juan Uribe‘s hot start by trading him for Takatsu, right about the time Santana came to life.

Suddenly, two months into the season, I had a classic LIMA (Low Inning Mound Aces) Plan pitching staff: strong closers, two strong starters (three once Orlando Hernandez, an auction endgame pick-up at $1, returned from the DL) and solid relievers in between who would provide a little boost to my ERA and WHIP. I ended up in first place in those two categories plus saves, a decent sixth place tie in wins, and finished just 2.5 standings points behind the champions.

The moral is not that LIMA always works, of course. The moral is that just about any situation can be salvaged, provided you give yourself the resources to do it.

Thank you for reading

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