Draft day has come and gone, and you are ecstatic about your roster. You landed some big bats, a pitching stud, and both of your sure-fire breakout youngsters. Your team should be competitive in every category, and with plenty of depth to cover any injuries. All you need to do now is kick back and wait for that title, right?

Of course not. While assembling a killer roster to start the year is crucial, how you tweak that roster over the next six months is equally important. And no element of roster management can make your championship hopes sink or swim faster than how you perform in the free agent pool.

Most leagues these days offer either a simple first-come-first serve free agent pick-up system, or use a FAAB (Free Agent Acquisition Budget) system. FAAB is far more fun, however, and if your league doesn’t currently use it, I suggest you make the switch next year. Like the difference between limit and no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em, FAAB offers a more interesting range of strategies and philosophies than the alternatives.

In the usual auction league with a $260 budget, each team’s FAAB is set at $100 for in-season signings. There are two main approaches for spending it:

  • Buy early and often. Troll the free agent list for players who are exceeding expectations, before they start producing big numbers and become expensive.
  • Save your cash for sure things. This is a more popular strategy in AL- or NL-only leagues, where big-name players can get traded into your league (as Carlos Beltran did last season), but it can also work in mixed leagues when you don’t want to waste money on sleepers who never wake up.

Both strategies are viable, but make sure you know the fine print of your constitution before committing to one course or the other, as $100 isn’t necessarily your budget’s ceiling. Many leagues allow owners to trade their FAAB dollars; some AL- or NL-only leagues offer FAAB compensation for players traded to the other league. Knowing whether you can replenish your budget (say, by trading for a player just dealt out of the league, to acquire his compensation price) will help you determine how aggressive you want to be early in the season–in roto, there are sometimes ways to have your cake and eat it too.

If you take the patient “save your cash” approach, the most important thing you need to recognize is when to make your move. Most owners will wait for the MLB trade deadline and go full-out after the biggest name(s) available, but there are definite risks with that strategy. For one thing, the biggest name available may not be that big if it turns out to be a quiet year for deals, or if the talent flows predominantly in one direction (just ask someone in an AL-only last season who found themselves throwing an obscene percentage of their FAAB at Orlando Cabrera). On top of that, in most leagues there will be multiple owners who also saved their money for the trade deadline, all of whom will be throwing ridiculous bids at the top names available. You could find yourself in a bidding war you aren’t guaranteed to win, in which case all your carefully hoarded dollars will get you nothing but dregs.

A far better plan is to figure out exactly what your roster needs, and go hard after the very first player who can fill that need–whether that player becomes available in July or May. If you feel you’re lagging in saves, and a top relief prospect like Ryan Wagner takes over as the Reds closer in mid-June for an injured Danny Graves, you’re much better off blowing your FAAB budget on Wagner right then and there rather than waiting to see who Ugueth Urbina gets dealt to this year.

(This logic, incidentally, applies to all player acquisitions, and gets overlooked far too frequently. A move made in April or May will have a much bigger impact on your statistical bottom line than a move made in July or August, since you’ll be getting four or five months of stats from the new players rather than two or three. Shrewd fantasy owners know to act boldly in the season’s first half while everyone else is needlessly focused on what they’ll do during the stretch drive. To put it in real baseball terms, what’s more valuable: five-sixths of a season’s service from a 25 VORP player, or one-third of a season’s service from a 40 VORP player?)

The other option, and the one I prefer, is the “buy early and often” approach. Especially in a deep league, the bottom of your roster is typically manned by marginally valuable major leaguers, and less-than-sure-thing prospects who might never pan out. There’s little reason not to churn those roster spots, and replace those low-value players with other low-value players who possess better skill sets or job possibilities. You won’t hit with every buy of course–in fact you’ll be doing pretty well if one in four or five of your purchases pans out–but generally you’ll end up spending no more using this method to acquire a useful player than you would with the more patient approach. If you’re in a keeper league you’ll also have the added advantage of owning that useful player far more cheaply than you would have if you’d waited for him to blossom, and pursued him then.

This more scatter-shot method can have its downside, too. While you’re aggressively turning over the bottom of your roster and trying to hunt down the Next Big Thing, you could be inadvertently cutting exactly the player you’ll need two weeks from now.

The ultimate horror scenario, for me, came last year in an AL-only league. I exited the auction with both Lew Ford and Mike Ryan on my reserve roster. I liked Ford better, but Ryan was the one who broke camp as part of the Twins bench, and given the organization’s track record of slow promotions I didn’t hesitate to drop Ford as part of my first wave of speculative signings (in this case, for Jolbert Cabrera). Two days later Shannon Stewart got hurt, Ford got recalled, and I left a forehead-sized dent in the nearest wall.

That’s not the end of it though. Later in the year, I lost a significant power bat when Magglio Ordonez got hurt, forcing me to trade for Manny Ramirez to compensate. I ended up finishing in second place…to the team that had snapped up Ford when I waived him.

Oh, and the price I paid to get Ramirez? Only Jeremy Reed. Apparently, fantasy rosters can suffer cascade injuries too.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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