I play fantasy baseball when my wife isn’t looking. That’s not a dirty little secret or anything. It’s just an acknowledgment that the time I put into managing my roster, basically mornings before she’s out of bed, isn’t a lot. With that said, pretty much everything I read or watch about baseball is filtered through the lens of “How will this affect my fantasy team?”

The best advice I can give for improving your fantasy team is to read Baseball Prospectus every day. The vast majority of my fantasy decisions are made after consulting Will Carroll, Marc Normandin, and PECOTA. In addition, I recommend keeping up with the latest news regarding role changes, trades, and top prospects.

I don’t have any earth shattering wisdom in any of these aspects of fantasy baseball, so instead I will discuss two strategies I have developed for making the most of the free agent pool. With diligence and a bit of luck, you may be able to construct a monster player or two from the scrap heap.

Build Your Own Ace

After the top tier of fantasy pitchers are taken in my draft, I ignore starting pitching. I spend the rest of the draft loading up on hitters with potential and closers with good peripherals. As a result, my early season roster tends to be bloated with young, high upside hitters and generally looks like it will have trouble approaching the innings pitched limits.

My reasoning is that pitching statistics fluctuate more year-to-year than hitting statistics, and beyond the top starters and closers with guaranteed jobs it is difficult to reliably predict which pitchers will be worth owning. Furthermore, by filling out my pitching rotation with innings eaters, my rate stats take a beating without a significant increase in wins or strikeouts.

By mid-May, it becomes obvious which hitters are just hogging bench space. Rather than carrying a roster of players who aren’t likely to contribute in the near future, I pare my hitters down to the bare necessities and replace them with relievers.

Well chosen relievers can put up rate stats far superior to a typical back of the fantasy rotation starting pitcher with a decent number of strikeouts and possibly a few wins and saves. The combined stats of two or three relievers can blow away the innings eater.

Below are 15 relievers from 2008 who accumulated no more than 5 saves and started no more than 3 games. The list includes a few guys who were likely on rosters in a typical fantasy league, but nine of the 15 were ranked outside of Yahoo’s top 200 at the end of the season. Most of them could probably be acquired as free agents in your league at one time during the season.

Player            IP    W   SV    K      ERA   WHIP
Hong-Chih Kuo    80.0   5    1    96    2.14   1.01
J.P. Howell      89.1   6    3    92    2.22   1.13
Octavio Dotel    67.1   4    1    92    3.76   1.21
Rafael Perez     76.1   4    2    86    3.54   1.18
Frank Francisco  63.1   3    5    83    3.13   1.15
Grant Balfour    58.1   6    4    82    1.54   0.89
Jeremy Affeldt   78.1   1    0    80    3.33   1.31
Matt Thornton    67.1   5    1    77    2.67   1.00
Mike Adams       65.1   2    0    74    2.48   1.04
Manny Delcarmen  74.1   1    2    72    3.27   1.12
Heath Bell       78.0   6    0    71    3.58   1.21
Damaso Marte     65.0   5    5    71    4.02   1.20
Juan Cruz        51.2   4    0    71    2.61   1.26
Ramon Ramirez    71.2   3    1    70    2.64   1.23
Ryan Madson      82.2   4    1    67    3.05   1.23
Average          71.1   3.9  1.7  78.9  2.94   1.15

Averaging the stats of these 15 relievers and creating one super reliever with the combined stats of three players, you have the following line: 214 IP, 12 wins, 5 saves, 237 strikeouts, 2.94 ERA, and 1.15 WHIP. You can construct a Tim Lincecum/Johan Santana/Cole Hamels type pitcher just by picking the right relievers off the waiver wire!

So how to decide which relievers to pick up? I look for relievers who average at least one strikeout per inning. If K/BB is a category, I sort on that and look to see who is pitching the most innings with a high strikeout rate. If the league does not use K/BB, I sort by WHIP. As a last resort I’ll use ERA. If you can find a reliever who also has starter eligibility, that is an added bonus because you can use him there when your normal starters are not pitching and squeeze another reliever onto your active roster.

One caveat: finding good relievers gets harder if your league counts holds, but chances are there are a few managers in your league who don’t bother looking for holds. While it may take some time to identify the top middle relievers, the payoff of an ace level pitcher at the cost of some hitting flexibility can be enormous.

Keep a Hot-Potato Spot

Since hitting performance is generally less variable from year to year, it is often hard to find a worthy hitter to pick up this late in the season. Chances are the only hitters available are either massively under-performing expectations with no apparent hope of a rebound or players whose established level of play puts them solidly in the replacement fantasy player pool.

Can you construct the equivalent of a solid fantasy hitter out of players on the waiver wire? Yes, but it takes sustained effort and good timing.

Without doing any research into this claim, it seems like many mediocre players go through stretches where they are all star caliber hitters. Over 162 games, these hot stretches are averaged out by cold stretches, but if you time it right you can get some monster stats by moving from hot streak to hot streak. The problem with this strategy is much like trying to beat the stock market – knowing when to buy low and sell high.

As an example, I have attempted to fill my UTIL spot in a deep league this season with Travis Snider, followed by Mark Teahen, and currently Nick Johnson. Here are the stats they’ve accumulated for me in this league:

Player           AB   R  HR  RBI  SB    AVG     OPS
Travis Snider    34   6   2    9   1   0.265   0.901
Mark Teahen      60   2   1    4   1   0.133   0.457
Nick Johnson     43   8   1    7   1   0.349   1.020
TS+NJ total      77  14   3   16   2   0.312   0.967
TS+MT+NJ total  137  16   4   20   3   0.234   0.744

I timed my usage of Snider and Johnson well, dropping Snider as he started to cool off and picking Johnson while he’s been on fire. Their combined numbers are superior to either player’s season line on a per at bat basis. Unfortunately, between these two I used Mark Teahen, picking him up just after he cooled off from a torrid start, and not realizing this very quickly.*

The combined batting line for my Snider-Teahen-Johnson utility player would put the player in the mid-200s in Yahoo’s rankings, around under-performing stars Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton and marginal fantasy players such as Jeremy Hermida and Joe Crede. The league in question is deep enough that Hermida and Crede are among the top 10 available hitters. So even though I completely missed Teahen’s hot streak, the overall UTIL production is respectable. With a bit more attention, my hot potato spot would be out-producing what I could pick up off waivers.

How do I identify players on a hot streak? The time periods over which Yahoo gives stats make timing a hot streak challenging. If you sort on the last week, the stats may be heavily influenced by one big game. If you sort on the last month, the stats may be skewed by an amazing first two weeks, meaning you’d be picking up a player who won’t be any help now. I generally end up looking at the player’s game log for the last 10-15 days to see who is in the midst of a legitimate hot streak.

Wrapping It Up

How successful these strategies will be for you has a lot to do with the structure of your league. I like that both strategies utilize replacement level talent, so the cost of dropping one of these players is low. As a result, it leaves me with a few roster spots that I’m willing to use to take a chance on a sudden change of roles. When news breaks of a major trade, call up of a top prospect, or change in closer duties, I don’t have to deliberate over whom to drop. Instead, I can grab the new player before the rest of my league hears about it, secure in the knowledge that there is always another player available if things don’t pan out.

*In my defense, the other options on my roster during this time were Garrett Atkins, Adam LaRoche, and Chris Duncan. All things considered Teahen’s performance was probably the best of a bad situation. Nevertheless, a look at the available free agents couldn’t have hurt!