ROTISSERIE: Advanced keeper strategies

You got keeper league questions?  We got answers.

Does a Stars and Scrubs strategy work in keeper leagues?

Advanced Roto players are already familiar with the Stars and Scrubs (S&S) auction strategy of drafting several high-value, high-priced stars while filling the balance of the roster with low-cost players. The alternative is a Spread the Risk (STR) approach, where available auction dollars are spread more-or-less evenly among all roster slots. In redraft leagues, there are advantages and disadvantages to both, but in keeper leagues, the S&S strategy is more appealing primarily because of mid-season trading and draft inflation.

Draft inflation favors the S&S approach because teams with strong keeper lists have extra auction money to spend. Unless you leave money on the table, this money must be spent somewhere.  Ron Shandler recommended paying a premium for high value players in this article from 2000 on valuing keepers.

His basic premise is that Roto GMs should protect not only under-priced players but also “high value players currently at a fair market value.” To aid in this determination, Shandler suggests adding each player’s keeper dollar profits (or losses) to their projected value, resulting in a numerical rating. So a Miguel Cabrera with a projected value of $40 and a salary of $50 would rate a 30 ($40 + (40-50) = 30). 

Players with ratings of 20 or more are good keepers using this system, assuming of course that you believe the player would go for a higher price (or in an earlier round) in the draft. In addition, as the player’s salary gradually approaches his likely draft price (including inflation), his value also will decline relative to other keepers, though he will still be useful. Players with ratings in the teens are on the bubble, while those below 10 can be safely dropped. (But make an exception to the last rule for promising $1 catchers to avoid rostering a second C with negative stats).

The Portfolio 3 Plan (P3) also leans in the same direction, advocating that fantasy GMs spend much of their auction budget on reliable high-value Tier 1 core stars. In addition to “high-value,” put the emphasis on “reliable,” because you need prime stat contributors to return fair value for their price.  Naturally, these less risky core players will command high draft-day salaries, so you can only afford a few––P3 recommends spending a maximum of $160 on 5-8 core players.

However, this calculus changes in keeper leagues.  Several high-value core players already will be frozen come draft day, thus increasing the scarcity of those remaining, and potentially driving up their prices.  But the good news is that contending teams can “overspend” because of their large keeper profits, allowing them to snag their quota of such players with something approaching Total Control Drafting. In typical leagues, that means true contenders may need to spend $160-$180 to acquire these core stars, in addition to one or two they’ve already rostered as keepers.   

Such high-profit keeper teams will have another advantage, because they also will be freezing several high- or medium-value bargain keepers with less reliability than Tier-1 stars.  A pitcher such as Kris Medlen, for example, offers poor reliability (FCA) but potentially excellent stats. 

So let’s do the math.  In a standard Roto league with a 23-player roster, your team may freeze ten keepers and acquire perhaps six core stars via the draft, leaving seven slots to fill. Here’s what a contending team’s alignment might look like under this scenario (assuming 35% league draft inflation):

    Number of Players       Salary    Value
=========================   ======    =====
10 keepers                    $70      $170
6 core players (via draft)   $170      $125
1 Tier-2 SP (draft)            $8       $10
6 scrubs (draft)              $12       $15
--------------------------   ----     -----
Total                        $260      $320

Per Baseball Forecaster’s P3 recommendation that “the majority of your core players should be batters,” maybe two or three hitters and four to five pitchers are needed to fill the remaining slots. If you still have some cash left at this stage and pitching that needs to be shored up, by all means buy a less expensive Tier 2 SP (BBB reliability, 50+ BPV) in 5x5 as shown above, or a closer in 4x4. If money is tight, dole out remaining funds on scrubs as shown above, shooting for players with upside potential who may lack playing time, and aiming for LIMA pitchers whenever possible.

Naturally, adjustments will be needed for leagues that allow fewer than ten keepers, or with more or less players per team.  The fewer the keepers, the less room there is for high-value keepers on the margins. Leagues with very few keepers will typically experience less inflation, so a moderate STR strategy still merits consideration. If there is no keeper limit, assume that virtually all players with positive pre-inflation values will be protected, along with more high-end stars. Teams with fewer players should lean heavily toward S&S, because underperforming scrubs easily can be replaced mid-season via free agency/trades.

The real advantage of S&S results from in-season trading. Filling slots with scrubs is not as dangerous in keeper leagues as in redraft leagues. The chances of being stuck with a dud all season are reduced, because rebuilding teams will be eager to funnel their overpriced stars to you in return for next year’s potential keepers. If a couple of your $1-$2 scrubs pan out and win PT, they become trade fodder (along with other bargain keepers or farm picks) in exchange for a $20 non-keeper. On the hitting side, it’s advisable to try to concentrate scrubs in UT, OF, COR or MI fantasy slots so they can be easily replaced with upgrades acquired in trade.   

In contrast, a STR strategy is less conducive to trading, because you will be faced with replacing a middling $10 player with a $20 stud acquired in trade. Not only is your upgrade at the slot less useful, but your team may have fewer bargain keepers to offer a rebuilding trade partner.

How should draft inflation be used in making individual keeper decisions?

This is an advanced course, so we won’t belabor the point, but don’t forget to take draft inflation into account in choosing individual keepers. If a $35 Robinson Cano is projected to earn $31, he may be perceived as a marginal keeper.  But if draft inflation of 30 percent is likely, as a $42 value he becomes an easy freeze. 

Of course, we can’t predict draft inflation in advance without knowing which players other GMs will protect. So start by just guessing which players in your league will be frozen. Likely keepers are those with current salaries below their projected value, and those who will go for higher prices in the draft. 

Another technique is to use patterns from past keeper lists in your league as a guide. Did the Smiting Smiths team in your league freeze $1 starting pitchers last year, and the year before that? Chances are they will do it again. Or just ask GMs who they are considering as keepers—what have you got to lose? “Hey, who are you likely to keep from your roster this year? I will be happy to tell you who I probably will keep.” If more prompting is required, you can legitimately add: “If there is somebody not on your freeze list, or somebody on the bubble for you, it may be easy for us to trade.” 

How does trade potential impact long-term keeper decisions?

As Patrick DiCaprio cautions in this well-received column on optimal keeper contracts, it’s important to avoid signing excessive long-term contracts when playing to win now.  Nevertheless, extending a player for a single additional year can be useful if you can dump-trade him mid-season to a rebuilding owner coveting next-year’s bargain keepers.  A Mike Trout signed to a two-year $15 contract could bring quite a trading haul. Of course, be careful to set long-term contract salaries low enough to ensure keeper value next year. 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.