ROTISSERIE: Contracts in keeper-league trades

Has an owner in your keeper league decided to pack it in and rebuild already? Or perhaps you are that owner?

As trade season begins, one key skill in making smart trades is the ability to value appropriately long-term contracts, which is an inexact science, to say the least.

We do a bad enough job projecting player value for the current season. Looking a year or two or three out? Forget about it, right?

Maybe not. While it's true that any sort of accuracy may be an unattainable goal, there are some sound principles to adopt in valuing long-term contracts that will help more than you think.

While there are myriad sets of rules governing keeper leagues, our discussion will revolve around a fairly typical setup in which players can be kept for a second year at the salary at which they were drafted and then enter their "option year" in which they can be kept for one more year by adding $5 to the player's salary, or signed long term by increasing the player's salary by $5 per extra year on the contract. The principles to be discussed, however, are general enough to be adapted to your system.

1. Distance from the option year matters... a lot.

Consider two pitchers comparable in every way: age, skill, etc. Pitcher A is in the first year of a contract, with a salary of $10. Pitcher B is in the second year of a contract, with a salary of $6, meaning next year, he will be an $11 player, at a minimum (or $16 if signed for two years, $21 if signed for three).

You may find that a surprising number of your trading partners have a stronger interest, or at least similar interest, in acquiring Pitcher B. For one thing, while the math isn't all that difficult, there is at least some small subliminal attraction to a rebuilding team to a "single-digit salary." Pitcher A, meanwhile, tends to blend into the landscape of players with salaries in the teens.

More importantly, many owners fail to appreciate fully the value of that extra year of "team control" of Player A, for a few reasons. For one, hope springs eternal, and the rebuilding owner is likely thinking primarily about next year, not next year AND the year after. To him, Player A's 2013 salary of $10 and Player B's 2013 salary of $11 is nearly a wash. But that extra year before having to "fish or cut bait" with a player has value, particularly when it comes to the type of player you should be targeting in such trades: younger players on the rise whose games may be at a whole different level two years down the road.

One need only look at the machinations major league teams go through to avoid the tolling of service time and the investments they make in buying out years of arbitration and free agency. Obviously, they don't underestimate the value of "team control." We should follow their lead.

2. Break your addiction to minor leaguers.

"Wait," you say. "You just said how important 'team control' is. I can control my minor-league studs for at least two years after they acquire rookie status." The problem is: What kind of profit will you reap during that period of control? Recall the "A-Rod 10-Step Path to Stardom." What "step" will your prospect be on when your rules require you to give him a major salary bump or set him free?

The existence of prominent counter-examples of players who have been able to dominate in their first full season in the majors isn't a reason to eschew the wisdom of the "10-Step Path" but rather powerful fuel for your trading partner's desire to acquire your prospect.

Will Dylan Bundy be the next Tim Lincecum or the next Adam Miller—a guy with a wealth of promise who never makes it? Or will he be somewhere in between, a guy like Brad Lincoln, who takes until age 27 to put it all together at the major-league level (maybe)?

The point is, there are any number of different outcomes with these top prospects; we're just disproportionately aware of the ones that produce SportsCenter highlights. That's a phenomenon that can be exploited.

3. Trade for skills, not roles.

So what types of players should you be trying to acquire as a rebuilding team? One type of attractive target is a player whose main deficiency is not a lack of skill but rather a lack of playing time or opportunity.

An emerging subset of such players might be said to be on the Cory Luebke Path to Fantasy Relevance (at least up until the Tommy John surgery): 1. Prospect is allowed to gain experience in the bullpen at the major-league level. 2. Skills hold up in lower-leverage situations, convincing team that it would be a waste not to give him more responsibility. 3. Prospect flourishes as starter (at least until partial ligament tear).

Players who may be on such a path in 2012: Robbie Ross (LHP, TEX), Kris Medlen (RHP, ATL) and the aforementioned Brad Lincoln (RHP, PIT), all of whom were likely drafted cheaply or picked up as free agents in leagues this year.

Want a quick way to mine for other names? Use the "Team View" in Baseball HQ's Depth Chart Center. Scan the "BPV" column for hitters and pitchers. Look for big numbers. Check the names attached. Ask: Might this player's playing-time picture brighten in the days and weeks ahead?

4. Know players' real-life contract status.

This can be helpful when trying to ferret out players who might be in line for playing time once a current obstacle to such opportunity is removed. But also, it can help an owner avoid the pitfall of trading for a player as a keeper, only to see that player head to the "other" league in the off-season. For example, last year at this time, the resurgent Melky Cabrera probably looked like a prime keeper target for an American League owner. But knowledge of Cabrera's looming free agency should have been a cause for pause that, as it turns out, would have been well-heeded.

While some players' contract status will be fodder for frequent media reports (think Heath Bell, circa 2011), other free-agents-to-be will fly under the radar to a greater extent. A good place to check contract status is Cot's Baseball Contracts.

By adopting these practices, you can get a better fix on the present-day value of players you or your trading partner may end up owning for multiple years, which in turn will lead to better trades.


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