Welcome to a new series I'm starting for all of you fantasy baseball fans who are fortunate enough to have found the potentially life-devouring joys of the keeper league. This four-part (potentially five-part, if I feel creative enough/have enough caffeine) series is basically going to detail some different ways a manager can find undervalued assets, or play "Moneyball", in a fantasy keeper league.
Since keeper leagues last, well, forever, the element of team-building necessitates the need for more unorthodox means of roster construction. Younger players, and especially prospects, see their value go up substantially. Older players, even older stars, see theirs decline, even if they're still productive. Managers have to take future concerns into account. You can't just trade Matt Moore for Lance Berkman because the season is ending in two months and you need a quick hitting fix for a championship run. In a keeper league, you'd be essentially giving up Moore's prime years for the ticking time bomb that is Berkman's 36-year-old body.
So here's the first installment. Before I start, a disclaimer. When I use the term "Moneyball", I know that's going to immediately cause controversy because it's a nebulous concept used to describe myriad baseball ideas since the controversial book came out. Yes, I understand the book is flawed, and that some of the points raised by it have proven, over time, questionable. I realize that the book portrays the scouting community in an unfair light, I realize Billy Beane isn't God (wtf?), and I realize Jeremy Brown was a bust.
So, for our purposes, "Moneyball" means, strictly: looking for and taking advantage of undervalued assets in the keeper league "marketplace". Let us have no more argument about "Moneyball", Michael Lewis, or Brad Pitt. Leave your Scott Hattebergs and blue jean models at the door. Trust me, your (bleep) will work in the playoffs.
Taking Advantage of Other Managers' Irrational Obsession With Young Players
I understand that younger players and prospects naturally see their value skyrocket in a keeper league setting. This is just the law of the land. Obviously if a manager is building a dynasty, he'll want to nab a budding superstar early on in his career and then reap the benefits of his talents for years to come. It's simply good strategy, especially in the draft, to go after younger players with the potential to give you more long-term value.
However, the extent to which young players- and I mean all young players- are treated as prized commodities tends to border on insanity. In keeper leagues, you'll see a lot of managers who obsess over any player under the age of 25 and then horde these guys no matter what caliber of prospect they are. This goes for even the crappiest, low-upside young players imaginable. I once got hardballed for Rick VandenHurk because I had the audacity to include him as a throw-in player in a trade I had proposed. Rick VandenHurk! Do you know who he is? Neither do I!
My favorite is when a manager will offer a package of like five fringe prospects for one of your stars, plus possibly another good player. You'd be a fool to pass this up because, you know, he's offering youth! In bulk! Politely insisting that you don't want to trade Ryan Braun for his five Darren Fords might get you on his trade blacklist, so be careful. If you think I'm exaggerating about any of this, think again. Sadly, this isn't even the most extreme example I've come across in my keeper league experiences.
Of course, there are ways to take advantage of this one-track thinking. The shrewd managers can identify which of their league-mates are the 25-or-under extremists and jump on them like a starving wolf. A lot of the time these managers will not only obsess over prospects but also eschew any player who happens to be over the age of 30. It's crazy, but some keeper league players will seriously not even budge if you offer them a 30-something player for, well, anything. Offer them Albert Pujols for J.P. Arencibia? Nope. Pujols is 32, his best years are behind him. Not interested. He'll keep his 200-strikeout catcher about to lose his starting gig, thank you very much.
This is where a wise manager can look for good value. If you can somehow come upon a crop of good-but-not great prospects, you can conceivably trade one or two of them and get a good, albeit older, player in return. You just have to be smart about it. I'm not endorsing idiocy like trading Mike Trout for Chipper Jones, but let's say that you have championship hopes and need an outfielder to round out your roster for a serious run at the title. Well, Joe Fire Sale has just announced that he's blowing up his team and you notice he has Carlos Beltran available. You have, say Leonys Martin, a guy who has some upside but almost certainly not star-level caliber, or anything close.
Dangle the middling, low-upside guy in front of Joe Fire Sale, maybe throw in a Brent Lillibridge clone while you're at it, and voila! You've got yourself a few years of a still-very productive Carlos Beltran, at least until his knees blow out for good. Short term, you've given yourself a good shot at that fantasy championship, and long term you probably haven't killed yourself because you didn't give up much in the first place. You've got an older, still-good player, while Joe Fire Sale is free to trumpet his new Quad-A players to some other unlucky manager.
Top Five 35-or-Over Players
1. Paul Konerko. Seems like just yesterday that he was a mishandled Dodger prospect traded away for Jeff Shaw. I feel old. Still basically a lock for 30 homers, 100 RBIs.
2. Carlos Beltran. Still a great hitter in between DL stays. Stolen base ability, understandably, is gone.
3. Alex Rodriguez. Yeah, I can't stand him, either, but he's still productive in a stacked lineup, even in decline. See also: Jeter, Derek.
4. Lance Berkman. An amazing hitter when he's able to stay healthy. A move to the less demanding first base position should, theoretically, help him stay on the field.
5. Ichiro Suzuki. I refuse to believe his .272 batting average of 2011 was a new career norm. He can still run and he suffered from horrible luck (for him) on balls in play last season.
Top Five 35-or-over Pitchers
1. Roy Halladay. The years and the innings haven't made a dent so far. Still arguably the best fantasy pitcher in the game, and should still be very effective into his 40's.
2. Chris Carpenter. His injury-riddled past might give one pause, but he's been healthy and brilliant for three straight seasons.
3. Tim Hudson. The resurgence of his strikeout rate was very encouraging.
4. Mariano Rivera. He's getting as ancient as Monument Park, but there's still no one else you'd rather have closing out a game in the ninth.
5. Ted Lilly. The most underrated pitcher in baseball? Consistently puts up good strikeout numbers, and his middle name is Roosevelt. I did not know that.