This Week's Scouting Tip: Strategizing Pitching in Keeper Leagues
One of the most difficult things to do when writing columns for a fantasy baseball site is trying to present generalized strategies. Let's face it, almost every league is different, and beyond, "get great hitters, and get great pitchers" strategy tends to be a challenging proposition. That said, I'm going to give it a shot. Let's start with some of the ground rules - I play almost exclusively in fairly deep keeper leagues with relatively deep rosters. That gives me the opportunity to do some of the things I have found to be extremely successful over the years. Next, most of the leagues I play in are auctions, rather than drafts, and they tend to almost always be roto as opposed to head-to-head. As you might expect, the scoring systems vary, ranging from the standard 5x5 to more complex categories. Those are the parameters I have found most enjoyable after 25 years of this, and so I suppose it's only natural that my strategies have evolved into something that fits those parameters. However, before we move on, you people who play in redraft, head-to-head leagues might still find it useful to keep some of these ideas in mind as you build your own championship team.
Don't Just Draft a Pitching Staff, Build It ...
It's always fun to begin an article with a statement that, at least in some eyes, will fall somewhere between eccentric and downright insane. So, here we go ... focus on keeper pitching, and let the hitters come to you on draft day. Huh? But, the more accepted philosophy usually says you have to get hitting first and then fill in with pitchers. All right, now that I have your attention, we can look at how this works. I will use a primary league I play in as an example. It has 15 teams, in a mixed league with fairly deep rosters. We are allowed to keep up to 12 players each year, for up to five years, with escalating salaries. In that league, I generally reserve 7-9 protection spots for pitchers. The idea is to roster pitchers who could provide exceptionally high value, then to protect those high ceiling arms with under-priced contracts to allow me to have a higher budget for purchasing hitters.
With that said, there are a couple of objectives that should always be at the front of your mind as you manage your pitching staff throughout both the season, and the off-season.
First, it is imperative to "keep the pipeline full" at all times. Without quality pitchers coming up to replace higher priced or expiring contracts, you can find yourself without the players necessary to establish your critical mound corps nucleus. Ideally, your deepest roster spots have been reserved for pitchers who are likely to make a positive impact in the next year or so. Of the 7-9 protection spots, I prefer to have at least a couple of pitchers who were purchased/drafted well before they ever saw a major league mound. Next season in the 15-teamer mentioned above, I will likely enter the draft with Matthew Moore (TB) and Stephen Strasburg (WAS). In addition, Kenley Jansen (LAD) is also on my roster as I wait to see how things shake out at the back of the Dodgers bullpen. All three have contracts FAR below their likely market value on draft day 2012. Unfortunately, with an expiring contract, I will be saying farewell to Tim Lincecum, who has been on my team since the year he was drafted. I bought him for $4 in that draft. I think you get the idea. In this league, an owner can play to win now, and still lay the groundwork for the future. It's a great setup.
Secondly, and this is directly related to the first piece of the puzzle, you have to be extremely selective in filling those very valuable future spots on your roster. You will miss occasionally, and grab someone who doesn't live up to your expectations, but you are unlikely to have enough space to take a shotgun approach and carry a longer list of possible protections - target one or two, and go after them. Keep in mind you can probably make adjustments as the season progresses if you see someone else you think has a better chance of making a difference. Potential closers can present some excellent opportunities if you read the usage patterns and evaluate the pitchers with the best tools should an opening come up. Because they can be so expensive on draft day, having a couple at a significantly discounted price can offer great value. I came into this season with Drew Storen (WAS) (also brought on before he ever closed at the major league level) and I purchased Mark Melancon (HOU) for $1 on draft day with confidence in Brandon Lyon not keeping the job very long. During the season, I quietly added Sergio Santos (CWS) and Jansen. I have since dealt Santos for help in my infield - depth can be almost as useful as protectable players in a pennant race.
So, to bring it all together, you would ideally like to have a couple of new pitchers added each season to carryovers from previous years. That hopefully allows you to have a top tier pitching staff at far below what you would pay for it on draft day. If you can assemble one of the best pitching staffs in your league, and still have as much or more money to spend on hitters as your opponents, now is that such an eccentric or insane plan? Keep your focus on having the nucleus of your pitching staff rostered before your draft. That way, you can spend minimal dollars/picks on filling it out with back of the rotation types (although you do want to make sure you are adding guys with upside - sometimes a pitcher purchased for a minimal price at the draft can move into your nucleus for the following year and that is an obvious bonus).
Finally, yes, this could be done with hitters - but what's the fun in that? Actually, it's more difficult with hitters because your opponents are more likely to be familiar with the really high ceiling guys with a bat. Trust me, in this information age, it's tough enough to sneak pitchers past the masses. There was a day when you could get any arm that hadn't made the show that you wanted for a buck at the end of a draft. Those days are over. You have to be better informed, and better prepared.
Here are some things to remember when building your keeper pitching staff:
- Have a few options available if your auction league is especially knowledgeable about young prospects. Occasionally a player you want will be so hyped that a few owners will jump into the bidding process. If the price goes too high, the value declines and he could become too risky to be reasonably assured a spot on your roster in future years. A prospect who is a year or so away going for more than a few dollars is not likely to be a good investment.
- That said, remember, you cannot have a lengthy list of prospects to target on draft day. Keep your list lean. These spots are reserved for pitchers you are convinced will be productive from the day they step into your rotation. Magazines and websites will list dozens of pitchers who "could" be good. That's a good starting point, but you will find it's more rewarding to glean your targeted few from that longer list. And, don't always assume the "top" prospects are the only ones worthy of your attention. If almost none fit your criteria for a spot, shorten the list and only add one that spring. Back-fill during the season if you can.
- One of the hardest things for a "staff builder" to do is to part with one of those precious prospects. The most likely scenario is a tightly contested pennant race where you need to add something to put your team over the top. An added benefit of your building blocks will often be trade value. Virtually every season I get calls from owners who have fallen out of the hunt wanting to deal established players with expiring or prohibitive contracts for one or more of the young arms I have stashed away. By later in the season, those owners start to realize what kind of upside they could provide next year, and at a very cheap protection price. In general, if you have to deal one to win it, by all means do so. Just make sure you are getting top dollar in return, and do your very best to deal in reverse order of the anticipated value you think each player will generate.
- Injuries and disappointing progress are all a part of this game. Be ready to adjust if one of the arms you were counting on doesn't pan out. Just don't jump ship until you're pretty certain it's sinking. These guys should be your own elite prospects so hopefully you won't have too much trouble keeping the faith even when they hit a rough stretch. However, there are times when it can be in your best interest to let a guy go and then redraft/purchase him next spring. Obviously that only works if the setback was serious enough to virtually guarantee that everyone else is sufficiently scared away. Another benefit of this tactic, dropping the pitcher and adding him in next year's draft is paramount to resetting his arbitration clock. That can be a huge boost if timed properly.
- Lastly, keep your value perspective in mind. Your goal is to fill out a pitching staff on draft day with two or three low-mid priced arms and a couple of new futures picks. When the dust settles, you want to have a staff that most would expect to be at or near the top in the pitching categories with only about one-third of your draft budget invested. That's a flexible number. I usually try to stay between there and 40% of my budget spent on pitching. However, if I start approaching 40%, I also raise my expectations, and set my sights on achieving more than just doing well in pitching. With that investment, I plan on dominating those categories. It doesn't always work out that way, but I still harbor those hopes.
Some short takes on other notable pitchers:
Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) - He's been mentioned here before as a high-upside starter for next year and beyond as he gets further removed from Tommy John surgery. With the prospect of him being shut down soon to limit his innings, his current owner might be convinced to part with him.
Trevor Bauer (ARZ) - The Diamondbacks are loaded with talent that could be worth considering for your building plans. Both Bauer and Jarrod Parker could get a look in September and either might end up being a guy you could feel good about owning. Bauer has adjusted quickly to the pro game and will be a rotation mainstay soon.
Nathan Eovaldi (LAD) - There is certainly some hop on his fastball. I really don't think he's quite ready for prime time long term, but if the Dodgers keep giving him the ball every five days, he could get by for awhile on his stuff alone. That equates to a useful halo effect pitcher for a few starts, and someone to watch as a possible building block.
Wade Miley (ARZ) - Not really your front of the line member of the Diamondbacks system, he will apparently get the first call to fill in for the injured Jason Marquis. He could be useful, but Bauer, Parker and Tyler Skaggs are the blue chippers that should be on your scouting list.
Henderson Alvarez (TOR) - Another young arm making his major league debut last week, Alvarez showed some good potential (he also showed some promise during this year's Futures Game). He's young and still learning so there is some risk involved, but he could help a fantasy team down the stretch.
Michael Pineda (SEA) - Like Zimmermann, he may be facing a shut down before we get too much further into the season. Add, he hasn't been nearly as dominant lately (he appears to be wearing down a bit). That all adds up to an opportunity for the staff builder who can convince Pineda's owner to let him go.
Carlos Zambrano (CHC) - He has always been an explosive personality. Okay, that was probably an understatement. His latest blow up will probably get him what he needs most - a change of scenery. He has some talent, but if he can't get himself on a more level plane he is unlikely to ever be a trustworthy member of your rotation.
Chris Sale (CWS) - The White Sox haven't been terribly consistent with their handling of Sale. He closed after being thrown into action late last year, and he pitched in middle relief and set up this year. He is now "unofficially" serving as a match up closer, but next year might be a story of "the best is yet to come" as he is slated to move into the rotation.
Jake McGee (TB) - With Kyle Farnsworth enjoying a renaissance of sorts, there hasn't been a lot of talk about who will be closing in the Rays future. It's not very likely to be Farnsworth next year and McGee gets my nod as the guy to track. He has the stuff and the make up to be a good one.
Dustin McGowan (TOR) - Here's another popular tout in the Notebook. While we are pretty certain the Jays would like him to return to the starting rotation, he has closer stuff and the Toronto end gamers haven't been exactly reliable this year. McGowan is being brought along slowly, but closing in September should not be ruled out.
Jason Motte (STL) - Motte seems to have found his niche as a dominating set up guy. Over the past couple of months he has been virtually untouchable. He has always had a very live arm, but he has learned to be a little less predictable while also throwing quality strikes as opposed to straight heat. There could be a closer's gig in his future yet.
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