The Noble Art of Roster Juggling
(I was going to talk this week about the best strategies to use when you've already decided to pack it in and play for next year, but frankly if you're in that position you've got nothing but time on your hands anyway and can wait until next column.)
For the most part, owners tend to spend their time worrying about the 23 (or so) players on their active roster, the guys actually contributing to the cause. You might take a peek once in a while to see if an injured player is close to returning, or if a top prospect is ready for a promotion, but for the most part the players on your bench just sit there until a hole opens up in your starting lineup that you need to plug.
This isn't necessarily a mistake per se, but in a competitive league you're passing up potential chances to gain an edge on the other owners if you're not constantly looking for ways to maximize the utility provided by the bottom of your roster and assemble the strongest, most useful bench that you can. How you should approach your bench though, and what sorts of reserve players you should be looking for, can vary wildly depending on what kind of league you're in.
The Kiddie Pool
If you're in a shallow league (12 team mixed, for instance, or a league that uses far fewer starting spots than the traditional roto 23) there's only one type of player you should ever have on your bench, and that's one with upside. Gobs of it. The free agent pool will be chock-full of serviceable veterans you can pick up for a couple of weeks while one of your regulars deals with a minor hammy pull, so you might as well leave them there. The only players worth giving one of your precious reserve spots to are those that can conceivably make a big difference for you down the road.
Now, some categories of players worthy of being reserved are obvious. Injured, but not too injured, stars like Zack Greinke and upper-minors prospects with fantasy-friendly profiles like Billy Hamilton are always going to be worth stowing away in the hopes that they will make an impact for you later in the season. But note the distinctions there. Injured players who are of lesser stature, or who aren't expected back until late in the year, don't have a strong enough potential return to make it worthwhile waiting for them to get back. Greinke's theoretical rotation-mate Ted Lilly, for instance, is a solid enough pitcher when he's healthy but in a league where a higher-upside hurler like Andrew Cashner is floating around unclaimed, is he really worth hanging onto? A quick rule of thumb is to look at your league's average production from a roster spot, then look at the preseason projections of the player you're thinking about keeping. If a player seems more like a 'he won't hurt you' player than a 'he could help you' one, cut him loose. Shallow leagues are all about acquiring elite talent, and your bench spots should be viewed as a way to bring in more elite talent before they start producing elite numbers.
The tricky consideration is when it comes to top prospects in the low minors. Players like Carlos Correa or Miguel Sano are easy ones to fall in love with, and could certainly become elite fantasy talents in the future. It's that nebulous 'future' part that makes it so difficult to protect them though. If Correa doesn't end up making his major league debut until sometime in 2015 (a not-unreasonable prospect for an 18-year-old in Low-A) that's a lot of opportunity cost you're spending, in terms of other players you could have filled that roster spot with, to keep a player with a still-uncertain fantasy profile. If he ends up hitting like Andrelton Simmons his first couple of seasons in the bigs rather than following, say, Manny Machado's development path, that's an awful lot of time burned waiting for his upside to kick in.
Really when it comes down to it, in a shallow league your bench players should be capable of doing one of four things: racking up a lot of base hits, hitting a lot of bombs, stealing a lot of bases or striking a lot of guys out. Otherwise they're just not worth your time.
Churning bench spots is almost a necessity in shallow leagues as well. A player on the waiver wire catches your eye, and you think he might be primed to take his career to another level? Pick him up now! If after a couple of weeks he hasn't done much, cut him loose and chase after the next shiny object. Again, when the replacement level is so high, you've literally got nothing to lose by playing hunches and taking chances. Obviously you don't want to churn through players whose upside is only that of a innings-eating starter or middling outfielder, but if there's any kind of ceiling there at all go for it.
You'll notice I haven't said much about price tags or keeper values yet. That's because they aren't as relevant in shallow leagues. When solid, productive veterans go for $2 at auction there's less sense in hanging on to an injured $10 player just because he's a little bit better than average. Upside and impact are the main, and maybe the only, factor you should be looking at.
Oh, and one more thing. Never waste your time on closers in waiting. Bullpens are too volatile, and saves too easy to come by, to ever park a guy on your bench hoping his turn as closer comes around. While you were letting David Robertson eat up a bench spot a half-dozen other guys came out of nowhere to pick up saves and might even still be available in the free agent pool.
Swimming with the Sharks
In medium-depth leagues (18-team mixed for instance, or 10 team NL/AL-only) more considerations come into play. Upside is still paramount, but with a lower replacement level in the available free agent pool your bench needs to form more of an insurance policy against injuries than it does in shallower formats.
One of the most efficient ways to provide this insurance is through players with multiple position eligibility. Of course that strategy starts at the auction table, and it's one I tend to employ a lot. My active rosters tend to be littered with names like Martin Prado, Mark Reynolds, Emilio Bonifacio and Chris Johnson, but flexibility on the bench is a big help too. A player like Skip Schumaker may not be the most exciting fantasy asset in the world, but his ability to flip between 2B and OF can be plenty useful (and a career .285 hitter can't keep hitting .186 forever, can he?) Constructing a roster with enough moving parts that you can cover any active spot in a pinch using only one or two bench players allows you to free up the rest of your reserve spots for the high-upside talent you want.
Your definition of 'upside' will have to change as well. Suddenly an average injured pitcher like Lilly looks a lot more attractive when the top arm on the waiver wire is Jeanmar Gomez or Freddy Garcia. Players out for longer periods, such as Jose Reyes, also make more sense to protect as the alternatives for that roster spot aren't as likely to return a lot of value. Ditto for those closers in waiting, as suddenly it makes more sense to hang onto Ryan Madson and see if he can take the job in Anaheim when he heals up.
Churning spots becomes a more dangerous proposition as well. Usually a player is on your roster for a reason, and if you cut him loose there's no guarantee you'll be able to get him back if you misjudged how quickly (or how much) he'll be able to help you. This is where checking out the state of the free agent pool can be useful. Even if a player isn't a superstar, he might still be head and shoulders above the available talent at his position, in which case you should probably re-think that decision to drop him.
If there's a big danger in medium-depth leagues, it's focusing too much on future upside and ignoring short-term concerns. (Warning: personal fantasy anecdote approaching). I found myself in that roster jam this year in the RotoWire Staff Keeper League. After protecting an injured Brandon Beachy, a suspended Yasmani Grandal and an in-the-bigs-without-a-full-time-job Matt Adams, half my bench spots were already chewed up as those players would have to be swapped with reserve picks on Opening Day. The decision to then buy Mark Teixeira (the price was too good to pass up, or at least it seemed so at the time) and Kevin Gausman at the auction and draft Felipe Paulino late in the reserve rounds killed three more spots with players who wouldn't be contributing right away, leaving me with only one bench spot for a productive player. Needless to say as other injuries hit I had to start making some tough decisions, like ditching Paulino or activating Adams knowing he wouldn't get more than a handful of at-bats per week. A less risky roster construction would have allowed me to avoid those decisions and keep a player like Paulino, who would have stood a good chance of being either useful trade bait, or a prime keeper. Of course once my roster holes get back on their feet (and Grandal and Teixeira are both getting close) that will allow me to put those bench spots to use again, but I've missed chances to sign a lot of free agents over the first two months of the year simply because I had nowhere to put them.
Into The Abyss
In deep, 12-team AL/NL-only leagues, the free agent pool will show you no mercy. Sure, middle relievers will fall into closer roles occasionally and be worth bidding on, and lesser prospects will get called up for their moment in the sun, but in an Ultra-format league with long benches the list of available players will be, in a word, pitiful. You simply won't be able to count on any outside reinforcements if injury, suspension, demotion or inexplicable performance regression hits you hard. As a result, your primary concern with your bench has to be making sure you are protected against any possible disaster. Rostering low-minors prospects with massive hype is nice, and if the bench is deep enough it's certainly feasible, but you have to make sure you've got enough players with major league jobs to plug into your roster in case of emergency because you won't be able to get them anywhere else. Have you assembled a staff of six iron man starters who never miss a turn and three unassailable closers? Good for you! Stash another starter and two slightly-better-than fungible middle relievers anyway, because no matter how great you think your pitchers are you are guaranteed to need some help at some point.
I can't stress enough how important it is not to let roster holes fester in deep leagues if you want to stay competitive. Stars may win championships, but having guys on the back end of your roster capable of grinding out some runs and RBI for a week or two while your opponents are forced to hang zeroes on the board are what put your stars in a position to win. It's all well and good to wait for Curtis Granderson or Giancarlo Stanton to come off the DL and carry you in the power stats, but if you don't stay afloat in those categories while they're out you'll be in too deep a hole for them to lift you out.
Deeper leagues also afford you some interesting keeper opportunities as well. A player like the recently called-up Avisail Garcia is a perfect example. His lack of a job at the beginning of the year, but the spoiling of his rookie status in 2012, probably kept his price tag down at this year's auction, but he was close enough to the majors that he could be counted on to help at some point down the road. Players who have acquired Quad-A labels or even less, like Justin Ruggiano or Daniel Nava or even Johnny Giavotella (who has yet to make the leap Ruggiano and Nava have), can also fit nicely into this sweet spot between regular and prospect where their upside might be disguised and their price tag suppressed. In shallower leagues, lottery tickets players like that aren't worth your $1 or your roster spot until they establish themselves, as there are better options (either in terms of future upside or present production) available instead. In a truly deep league, since all vaguely useful players are going to be scooped up at some point anyway, stocking up on these high minors semi-prospects can allow you to develop extra roster fillers or even productive regulars that will cover injuries and facilitate trades.
Oh, right, trades. I didn't talk about them much in regard to shallower leagues because it's not that hard to field a legal roster after pulling the trigger in leagues with better quality loose talent. In a truly deep league though, there may be times when you can't even make the trade you (and your prospective partner) want because one of you won't have enough middle infielders left afterwards. Having a guy like Brendan Harris or Cody Ransom on your bench to toss in at the last minute and paper over that hole can be the difference between a fortune-altering swap and a missed opportunity. Heck, another owner in a real roster bind might be willing to give you something good for a Harris or Ransom straight up, and that's always a nice position to be in.
It's far too easy, in deep leagues, to pile your roster full of exciting young names with bright futures and perfectly white teeth and ignore the fringy major leaguers with two days stubble and wrinkly uniform that never seems to quite fit. Don't do it. To quote a wise lobster, it's a trap. If upside is the watchword for your bench in shallow leagues, and flexibility in medium-depth leagues, then it's opportunity in deep leagues. Of course anybody can find room for an Oscar Taveras on their bench, but once the top names are gone put your prospect lists aside. A player in the majors is one who can contribute, even if it's just a little bit, while an organization's #12 prospect down in High-A is just another guy whose best days are (hopefully for his sake) ahead of him. You might have chuckled at the owner who actually scooped Brandon Barnes for his reserve roster, but if the occasional steals Barnes chips in end up being the difference between a money finish and the bubble, Barnes' owner will be the one laughing at season's end.