The Long Game: Next Year Starts Now
June 1st is staring you in the face, and your team is going nowhere. Every good week your hitters put together seems to come at the expense of your pitching staff, and vice versa. Your injured players keep having setbacks, and your DL list never seems to get shorter. And much as you hate to admit it, that light at the end of the tunnel looks more and more like a freight train with '12th place' graffitied on its side in blood red paint.
In short, it's time to play for next year.
While no one likes losing, in keeper leagues it's important to remember that losing seasons are just another stage on the success cycle. A losing season, successfully executed, can lead to a winning one or even multiple money finishes. Here are some things to keep in mind as you try to rebuild from the ashes:
Forget Everything You Know
Look, if your preseason projections and talent evaluations had been so awesome, you wouldn't be in this predicament, would you? When it comes to acquiring players for next year, put aside your hunches and your certainty about who is good and who isn't and simply pick up as many players as you can who might be useful next season. This applies not just to trade negotiations but to free agent signings and waiver wire claims as well. In my home AL-only league last year, Josh Donaldson got rostered and dropped twice before eventually being a waiver claim at $3 right before he started heating up. Those first two owners (and yes, I was one of them) certainly don't feel so smart right now for letting him slip through their fingers, but last summer nobody thought Donaldson would turn into this kind of player. It was the owner who didn't think, and just grabbed a guy who might have a starting job in 2013 at a cheap salary, who wound up cashing in.
The added plus of staying active in free agency and waivers, and constantly looking for small moves that might have a playoff next April, is that it keeps you involved and interested in a team you might otherwise mentally tune out and let go fallow. There's nothing more disheartening than looking at a roster following a bad season and seeing a bare cupboard.
Ideally, at the end of the season every single one of your active roster spots will be occupied by a player who has some chance, however slim, of being on your 2014 keeper list. Not all of them will be of course, but sorting through your options is what the offseason is for. Right now the important thing is to give yourself those options.
You also shouldn't worry too much about positions or categories when it comes to your acquisitions either. Again, if you wind up with too much hitting and not enough pitching, or project yourself to be short on batting average, you can sort that out with an offseason deal or two. All you should be worried about for the next four months is adding potential keepers, by hook or by crook.
Bonus pro tip: snapping up players who are second or third on their team's closer depth chart is a great way to round out a rebuilding pitching staff. You never know what opportunities might arise after free agency, trades and the surgeon's knife have shuffled things around.
Elite Talent Is Elite
If you're punting but actually have some shiny baubles that are in high demand, it's important to maximize your return on those in-demand assets. And while I'm as big a prospect hound as the next guy, given what's happening in the majors at the moment your primary targets should not be top-level prospects, no matter how near the Show they are or how lofty their ceilings seem.
The fact of the matter is, there are an incredible number of young, impressive players in the majors right now who have already proven they can survive and thrive at the top level, and these players should be the ones in your sights. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, Matt Moore, Shelby Miller ... all these young studs probably carry very reasonable salaries in your league, and are exactly the kinds of players championship rosters are built around.
Now, I'm not saying they'll be easy to get. Young, cheap superstars are the Maltese Falcons of the roto world, the stuff dreams are made of, and no one in their right mind would trade one if they had one, but that's exactly why you should be prepared to make genuinely crazy offers to get them. If the standard exchange rate on dump deals in your league is usually 1-for-1 (one expensive/expiring contract for one keeper) then make a 2-for-1 offer. Tell Harvey's owner you'll not only give them Clayton Kershaw to replace Harvey's pitching contribution but Brandon Phillips as well to solidify their middle infield. Heck, toss in Alfonso Soriano while you're at it. What do you care? If none of those three players are going to be on your roster next year, you're losing nothing than has any real value to you, and you're landing a player who will anchor your rotation at a fraction of his market price. You can even defend the trade, if you're in a veto-happy league that might try to kibosh it, by saying you're dealing Kershaw for Harvey's 2013 production (a plausible swap) and Phillips/Soriano for Harvey's keeper value.
The idea is to make an offer that Harvey's owner will actually have to think about. After that, it comes down to where they stand on the whole 'flags fly forever' thing, and whether a title will be solace enough for having to see Harvey's name on your roster the next couple of years.
And if you can't land any of those young, cheap, major league studs, only then should you settle for getting the players who might (or might not) be young, cheap studs in a year or two.
Anyone Is Tradable
While you're out big game hunting for the Harveys and Machados, it's important to keep your eyes and ears open for other opportunities as well, and that includes trading players who you might already have identified as keepers for next year. Other than those elite studs you're doing everything possible to land, no one on your roster should be untouchable. Sure, having an $8 Mitch Moreland is a fine asset to own, but if someone has a corner infield hole to plug and you can trade him as part of a package for a better keeper, or two keepers of about the same value, go for it. Plus, including a solid keeper on your end of a trade can sometimes make the other owner more willing to pull the trigger, as they can convince themselves they're going for it all this year and still not completely selling out their future.
Or let's say you're in negotiations with Trout's owner but can't get him to budge because you don't have a base stealer who can replace Trout's swipes. Cutting a deal with a third team to pick up, say, a pricey Michael Bourn for a couple of Moreland-level keepers and immediately including him in your Trout offer might just put you over the top. Don't be afraid to get creative and take risks if it gives you a chance to add one of those crucial elite building blocks.
The only goal you should have is to add to your stockpile of talent however you can. Trading players you'd mentally pencilled onto next year's roster, or even flipping a keeper you just picked up a couple of weeks ago, shouldn't be out of the question.