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Mound Musings: Playing for Keeps

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Playing For Keeps

Most readers know that I play almost exclusively in keeper and dynasty leagues, and I always try to plan at least part of my columns on highlighting pitching prowess and overall strategy based on those formats. With the 2013 season winding down, redrafts are often more or less locked down, so this is a great time of year to look at some things to consider when building, rebuilding, or - gasp - dismantling your keeper or dynasty squad. There are so many variables like contract lengths, escalating salaries, and even the number of protection spots allowed that it's tough to be too specific, but there are some good basic ideas to keep in mind as you prepare for next year. Let's take a look.

The Temptation of a Bankroll

One of the first, and quite frankly, one of the most perplexing scenarios in keeper or dynasty leagues is the tendency to focus on bankroll. In most cases, the combined contract amounts of your protections is deducted from the league's base salary and the remaining dollars are what you, the owner, has to spend on draft day.

That seems simple enough. Protect your best players, and buy what you need with the cash you have available. The problem is, many of your "best" players may also be your most expensive, and there is a great temptation to cut them, and protect a lot of those $1 specials. That may or may not be the best strategy, but it happens all too often because there is an overwhelming temptation to cut your protection salaries to the bone so you can go into next year's draft with a huge bankroll. Let's face it, there is a certain amount of satisfaction associated with being assured no one can outbid you on that pitcher you absolutely have to have.

Unfortunately, at least a couple of factors should be put ahead of the bankroll when contemplating your strategy. Think first of value, and then add in upside and ceiling to give your plan the best chance for success.

Value

It's all about value, really. Your objective is to build a team with a $260 payroll that will perform as if you had spent far more when the dust settles next September. If that happens, you win, or you are at least in a position to win.

Protection value is based on a similar equation, except here you are comparing your investment in the player to what you estimate it would cost to repurchase him on draft day. If you have a pitcher with a $25 price tag you are reasonably certain you can buy back for $20 next year, that's an easy call - cut him. But, what about the $25 pitcher you estimate will cost $32.00 at next year's draft? It would be nice to keep him, but there is that temptation to protect a much cheaper player, and add that $25 to next year's bankroll. The decision here is not quite so simple.

I would suggest this exercise. List all the players on your roster who have extendable or protectable contracts. Including any increase in salary for being kept, list each player's actual salary based on them remaining on your roster. Next to that column, write your best estimate of what that player will go for in the 2014 draft. The larger the gap (on the plus side), the more seriously you might want to consider keeping that player. The other factor, upside and ceiling, also enters into the picture, but I'll get to that in just a second. On a level playing field, with performance expected to remain nearly constant, you can pretty easily decide where the best value is on your roster, and you can make your protection decisions based on those projections. Remember, your goal is always to have a roster that far outperforms your investment.

Upside and Ceiling

Here is the other side of the proverbial coin. I have a $25 pitcher I believe will cost $32 at the auction next season. However, I believe he may actually be heading into decline, and I estimate his 2014 performance to make him worth just $23 when the season comes to an end. That pitcher, in your opinion, lacks upside and/or ceiling.

Now, instead of being a strong possibility to add to your protection list, the pitcher becomes infinitely more valuable to you as a cut. Since performance isn't always constant, you need to make decisions taking an up or down shift into account. Remember our goal of having a roster that outperforms your investment? What could be more helpful in your pennant chase than having a player on an opponent's team that cost $32 but performed at a $23 value? Maybe it's advancing age, significant injury risk, or you just don't think the pitcher has what it takes to maintain or improve on his current performance, the bottom line is, he can't justify the investment.

Therefore, the very best protections for your team are those that you control at a price under market value, and offer upside beyond even that anticipated market value. I have a $25 pitcher, I think he will cost $32 if I expose him to the draft next spring, but I project his performance value at the end of 2014 to be $37 if he stays healthy and all things go as planned. That's a $12 profit, and as hard as it might be to take that $25 out of your bankroll, depending on the values and upside of the other options on your roster, it might be unwise to give your opponents a shot at him.

To Recap

The formula works for hitters and pitchers, and it works with lower-priced players as well. You have a $2 pitcher, he has looked exceptional in his late-season trials, and you anticipate him costing $12 at next year's draft. You love the guy, and your projections indicate he could produce numbers with a value of $22 next year. That's a $20 profit, and he is gold. Conversely, there is a $2 pitcher who has helped you down the stretch in 2013, and he will also command something like $12 next year, however you see his 2013 performance as having been aided by a deceptive delivery or some other temporary factor, and you anticipate his performance to be no better than that of a back-of-the rotation filler, making his 2014 value approximately $4. It's a minimal profit for you, and a potential loss for another owner, so he probably doesn't make the cut.

When you play in keeper leagues, you have to consider all the possibilities, and most important, you have to be willing to analyze and project shifts up and down in value. It's a challenge, and it requires you to go beyond ADP's and last year's statistics, but in the long run, it pays off. It's the really enjoyable aspect of playing for keeps.

Rotation Short Takes

Cole Hamels (PHI) -
He and Stephen Strasburg locked up in a pitching duel Monday, and they both came away with no decisions. They are a combined 12-22 this season with an ERA in the low 3.00s (jointly). I think snakebite anti-venom might have been a good promotional giveaway at this game.

Justin Masterson (CLE) -
He has a strained left rib cage, and the Indians are sending him for an MRI, which could mean some time off. Cleveland is struggling and their chances of catching Detroit, or capturing a wild-card spot are fading quickly. They desperately need Masterson to have a chance, so stay tuned for updates.

Julio Teheran (ATL) -
He has now had his next start moved back to early next week - an additional six days of rest. Such is the risk of owning young, talented pitchers who are playing for teams with no real reason to push their workloads. Atlanta has the NL East well in hand so they will take it easy on Teheran's arm.

Matt Moore (TB) -
He is back from some sore elbow issues - never a cheerful thought - but the Rays would not be letting him pitch if they felt it was anything serious. He has had a good season, but nowhere near his potential ceiling. If you own him at a reasonable price, he should be high on your 2014 protection list.

Patrick Corbin (ARZ) -
Corbin has been magnificent all season, but his last couple starts suggest he may be wearing down a bit. It's not uncommon for young pitchers to run out of gas late in the season, and the Diamondbacks will probably look to rest him when they can. This is the downside of enjoying great, but still growing, pitchers.

Kyle Drabek (TOR) -
After recovering from the second Tommy John surgery of his career, he is back in Toronto. He doesn't have ace stuff, but if he's healthy, he could be a useful fantasy pitcher, albeit not until next season. The Jays will likely give him a few innings this month, and it will be worth watching to see where he's at.

The Endgame Odyssey

In Houston, the implosive bullpen disease seems to be very contagious. Despite a couple of very rough outings, I continue to favor Chia-Jen Lo long term. He has the most upside of the relievers in their system. ... Rafael Betancourt is done for this year, and for next, so at his age, he is probably safe to remove from your fantasy radar. Enjoy your fulltime closing gig, Rex Brothers. ... I have maintained for years that Kenley Jansen is an elite closer. He now has 100 strikeouts (in 68.2 innings). I'll put him in the same tier/category with Craig Kimbrel at this point. ... Jason Grilli is back with the Pirates, but may not close again right away. Mark Melancon did a very good job filling in, but expect Grilli to get a shot at his old job fairly soon. ... Danny Farquhar has not quite convinced me he is the long-term answer in Seattle. But, when there aren't better options available, you keep giving the ball to the guy getting it done today. ... It would be a huge surprise if Kevin Gregg returned to the Cubs next season, so they might kick the tires on Pedro Strop this month to see if he can be the guy next year. He's probably not a bad bet to close for them in 2014.