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Charging the Mound: Tough Keeper Decisions

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jeff Erickson"
Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 8:03am
Subject: Re: Charging - Slot Value

Two conversations from today's show have me thinking about slots, with two entirely different permutations, neither having anything to do with your favorite local casino. The first has to do with our keeper deadline in the RotoWire Staff League, the other about our preferred draft slots in our respective mixed league drafts.

First, I love trade deadlines and keeper deadlines. There's a great opportunity to improve your team and map out or continue on a path of building your team. Even though the dates are somewhat artificial, trading is (mostly) fun. It's why we got into this in the first place - to draft and then manipulate our teams. We need a break for a few months after the season is over, but then at least for me I can't wait to start trading again in the spring.

That aside, we spent some time talking about the marginal keeper decisions and contract extensions. In 2010 I went for it and traded away a lot of my cheap keepers, so last year was a rebuilding season. I sold off virtually all of my expensive or non-protectable players, so I came into this deadline with a ton of inexpensive options, prospects and extra draft picks. Not all of them are sure things - that's no surprise. If they were sure things, it would be much harder to acquire them. So I come into this season with a couple of high-ceiling guys that don't have current jobs in Mike Trout and Domonic Brown among my keepers. It's an 18-team mixed league with 15 keepers and potentially 10 prospect keepers, so inflation is sky-high, and elite talent is hard to find. I don't mind taking the risk on them, but it puts a certain amount of pressure to maximize the other slots.

To that end, I had planned all along to protect Chris Heisey at $5 (in a 260 budget), in the first year of his contract because he was drafted as a reserve rather than bought in the auction last year. With 18 homers in 279 at-bats last season, his upside is readily apparent. But he also had 78 strikeouts in that span, which makes him a pretty severe batting average risk. Between that risk and the signing of Ryan Ludwick, I'm dubious he gets to 450 at-bats, and in this league I don't want to have a part-time player in my starting lineup. I'd rather have the spot in the auction to spend my savings, especially with four of my five outfield spots already occupied. In a different context, one in which I weren't already keeping Brown and Trout, I would have kept Heisey.

The other slot issue is one that you sparked, and that's the optimal draft slot. Typically when I'm asked about where my optimal draft slot is for snake drafts, be it the Yahoo! F&F draft or the NFBC, I tend to think about the first round, and where the drop-off is in that round. But after our discussion, I think the more important drop-off is actually in the second round, around 20-22 overall, depending upon your willingness to take a pitcher that early. So you need to think about your draft position for the first round more in terms of where it brings you in the second. For the Sirius/XM hosts league, which is going to be 11-team mixed, I swapped out from the No. 2 slot to the No. 7 slot with Cliff Floyd, just for that reason. I suppose I could hope someone might slip to me at No. 23 that I believe deserves to be higher, but it was more fun to swap the slots, especially on-air.

What tough decisions did you have for your keepers? What other draft pool observations do you have?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 4:55pm
Subject: Re: Charging - Slot Value

My keeper decisions were pretty easy. Probably the hardest was whether to keep Ricky Romero at $8, or extend him for two years at $13. We went with the latter because we think he's a $25-$30 pitcher in our mixed, inflation-added format, but it was close because we sacrificed $5 this year and took on additional risk. I guess we could have kept an $18 Alfonso Soriano or a $19 Vernon Wells, but how much will they really go for at auction? Probably anywhere between $10 and $20, so there was no point. Maybe Sean Rodriguez as a $5 A is a bit much, but he's slated to be a starting SS, has a decent power/speed combo and took a few more walks last year. Either way, a decision like that isn't a big one. We throw him back and get him for $3 or $4, maybe, or risk a run-up to $8 or $9 if he's the last MI people want. I think the biggest takeaway from keeper decisions is you have to balance two things: expected production and likely cost.

It doesn't matter if you think Wells will bounce back and hit 30 HR - if he's going to be available for the cost of keeping him, you should throw him back. Because in that case you at least have options, one of which is buying him at the same price, and as an "A" player - not that Wells' is anyone's idea of a long-term keeper, but you never know. Another player Schuler (my staff league partner) and I liked was Chris Volstad for $1, but I threw him back because he's a $1/reserve type of guy who doesn't even have a job yet. So why lock up a slot and limit our flexibility for someone like that? Even if he's only $1 (and actually saves us money because you have to spend $1 on every slot), it's still one less pitching slot over which we have a say. Opportunity cost isn't only about money, it's also about roster slots, especially as we already have Cliff Lee ($10), Romero ($13), Michael Pineda ($11), Tim Stauffer ($1), Jim Johnson ($1) and Jeff Niemann ($4) occupying six of our nine possible pitching spots.

As for draft slot, I'm not sure your trade matters that much in an 11-team league where pick 21 was likely to net you one of your top-20 guys anyway, but in a 15-team league, I really like spots 11-15. I just don't see why Miguel Cabrera is that much more valuable than Adrian Gonzalez (yes, the likely 3B eligibility will help, but it's offset by the added injury and adaptation risk), or why Ryan Braun is worth much more than Justin Upton or Jacoby Ellsbury. So I'd much rather pick later in Round 1 and then get an Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Stanton or Curtis Granderson early in Round 2, than mess around with the likes of Matt Holiday, Andrew McCutchen and pitchers other than Roy Halladay or Clayton Kershaw.

Moreover, as we discussed, the drop-off between early Round 3 and late Round 3 is almost non-existent, and you get a pick early in Round 4. So in a 15-team league, I want to pick late this year. I also happen to prefer being on or close to the "wheel," i.e., 1-3 or 13-15, so I get two picks close together and wait a long time, rather than one pick and wait 15 every time. It's just easier to pick two players at a time than one in terms of filling out roster needs. When you're in the middle, you're constantly guessing as to what will happen. When you've got two together, you know what to do now, and you can pretty much safely assume anyone else close will be gone.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jeff Erickson"
Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 5:34pm
Subject: Re: Charging - Slot Value

I share your philosophy about not over-extending guys, especially pitchers. I'd take it an extreme and say that I'd never go beyond two years for a closer, even someone like Kimbrel, if I had him in an option season next year. Those max-effort guys not named Rivera just don't last, and I'd rather ruthlessly profit-take with them. Signing Romero for two years is a nice spot; even in the AL East, chances are he'll make a pretty good profit for you, I don't think that he will move up among the elites (say, top 10 starters or so), so you won't regret it when his contract expires.

There has to be a pretty good formula out there that provides a good rule of thumb on what constitutes good value when thinking about these contract extensions. There are so many factors that go into one's decision to extend a player, so much like the statistical tools we use, it wouldn't be a perfect measure, but there has to be something better out there than merely our instincts. Come on quant guys out there - what do you have?

Let me turn the discussion to one other related topic. Who are the guys in the top 25 that you don't want to end up with? I'm not talking about guys you don't want at any cost, but good players for whom you just don't want to pay what it takes to get them. For the sake of discussion, we'll use Yahoo's default top 25. We mentioned Evan Longoria as one of those players on the show, and we both shared a reticence to take Justin Verlander that early. Verlander helped me win Friends & Family last year (and yeah, you had to know that I was going to slip in a humble brag somewhere in there), but I got him at the No. 40 spot last year. At No. 20 or so, that's just too high for my comfort. I'm also growing a little wary of Prince Fielder at 14 or 15, merely because of what Comerica Park has done to left-handed power-hitters in the past.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 4:35pm
Subject: Re: Charging - Slot Value

I take it you mean which of the top-25 guys I don't want to own at their likely draft slots, correct? Because you and I agreed we didn't like Longoria as a first rounder, but as a second rounder, I'd be fine with him. So let's assume this Yahoo! default list is a stand-in for ADP:

1. Miguel Cabrera
2. Matt Kemp
3. Albert Pujols
4. Troy Tulowitzki
5. Jose Bautista
6. Ryan Braun
7. Joey Votto
8. Robinson Cano
9. Adrian Gonzalez
10. Justin Upton
11. Carlos Gonzalez
12. Jacoby Ellsbury
13. Evan Longoria
14. Prince Fielder
15. Clayton Kershaw
16. Justin Verlander
17. Dustin Pedroia
18. Roy Halladay
19. Jose Reyes
20. Ian Kinsler
21. Hanley Ramirez
22. Curtis Granderson
23. Mark Teixeira
24. Cliff Lee
25. Giancarlo Stanton

I don't like Tulowitzki, Fielder, Verlander, Longoria or Reyes in these slots. But it's splitting hairs because I'd take all of them (with the exception of Verlander) only a few slots later, and Verlander I won't take in part because the market for starting pitching is softer in most of my leagues.