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Playing to the Rules

Looking over the draft order for the first couple rounds of Major League Baseball's 2011 First-Year Player Draft – set to take place in early June – the observant reader will notice something peculiar. No, it's not that the Pirates have the first-overall pick – for, really, what could be more predictable? Rather, it's that, of the first 89 picks to be made, a full 12 of them (or 13.5|PERCENT|) belong to the Tampa Bay Rays.

That's strange. One would expect, all things being equal, that each of the 30 MLB teams would have approximately 1/30 of all the picks in the draft, or about 3.3|PERCENT| each. But because of free-agent compensation, wherein teams are granted picks for losing valuable players to the open market, the Rays will soon find themselves with an embarrassment of prospect riches.

Jonathan Mayo of explains how it happened:

Pick No. 32 is the Rays' natural pick. But they'll also select at No. 24 and No. 31. The 24th pick comes from the Red Sox for their signing of Carl Crawford and the 31st pick comes courtesy of the Yankees for Rafael Soriano.

That would be a big haul by itself. But that's not even close to being it. The Rays will have seven picks in the supplemental first round, thanks to the three Type A free agents they lost: Crawford, Soriano and Grant Balfour (they don't get the A's first-round pick, because while it's No. 18 now, it was in the top 15 before the Balfour signing). Tampa Bay also lost four Type B players: Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls and Brad Hawpe.

To cap it off, they'll get the A's pick in the second round as well as their own selection. That's a dozen selections before the second round is over.

If you think that this is happening accidentally, you're almost definitely thinking wrong. Rather, Tampa has actively cultivated situations where they could benefit from the departure of a free agent. As writer Jonah Keri notes zealously in his New York Times' best-selling The Extra 2|PERCENT|, the Rays excel at exploiting market inefficiencies.

Put another way, we might say that the Rays' front office is particularly adept at playing not just by, but also to, the rules. One could very well make a case against the current free-agent compensation system – in fact, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs did so compellingly last Novemeber – but so long as that system exists, smarter organizations like the Rays are sure to take advantage of whatever gains they can find.

"Playing to the rules" is a valuable concept for the fantasy owner to internalize. For, however much fantasy baseball resembles actual baseball, it is very much not the same thing. While fantasy games generally use real stats and players, each league has its own rules and regulations – and those rules present opportunities. The sooner an owner can come to terms with the fact that his league is its own universe, and not merely an extension of actual baseball, the sooner that owner will be competing for said league's title.

Consider: I currently play in a dynasty-type league wherein each owner is able to retain any player under the age of 27 with absolutely no penalty. For every player 27 or over, however, that owner must surrender a pick in the following year's preseason draft, starting with the first round. In other words, unless the player being kept is Albert Pujols, there's almost zero incentive to keep anyone 27 or over.

This being the case, there's also little incentive to retain even one player 27 or over heading into the offseason. As such, I've made a routine – in those seasons where I'm not right at the top of the standings – to pick up any and every player available under the age of 27. Because it's a deep league, such a strategy will never net top prospects like the Nationals' Bryce Harper or Angels' Mike Trout, but there are enough late-blooming prospects and post-hype sleepers to make it worthwhile. Within the last month of the 2010 season, for example, I acquired pitchers Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Esmil Rogers, and Mark Rogers. If those names look familiar, it's because each of them is beginning the season in his respective team's starting rotation.

One could easily level the criticism against this strategy that it doesn't resemble the way real baseball business is conducted. No team would (or could, actually) just drop talented but older players like Bobby Abreu and Shane Victorino in favor of unproven talent like Brandon Allen or Cory Luebke. But what a perspective like that takes for granted that fantasy baseball ought to replicate actual baseball exactly. Should it? That's a philosophical question outside the purview of the present article. What that criticism ignores is the joy of mastering a system for its own sake. Playing to what the rules are and not what they should be will elicit more fun (and more league titles) for an owner.