Normally in these strategy articles, I share my incredible genius and you walk away astounded at my knowledge and comfortable with the idea that you have seen greatness… or something like that. This one’s gonna be a little different. Yeah, I’m gonna share some of my takes on Keeper League Strategy. I have been playing in keeper leagues for over 17 years and I’ve learned a lot over that time. I’ve seen what works (first hand), and I’ve seen what doesn’t (unfortunately, also first hand).
Here’s the thing though. There are a lot of different ways to succeed in keeper leagues. In fact, there’s a virtual Baskin Robbins of keeper league flavors and no one way to win any of them. There are just too many variables to offer up all of the answers in one article. So rather than me telling you how to win keeper leagues, let’s just call this a discussion on Keeper League Strategy. I’ll do my talking here in the article. You chime in down below in the comments. Deal? Cool, let’s get started.
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Keeper League vs. Dynasty League
I’m not sure what the entries are in the Webster Dictionary, but here’s how I delineate keeper leagues from dynasty leagues. In Dynasty Leagues you can keep as many players as you want for as long as you want. In keeper leagues, you are limited to a certain number of keepers for a time period limited by a contract or incremental salary increases. There are also plenty of hybrids out there with all levels of in-between. For our purposes, we’re going to assume you can only keep a limited number, and there is some form of limitation on how long you can keep each player.
Keeper League Strategy
Now let’s get into the meat of this discussion. I’ll share some of my thoughts on the best ways to run a successful keeper league team. Then you can tell me where I went wrong in the comments.
Player Age in Keeper Leagues
I see way too many people overemphasize age in keeper leagues. Players can have similar stats, but they value a 23-year-old twice as much as a 28-year-old. Certainly, age is a consideration, but I’m not worried about a player’s age until they’re in the 33-year-old neighborhood. And even then I’ll take a chance if there’s a discount built in. My basic take is that if you’re thinking more than two or three years ahead, you’re thinking too much. Stop thinking Meat, you’re hurting the team.
Age does take on more importance if you have the ability to keep a player for extended contracts. In one keeper league I’m in, you get the player for three years at his auction price. After year two you can extend him up to four more years, but his price tag jumps $5 for every year you extend him. For example, I had Bo Bichette at $5 as I drafted him as a minor leaguer. Eventually, I had to make a decision whether to extend him or not. I of course extended him the maximum of four years. Starting in year four his salary was $25 (4 years X $5 plus initial cost). If Bichette were a pitcher I may not have extended him to the max. Injuries are so much more of a factor for pitchers that I am a bit hesitant to extend more than two years.
Prospects in Keeper Leagues
The level of planning changes a bit when your keeper league has a minor league component. Of course, you have to think a little more long-term. Still, I rarely consider a player below A-Ball. The minor league rosters in most keeper leagues are pretty limited. So rather than draft a player I may have to wait four years for, I focus on players likely to arrive in the next couple of seasons. There’s just too much that can go wrong over the course of a player’s minor league career to invest so much time when roster slots are scarce. I will make exceptions for rare talents like Bobby Witt Jr. or Wander Franco level talents.
Which Positions to Keep
This is one area where I probably differ from most keeper league managers who generally don’t target catchers or closers as keepers. Catchers tend to suffer more injuries and the wear and tear often take a toll on their production. Meanwhile, closer situations change all the time. Job security for all but the elite closers is almost non-existent. I acknowledge these issues but take a different angle.
All of the keeper leagues I play in use an auction to acquire players. I absolutely hate getting in bidding wars for the last good closer or fight over a catcher who can hit barely over .250 with 10 homers. For this reason, if I can grab a cheap catcher or luck into a bargain closer, I will not hesitate to keep them. In fact, during the latter parts of each season I target setup men I think could move into closer roles soon. I’ve “lucked” into $5 closers more than a few times doing this. It’s nice not to worry about saves heading into an auction. It’s also nice to bring up elite closers for bid and watch other people’s money fly off the table.
Keeper League Inflation
If you’re in an auction keeper league you know all too well what keeper league inflation is all about. Because so many players are kept at values well below their worth, there’s way too much money to go around for the talent that’s available. Players can easily go 50% or more over their normal values. There’s no way to prevent this from happening. It’s part of the nature of keeper leagues. You do have to deal with it though.
The first step is to form your dollar values for all the players in your pool like it is a redraft league. Then for all the players kept you subtract their keeper prices from their projected price. The sum of these difference are then added up and redistributed to the rest of the player pool. This is where inflation comes from.
I’ve seen way too many analysts suggest you just allocate that excess money out to the rest of the player pool on an even percentage basis. For example, let’s say there is $250 to allocate to what should be $200 dollars worth of players. Some would say you just multiply the dollar values for all available players by 1.25. The math works out, but reality is gonna kick you in the huevos if you take this approach. The rest of your league doesn’t think this way. No one is going to pay more for a player under $5 or so. The bulk of that excess money is going to the top half or third of available players.
So rather than figure out inflation by a flat percentage, I suggest you figure out how much extra money there is and manually allocate it predominantly to the top couple tiers at each position. In fact, if there’s a shortage at a certain position or in a single category, weigh that even more. If you just figure inflation at an even percentage, you’re going to end up with a lot of $3 players for $5 prices… and a whole lot of money left on the table.
Two Types of Keeper League Owners
In my experience, there are basically two types of keeper league owners. The first type builds a nice base of low-priced keepers and when the time is right, trades most of them for expensive stars in an attempt to win that year. This type of manager tends to succeed in cycles. There will be a few years of competitive teams followed by a couple of years of rebuilding. I’ve admittedly fallen into this category for a lot of my fantasy life.
I’ve worked on becoming the second type of keeper league owner over the last couple of years. This type of owner has competitive teams year in and year out. A few years ago I had just finished a successful two-year run and had very few decent keepers. I could either try to scrap for an unlikely money finish or I could start building what I hoped would be a long-term successful team. This time I chose the latter. I made some great trades for Acuna and Trea Turner in my NL league and a bunch of young pitching studs in my AL league.
It paid off immediately in my NL league. I led the league for much of the year before things faded and I had to settle for second place. The key is that I didn’t mortgage my future for a shot at first. I did sell off a couple of lesser keepers, but I kept my core. I’m not completely comfortable with not doing whatever it took to grab the title, but the reality is that it might not have worked anyway and I would be rebuilding all over again. As it happened, I did win the league the next year with that same core and a little more luck on the injury front. Hopefully, I have the patience to stay the course. I may not. If I think trading off a top keeper will ensure a title I will still probably go for it. It’s in my nature.
Building for the Future Using a Stars and Scrubs Approach
Most years I feel like I have a chance to compete and I will do my best to do just that. Some years however you know there’s no shot. In this case building for the future takes priority over winning now. The conventional wisdom is to spread the value around and hope to land some good values late in the draft. This can work, but I think there’s a better way to do it.
In years that I’m convinced there’s no way I can contend, I use a Stars and Scrubs approach. I spend a lot of money on elite players I know other people will value highly. Of course, that means many of my other players will have to be purchased for very small salaries. That’s okay. That’s where keepers come from.
It doesn’t end there though. Those high-dollar players I purchased at auction are going to be on everybody’s wish list during the regular season. Starting from Opening Day on I’m going to start trying to extort the very best keepers and prospects from teams that want to win it all this year. So in addition to the low-priced players I bought at auction, I’m hopefully adding the cream of the keeper crop. This is how I built that NL-Only team a few years back with Acuna, Trea Turner, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, and several other elite keepers.
Now the key for me will be to use those keepers to win leagues and sell them off when the time comes but to maintain a competitive team throughout the process. That is a much harder dance to do, but if I want to consider myself a top keeper league owner, I have to be able to do it.
Your Keeper League Conundrums
So that’s my take on some of the issues we all deal with in keeper leagues. I’ve won a lot of titles, but I’ve also had to endure some tough years. I’m hoping to get rid of some of those valleys in the next few years while still winning my share of leagues. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. What keeper league strategy do you employ? Looking for suggestions on your current roster? Whatever it is, let’s keep these comments active and we’ll work together to build a better tomorrow… I’ve always wanted to end a column like that… It was kind of a letdown.
Got some keeper league strategy of your own? Let us know about it in the comments below. For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!
Doug Anderson is a 15-year veteran of the Fantasy Sports industry. His work has appeared on RotoExperts.com, Yahoo.com, SI.com, and NFL.com, as well as on the pages of USA Today’s Fantasy Baseball Weekly and various other magazines. Doug participates in both LABR and Tout Wars, the two preeminent expert fantasy baseball leagues in existence. Doug was formerly the Executive Editor at RotoExperts and is now Managing Editor here at FantraxHQ. You can follow him on Twitter @RotoDaddy.