So Your Keeper League Has Too Many Fire Sales…

I’m a big fan of keeper leagues. The thing I like most about them isn’t that I get to keep a core of talent from year to year, it’s that I can make fair and reasonable trades at just about any point in the season. In redraft leagues, I’m convinced that the optimal strategy is to never trade unless someone is offering you insane value. Usually, a trade is mutually beneficial such that both owners gain a similar number of points. There are cases where that’s useful, but generally speaking, there aren’t many opportunities available.

The ability to balance future and current value is what opens up more trading possibilities in keeper leagues. If my season starts poorly, I can trade a full price veteran for somebody with keeper value. If my fortunes swing back in the other direction, I can trade for win-now talent. Depending on the exact format and rules, it’s usually ideal to keep a mix of keeper and win-now talent if you want to win. In many ways, standard keeper leagues are similar to ottoneu. You’ll just usually find that the $1 “prospects” are Xander Bogaerts or Oscar Taveras rather than Thomas La Stella.

However, not every owner is as bloodthirsty as me. I could have the worst April of fantasy history and still try to salvage the season. Last season provides a good example. I have a linear weights points league that I began deep in 12th place. Around mid-season, I finally climbed out of the basement and eventually crawled to fifth (edging out Jeff Zimmerman by just 23 points in the process).

I wish every owner scraped and clawed that hard. Unfortunately, many owners will throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity. What compounds this problem is that there are two first mover advantages to conducting the first fire sale. The owner who sells first gets to target the best keepers and because it’s probably early in the season, they get to ask for close to full season value on their players. Early season fire sales can undo an entire offseason of excellent work when one of your rivals just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Depending on the league, an elite keeper can return up to five good-to-elite veterans. That can cause an absurdly massive swing in the balance of power.

I run a league that has had this problem. In the first draft year, I snatched up $1 Bryce Harper and $1 Stephen Strasburg. The keeper mechanism is unlimited keepers at draft price plus $7, so prospects get costly fast. For example, I draft $3 Taveras last year hoping he would reach the majors. He didn’t so he was an obvious cut at $10 (I actually traded him last week, but that’s beside the point). Aside from Mike Trout, the best keepers in this league are the Chris Davis‘s and Jose Bautista’s of the world.

In that first year draft, a fellow owner had internet issues mid-draft and went on auto-pick. It definitely ruined his draft, giving him a hard uphill battle if he wanted to contend. Instead of grinding it out, he opted to conduct a fire sale in March. That ruined an excellent draft that I conducted by handing my top rival a ton of talent. At the time, I was unwilling to sell Harper or Strasburg when I knew that their value would triple in just a few months time. I did eventually sell some top keepers for bushels of talent and ended up missing first place by 4 runs or .01 WHIP (Yahoo didn’t break WHIP ties at the time).

This behavior continued for the next three years of the league, with me trying all manner of methods to coax more of a win now attitude out of my fellow owners. I know this is not an unusual problem either. When owners get down on their team, they turn to prospects. Aside from true dynasty leagues, this is a vice that almost never pays. The problem can compound with a traditional pay structure.

In most leagues, only the top two or three teams win money. Those top three teams are also the most incentivized to sell their keepers for elite talent ASAP. That can cause them to build a commanding lead. Fourth and fifth place might stay in the game, but sixth place probably falls out of it. That owner decides to fire sale too, except now there aren’t any good prospects left because six other teams have already scooped up the best, second best, and the fringe. So Mr. Sixth Place is left selling good talent for players who might barely be worth keeping if you squint right.

The solutions I see offered are usually to control trading through some complex mix of rules. Sometimes the commissioner is asked to intervene or the league becomes veto happy whenever there’s a trade that smells remotely fishy. I’ve also seen rules where a team in the bottom half of the standings can’t trade with a team in the top half (or some variation thereof).┬áIn my opinion, the best solutions do not rely on commissioner discretion. Nor do I relish the prospect of conducting a negotiation with an eye towards what can sneak through the ban hammer.

I think I finally hit upon a winner prior to last season – I flattened the payout structure. The league in question was a $20 league. I bumped it up to $40. Theoretically, more money on the line means more effort, although the long season diminishes that effect. More powerfully, I made each place worth $5, starting with 10th. It’s a 12 team league, so the last two places get no payout, 10th gets $5, 9th gets $10, so on and so forth until the top two spots share out the remainder.

Under that payout regime, practically everybody is a buyer. There’s still that one guy whose team just collapses around him from the outset. He’ll still conduct a fire sale, but he’ll find a marketplace with more buyers. The owner of the ninth place team may forgo a fire sale if he doesn’t receive a compelling offer – he doesn’t want to lose $5. Similarly if an owner is in seventh but only three points behind fifth, he’ll look to buy talent in order to chase down those $10. The incentive is stronger if eighth and ninth are in close pursuit.

I’m very pleased with the results. We had only one late-August fire sale last season. Owners can still conduct that fire sale if the math adds up. Meanwhile, nearly every owner has an incentive to claw and scrape their way as high up the standings as possible. Really, the only down side is that the top teams see a slightly smaller payout than would otherwise be expected. For an excellent fantasy experience, that’s a small price to pay.

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I’m in a long term keeper league, and our approach, implemented about 7 years ago, was to institute a salary cap. We started with the cap too high and have tightened it over the years, settling on something tight but workable a few years ago. It isn’t perfect but it does almost entirely prevent truly balance altering trades.

I really like your idea, though. I had something similar, where the the top 5 get $$$ money but are disadvantaged in next years draft (pick last in non-snaking standard draft), the middle 5 get an opportunity to a “bonus” (a nice bottle of booze), and the bottom 5 get better lottery picks in determining draft position. Flattening the payout is a similar and perhaps better idea.

Ultimately, though, for most people, it’s much more about time than money or booze or anything else. When you’re all 40, the amount of work it takes to make smart trades and stay involved with a league is so far out of proportion to the amount of money you might win, it’s almost impossible to fix the situation with financial carrots and sticks.