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Ask Rotoman: Feb. 22, 2006

Fantasy 411
 Rotoman

Send your toughest fantasy questions to Rotoman.

ROTOMAN'S TOP 10: 2006 Keepers:
Grady Sizemore, Felipe Lopez, Bill Hall, Chris Carpenter, Dontrelle Willis, Huston Street, Chase Utley, Jorge Cantu, Matt Holliday, John Patterson.


RULES

Dear Rotoman:

I'm thinking of starting a keeper league with my friends this year, and we're wondering what the "normal" rules for keeper leagues are. For example, how many players are kept? What's the draft procedure for the next year? I know that these probably vary from league to league, but if you can hook me up with some sort of "standard", that'd be great.

-- "Keeper Chooglin'"

Dear Chooglin':

When the founding fathers invented the game of Rotisserie, there might have been one set of keeper rules for a year perhaps, at most, but that was it. Soon thereafter the box was opened, players of the new game looked at themselves and just about every league adjusted their rules to reflect the way they thought was the most fun (and maybe fair).

For those new to the game, a keeper (or "freeze") is a player you are allowed to carry forward on your fantasy team from one year to the next. Keeper rules are usually a way to offer year-to-year continuity in fantasy leagues akin to that in the real game, and to ensure that different teams in a league have different short term (Win now!) or long term (Wail 'til next year) goals, which often keeps failing teams active until the end of the year.

In auction leagues, the key component of the freeze system is the player's price. Set in the auction, the owner's decision is usually whether or not to keep the player at that price the next year. Some leagues offer an additional wrinkle, whereby the owner can sign the player to an extended contract at an even higher price. Given the choice of Huston Street for $5 in 2006, or $10 in 2006-2008, an owner faces a decision. In this case a little one.

Teams that have fallen out of the running one year try to accumulate cheap keeps the next year by trading their better, but more expensive players for young talent. These sorts of deals (A-Rod for Rich Harden! A classic dump!) are great for owners who are able to cash in, and a hated part of the game for those who aren't. The fact that these particular roles usually change from year to year doesn't diminish the vitriol dump trades provoke.

Dump trades can be so infuriating, leagues end up disbanding, friends become enemies, and I end up devoting at least one column a summer to ways you can avoid wrecking your league with dump trades. So, when it comes to keepers, maybe the best first advice is, run away!

But the best second advice is to proceed thoughtfully, and if you're aware of the pitfalls, and know what you want your freezes to accomplish, it is likely you'll enhance your fantasy enjoyment by adding keepers.

The most important question for your league is how much they want a year's freezes to determine the next year's outcome. Steve Moyer, the "Baseball Outsider" who runs Baseball Info Solutions and publishes the "Bill James Handbook," plays in a league in which players can be kept forever. Steve calls it "old-time reserve clause baseball." This means that Minor League prospects go for a premium, and only one team is likely to own Albert Pujols during his entire career.

This also means that teams that are good tend to stay good for a while, but like big league teams, while they grow older their opponents get younger and better. Moyer says, "It's not just a one-year guessing game -- who's gonna have the better year and not get hurt -- A-Rod, Pujols or Vlad? You can truly build a good team if you're intelligent and patient -- again, just like old-time baseball. The struggle is always between keeping marginal Major Leaguers for roster depth as opposed to far-away prospects who might turn out to be gold three years from now. Luck is not nearly as much a factor as in other fantasy leagues."

Not every league tracks it's success by decades, however, but there is still the pull of keepers, just a little something to reward those who study deeper into the Minors, or who are better at picking off the best sleepers and breakout players. Once you know if you want to emphasize or deemphasize your draft, you can look at the specific draft mechanisms.

Leagues that allow teams to simply keep a certain number of players, regardless of when they were taken (we're talking draft leagues here), tend to favor the better teams and don't offer much reward for picking off rookies and breakouts. This sort of league promotes continuity, but not scouting.

Leagues that allow teams to keep a certain number of players the next year, as if they were taken in the rounds they were originally taken, help teams adopt a two-year plan if that makes the most sense, and encourages them to take more adventurous risks in the late rounds (especially if players taken in the reserve rounds may not be frozen). But since the affect lasts only a year, the draft is still quite meaningful.

Leagues that allow teams to keep players in the round they were initially taken for multiple years favor teams that have good initial drafts, and give them a sizeable advantage for years to come. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you plan on playing together for a long time, but it will almost certainly mean that each year some teams have no chance to win on draft day.

Leagues that offer contracts, so that a team may keep a player for additional years at a higher price than if he were to be kept for one year, offer more complex possibilities and tougher decisions, but they're also harder to administer and will also lock teams out of contention each year.

How many players may be kept makes a big difference, too. The fewer, generally, the less advantage, though in leagues that don't allow traded players to be kept, the number may not make a big difference. Moyer's league allows 25 keeps off of a 40-man roster. I play in a league that allows three keeps at last year's price, if they were bought, and doesn't allow you to keep players you traded for. These are perhaps the extreme end of the rules.

The reason to force traded players back into the draft pool each year is to help teams avoid stupid dump trades, in which it makes more sense to trade a superstar for a marginal keep than to not trade him at all. This is the situation that destroys trust and leagues and is to be avoided.

Chances are you'll start out with a trial set of freeze rules and then tweak them as you and your league mates learn what you like and what you don't about the freeze game. For my part, I've always liked the idea of a game full of freezes that turns on how well you can scout and acquire players for the long haul, like Moyer's game, but in all the leagues I've played when push came to shove, I've ended up favoring the keeping of a few players for one year (at last year's price), so long as they hadn't been traded.

I've concluded that the most fantasy baseball fun to be had comes on draft day, and it seems a shame to make that less important than last year's draft day. But that's me.

Conservatively,
Rotoman


COMPARE

Dear Rotoman:

Who should I choose for my second catcher slot this year? Also, who has the higher ceiling?

Ryan Doumit or Jeff Mathis?

-- ""Catch A Flyer""

Dear Flyer:

Big league teams love to have catchers playing for them who can hit the ball, but when it comes time to choose which player to include on the roster, they often take the guy who is better with the glove, with the better arm, who calls a better game (or handles the staff better). Years ago, Major League teams didn't look to their shortstop for offense, and while those days are for the most part long gone (will someone please wake up the Nationals), it still isn't surprising these days when a catcher who doesn't hit much wins a Major League roster spot.

Someday that will change, but until it does fantasy players have to figure out how to deal with the fact that in an AL or NL only league, as many as five or six of the worst offensive players in each league are going to be catchers.

The worst way, let me point out before any suspense builds, is to overpay for the best catchers. Stats are stats and they have a very definite value to a fantasy team. Paying more for them than they're worth, simply because they come from one of the few catchers who hits a lot, costs you value. Paying $17 for a catcher you expect to create $12 worth of stats keeps you from spending that $5 on someone else who will actually give you more than you paid for.

The best way to deal with the miserable hitting talent among the lesser catchers, I think, is to identify the catchers who are likely to get the most playing time who have the most offensive success in their backgrounds, and to try to pick off the ones that everyone else is least excited about.

Last year, I was excited -- as were many -- about Miguel Olivo, and on draft day I ended up spending $5 for him. While this seemed like a fair deal at the time (when I believed he'd be a decent hitting regular catcher for the Mariners), his miserable start quickly made it clear how foolish it was to bet on a guy who had a pretty poor record in more than 600 ML plate appearances.

For $1, Olivo would have been a worthy bust. For $5 he was simply a bad play, someone who pointed out how eagerly we can overlook a poor walk rate and a horrendous strikeout rate when he hits 13 homers in 300 PA. I bring this up because while Doumit and Mathis qualify as potentially decent backstops this year it would be a mistake to chase them on draft day. Here's why:

Doumit is a mediocre catcher, whose best recommendation as a backstop is that Pittsburgh almost certainly doesn't have a better option going into the season, unless they want to roll back the clock to Craig Wilson. But Doumit qualifies as a catcher, so even if he ends up at first base or in the outfield, as everyone expects, he'll qualify at catcher this year. Right? The problem is that Doumit's bat, no matter how powerful, doesn't project as a Major League outfielder's bat.

Mathis was considered a top prospect when he turned pro in 2001, but he's never since hit the way the Angels hoped he would. His 21 homers last year appear to cross a nice threshold, but his time in Salt Lake exaggerates his performance. Mathis's best quality, it turns out, is his glove. He's considered a very good defensive catcher, of big league quality if not a star, which is almost certainly the main reason the Angels blithely let Bengie Molina walk this past winter.

So, a guy with limited defensive skills who might hit enough to be a catcher, but based on what he's shown so far not enough to force the issue at another position, and a guy who everyone hoped would hit, who has the glove to win a big league job (and only 3 ML AB so far). I smell a death match coming on.

It's an ugly one, too. I have them each down for about 300 AB, with about a .710 OPS. Doumit actually has a small edge offensively, but the more I look at it the more I have to conclude that the 25-year-old Doumit is going to have a harder time getting at-bats this year unless he's catching, and when he's behind the plate it's hard not to think of him obsessing over his defense. That's a pitching staff of young hurlers who are going to need attention.

Mathis may or may not win the starting job from Jose Molina in the coming weeks, but even if he ends up in the bench role he's almost certain to be on the big team. This boost of confidence isn't meaningless, and so it seems reasonable to me for Mathis to end up with 300 cherry-picked at-bats.

That doesn't mean I'm chasing him to $6. His batting average should be miserable, but if I can get him for a buck or two in my mixed league, I'm going to. Doumit isn't a bad $1 pickup, either. He's certainly better than anyone in the constantly churning pool of older defensive whizzes who play backup on most teams. But Mathis, as a catcher at least, has a little advantage this year and a bigger one heading into the future.

Splittingly,
Rotoman


CHATTER

ROGER CLEMENS: No matter what he announces, given his competitiveness and history of changing his mind, he's worth an end game shot, especially in NL-only leagues. Of course if everyone in your league feels the same way, he's quickly going to cost some real money and become a big unpredictable risk. The WBC will probably clarify things for him, and us, before we have to bite down too hard.

AUBREY HUFF: He has volunteered to play third base, which he really doesn't do very well. He hit better in 2004 while playing third than not, but that's almost certainly a fluke given his fine bat the preceding two years while playing elsewhere. If the position change miraculously works out it gives Tampa a significantly better offense than otherwise possible, but pity the pitchers.

RANDY JOHNSON: He put up another 225 IP, which can lull one into forgetting how old he is, and how easy it is for his mechanics to fly apart given his big and aging frame. There's no reason to bet on his collapse, though that wouldn't be unreasonable, but he's going to decline. Riding him this year is a game of chicken.


THE BIG QUESTION

Dear Rotoman:

When a pitcher changes teams, several factors bear upon his ERA, ratio and wins total, including team offense, park factors, his relationship with the catcher and his team defense. Team offensive projections and park differences are easily accessible, but has anyone seen any studies on team defense (errors don't tell the whole story -- range, catcher caught stealing, etc. are also significant). For example, a pitcher gets traded from the Yanks to the White Sox -- is that worth .5 runs off his era? Rowand replaces Lofton in Philadelphia -- how much is that worth to the Phillies pitchers?

-- "Dee Sharp"

Dear Dee:

As you (not Gertrude Stein) say, errors don't tell even part of the story, while measures like range are seriously influenced by the profile of the pitching staff (fewer strikeouts means more opportunities, which is why the Colorado infielders usually lead in chances).

But we all are aware of the influence of fielders on the course of the game, which has to accrue to the pitchers (who get an inordinate amount of credit and blame when things go right or wrong). Good pitching staffs have done well when John Olerud is around, while the installation of a liability like Jason Giambi at first base has wrecked some Yankee pitching stats.

But how can we measure such a thing and apply it to our fantasy teams?

I don't think we can. The web of information that is necessary to describe a team's defensive capabilities makes it difficult to isolate any individual component. Defense really is team play, so that playing beside a player with superior range changes the context of a fielder's job.

Ideally, we could project team defensive efficiency based on some of the newest defense metrics that have been developed over the last 10 years or so, including Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating, David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range, Clay Davenport's Fielding Translations, among others, but right now the best we can do is make the assumption that defense is a skill that a player can bring with him from situation to situation, and that good defense helps pitchers.

Then we can look at the skills of defenders who changed teams last year and guess that pitchers on teams adding better defenders will be helped.

How much? Don't ask, but I think it's probably enough to warrant a small bump up of a pitcher's projection. Hardly a decisive factor, it's something to keep in mind.

Winners

- Arizona adds Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrnes, a slight upgrade since the guys they're replacing were above average last year.

- Minnesota adds Luis Castillo, who replaces a mess of second basemen at second base.

- Kansas City adds Mark Grudzielanek, a modest but clear win.

- Texas loses Alfonso Soriano, which could be a big help to Texas pitchers.

- San Diego loses Joe Randa, adds Mike Cameron, but adds Vinny Castilla, who was as hapless as Randa last year. Cameron is a plus in a big ballpark that will at least help the fly ball pitchers.

- Dodgers add Rafael Furcal and Jose Cruz, both of whom should help the staff a lot.

- Philadelphia adds Aaron Rowand, a plus, but not a huge one since Jason Michaels is moving out of left field.

Losers

- Toronto loses Orlando Hudson, adds Troy Glaus, ouch!

- Florida Loses Luis Castillo, but that isn't the half of it.

- St. Louis loses Grudzielanek but gain Junior Spivey, probably a wash.

- Pittsburgh adds Joe Randa, loses Tike Redman, which is going to hurt at least a little.

- Atlanta loses Furcal, but gains Edgar Renteria, who is coming off a bad defensive year but is usually Furcal's equal.

- White Sox lose Rowand, who won't be matched.

- NY Mets lose Cameron, who didn't help as much as usual last year.

- Washington loses Castilla but gains Soriano, who could end up at shortstop, heaven forbid.

- Do with these lists what you will. They are a rough first pass suggesting that Dodgers pitchers may be especially sweet this year, but more a first attempt to see if we can guess which way a team's pitching staff is going to move based on its defense.

- The Dodgers and Blue Jays stand apart here, each moving in opposite directions with pitching staffs that should make for a fair test, at least.

Until next time,
Rotoman

Ask Rotoman will appear weekly on MLB.com.
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