Moving Out Of The Middle
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.”
So the offseason ended, your drafts and last minute big pre-season trades are all in the past, and… your team looks set to finish firmly in the middle of the pack. If your league were one of the seven churches addressed by John the Revelator, you’d be Laodicea– lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, vomited out of God’s mouth. If that metaphor is too heavy handed, perhaps you’d prefer the Steeler’s Wheel version: with clowns to the left of you, jokers to the right, here you are, stuck in the middle.
There’s nothing more dispiriting than starting the fantasy season knowing you’re going to finish in the middle. Maybe you’re on your way up from a long rebuild but still blocked from contention. Maybe your contention cycle has been thrown into disarray due to injury, bad moves, or other circumstances beyond your control. Either way, it’s April and you’ve got more scrubs than stars, whatever top prospects you do have are years from helping, and the few contributors you do have are on the wrong side of the aging curve. You’re in the perfect situation to finish out of the top 5 but too high to jump in with all the other rebuilders in your league. What do you do?
There’s plenty already written about the process of building and rebuilding a team that is relevant to making a move out of the middle of the pack. The concepts Bret Sayre covered in depth in his Rebuilding A Dynasty Team series are still solid gold, especially parts 10-12. Eric Erhardt’s recent Building A Balanced Team series covers specific players, but also concepts that can help ensure your dynasty team has a foundation upon which to build a contender.
As your season ramps up, here are a few strategies to keep in mind that can make the difference between a perpetual also-ran and a potential impact team. The goal isn’t to go from an 8th place team to contender in one year; it’s to pick a side (hot or cold) and make the bold moves required to position yourself clearly for the future. Don’t be lukewarm.
Assess Your Current Situation
The most important thing to do early in the season is assess your position in your contention cycle. Don’t look only at your projections for your team– look at your position in the league as a whole. Review each team and try to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Where do you fit in? Are you likely to finish in the 5-10 range in every category as a jack of all trades but master of none? Are you dominant in a few categories but far away in others? Who is your primary competition in each category? Are the players who are helping you likely to get better, stay about the same, or get worse over the next couple years?
Understanding where your team fits now is critical to making the right moves. If you survey the landscape and find your team is dominant in risky categories like steals and saves, but your rotation is shallow or your staff is old, you should be targeting different assets than if you’ve got a team of young, good players without any clear stars to jump ahead in any given category. Take time now to take stock of your team, and your league. Look at the average AND median age for your team, if both are under 25 or over 32, you’re probably not going to contend in the next one to two years without a lot of luck.
Then set your sights on your contention window. If you don’t think you can contend in the next two or three years, you’re not thinking creatively enough.
Don’t Assume You Have To Rebuild
Tanking sounds like fun: you get to buy flashy prospects at full retail, you get sexy draft picks, and you end up feeling great about your minor league reserves every January when top prospect lists come out. But during the season, tanking can be brutal, and if your top prospects don’t hit or you trade them at the wrong time you can be stuck at the bottom in perpetuity. If you’re in the middle, chances are there are already other teams in your league crowding each other out at the bottom. This can mean too much competition driving up the prices of top prospects, and too much risk that your efforts to tear everything down won’t pay off.
Finishing in the middle this year doesn’t have to be a bad thing, assuming your team is moving in a direction. If you make the right moves, there’s really no reason you can’t jump up five or more spots in the rankings within a year, regardless of where you project yourself right now. While other teams are racing to the bottom, look for opportunities to jump ahead of them and put distance between you.
At the same time, be honest about your chances and don’t be afraid to burn it down if that’s truly the right move. If you’ve been relying on aging veterans for years and have no farm system to replace them, push yourself younger. You don’t need to pull an Astros or a Sixers, but if you decide to do that, don’t half-ass it.
Play Every Week To Win
The worst thing you can do as a middling team, especially early in the season, is check out. The fantasy baseball season is long and arduous, and everyone checks out for a period. One of the best ways to rise up in the standings is to be active and move constantly. If your league allows daily roster moves, act constantly. Compete. Platoon your hitters in favorable matchups. Stream those crappy starters who are always available cheap. Don’t leave any active spot empty unless that’s a strategically advantageous decision. The second one of the contending teams drops their guard– maybe they forget to replace an injured starter for a week or two– you should be benefitting.
At the end of the season, this probably won’t matter for your standings. In the off chance, though, that these moves work out, you can find yourself contending much sooner than you expected. This is doubly true in H2H leagues, where you can profit considerably by being better than just one team each week.
Speculate On Saves
The one difference between the contenders in your league and everyone else is in how saves are valued down the stretch. Closers are volatile, and a good or even middling one becomes exponentially more valuable as the year progresses. As you’re combing waivers, closers should be your primary target. Speaking of combing waivers…
Be The Most Active Person in FAAB/Waivers
If you’re in a FAAB league and you’re not a contender or rebuilder, you should be a trade partner for both. This means speculating NOW on waivers or FAAB: every call up or injury replacement is a lottery ticket you should be scratching. If you’re playing each week to win, you should be playing your dynasty league almost as if it were a redraft league: focus on the value you can get today.
Unlike a redraft league, though, the purpose of this activity isn’t to eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die…
Trade Often And Trade Well
The kinds of players available in FAAB or waivers for most dynasty leagues will not be impact talents; they’ll be role players. As soon as you hit a hot streak on a player who doesn’t project to be an impact talent on your next contending team, trade that player for someone who can get you closer to that talent. This often means trading up through small moves constantly: turning whoever is getting saves on the Phillies or Reds into a post-hype prospect; turning that post-hype prospect into a quality bat going through a slump; turning that quality bat around for a decent SP2 as soon as the slump breaks and a hot streak sets in.
There are a few types of trades in particular that middling teams should be more willing to consider than most other teams…
Trade Your Draft Picks Or FAAB Dollars When They’re Valuable
For any non-player currency– draft picks, FAAB dollars, salary, etc.– the only value is in what these assets can return. Understand what your league mates traditionally pay for these assets and use your position as a team with nothing to lose to your advantage: throw in the draft pick, take on a salary dump, or throw back some FAAB dollars if it can improve the return you get in a trade enough to justify the risk.
Buy Injured Impact Players
Contending AND rebuilding teams can be devastated by injury if a key piece is lost for a season. Swoop in and pay what it would take to own these players based on your assessment of their likelihood to return healthy. I’m a huge believer in buying up SP1 and SP2 types who need Tommy John and stashing them on the DL– an Alex Cobb will help your team next year a lot more than he’ll help the contender stashing him this year, and prying those players away for whatever discount you can get is a great way to get potential stars and push your cycle closer.
Don’t Be Afraid To Pivot
The most important thing you can remember if you’re trying to position your team to move out of the middle is to keep an open mind. Maybe today you’ve assessed your contention cycle in the league and think you’ve got a shot next year, so you start targeting players you project to be more valuable in 2017. Tomorrow, you might have a shot to trade some of that 2017 value for even better 2018 potential. Alternately, injuries and bad luck might push you from an eighth or ninth place team into the bottom or top third of your league, and force you to go hard in the rebuild or contention mode now.
As an example, last year I had a team built to win now around a core of older veterans with very little pitching depth. After Giancarlo Stanton was injured, I had an opportunity to trade Todd Frazier, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Bautista for Stanton and Lance McCullers– the Stanton team was built to win now even more than my team was. If I was dead set on sticking to my plan, I could have ridden my team all the way to a 4th place finish with a limited shot at the title. By making the trade in early June, I was able to push my contention window back a year while also resetting my focus and targeting a new type of player.
Never Stop Having Fun
The most important thing fantasy baseball players can remember is that this is a game, and as such it’s meant to be fun. No one has less fun in a dynasty league than the team stuck in tenth place for three years in a row. Whatever you do, pick a side–hot or cold– and stay active. You don’t want to be that lukewarm team again next year, stuck in the middle again.