Managing your roster with an in-season salary cap

by BaseballHQ.com on May 7, 2009 @ 10:30:00 PDT

 


Note: This article was originally written by Art McGee.

The in-season salary cap was one of the last major innovations to the official rules of Rotisserie, introduced in the late 1990s as an optional measure for leagues that carry over players from one season to the next. The in-season cap has proven effective in mitigating the long-standing problem of dumping, in which contending teams acquire high-priced stars from non-contending teams in exchange for low-priced future prospects.

Therefore, many carryover leagues have adopted in-season caps, presenting new challenges - and, for savvy owners, opportunities - in roster management. This column discusses some of the implications of the in-season cap and offers suggestions on how to make the most of your capped roster.

Roto owners have always had to deal with a salary cap at one crucial point of the season - during the draft. Without an in-season cap, owners have the luxury of ignoring salaries once the draft ends (except perhaps when considering the implications of a transaction for future seasons).

With an in-season cap, some of the same thought processes that must be applied during the draft continue to be applicable throughout the season. That is, you must consider not just whether you want a certain player on your roster, but whether you want him on you roster at a given price. Salary dollars remain a limited resource throughout the season, and you must allocate them wisely.

A contending team typically increases its total salary during the season in three ways:

  1. Trading
  2. Purchasing free agents
  3. Activating players from reserve lists

In all cases, of course, these transactions only increase total salary if the acquired or activated player has a higher salary than the player he is replacing, but this will tend to be the case for a contending owner who is trying to pack his roster with as much talent as possible.

Going into the draft, you know exactly how many dollars are available to be spent and what players are available. You can therefore estimate fairly precisely just how much value you should get for every dollar you spend.

When trying to estimate the value of salary dollars during the season, however, you cannot be nearly as precise. Although you know that each team will have an in-season cap of $40 above the draft budget (according to the official Rotisserie rules), you don't know how many teams will remain in contention and seek to use the entire amount of their salary cap. You would have an even harder time estimating the additional player value that will become available to the contending teams through trades with out-of-contention teams, free agent purchases, and the emergence of players from team's reserve lists.

Although precise values will vary from league to league and season to season, in my observation, in-season salary cap dollars in a league with a draft+40 cap tend to be slightly more valuable than dollars at the draft. For example, if your NL Roto league has a $280 draft budget and a $320 in-season cap, contending teams will likely have the opportunity to accumulate a bit more than $320 worth of value on their roster as the season progresses, in terms of how players would be valued in their draft.

This assertion underscores the importance of good in-season salary management, because the only way to get more than $320 worth of draft value on your roster will be to manage your roster wisely. With that in mind, the following guidelines may help you maximize value under a salary cap:

Factor salaries into trading decisions and seek to trade for lower salaries. All else equal, a trade is clearly advantageous if you acquire less salary than you trade away. Swapping for a lower-priced player gives you more room under the salary cap to add other valuable players to your roster.

One less obvious implication of this concept is that a trade can be beneficial to you even if you give up a more valuable player for a less valuable player, as long as the salary difference is great enough. Suppose in 2001 you traded a $34 Chipper Jones (3B, ATL) for a $2 Paul LoDuca (C, LA). Over the course of the season, Jones was $11 more valuable, but the additional $32 of room under the cap could have allowed you to add much more than $11 of additional value to your roster. This could have been a very good trade indeed under the right circumstances (even ignoring the future-season benefit).

A rival owner may jump on the chance to acquire the more valuable player in this type of trade, particularly if he is not as aware of the impact of the cap. As a rule of thumb, try to gain at least twice the difference in salary as the difference in value lost between the players in the trade. And don't employ this tactic unless you already know how you are going to use the added salary capacity.

One final suggestion about trading for lower salaries: A particularly promising place to seek under-priced players is among those players in the last year of their contracts on out-of-contention teams. The owners of these teams, in looking to dump, are likely to be indifferent to the salary of the player they are trading. For the right package of prospects, you can gain a valuable player at a bargain salary.

Factor the salary cap into free agent bidding. You should always be trying to purchase free agents for as little as possible, but an in-season cap gives you one more reason to try to make the lowest winning bids you can. As your team's total salary approaches the cap during the course of the season, consider how different winning bids will affect your ability to make other transactions.

Will a certain bid take you so close to the cap that you won't be able to activate a key player when he comes off the DL? Will it put you so close to the cap that you will effectively be unable to bid for the next valuable free agent that becomes available? If so, you should feel confident that the player you are bidding on is worth that tradeoff, or else you should lower your bid accordingly.

Although it's too late to change your current season draft, consider the following tactics in future drafts if your league has an in-season salary cap:

Spend judiciously in the end game. When owners have too many dollars chasing too few players at the end of the draft, they typically spend whatever they have left to get the player they want. That makes sense in the absence of an in-season cap, but may not if your league has a cap.

Pick up a "warm body" or two in the late reserve rounds. In Ultra leagues with deep reserve drafts, the late rounds are usually used to pick up minor league prospects. Instead, consider using one or two of your $2 reserve picks to stash away an extra hitter and/or a do-no-harm middle reliever whom you expect to be on a major league roster throughout the season. If you get into salary cap trouble during the season, the ability to activate one of these players may become quite valuable.

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