Free access to free agents

by on May 21, 2009 @ 00:00:00 PDT


In the Draft Day section, we outlined major strategic differences between rotisserie leagues that allow free access to the free agent pool, and those leagues that do not:

  • More risk-taking is encouraged
  • Dollars shift slightly to superstars
  • More $1 players are prevalent
  • Position scarcity merits greater attention
  • Saves can be punted more easily
  • Trading is de-emphasized
  • If you were paying attention, then you probably have a leg up on your competitors already. And you probably are not frustrated about the difficulty inherent in trading for hitters in a free access league - because you already knew that.

But the contrast between leagues that allow easy access to the free agent pool and standard leagues is starkest in mid-season. Free access leagues require constant attention to minor league call-ups, injuries and the fight for jobs. That's because many GMs can profit by dipping into the pool weekly - or even more frequently in some leagues.

If you were paying attention back in March, the team you drafted probably has more stars - well, maybe one or two more stars. And at the other end of the scale, your team has more low-priced players. Only once in a blue moon does a Barry Bonds or a Kevin Brown appear in the free agent pool. But a Benny Agbayani can often be found in the pool to replace that $1 player you drafted who didn't pan out.

Others no doubt were roster blank spots waiting to be filled with productive players. But none of these $1 draft-day players are black holes pulling your stats downward - because by now you have filled those holes with productive free agents. If you owned a starter who's spent the first few months with a 7.79 ERA on your team, you can thank your lucky stars that your league permits free drops. It's also quite helpful (though a tougher decision for fantasy GMs) to be able to easily dump more expensive draft day acquisitions. Waiting months for a starting pitcher like Jose Lima to turn it around is not only unnecessary, it's folly. Drop him unless you see clear signs of a turnaround. If you are convinced of his resurgence a week or two later, perhaps you can pick him up again before your fellow GMs catch on.

Filling blank pitching roster spots is generally easier than finding a decent hitter from the pool. A typical 12-team AL fantasy league will have 46 pitchers available at any one time in the free agent pool compared to only 28 hitters. And given the 14 hitter/9 pitcher (or 15/10) fantasy roster configuration, there is often more competition for hitters. The greater abundance of pitchers means there are usually decent middle-relievers available in every pool who at least won't hurt your stats and could potentially help in several categories.

But finding gems in the pool is NOT confined to pitching. Very few NL- or AL-only teams have productive full-time hitters at all 14 (or 15) spots on their rosters. Upgrading from a player getting 5 AB per week to one earning 15 weekly plate appearances in Coors is a move you want to make immediately.

Because of position scarcity, the hardest spots to fill with productive players are typically the catcher and middle infield slots. Let's hope that you filled those slots with full-time regulars in the draft. Productive starting pitchers also are usually tough to find, and solving problems in your starting rotation with free agent pick-ups is usually an illusory goal. Even fewer worthwhile starters are available in ultra leagues, where teams may stockpile prospects or bench players with potential on their reserve list as well as in their farm systems. But more may be available in 5x5 leagues, where strikeout pitchers are worth retaining even if they carry somewhat unappetizing qualitative numbers.

Typically, few solid starting pitchers are available from the pool from June through August, though one trick is to pick up a rookie who starts off well and either trade or let him go before the stats start to fade on his second trip around the league. Another is to pick up a pitcher who started out poorly and was dumped by his disillusioned draft-day owner.

Trading is tougher in leagues with free-access-to-free-agents - that's why we recommended fantasy GMs give greater consideration to category balance and position scarcity in the draft. One reason trading is more infrequent is that most fantasy GMs have limited time to spend on improving their team, and hours spent scouring the free agent pool cannot be devoted to proposing or evaluating trades. Secondly, offering to take dead weight off somebody else's roster via trade no longer is needed. Finally, the threat of not meeting the innings requirement is almost non-existent in free access leagues. Since those innings are simply a free agent call-up away, no GM is going to rush into a trade for a starting pitcher simply to avoid this penalty. But trading will be easier after the All-Star game, as GMs realize that the free agent pool will not cure their ills.

A couple of other midseason tactical and strategic tips are useful:

  • Eternal vigilance (and analysis) is the price of superiority. Baseball HQ provides a daily round-up of call-ups and injuries, and the Player Status Charts offer helpful hints. But you often will need to evaluate the impact of injuries, call-ups, promotions and demotions yourself, both in the short-term and over the course of the season.
  • Micro-management can be good management in free access leagues. Constant turnover of a few slots (especially pitcher, OF, UT or DH positions) until you find a winner from the free agent slag-heap can bring dividends. If quality is not obtainable, try to find the best players available for a few months or even a few weeks. Similarly, the value of sticking with a player who has better skills but no opportunity is de-emphasized.
  • He who hesitates is lost. GMs learn to be quick on the draw to pick up potential closers and lineup regulars. If you hesitate in going after a reliever after he gets his first save, he is usually gone by the next week in many leagues.
  • Take full advantage of hot starts, especially for bottom tier players. It doesn't take much foresight to predict that most of these guys will not sustain their numbers. Rather than wait for them to tank over the rest of the year, the astute owner will simply drop them if trade offers draw no interest.
  • Take advantage of situational and environmental changes. You are not wedded to a player for the entire season. Track games played in the more hitter-friendly or pitcher-friendly parks and shuttle players on or off reserve as needed.

Most important, this type of league requires greater flexibility and risk-taking than standard leagues. Don't expect to be able to relax after your draft!

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