Play For This Year, Not Next

Before I begin, I wanted to get something out of the way first. I have never played in a keeper league for more than a season (therefore never having the opportunity to make keeper selections), and so I might be wrong about my feelings on this strategy. But, I don’t think I am. On Saturday, I was asked to participate in an online auction for a FanGraphs reader who was unable to attend. Being the awesome person that I am and unwilling to pass on a chance to participate in another auction, the player selection format I enjoy significantly more than the snake draft, I said yes with little convincing necessary.

This was a 12-team 5×5 mixed rotisserie keeper league, where if an owner chooses to keep a player, his salary would increase $3. Standard roster size, except the league uses just one catcher instead of two. Oh, and you also use your auction budget ($270, instead of $260) to bid on your 5 reserves. Anyway, having had little experience in a keeper league auction to compare, this one seemed insane. Let me tell you how.

Given the $3 yearly salary increases and the shallowness of the league, I did not expect salary inflation to be very high. Unfortunately, the owner whose team I drafted does not calculate inflation or estimate it, so I was in the dark and just guessing. When the auction began and went a couple of rounds, it seemed clear that I was right. There didn’t appear to be any inflation at all, simply from knowing single-season 12-team mixed league prices. At this point, all seemed normal.

Soon though, it got a little crazy, as I did notice inflation. But it happened for a certain set of players – prospects! Surprise, surprise. Who would have ever thought that prospects would be massively overvalued in keeper leagues? Let’s get to some specific names.

Oscar Taveras is definitely an awesome prospect. But, there is no room for him in the Cardinals outfield. Sure, their outfielders are brittle and Jon Jay is no guarantee to perform well. However, there is a strong chance that Taveras see limited playing time in St. Louis and earns nothing this year. So how much was his new owner willing to pay for the privilege of watching him bash minor league pitching? $13. Who else went for an auction value around that level? Paul Konerko at $12 and Ike Davis at $11. Those guys certainly could have helped this year. The chance that Taveras not only earns his $13 salary, but also is worthy of keeping for $16 next season is almost nil I’d imagine. This is exhibit A of out of control prospect love.

Next up on the prospect roller coaster are a pair of starting pitchers who were nabbed by the same owner. Again, Gerritt Cole and Zack Wheeler are fantastic talents, but this is a 12-team mixed league, as shallow as can be. These two were paid $5 and $4 for their services, respectively. In any non-keeper league, they aren’t getting drafted. So the assumption here must be that they have a good shot of providing keeper value at $8 and $7 next season. Is it possible? Sure. But considering who else this owner may have been able to set winning bids on, it just makes it that much more of a head-scratcher. Check out this list:

Josh Beckett $4
A.J. Burnett $4
Dillon Gee $1
Erasmo Ramirez $1
Jason Hammel $5
Hisashi Iwakuma $4
Matt Garza $4
Jaime Garcia $1
Tommy Milone $2
Tim Hudson $3
Derek Holland $2

That is quite a decent list with some real bargains mixed in. I must ask — is this owner trying to win this year or just collecting prospects so if they ever pan out, he could pat himself on the back and tell his competitors “I told you so!”?

Last, we move on to another pair of offensive prospects who were won by a different prospect-loving owner. Here we find the drool-worthy prospect Jurickson Profar, who seems to be getting way overhyped no matter the league format (he went for $9 in the LABR AL auction that our own Eno Sarris participated in). In this league, he went for $5. Who else could this owner have potentially gotten that is nearly guaranteed to earn positive value this season? Alexei Ramirez and Howie Kendrick, who both went for $4. Hmmm, will my team be better off with a minor league all-star or a solid contributor at the Major League level?

This owner also purchased Avisail Garcia for $3, for reasons unbeknownst to me. Instead, he could have ended up with Carlos Quentin, who went for a measly buck, Peter Bourjos who went for $2, or bid $3 for Domonic Brown before I made that winning bid in the endgame.

I totally understand that these owners will be utilizing bench spots for as long as these kids remain in the minors. But bench spots are valuable, especially to rotate in two-start starters each week and also to handle injuries.

Look, I get the excitement that a prospect brings, especially in keeper leagues when you have the opportunity to draft them young and then potentially reap the benefits later. But every single year there is going to be a group of top prospects available that won’t help you for at least another year. Shouldn’t the goal be to win every year? The only way to do that is to stop speculating on these minor leaguers who will provide you with no value and instead scoop up the undervalued veterans. If you are always chasing the next big thing, you will never have the current big thing or anything close to the current big thing.

Please loyal readers, make us proud and try to win every year! It might be boring to fill your team with a bunch of Konerkos, but value is value, and if you are acquiring those stats for less than they are worth, it doesn’t matter whose name they are attached to. So stop trying to play for next year and impress your league mates with your prospect knowledge. All it’s going to lead to is a spot in the cellar, and no one likes being in the basement, right?




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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

42 Responses to “Play For This Year, Not Next”

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  1. lester bangs says:

    The headline nails it. Most smart leagues have one notable and fatal flaw – they can’t help themselves when it comes to keepers and kids. This will only be worse in 2013, with the Trout and Harper afterglow. Exploit it, go boring, play to win now.

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  2. David says:

    While in the league that you’re looking at it seems clear that players are truly costing themselves a chance at winning this year via these bids, I think the general message (focus on players for this year) is very league dependent. In shallower keeper leagues, I generally agree that focusing on this year is the correct strategy, but the deeper the league gets, the lower replacement level is, and the harder it is to acquire top-level talent unless you get them before they break out in the majors, and so you have to have an eye on the future.

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    • Brett22 says:

      This could not be more true. A 12 team mixed league with keeper inflation is barely more challenging than a shallow redraft. Try to undervalue prospects in a deep dynasty format. You’ll spend years in the cellar.

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      • pete2286 says:

        I am in a 20 team dynasty and I don’t find this to be the case. Prospects are just way too volatile and a new crop of “Top 100″ prospects emerges every year. In a deep dynasty league commit your resources towards solidifying your lineup first, then your rotation. I am in a perpetual process of trading prospects and relief pitchers (once they become closers) because you can simply back fill with the next crop that comes along.

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      • Brett22 says:

        If the guys you pay with are overpaying for fringe top 100 prospects and closers in a dynasty format, that speaks more to the quality of your league than anything. This article is referencing the Taveras and Profar calibre prospects.

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      • Arsenio says:

        Pete2286 hit it on the head. We’ve got a couple “prospect whores” in my deep (30 players) 20 team Dynasty league. The always want the “shiny, new toy” & will pay to possess it. There seems to always be 4-5 guys competing to have the best team on paper in 2016. Some know what they’re doing & some don’t. Some are stuck with half & half rosters w/ an infield of Helton, Michael Young, Correa & Sano.

        I turn over closers, draft picks, and prospects every year to fill/bolster the weakest points of my roster and haven’t finished out of the money in 4 years.

        The key is knowing the other owners in your league & giving them rope to hang themselves with if the have a valuation weakness.

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      • tylersnotes says:

        i find exactly what arsenio says above to be true. In a deep dynasty it’s important to know how to use your minors, and while part of that is understanding the value (potential vs actual) of prospects, an equal part of that is understanding how other owners value those same players. lots of owners seem to focus exclusively on their idea of the value for player A, without thinking about how that player is actually valued. I know owners in my dynasty league who would veto any trade that includes them giving up a top 10 prospect and at the same time accept any trade where they get a low-A ball high-ceiling guy who is years away from delivering. Sometimes these owners are a pain in the ass to deal with, sometimes they’re an absolute delight to take advantage of.

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      • Brett22 says:

        And that’s the point. Any time another manager is overvaluing or undervaluing somebody, take advantage of them. That rule holds for major leaguers just as much as it does prospects. If you traded Profar for Pujols, good for you. If you traded Profar for Howie Kendrick then congratulations; you’re the idiot.

        Let’s not arbitrarily paint everyone without an MLB track record with the “don’t play for next year” brush. You need a balance. In a league where Profar goes for 5 dollars with minimal yearly inflation, I don’t think the balance in that league is pro-prospect at all.

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  3. bballislife17 says:

    Part of being in a keeper league is identifying guys who are undervalued and who you can reap excess value from in future years. A lot of times those guys are prospects. Sure, you miss more often than you hit, but you do that on a lot of major league guys as well. The key is to hit more than you miss and not to pay too much for guys you take a chance on. A $4 Wheeler may provide excess value as soon as next year and is very likely to provide excess value in 2015.

    While it is an extreme example, the guy who paid $5 for Mike Trout last year is sitting on $30 of excess value for many years.

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    • tylersnotes says:

      this is true, but you have to know your league. $4 on wheeler could be a steal or it could be an overpay. This article points to evidence that other pitchers with perhaps exactly as much if not more risk/upside to Wheeler are going in the same or less than that $4, pointing to the $4 being a case of potential overpay. Put another way, if given the choice between $11 of 2 years of Wheeler (with the potential of no or very little value returned in 2013) or $7 for 2 years of Tommy Milone, which pitcher is actually returning better value here?

      The environment of every league is different. One of the goals in a successful keeper auction should be finding best value. In the league mike found here, it seems like prospects were over valued compared to veterans who generally have more proven reliability and equal or higher upside. The idea that ever year there will be a $5 mike trout is just patently false, it’s far more likely that every year there will be a “$5 player who returns double or better value,” and as often as not that player won’t be a prospect but a forgotten veteran. Ryan Howard could be this year’s Mike Trout in that case.

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  4. Brad Johnson says:

    As David points out, there is an inflection point where playing for the future can begin to make sense.

    That said, I’ve had a lot of success using what I think of as the Rays approach by combining interesting young keepers and win now vets. I usually will use some type of bench extension strategy in order to achieve that, which in itself relies on the league being shallower than 450 players owned.

    My general philosophy is to never play for the future until the present is lost. I’ve had owners in my home league conduct a bad draft and go into rebuilding mode in March-May and those same owners have never finished in the top 5 in the following year. Usually the “keepers” they acquire early in the season turn out not to be keepers.

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    • Tom B says:

      Let’s call it the St. Louis Cardinals strategy though, unless your goal is not to actually win at some point. :)

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  5. soamx says:

    Good post, but you don’t identify the best reason to grab big name prospects to WIN NOW. Not because you expect them to contribute all star production right away, but because they become great trade chips mid year when the bottom teams start their fire sales.

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  6. James says:

    I’m torn between a 6th round Carlos Santana and an 8th round Madison Bumgarner in an OBP league. Any insight fellas?

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    • Tom B says:

      You can’t keep both? Bumgarner is probably better value there, but it depends on the reset of your league’s catcher keepers too…

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      • James says:

        I’ll also be keeping Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Lawrie, and Hanley Ramirez.

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      • Tom B says:

        At what values? Those names by themselves mean nothing.

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      • James says:

        Braun 1st, Kemp 2nd, Hanley 3rd, Giancarlo 4th, Lawrie 5th

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      • Tom B says:

        I would not keep Braun unless you were drafting in the second half of the first round… I would not keep Hanley at all (ranked over 30, ADP over 30)… not gaining any value there an you could probably just re-drafted him in the 3rd round if you really wanted… And definitely not Lawrie.

        So in your position you should probably keep Kemp 2nd, Stanton 4th, Santana 6th, Bumgarner 8th… and flip a coin on Braun.

        I would suggest trying to not rely on keepers in the top 5 rounds in the future, as you miss out on tons of mistakes that the other managers are making with the best ranked players. Having too many picks in a row like that isn’t great either.

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  7. Sean says:

    If Profar went for $5 now, does that mean he would go for $11 in 2015? Or are you only allowed to keep someone once? If you are allowed to hold on to them with ever-increasing $3 increments, I can see getting in on the ground floor even if you are burning the money the first year.

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    • Brett22 says:

      Yeah, while Taveras may have been an overpay under those settings, ridiculing the Profar selection is absolutely insane. First of all, 5 dollars is nothing and Profar could easily be worth that over 200 plate appearances this year. Even if he’s not, getting his ages 21 through 24 seasons at 8, 11, 14, 17 dollars? That has insane upside. I’ll pass on Howie Kendrick for the same price, thanks.

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    • I probably should have mentioned that the league resets every 5 years and becomes a complete redraft league that year, which will happen in 2016. So keepers increase $3 every season until every 5th year when everyone is thrown back and owners start over. Just another mark against paying for prospects.

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      • Tom B says:

        More so a mark against that type of keeper ruleset. A good league would have rolling individual resets based on how long players have been kept.

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      • Tom B says:

        By these “dumb” settings, you probably SHOULD overpay for prospects in the first 2 years after a reset, then not pay more than $1 for any until after the next reset.

        I think a better conclusion from this experiment would be that auction drafts are NOT for everyone, and are very easily done wrong.

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      • tylersnotes says:

        this sounds like an insanely cumbersome league meant to reward dumb owners with “parity” rather than present an interesting or meaningful long term challenge.

        if howard is reading this, do a kicking rocks column on when to recognize that your league rules are terrible. If someone else is reading this, you can write about that too I don’t mind.

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      • philosofool says:

        I don’t see why everyone thinks this is dumb. It’s just a league that was specified to last for five years beginning in it’s inaugural year.

        Such a league would be much cooler, IMO, if there were a five year trophy and five single season trophies, with the five year trophy being based on the point totals from the previous five seasons.

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      • Howard Bender says:

        Like the concept here, Mike. Well done. It’s true, there is definitely too heavy a value put on prospects, keeper league or not, when you can do just as well with those “old, forgotten vets.” And in this particular league, with a 5 year re-set, it makes even less sense to pay some sort of a premium for a guy like Profar or Taveras. By the time some of these prospects really develop into quality fantasy league keepers, you’ll have to let them go, by rule.

        Dead on the money, TylersNotes. Was thinking the same thing as soon as Mike mentioned the five-year reset.

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      • Howard Bender says:

        @philosofool — agree completely. I’m, in a keeper league that has a yearly prize but also a cumulative three-year prize as well. The league doesn’t reset, but every three years there’s a bigger reward for best overall finish for the three-year period.

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  8. Chuck says:

    I do agree that the trend of overvaluing prospects is always true to some extent, but I think this year it may be more extreme, because the (I’m guessing) almost unprecedented success of last year’s rookies. If you drafted Trout, Harper, Cespedes, Darvish and Parker last year, you (likely) got incredible value. I don’t think there have been many years when that’s the case. Usually you end up with the rookie years of Matt Wieters, Alex Gordon, etc.

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  9. philosofool says:

    You have to be careful in assessing these bids, because owners may simply be spending surplus cash on prospects. While it would be a good strategy to exploit undervalued, established players, you can’t assume that there were no people in this league trying to do just that and then finding that they’re underpaying for players they planned to spend 3 or 4 more dollars on.

    Inflation often starts to show up in later rounds because of how initial rounds go, even in an inaugural season.

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  10. Jonathan Sher says:

    Mike, I suggest you try a real keeper league that requires owners to comb the depth of major league and minor league talent, rather than a league so shallow it is a keeper league in name only.

    I’ve played five years in a 12-owner A.L, league in which team rosters 23 active players and 17 reserve players, That’s 480 players in all and in that environment you must compete for talent new talent early or lose it to a rival. The league adds another level of challenge in that you can only keep a player at his signed salary for 3 years or extend his contract before the start of his third year by adding $5 per season for years three and four or $10 a season for years three, four and five. The contract rules limits how far ahead you can get talent. The rules place a premium of foreign players whop may come and contribute right away — I signed Darvish well before he posted and Chapman well before he signed because to wait for a commitment is to get into a bidding war (I couldn’t keep Chapman when he signed in the N.L.)

    Owners who never think ahead, or who only think ahead, tend to struggle. Balance is required. I tend to pick up a few prospects in the reserve draft or in the course of the season who will retain rookie eligibility but stand a good chance to start the following season; this allows me to roster them on my reserve and create spots on my active reserve where I can target top talent at very low prices — I picked up Jarrod Parker for $1 last season, for example, and could afford to do so even though he was starting in the minors because I had couple of starter carryovers with rookie eligibility and starting jobs that I kept on my reserve.

    It would be nice if Fangraphs brought in a writer to look at strategy in deep, auction keeper leagues. I know Marc Hulet does a good job with prospects and Jason Catania as well looking for call-ups during the year but there is precious little written about more sophisticated and competitive keeper/auction leagues. Such leagues are not as popular as the less taxing formats but they do better mimic challenges of managing a roster more akin to real baseball, at least from where I sit.

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    • Tom B says:

      The depth of the league has really… nothing do to with it at all. You can still overpay for players at any depth. If anything your league seems to encourage it.

      “I signed Darvish well before he posted and Chapman well before he signed because to wait for a commitment is to get into a bidding war”

      I hate leagues like this. Rewarding the guy that reads news articles at 3am and makes moves before anyone else knows what’s going on? No thanks. International prospects like that SHOULD be publicly bid on when they are signed.

      If anything… I’d say your league may take it a bit too far. Drafting over 200 prospects every season is not resulting in more educated guesses, just more guesses.

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      • Jonathan Sher says:

        The depth of the league has everything to do with whether to select prospects who won’t begin the year in the majors and how much to invest in them. In a league as shallow as described by Mike, the choice if whether to spend equivalent amounts on Oscar Taveras or Paul Konerko. In a much deeper league such as mine, the choice might be between Taveras of Chris Parmalee.

        That you can overpay in any auction league is obvious. Whether one overpays has nothing to do at all with the sort of league you are in. Rather, whether you overpay is about being able to calculate values in your specific league (and by values I mean value per input in each category adjusted by inflation in a keeper league), forecast production of players and exercise disciplined and flexibility in the auction.

        As for the sort or leagues you hate, we all have different interests. I have no desire to play in a shallow league picking all-stars and border-line all stars. But many enjoy that and I don’t begrudge them. I happen to enjoy following international players but it does not require me to do anything but sleep at 3 AM. Some of my fellow owners enjoy the same and we enjoy the competition.

        As for the number of prospects we select, if you prepare, every pick is an educated guess. MLB clubs pick 40+ players each year and the vast majority will have no impact on the majors, especially after the first two rounds, but that doesn’t make their other picks mere guesses. Some clubs are better than others and they are drafting players who won’t surface in the majors for 4 or so years. Since prospects in my league can only be extended after the second-year of a contract, that limits useful prospect to those that have a starting gig locked in season 3 before it starts, so there’s little benefit selecting prospects that are more than two years away. The shorter time frame reduces the uncertainty. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of misses. But it does mean that with 17 picks you should be able to get some players who provide future value.

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  11. ddanielchen says:

    Just to offer the opposing perspective, I’m in an active keeper entering its 3rd year. I went crazy with prospects the first two years, and now I get to start the season with Trout, Harper, Rizzo, Machado, and Profar for $2 each. So if your keeper league is serious for the long-haul, it may be worth it.

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    • Ron says:

      Not really apples to apples if there’s no inflation–how could you have Harper and Trout for $2. Inflation rate to me seems to be the key to everything in terms of how much you are willing to overpay a prospect (in regards to your current situation).

      In my deeper NL-only league with a minor league system though, I find the general public does overvalue prospects so I spend most of my time trading prospects for major league players vs. the other way around. And much of my minor league system I spend on AAA vets or new foreign players who are rookie-eligible with a chance to contribute this year rather than low-A high-upside guys who don’t pan out 9 out of 10 times, and if they do it won’t be for 3 more years, clogging up roster flexibility. (Think Norichika Aoki or Bryan LaHair last year)

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      • Danilo says:

        There is inflation in my league- 10% each year. Of course, it is league-dependent. My league is not quite deep enough for everyone to keep prospects on their roster, but I sacrificed some bench spots early on.

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  12. The Dweez says:

    In our dynasty league someone signed Bryce Harper to a 12 yr, just over league minimum, contract when he was just 16. So if a long term league ya gotta go prospects, being the Brewer homer I am I signed Prince and Braun while both in minors. One of the other Crew fans tried to duplicate this with LaPorta and Hamel, oops.

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  13. Zac says:

    If there’s no inflation, then sure. In my keeper league, 40% of all marginal value is being kept for 26% of marginal budget. That leads to 12% inflation over projection, and that’s before adding in the bump that top-level talent usually gets (only 4 of the top 25 hitters are available, so people are going to be fighting over them). Pujols could easily go for $50, which could be just as crazy.

    I know Trout’s probably the exception, but it’s hard not to get anxious when you see that your league’s resident prospect maven is keeping Buster Posey for $11, Carlos Gonzalez for $12, Bryce Harper for $4, and Mike Trout for $4. I know for a fact at least 3 of those were picked up when they were in the minor leagues.

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    • Brett22 says:

      Maybe those guys are all exceptions. Just think, he could have had undervalued vets like Luke Scott instead!

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  14. Dave K says:

    Thanks Mike for pinch drafting for the Hollywood Stars!!

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  15. Brendan says:

    Disagree with a lot of the prices you throw out for this year players but yeah always and only play for this year. I’m in a 40 man roster 10 team dynasty points league and the only one I own not on an active roster is Noah syndergaard of the mets. And I only have to start half of my roster a day… Play for now until your so far behind that you can’t so you move to play for next season.

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