So Your Keeper League Has Too Many Fire Sales…

I’m a big fan of keeper leagues. The thing I like most about them isn’t that I get to keep a core of talent from year to year, it’s that I can make fair and reasonable trades at just about any point in the season. In redraft leagues, I’m convinced that the optimal strategy is to never trade unless someone is offering you insane value. Usually, a trade is mutually beneficial such that both owners gain a similar number of points. There are cases where that’s useful, but generally speaking, there aren’t many opportunities available.

The ability to balance future and current value is what opens up more trading possibilities in keeper leagues. If my season starts poorly, I can trade a full price veteran for somebody with keeper value. If my fortunes swing back in the other direction, I can trade for win-now talent. Depending on the exact format and rules, it’s usually ideal to keep a mix of keeper and win-now talent if you want to win. In many ways, standard keeper leagues are similar to ottoneu. You’ll just usually find that the $1 “prospects” are Xander Bogaerts or Oscar Taveras rather than Thomas La Stella.

However, not every owner is as bloodthirsty as me. I could have the worst April of fantasy history and still try to salvage the season. Last season provides a good example. I have a linear weights points league that I began deep in 12th place. Around mid-season, I finally climbed out of the basement and eventually crawled to fifth (edging out Jeff Zimmerman by just 23 points in the process).

I wish every owner scraped and clawed that hard. Unfortunately, many owners will throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity. What compounds this problem is that there are two first mover advantages to conducting the first fire sale. The owner who sells first gets to target the best keepers and because it’s probably early in the season, they get to ask for close to full season value on their players. Early season fire sales can undo an entire offseason of excellent work when one of your rivals just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Depending on the league, an elite keeper can return up to five good-to-elite veterans. That can cause an absurdly massive swing in the balance of power.

I run a league that has had this problem. In the first draft year, I snatched up $1 Bryce Harper and $1 Stephen Strasburg. The keeper mechanism is unlimited keepers at draft price plus $7, so prospects get costly fast. For example, I draft $3 Taveras last year hoping he would reach the majors. He didn’t so he was an obvious cut at $10 (I actually traded him last week, but that’s beside the point). Aside from Mike Trout, the best keepers in this league are the Chris Davis‘s and Jose Bautista‘s of the world.

In that first year draft, a fellow owner had internet issues mid-draft and went on auto-pick. It definitely ruined his draft, giving him a hard uphill battle if he wanted to contend. Instead of grinding it out, he opted to conduct a fire sale in March. That ruined an excellent draft that I conducted by handing my top rival a ton of talent. At the time, I was unwilling to sell Harper or Strasburg when I knew that their value would triple in just a few months time. I did eventually sell some top keepers for bushels of talent and ended up missing first place by 4 runs or .01 WHIP (Yahoo didn’t break WHIP ties at the time).

This behavior continued for the next three years of the league, with me trying all manner of methods to coax more of a win now attitude out of my fellow owners. I know this is not an unusual problem either. When owners get down on their team, they turn to prospects. Aside from true dynasty leagues, this is a vice that almost never pays. The problem can compound with a traditional pay structure.

In most leagues, only the top two or three teams win money. Those top three teams are also the most incentivized to sell their keepers for elite talent ASAP. That can cause them to build a commanding lead. Fourth and fifth place might stay in the game, but sixth place probably falls out of it. That owner decides to fire sale too, except now there aren’t any good prospects left because six other teams have already scooped up the best, second best, and the fringe. So Mr. Sixth Place is left selling good talent for players who might barely be worth keeping if you squint right.

The solutions I see offered are usually to control trading through some complex mix of rules. Sometimes the commissioner is asked to intervene or the league becomes veto happy whenever there’s a trade that smells remotely fishy. I’ve also seen rules where a team in the bottom half of the standings can’t trade with a team in the top half (or some variation thereof).┬áIn my opinion, the best solutions do not rely on commissioner discretion. Nor do I relish the prospect of conducting a negotiation with an eye towards what can sneak through the ban hammer.

I think I finally hit upon a winner prior to last season – I flattened the payout structure. The league in question was a $20 league. I bumped it up to $40. Theoretically, more money on the line means more effort, although the long season diminishes that effect. More powerfully, I made each place worth $5, starting with 10th. It’s a 12 team league, so the last two places get no payout, 10th gets $5, 9th gets $10, so on and so forth until the top two spots share out the remainder.

Under that payout regime, practically everybody is a buyer. There’s still that one guy whose team just collapses around him from the outset. He’ll still conduct a fire sale, but he’ll find a marketplace with more buyers. The owner of the ninth place team may forgo a fire sale if he doesn’t receive a compelling offer – he doesn’t want to lose $5. Similarly if an owner is in seventh but only three points behind fifth, he’ll look to buy talent in order to chase down those $10. The incentive is stronger if eighth and ninth are in close pursuit.

I’m very pleased with the results. We had only one late-August fire sale last season. Owners can still conduct that fire sale if the math adds up. Meanwhile, nearly every owner has an incentive to claw and scrape their way as high up the standings as possible. Really, the only down side is that the top teams see a slightly smaller payout than would otherwise be expected. For an excellent fantasy experience, that’s a small price to pay.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, MLB Trade Rumors, and The Fake Baseball. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

32 Responses to “So Your Keeper League Has Too Many Fire Sales…”

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  1. taprat says:

    I’m in a long term keeper league, and our approach, implemented about 7 years ago, was to institute a salary cap. We started with the cap too high and have tightened it over the years, settling on something tight but workable a few years ago. It isn’t perfect but it does almost entirely prevent truly balance altering trades.

    I really like your idea, though. I had something similar, where the the top 5 get $$$ money but are disadvantaged in next years draft (pick last in non-snaking standard draft), the middle 5 get an opportunity to a “bonus” (a nice bottle of booze), and the bottom 5 get better lottery picks in determining draft position. Flattening the payout is a similar and perhaps better idea.

    Ultimately, though, for most people, it’s much more about time than money or booze or anything else. When you’re all 40, the amount of work it takes to make smart trades and stay involved with a league is so far out of proportion to the amount of money you might win, it’s almost impossible to fix the situation with financial carrots and sticks.

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  2. Turtles says:

    We implemented a penalty for the bottom 2 teams. They have to pay a higher entry fee for the next years draft and that money gets split between the money winning (top 3) teams. Only a 10 team league, $100 buy-in though. I might suggest top 4 get cash and only last place be penalized though.

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    • Travis L says:

      I do it similarly. We don’t collect money until the end of the year. EG, when the season ends, payout structure looks like this:

      1 – $200 payout
      2 – $75 payout
      3 – $25 payout
      4 – $25 owed (league fees, essentially)
      5-10 $50-75 owed
      11 – $100 owed
      12 – $200 owed

      I’ve rarely been in a league where the person in last has tried. It is hard to swallow at first, but it guarantees that everyone will play all season, and try hard. It means every spot matters, so even if you’re in 10th place you want to finish 9th because it changes your league dues.

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      • B N says:

        $300 in payouts, $625+ in costs? That sounds like a big house cut. Hopefully some of that goes to charity or beer or something…

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  3. Andrew says:

    Fire sales are not only reasonable but NECESSARY for the long-term health of keeper leagues.

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  4. s_t_w says:

    We have 10 team AL-only keeper leagues. Prizes go down to fifth. Because of the transaction costs, the $200.00 buy in will generally get the winner a little over $1K. Last year, the overalls paid:
    1st- $1084
    2nd- $603
    3rd- $361
    4th- $241
    5th- $121
    In addition, each weekly winner gets a $10.00 prize and each category winner (season) gets a $50.00 prize.
    We also have a throwback league. The weekly and category prizes tend to keep owners involved because if you can win K’s and W’s that’s a C-note in your pocket.
    In one of the four leagues there was a fire sale in June. The other leagues, not so much.

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  5. jdbolick says:

    Our leagues have what I think is the most effective method of promoting competitiveness, which is that the reserve draft order is determined by how high you finish outside the money. So we pay our top four, which leaves the #1 pick to the person who finishes fifth. We also made an adjustment at my suggestion to change from a snake format in the reserve to a straight draft, so the fifth place finisher from the previous season gets the first pick in every round. If you make sure the reserve round has value by limiting the number of minor league keepers, thus insuring that there are players to get excited about with those early picks, then people who are trying to better their team will balance trading for the future with getting better draft picks.

    Unfortunately this only affects people’s effort, not their judgment. Nothing you do will ever stop some owners from trading quality for crap.

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    • Chickensoup says:

      The problem is that generally, last place teams have bad keepers and now they are double penalized. While not as harsh as fantasy football where I’ve seen this done a lot, if there are a lot of keepers the previous seasons last place team has a tough tough road to being competitive and this usually results in the league disbanding. Your particular league may not disband, but most leagues already do disband after year 1 and making losing so bad means losing year 1 will likely lies the player forever.

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  6. Cap'n Scrappy says:

    This is a cool column on a topic that’s not normally discussed, so thanks!

    I’m a little less inclined to worry about this problem. We had one team start a fire sale a month into the season and he definitely got the strongest payout in prospects and it definitely pushed the winner over the top. However, given that the opportunity is there for everyone to participate, I think the market can find an equilibrium in multi-year leagues, especially because there are diminishing returns the more you engage in buying or selling.

    The top teams can probably make a few big upgrades, but after a while, if you’ve already got let’s say Ian Kinsler, it’s hard to justify trading a good, cheap keeper for Pedroia given that there’s a reasonable chance Kinsler could be as good or even better in a 2 month stretch run. On the other end, you can only have so many prospects, so if you already started a fire sale and got oscar taveras, gregory polanco, and George springer, it doesn’t help much to acquire Jorge soler in the stretch run. You’d have to turn around and trade one or two of them in the offseason or else you’d be punting on the next season, too. As much as anyone might be willing to punt half a season, no one wants to punt 2 or 3 seasons.

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  7. Kman says:

    Overall, I don’t think its a huge issues as dump trades are good for the activity of the league. I also don’t have a trade deadline as a way to keep people involved and making moves year round.

    In my 15 team roto keeper league I pay out the 8th place person (just league fee back) in an effort to keep the bottom of the league interested. I also divide the league into two tiers at the All-Star break and only teams in tier two are eligible for the 8th place prize but they can still compete for the championship. This stops the 6th place team from tanking to get a payout.

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  8. Bill says:

    How should a non-keeper league handle lopsided, deadline deals with a bottom rung team feeding a team in the upper standings too much talent?

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      That’s tricky. I usually don’t condone using the veto function, but it sounds like your league might be a candidate for it. I generally think a trade has to look ungodly bad for it to be overturned, but bad teams shouldn’t be feeding in a redraft.

      My preferred method would be to recruit better owners. Collusion is a fire-able offense in my book.

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  9. Jeff says:

    We have this exact problem in my keeper league. We keep seven players at auction price plus $5. The biggest issue I have with the early quitters (those that hold a fire sale in May or sooner) is that we don’t even have a great idea who the stud keepers are yet.

    Example: a guy sold his entire year last year right as Rendon and Puig were about to come up. At that time Rendon looked every bit the keeper that Puig did. Now? Not so much.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      This is a good point that I left out because I got a bit long winded describing my league. I go into every season with an idea of who should be kept and who should be cut. But 30% of the keep list falls off and is replaced by guys who flew under my radar. I thought Donaldson was a nice add for 2013 heading into the season, but he was far from my list of possible keepers.

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  10. Tom B says:

    Since managers rarely do the proper diligence and seek out all trade opportunities… in my keeper league we allow other managers to counter-offer accepted trades for 2 day (while they are also under review). This allows a put up or shut up solution to fire sale flame wars.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      We had a 24 hour revocability period for any reason. I gamed it a bit last year so now we have the same rule except there is a 10 day waiting period to trade any player you pull back.

      That reminds me. I have to include an extenuating circumstances clause.

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    • DanK says:

      I find the counter system to work really well. We use 48 hours too. You don’t like it that the 2nd place team just flipped a cheap Archie Bradley for an expensive Miggy? You have two days to put together a more compelling package. Unless owners are really colluding, you can hardly complain about deals then. I find that the teams that still complain about deals been with a counter system generally don’t have as good a team as they thought they did. Maybe they drafted their way to a first place team by July, but if the second place team has the prospects to snag a top performer, that team actually did a better job acquiring assets at the draft.

      Also, high stakes help. If you”really in for $50 or whatever, it’s easier to play fantasy GM by hoarding prospects every year. Once you are in for high hundreds, though, you probably will care more about seeing that money back sooner.

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  11. Nathan Craig says:

    I’ve done two things in two 16 team leagues that I’m in.

    1. There is a lottery for teams from 4th-8th place. The lottery is for the equivalent to the league buy-in and seems to help teams in the top 12 try a little harder to have a shot at a lottery payout. We use a scale of (1 entry for 8th, 2 for 7th, 4 for 6th, 8 for 5th and 16 entries for 4th giving 4th place a 50% chance at winning the lottery)
    2. We have a rule that no trades can really be vetoed, but there is a 48 hour review on all players that finished in the top 50 player rater from the previous season and in the current top 50. This means that those high-priced vets being traded for prospects all get reviewed and other owners have a chance to make offers on those players. The owner of the top 50 player(s) can accept counter offers up to the deadline. It isn’t perfect. It does, nonetheless, mean that every owner has a shot at the players being sold. It protects owners from being plagued by lazy owners who don’t truly shop their players being sold.

    I think the activity that the sales generate is a really good thing, but it still causes a lot of tension and can lead to owners quitting (which I think is usually bad, of course).

    The other league is much more complicated and includes contract years. The accountability measure includes bonuses and penalties at the top and bottom and a lottery system for the 4th-8th teams.

    We avoid using cash penalties, because poverty should never be a reason to not play fantasy baseball.

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  12. James says:

    Punting in March seems a bit extreme. It is a huge risk to by a buyer that early in the season. What if you mortgage the next two years only to discover that your team wasn’t as good as you thought? It’s better to buy or sell in May or June when you know how you stack up against other teams.

    Another way to guard against early fire sales and teams giving up too early: Don’t play in a roto league. In a H2H league, fire sale players can command just as high of a price near the trade deadline as they could early in the season as teams try to load up and get into playoff position.

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  13. Cuck City says:

    My dynasty auction league places a 25% tax on keepers after the first year having them. And increases each year from there. This ensures that the best players get sent back eventually and that the guy who got Trout for $1 doesnt have him for life at $1 (his tax came out to the most extreme tax of $15 for the first year)

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  14. Bill says:

    We do a 12 team AL only Auction 5*5 league. $100 buy in, top 4 payout. We follow the ‘bible’, original Fantasy League rules. You can only receive a combination of 2 players over $24 value, or players that are in a z year (last year of a fantasy contract extension) up until the All-Star break. After that anything goes, but it prevents full dump trades early on as you can only get at most 2 top tier players at a time from one other owner. Its been going for over 25 years and we’ve had no problems with dumping.

    We have 16 reserve rounds for prospects, undrafted players not on 23 man rosters. Player who came 5th year before gets first pick. That first pick can be very valuable e.g. this year it could be Ervin Santana (who can’t be drafted as he isn’t on an AL squad at the moment.)

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  15. MustBunique says:

    2nd half cowboy can keep interest high in all managers. Highest point gain total after the all-star break is the 2nd half cowboy. We use 15% of the pot.

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  16. Tim says:

    So you’ve drummed up more interest and perceived competitiveness in your league by artificially creating more “winners,” and reducing the value of actually winning?

    Congratulations, Mr. Selig.

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  17. OtherSideoftheCoin says:

    I’m taking over a team in a 2nd year Ottoneu league that had absolutely nothing. Last year it seemed like a second team may have missed the auction as well, so auction values were fairly depressed. Given this, not much talent was thrown back into the pool and it’s not clear I’ll be able to bid on enough players to make a difference. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t considering sending my best players(along with salary cap dollars to pay their way) out the door as soon as possible.

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    • tz says:

      I had been in the same boat, taking over a team that had no chance. Since the available talent pool was so weak, I decided to overstock my roster with catchers. There were 2 catchers that qualified elsewhere, and I won the bidding on both of them, before surprising the others by snagging 3 other everyday catchers (one of whom got slotted as a DH). In a 12-team AL-only league, this left several owners with zilch at their catching spots.

      The whole point of this was I did something that gave the other owner much more reason to talk trade with me early in the year. This enabled me to do several moderate “dumps” right away, and was fairer overall to everyone in the end.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        I took over a hopeless ottoneu roster this offseason (chad can confirm how terrible it was) and I’ve gotten it to within about 1000-2000 projected PAR from first place. Obviously projected PAR and real PAR are different beasts, we’ll see how it shakes out.

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  18. Roger says:

    I see a lot of solutions here for money leagues and auction leagues. I’ve only played free leagues using a draft. The only ideas I’ve seen there involve randomizing the draft order. What else could you do?

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  19. willkoky says:

    Our keeper league has used a single rule to stop fire sales for 10 years. It works, but its unfortunate. the rule is, “No player traded can be kept”. Thus trades can happen but will usually not involve players an owner may want to keep. So you’re left with nothing to play for except money. This makes for long seasons if your team sucks. We are contemplating a payout similar to the article’s. $20 per slot but eveeryone does not pay in equally. Say $120 in for 14th place, $100 in for 13th, …, 2nd gets $100, 1st gets $120. This allows more incentive per slot than just $5. Separately, I also disagree with the commenters who say that fire sales are healthy for keeper leagues. They work in real baseball because MLB teams don’t get to turn over the other 90% of their roster each year and start fresh. If the Twins trade Mauer, they can’t buy a new Mauer next year. Least, not easily. MLB teams have to field a respectable team (except apparently the marlins) or be kicked out of the city. For various reasons, including salary cap and investors!, they can’t sell ALL their stars each year and render a hapless team. Scoresheet keepers are the closest I have seen in that you can keep 11 MLBers and you can give up ending draft rounds to keep good MILBers. The roster size then limits the number of spots you can use for that because you want to field an MLB team as well. And trading a star will render that star of your team for years to come. so they solve the problem by having many keepers and no prices. This can make for years of ineptitude however if you never find some good guys to keep around.

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  20. Brian says:

    I’m looking to snag Trout in my keeper league. I have easily the best team now and for the future. Our league contains 5 ‘minor league’ prospects who were under 150 AB / 45 innings before drafted. I was thinking packaging Posey along with one of Bumgarner, Scherzer, Anibal in said deal. Thoughts? This kid is stubborn and NEEDS to trade Trout to even consider winning in the next 3 years.

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