Long view

If you’ve played fantasy baseball for any considerable length of time, you’ve almost certainly experienced the following situation: a trade occurs in your league that clearly benefits one team more than the other, but it is not grossly unfair to the point that it can be overturned in good conscience. Were this to happen with any frequency in your league, you’d most likely and understandably be a bit testy about it. But, what can be done about it?

Earlier this week, I exchanged emails with a reader who was frustrated because this kind of transaction happened a few times in his league, benefiting the same team repeatedly. This reader was not alleging collusion had taken place, but he was upset that this owner was building his team into a prohibitive favorite, assembling a roster one would never be able to legitimately obtain if the league were to redraft/auction today. He was curious as to whether I saw any recourse for him and the other owners who had not been fleeced but were finding the competitive advantage tilting further toward an alleged dream team.

I don’t think any sort of intervention would be justifiable in this case and I told him the best advice I could give him is to get his own ski mask and try to raid the trade market as effectively as his competitor. But, there are some general themes worth discussing in regard to this issue.

The path to fantasy sports dominance is almost always a stepwise process whereby a successful owner gets the marginally to moderately better side of several decisions over the course of the year. Great rosters simply don’t fall from the sky. With this in mind, it is important to keep an eye on others’ rosters throughout your league. When it comes time to make a trade, you don’t want to inadvertently give a competitor the lane to a title in the process of improving your own team.

While improving your team is goal unto itself, it is not the ultimate goal. As an owner, you should be defining realistic mid- and long-term goals and moving toward them. Right now, in most leagues, winning it all should still be a conceivable goal for virtually all owners. In pursuing your larger goal, you need to understand how your decisions impact the other teams in your league.

In my reply to this reader I noted that I’ve been in situations before where I chose not to make a mutually beneficial trade with an owner with an established lead in the standings because I didn’t want to further strengthen that particular team. My immediate goal of improving my team was at odds with my long term goals of winning the league and/or assembling one of the strongest keeper cores in the league.

As the season plays out, you may have to adjust your goals if you perceive the biggest bounties to no longer be realistically obtainable. As that happens, you may find yourself on the opposite side of the “don’t hand another team the title” issue. If you are able to identify this tipping point early and accurately, you can often sell your soul for your flesh in a manner that will net you earthly profit even if not spiritual bliss.

A front-running team often has no shortage of resources and if you match needs correctly, you should actually be able to get $1.10 or $1.20 on the dollar for the specific assets that team needs to put it over the top. Other teams in the league might dislike you helping somebody else win in exchange for that team helping you place or show, but as long as there are actual ends in sight, nobody can rightfully criticize you for making a calculated concession.

To some readers, this may conjure up the endless debate about whether cellar-dwelling teams should be trading with front runners in the second half of the season. For my thoughts on that issue, I’d refer you to this piece. What I’m talking about here though is slightly different; here I’m concerned with keeping short and long term goals in sight and in balance, and acting assertively and shrewdly to make sure you see the writing on the wall early on and do something about it if and when you do.

This is why the “[owner x] is giving [owner y] the championship,” is an insufficient argument for protesting a trade. Such an argument lacks context. The primary criterion on which a trade should be judged is always whether both owners are acting (or at least intending to act) in their best interest at the time. Sometimes, it is in your best interest to not make a trade that benefits your team if that trade makes a favorite even stronger. At other times, it may be in your interest to “give [owner y] the championship” to secure your own standing.

With all that said, it is absolutely critical to iterate the obvious, which is that nobody can predict the future with certainty. To be sure, in early May, nobody in any league can say with any credibility that any trade that goes down ensures anybody will win or lose anything. Even later in the season, such a contention just means that the odds have been adjusted in one teams favor in the most objective consensus sense. The paradox, of course, here is that we all make our fortunes on knowing better than the next guy and the objective consensus. Commissioners out there must protect the rights of owners to make their bets and profit from them. The challenge is drawing the line between counterintuitive and reckless behavior.

Finishing up on a cautionary note, consider the following two points as food for thought for those who get tempted to cast a veto vote on the perceived of an “unfair” trade resulting in perceived prohibitive dominance by another team.

One, some of these bizarre trades actually work out in favor of the team that appears to be getting fleeced at the time of the transaction. This is one of the absolute worst scenarios in which a commissioner can find him/herself and it produces an owner completely justified in being irate. Commissioners should heed the Hippocratic Oath and make all attempts to avoid doing harm. One behavior a good commissioner displays is protecting him/herself from falling into the stickiest of situations.

Anecdote time. This past football season, a good friend of mine was involved in a trade in his fantasy league that got overturned because the league’s consensus was he didn’t give up enough in a combo deal that netted him Adrian Peterson. So, the league and commissioner forced him to take Victor Cruz out of the trade and replace him with Stevie Johnson so the other owner could get more… Needless to say, this turned into a mess as the other owner would have actually won the initial trade but actually lost when the league stepped in to try to make the deal more even.

Virtually everybody was upset. The owner who didn’t get Cruz was irate and threatened to withhold his league dues because his foresight was rendered impotent. Other teams in the league that now had to contend with a team boasting both Peterson and dominant Cruz were upset because my friend wound up with both studs. In attempt to preclude the assembly of a perceived dream team, the league facilitated the assembly of an actual dream team.

Two, you can’t judge one piece of straw more harshly than the previous simply because it was the one that, in your subjective view, broke the camel’s back. Decisions about transactions must be made individually without regard to the cumulative effect of previous transactions. If it wouldn’t be overturn-able if I did it, it’s not overturn-able when you do it.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

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Our league uses a much simpler standard. Unless you cheated, your trade cannot be vetoed. Don’t like that a deal is lopsided? Get there first next time.

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

I usually fall back on a similar rule to Eddie’s. Actually, Jeff Gross wrote the language for it.

In my experience these successive, slightly uneven trades are more likely to result in one or two noobish owners winding up with completely barren teams than one or two savvy owners compiling super teams.  Really not much you can do about it, it’s their team.  Trades should only be vetoed for collusion or obvious dumping.  I saw Jason Giambi traded for Konerko in 2004, the league went crazy. Konerko wound up hitting 41 HRs to Giambi’s 9. It’s one thing to block a trade but a completely different, much worse thing to tell people what they should trade. As commissioner… Read more »