Today, I'll be tackling the most difficult decision a fantasy owner will have to make in the preseason: whom to keep in a competitive keeper league. Having a sound keeper strategy is just as important to contending in your league as a first-round pick will ever be, and making a mistake at this part of the game can set your team back more than one season. Just to keep things simple, I'll be assuming a standard 10-team league for this discussion, in which the cost of a keeper is forfeiting your pick in the round he was originally selected (for example, keeping Miguel Cabrera would cost a fantasy owner his first-round pick in the upcoming draft). The principles I discuss, though, are applicable to any keeper format, not just the type discussed in this article.
Draft Strategy for Dynasty & Keeper Leagues
The biggest mistake a fantasy owner will often make when selecting his or her keepers is to go for a name-brand player just because the name recognition comes with a sense of safety. Don't get me wrong-- a guy like Mike Trout who is definitely a name brand should without question be kept in every league where keeping him is an option. You always keep top-first-round talents, guys who if you chose to throw them back would probably end up on a different team next year (or who would cost you that same first-round pick to reacquire). Those are the guys you build a team around, and keeping them is virtual no-brainer.
For everyone else, fantasy owners would do well to add an extra stat in along with their projections on the player's batting average, RBI, ERA, WHIP and so on. That stat is the 'value' of the keeper. Look at the round in which you originally drafted the player (or for auction leagues, the sum you originally spent on the player), and then look at what it will cost you to hold the player, and calculate the difference. The difference between that number and the expected cost of redrafting the player if you were to throw him back is the value of your keeper. Maximizing this number allows you to effectively maximize the total talent on your team and in doing so maximize your chances of winning your league.
For example, if you had to ask me which player would have a better 2014 for fantasy purposes between Dustin Pedroia and Matt Carpenter, I'd answer Pedroia with little hesitation. He has a far more proven skill-set, better projections and the kind of track record on which you can depend. Carpenter has all the ceiling in the world, but the list of players who've come out of nowhere to have amazing fantasy seasons only to slip back into mediocrity the following year is mile long, which should put into perspective the risk that goes along with owning him next year. That said, there's no chance I would ever consider keeping Pedroia over Carpenter. The reason comes down to the relative value of the two players. Pedroia was drafted at the end of the third round in 2013, and he will go at the end of the third round this year. Carpenter, on the other hand, went largely undrafted last year (if he was drafted, he almost certainly went in the last few rounds). That means that Carpenter will cost you roughly a 25th-round pick, which is a tremendous value considering that he's likely to go around the seventh-round this year. Had you picked Pedroia, you would arguably have the better 2B, but you would have also lost the rights to your third-round pick. The player who selects Carpenter maintains that third-round pick, allowing him or her to select additional top-tier talent to pair with Matt Carpenter. Is there anyone out there who wouldn't take a pairing of Matt Carpenter and Jose Bautista over Dustin Pedroia and Corey Hart? That's what I thought.
This same principle applies to players who play different positions, or even between pitchers and position players. In every decision, it's not a matter of necessarily picking the best player, but of picking the best player after you account for the additional value that player brings to your team as a keeper. Said another way, opportunity cost is the key for selecting keepers. The cost of keeping Dustin Pedroia isn't just the third-round pick you're giving up to keep him. It includes the player whom you might have otherwise acquired in the third round had you not tossed Pedroia back into the player pool. A draft is all about maximizing your team's talent, and making sure you pick the highest valued keepers is key to this, because it lets you use those early-round picks on something else. Sometimes, it's that 'something else' that helps win you your league.