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Playing For Keeps: Making Keeper Decisions for 2021

Spring training is officially underway, and with that comes the start of fantasy baseball draft season. While the majority of people participate in redraft leagues, keeper formats are also popular, and fantasy managers in those leagues are already weighing their decisions on which players to retain and which to toss back into the pool for 2021.

As we all know, 2020 was a season unlike any other due to COVID-19 . We're entering a new season with less actionable data than ever before. The 60-game sprint has introduced a number of complex variables into evaluating player outlooks for 2021, from questions of volume and health for pitchers to just how much emphasis should be placed on the individual performances we witnessed last year. While we'll touch on some of those considerations in this article, most of these points are universally applicable to any season. In times of heightened uncertainty, the fundamentals become that much more important.

Full disclosure: Part of the impetus for writing this article is self-interest. In most years since it became a keeper league a decade ago, making keeper decisions in my home league has been a relatively straightforward process, if not entirely painless. 2021 is much more of a puzzle, and I'll be shamelessly using my situation as an illustration of how to apply the principles we'll cover today.

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Rules and Structure

No one who's read my previous work will be surprised that this is the leadoff item, but you can't optimize your decision-making without a firm grasp on your specific league's parameters. Obviously you need to be aware of how your league scoring is set up like always, but keeper leagues also offer a wide variety of rules regarding keeper considerations.

You may face constraints on how many players you can keep (either a maximum or a minimum), how long you can keep them, or how much of your salary cap can be spent on kept players. Keeper prices could be tied to previous draft position/salary, or affected by average draft position (ADP) or average salary on whichever platform you're using. Many leagues use the former as a basis for calculating inflation on keeper prices. Whether or not you can make offseason trades is also an important consideration.

In my home league, there is no minimum or maximum number of players that may be kept, and no limit on how long you can retain the services of a specific player. However, there is a yearly inflation of $5 (with one minor league player able to be kept for $1), and you cannot spend more than 50 percent of your $300 salary cap on kept players. Practically, this makes it difficult to keep many players for longer than a couple of seasons, and leads to most high-priced stars going back into the pool each year, unless they're traded to a team that can fit them under the cap. This also means that low-cost stars are exceedingly rare and a huge boon to your fortunes.


The Competition

Depending of how your league runs things, you may or may not have access to the rest of your league's keeper decisions before your deadline arrives. If you do, obviously you'll want to incorporate that information into your own process. If not, you can still review their rosters and make your best guess at what they might do. My home league uses a Google sheet for keeper decisions that everyone can access. There's still a month or so until the declaration deadline, so most of the managers have not made their choices - or at least they haven't made them public yet.

Regardless, tracking your rivals' depth charts will give you a picture of which players will and won't be available in the draft. This may influence your choices to some degree, one way or the other. For instance, if you're on the fence about a particular player and notice that many of the best options at his position will be kept, you may decide to either retain him to ensure that you aren't scraping the bottom of the barrel for a suitable starter at that position, or you might elect to toss him back, figuring that there will be less demand for his services.


ADP/Average Salary

This is true of any draft, but in keeper formats it's arguably even more important to be aware of ADP and/or average salary for players. You don't need to - and shouldn't - be slavish in adhering to either, but it's important to have a benchmark for how the community feels about specific players. If you have the opportunity to keep a player for, say, a 12th round pick, if his ADP puts him in the 10th round, he's more likely to be worth hanging onto than if he's going in the 15th.

Obviously, if your league uses ADP or average salary in how keeper prices are calculated, that information becomes even more crucial to know. Each platform publishes their own data, and though there generally isn't a ton of variance between the figures, so it's a good idea to check out all of them. You'll also need to adjust for your league settings, since the averages are for standard 5x5 leagues.


Prior Draft Results

While knowing the average across the community is helpful, it may be even more instructive to review the drafts of yesteryear in your league. Many of the names will change from season to season, but the valuations placed on different tiers of talent might stay reasonably consistent. Over the last six seasons in my home league, only two players have been drafted for more than $50, and on average there are only three players per year above $40 and 10 that go for between $30-39.

Prior draft results can also give you some insight into how your rivals usually behave in the room. Knowing your rivals' tendencies could help inform your keeper decisions. If you know that pitching tends to go for a premium, or a particular manager will spend more to land players from his favorite team, or that prospects are highly sought after, maybe you elect to hold on to a guy even if his price isn't perfect or toss him back out knowing that a competitor will overpay.


Case Study

With all that in mind, here's my home league roster. This is a 12-team roto 6x6 (using on-base percentage, slugging percentage, quality starts, saves+holds, and strikeouts-to-walks ratio, while removing batting average and saves). We're on Yahoo, so the position eligibility is lenient. 27 roster spots, $300 budget with a max of $150 allocated to keepers.

Player Price Player Price
Clayton Kershaw 36 Ian Happ 8
Gerrit Cole 33 Dylan Carlson 7
Francisco Lindor 31 Drew Pomeranz 7
Alex Bregman 26 Sandy Alcantara 6
Jose Ramirez 26 Jesus Aguilar 6
Mike Moustakas 22 Miguel Cabrera 6
Ronald Acuna 16 Bobby Dalbec 6
Max Muncy 16 Alex Dickerson 6
Miguel Sano 15 Jason Heyward 6
Justin Upton 15 Aaron Hicks 6
Will Smith (C) 12 Dylan Moore 6
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 11 Jared Walsh 6
Franmil Reyes 11 Ian Anderson 6
Yordan Alvarez 11 Pablo Lopez 6
James Karinchak 10 Andrew Vaughn 1

Most of the $6 players are obvious cuts. Moore, Anderson, and Lopez are the only strong candidates to be kept - we'll come back to them. Walsh might be worth consideration, but it's likely he'd go for less in the draft. Relievers generally aren't a great use of limited keeper funds, and both are hurt by high walk rates in this format, so Karinchak and Pomeranz can be ruled out. Moustakas and Upton's average salaries are both significantly lower than their price tags, which makes them easy to let go. And even in an OBP league, Sano's struggles last season have lowered his stock enough to expect a discount from the above price.

On the other side of the coin, Acuna is a stone-cold bargain for the next several years. Ramirez, while not as great of a deal, is likewise a no-brainer. Guerrero hasn't lived up to the hype yet, but he's still just 21 and this price still represents a significant discount from his average salary. Alvarez and Reyes's average salaries aren't that far off from the prices above, but those are based on them being DH-only, and they both retain OF eligibility in this league.

Keeping the five players mentioned in the previous paragraph costs $75, half the allowance for keepers, and we haven't even addressed four of the five high-priced studs or the trio of $6 options yet. Kershaw and Cole are both set-and-forget aces, but keeping both would eat up all but $6 of the remaining budget. It's almost certainly better to only hang on to one, and Cole is the superior option in terms of both talent and salary. $42 left to spend, which means there's only room to keep one of the star infielders. Of the two, Lindor is the better option, but he's also more expensive. Neither played up to their standards last year, and Lindor's move to New York may dampen his production.

Then there's the two Dodgers, Muncy and Smith. Again, we're talking about an OBP league, and Muncy's ability to play three positions makes him a solid value at his price. Smith has done nothing but hit at a position where production is tough to come by. Both Happ and Carlson are unlikely to come at a better price in the draft than their keeper salary. The former has offered excellent production in limited samples over the last two seasons, while the latter remains one of the best prospects in baseball. Vaughn is another great prospect, and only a buck to retain. Finally, all three of the $6 options are going for at least twice that on average. Even letting the Franimal go would only give me $53 to choose between 10 players who total $119 in salary.

You see the dilemma. It's a good problem to have, but a problem all the same. Pre-deadline trades are an option, but I can't afford the guys I already have, and it can be tough to find other managers who have both the cap room to take on players and the willingness to part with the draft cash I'd need in return. No matter what, some good values will fall by the wayside - just as the system is designed.

I have several weeks left to figure this out, and will likely need every minute. Have thoughts on how you'd handle it? Feel free to hit me up on Twitter @amoralpanic.


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