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August 4, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Leagues With In-Season Salary Caps

by Mike Gianella

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One of the most common complaints from fantasy baseball players revolves around trades with disparate value. While this complaint exists in non-carryover leagues, it is a far more common issue in keeper leagues, where there is always room for debate about what constitutes fair value. Depending upon what your league is like, a cost-controlled Byron Buxton for Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez trade either sounds eminently fair or like a complete and utter sham.

One conundrum in auction-style Roto leagues is that depending upon the league’s contract, salary, and freeze limit rules the market price for Buxton might very well be much higher than it is for Cabrera and Hernandez. There are several reasons that this phenomenon might occur, and to catalogue all of them is well beyond the intended scope of this article. In some leagues, though, it isn’t uncommon to see trades where three, four, or even five major league players are swapped for a cost-controlled Buxton.

While this might be the fair market price, trades like this often do create a feeling of frustration and agitation among a fantasy league. An owner’s hard work building a contender in the offseason and at the auction can be completely undone by one trade because a team out of the running valued Trout so highly. It isn’t necessarily unfair—a player’s worth is in the eye of the beholder—but it does convert fantasy baseball from a competition about trying to evaluate talent and accrue the best statistics into a race to try to acquire the hottest future studs so you can flip them to another owner at the deadline.

One way to attempt and curtail these types of trades in auction leagues is to institute a salary cap. In most auction leagues, there is a $260 Auction Day salary cap. However, an in-season salary cap isn’t necessarily a universal rule. Whether or not you want to use one depends on how you feel about the issues I outlined above.

In my long running home league, we instituted a $350 in-season salary cap years ago and it has worked out extremely well. Some have asked me why not institute an even lower salary cap like $320 if you are interested in truly curtailing this year for next year trades. The answer is because the goal of the $350 cap isn’t to completely quash dump deals, but rather to engineer a happy compromise. Our league likes pulling the trigger on dump deals but does not want to see the types of crazy 8-for-8 trades that used to turn a sixth-place team into a first-place team in one fell swoop.

I’m not here to advocate what your league should or shouldn’t do. If you do play with salary caps, though, below are a few general guidelines for how this rule will impact your league, and the best ways to navigate a league that uses this scheme.

Stars and Scrubs Is Less Optimal
This applies more in leagues with high inflation rates, but spending $40-plus on multiple players will limit your ability to optimally fill in your dead spots come trading time. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t spend big on Mike Trout, for example, but grabbing a few second tier players at $35-40 probably isn’t the greatest idea. If you have three or four dead slots on offense and are $25-30 shy of your league’s salary cap, you are going to have a difficult time filling those holes at your deadline.

Don't overspend just because you have money left over
An old bromide in auction leagues is that you should “never leave money on the table.” While I generally agree with this precept, it is senseless to overspend at the end of your auction simply because you have the money in a cap league. While most of your one dollar scrubs don’t work out, if they do work out and you spend seven or eight dollars simply because you have money burning a hole in your pocket you will have added extra money to your team for no reason. The bigger issue here comes when you start spending $15-20 on players who are only worth $10-15. Managing your auction cash badly is enough of a sin, but in a cap league don’t compound it by overspending on guys for the sake of overspending.

Don’t obsess about the cap in April
Unless your league has a very low in-season cap, don’t worry too much about making a trade where you add $10-20 of salary if you’re “only” getting $5-10 of net value in return. Value should almost always trump salary concerns and it is best to worry about how you are going to fit everyone in under your league’s cap later. In a worst case scenario you might have to cut players in July or August if you are over the cap, but you still will have benefited from 90-100 games of stats from your favorable trade.

Keep an eye out for players in the last year of their (fantasy) contracts
One thing you most definitely should keep an eye out for are players in the last year of their fantasy contracts. It’s unlikely that James Loney is going to get a long-term contract from his fantasy owner, but as an option-year player, that $2 contract he has from back in 2013 is going to be plenty valuable next season. You don’t want to fill your offense with 14 Loneys, but having one or two players like this on hand to alleviate cap concerns is a potentially huge advantage. In a fair trade, if someone offers me a $10 option-year player for a $25 player in the first year of his fantasy contract, I'll jump all over that. $15 in extra cap space can go a long way at the trade deadline.

Don’t go crazy with your FAAB
You still want to try and obtain significant pieces from the other league via FAAB. Keep in mind that there is a good chance that you are going to wind up tossing this player into a trade for pennies on the dollar if your league uses a salary cap. Jeff Samardzija was just tossed into a trade in my home league because of his prohibitively high FAAB salary. If you are a non-contender looking to acquire players to trade, this is even more important to remember. Buying Martin Prado at $70 to trade him won’t do you any good if no contender can fit him in under the cap at this price.

Live in the now
One of the worst things you can do in a cap league is turn down a beneficial trade because that trade will put you over the cap in the here and now. This is shortsighted thinking and will hinder your ability to compete in the long term. If a favorable trade comes your way and you are worried that you won't be able to activate Ryan Zimmerman because of the cap, make the trade. Chances are one of two things will happen: someone else will get hurt and open up a spot on your active roster or you will be able to make another trade to free up cap space. The worst that can happen is you that you are forced to release a player weeks from now. If you do have to waive a player because of cap concerns, it is almost always because you are adding better players via trade or off of your reserve list anyway.

Be creative
If you see an opportunity for a dump trade, but the trade puts you over the cap, work as hard as you can to make it work. Add an extra player to the deal even if it is a slight statistical loss on that player, but an overall gain on the trade. Push hard with other owners in your league to see if you can make another trade, even if that trade isn't favorable for you but the overall impact on your team is. Remember that the goal is to improve your team on the whole. I have seen very greedy owners refuse to make a trade because they don't want to lose an average catcher for a scrub, even though they're making out in a 6-for-6 deal elsewhere across the board.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Salary Caps

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