- Will Harris, ESPN Contributor
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Part of life in a keeper league is the inevitable rebuilding period. How often you must rebuild is a function of both your league's rules set and the quality of the opposition. In some leagues, the better owners must rebuild their teams only once or twice per decade. In others, it seems owners must rebuild every 3-4 years. Sometimes the process takes a single year, but in more competitive leagues, it can take two or more years even when well executed. Whatever your league's parameters are, rebuilding is an eventuality. Learning to do it well is a critical skill for all keeper-league owners.
The objective of the rebuilding process is to assemble a top keeper list, which is the first step toward a league championship and a franchise that is a contender for many years. What constitutes a top keeper list varies from league to league, but the principles for creating one are the same in most leagues. At its core, good rebuilding strategy involves assessing the various sources of keeper options, then maximizing the potential for each source to produce a freeze-worthy player.
Effective rebuilding demands an early commitment to the process. Do not hesitate to enter your draft with no intention of assembling a competitive team for that year, if that's the realistic scenario. Successful keeper-league owners recognize the folly of taking a sixth place-caliber freeze list into a draft with the intention of drafting and trading their way into third place. Do not attempt to compete in a keeper league with a mediocre team. The result will be mediocrity this year and mediocrity in future years until you commit to rebuilding.
Keeper owners, even the skilled ones, who attempt to compete with so-so teams are doomed to repeat their fifth-place fate over and over because very few keeper-league champions win with the team they left the draft table with. Trading, specifically dump trading, is a cornerstone of all keeper leagues (and also the major leagues). Trading rules vary greatly from league to league, and success requires accumulating enough keeper-worthy assets to remain in contention for multiple years while trading some away to the dumpers each season.
The fundamental task of the rebuilder is to assess all keeper sources and decide which sources are best suited to produce specific keeper needs. Upside comes in many forms. Injured stars, future closers, post-hype stalled prospects and backup hitters with full-time skills are some of the basic player types that rebuilders should target with draft and free-agent dollars. Established players with bargain salaries, as well as young talent that hasn't fully developed, are natural trade targets.
While properly identifying targets is part of the equation, rebuilding can take years unless you learn to spend the different resources in your arsenal (draft picks, free-agent dollars, trading chips, etc.) appropriately. The key is to accumulate a few top guaranteed keepers and an army of possible keepers, mining each source for the type of keeper it will reliably produce. Below is a step-by-step plan that chronologically guides you through the rebuilding process and provides the principles used to maximize each of your available wellsprings of talent.
Preseason: Freeze hitters, but toss or trade pitchers in the offseason. Your keeper list entering the rebuilding draft will depend on your holdovers, of course, but ideally should be dominated by hitters. Tend to dump marginal higher-priced pitchers in favor of marginal higher-priced hitters. Try to use your quality pitching freezes in offseason trades for hitting freezes of similar quality. There are two reasons for this. First, you'll need extra hitting slots because the trade chips you buy will be primarily hitters, because of their better reliability and trade value. If you have few keepers, protect some of your highest-priced players at or slightly above market value. Doing this simply freezes your trade chips instead of drafting them. If you have an abundance of intriguing low-priced freezes, you should tend to dump your marginally priced studs with the intention of drafting your trade chips.
The second reason you'll want to freeze more hitters and trade away pitchers is that pitching is easier to find via your in-season sources. As for offseason trading, target the best-hitting keepers possible. If you don't have the goods to pry the best options away from other owners, your offseason trade objective is simply to look for young upside players who are early in their contract phase, if that applies.
Draft: Focus on relief/saves prospects in deeper leagues. The deeper your league, the more pivotal it is to lock up cheap saves. Draft strategy for rebuilders is mostly about good player evaluation, so your overall goal is to invest in those players from your target group whom your league most undervalues. Of course, you'll also need to buy two or three stud hitters as trade chips if you didn't freeze them. After the draft, you should be able to sort your roster into two distinct groups: your trade chips and your prospective future keepers.
Trades: Use big trade chips to target premium hitting prospects; use lesser trade chips to target relief/saves prospects and minor leaguers in the lower levels of the minors. The biggest prize of all to a rebuilder is a premium hitting keeper, such as a $5 Matt Kemp or 23rd-rounder Corey Hart. This group also includes Andrew McCutchen-caliber minor leaguers who will reach the majors soon. You want get these types of players with your biggest trade chips. Sell your few studs earlier in the year, when more owners are in contention and enough at-bats lie ahead for your studs to command a high price. Target the premium-hitting keepers in your league with these trades because those bargains are difficult to land in the draft, especially in leagues with any sort of farm system. With lesser trade chips -- players who might fill a hole for a contender but have no serious value -- seek out relief prospects while restocking the bottom of your farm system. As an add-on or throw-in on trades, seek out relievers with closer-worthy skills who have little current value because of a limited role.
Farm system: If your league has a minor league draft, select only hitters, and primarily high-ceiling hitters, regardless of age or proximity to the majors. Again, hitters are more reliable and less prone to serious injury, and pitchers are easier to find elsewhere. Your goal is to use your minor league system to increase the probability of landing one of those elusive premium hitting keepers.
Free-agent acquisition budget (FAAB): Spread your money around to buy as many players as possible, mostly pitchers. In AL- or NL-only leagues, do not hoard your FAAB in the hopes of acquiring (and subsequently trading) a star player that crosses leagues. Your FAAB goal is to mine the excess of pitching that comes into the league for prospective keepers. In deep leagues, most of these players will be long shots to have immediate value. Acquire starters and relievers who have good skill sets, regardless of their current roles. The more you can buy with your allocated budget, the better your chances are that you will place a keeper on your future championship freeze list.
In summary, acquire your best offensive keepers via your farm system and the dumping of your studs. Gain other hitting keepers by making prudent draft selections. Spend the rest of your draft dollars and most of your free-agent money on pitching prospects, and target pitching above marginal hitting with your lesser trade chips. Seek cheap saves relentlessly and always remember to accumulate the rights to as many players with upside as possible.
Some final wisdom: Always remember that your rebuilding process might take a year (or two) longer than you anticipate. You might be hoping to return to competitiveness in a particular year, but rebuilding doesn't end at a designated time. It ends whenever you manage to enter a season with a keeper list that can win multiple championships. You won't know how long that will take until you get there, so always think an extra year or two ahead when assessing player potential, and pass on that borderline trade involving a player who has only a year remaining on his contract.
See you at the top of the standings in a year or two.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.
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