(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. It has been updated for 2023 where applicable.)
Your work is far from complete at the end of draft day.
While it’s true that the majority of your competitive chances in any given season hinge on the success of your draft, your management of your team in-season more often than not proves to be the determining factor in your final standing. For a real-life parallel, the draft is like purchasing a house; the remodels, repairs and maintenance represent the in-season work you do to it that ultimately enhances its value.
Unfortunately, it’s the in-season work that often falls by the wayside with fantasy baseball managers, especially those who enjoy other fantasy sports like football (ramping up in late July), hockey (mid-September) or basketball (beginning of October). At the time that we should be most focused upon our championship quest, we’re most apt to be distracted by our other interests.
It doesn’t help that a hefty volume of available fantasy baseball advice pertains to draft-day strategy rather than in-season advice. Sure, there are plenty of lineup decision, trade target and pickup recommendation columns, but it’s not often that strategy regarding these in-season transactions is discussed.
That’s where this edition of The Playbook comes in. Part 1 explained the various types of league transactional settings, but now it’s time to examine successful strategies for each.
Your league’s method for assigning add/drops matters
The decision as to whether your league will dole out player acquisitions via a Waivers, Free Agent Budget or (gasp) No Waivers (also known as “first-come, first-served”) system is among the most significant, so don’t take it lightly. Nor should you casually make the decision whether to cap the number of transactions allowed, either within a single week or for the entire season.
In addition to your choice needing to suit the interests and schedule of your league’s participants, it also has a huge say in your player acquisition strategy.
In a Waivers system, teams are ranked in a predetermined order of priority for claiming the player, with the team earliest in the order ultimately being the one awarded said player. The order typically goes in the reverse of the draft order to begin the season, then in inverse order of the league’s standings during the year. The order can reset weekly to reflect the reverse of the standings, or the waiver order can begin in the reverse of the draft order, with claiming teams simply moved to the back of the order and no reset.
As most Waivers systems only apply to three specific types of players — the entire pool immediately exiting the draft, any player recently cut by another fantasy team, or a player who has recently joined the eligible player pool (such as an American League player traded into a National League-only league) — there isn’t a significant need for strategy in a standard mixed league. You place claims on the waiver-eligible players you want every time you see them available on the free-agent list, and simply hope that you’re the earliest in the order so as to earn the claim.
It’s in the deeper leagues or the offsite leagues that have more nuance to their waiver systems where a more calculated approach is necessary. The most obvious are those aforementioned AL- or NL-only leagues, where possessing the top waiver priority at the time a player traded into the pool from the other league is paramount. This season, players like Charlie Blackmon, C.J. Cron, Randal Grichuk and German Marquez (Colorado Rockies, NL), Ian Happ (Chicago Cubs, NL), Bryan Reynolds (Pittsburgh Pirates, NL) and Amed Rosario (Cleveland Guardians, AL) appear the most likely candidates among higher-profile fantasy names to be on the midseason trade market, and that’s before getting into elite names who could be moved in blockbuster deals such as Shane Bieber (Guardians, AL) and Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels, AL), or players who might be moved by teams that disappoint in-season.
In my experience, fantasy managers are much more timid to spend a favorable waiver position than is necessary. Granted, in an AL- or NL-only league, especially in the weeks leading up to the midseason MLB trade deadline, it’s worth being more conservative with placing waiver claims so as to be in striking position should an Ohtani or Reynolds get traded into your league, but it’s wiser to be aggressive with your claims wherever possible. The more chances you take on new, intriguing talent, the better off your team will be in the long run.
A good rule of thumb: The greater the volume of appealing talent available via waivers at once, the more aggressive you should be. In these periods, you’re likely to see the largest number of overall claims made for players in your league, meaning the quicker your league’s waiver order will turn over. That’s why the best times to strike (in general) are immediately after the draft and directly after the MLB trade deadline on July 31. In a league with a more restrictive waiver system, two other likely times are the first two weeks of the regular season, as roles are beginning to be defined, and the 16-day point of the season, after which point many of the top prospects still in the minors have been kept there for long enough to delay their eventual MLB free agency by a year.
“Burning your waiver position,” as many describe it, is a less damaging strategy at these specific times, because more teams will be doing it.
Another consideration is stacking your waiver claims, so as to add the maximum number of players concurrently in one waiver run. For example, if you exited your salary-cap draft with three $1 players to whom you weren’t attached, and see three attractive, waiver-eligible free agents you’d prefer as replacements, it’s the perfect time to submit all three claims. After all, in a 12-team league, the worst you’d be doing with claims Nos. 2 and 3 is to move your No. 12 waiver position to … 12, and then again to 12. No harm done.
If your league opts for a waiver system that resets weekly to reflect the reverse order of standings, there’s little need to sweat burning your waiver position, being that it is subject to change within the next seven days anyway.
What a FAB-ulous player acquisition system!
The Free Agent Budget method — also commonly referred to as FAB — is my favorite for awarding player acquisitions. It’s the most strategic and equitable system, but it’s also more complicated and is considerably more schedule-dependent.
As with a draft-day salary-cap draft, the FAB method assigns each team a predetermined budget of imaginary dollars or units with which to “purchase” free agent contracts throughout the season, with the winning team for each being the one that registered the highest bid. Unlike in the draft, though, FAB is generally blind bidding (although the Tout Wars industry analysts leagues at one time did conduct live FAB sessions for the transactions period immediately following the MLB trade deadline).
A typical team FAB budget is $100, but I’ve been in leagues that used $200, $250, $300 and $1,000. The larger the budget, however, the flukier you should expect your individual salary results to be, with teams more apt to mismanage their funds over the course of the year, causing unexpectedly larger (especially early in the year) or smaller (especially later) winning bids. To use last year’s Tout Wars-NL, which uses a $1,000 cap, as an example, six times a player’s contract sold for at least $400 (or at least 40% of an individual team’s seasonal budget). It didn’t seem to matter whether the season ran its entirety or was shortened, either, à la the pandemic-abbreviated 2020, as in each of 2019, 2020 and 2021, at least six times a player sold for $400 (seven times in 2019, six apiece in 2020 and 2021).
Whether or not to require a $1 minimum FAB bid for each player is another important decision. Such a requirement serves as a transactions cap of sorts, as in a $100 cap league, a $1 minimum means a maximum of 100 player acquisitions over the course of a season. I prefer leagues that allow $0 bids, so as to never force a team to enter a given scoring period with a blank — or inactive player due to being injured, in the minors, suspended or otherwise — roster spot, but I also more commonly play in deeper leagues where the caliber players likely to sell for $0 are replacement level-caliber.
Take special care of when to have your Free Agent Budget claims process. ESPN’s game allows you to set them on any (or every) day of the week and at the top of any of the 24 hours of the day (though only once daily). Industry leagues like Tout Wars and the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR), as well as many old-school leagues, prefer to process FAB only once weekly, usually as close to the end of the weekly scoring period as possible. I’ve played in leagues that had as many as four FAB periods, but I find that the optimal setup either has a single period with a deadline of Sunday at 11 p.m. or midnight ET — so as to run after the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game, the final one of the week, is likely complete — or with dual deadlines with one on Friday and the other either Monday morning or at around noon ET before the new week starts.
This applies regardless of how many FAB periods you choose: Do not forget to enter your FAB bids before each and every deadline!
As simple as that sounds, even the best fantasy baseball minds sometimes fall prey to this mistake. A story once shared with me by one of the industry’s brightest minds chronicled the time he completely forgot to enter his FAB bids in one of that season’s most critical weeks — the week that a big-name player had been traded into the pool of his specific “only” league. Set a repeating calendar reminder on your phone, if you must.
As with Waivers systems, fantasy managers’ biggest misstep in FAB formats is to bid too conservatively, especially in the season’s early weeks. While talent can be found on the free-agent list of any league at any time of the year, there are “sweet spots” on the calendar in terms of free-agent finds, as referenced earlier.
Since FAB requires every player to go through the bidding process before being awarded to a fantasy team, a more aggressive approach is necessary. For one, bear in mind that no two weeks on the baseball calendar carry equal weight in terms of budgeting your FAB resources. After all, the players you buy in Week 1 have the ability to contribute to your team for all 26 typical weeks of a baseball season, but those you buy in the season-concluding Week 26 can only contribute over those seven days.
That’s not to say that you need adhere strictly to the numbers in the chart — and in fact, I’d argue that you should not, being that no two seasons produce identical week-over-week results. The flow of talent must drive your decision-making, but just understand it’s not unnatural to have spent 50% of your seasonal FAB budget by May 15 or 75% of it by midseason.
These weights shift in an AL- or NL-only league, however, where elite talent from the other league is much more likely to enter your player pool in mid-to-late July. In such a format, it might not be unreasonable to reserve 10% to 12% of your budget for each of the two FAB periods bumping up against the (typical) July 31 MLB trade deadline, taking some of those funds out of Weeks 3-9.
But don’t hoard FAB. Waiting for a trade-deadline prize isn’t always a successful strategy, and in a typical league, too many teams do it, devaluing the huge piles of FAB cash you have handy should you not be the team “wielding the hammer” (the phrase commonly used to describe the team with the most at any one time). There’s also the risk of having a forgettable MLB trade deadline altogether, such as what happened in 2013, when the biggest names to switch leagues were Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, in which case teams that hoard FAB might be left overspending on every remaining morsel in the season’s quieter-on-the-free-agent-front final 8-9 weeks.
A good rule of thumb here is that if you’re uncertain whether or not the FAB bid you’ve registered is sufficient, go back and add another $1 (or $2, even). Only the most calculated bids — we’ll get into those next — are worth standing your ground.
Always, always know where your competition stands in terms of FAB budgets, as well as your opponents’ strengths and their roster and position needs. Just as in a live salary-cap draft, keen knowledge of your opponents’ situation can help guide your own bidding, if not help you guess their bidding outright. And speaking of “guessing”: It’s a good idea to track your opponents’ bidding tendencies, period-by-period. Does a certain opponent always bid round numbers, like $5, $10 or $25, but otherwise $1? Does another only bid aggressively for hotshot prospects, but more conservatively for everyone else? Does another yet fall prey to the aforementioned trap of hoarding funds for the MLB trade deadline? All of this can inform your own guesses on your competition’s bidding.
Do you want a few examples? First, if in the middle of July, I find that I have a league-leading $47 of my original $100 budget remaining, the next two teams have only $32 and $28 and that I have the tiebreaker over each, then I know I need bid only $32 to guarantee myself that league-crossing superstar (hello, Reynolds!). Second, if in August I’m undecided between a pair of starting pitchers I need to bolster my staff, I have $15 remaining and the only other team with more has $21 but is rich in starting pitching, then I’m much more apt to look at the next two highest-budgeted teams — say, $10 and $9 — and bid $9 on each of my two desired targets. That way, it’s not especially likely I’d lose a $9 bid to the $21 team that doesn’t have a need, and the $10 team would have to max-bid to steal the second starter I’m after anyway.
Returning to tracking your opponents’ bidding tendencies, be sure to vary up your own. Just as in the draft, you don’t want to be predictable, with your competition able to guess your most common bid amounts. For another example, this from a longtime league of my own in 2021, a fellow competitor asked me how I knew to spend exactly $43 of my $300 budget on a May acquisition, considering he had bid the same $43 but lacked the tiebreaker. I admitted that I had entirely randomly selected the number, but what I didn’t say was that I had done so because I tend to do that in order to prevent anyone from being able to decipher patterns in my bidding.
Ultimately, get your player. If you’ve determined the player fits a specific categorical, statistical or roster need, win him. Success in a FAB league means maximizing your return on every bid, so always strike when you see opportunity.
The wild, wild world of ‘first come, first served’
I’ve played in “first come, first served” leagues many times over the years. I cannot attest to them being equitable, nor can I attest to them being especially fun.
Unfortunately, when all players are available to be freely added and dropped at all times, the fantasy manager with the most attentive eye — or, perhaps, in the least need of sleep — possesses the advantage. That means when a closer gets hurt at 1 a.m. ET in a West Coast game, his projected replacement most likely ends up being claimed by either the person who lives furthest west or who stays up latest at night, and the manager who reads that advice column within seconds of its publishing — hello, ESPN app alerts — becomes the most likely person to add the highlighted player.
That’s not to say that this is a terrible method for awarding players, but it creates an imbalance among a league with people with differing life schedules. A 10-team league comprised of entirely night-owl college students, or of 9-5 Central time zone workers with strict internet restrictions while at the job, would be on relatively equal playing fields in a No Waivers league, so keep your group’s membership in mind when making the decision. The last thing you need is one person in the league having a valid claim of, “My job requires me to be in bed before even the East Coast games end, therefore I never get a chance at each night’s emerging stars!”
In this format, though, the best advice is to cycle players as often as possible, in the quest of finding the star who sticks. It’s also advised to reserve the most attention to your league’s free agent list for the mid-to-late portion of the evening, while games are taking place and news is happening.
Mind those transactions caps
Any of the above situations, however, change depending upon whether your league limits the number of transactions you’re allowed in a given scoring period or for the season as a whole. From a settings standpoint, this decision hinges upon the depth of your league, as well as the group’s feelings on exploiting single-day (or even single-week) matchups.
To state upfront, I dislike transactions caps, for the simple reason that I think any limitation on a team’s ability to improve serves an unnecessary penalty upon the unlucky. Injuries are a part of the game, they’ve increased in number by a substantial margin over the past few seasons, and they’re one aspect that requires replacement off the free-agent list. They also happen often without warning or reason, and affect teams in imbalanced fashion. Teams that have to burn a larger number of their already limited transactions are disadvantaged in having fewer opportunities to improve their teams from simply seeking out the best available talent.
My suggestion to those who prefer transaction caps in order to rein in exploiting matchups — “streaming starters,” or adding a starting pitcher on one day, only to drop and replace him with a new one the next, being a prime example — is to expand the depth of your league pool. Add more teams. Limit it to only the American or National leagues. Expand the rosters, or the bench.
Should your league ultimately decide to limit transactions, though, bake that decision into your add/drop strategy. A recommended number for a full season in a standard mixed league is 150, or a little more than five per week, which means that you should keep a running tally of moves made and moves remaining so as to not exceed your seasonal pace by too much.
As the season progresses, you should increasingly shift your add/drop strategy in such a league from long-term investments in the early stages to short-term matchup bets in the latter stages. That’s similar to your Waivers or FAB strategy in that you want your acquisitions in April and May to be designed toward providing you the maximum, season-long impact, whereas you should be doing more fine-tuning of your roster (or playing for every individual stat) in August or September.
Trades are often overrated, but a good strategy is essential
You’ll notice that trade strategy isn’t the first topic in this edition of the Playbook. There’s a reason. I don’t think it’s the A-number-one ingredient in your championship formula. I genuinely believe it’s the add/drops that take precedence.
That said, trading is one of the aspects of fantasy sports that can carry tremendous weight, but also present a host of pitfalls. Far, far too many fantasy managers possess mediocre trading skills.
If there’s one piece of advice I can share, it’s this: If you want to trade, find one, specific potential partner, invest as much attention to his or her situation and propose a trade as mutually beneficial as possible. As in life, first impressions count on the trade market, and while many fantasy managers enter the trade market with only their own best interests at heart, that’s one of those pitfalls that can lead to abject failure.
First off, never, ever begin this process saying, “I want to trade. Let’s trade!” Trading just for the sake of trading is poor rationale and it’s the most likely route to making a mistake. Such an approach presumably leads to only a cursory look at your own team’s roster, standing or categorical/statistical needs, and it almost certainly causes you to gloss over your trade counterpart’s own interests. I’m giving one of only two responses to the “Gotta Trade” person: Close that door, or engage this individual’s enthusiasm in the hopes they are going to unload a player without paying proper attention to whether the deal makes sense for them.
Instead, if you’re the one beginning the trade process, or in the event that a trade has been proposed to you, evaluate where your team stands, its strengths and weaknesses, and whether it has an excess that can be spun for value elsewhere on the roster. For example, a team that’s hovering fifth in the standings overall, but atop the stolen base category and with Starling Marte, Tommy Edman and Jon Berti on its roster, probably has speed to deal. It’s wise to evaluate these things on a regular basis — weekly, at the very least — in order not to develop an obvious excess that your leaguemates can attempt to devalue (such as a roto team possessing a 15-steal lead over the rest of the field and therefore garnering zero value from those extra 15 steals).
Next, take a sufficient amount of time — arguably equal to evaluating your own squad — to evaluate prospective trade partners’ standing and needs. Using the same example, a team that’s 18 steals buried into last place might have a need for Edman, but would just as likely to be punting the category in July or August, making it a poor fit. Another poor fit would be a team with Ozzie Albies and Jonathan India, because while it might be in need of stolen bases, it also doesn’t have an obvious need for a second baseman (unless one of those second basemen fits your own need in return).
Ask yourself this: If I was this team, would the trade I’m proposing make sense for me to accept? If the answer to this is a flat “no,” don’t propose it, since it’s just as likely that the negative reaction that fantasy manager has will ruin any chance at renegotiation, as you’ll get that expected answer.
The correct answer to the question is, “Well, yes, Edman would address my glaring lack of speed, while the player I’m dealing away, Brandon Lowe, both plays the same position as well as gives me an excess of home runs.” Then, returning the evaluation to you — and remembering that the deals you want are those that, on the surface, look spot-in, but have underlying traits that nevertheless benefit your side – you’ll know that it’s an OBP league, and that going from Edman to Lowe gives you a good 25-plus points in that category.
As you get started making proposals, consider the following formula: Face-to-face > Phone call > text message > email > website offer, as far as the method of proposing a trade. The primary reason for this is the ease of rejection for your trade counterpart, as each is increasingly impersonal and therefore easier to ignore. The more engaging you are with your initial offer, the more opportunity for negotiation and seeing it through, and therefore the greater odds of completing a deal.
As for the deals themselves, be sure to consider the league context, in addition to simply your own and your counterparts’ needs. This is especially important when considering the number of players involved. Many times, fantasy managers try to play the “addition” game, piling on multiple players in the quest to attain one superstar performer — these are often called “2-for-1” (or another greater number on the larger side) deals.
The problem with such trade offers is that they often fail to take the league context into consideration, where the value of a replacement-caliber player — generally the top player available on the free-agent list — carries plenty of weight. In a shallow (read: 10-team) mixed league, replacements are easy to find and often only marginally less value than the 15th-20th best player on the roster, greatly reducing the appeal of non-superstars on the trade market. In a deeper league, such as a 12-team AL- or NL-only, the free-agent pool is often so dry that even the 20th-best player on a roster has a decent amount of trade appeal.
Let’s use my preseason rankings to illustrate: In a 10-team mixed points league, Gerrit Cole might be projected to earn $45 in 2023, but that doesn’t mean one could add a $17 Jose Abreu, $15 Kyle Wright and $13 Blake Snell and assume the math supports the deal. After all, the team absorbing Abreu, Wright and Snell would be replacing one first baseman as well as one pitcher on its roster, and if those players replaced were valued at a combined $11, that’d enter the valuation equation of the trade. In addition, higher-valued players tend to be just that because of their greater likelihood of returning on the investment, especially on the pitching side in a points league, meaning that it probably would — and should — take a group of players totaling $48-plus to convince Cole’s manager to bite on the trade offer.
The best 2- or 3-for-1 trade offers are made to teams that are precariously thin at multiple positions, with the best players on either side relatively close in value. Returning to the Cole example, a strong offer might be replacing Snell with a $16 Devin Williams, especially if the league splits up starting and relief pitching into separate positions and your trade counterpart lacks a top-shelf closer. But don’t invest substantial time in seeking out such trades, as they tend to be the most over-proposed and undesirable offers in fantasy, yet rarely serve a fit.
Most importantly, don’t fear trading. One can only hope to benefit from more trades in which he or she is involved than to fare poorly in them, much in the way that you’ll never truly know how successful any of your draft-day picks are until the season is finally in the books. We all believe we drafted brilliantly. Unfortunately, we all hope to win every trade. Yet neither is going to always turn out that way.
Your lineup-setting strategy matters, too
Maximizing your daily or weekly rosters, depending upon which format your league uses, is an important ingredient as well. Acquiring talent provides you options, but picking the right ones to use in a given scoring period can be trickier.
Know your league’s scoring system, roster rules and, if applicable, in-season game limits at each position. Depending upon whether you’re playing in a roto or points-based league, quantity might matter more than quality of matchups, and vice versa. For instance, in most points leagues, starting pitchers aren’t at excessive risk of negative point totals in a given outing — at least not those you’d typically roster in a mixed league — so it’s best to take a quantitative approach to lineup-setting.
Consider things like a player’s volume of games played on the given day or in the given week. Doubleheaders provide an added benefit in daily leagues, while seven-game weeks carry greater weight in those formats, especially when those games come at home. Lean on games in hitting-friendly ballparks on the hitting side, and games in pitching-friendly ballparks on the pitching side. Pick hitters set to face weaker team pitching staffs, like those of the Rockies, Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds or Pirates, and pitchers matched up against lighter-hitting offenses, like those of the Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Nationals or Miami Marlins.
The weekly ESPN Forecaster can help identify these favorable and unfavorable matchups, with matchups ratings from 1-10 for hitters and base stealers, as well as Game Score projections for all starting pitchers. These are updated daily, but weekly projections become available every Friday throughout the season.
In leagues with in-season game limits by position, quality becomes the only factor in making lineup decisions. Aim for the highest Forecaster ratings at all spots, and do your best to keep each position as close to its seasonal pace as possible.
Finally, and just like with my earlier FAB advice, never miss a lineup deadline! Every at-bat, inning pitched, game played and fantasy roster spot is precious, capable of helping provide you that single statistic that might ultimately decide your league’s championship. Attention counts, so set reminders if you must; I do for all of my leagues, for every such deadline.
Congratulations! The Playbook has now reached “official game” status, with five “innings” in the books, getting you deep into the intermediate-player phase. Now that you’re a seasoned fantasy manager, I’ll help you with those next few critical steps … after a brief word from our sponsor.