Ah, keeper leagues. They afford you all the fun of being Theo Epstein, but without having to haggle with the Boston Red Sox over player compensation.
Epstein -- and new right-hand man Jed Hoyer -- has been tasked with rebuilding the Chicago Cubs, a daunting assignment that, translated into fantasy baseball, might scare off certain owners. I recognize that there are some of you who prefer to be Brian Cashman, whose annual mandate is to win the championship.
These are real-life general managers on polar ends of the strategic spectrum, and in fantasy baseball, they would embody owners in two distinct league types:
• Epstein is your long-term keeper (or dynasty) league owner.
• Cashman is your classic redraft league owner.
We feed the Cashmans of the fantasy baseball world a cornucopia of information and advice every day. If you play only in redraft formats -- leagues that annually draft their rosters from scratch -- this isn't the column for you. Go check out our 2012 Draft Kit; there's plenty there to help you win this season.
This column is for the Epsteins of fantasy baseball, the owners tasked with planning not only for the current season, but also the many seasons after it. It is designed to help several sets of fantasy owners, including those beginning a keeper league from scratch, those entering a Cubs-esque rebuilding phase in an existing keeper league, and those simply seeking to inject a little more youth into their already strong core of keepers.
This is a column in which players such as Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Shelby Miller, none of whom is necessarily guaranteed an Opening Day roster spot in 2012, have a prominent seat at the table, while Lance Berkman, Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki, each of whom ranks among our 2012 top 100, do not.
These are my annual Top 250 keeper rankings, designed as a rough price guide of sorts for keeper or dynasty leagues.
The rankings formula
I'll state this up front: It is impossible to craft a set of keeper rankings that will be of equal help to every owner, because few keeper leagues are alike. Among the many variables: the player pricing method (draft or auction, and do you keep players in the round they are picked or the auction price you paid?), number of keepers (can you keep one, three, 10 or perhaps your entire roster?) and length of keeper contract (can you keep a player for only two or three seasons, is there price inflation each year or can you keep every player forever without penalty?).
Whether you're a fantasy owner hovering somewhere between being a contender and rebuilder -- your league's Mike Rizzo, let's say, using the major league GMs parallel above -- also has an impact on your personal keeper rankings.
You'll need to do the legwork to determine to what extent these factors influence said personal rankings. For example, a $1 David Freese might be far more attractive a keeper in your league than a $33 Ryan Zimmerman, despite Zimmerman's 49-spot advantage over Freese in my keeper top 250.
This is the player valuation formula I used:
• 2012 performance: 25 percent.
• 2013 performance: 25 percent.
• 2014 performance: 25 percent.
• 2015 performance and beyond: 25 percent.
The rationale behind equal weighting for 2012 and 2015 and similar to the Cashman comment above: We already have rankings, projections and profiles designed to help owners shooting for this year. If you're a keeper-league owner going for it in 2012 -- that's always my first recommendation, and kudos to you if you're in that position -- our redraft tools are also excellent for your purposes.
Remember, these rankings are for you, (fantasy's) Mr. Epstein.
On throwing darts
From a general standpoint, keeper rankings are like an effective game of darts. They are guesses. Educated guesses, but still out-and-out guesses.
I revert back to my 2010 keeper rankings for examples of both the successes and failures of forecasting the distant future. That list, for instance, included Cameron Maybin (157th), Desmond Jennings (173rd), Madison Bumgarner (181st), Trevor Cahill (189th) and Carlos Santana (194th), all of whom have paid off handsomely. Maybin, Cahill and Bumgarner have each managed a top-100 finish on our Player Rater in either of the past two seasons.
That list, however, also included Grady Sizemore at No. 27, Jonathan Broxton at 87 and Jose Lopez at 91. Sizemore was a complete misread due to the long-term impacts of his injuries. Broxton demonstrates the volatility of closers in a keeper league (though knowing that he, as my No. 1 closer on that list, was ranked that low makes me happy about my evaluation of the position). As for Lopez, let's just say I don't know why I ever liked him as much as I did.
Many of the names on this list will be comparative successes to the examples from 2010, and others will make me look like a fool. That's the fun of this exercise, and the debates inspired by it make it all the richer.
On closers and pitching in general
Broxton is the prime example of why it's a dangerous game to build a keeper or dynasty team around relievers. Here's another fact to support the argument: Since the turn of the century, only 12 pitchers have managed at least three seasons with 30-plus saves and 2.0 or greater Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference.com). Mariano Rivera has spoiled us; the truth is that "great" closers are usually lucky to have half the shelf life that he has had.
It's for that reason that Craig Kimbrel, fantasy's No. 1 closer, not to mention the most valuable rookie closer in the history of baseball, is one of only two closers to crack my top 100 keepers. Drew Storen at No. 77 is the other.
Kimbrel's No. 61 ranking, in fact, is the highest by any closer in my history of doing these rankings, and it's from the simple angle that, while his hefty workload as a rookie could burn him in the long haul, his potential contributions in 2012 and 2013 alone are far greater than anyone else at his position. He's 23 years old and has as much upside as any relief pitcher in professional baseball. That makes him a viable keeper.
As for pitching in general, while I'm more willing to pay for quality arms in a redraft league in today's increasingly pitching-rich landscape, in a keeper format I still prefer to invest in safer, more projectable hitters. It's for that reason that you will find only 32 pitchers (starters and relievers) ranked among my top 100 keepers, only five more than you would have found in my top 100 from 2010 (27).
Consider this: Five of the 10 players to rank among the top five starting pitchers on our Player Rater in either 2009 or 2010 failed to crack the top 50 at their position the following season. One of them, Adam Wainwright (No. 2 in 2010), was lost to injury for the entire subsequent season.
That's not to say you shouldn't invest at all in pitching, but you need to be picky doing so. Among the most critical qualities sought: Youth, strikeout ability, durability and command (performance in WHIP). And if you're facing a difficult decision between similar pitchers, take the one with greater long-term upside.
So with that, let's get to the Top 250 keeper rankings. More in-depth player analysis is below the rankings. And once again, these rankings are based upon a standard, mixed rotisserie league with 5x5 scoring, using the following long-term value formula: 25 percent for 2012 performance, 25 percent for 2013 performance, 25 percent for 2014 performance, and 25 percent for performance in 2015 and beyond.
Tristan's Top 250 keeper rankings
Note: Position eligibility is determined based upon a minimum of 20 games, otherwise the position the player appeared at most in 2011. Players' listed ages are as of April 1, 2012. Players' rankings in past keeper lists are also provided: "2011 Mid" are rankings from July 2011, "2011 Pre" are from the 2011 Draft Kit, "2010 Mid" are from August 2010 and "2010 Pre" are from the 2010 Draft Kit.
Players who juuuuust missed
I won't call these players officially "Nos. 251-257," nor are they in any particular order. They are the seven players I had on my initial candidates list who made the most compelling cases for inclusion before being scratched.
Jed Lowrie: Stay healthy for a full big league season and stay at shortstop, Jed, and we'll talk in a year.
Travis Snider: I'm not even a fan, but the guy is still 24 years old and has plenty of power potential, as proved by .216 isolated power during his minor league career and .175 during a rocky big league career so far.
Doug Fister: What the Detroit Tigers have done the past year, tossing caution to the wind defensively, worries me. Fister needs quality defense behind him, and the Tigers might spend years after this one fixing those mistakes.
Bud Norris: On a more competitive team, he might be in. But he might make 100 good starts from 2012-14 and win only 30 of them.
Travis d'Arnaud: Interestingly enough, he landed on the cut list for the same reason J.P. Arencibia did; I cannot justify putting two Toronto Blue Jays catchers in my Top 250. Arencibia has the experience, but d'Arnaud has the better overall game in the long term. If I were to pick between the two, I'd take d'Arnaud.
Tyler Skaggs: He's somewhat overshadowed by Trevor Bauer, and it's Bauer himself -- not to mention the current members of the Arizona Diamondbacks rotation -- who affords the team patience with this young left-hander.
Oddsmaker: The No. 1 spot?
Here's a fun little exercise: Can you predict who will finish No. 1 on our Player Rater in each season from 2013-15?
It's not as easy as it sounds. Yes, Player Rater performance might have been easier to forecast as recently as three seasons ago, when notable names as Johan Santana (2006), Alex Rodriguez (2007) and Albert Pujols (2008 and 2009) reigned supreme. But in each of the past two seasons, the eventual No. 1 name was someone few might have predicted: Carlos Gonzalez (2010) and Matt Kemp (2011).
Accurately predicting the game's greatest superstar is what keeper leagues are all about, right? Your goal is to get the most valuable player before he ascends to that level, and if today's MVP isn't already on your roster, often it makes sense to try to get tomorrow's MVP, instead of spending a lower keeper spot on a more ordinary veteran player. Studs. Always aim for studs in a keeper league.
As a handy partner to my keeper rankings, I've estimated several players' chances of ever earning the No. 1 spot between 2013-15:
Justin Upton: 10 percent
Miguel Cabrera: 9 percent
Ryan Braun: 8 percent
Felix Hernandez: 7 percent
Matt Kemp: 7 percent
Carlos Gonzalez: 6 percent
Justin Verlander: 5 percent
Troy Tulowitzki: 5 percent
Joey Votto: 5 percent
Stephen Strasburg: 5 percent
Brett Lawrie: 4 percent
Hanley Ramirez: 4 percent
Bryce Harper: 3 percent
Matt Moore: 3 percent
Albert Pujols: 3 percent
Mike Stanton: 2 percent
Clayton Kershaw: 2 percent
Andrew McCutchen: 2 percent
Mike Trout: 1 percent
Tim Lincecum: 1 percent
The field: 8 percent
Though all nine of these prospects should find a place in future editions of my top 250 keepers, none is close enough to being big league-ready to warrant inclusion right now. Some might make a brief appearance in 2012, some in 2013, but the majority of them are unlikely to see the major leagues before the 2014 season.
Dylan Bundy, SP, Baltimore Orioles
Yasmani Grandal, C, San Diego Padres
Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Tampa Bay Rays
James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
Jurickson Profar, SS, Texas Rangers
Cory Spangenburg, 2B, San Diego Padres
Bubba Starling, OF, Kansas City Royals
Jameson Taillon, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Taijuan Walker, SP, Seattle Mariners
And what of the imports?
There were perhaps no more difficult players to rank than Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish, who will play their first seasons in the United States in 2012.
Cespedes, 26, and Darvish, 25, both enter the U.S. game during the prime of their careers; from this angle, they both should be at least as attractive draft targets in keeper as redraft formats.
At the same time, however, both players face significant adjustments to the U.S. game, not to mention the difficulty we endure translating their past statistics. It's for that reason that both fall outside my top 100. That said, they don't miss by much.
One year from now, either or both could rank as high as the top 50 on this list, though the possibility that neither might make the top 250 at all explains their rankings. It's "splitting the difference" somewhat, yes, but it's justified, considering their unpredictable futures.
I'll say this: I've ranked Darvish higher here than I would have any past Japan import since Hideo Nomo in 1995.
Here's hoping that, armed with these rankings, you'll be on the right track to keeper-league success this season. Remember this: At least your task isn't as monumental as Epstein's. He has a curse to reverse!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.