Friends and industry colleagues come together each October for the annual Xperts Fantasy League (or XFL) draft. The 40-man roster league offers the ultimate challenge – an auction draft before MLB free agents have even hit the open market, conducted with no supporting materials allowed.
Each team is granted up to 15 keepers, in any combination of established players and prospects. Salaries of players initially acquired as minor leaguers escalate annually at $3 per year instead of the regular $5.
One of the unusual dynamics of this 15-team league is that it does not take long after each season gets underway to ascertain whether or not one has a competitive roster.
As the league is currently conducting its annual free-for-all, er…discussion about potential rules changes, several vocal league owners aired criticisms over the rash of what they consider to be “dump trades” too early in the season.
In 2014, a number of teams made deals in which they sent established players to contending owners in return for younger, cheaper talent. These trades began in earnest by late May, less than two months into the season.
Owner complaints seemed focused on the supposed increased stratification of the standings, making the league less competitive from top to bottom, coupled with a desire by some to implement various penalties on rebuilding teams that “dump.”
Oddly, some of my peers seem to forget that it takes two to trade. The few proposals raised that might penalize contending teams for gobbling up the best players from the dumpers were initially met with general disinterest. They are along the theme of lower cap values in-season or for keepers during the off-season.
Though the results of the league vote have yet to be finalized, a number of others, including me, came down in opposition to making changes in this area.
Having become a dumper for the first time in my decade in the XFL this season, I admit my wounds are fresher than most.
Consider my story.
My team was an annual contender, among the top six of the league from 2008-11, but has slid every year since. One key reason was that my core +$3 pitching, Adam Wainwright and Justin Verlander specifically, were getting into the $20s. Same with my hitting base, led by David Wright.
Over my first 10 years in the league, I had consistently resisted dumping, competing in every monthly draft and fielding the best lineups I could each week. Still, I was losing headway in recent seasons, dropping all the way to 14th place (of 15) in 2013. In the interim, I had tried trading prospects for more established players to cushion my fall, but it did not alter the trajectory.
I drafted last October to the best of my ability, but it was clear almost from the start of the 2014 season that I was destined to finish at or near the bottom of the pack once again.
As a result, I made a big decision – not to dump - but to execute a very specific plan – to replace my expensive core starters with a new generation of +3 aces. I targeted several young, low-cost, front-line players out for 2014 with Tommy John surgery – a procedure from which there is a high recovery rate.
Having to trade quality to get quality, I gave up Wainwright among others to acquire two inexpensive +$3 Tommy John hurlers – Matt Moore and Matt Harvey. I tried to get rid of Verlander and Wright, too, but it became clear I waited a year too long to make those divestitures. I also added several top prospect hitters close to the bigs like Addison Russell and Miguel Sano, the latter also a TJS acquisition target. Russell, injured in spring training, spent the first two months of the season on the DL.
The particular players that met the profile of what I wanted – top talent with a low +$3 salary and depressed value this year due to injury, but a much higher ceiling down the road – were few and far between. I needed to act quickly to get the specific guys I wanted for 2015 before they were potentially traded to someone else.
I don’t think I swung the 2014 balance of power in the league with my deals. Of the teams I executed major trades with this season, there was a representative cross-section. One finished a distant second, another came in sixth and the third ended up in ninth.
Obviously, I would not have been able to make these deals had not these other owners also been anxious to trade. Anyone who has ever been in an industry league knows how trade-resistant that population is by definition.
Before making the swaps, my 2014 season was already in the tank. I am pretty sure I was going to be among those near the cellar either way. Having said that, I am not proud to have finished firmly in last. I continued to participate in every monthly free agent draft, but by August, it was clear I could not escape - this year, at least.
As a result, I traded my #1 spot in the August draft for better position in next April’s supplemental draft, receiving an extra third-rounder. This transaction also elicited some peer criticism after the fact. That surprised me. I saw the 2015 pick carrying far more value than acquiring than a +$5 August free agent added to my last-place team for eight weeks before being released.
Earlier, I had included my June #1 pick as part of the deal for Russell, also giving up Asdrubal Cabrera, while receiving a fourth-rounder next April.
I am not embarrassed in the least about any of these moves and feel I was still competing in the most advantageous manner for my team’s future. I would do every one of the deals again.
Yet, I did not make my rebuilding decision lightly and hope I am not going to have to resort to these kinds of drastic moves again anytime soon.
I cannot see why some in the league would want to penalize me for trying to break out of a losing spiral in a logical and well-thought out manner. Being in the unenviable position of looking up at 14 very competitive teams is enough of a deterrent.
The messages for you?
First, this is the time of the year to discuss rules changes in your leagues – while the topic is still fresh in your minds. Sure, everyone is already focused on football, but if you wait until spring, many of the good potential fixes will be forgotten – only to be re-discovered the hard way next season.
Second, resist the temptation to rush to solutions. When ideas are suggested, make sure you challenge your mates to clearly articulate what perceived problem they are trying to fix. Too often, one potential change opens the door for two possible new issues.
It is always best to agree on the original problem statement before throwing around ways to address it. This is far easier said than done, but if you can enforce this kind of discipline, you may be able to avoid the frustrating free-for-alls that we have all faced.
Finally, when you know in your heart that you have to make a tough move, such as my decision to blow up my XFL keeper team, step up and do it. It was Baseball Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey who once said, “It is better to make a trade a year too early than a year too late.” I had to re-learn that valuable lesson this season.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 16-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.