All season long, up until this point, I've attempted to use this column to help fantasy players in points leagues try and improve their chances of making their league's playoffs and, hopefully, take home the crown. However, with only two weeks left in many a fantasy baseball league before the postseason kicks in, the sad truth is that, at this point, a vast majority of fantasy managers have already checked out and turned their fantasy attention to the myriad NFL games with third-stringers playing the majority of snaps.
Look, I get it. If your fantasy baseball team started out 0-8 with a dozen players on the IL, even maximum effort would make it nearly impossible to climb back to .500 before September, let alone challenge for the crown. When a 12-team weekly points head-to-head gives four teams a playoff berth and three spots have already been locked up and only two teams are still alive for that last spot, how much time can we really expect "eliminated" managers to devote to a lost cause? While I personally tend to always play out the season, regardless of how my team is doing, I can't blame those who have already been eliminated from any chance to win the title bailing from a consolation bracket where "We're No. 5!" is the best remaining outcome on the table.
Sure, in dynasty/keeper rotisserie leagues, while it's unlikely everybody has completely stopped making moves for the future, with most of the current big-name prospects already having been claimed, any tinkering over the next few weeks is just that -- tinkering. If you're sitting 15 points back of third place and 15 points ahead of fifth, even giving control of your team to your cat isn't going to change your squad's 2019 fate.
I'm sure there are many league commissioners out there in similar boats, wondering what -- if anything -- can be done to keep their managers from mailing September baseball in from the football bleachers. Obviously, locking rosters of non-playoff teams and setting early trade deadlines is a no-brainer strategy to prevent any talent dumps and roster purges of superstars to the waiver wire (often done merely out of spite) from impacting your league's crown.
However, save for playing only in leagues with baseball-obsessed participants or known quantities you can shame into finishing honorably, there are no guaranteed fixes to this problem. Still, here are a few potential ideas to try in the future in an effort to keep your league together all the way through Game 162 of the regular season, regardless of how the standings shake out.
While monetary prizes are not required to enjoy fantasy baseball, it would be an act of sheer naivety to assume that there aren't a lot of leagues that provide a little cash incentive to finish higher in the standings. If that's the way your league does things, there's no rule that says you can't divvy up the kitty in ways other than winner-takes-all. If the goal is to make sure everybody is still playing down the stretch, then perhaps a small share of the prize pool dedicated to the team that posts the best stats over the last six weeks of the season will do the trick.
Of course, you may not have managers sticking around past the month of May if they feel the gulf between their roster and the top squads is simply too vast to overcome. Why not take a page out of the minor leagues and institute a split season format for 2020? Teams all reset to zero halfway through the season, with the first-half champion getting an automatic slot in the playoffs. Heck, you can even hold a midseason re-draft with all but the first-place team required to start from scratch if you like.
The head-to-head format makes fantasy baseball a lot more like fantasy football, where you have to have to outperform only one other lineup each week in order to get that elusive "W." That said, there's enough luck involved in the game without having to add in the potential for one poor schnook from having the second-highest score each week, yet being 0-10 and essentially out of the running by June. A team that's last in your league in overall points likely has no chance at ever truly competing on the regular with the top teams. That said, if you throw out schedules and simply award a win to the top six scores each week in a 12-team league, it's a lot easier for a struggling manager to see light at the end of the tunnel if they only have to reach as high as No. 6 overall to achieve future success.
When I was about nine, I joined a local bowling league for anyone 18 and under. Needless to say, it would have been pointless for my team of fourth graders to attempt to compete with a squad of high-school juniors who frequently flirted with 300 games while we were still learning how to throw the ball down the lane without guttering 90 percent of the time. To counter this, the league included a "handicap" to help balance the matchup, based on each bowler's prior average performance on the season. Why not do the same for fantasy baseball teams? If that last-place team is typically 100 points worse than the first-place team, giving them, for example, an 80-point head-start when they square off certainly will help keep both managers a lot more interested in the matchup.
In keeper leagues, it makes some sense for a team at the back of the pack to make deals and waiver moves in order to "play for tomorrow." Because of this, it's hard to call lopsided deals "tanking" -- in most cases, it's actually good strategy. However, in re-draft or "one and done" leagues, even if the participants are all coming back next season, you need to disincentivize giving up. Tying future draft order to September stats for non-playoff teams, or some other form of rewarding those owners (say with extra FAAB dollars or a larger salary cap) could be key to keeping them involved the whole season.
Ideally, you're going to want to be playing in leagues where you know the other managers. Otherwise, there's really nothing preventing a losing team from simply bailing on a bunch of strangers with little in the way of future repercussions. "Punishment" for the last place team doesn't have to take the form of a "Game of Thrones"-styled "shame walk" with the rest of the league ringing a bell behind the unfortunate soul in the cellar, but if it's something that can be done with good humor and everyone signs off on it? Fear can be a terrific motivator.
Many times, I've played in leagues where there were more interested managers than there were teams available to be managed. Even when an effort was made to go with co-owners, there were often a bevy of friends left on the outside looking in. Taking a page from European soccer, why not institute some form of promotion and relegation? It could be two separate leagues, where the winners of the B League (which would necessarily have a lower prize pool) get to move up to the A League next season, replacing this year's last-place team. Or it could be two divisions of the same league, where the "A Division" sends its top three teams to the postseason, while the "B Division" sends only one.
We tend to focus on the positive, point-scoring categories in fantasy baseball, but the truth is that there are stats that cover just about everything. "Booby prizes" for all teams that meet certain participation criteria can give bad teams something to play for even after they've been mathematically eliminated from the real title chase. For example, giving an owner a discount on next year's league dues for having the team with the most GIDP or errors made -- provided they meet league-minimum plate appearances and at-bats -- could be an interesting wrinkle.
Lastly, while I'm generally not a fan of "forced trading," the truth is that in most leagues, getting some folks to even respond to emails suggesting the smallest germ of a deal is often a Herculean task. So, how about holding a dispersal draft every 3-4 weeks, where all teams are allowed to protect five players. Then, going from worst to first in the standings, each team must claim a player off of any other roster, no questions asked. No team can lose more than one player in this process. It's a way to help the have-nots keep up with the haves, at least a little bit, and can also provide a new layer of interactivity and strategy during the season.
Top 300 rest-of-season rankings
The following list reflects AJ's rankings for points leagues, going forward. Note that this is different from a ranking of how each player has played thus far in 2019. For a ranking of performance to date, check out the ESPN Player Rater.