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Redraft fantasy baseball leagues (those in which you draft a new team from scratch every year) are a heck of a lot of fun. No complaints; I thoroughly enjoy every one of the more than half-dozen in which I play.
But if you're looking for a next-level fantasy baseball experience, the "I want an experience that's even more like a real baseball general manager's," then a keeper or dynasty league is perfect for you. Unlike in redraft formats, you get the fun of dealing in player contracts (usually auction prices that must fit under a team salary cap or specific draft picks that must be spent to retain players), accounting for the impact of the aging process, long-term injuries and pitching workloads on your players, and strategizing the difficult balance between attempting to contend now or at some future point.
Is the strategy different from that in a redraft league? You bet it is.
Age becomes every bit as important a factor as how many home runs a player hit last season, hoarding cheaply priced contracts becomes a critical long-term building plan, and patience becomes imperative -- although in a redraft league you might not be able to afford to get carried away with the buzz surrounding Stephen Strasburg, in a keeper league you absolutely should hop aboard that bandwagon.
Not that you're alone in your endeavor, whether this is your first foray into the wonderful world of keeper leagues or you are a veteran to the format just looking for a little extra help this spring. Listed at the right are my top 200 keeper-league players, the list accounting fantasy value for the 2010-12 seasons combined.
This isn't a list of the best picks for just 2010 or just 2014. It's rather in between those, providing its greatest value to fantasy owners who are starting a keeper/dynasty league from scratch or are geared toward the future in such a format. But even if you play in a redraft league and simply enjoy thinking about the future -- planning ahead always helps -- this list is for you.
To give you a window into my insights, here are a few spotlighted players, ones who ranked either significantly higher or lower than in our redraft rankings:
Closers in general: You'll notice that most every closer ranks a good 20 spots or lower than in a traditional redraft league, not that you should be surprised; "never pay for saves" is a phrase we repeat quite often on these pages. That goes double in keeper leagues because if there's any aspect in which saves are even more unpredictable, it's forecasting consistency in the category over several seasons. To that point, if we establish 40 as a good benchmark in the category, only two closers (Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Valverde) have reached that plateau in two of the past three seasons. Two. No one has done it all three years.
Even if we adjust that benchmark down to 30, only six relievers (Francisco Cordero, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera and Rodriguez) have done it in each of the past three seasons. That's a startling amount of inconsistency. You'll note, too, that both Hoffman and Rivera are beyond their 40th birthdays, so they're not even guaranteed to play each of the next three seasons.
Justin Upton (No. 8): The Arizona Diamondbacks knew exactly what they were doing when they inked Upton to a six-year, $51.25 million contract -- they were locking up a player who might be an MVP candidate for five of those seasons, if not all six. At the age of 21 last season, he was a 20/20 player who batted .300 with a near-.900 OPS. To put those numbers into perspective, only two players in the history of baseball met all those benchmarks with higher OPS than Upton's at such a young age: Cesar Cedeno (1972) and Alex Rodriguez (1998). Just a hunch, but Upton's career should be a heck of a lot closer to A-Rod's than Cedeno's.
Tommy Hanson (No. 40): He's coming off one of the most impressive rookie campaigns of any 22-year-old in recent memory, has been as consistent as could be asked throughout his professional career and, perhaps most importantly, resides in a middling-to-below average offensive division with a couple of pitchers' parks. It's a risk, yes, to trust pitchers so young, but Hanson looks every bit the part of a top-10 starting pitcher candidate, if not now, then surely in 2011.
Andrew McCutchen (No. 45): We already know he can steal bases, and we're fairly certain he can hit, being that he batted .286 with 12 home runs in 108 games as a rookie last summer. There's always the threat of the dreaded sophomore slump, but McCutchen did have a lot of seasoning in the high minors and his plate discipline was remarkable for a 22-year-old. He's at least as likely to take the next step with his development in 2010 as he is to regress even slightly.
Ubaldo Jimenez (No. 46): What?! A Colorado Rockies pitcher as a trustworthy long-term target? You read that right. Jimenez has both the skills and the makeup to become the greatest pitcher in franchise history -- at least to date (who knows what 2025 might bring). He has made significant advances in almost every category in each of the past two seasons and was one of the National League's most effective pitchers the second half of last year, when he was 9-3 with a 3.08 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. As we've already noted in the Draft Kit, second-half numbers are largely overstated, but in this particular instance, with a 26-year-old Jimenez only entering his prime years, buy into those representing progress. If a Rockie can possibly win the Cy Young, he'd be the guy to do it.
Gordon Beckham (No. 53): Although Tim Beckham -- no relation -- was the one selected first in the 2008 amateur draft, Gordon, picked seven spots later, is the one keeper-league owners want to build around. This Beckham might not have wowed people with his rookie-year statistics, but understand that he was 22 years old with only 59 games of professional experience entering 2009. The kid can rake line drives all over the field, has plenty of time to develop physically and add power, and might be only a year from being a five-category monster.
Derek Jeter (No. 58): The low ranking has nothing to do with the expiration of his deal with the New York Yankees at year's end -- who honestly believes the Yankees won't hand him a blank check? It has everything to do with his advancing age (he's 35), not to mention that before his bounce-back 2009, he had turned in two campaigns that seemed to hint at career decline. Maybe there's one more 2009-ish year left in him, but there might also be two like 2007-08.
Ichiro Suzuki (No. 61): He's a year older than Jeter, and his fantasy value is primarily driven by his legs, not simply the stolen bases but also his ability to leg out infield hits to pad his batting average. There's every reason to believe that Ichiro will grind out at least another three seasons in an attempt to join the U.S. 3,000-hit club, but by 2012 he might be fighting just to keep his batting average at the .300 mark. Considering last year's 26 stolen bases represented a career worst for him, despite a pleasant .386 on-base percentage, he isn't a great keeper pick.
Matt Wieters (No. 79): A perfect example of why keeper-league owners must remain patient because the true Wieters might have revealed himself when he turned in a .333 batting average, .395 on-base percentage, .486 slugging percentage and 17 RBIs in the final month of last season. This is a youngster many have called a perennial MVP candidate in his prime, and those are generous words to apply to a catcher. Few people doubt Wieters' top-five catcher upside in 2010 alone; he's a virtual lock to be a member of that group in 2011 and 2012, with No. 1 overall potential at the position in those two years.
Jay Bruce (No. 81): Our profile of Bruce offers plenty of tasty nuggets regarding why his poor 2009 numbers might be entirely misleading. This was one of the top prospects in all of baseball -- if not the top -- just two short years ago, and he'll still be only 23 years old come April 3. Bruce is going to go among the top 100 picks in any keeper league that drafts from scratch this spring, and probably a couple of rounds earlier than the 10th. You're making a mistake if you're unwilling to take the chance, bad 2009 or not.
Brett Anderson (No. 83): The primary reason Anderson is such an attractive breakout candidate for 2010 alone in many redraft leagues has much to do with his keeper-league potential. Scouts see ace-caliber potential in him in the long haul, and in the second half of his rookie year, he did rank among the better pitchers in the American League (3.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP). Even if those ratios are his ultimate landing point in 2010, he's only 22 years old and certainly could take noticeable steps forward from that in 2011 and 2012.
Strasburg (No. 96): I'm buying and I don't even believe he's going to be in the major leagues come Memorial Day this season. Going into this task of ranking players for keeper leagues, one thing was clear: Scouts hail this guy as "so special," it was a must to regard him as a top-100 keeper prospect, even if he scarcely throws a major league pitch in 2010. Look at what comparably touted prospects such as Tim Lincecum and the aforementioned Hanson did as rookies: They were instant fantasy options, and we know for certain Strasburg will be a committed starter for all of 2011 and 2012. On upside alone, you have to roll the dice.
Rick Porcello (No. 102): A bit of a "gut" call, as Porcello's strikeout rate might have demonstrated little growth over the course of his rookie season, but he maintained a consistent level of success nevertheless and is too talented not to uptick that rate at least a little in his sophomore year. The Detroit Tigers did preserve him nicely last season, granting him only 170 2/3 frames, or 35 2/3 more than he had in the minors in 2008, which helps.
Julio Borbon (No. 106): His speed will play at the big league level now, and because he's only 24, it's possible he'll even contribute a little in the power department, with a .300 batting average to boot. Having Rangers Ballpark helping his cause offensively makes Borbon one of the smarter investments for keeper-league owners.
Clay Buchholz (No. 115): He really seemed to put it together late last season, and although life in the hitting-rich American League won't necessarily be easy, he has the potential to be a No. 2/3 starter within a year -- if not as early as 2010. Keeper-league owners typically have a stronger understanding of young pitchers' adjustment periods; if you've been patient with Buchholz, he'll reward you yet.
Manny Ramirez (No. 119): In addition to his mediocre -- by Manny's own standards -- performance after his return from suspension last summer, Ramirez is now 37 years old, meaning his dip in numbers might've needed to be expected, as even some of the all-time greats began to decline steeply around that age. Don't be convinced he'll even play three more years, which means that selecting him even this early presents a keeper-league team with great risk.
Chris Davis (No. 124): The power is still there, easily 30-homer annual numbers with the possibility of a few home run crowns, the aforementioned Rangers Ballpark influence working very much in his favor. Batting average is the real problem with Davis, but if you're willing to stomach Adam Dunn's typical .250 mark for his 40-homer ability, why not the younger Davis'?
Kyle Blanks (No. 134): He has monstrous power, and if not for the fact that he's with the San Diego Padres, everyone might be completely familiar with his name by now. Petco Park might diminish hitters' power numbers, but when you're talking about a 23-year-old slugger who can hit 400-foot moon shots, even the most cavernous of ballparks won't eat into home run totals that much. Blanks might be an annual 40-homer performer in his prime, and that prime isn't all that far off. Get him now before people get familiar with his name.
Jason Heyward (No. 135): You're not buying him for 2010 necessarily; investing in Heyward is more setting your sights on 2011 and 2012, not to mention the decade-plus after that in which he's expected to be an annual MVP candidate. He's two years younger than Justin Upton yet excites scouts no less than Upton did at 20 years old, meaning that two years from now, when we're making our 2012 keeper rankings, Heyward might be the one residing at No. 8.
Desmond Jennings (No. 173): Even if he's not in the Tampa Bay Rays' opening day lineup, Jennings should make his big league debut sometime midsummer, and for certain he'll have a role in the 2011 opener, being that most people expect Carl Crawford to depart via free agency next winter. Crawford is actually a decent statistical comparison; Jennings hits for average, can steal bases as effectively as anyone and might even develop a hint of power once he enters his prime. He's 23 years old, so that prime is closer than you'd think.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.