Let's go back just three years, shall we, to this very date in 2006. You're looking at your team and deciding your final keeper slot.
Well, you have Cecil's boy, Prince Fielder. He had a good year for you, with 28 homers, 84 RBIs and a .271 average. But wow, even though he's a designated hitter, Travis Hafner, your .308-42 homer-117 RBI stud, is the no-brainer, right? Right?
And the rest is history. If you choose Fielder, you'd get early-round production from one of your keepers, just as you expect. If you choose Hafner, you'd get a .254 average and just 44 homers in the next three seasons combined. Keeper decisions can have an impact on your team for years to come. So choose wisely.
That's easier said than done, of course, and there's no perfect science to it. Nothing that involves "going with your gut instinct" can be. But here are a few simple guidelines to follow that can at least help you make your decisions:
1. Win now: Not three years from now, not two years from now. Now. Because even if you think your keepers are too weak, you always have a shot with a good draft or auction. And besides, you want hope that you can win; that's what makes this game fun. You want to be competitive and not have to wait out the year, so shoot for that objective.
2. The keeper selection is simply part of your draft or auction: We all have our sleepers, but if they won't be in demand on draft day, they'll be easier to get back on your team. So don't waste a keeper spot on them. Just because you let a youngster such as Drew Stubbs go back in the draft doesn't mean you don't like him; it just means other players are in more demand. Thus, for the most part (I'll list the exception later), your x number of keepers should be the x players who are in the highest demand in your league, assuming you want them back. Same goes in an auction league; you are looking for bargains. If you can get a player for approximately the same cost as you currently have him, let him go.
3. Don't worry too much about position overload: I used to think just the opposite until I had success keeping starting pitchers in seven of my 10 keeper slots in an NL-only league one year. I realized that talent is talent, and if it happens to be all at the same position, so be it. Just because you happened to project one position well doesn't mean you can't remain in good shape there for years to come. At an auction, in fact, you can toss big names at the position where you're OK to burn up some of the money in the league.
4. Know what to expect statistically from each position, then judge accordingly: As you know, numbers vary relatively by position. First base is maybe as deep as it ever was -- and I do mean ever -- while catcher, although stronger than expected this season, still lacks depth. Be sure to value a player with others at his position, not across all positions. And to that point, if there are maybe six to eight good catchers available, and if you have one, it might make sense to keep your guy and avoid the drop to the next tier, just as you would in a draft.
5. Have a gauge of what each position will look like on draft day: To go with the above point, know which positions will be plentiful and which will be sparse. If you let a stud first baseman go and then find out all the other top-10 first basemen are gone, you'll have to overpay to get your stud back. You don't have to go team by team, just have an idea before making your selections.
6. Don't be scared off by age: Derek Jeter is 35, Ichiro Suzuki will soon be 36, Bobby Abreu will turn 36 in spring training. ... Do they look washed-up to you? Nah. As I said before, you play to win now, and if those guys will help you accomplish that goal, go for it. Besides, veterans usually are safer than unproven youngsters anyway. Do the names Ruben Rivera, Drew Henson, Alex Escobar, Todd Van Poppel, Dallas McPherson and Ryan Wagner mean anything to you? My motto for years was: Why keep "the next Greg Maddux" when you can still have the Greg Maddux? Obviously, that particular player no longer applies, but you get the idea.
7. That said, it's OK to have a wild-card prospect: You don't want to let, say, a Gordon Beckham or Andrew McCutchen go unless you have to. Just like the Prince Fielder example above, those guys can carry you for years. But here's how I decide whether he's worth it: If I believe he'll be a top-25 overall player within the next two to three years (basically the first two rounds of a 12-team draft), I keep him. If I'm not sure, I have to let him go. If you keep a youngster rather than a proven vet, you'd better be confident he'll be worth it.
OK, enough of the boring tips, let's get to the rankings and analysis already. To the right is an early version of the top 100 hitter keepers heading into the 2010 season. I've assumed 5x5 rules and ESPN.com standard 22-man active roster size, with one utility spot and one catcher position. I've analyzed a handful of those players below:
No. 1: Hanley Ramirez. It's hard to believe he's this good, and he's not even 26 yet. I have a little stat fun for you. Hanley is hitting .342 with 24 homers and 105 RBIs. The Boston Red Sox, the team that traded him, have gotten a .236 average, 11 homers and 60 RBIs from their shortstops this season. Of course, they also got Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in the same deal, so it hasn't exactly been lopsided.
No. 2: Albert Pujols. That's right, No. 2, and I was tempted to drop him even further. Do I think Prince Albert will tank? No, he has years left of doing the same slugging he's doing this season. Instead, I am a little worried about injuries. He has been a very durable player during his career and is on pace to finish with 160 games played, but I've seen enough strains and winces from him in recent years to think a DL trip each season could be in his near future. I've always felt impact injuries (sliding, beanballs, collisions) are freakish, but muscle strains can be recurring, and from his elbow problems to his oblique strain, I just think it's naive to think he'll play 150-plus games every season once he gets into his 30s.
No. 5: Alex Rodriguez. You A-Rod critics should consider this: He's on pace for .284-29-95 in potentially just 125 games. And that's with a very slow start to the season in part because he lost a lot of spring training time and didn't get much of a tune-up.
No. 6: Matt Kemp. We've been saying it for years: Kemp is a future elite option. Well, guess what? He's already there. He ranks 11th on our season Player Rater, above such names as Dan Haren and Roy Halladay.
No. 9: David Wright. He'll bounce back with a vengeance next year, just as he always does when folks question him. It seems he's been around a while, but he's not even 27 yet.
No. 12: Jacoby Ellsbury. Simply because of what he's done this season, I have reason to rank him even higher. But I've always had a certain doubt about elite base stealers staying healthy from one season to the next because of the stress they put on their bodies. This goes for Carl Crawford, too. But both players are still well within keeper range in almost all setups anyway.
No. 13: Justin Upton. This is probably as high as you'll see him in any keeper rankings list you run across, but I'm using the "If he can do this at 22, what will he do in his prime?" approach with him.
No. 14: Mark Teixeira. Even as I look up the list, there might be no safer bet for solid average-runs-homers-RBIs production and durability in all of baseball.
No. 18: Jimmy Rollins. Higher than you expected? Well, I think his low batting average this season is a fluke. Plus, even with the slow start, he's on pace for 22 homers and 32 steals. Not bad for a shortstop.
No. 19: Matt Holliday. Starting to have doubts he'll remain in St. Louis, although I do believe the Cards will try to re-sign him. Either way, he'll end up in a better place than Oakland.
No. 22: Justin Morneau. Another Teixeira-like "safe" option. Note that there are six first basemen among the top 22 here.
No. 23: Mark Reynolds. I really don't think he'll produce top-20 fantasy numbers again, but because the demand for him will be high in the spring, you probably have to keep him if you want to get him back.
No. 26: Grady Sizemore; and No. 32: Jose Reyes. Two tough guys to slot in. First of all, I think Sizemore goes right back to the same top-20 stud he was before elbow problems hampered him this season. As for Reyes, I have doubts about him staying healthy, especially after recent news of a setback regarding his hamstring. But given his proven upside, he'd still be a tough guy to let go.
No. 27: Troy Tulowitzki. He's finally emerged, but from a fantasy perspective, the thing that works most in his favor is that he plays half his games at Coors Field, where he has hit .315 and has 54 of his 87 RBIs this season.
No. 33: Manny Ramirez. I still foresee an injury in his future, especially if he's off the hormones or whatever he was taking. In fact, I still remember the days when he was having chronic hamstring injuries those many years ago.
No. 35: Nelson Cruz. Here I am looking at Nelson Cruz. Here I am looking at his steals total (20) this season. Here I am looking back at the 230-pound Cruz. Here I am shrugging my shoulders.
No. 39: Carlos Beltran. I will say this about Beltran: He's superproductive when healthy. And like Reyes, he will have had ample time to get healthy after a light season of action.
No. 46: Josh Hamilton. Hamilton would've been top-20 this time last year, but unlike Beltran, he no longer can be counted on to produce when healthy.
No. 47: Derrek Lee. And there's the next tier of first basemen. After the drop from Morneau to Kevin Youkilis at No. 37, five of the next 11 guys are first basemen. And that also means 11 first basemen among the top 47 hitter keepers.
No. 50: Andre Ethier. Many will rank him higher among keepers, but he's just too inconsistent for my taste. If I had him in a mixed league with four or five keepers, I'd have a hard time justifying why I should keep him.
No. 52: Michael Bourn. He should be higher, but I'll bet he'll still be undervalued on draft day next year.
No. 57: Shin-Soo Choo. Another guy whose age and production should rank him higher, but as I said, demand is everything, and I think there'll be more demand for the players above him.
No. 58: Andrew McCutchen. So do I think he'll be a top-25 overall player in the next two to three years? No. Maybe close, but not with him on the Pittsburgh Pirates. I also think he has a 20-homer cap, even though he has 12 this season. He's kinda like Carl Crawford without nearly as many steals.
No. 59: Carlos Quentin. By showing good pop in August and September, he has gained back some of our trust.
No. 62: Gordon Beckham. So do I think Beckham will be a top-25 talent? Yes. Yes, I do. He has tremendous talent and bat speed; he just needs to swing at fewer bad balls. I think he'll learn that. But he ranks below McCutchen because I think few people agree with me.
No. 64: Jason Bartlett. Given the amazing season he has had, he probably should be higher here. But when a guy comes out of nowhere, I'm of the mindset that I need to see it again before I'm convinced he's not a one-year wonder. Bartlett's batting average has jumped 34 percentage points from last season, and his homers went from one to 14 in a similar number of at-bats. And he's almost 30, past the age most players break out.
No. 67: B.J. Upton. One Upton's value is heading north, while the other's is heading south. But you have to say this about B.J.: His playing time is safe, and he's still seventh in the majors in steals.
No. 68: Alfonso Soriano. How much of his 2009 woes were because of his knee problem? I tend to think it's more rather than less, so I still value him above some pretty good players.
No. 69: Hunter Pence. Worth noting he has 14 steals but has been caught 11 times, including his past three attempts. He hasn't stolen a base since Aug. 21. I expect him to dip into single-digit steals next season.
No. 72: Lance Berkman. Sad to say this, but I think the 2009 version of Berkman is the high point of what we can expect next season.
No. 75: Vladimir Guerrero. Being only a designated hitter hurts his value, but by name alone, it'll be tough to get him back if you let him go.
No. 76: Nyjer Morgan; and No. 78: Rajai Davis. One caveat: This is where I think they should be ranked, but not necessarily what your leaguemates think. My guess is they could be easier to get back than a handful of players below them on this list.
No. 81: Brad Hawpe. I think he has some huge seasons ahead. After all, he has played hurt a good portion of this season. But his precipitous drop in production since April and May allows you to get him back possibly without having to keep him.
No. 82: Chris Davis. Has hit a respectable .290 in September. ... Let the Chris Davis cheer begin again: "Ready? OK. Gimme a C ..."
No. 83: Jay Bruce. It's tough to know what to do with Bruce. I mean, he's hitting just .222. His keeper rank deserves to be this low because people will look at his average, cringe and pass on him, but I'm still a believer. I think his problems this season were mostly mental, which can be expected of any 22-year-old. The kid was swinging for the fences every time up and in every count. If he can get a little more lineup support and mature as a hitter, I feel he'll hit in the .280s range with 30-35 homers, 110-plus RBIs and maybe five steals.
No. 87: Ian Stewart. Ian Stewart? Sheesh, speaking of .220-something hitters. The same caveats as Bruce apply to Stewart, and they have similar skills, really. Stewart doesn't have Bruce's upside, but working in his favor is that he plays half his games at Coors Field and now qualifies at second base.
No. 85: Matt Wieters. Many will put him higher, and I believe he's still a future stud, but note that I'm talking one-catcher setups here, and Wieters' power shouldn't be expected to arrive as soon as next season.
No. 92: Drew Stubbs. Drew Stubbs? What the ...? I admit I really like this guy, and so does his manager. He so looks to me like a right-handed version of Grady Sizemore.
No. 96: Julio Borbon. Another guy I really like, and I think the buzz will be loud on him by the spring.
No. 100: David Ortiz. And there's Big Papi pulling up the rear. His power numbers have bounced back after a slow start, but it's concerning to me that his batting average has dropped from .332 in 2007 to .264 in 2008 to .238 this season.
League batting averages, homers and steals tend to ebb and flow from season to season, but this year's final numbers will look remarkably close to last year's. Through Wednesday's games, the average major league batting average this season is .262, just two points off last year's. Homers per game have increased, but only slightly, from 2.01 to 2.08 homers per game. (Maybe Yankee Stadium alone is the reason for the increase?) Steals have seen a slight increase this season from 1.15 per game in 2008 to 1.22 this season, but the number of 30-steal players and even 20-steal players will finish remarkably close to the same.
A couple of position updates from my last Hit Parade: Luke Scott has been playing in the outfield regularly, and with 24 games there now, he will safely qualify there next season. ... Julio Borbon now has 22 games played at DH and 16 in the outfield. So unless Borbon plays the outfield in all four of the Texas Rangers' remaining games, he won't qualify there in 20-game-plateau leagues. He'll have to be a DH to open next season. Ouch. ... Clint Barmes hasn't played shortstop since I wrote that column two weeks ago; he's stuck at 16 games there. ... Nick Swisher also hasn't played first base since I wrote that column; he's stuck at 18 games, with just three games left for his team.
And that's a wrap! Thanks for joining me on this adventure we call the 2009 baseball season. Whether you won or not, you have to admit playing the game itself was fun. Because as the Chinese proverb goes: "The journey is the reward."
Enjoy the offseason!
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.