No offense to redraft leagues, but for the most fun, "I get to be a real general manager" fantasy baseball experience, a keeper/dynasty league is the way to go.
Unlike in redraft formats, where player evaluation is based upon a shorter, one-year term, and decisions are made primarily in the now, keeper leaguers bring player contracts (typically auction price tags you must fit under a salary cap, or specific draft picks you spend to keep players), age factors and long-term injury outlooks into the fray. Keeper-league owners deal with the precarious balance between winning now and winning at some future point; redraft-league owners know their mission is to win now at any cost.
That's not to say that winning now isn't the first and foremost concern in a keeper league. Of course it is. In fantasy, your goal is to win now, period. It's for that reason that, in any of my keeper-league rankings, you might not find substantial differences between mine for redraft leagues.
But what makes strategy so different in a keeper league is that, in addition to winning this season, winning in future seasons needs be considered in your decision-making. Hoarding low-priced contracts becomes a valuable long-term plan, patience with youngsters adjusting to the big leagues increases in importance and the critical balance between deciding whether you can still win in the current season or retool and attempt to win next season comes into play.
In short, this is the kind of format where players like Aroldis Chapman, Desmond Jennings or Jesus Montero, none of whom might make any sort of significant fantasy impact in 2011, might be incredibly desirable selections. Get them now and you might thrive in 2012 and beyond, if not late this year, too.
Whether you're a keeper-league vet -- I'll note that my longest-running league is a keeper league -- looking for some extra help, or this is your first foray into the format, the list below should aid with your draft planning. These are my top 250 keeper-league players, the list accounting fantasy value only for the 2011 to 2013 seasons combined.
This isn't a list of the best picks for just 2011, or just 2015. Rather, it's something in between, designed to most help the fantasy owner starting a keeper/dynasty league from scratch. In short, this is how one owner might draft in such a format, and if you're in an already-existing keeper league, these rankings should help you both as you lock in your keeper lists and plan ahead for the upcoming draft.
First, to clarify the meaning of each of the ranking columns: The first column is the player's 2011-13 keeper rank. The "My 2011 Rank" is where the player ranks in my 2011 top 250. The "2010 Rank" is where the player ranked one year ago, when I offered similar 2010-12 keeper-league rankings; these are meant to help give you a sense of how much the player's stock has changed in a calendar year. Finally, the "August Rank" is where the player ranked when I most recently reranked for 2011-13 keeper leagues last August; again, it's meant to show stock changes.
Recent Tommy John surgery patients
Among the notable names you'll find buried deeper in the top 250 are Adam Wainwright, the most recent of elbow injury victims who seems destined for the surgery, and Stephen Strasburg, who had the operation on Sept. 3. There's an obvious reason for their low rankings: Going by strict 2011-13 total value, neither offers quite enough to place higher. Remember, an entire lost season -- and in Strasburg's I maintain that you should prepare as if he's out for 2011 -- is a significant thing, even in a keeper league. It's a completely lost roster spot for one full season.
That said, that doesn't mean that both are poor keeper-league values. Their value is entirely tied to your league's keeper guidelines, scoring system and whether you're in contender or rebuilder status. Remember, Tommy John surgery isn't nearly as scary an operation as it once was, or as much as other surgeries, and the chances of full recoveries for both remain good. Let's take a closer look.
Strasburg: He was 41st in my August keeper rankings, only three weeks before he went under the knife, which shows how radically values can shift even in a short period of time. Even if 2011 is a lost year, 2012 and 2013 are different stories. He could be "Mat Latos good" by 2012, and "Felix Hernandez good" by 2013. Let's say you can lock him in cheap, and have the luxury to sit on a dead roster spot this entire year; in that case he could go as many as 20 spots higher (or two rounds sooner), near Shaun Marcum and Josh Beckett. Strasburg would easily rank higher than Wainwright on my list regardless of format, based upon two things: He's further removed from surgery and therefore closer to returning of the two, and he's also the one with the greater strikeout potential.
Wainwright: In my initial rankings (i.e. before news of his injury), he ranked 33rd, which shows how valuable a healthy Wainwright can be. Now, in existing keeper leagues where he's locked in at a healthy starter's price, I'd probably let him go, considering he's out for 2011 and might not be at full strength come Opening Day 2012. This is the kind of player I'd want to land at a dirt-cheap price to make blowing a bench/DL spot on him all year worth it.
Notable names who missed
Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals: Too young, period. Consider this: At the conclusion of the 2013 regular season, Harper will be about two weeks shy of his 21st birthday. Today he's 18. There's a scenario by which I could see him being No. 1 on a list like this, in the spring of 2013. In 2011, it's simply too early.
Francisco Cordero, RP, Cincinnati Reds (155th in August, 161st in my top 250): He's the highest-ranked player in my top 250 not to also make the keeper top 250. The rationale is simple: He's 35, he's in the final year of his contract (though he has a $12 million option for 2012 that's not especially likely to be exercised) and he could lose his job as early as this season, to Aroldis Chapman. Cordero's numbers -- with the exception of saves -- don't scream out "prototypical closer," and it's possible he might land in a setup/middle relief role on a cheaper deal with another team by 2012.
Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels: As with Harper, Trout is simply too young. He's 19, and the Angels have almost entirely dismissed the chance he'll reach the majors in 2011, let alone early in the season. Trout's value is also heavily based in batting average and stolen bases right now, and I'm historically hesitant to overrate in keeper leagues those who generate a large chunk of their value with their legs. But he's mentioned because he shouldn't be outright dismissed, not if you play in a league where a lost 2011 won't hurt you.
Jorge Posada, C, New York Yankees (196th in August, 188th in my top 250): He can read the writing on the wall; the Yankees' winter decision to shift him to designated hitter speaks volumes about the direction his career is heading. Posada's contract expires after the season, he'll be 40 years old, he has said he doesn't want to play for another team and the Yankees might be unwilling to offer him another deal, other than at low cost in a limited role. Excluding him is making a reasonable assumption that 2011 is it for the five-time All-Star.
Jake Peavy, SP, Chicago White Sox: Tempting to put him in, considering how valuable he was a few short seasons ago. Peavy is 29 years old, young enough to bounce back, but the shoulder injury he suffered was a serious one, and one that spawned "career-ender" comments. He's unlikely to be ready by Opening Day 2011, and that alone costs him a spot in the top 250, but six months from now, with some good fortune, he could easily make the cut.
Ryan Franklin, RP, St. Louis Cardinals (173rd in my top 250): If you compiled a list of the most valuable fantasy picks of the past two seasons comparative to their amount of draft appeal, Franklin might easily be the top closer. He's perennially underrated, and maybe is here, too, but at the same time the bottom could drop in an instant. He'll be 38 years old come Opening Day. His contract expires after the season. And the Cardinals already have two burgeoning closers in waiting in Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan. Franklin could surrender his job to either by May. Or, he could still be closing for the Cardinals on Aug. 1, 2012. It's too much risk/reward for a keeper-league investment.
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.