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September 29, 1997

C'est la Rotisserie

A look back at 1997 LABR action

by Keith Law

"You know, that strategy is usually the kiss of death." - a fellow LABR owner, to me about half of the way through the LABR-AL draft, on my youth-oriented squad.

That ominous greeting made for a slightly despondent trip home after my first LABR auction, but time and a big comeback heal all wounds. Despite spending the first half of the season in the cellar, the Baseball Prospectus' LABR entry charged back into the race for second place, ultimately settling into a fourth place tie with Alex Patton and Peter Kreutzer. Here, I'll review the strategy, the trades, and the players whom I'd most like to punch in the nose.

The Strategy

1. Buy two top starting pitchers, one solid one, and put some sleepers on the reserve list. The linchpin of my bidding strategy had two flaws. First, everyone else had the same strategy except for the eventual champion, the Forever Baseball team. The league's contrarians took advantage of the low prices on starting pitchers and assembled a staff that ran away with ERA and Ratio and kept them near the top of wins and saves. Second, the three-starter staff leaves little margin for error, and Jeff Fassero ($20) and James Baldwin ($9) both failed to meet expectations, although Fassero's strong finish helped us gain a few points in the last 2 weeks of the season. While I had hoped to build a cushion with the surplus starters on the reserve list, John Wasdin and Luis Andujar struggled in the majors, and Tom Fordham didn't get the call until it was too late.

2. Go for value by purchasing players on the upswing. It worked with Jim Thome, who just turned 27, and Tim Salmon, who came off a subpar season that kept his price under $30. It also worked with for Butch Henry at $2, who was phenomenal as a starter after Labor Day. Unfortunately, it failed miserably with two players, Johnny Damon $24 and Todd Walker $15, who combined to produce next to nothing for $39. Late in the auction, steals were scarce, and Damon looked like the only legitimate basestealer left on the table. In desperation for some speed, I bid aggressively for Damon -- and by winning the bidding, I turned out to be the loser.

The Trades

1. Traded Jeff Montgomery for Brian Hunter in late June. Bob Stall of Player Projections approached me with this trade once he had built a 30-steal lead over the third-place team before the All-Star Break. With Monty hurt and struggling before that point, I knew that even a strong second half wouldn't give me more than one or two more points in saves, so I swung the deal. It worked beautifully for both sides, vaulting our team from 10th to 3rd in steals, thanks to a little help from Rickey Henderson.

2. Traded Kelvim Escobar, Gerald Williams, and Scott Stahoviak for Paul Molitor, Cal Ripken, and Arthur Rhodes in early August. With Greg Ambrosius (Fantasy Baseball magazine) 70 RBI ahead of the #2 club, he could easily afford to swap some playing time for the hottest closer in baseball. Of course, Escobar blew 2 of his first 4 saves after I traded him, and Williams forgot how to steal, so the trade didn't work out too well for Greg. However, Ripken only hit .217 over his last 152 AB, and he and Molitor combined to get me just 6 HR and 34 RBI, proving that all the playing time in the world doesn't guarantee you RBIs.

3. Traded Mark Bellhorn and Todd Walker for John Valentin with 6 weeks to go. At that point, Walker was hitting well in AAA, but the Twins still hadn't faced the music and started playing their prospects, so going for the hot Valentin seemed like a logical move. Although he started strong, he suffered from a nagging wrist injury in September that limited his productivity and his playing time, again leaving us with fewer RBIs than expected.

4. Traded Hunter for Ben Grieve with two weeks left. Late trades are all the rage in LABR, and with nothing to gain or lose in steals, I went for a touch of power to try to mitigate the September slumps of Ripken, Valentin, Thome, andTerry Steinbach. Grieve hit .304 with 2 HR and 12 RBI in the last two weeks, which was pretty much what I'd hoped for.

The Big Hits

From the auction:

1. Jose Cruz, Jr., $8. Kiss of death, my ass. I'll pay $8 for 26 homers any day of the week.

2. Tim Salmon, $28. His age-27 season was subpar, so his price came down a bit. He turned out to be my leading light on offense with 33 HR, 129 RBI, and a .296 average - and 9 steals to boot.

3. Butch Henry, $2. Back in 1994-95, Henry was one of the top two or three lefties in the NL before he blew out his elbow. Since the spring training reports on him were good, I figured $2 was a small price to pay in the hopes that he would win a starting job in June. Although he didn't get the job until September, he scraped together six saves before his amazing finish, when he allowed 0 or 1 ER in every start except his last.

4. Gerald Williams, $2. As a Yankee fan, I was well aware of Williams' limitations. As a roto player, I was well aware that the Brewers saw Williams as a leadoff hitter. They learned, but not before he stole 18 bags for me.

From the free agent pool:

1. Troy O'Leary, $26. Set free in April on a technicality, O'Leary looked like a good cure for my then-ailing offense. I only beat the next team by $5, so the deadweight loss was minimal, and O'Leary hit .308 for me with a completely unexpected 75 RBI.

2. Kelvim Escobar, $1. An uncontested pickup, despite his 4-inning outing in relief of Juan Guzman. A week later, he got the closer's job, and when I felt like I had maxed out in saves, I moved the then-perfect Escobar before the law of averages caught up to him.

3. Matt Karchner, $1. In June, I needed a reliever who wouldn't kill my ERA/Ratio, and Karchner was the only pitcher available with a sub-4 ERA (excluding lefty specialists). The best thing about Karchner wasn't the 15 saves, but that when he started getting smacked around, they sat him down for the season.

4. Pat Borders, $1. Got him right before Opening Day. Borders was the textbook definition of the $1 catcher who won't hurt you.

The Big Whiffs

From the auction:

1. Johnny Damon, $24.

2. Todd Walker, $18.

3. Terry Steinbach, $18. I deviated from my pro-youth strategy, and it bit me in the ass. I thought the Hefty-bag would prop up the numbers here; his translated line will probably be a disaster.

4. Wil Cordero, $18. Not only did he miss all that time and leave me unable to reserve him, but my wife and several female friends spent the rest of the season telling me to cut him "on principle." If principles ever get in the way of rotisserie for me, then my career is more over than Marv Albert's.

5. James Baldwin, $9. A 4.50 ERA and 14 wins or so would have been just dandy, and the price seemed quite fair given his strong 1996 campaign.

6. Jaime Bluma, $15, and Jeff Montgomery, $17. Injuries happen, but I figured I had the Royals' saves locked up.

The Finish

With one week to go, we had second place by 2 points. Each day for the next 5 days, we dropped one more place in the standings, and wound up in 7th going into the final day. Fassero pitched well, Jimmy Key got hammered, our hitters hit .300 on the day, and we scraped together two more points to jump back into fourth place, tied with Kreutzer/Patton and a half-point behind Baseball HQ. Given where we sat at the All-Star Break, I have no complaints, but next year, the sights will be set a little higher.
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