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May 12, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Expert League Assessment: First Quarter

by Mike Gianella

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It is difficult to believe, but we are nearly one-fourth of the way through the regular season. It’s that time in fantasy baseball that is early yet not early. If you’re in second or third place and have a slow starting player or two you might not think much of it, whereas if you’re in eleventh place now might be a good time to take a long, hard look at your roster and figure out what you can do to improve your team.

I participate in three expert leagues: LABR, Tout Wars, and CBS. LABR is a mixed league, while CBS and Tout Wars are NL-only. Bret Sayre of Baseball Prospectus and I share the LABR team, while I run the CBS and Tout Wars teams by myself.

Here is how I’m doing so far in each league (through games played Saturday, May 10).

CBS Analysts League (NL Only, 12 team, 5x5): second Place, one point out of first.

Table 1: CBS NL Only Team: Auction Results and Current

Position

Auction

Current

C

Russell Martin*

Anthony Recker

C

Michael McKenry

Tony Sanchez

1B

Justin Morneau

Morneau

2B

Chase Utley

Utley

SS

Jimmy Rollins

Rollins

3B

Juan Uribe

Uribe

CO

Yonder Alonso

Alonso

MI

Aaron Hill

Hill

OF

Matt Holliday

Holliday

OF

Will Venable

Venable

OF

Ben Revere

Revere

OF

Angel Pagan

Pagan

OF

Carlos Quentin*

Ryan Kalish

UT

Chris Young

Young

P

Andrew Cashner

Cashner

P

Tyson Ross

Ross

P

A.J. Burnett

Burnett

P

Yovani Gallardo

Gallardo

P

Matt Garza

Garza

P

Josh Johnson*

Jose Valverde

P

Wade Miley**

Chris Perez

P

Tim Hudson

Hudson

P

Kyle Lohse

Lohse

*DL
** Reserve

The Plan: Compared to the more established expert auction leagues, CBS had a more freewheeling approach by its experts this year. As a result, I didn’t buy a player until 59 players into the auction and didn’t spend more than $24 on any player (Matt Holliday, in both cases). As a result, I figured that I would wind up buying a balanced team on both sides of the ball.

I wasn’t disappointed. I purchased 13 everyday players and McKenry. I figured that I would do well across the board on offense. Even if I didn’t dominate a category, having so many regulars would put me in strong position in RBI and runs. On the pitching side, I didn’t plan this but I purchased nine starting pitchers. I wanted a closer but CBS was surprisingly aggressive compared to the other expert leagues so I narrowly missed out on Jim Henderson ($15) and Jose Veras ($10) and decided to dump the category. Once the season started, I would pick up two or three middle relievers and treat this NL-only like a mixed league, streaming starting pitchers based on matchups.

Did It Work?
For the most part, my approach has yielded the intended results. As predicted, I’m at the top in RBI and fourth in runs. A surprise is a tie for second in stolen bases. Revere has been a real-life disappointment but those 11 steals have been significant for my fantasy hopes. The home run production has been dismal so far, but players like Holliday and Hill should pick it up in that department. Have a healthy Quentin back (an oxymoron, I know) could be a big boost.

The pitching has been really solid as well. With six pitchers with an ERA of 3.02 or under, I’m competitive in ERA and WHIP. I haven’t been lucky on the saves front (I picked up Valverde after he imploded and his owner gave up), but I knew going in that I might only pick up one point in this category. The league is competitive so I know I can win without saves.

Going Forward
CBS probably has the most passive trading culture of all of my expert leagues, so there is a possibility that I won’t be able to make a deal all year long. There isn’t much to do with this team though but hope players like Venable and Alonso bounce back and provide even halfway decent production. I might not win, but I should be competitive all season long. Even if I have a couple of injuries, I have enough offensive and starting pitching depth to withstand them.

Tout Wars (NL Only, 12 team, 5x5 with OBP): seventh Place, 24 points out of first.

Table 2: Tout Wars NL Only Team: Auction Results and Current

Position

Auction

Current

C

Wilson Ramos

Ramos

C

Travis D’Arnaud

D’Arnaud

1B

Gaby Sanchez

Sanchez

2B

Anthony Rendon

Rendon

SS

Zack Cozart

Cozart

3B

David Wright

Wright

CO

Casey McGehee

McGehee

MI

Chris Owings

Owings

OF

Justin Upton

Upton

OF

Billy Hamilton

Hamilton

OF

Matt Kemp

Kemp

OF

Cameron Maybin

Maybin

UT

Peter Bourjos

Bourjos

SW

Mike Morse

Morse

P

Andrew Cashner

Cashner

P

Tyson Ross

Ross

P

A.J. Burnett

Burnett

P

Jon Niese

Niese

P

Jim Henderson

Hector Rondon

P

Jose Veras

Santiago Casilla

P

Josh Johnson

Jose Valverde

P

Rex Brothers

Brothers

P

Archie Bradley**

Tony Watson

** Reserve

The Plan:
I knew that Tout Wars would be more like LABR-NL than CBS-NL, so I expected that I might land one or two elite hitters depending on how the auction shook out. However, what happened in LABR made me worry that I might wind up with a Stars and Scrubs team. With players like Paul Goldschmidt ($33), Troy Tulowitzki ($28), Wright ($26), and Giancarlo Stanton ($26) all going cheaply in LABR, I had to try to figure out if LABR was merely a blip on the radar or a larger trend.

I was hoping to split the difference between what I did in CBS and what happened in LABR and buy some top-flight talent but also try to grab some balance on offense. From a price perspective, that’s exactly what I did. At a combined $100, Wright, Upton, Hamilton, and Kemp made up the core of my offense. I had mixed feelings about both Hamilton ($22) and Kemp ($21) but believed in the upside on both hitters. The rest of the offense was mostly hitters in single-digits, with only Rendon ($17) and Ramos ($15) going for $10 or more. With the possible exception of Sanchez, I accomplished my goal of buying a starter at every position. Some of these starters were pretty uninspiring, but in an only league, you’re trying to accumulate and bludgeon the other guy into submission with counting stats. If I had a problem with this offense, it was that I had too much speed not tied into power in guys like Hamilton, Maybin, and Bourjos.

Just like in CBS, I didn’t want to splurge on pitching, but I did have pitchers I was “targeting” with strong prices. This explains why my top four in Tout mirrored my CBS staff. I was aggressive on Cashner, Ross, and Burnett, but wanted to get a strong foundation for strikeouts without spending too much money. I figured Johnson wouldn’t pitch a full season but would still get 100-120 innings, and Bradley could make up for the rest with a mid-season call-up.

My philosophy on closers was that I’d only get them if they fell in at the right prices, and that’s what happened with Henderson and Veras. At $19 combined, one of them could stumble and it wouldn’t matter and I would still have a nice baseline of saves. Brothers at $6 was a nice bonus. It wouldn’t surprise me if I won the category.

Did It Work?
It remains to be seen. Sanchez is clearly a bench player, but if the Cardinals Randal Grichuk experiment is over, then Bourjos should be the everyday center fielder. Theoretically, the offense should produce more power if players like Cozart and Ramos play up to their career norms, but it will be essential to get a prototypical David Wright season to contend. If he is a bust, I won’t be able to catch up.

Hamilton is running as much as I would have liked and has missed multiple games twice now due to injury. His 11 steals aren’t useless in fantasy, but the fact that he hasn’t stolen more makes trying to trade Bourjos or Maybin for another commodity harder. The early injuries hurt a little bit, but I knew Maybin and Kemp would miss some time when I bought them.

Pitching is where my faith is wavering and I believe I might not have enough to contend. Johnson’s injury left me without a fifth starter and the reserve rules in Tout have made it next to impossible to find a viable replacement. With Bradley’s injury, I may need to hold my nose and pick up a less than desirable starting pitcher off of the wire or—failing that—carry 10 pitchers for a while to try and grab some relief strikeouts.

The more significant problem was losing Henderson and Veras, putting me behind the eight ball in a category I invested in and where believed I would contend. Rondon helped slightly, but unlike 2013 free saves haven’t been plentiful in the free agent pool. Just like in CBS, I picked up Valverde after his brief stint as closer so I didn’t get those saves either. I probably won’t finish last in saves, but 2-3 points wasn’t what I had in mind.

Going Forward
I need to get more production out of my hitters so that I can trade a hitter for a pitcher. The optimal scenario would involve Hamilton staying healthy and trading either Bourjos or Maybin for a pitcher, but that might be asking a lot. There’s a window here to compete, but if I’m not able to pick up a pitcher—either via trade or FAAB—this isn’t going to work. Twenty-four points isn’t an insurmountable gap. I was behind by a larger margin last year and pulled to within 3.5 points in early September – but I am going to need to start seeing more production on offense to climb back into the race.

LABR Mixed (15-team, 5x5) : third place, 11.5 points out of first.

Table 3: LABR Mixed (15-team, 5x5) League: Draft Results and Current

Position

Auction

Current

C

Joe Mauer

Mauer

C

Wellington Castillo

Castillo

1B

Albert Pujols

Pujols

2B

Chase Utley

Utley

SS

Hanley Ramirez

Ramirez

3B

Trevor Plouffe

Plouffe

CO

Justin Morneau

Morneau

MI

Jed Lowrie

Lowrie

OF

Giancarlo Stanton

Stanton

OF

Billy Hamilton

Hamilton

OF

Jayson Werth

Werth

OF

Will Venable

Venable

OF

Daniel Nava

Jon Jay

SW

Yonder Alonso

Mark Reynolds

P

Jose Fernandez

Fernandez

P

Alex Cobb

Mark Buehrle

P

Shelby Miller

Miller

P

Matt Moore

Carlos Martinez

P

Jim Henderson

Jason Hammel

P

Nate Jones

Zack McAllister

P

Josh Johnson

Danny Duffy

P

Jesse Crain

Dellin Betances

P

Dillon Gee

Gee

The Plan
Bret and I didn’t have a specific plan, but we did have a few principles in mind. We thought pitching in general and starting pitching in particular was overrated and didn’t want to follow the early expert trend in 2014 of drafting starting pitching early. Otherwise, we were mostly looking to grab the best player on the board by our rankings in the first 10 rounds and then push for categorical need later.

I appeared on Sirius XM during the draft to talk about our team to that point, and the hosts were surprised by how much risk they believed we were assuming with Ramirez, Stanton, and Pujols. I disagreed. I believed that the trio would produce enough to anchor our team, even if all three players missed 120-150 games combined for the season. Stanton in particular was a player I believed the market was undervaluing in 2014 after overvaluing him in 2013.

For me, the real risk was Hamilton. Buying him in an NL-only like Tout Wars concerned me less than drafting him in a mixed league. One-trick ponies in only formats can be quite profitable; in mixed leagues, they need to be elite in a category in order to carry their weight. The rest of our team was also light in steals as a result; we weren’t going to gamble on Hamilton in the sixth round and then waste too many more picks on speed plays.

Because other teams were taking pitching somewhat earlier than usual, I liked our offense overall. Alonso, Nava, and Plouffe were potential weak links, but in a deeper mixed format every starter isn’t going to be a slam-dunk. We hoped that Reynolds and eventually Jonathan Singleton (on reserve) would be suitable alternates for Alonso and Plouffe if they flopped.

Despite taking pitching relatively late, I liked the front end of our rotation. We deviated from our plan a little bit with Fernandez in the fourth round but didn’t want to get caught without an ace. The Cobb/Miller/Moore combo was a solid no. 2-4 in our opinion. It was the back end where I felt we were weak. Johnson’s injury history worried me and I thought Gee was just marginal for a mixed league. For someone I had never partnered with before, Bret and I were surprisingly on the same page in a lot of areas, but I wasn’t enthused by Matt Harrison, Brett Anderson, and Edwin Jackson, even as reserve picks. I figured that we would be making moves early on the pitching front.

I thought we’d be fine with the closers that we took (keep in mind that the draft was in mid-February). I have always been a fan of Henderson and of all of the relievers in the White Sox pen, I had faith that Jones would be the man. I figured that Crain would miss some time, but still envisioned a scenario where we’d get 20 or so saves out of him.

Did It Work?
In the non-SB offensive categories, it has worked like a charm. Stanton and Pujols obviously won’t keep up this pace, but it is likely they will perform on the upper end of my projections for them. The core of the offense is strong and while there have been some disappointing performances on the margins, with the exception of Venable there weren’t from players where we were counting on significant contributions. Alonso and Nava have already been replaced and we can keep churning through those spots until we find someone we like.

Something that has hurt on offense is the combination of Hamilton’s lackluster start and a lack of complimentary steals from the rest of our offense. We’re scuffling in the category, which is something I would not have expected when we drafted Hamilton. He has improved at the plate after a horrid first week but if he doesn’t stay on the field we’re not going to make a big jump in the category.

Unless you’re marooned on an island, you know by now that our closers all not only imploded but didn’t even make it to Opening Day as the closer. We made an attempt via free agency, but that worked out just as badly with J.J. Hoover. At this point barring a miracle we are committed to tossing the category aside. Playing a nine-category game in a mixed format is far from optimal, but it doesn’t make sense to blow through the rest of our free agent dollars for a one or two-point gain in saves.

After losing Cobb and Miller to injury, I thought that we were doomed to a lousy pitching staff. But a series of solid free agent pickups combined with Fernandez’s awesome start has put us in a good position on the pitching side. The lone drawback to our injuries is that we’re lagging somewhat in strikeouts because our pickups are pitchers like Buehrle, Hammel, and Jordan Lyles but our ERA/WHIP are strong. If we can hang on until Cobb comes back later this month, we might actually pull out 40-45 pitching points.

Going Forward
The difficulty with dumping a category is that it narrows our margin for error everywhere else. Realistically, we need to aim for third or better in every category to pull out a victory. This is feasible on offense, especially if Hamilton runs the way he is capable of running, but might be harder to get to on the pitching side of the ledger. We have been playing a balancing act between trying to protect our ratios while also trying to grab enough strikeouts at the expense of our strikeouts. In a few weeks if we can maintain in ERA/WHIP, we might be able to carry eight starting pitchers in an effort to make a move in whiffs. This won’t happen without Cobb, so at the moment we will continue to play matchups with starting pitchers. Pitchers like Buehrle and Lyles won’t pitch this well forever, so hopefully Cobb’s return will give us more leeway in ERA/WHIP for the rest of the year. We have a chance to win, but without those saves it’s going to be like going through the eye of a needle.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  LABR,  Fantasy,  Tout Wars,  Expert League

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