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July 28, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

FAAB in Review: Asking the Non-Experts

by Mike Gianella

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Every decision influences the next set of decisions that we make. Like a pebble in a pond, what we do today has a definitive impact on what we do tomorrow.

In fantasy baseball, this is true in every facet of the game. The auction or draft we have impacts what kind of trades or free agent moves we make during the season. The trades we make impact whether or not we make additional trades. The free agent pickups we make impact future free agent pickups and future trades. This series of actions and subsequent actions goes on until the season is over. In keeper leagues it goes on until you leave the league or the mortal coil.

Three weeks ago, the Oakland Athletics completed a blockbuster trade, picking up Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs. In AL-only leagues, this meant an opportunity to bid big on two solid NL-only imports.

In some years, the majority of significant interleague moves come on July 31, the non-waiver MLB trade deadline. This makes most owners’ bidding or waiver decisions simple. With only a handful of notable exceptions, such as the Dodgers/Red Sox 2012 blockbuster, most of the significant mono league free agent targets come across in July. The mentality at the first transaction period in August is “spend it if you have it.”

Trades like the Samardzija/Hammel trade are challenging. One the one hand, the opportunity to get another three or four weeks’ worth of statistics is worth a more aggressive bid. On the other hand, spending big on someone like Samardzija and in particular someone like Hammel only to see a better talent come across on July 31 can be painful.

I decided to reach out to the 11 other owners in my AL-only home league and find out why they bid what they bid on Samardzija and Hammel a little over three weeks ago. This league is a 28-year-old fantasy league whose current membership has mostly stayed intact since 2001. Theoretical rationales for why a fantasy team should or should not do something is interesting, but nothing beats getting real life opinions and why a savvy group of fantasy owners did what they did.

The league is a 12-team AL-only with a $260 auction budget and 23-man rosters. There in-season, active roster salary cap of $350. The winning bids were $52 for Samardzija (out of $100 FAAB budget to start the season) and $41 for Hammel, and listed in bold below.

THE CONTENDERS
The four teams in this group are at or near the top of the heap and clearly in the running for victory this season.

First place team (Team A)
FAAB Remaining: $71
Active Salary: $311
His bids:
Samardzija $32, Hammel $17

His rationale: I wasn’t desperate for a starting pitcher so was mainly saving FAAB while bidding enough so that someone else wouldn’t steal either pitcher.

My thoughts: With a rotation of Chris Sale, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, Garret Richards, and Dallas Keuchel, it does seem that an aggressive bid wasn’t necessary. Team A’s maximum bid was $40, which means he would not have been able to purchase either pitcher anyway. A more defensive position might have helped, but having $40 worth of cap space also allows for some trading flexibility at the deadline as well as a chance to bid on a hitter if needed.

Second place team (Team B)
FAAB Remaining: $68
Active Salary: $222
His bids:
Samardzija $13, Hammel $6

His rationale: As much as I liked Hammel’s skills and the switch into the NL coming into 2014, I was skeptical of the switch back to the AL, despite the park advantage. My $6 bid was saying “stay away.” Samardzija is a power pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff and a one or two in most rotation. Add the park factor and he is in an entirely different tier than Hammel. But I am very conservative with my FAAB.

My thoughts: Team B’s pitching is also very good, but not quite as good as Team A’s. A more aggressive bid on Samardzija might have been a better play here, particularly because Team B has been timid in the trade market. If someone more significant comes over at the deadline maybe it won’t matter, but a significant amount of cap space combined with a conservative bidding approach could lead to non-buyer’s remorse come October?

Third place team (Team C)
FAAB Remaining: $65
Active Salary: $222
His bids: Samardzija $52
, Hammel $52 (contingent bid/not used)

His rationale: In any given year there are only a small number of impact players who come in from the NL. We believed both Samardzija and Hammel fit this bill. We had the cap room and lots of FAAB, so while starting pitching wasn't our greatest need, our chief rivals all could have benefited even more from adding a good starter so we figured let's try as hard as possible to get one of those pitchers. Samardzija will give us a pretty firm hold on first in wins and probably even a surplus of starting pitching that we can then use to trade for something we need more. Some years you have a lot of injuries and a lot of holes on your roster and you have to spread your FAAB bucks around on a lot of acquisitions. Other years you don't need to patch and fill nearly as much and can save your money for the most tempting newcomers.

My thoughts: It is interesting that all of the contenders are singing the same tune that they don’t need pitching help. Team C’s case is a little bit different. While weak in ERA and slightly deficient in WHIP, it will be hard to make a big leap forward in those categories without a Cy Young-caliber performance from one or more pitchers. The biggest obstacle Team C has is that fair value trades in this league are hard to make when so many are focused on this-year-for-next-year swaps. I agree with the strategy of bidding aggressively and worrying about tomorrow tomorrow, but it remains to be seen if Team C can execute on their plan.

Fourth place team (Team D)
FAAB Remaining: $75
Active Salary: $318
His bids:
Samardzija $26, Hammel $16, McCarthy $4

His rationale: (No response to my email)

My thoughts: Team D was weak in three categories: stolen bases, batting average, and wins. Samardzija or Hammel could have provided a big wins boost but on the other hand wins are erratic enough that there are no guarantees. Team D seems to be taking more of a low end, targeted approach with its FAAB, going after guys like McCarthy and—in later weeks—Christian Vazquez and Zelous Wheeler. Team D’s maximum bid was $33, so this is an academic exercise anyway. After these bids, Edwin Encarnacion went on the DL and freed up a significant amount of cap space; I do wonder if Team D would have bid more aggressively if the Encarnacion injury had happened earlier this year.

THE ALSO-RANS
These teams are not particularly close to first place but still playing for victory.

Fifth place team (Team E)
FAAB Remaining: $34
Active Salary: $196
His bids:
No bids

His rationale: I didn’t have enough FAAB to make a realistic bid.

My thoughts: This thought process is common among fantasy owners. When a look at the top of the FAAB heap shows multiple teams with significantly more money, it is common to simply not bid rather than do a show me bid. I generally try to bid something in these situations in the unlikely event that everyone is asleep, but this is more common in a situation when a player switches leagues the day of the transaction deadline.

Sixth place team (Team F)
FAAB Remaining: $49
Active Salary: $311
His bids:
Samardzija $34, Hammel $26, McCarthy $3

His rationale: My primary concern was bidding too much on either pitcher and leaving myself with no FAAB as I had burned through a lot of it earlier in the year. This wasn’t simply because better players might come in from the NL but I still wanted money to build on closers du jour, etc. I’m also trying to get pitchers through trades, which is getting me nowhere.

I also did not think I had a realistic shot at either pitcher so I based my bids on the most FAAB I wouldn’t mind losing to get the player. In retrospect, my bid for Samardzija was too small but I’m glad I did not bid higher for Hammel, as his NL success might not continue.

My thoughts: Team F would not have been able to purchase either pitcher due to salary cap concerns anyway. No other owner I queried had addressed this point, but leaving money for future FAAB bids is important in this league, as there are no $0 FAAB bids allowed.

Waiting for trades is another interesting point. This is league dependent, and in this league it is often very difficult to swing a this year for this year trade in-season. I might have posted a far more aggressive bid keeping this condition in mind.

Seventh place team (Team G)
FAAB Remaining: $50
Active Salary: $325
His bids:
Samardzija $32, Hammel $21, McCarthy $3

His rationale: I like Samardzija, but he had struggled in June and early July (5.45 ERA/1.515 WHIP) after his hot start and I was worried about him potentially masking an injury in addition to his move to the AL. I was not really in the market for a starting pitcher and did not want to blow all of my remaining FAAB on a position I was not desperately in need of. I was comfortable with using about 60 percent of my remaining FAAB considering Samardzija’s trade value and originally was going to bid $30 but I ticked it up to $32 just because I like him.

As far Hammel, I only bid $21 because I am not a big Hammel believer. I actually thought the $21 bid would get him and I could trade him, as I figured a starting pitcher coming to the A’s with his stats for the Cubs this year would have nice trade value. In retrospect, I am glad I did not get him.

My thoughts: This is the first analysis that alludes to the idea that Samardzija might not be an elite pitcher on the level of other potential FAAB targets. However, this stance sort of dodges the question of whether or not Samardzija will be the best free agent to come over from the National League. Given the paucity of options remaining on the potential NL “fire sale” teams, while Samardzija might not have fit the needs of this contender as well as several others, I do wonder if any of the contenders took this into consideration prior to bidding.

Ninth place team (Team I)
FAAB Remaining: $42
Active Salary: $313
His bids:
Samardzija $41, Hammel $41, McCarthy $20 (contingent bid/not used)

His rationale: My offense has been pretty competitive all season, but my pitching staff has been dragging me way down. Bidding pretty much all of the FAAB money I had left for Samardzija or Hammel was my last desperate attempt to have a chance to make it into the money (top four). I definitely wanted Samardzija the most but I bid the same amount on Hammel in case I didn’t get him. I had Hammel in my NL-only league before he got dealt and he had been pitching pretty well all year so I thought he might be enough of a consolation prize to help me climb up the standings in ERA and WHIP. Looks like I was wrong because he has been completely awful for the A’s. I’ll probably give up and play for 2015 soon. I probably should have given up at least a month ago, but I thought a pitching staff with David Price and Max Scherzer at the top couldn’t possibly be this bad. Every move I’ve made this year has completely blown up in my face.

My thoughts: I must admit that I’m an advocate of this type of approach, particularly if you are on the fence between contending and giving up and playing for next season. Yes, Hammel was a risk, but given the position this team was in it seemed like an acceptable risk. Waiting three weeks for players who might or might not come across to the AL wasn’t an option for Team I. Additionally, at the time of the Hammel acquisition a Price trade to the NL seemed more likely. Securing a pitcher in the event Price was traded was good policy not only to make sure to get something back, but because if Price did go to the NL, Team I would have recouped $38 in FAAB, or most of Hammel’s cost.

PLAYING FOR 2015
Three of the four teams below had already bailed on 2014. The fourth team never announced its intentions to give up, but is so far behind in the standings that it has no realistic chance of finishing in the first division. Because these teams are out of it, I removed the active roster salary, as it wasn’t a consideration in these teams’ FAAB bids. I added a list of significant FAAB acquisitions from earlier in the year, as most of these teams were very low on FAAB at the time of the Cubs/Athletics trade.

Eighth place team (Team H)
FAAB Remaining: $23
Earlier FAAB Bids $10+:
Eugenio Suarez $12, Kevin Kiermaier $12
His bids: Samardzija $23, Hammel $10

His rationale: Twenty-three dollars was my maximum bid on Samardzija. I didn’t expect to get him but thought he would be a decent keep at that price. If I had more money, I might have bid more but not much more and only with an eye toward flipping him this year.

I don’t like Hammel as much as Samardzija and didn’t expect to get him, but he is probably a keeper at $10. I was unsure of his value in trade. I guess I underestimated it.

My thoughts: Team H has been placing targeted bids below $10 to try and acquire players for 2015 (the next year salary of free agents acquired via FAAB at $10 or less is $10). This strategy doesn’t work particularly well when it comes to obtaining keeps, but then flipping players like Samardzija or Hammel at high salaries has also not worked out particularly well in this league.

Tenth place team (Team J)
FAAB Remaining: $3
Earlier FAAB Bids $10+:
Delmon Young $11
His bids: None

His rationale: I wish I had the money. I bid too early and too often on mostly junk this year.

My thoughts: Besides Young, Team J won the services of Jordan Danks ($9), Munenori Kawasaki ($8), Nate Freiman ($8), and Zach Putnam ($8). It is possible that Putnam is worth more than $10 next year if he closes, but J’s assessment is fairly accurate.

Eleventh place team (Team K)
FAAB Remaining: $75

Earlier FAAB Bids $10+: Bryan Shaw $12
His bids: Samardzija $19, Hammel $14

His rationale: (No response to my email)

My thoughts: It appears that this team simply decided to push a keeper price on Samardzija and Hammel, with this particularly being the case on Samardzija. As noted above, trying to go all in on a pitcher to trade him later is difficult in leagues with a salary cap. On the other hand, multiple contenders listed above have a significant amount of cap left over and a more aggressive bid on one or both pitchers was probably warranted given the circumstances of the league this season.

Twelfth place team (Team L)
FAAB Remaining: $12
Earlier FAAB Bids $10+:
Kendrys Morales $40, Stephen Drew $23

My rationale/My thoughts: This is my team. Yes, I’m in last place after winning in 2013 and dumping early because I had virtually zero chance to contend. Since I dumped early, I spent big on Morales and Drew in the hopes of flipping them sooner rather than later for next year talent. This has not worked. I would have been better off waiting for Samardzija or Hammel.

Some Final Thoughts
There is a good possibility that neither Samardzija nor Hammel will have a significant impact on this league’s pennant race. The top two teams three weeks ago are still the top two teams now. As strong has Samardzija has been, he has not had much of an impact so far.

When possible, I like to go through exercises like this examining the thought processes for every owner in my league and mining as much competitive intelligence as possible. I have said this before, but in leagues where you simply hit the send button on trade offers and don’t interact with your league-mates, you are missing an opportunity to improve your level of play.

In my league, while I agree with the logic of nearly every owner above, it does seem that a few more aggressive bids on Samardzija and Hammel should have been placed. This is particularly true for Samardzija. Yes, he might not have filled a need for some teams but waiting for Marlon Byrd is not a viable plan. I mentioned this above, but I also advocate spending FAAB on free agents even if you are out of contention and cannot flip the player. Injuries can reduce a contender’s active roster and free up salary-cap space. You might get stuck with an expensive FAAB import, but then again, you never know.

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

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