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May 10, 2006

AL-Kings May Update

Fast Starts and Early Struggles

by Jonah Keri

In March, we introduced AL-Kings, a Scoresheet baseball league that includes six Baseball Prospectus authors and six of our favorite writers, radio hosts and assorted cognoscenti.

Scoresheet's premise is simple: Instead of using rotisserie baseball rules, Scoresheet forces combatants to construct a full, balanced roster, just like any major league team not named the Royals would. That means a strong starting nine, a full five-man rotation, deep bullpen and useful bench. Scoresheet then runs simulations of games every week, with the game results based on what the fielded players did in real life that week. There's a 162-game regular season, followed by the playoffs. The winner of AL-Kings is the one that wins the World Series. The prize is $1,000 donated to the charity of his choice, courtesy of BP.

Sounds simple in theory. But in practice, AL-Kings has been, in many ways, more about the how-tos on handling roster attrition than anything else. With 12 teams drafting, no payroll restrictions tilting talent one way or another and 12 capable GMs at the helm, building a strong roster top-to-bottom proved a tough task. In many ways, AL-Kings is Under The Knife, writ large: The winner of the league might very well be the team that best manages to avoid--and make up for--the injuries that plague every major league team.

No team has been harder hit by injuries than BP author Rany Jazayerli's Wolfcastle Rainiers. The absence of starters David DeJesus, Milton Bradley and Mike Sweeney, along with injuries to complementary players Dmitri Young and Erubiel Durazo and the demotion of Jeff Mathis have forced Jazayerli to field the dreaded Player-AAA at multiple positions. Scoresheet tends to be borderline cruel in plugging in bodies, assigning such players no more than replacement-level value. Imagine the bat of Rey Sanchez paired with the glove of Russell Branyan at two or more lineup spots a game and it's easy to see why the Rainiers sport the worst record in the league. Mike Mussina's revival, Daniel Cabrera's upside and a deep bullpen gives the Rainiers some hope for the rest of the season.

Jazayerli's division mate and BP prospect maven Kevin Goldstein's squad has also struggled through the first five weeks of the season. Goldstein tried to snag a first baseman late in the draft, focusing on up-the-middle talent like Joe Mauer, Luis Castillo and Miguel Tejada early on. The combination of Ross Gload, Carlos Pena and Kendry Morales has barely generated any playing time, let alone production, leaving Goldstein stuck with replacement talent as well.

The rest of the Nellie Fox division shapes up as a close race between BP author Ben Murphy's Tutankhamun team and the Street Walkers squad, co-managed by Wall Street Journal columnist and Fantasyland author Sam Walker and Fantasyland cohort Ferdinando Di Fino (known to all as "Nando"). Hot starts by Tiger surprises Mike Maroth, Nate Robertson and Chris Shelton as well as Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis have helped Murphy overcome injuries to Bartolo Colon, Esteban Loaiza and Ian Kinsler.

It's been a similar story for the Street Walkers, with Brandon Phillips and Alexis Rios coming out of nowhere to make up for the loss of Jorge Cantu and Juan Rivera. Paul Konerko, Manny Ramirez and Hideki Matsui headline a strong lineup. The Street Walkers also have a good shot at winning the coveted side prize of Piņata Pitcher of the Year, with Joe Mays on his way to a potentially historic season {Ed. note: this is in jeopardy, as Mays was DFAd on Monday--JDE}.

The Babe Ruth division has been the toughest to date, with Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King's Montclair Red Sox (check out his terrific take on the ongoing struggles in New Orleans in last week's Monday Morning Quarterback) and BP author Nate Silver's Royale With Ortiz crew at the top of the heap. Silver hit the jackpot on undervalued starting pitching, grabbing Jose Contreras, Kelvim Escobar, Justin Verlander and Joel Pineiro to head his rotation. The strategy had a double benefit, with Silver scooping up strong offensive talent in the early rounds, as early busts Randy Johnson, Rich Harden and Felix Hernandez went off the board.

Meanwhile King has parlayed his low-risk draft approach into early success, eschewing risky talent for veterans like Kenny Rogers and Melvin Mora, along with young stars Grady Sizemore and Mark Teixeira. Joe Nathan and Scot Shields have locked down the late innings. King's team has suffered fewer injuries than any other club, making his lofty early record no surprise.

Rounding out the field in the Ruth circuit are Jeff Erickson's RotoWire entry and my own cellar-dwelling team. Erickson has hit on two more surprise stars, Bronson Arroyo and Jonathan Papelbon, to pick up the slack for a team that includes early disappointments Felix Hernandez and Dan Johnson, plus a thin bullpen.

My team may be the biggest Jekyll-and-Hyde bunch in the league: No team owns a more productive trio of hitters than my #1 through #3 bashers Travis Hafner, Jonny Gomes and Nick Swisher. But horrendous early starts by Richie Sexson, Mark Ellis, Russ Adams, Javy Lopez and Mark Teahen, plus an injury to Coco Crisp, have created a lineup with six straight dead spots in it. Late-round pick Ty Wigginton has helped fill some of the void at third, with Teahen demoted to Triple-A.

The tightly-bunched Al Kaline division features three Scoresheet first-timers and one veteran of simulation-baseball games. But BP author Joe Sheehan has been the surprise laggard early on, allowing his three newbie rivals to hover near the top of the division. Casey Kotchman and Bobby Crosby have dug deep holes for themselves early in the season. Sheehan's squad looks poised to rebound, though, with the bats of Corey Patterson and Brad Wilkerson heating up and Juan Cruz starting to shine in Arizona (AL-Kings players on American League rosters on draft day remain eligible even after going to the NL afterwards).

Fellow Kalinians King Kaufman of Salon.com and ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer have traded first-place bragging rights early on. Magglio Ordonez and Toby Hall have been Kaufman's most pleasant surprises. Number-one overall pick Alex Rodriguez has performed below career norms, giving Kaufman some potential upside as the season wears on. The performance of enigmatic Justin Morneau could hold the key to Kaufman's fortunes.

The Page 42s team, co-managed by Neyer and Scoresheet veteran David Mlodinoff, has ridden the prolific mashing of Jim Thome and Kevin Mench so far this year. Danny Haren, Rondell White, Mark Loretta and Jason Varitek have started slowly. Still, Rich Harden's return could solidify one of the deeper, more balanced teams in the league.

ESPN 920 (Las Vegas) radio host and frequent rotisserie champ Dave Cokin has held his own in Scoresheet so far too. Cokin may own the best bullpen in the league--a key ingredient for Scoresheet success--with J.J. Putz, Kiko Calero, Joaquin Benoit and Ron Villone off to blistering starts. The recent return of Julio Lugo from the DL should bolster an offensive core that includes Vladimir Guerrero, Tadahito Iguchi and Lyle Overbay.

Next up for AL-Kings is the first Scoresheet supplemental draft of the year. With the initial draft having gone 35 rounds and 12 teams competing in an AL-only format, the pickings are understandably slim. Still, there are a few players out there who could help some of the league's slow starters. Check out the league rosters here to keep tabs on the AL-Kings combatants. In the meantime, here are the latest standings, through Monday May 8 (standings update every Monday night):


Kaline Standings, Pitching     W    L   pct. GB
-----------------------------------------------
10  Page 42s (Neyer)           18  14  .563  -
 1  STL Golden Bears (Kaufman) 16  16  .500  2
 4  Las Vegas Red Sox (Cokin)  16  16  .500  2
 7  Inwood (Sheehan)           12  20  .375  6

Fox Standings, Pitching        W   L   pct.  GB
-----------------------------------------------
 2  Tutankhamun (Murphy)       18  14  .563  -
11  Street Walkers (Walker)    16  16  .500  2
 5  KG (Goldstein)             11  21  .344  7
 8  Wolfcastle Rainiers (Rany) 10  22  .313  8

Ruth Standings, Pitching       W   L   pct.  GB
----------------------------------------------
 6  Royale with Ortiz (Silver) 24   8  .750  -
 3  montclair red sox (King)   18  14  .563  6
12  RotoWire (Erickson)        18  14  .563  6
 9  Jonah Keri                 15  17  .469  9
The next update comes next month, as we check in to see who's winning the war of attrition.

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

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