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March 25, 2008

Prospectus Toolbox

Tout Wars, Redux

by Derek Jacques

One of the staples of this website is the yearly Prospectus Today column in which Joe Sheehan discusses the expert fantasy leagues he participates in-the Rotowire Staff League and Tout Wars. Today, I find myself in the odd position of hijacking one of those discussions, mainly because of peculiar luck and a wonky wireless Internet connection. Last Friday, I was BP's on-site representative at the AL Tout Wars draft-yes, the one made famous by Sam Walker's bestseller, Fantasyland, as the ne plus ultra of fantasy leagues.

It all started off innocently enough. I'm not a fantasy baseball guy. I've played before, and I sometimes draft for my brother's online service-I-will-not-plug-because-they-screwed-over-their-players-last-season league, but I never went for the more challenging fantasy leagues, choosing drafts and small mixed-player leagues over auctions and the thin rosters of single-league setups. So when Joe suggested he might need a stand-in for Tout Wars because he'd be busy editing the weekend's NCAA coverage for our sister site, Basketball Prospectus, I suggested he look elsewhere. My resolve weakened when he suggested an alternative a few days before the draft-I'd be his wingman for the auction, and maybe take over the six-round reserve draft if the evening ran late. Later in the week, Joe decided that, like those Olympic synchronized divers, we needed an extra level of difficulty-instead of the both of us being in the draft room, he'd be out of town, instructing me on how to bid and who to nominate via instant messenger.

Yeah, it seemed like a foolproof plan to me, too. So, as I'm headed to the midtown Manhattan hotel where the draft is being held, I get a text message: "There are logistical issues on my end. I might be late. Courage." Not what you want to hear with the auction less than an hour away, and a ton of setup needed to get our communications system up and running. As we got to the moment of truth, all my equipment was in place, and all the various programs running, but Joe still hadn't yet managed to get his wireless Internet connection to work. Luckily, he was still in touch by text message and email, thanks to his blackberry. His advice was to hold tight until the IM link could be established, and not to worry about sitting out the first however many players were put up for bidding, if I felt uncomfortable.

And it was no stretch to imagine that I was uncomfortable. The Tout players were seated in a horseshoe configuration, with me at one end of the horseshoe. Across from me was Ron Shandler, a man who has almost certainly forgotten more about fantasy baseball than I will ever know. Behind me and to the side of me were cameramen (did I mention that, for the first time, a documentary film crew was covering this year's AL Tout draft?) who would keep one or more cameras in my face most of the night. Most of the players in that room made their living playing, writing about, or talking about fantasy baseball. The "new guy" brought on as a main character by the documentarians had been preparing for this through at least Spring Training; in his book, Walker prepared for months to do this draft. I, expecting a largely secretarial role, had half-heartedly looked at price lists for a couple of days. It was like the nightmare where you haven't studied for your final exams.

However intent I was to stay quiet and avoid the risk of embarrassment, it proved rather short-lived. The first name nominated for bid was that of Mariners closer J.J. Putz. Putz, as it turns out, is one of my guys-I've written his player comment in the last two editions of the BP annual, and what's more, he's from the next town over from my wife's family in Michigan, so I always make sure to have some handy trivia about him in hand when I visit. While literally every single person in that room may have been a more experienced fantasy player than me, I didn't feel that anyone had a better idea of his value than I did. And when it looked like someone was going to grab him on the cheap, I bid, and bid again until team SHEEHAN(jacques) had a closer. I'd spent a tenth of my budget, but at least I wasn't nervous anymore. By the time I'd re-established contact with my drafting partner a couple more players had been added to the roster, and we were under way.

The communication never quite worked out the way we'd planned beforehand. Interruptions of our IM session were a repeated problem, so we had to waste huge amounts of time to try to get Joe back up to speed. While Joe's input during the draft was invaluable, because of the information lag it was more general and strategic than specific-"You've spent a lot of money, ease off for a few rounds," rather than "Nominate this guy and bid him up to X dollars." The main tools I had to rely on were my price sheets, which I'd generated with the Player Forecast Manager (PFM), and the Team Health Reports spreadsheet, which is a handy, color-coded cheat sheet of the health status of all the projected starters, rotation members, and the top two relievers for each team in the majors.

By printing out the PFM values I denied myself one of its most powerful features-the inflation tool which adjusts player values to the market at any given moment in the draft-so if there's a big run on shortstops, for example, any good ones remaining will be worth higher values. If I hadn't had the additional responsibility of transcribing the picks on IM, I'd probably have used the web interface of the PFM to check off players as they were selected during the draft. I did, however, give myself the benefit of two different PFM price lists, one at the normal default settings and another using an aggressive "Stars and Scrubs" pricing strategy. Judge for yourselves which one I used.

Here's the team I'm handing over for Joe Sheehan to manage this season, with commentary as appropriate:

Position Players

C    Jorge Posada       $17

The last good catcher available (indeed, one of the last good players available) when he was finally put up for bid. Even with the big backslide we'll see from his career 2007 season, he's still one of the best catchers in the league, with only Victor Martinez and (if healthy) Joe Mauer ahead of him with the bat.

C    Mike Redmond        $3
1B   Matt Stairs         $5
2B   Mark Grudzielanek   $7
3B   Melvin Mora         $7
SS   Brendan Harris      $4
MI   Marco Scutaro       $1
CI   Brandon Wood        $3

The bargain basement infield is long in the tooth-Wood has upside, but the rest of that bunch is held together with bailing wire and good thoughts. First base in the American League is thinner than the skinny Olsen twin.

OF   Carl Crawford      $40

Tout remains a conservative auction. This was the second-highest winning bid in the whole draft (after Alex Rodriguez at 45), one of only ten players to surpass the $30 mark. The others: Miguel Cabrera (39), Ichiro Suzuki (34), Eric Bedard (33), Grady Sizemore (32), David Ortiz (32), C.C. Sabathia (31), B.J. Upton (30), Vlad Guerrerro (30).

OF   Jacoby Ellsbury    $21
OF   Adam Jones         $18

It wouldn't be Baseball Prospectus if we weren't risking some value on youth. Jones and Ellsbury are on teams with strong incentives to give them a chance; the story's a little more complicated with Buchholz and Wood.

OF   Rocco Baldelli      $1

My least scientific thought of the draft: now that it seems that everyone in both real baseball and fantasy leagues have given up on the oh-so-frail Baldelli, it's time for him to bust out one of those Ellis Burks-type seasons. For a dollar, I can indulge this thought.

OF   Shannon Stewart     $3
DH   David Ortiz        $32

Pitchers

P1   J.J. Putz          $26
P2   Roy Halladay       $20
P3   Clay Buchholz      $15

The team's top two starters could easily be nicknamed the Red Light District. Later on in the auction, I made sure to pick up some guys with a track record for eating innings-Chien-Ming Wang and Dontrelle Willis, to offset the potential for DL stays (and in Buchholz's case, minor league assignments.

P4   Gio Gonzalez        $2
P5   Chien Ming Wang    $12
P6   Pat Neshek          $4
P7   Dontrelle Willis    $9
P8   Justin Speier       $4

Not a great job with the relievers. I wasn't able to grab a second closer, and the middle relievers I picked up are understudies to some of the best-entrenched closers in the game (Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Jenks).

P9   Kason Gabbard       $2

Reserves

R1   Octavio Dotel, P
R2   Justin Ruggiano, OF
R3   Jorge De La Rosa, P

Object Lesson #1: It's hard to adjust going from an auction format to a draft, as you do in Tout Wars. In an auction, it pays to stay focused on what you need and look out for specific opportunities to bid. In a draft, that kind of tunnel vision can cost you. As the draft rolled around to this pick, I fixated on the two green-lit fellows at the back end of the Mariners' rotation, Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn. When my turn came up, and both pitchers were gone, I was thinking "get healthy innings" which somehow translated into the words "Jorge de la Rosa." Let us never discuss this again.

R4   Edwar Ramirez, P
R5   Frank Francisco, P
R6   Jose Molina, C

Object Lesson #2: In a face-to-face draft, it's easy to forget about someone, particularly if their name has already come up during the auction. For example, on a few occasions we had illegal bids or nominations, and those players got thrown back into the talent pool; many of them fell by the wayside. I'd tried to get Wilson Betemit late in the draft, thinking he'd qualified at first base during his stint with the Yankees last season. He fell six games short. Betemit lasted until the fifth round of the reserve draft because most everyone had, mentally or physically, checked him off the list of available players. When his name was called, there was an audible groan around the table-at long last, my embarrassing moment.

FURTHER READING

Joe Sheehan, Prospectus Today: Tout Wars and Struck Out-Sheehan details the loot from the 2007 and 2006 AL Tout drafts, for the sake of comparison.

Ben Murphy, Player Forecast Manager: Tips and Tools and The Sequel-Ben drops some science on you to better explain what the PFM is and how to best take advantage of its deadly accuracy.

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

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