March 25, 2009
This Saturday morning at 9 a.m.-and I'm already behind the eight-ball with that ridiculous start time-I'll sit with 11 of my betters around a conference table in midtown Manhattan for the next-to-last time, and try to answer an impossible question: how do you fill 60 outfield slots with 56 AL outfielders?
My sixth AL Tout Wars draft is this weekend, and I'm looking forward to just about every part of it except filling out my roster. AL Tout is simply a great time with a group of people I'm proud to call friends and colleagues. It's an honor to be included, to be able to compete with them, and if my success in the league has been limited to one runner-up finish in six seasons, well, I have a lot of memories of laughs at the draft table and dinners at Virgil's to make up for that. Throw in a round of somewhat-chilly golf Friday morning with the usual suspects and it's shaping up as a 70 weekend.
There's a twist this year, however, as the powers that be have put in what I'm lovingly referring to as "The Sheehan Rule." If over a two-year period a team doesn't accumulate at least 100 standings points, that team will be relegated to one of the non-AL leagues. Because it was the setting for Sam Walker's novel Fantasyland, AL Tout is considered the most prestigious of the three Tout circuits (the other two are mixed, and NL-only), so we all want to stay in the group. The idea is to ensure that AL Tout has the top managers, and also to encourage full participation by everyone throughout the season. In a one-year league, the motivation to improve your roster can slip once it's clear you can't win, and that can distort a league. This should keep everyone, even the worst teams, clambering for standings points deep into September.
Mercifully, the counting starts now. I finished somewhere in Bolivia last season, as a good draft was completely undone by injuries. If an above-average AL player ended up on the DL last season, I probably owned him at some point. You think I'm kidding. I actually started cursing players at midseason by trading for them and watching them go down. At one point, I tried to FAAB Kim Jong-il in the hopes of using my powers for good. I ended the year with 30 points, which is a pretty brutal number in a 5x5 circuit.
So my first goal for this year isn't to win; it's to survive. I want to pick up 55-60 points so that I don't have to sweat the 2010 campaign. To that end, I'd like to assemble a roster that includes 14 position players who actually play a few times a week, which means avoiding injuries and being right about job battles. For the latter, I'll spend the next few days exhaustively catching up on all I've missed while working on the satellite. For the former, I'm going to trust Will Carroll's Team Health Reports and blame him completely if that fails me.
The problem with AL Tout is in the numbers, and while I've made this point before, it's worth repeating. When rotisserie baseball was invented back in 1980, most rosters had 15 or 16 position players, with two or three platoons per team, and nine or ten pitchers. The 14/9 split in the game reflects that. Nowadays, most rosters have 13 players and 12 pitchers, and if you were inventing the game today, there's simply no way you'd use a 14/9 split. It's an anachronism that we're stuck with, and I'm not entirely sure why, because it badly distorts deeper leagues. There isn't enough playing time to go around. We start 156 position players in a league that will roster just 182, and we have four-man reserve lists that will consume some of that overlay. Moreover, many of those 182 slots are useless for fantasy purposes; teams have taken to using the last three to five spots on their roster as temp slots, constantly churning to patch short-term injuries, or the need for an extra arm, or to give one-week tryouts to hot Triple-A players. Some belong to backup catchers and backup infielders or Rule 5 guys who simply never play. We'll roster many of the players who run through those spots, but catching actual value from them is a rare thing.
The numbers game is why AL Tout tends to come down to injuries. There is virtually no way to overcome a series of injuries. No one has depth to deal from, and there's no talent in the free-agent pool. My best year came when I had no injuries at all. My worst came when the black plague wiped out my roster. Other years fall on the continuum between those two. This is not to say that it's all luck, because playing fantasy well is a skill, but the combination of being a one-year league and the depth issues created by its structure mean that luck is a bigger factor in a single-season, single-league format than in any other.
My solution remains the same: you can either have a 13/10 roster split, to more accurately reflect MLB, or you can have a 13/9/1 split that allows teams to choose between a hitter and a pitcher for their last spot. In either case, you have to find a way to modify the roster requirements of fantasy in deep leagues to reflect the fact that there simply aren't enough players to go around, not because fantasy is ill-designed, but because baseball has evolved.
We're not making any changes this season, so we'll all be left filling our fifth-outfielder and utility slots with guys we sure hope will play. That's a challenge, of course, and you can argue that it's a skill, but I think that the evidence is strong that 156 position-player slots are too many for an AL fantasy league, and that issue drives everything else we do.
With that in mind, this is my annual call for suggestions on players, strategies, tactics, and wiseass comments to make during the draft. I've participated in a few mock drafts, but they've been of the mixed-league variety, so part of my challenge will be to not be stunned when no one brings up Albert Pujols for a while. Beyond that, I'm just hoping to get to the table on time, get off a few good lines, and have a functioning roster on April 25. I don't ask for much.