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This past weekend, the fantasy baseball experts gathered in New York City for yet another year of (drumroll) Tout Wars. This competition pits some of the best and brightest people in the industry against one another in four separate auctions. The head-to-head league auctions Friday night, the AL-only and mixed league auctions are Saturday, and the NL-only league auction is Sunday. This recap focuses on my team and strategy in the NL-only league. Later this week, I will take a broader look at some of the trends in the AL and NL-only leagues.

2017 is the eighth year I have competed in Tout Wars, and I have been in the NL-only pool for the duration. I won once, in 2015. If one win out of seven sounds unimpressive, consider that only Tristan Cockcroft has more than one title in the NL since I joined. These people are sharks.

For the first time, I decided to employ a specific strategy in an expert league instead of having a straight value auction. My plan coming on Sunday was to spend $195 on hitting and $65 on pitching. The hitting side of the equation seemed easy. This would use my typical approach of primarily focusing on value, with an emphasis on pushing one or two players to a par price to ensure I hit my $195 target.

My pitching goals were more elaborate.

Rather than spread my money across nine pitchers, my plan was to purchase two starting pitchers for $45 combined, one or two closers for $15 combined, and then fill out with one-dollar arms, preferably relievers. My rationale was twofold:

  • In the past, following a value auction to its logical conclusion has left me with a $90-100 pitching staff. You can win this way – I did so in 2015 – but even in that year, I wasted money on pitchers in the $10-15 range who were useless. Pitching is unpredictable, but the pitching at the top of the pool generally is more predictable than the pitching in the rest of the pool. I would buy two starting pitchers I thought were worth $20 or more.
  • Tout Wars has a minimum innings requirement of 950. It is easier than it appears to get to that number, and you can do it with a lot of relievers and very few starting pitchers.

The concept behind this strategy is that a staff with two solid aces and without any of the flotsam and jetsam that brings up the rear of a typical only league staff should win ERA and WHIP. Two closers plus a whole mess of cheap relievers behind them should also win saves. Strikeouts will likely go down the toilet, but wins are unpredictable enough that this strategy could lead to 3-4 points in wins. Adding to this unpredictability is that fewer and fewer teams are allowing their starters to pitch more than 5-6 innings in a game or 200 or more innings in a season. In 2012, NL starters hurled 15,275 innings. In 2016, this number dropped to 13,596. When it comes to pitching, fantasy managers are paying a premium for starting pitchers based on what is becoming an old paradigm. My strategy was an attempt to exploit this.

I just spit out 537 words and haven’t even started talking about the players I purchased. Let’s get going. Remember, Tout Wars uses OBP instead of batting average. Otherwise, it plays like a “standard” 5×5 Roto league.

Johnny Cueto $23 (Round 1, third player taken)
One of the biggest components of my auction prep was running through multiple hypotheticals and attempting to figure out which starting pitchers I might get for my $45. There were several viable duos, but Cueto was on nearly every one of my “dream” staffs because he went for $22 in both CBS and LABR and my “raw” price for him (assuming I was not employing this strategy) was $26. With every pitcher except for Kershaw still on the board I might have let Cueto go if someone said $24 but I was jubilant to get him at $23. He was two dollars under my $25 target and I had my first, ace level starter at a non-ace price.

Daniel Murphy $25 (1:8)
Murphy cost $28 in LABR, so even with the OBP adjustment I thought he’d sail past my price easily in Tout. But where the NL Touts were aggressive in the first few rounds in 2016, they were tentative in 2017. Trea Turner was nominated immediately after Cueto, and even though I’m not a Turner believer, I nearly said $31. Instead, I took advantage of the room’s early conservatism and grabbed Murphy four players later. I believe his 2016 season is repeatable except for the batting average/OBP, but at this price it won’t matter even if he “only” hits .310 and gets on base 35 percent of the time.

Starling Marte $30 (2:15)
I did not have category targets on offense, but I did want to make sure that I bought speed at some point during the auction. Marte allowed me to accomplish that mission early. Marte is a speed anchor who will also contribute everywhere else. His power falls a shade short of making him a five-category player, but given the paucity of speed in the current market, I’m perfectly fine locking in the 35-40 stolen bases and getting my power elsewhere.

Kyle Hendricks $18 (3:29)
And here was my second starting pitcher. There were a couple of instances where I came close to going past my $45 limit. I liked Noah Syndergaard at $26 and really liked Jake Arrieta at $22. Remember, I was not interested in paying excess money for strikeouts. What I purchased with Hendricks was not just his strong skill set, but also that amazing Cub defense. Hendricks could “regress” and still post an ERA in the low 3s. When I put this strategy together, Cueto and Hendricks were one of my “dream” combinations. I had my two starting pitchers…and four dollars of wiggle room if I wanted to spend more on closers later.

Ryan Braun $26 (4:38)
I had a high bid limit set for Braun, but was certain that Lenny Melnick of Roto Experts would grab Braun, as his proxy in LABR had purchased Braun for $31. Twenty-eight dollars was my logical stopping point. Instead, Lenny wasn’t involved in the bidding and I got what I felt was a bargain at $26 in Braun. Murphy, Marte, and Braun earned a combined $87 in OBP formats and were all positive OBP contributors in 2016. I was not pushing for profit with my top hitters, but getting the core of my offense for a combined $81 gives me a little wiggle room if any or all three of these hitters slip in 2017.

Tony Watson $10 (4:41)
Jeurys Familia $11 (4:46)
If I had been playing a straight value strategy, these are the closers I would have bought. I had Watson and Familia valued at a combined $30 in my “straight” valuations. Should I have waited for some of the lower-end bargains that came later? Perhaps. Craig Mish of Sirius XM is new to the NL owner pool and he dumped saves. Had I known that three teams were not paying for saves, I would have waited, especially on Watson. But hindsight is 20/20. I was two dollars over my pitching goal even if I spent a dollar on my last five arms but now I was done spending on pitchers for the day. Time to grab an offense.

Yasmani Grandal $19 (7:79)
After spending well over half of my money a mere 46 players into the auction, I sat back for nearly three rounds. After being conservative early, the room pushed hard and well past my prices on several players. Grandal was the only player who I spent par on to ensure that I spent the $195 I was planning to spend on offense. There was a handful of better bargains later in the day, but given how much money some of the other competitors had left during the last third of the auction, I’m glad I got an OBP value in Grandal, a catcher who could easily mash 30 bombs.

Dansby Swanson $16 (8:87)
I didn’t expect to get Swanson. I assumed he’d sail into the high teens. But $16 feels right for a talented young hitter who is going to play every day and has an earnings baseline of $12-14 even if he just shows up and hits an empty .270. Prorate Swanson’s 2016 across 550 at bats and he is a $20 player. Yes, I know it doesn’t work that way, but I am betting on a special player being special.

Manuel Margot $11 (8:95)
Margot is another young hitter I did not expect to get. My team was deviating heavily from the veteran-heavy squads I typically assemble in expert redraft leagues. Margot is another young hitter I’m excited about and will take at $11 in an NL-only all day long.

Neil Walker $16 (10:117)
Walker allowed me to fill out my middle infield nicely, and gave me another solid 20-25 home run power source. Thus far, I liked the mix of power and speed I was building on offense.

Hunter Renfroe $9 (10:119)
Do I feel a little weird about investing $20 on two Padre rookie outfielders? A little. But both were underpriced and at these prices I have a little wiggle room even if one of them fails and gets demoted to Triple-A. The Padre offense has some sneaky upside, and while Renfroe’s run totals may be hurt by the subpar hitters in the lineup behind him, his RBI totals should be fine. The power could be special.

Asdrubal Cabrera $14 (11:127)
I had a $19 bid limit on Cabrera in my last update, and at least one reader remarked that this was very aggressive. Yes, dear reader. Yes, it is. I am doing what I rarely do and going to the mat for a player. Asdrubal earned $17 in NL 5×5 OBP. Cabrera could be 2017’s answer to Daniel Murphy. Kevin Long worked with Cabrera on a late season swing transformation that everyone has inexplicably forgotten about this spring. Sound familiar? Even if Cabrera stands still, there is potential for a bargain.

I didn’t know it at the time, but buying Cabrera allowed me to move Murphy to first base. This turned out to be important, as I was stymied on nearly every corner infielder I tried to buy. More on this later.

Jason Heyward $13 (12:143)
Heyward is not someone I was targeting, but is someone I will gladly take at this price. With his sizeable contract and defensive skills justifiably keeping him in the lineup for the Cubs, I won’t get worse than a slight loss even if Heyward stinks again in 2017. The bet here is that he will improve.

Travis D’Arnaud $5 (15:177)
I believe D’Arnaud is a slight bargain. After buying Heyward, I had a maximum bid of $11 and was reaching the point of the auction where I had to make some tough choices. Do I wait for an outfielder or corner infielder I like and go with a one-dollar catcher? Or do I take the value when it comes? Anyone who had read my work for long enough knows the answer to this question. I’ll hope D’Arnaud has some bounce back in him and worry about the rest of my hitter later.

The rest my money was spent on cheap players with the exception a corner infielder I pushed on so I wouldn’t have two worthless corner infielders. Whomever was tracking the auction started missing some players in the fast-and-furious end game, so it is probably for the best that I simply list my team as a unit without an additional blow-by-blow synopsis.

Table 1: Mike Gianella’s 2017 NL-only Tout Wars team

Pos

Player

Price

My Bid

2016 OBP $

C

Yasmani Grandal

19

20

$16

C

Travis d’Arnaud

5

8

$2

1B

Daniel Murphy

25

27

$29

2B

Neil Walker

16

19

$16

SS

Dansby Swanson

16

19

$5

3B

Conor Gillaspie

1

3

$4

CO

Mark Reynolds

6

6

$14

MI

Asdrubal Cabrera

14

19

$17

OF

Starling Marte

30

32

$29

OF

Ryan Braun

26

30

$29

OF

Jason Heyward

13

16

$9

OF

Manuel Margot

11

14

$0

SW

Hunter Renfroe

9

14

$3

UT

Jung-Ho Kang

1

4

$15

P

Johnny Cueto

23

24

$31

P

Kyle Hendricks

18

22

$33

P

Jeurys Familia

11

15

$23

P

Tony Watson

10

16

$12

P

David Phelps

2

3

$16

P

Joaquin Benoit

1

1

$6

P

Mauricio Cabrera

1

2

$7

P

Juan Nicasio

1

1

$9

P

Hector Rondon

1

1

$12

Totals

260

316

$337

Yes, everyone’s team always looks great using his or her own projections and/or bids. Every other expert could probably compile a spreadsheet like this.

A few other thoughts.

  • My reserves were Brandon McCarthy, Ryan Buchter, Scott Feldman, and Trevor Cahill. The plan is to stream starters in favorable matchups to make innings. There is no such thing as loyalty with any of these pitchers.
  • I got hosed at corner. Reynolds is OK, but once Ian Desmond returns Reynolds will slip into a part time role unless there is another injury or a trade. Gillaspie is a decent hedge for Eduardo Nunez if Nunez’s shoulder issue turns out to be more serious than that Giants are letting on, but he is just that, a hedge.
  • I doubt Kang plays Major League Baseball this season. He is a one-dollar flier. I won’t hold for very long if Kang’s visa situation remains uncertain. Drafting Kang and Familia puts me in the disadvantageous position where I either must burn two reserve slots on two players I cannot disable or cut Kang.
  • You can see how easily relief pitchers can accrue positive value based on the 2016 $$$ column. This isn’t to say that all these relievers will repeat their 2016 results, but they could be half as good as they were in 2016 and still have a good deal of value. It is also possible that one or two of these relievers turn into closers at some point this season.
  • If Nicasio and Phelps stay in the bullpen, they will log more innings than a typical reliever and aid me in meeting the innings requirement.

I like the team I put together. But it is always good to get a second opinion.

Table 2: Baseball HQ Projections, Tout Wars NL 2017

Based on a third party’s projection system, I am projected to finish first in Tout Wars. I did what I set out to do on the pitching side (38 pitching points) but fell a little short on the hitting side, particularly in on-base percentage. But the baseline projection is very strong and gives me an excellent place to start.

I do project to fall 94 innings short of the league’s innings requirement. But all this means is that I need to stream about 23 or 24 starts total throughout the season (this considers the innings “lost” from relievers I would have to reserve/replace). Tout Wars also allows teams to carry 10 active pitchers, so if I fell into considerable risk, I could always use the “swing man” slot to maximize my innings down the stretch. This assumes nothing but worst-case scenarios. It is quite possible that Cueto and Hendricks outpitch their projections and I have the luxury of adding a low-end starter or two to chase a handful of wins and strikeout points.

I executed my plan on paper. Now it is time to see if I can finish the job over the course of the season. I can’t wait to get started.