Cruise ships are wonderful getaways from the stresses of life: three or more days out at sea, away from it all—and that includes data coverage, unless you are willing to pay a per-minute fee that is on the level of what a beer costs at most ballparks these days. Couple that with spending time with 13 other guys as we honor the last days of our good friend’s bachelorhood, and the last 96 hours have been quite a blur of inaccessibility, little sleep, and lapses in memory, but today I rejoin the daily grind.

While I was out to sea, it was announced that I had been invited out to Phoenix, Arizona during the first weekend of March to participate in the 19th annual LABR draft, joining our very own Derek Carty that weekend (albeit in separate leagues). LABR differs from Tout Wars in a few ways. For one, there are some participants of LABR that do not play in Tout Wars, and visa-versa. Unlike Tout, LABR does not do mixed leagues.  Most importantly, though, LABR is the first well-known public auction league to draft each year, with its results published in USA Today’s Sports Weekly (and now online, given their recent partnership with Sirius/XM Radio). Admittedly, this is an advantage for those of us participating in Tout Wars because we know how many of our competitors auctioned just a couple weeks earlier in LABR.

(As an aside, if you’re close in age to me, you were likely a loyal Baseball Weekly reader (RIP), and you can vividly remember chasing down the LABR results issues once “The Leviathan” hit the racks in the mid-90s. If you’d allow me to get up on a soapbox for a moment, if I were commissioner for a day, my second ruling after mandating the designated hitter in the National League would be to require USA Today to revive Baseball Weekly. My airplane travels demand it!)

After tracking the results from both drafts for the past four seasons, an overwhelming number of the dollar values for the two leagues fall two or fewer dollars apart. As a result, the benefit of having the LABR results released prior to Tout Wars (up until this year, at least) is that it allows me to start toying around with what I am going to do in my Tout auction by comparing the LABR prices to dollar values that I have created. Am I too bullish or bearish on some players? Which players were being saved as end-game sleepers? How did the dollars values spike once the talent pool at a particular position started thinning out?

These kinds of luxuries disappear in LABR because the only pre-existing auction data drafters have is the XFL auction or mocks from the many published periodicals on bookshelves around the country. The largest issue with these sources is that they are at least two months out of date by the time early March rolls around. The XFL auction happens during the First Pitch Arizona conference in November, while nearly every magazine that publishes auction results were completed in December or very early January due to the rigors of the publishing business.  As a result, when you come to LABR, you’re on your own.

The additional curveball that LABR throws that Tout does not is the uncertainty of rosters when players are drafted. Position battles are ongoing. There are more unsettled closer roles in early March than there are in late March. Hyped rookies may cost more on March 3 than they will on March 24 after they have hit 2-25 with 14 strikeouts during Spring Training. Outside of these types of things, the main reason a guy will go any more than $5 above a published value (or his LABR price) in Tout Wars will be because of position or category scarcity. I paid $14 for Tsuyoshi Nishioka last season because I needed to fill my shortstop role and needed some speed.  That is what can happen when you misjudge the depth at a position and put blind faith into scouting reports without watching the player play.

Despite the uniqueness of an “expert” league auction, the same rules still apply to your own leagues. I find auctions to be imminently more enjoyable than draft formats because I have complete control over which players I can or cannot roster. If I want to pay $45 for Evan Longoria, that is my prerogative. If I want to spent $241 on offense and grab cheap pitchers, I can do that. Larry Labadini first did that in LABR back in the 90s, and it was most recently done by Doug Dennis of Baseball HQ last season when he won the league by 12.5 points.  The “stars and scrubs” strategy also has its roots in LABR, as does the “spread the risk” plan, which was implemented when Irwin Zwilling and Lenny Melnick made it their mantra not to spend more than $25 on any one player. I also watched Jeff Ma of Bringing Down the House and 21 fame come into Tout Wars in 2009 and spend 52 percent of his budget on pitching, leading to a top-three finish while staying in championship contention right up until the end.

The common thread among all of these strategies is the executor’s willingness to stick to their plan. I’ve experimented with each in a redraft league at one time or another (with varying amounts of success), but I have always found more success coming into an auction with a plan rather than coming in and letting the auction dictate my plan. The only thing worse than coming into an auction without a battle plan is coming in with a list of players you have to have. Know the line at each position where the talent-level falls off. Know which players do not hit lefties well; such a deficiency could limit their effectiveness in full-time play or even prevent them from getting to 500 plate appearances. Know which players are on the wrong side of their platoon and will be reduced to facing lefties. If you are targeting closer candidates, see what their splits look like at both the minor and major league level because control, gopheritis, and splits are the three biggest killers of sleeper closers.

While there is merit to regimented strategies, I feel as though it's far more important to be aware of these kinds of things, have a plan, but be flexible if things don't play out exactly as you anticipate. Repeat after me, “You have to have skills, not names.”  If you need to make it your desktop wallpaper or some Gregorian monk chant that you listen to on your way to the draft, do it.