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Image credit: USA Today Sports

This past Saturday, in the home locker room of the Staten Island Yankees, 15 fantasy experts from across the industry gathered to buy 345 players, and then draft another 90. It was Tout Wars weekend, of course, and I was once again very excited to be representing Baseball Prospectus in the mixed league auction. This is my third year in the league—I finished fifth in 2016 and sixth in 2017. Considering the incredibly strong competition in the league, they were both strong showings, but ultimately very disappointing. It’s Tout Wars. You come to win.

As soon as Mike Trout sold for $56 and Jose Altuve went for $49, it became clear to everyone in the room that there would be a fair number of bargains available later. (We knew there were going to be anyway, but when the top players consistently go for $5-7 more than you have them pegged at, it means it’ll be even more extreme.) In the end, this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise to any of us, as this has been a consistent trend since I joined the league back in 2016. That year, there were five $40 players purchased at auction. In 2017, that number jumped to 10. And this year, the final tally was 15. You can also tell the trend just by looking at the price of the clear-cut best OBP player in fantasy baseball over this entire time period. Mike Trout went for $46 in 2016 and $51 in 2017 before Jeff Zimmerman said $56 on Saturday. It’s like measuring currency rates by the Big Mac Index, but easier on your stomach.

This leads to a question that I’ve been wondering about all preseason:

Is the current offensive environment pushing more people towards a stars-and-scrubs approach, and should it be?

Simply, yes and yes. The Tout auction was going to be my first real data point, personally. February and early-March, at least for me, is filled with drafts. Lots and lots of drafts. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, but there’s also nothing like a good auction with all of the limitations on strategy removed. This is when the real thinking begins.

There are four truths that I think are highly important to remember heading into any mixed league auction this year:

1) There is no substitute for an ace.

2) The elite hitter class has gotten bigger, but they haven’t gotten any less elite.

3) The offensive depth in everything but steals is as great as it has been since the first half of last decade.

4) There are a lot of really fun pitchers available in the endgame, and they really are not very different from the ones in the $10-20 range.

I held these truths to be very self-evident as I sat down to the auction table on Saturday, and while the team I came away with was probably not the team I anticipated getting, the feeling was the same.

There are three phases to every auction, and my overall strategy in terms of how to attack it always remains the same, regardless of the players or valuations involved underneath. Of course, it comes from having and trusting your valuations heading into the auction. That’s really all that separates a first-place team from a middle-of-the-pack one when you’re dealing with a room of sharks. Two dollars here, two dollars there. A freeze bid here, a one-up you didn’t make there. The smarter your room is, the more necessary having a plan becomes because the end result is so exacerbated.

Phase One: The Par Game

I had this conversation on the air with Chris Liss of Rotowire during a SiriusXM interview after the second break of the auction, and it’s a question that I’ve been asked before. It’s usually some variation of where you draw the line between spending on stars and spending for value, and honestly the answer has changed a little over the last couple of years. The value of having superstars on your team isn’t the value of profit; it’s the value of stats. If you sit back and wait for the biggest bargains of the draft compared to your bid limits, you’re probably going to end up buying a team that costs you $150 and is worth around $250. But in a mixed league, a team worth $250 isn’t enough, and you can’t use the money you don’t spend to pay the tolls on the way back home.

Sure, in a perfect world you’d be able to get a couple of high-end players at a bit of a discount to your bid limits. And that happened with a couple of guys who I ended up with early on. But the worst thing you can do early on in an auction is freeze when your spreadsheet or cheat sheet says $35 next to a player and someone calls out $34. My moment of truth came 12 minutes into this auction, and my team would have looked quite different if I’d frozen.

So let’s talk about those aces. Don’t fool yourself; there are only four. Yes, there’s a lot to love about Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Luis Severino, Carlos Carrasco and all of the other pitchers that end up going for $20 or more, but the value just isn’t there. Last year, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale earned $42, $39 and $39, respectively. Clayton Kershaw earned $34, but only because he missed nearly six weeks in late summer. The only other two pitchers who topped $30 in earnings were Stephen Strasburg ($31) and Luis Severino ($30). They were great, but not only were the values noticeably lower, but the confidence level just isn’t the same.

My first purchase out of the gates was Max Scherzer for $40. I had him valued at $41, and I came away happy. I also did not sit down that morning thinking that I had to get one of the Big Four—I just valued them to the point where I was pretty confident of my chances. If someone had said $41, I would not have said $42.

My second purchase was more unexpected, but the par game isn’t just about elite hitters anymore. Chris Sale came out no more than four or five players after Scherzer, and the bidding escalated in a similar manner. I had Sale valued slightly behind Scherzer at $40, but aggressive enough that I was right in the mix. With the first group of hitters flying by my par prices and the number of aces left on the board dwindling, I was expecting Sale to get up to $41 or $42. He did not. I said $40 and all of a sudden, I had a very different challenge in front of me.

In the end, I spent $155 of my $260 on the first five players I purchased:

PLAYER Cost Value
Max Scherzer $40 $41
Chris Sale $40 $40
George Springer $32 $36
Craig Kimbrel $22 $22
Justin Turner $21 $21
   Total $155 $160

Yes, those are three pitchers for a total of $102. In the end, I spent $124 combined on my staff, and it is a way bigger number than the $51 I spent last year. Of course, that staff rendered me impotent in the pitching categories, and gave me 36.5 points between those five categories. If more than doubling the spend means more than doubling the output, I’ll be very happy. It’s a group capable of 70 points, and for better or worse, I’m probably going to need it.

Springer and Turner ended up being my offensive anchors, and in an OBP league, they are solid in those roles. Kimbrel is one of the two elite closers, and pairing him with Scherzer and Sale hopefully gives me a lot of room to play with across the board when it comes to cobbling together the rest of my pitchers.

Phase Two: The Value Game

With $100 left and 18 spots to fill, the roll slows, as the kids might say. The auction progresses and I continue to monitor in-draft inflation on my spreadsheet—don’t let ‘em fool you, inflation is not just for keeper leagues. I’m continuously looking at the total value in my spreadsheet (the sum of actual prices for auctioned players and bid limits for remaining players) and dividing the difference by the overall numbers of players left during the active phase. This gives me a good idea of how much to devalue the bid limits I came in with on average. I have that slight disclaimer at the end because there will always be dollar players, and a $3 profit on a $15 player is going to be more attractive than a $6 profit on a $3 player.

My general rule of thumb is to multiply the current inflation output by 1.5 to gauge what I should bid up to for the top half of the players still available, and then 2.5 for the players in the bottom half. It meant that after I purchased those first five players, I was looking to find players at a range of $2-4 below their bid limits. Because of the Sale/Scherzer/Kimbrel trio, I narrowed the values into two simple categories: offense and a second closer, and I was pretty happy with how this ended up:

PLAYER Cost Value
Brian McCann

$6.00

$9.00

Chris Davis

$9.00

$20.00

Jason Kipnis

$7.00

$12.00

Billy Hamilton

$19.00

$24.00

Ronald Acuna

$16.00

$18.00

Kyle Schwarber

$13.00

$23.00

Mark Melancon

$7.00

$10.00

$77.00

$116.00

Per PECOTA, these six hitters are projected for 128 homers and 111 steals. That’s a huge chunk of what I needed right there. Of course, some of that is because PECOTA really likes most of these players, but that just makes two of us. Is it weird that I refer to PECOTA as though it’s sentient? I didn’t think so.

For this range of hitter, especially the ones whose bid limits I put some juice into prior to the auction, it’s less about the ability to reach the heights and more about the likelihood of reaching them; and a lot of that risk comes in the OBP space. For Schwarber, he’ll have to get the playing time and prove his first half in 2017 was still part of his recovery. For Davis, he’ll have to stay healthy enough to get luckier than he was last year. For Acuña, he just needs to get on the field. McCann, Kipnis and Melancon see their values depressed because they are in their 30s and coming off down years marred by injury. If just one of them bounces back to their pre-2017 selves, the combined $20 price will return itself. There’s safety in numbers, even when there’s not so much safety in any individual players.

Finally, despite what everyone seems to think, I do not go into every auction intent on coming away with Hamilton. My bids just reflect the strong value that he carries, and I’m not afraid to play the numbers game elsewhere in order to roster as much of a categorical anchor as exists in today’s game.

For those of you counting at home, that leaves $28 for my last 11 spots, which actually put me in somewhat of the catbird seat—a place I like to be at the end.

Phase Three: The Endgame

When you approach the endgame of your auction, there are two ways to look at it. Either you can keep maxing out the absolute top players on your board until you’re in dollar days, or you can keep your toppers and try to balance between getting the guys you want and not being trumped for the guys you want. I live in that second space—you’ll rarely find me at an auction with $4 left for four spots.

The toppers in this auction left me with a group of players I specifically wanted, without losing them to the other handful of owners who still had overbids yet to play. Of course, this was aided by the fact that there was not a single player who I looked at and thought I needed to have with my extra cash. The closest to that was Todd Frazier, who ended up going for $7 to Ray Flowers, but I don’t think I would have gotten him had I said $8 anyway.

Here is your island of misfit toys:

PLAYER Cost Value
Robinson Chirinos

$2.00

$4.00

Addison Russell

$4.00

$6.00

Hanley Ramirez

$1.00

$3.00

Zack Cozart

$2.00

$6.00

Joc Pederson

$2.00

$11.00

Carlos Gomez

$2.00

$12.00

Patrick Corbin

$4.00

$7.00

Eduardo Rodriguez

$2.00

$3.00

Sean Newcomb

$2.00

$4.00

Cam Bedrosian

$4.00

$5.00

$25.00

$61.00

Let’s start with the pitching. I was really happy with the way my staff filled out, as a few of those arms are personal favorites this year towards the end of drafts/auctions. Corbin rarely gets talked about, but he’s going to be helped by the humidor this year just like Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray. Rodriguez is a double bonus, as he’s both shown sustained major-league success and his slow start to the season will let me grab another flier off the waiver wire to start the year. Newcomb is a ceiling pick, and has the talent to make a run at 200 strikeouts even if he only throws around 170 innings. Finally, I knew I wanted to try to get a third closer because my big-K starters give me the flexibility to start three closers most of the time without losing ground in strikeouts, and pushing an advantage in saves. I expect Bedrosian to be the closer to start the season, and though it’s certainly far from a guarantee, $4 was a worthwhile bet.

On the offensive side, Russell and Pederson don’t even need to improve on their disappointing 2017 campaigns to be worth $2 in an OBP format. If they do, however, they could change the course of my offense. Cozart has the whole league and ballpark change to quarrel with in Los Angeles, but anything close to resembling the 2017 version would be a boon for me. I can’t quit Hanley, and god help me if I ever try. Gomez is going to play nearly every day for Tampa Bay, and they have no reason not to let him steal as much as he wants either. Chirinos is a catcher, and the law dictates that I must have two.

Phase Four: The Reserve Game

I really wanted Willie Calhoun with my first pick, but he went to Zach Steinhorn a few picks in front of me. That last active spot came down to Gomez or Calhoun, with the tiebreaker being that I already had Acuña and didn’t want to be hamstrung with two players being held down for service time for the first few weeks of the season.

Usually I would prefer to take up to five pitchers on a six-man reserve like this, but the combination of the overall riskiness of my offense and the fact that I already know I’ll be without Acuña for a few weeks led me to take two early on. That said, I got a couple of starters I like and a reliever to plug in during the first week of the season and play when I don’t have matchups I like. Here were my picks in order:

1) German Marquez – Should make for a good road streamer at the least.

2) Jedd Gyorko – Dude had TAv’s of .292 and .287 the last two years, respectively, and hit 50 homers. No idea why he was still around, as he’s going to play.

3) Jorge Soler – Yea, spring stats mean nothing, but being a really fun post-hype player does, and it will affect his playing time in a positive manner.

4) Anthony DeSclafani – He had a 3.28 ERA backed by a respectable 4.05 DRA in 2016.

5) A.J. Minter – He’s here for the rate stats and reliever strikeouts. I’m not counting on any saves (though I wouldn’t refuse them).

6) Troy Tulowitzki – I wanted an injury stash as my final guy, and despite how far his stock has fallen, a healthy Tulo is still probably worth starting over one of Russell or Cozart.

Phase Five: The Reflection

This is by no means a perfect or particularly balanced team. That said, it is a team that I think can compete for a title this year. If you had showed me a picture of my offense in the seconds after I said $40 on Sale, I’d have been very pleased and I remain pleased more than a day removed from the auction. The offense is a fun combination of bounce-back candidates and breakout opportunities, with a few solid anchors in the middle, but it’s not going to lead my team to anything. I just mostly need it to hang on and cobble together 50-odd points to give me a chance. PECOTA projects my team to finish in first in steals and second in homers, which would be a welcome outcome—though it does see the same RBI and OBP weaknesses that I saw as I was putting it together.

The pitching staff is where the team is going to be decided. If you spend $120-plus on a staff, it damn well better almost sweep the board in the categories. It’s got a chance to do that. And if I’m fortunate enough that one or two of my endgame guys hit, I should have a hammer of a trade chip around the All-Star break in either Sale or Scherzer, presuming both of them are healthy.

The final tally shows that I used my $260 to find $341 in value, according to my bid limits, but that all goes out the window before the games even start. Last year, that number was $344, so I was able to get to the same ballpark once again. Of course, we all say this because the way we construct our bids are different due to both valuation and priorities. If you don’t have a team with big profit by your own valuations, you’re doing something very wrong.

So here’s the team in all its unbroken glory:

PLAYER Cost Value
C Brian McCann

$6.00

$9.00

C Robinson Chirinos

$2.00

$4.00

1B Chris Davis

$9.00

$20.00

2B Jason Kipnis

$7.00

$12.00

3B Justin Turner

$21.00

$21.00

SS Addison Russell

$4.00

$6.00

CI Hanley Ramirez

$1.00

$3.00

MI Zack Cozart

$2.00

$6.00

OF George Springer

$32.00

$36.00

OF Billy Hamilton

$19.00

$24.00

OF Ronald Acuna

$16.00

$18.00

OF Kyle Schwarber

$13.00

$23.00

OF Joc Pederson

$2.00

$11.00

UT Carlos Gomez

$2.00

$12.00

   Total Offense

$136.00

$205.00

SP Max Scherzer

$40.00

$41.00

SP Chris Sale

$40.00

$40.00

SP Tyler Chatwood

$3.00

$4.00

SP Patrick Corbin

$4.00

$7.00

SP Eduardo Rodriguez

$2.00

$3.00

SP Sean Newcomb

$2.00

$4.00

RP Craig Kimbrel

$22.00

$22.00

RP Mark Melancon

$7.00

$10.00

RP Cam Bedrosian

$4.00

$5.00

   Total Pitching

$124.00

$136.00

      Grand Total

$260.00

$341.00

The full rosters of all participants in this league, and the others, can be found at this link. Now let’s play some freakin’ games, shall we?

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Sharky
3/20
Turner. Ouch.
Bret Sayre
3/20
Yea, this was unfortunate timing to say the least..