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Have you ever been invited to fill in for someone at a fantasy draft at the last second? Most of us have. Usually, your buddy gives you a list of players to draft (or bids, if it’s an auction) and you do your best to put together a good team for them. It’s fun and relaxing, mainly because if you lose, you didn’t have enough time to prepare and if you win, it’s sweet, delicious gravy. Mmmmm, gravy.

On Saturday, March 3, I participated in my second LABR AL auction. Hours after it ended, I found out that longtime LABR member Steve Moyer had passed away, and the NL side needed a last second fill-in. Everyone already there for LABR weekend was either in one of the auctions or unprepared to jump in on the fly, so I was asked to fill Steve’s slot at about 11 pm…or a mere 18 hours before the auction.

Since 2013, I have published my bid limits for AL, NL, and 15-team mixed league auctions at Baseball Prospectus. The bids I publish are mostly what I use in my auctions, but I always make league-specific tweaks. In this case, I could either stay up until three in the morning scrambling to prepare or just walk in Sunday with my bids.

I chose to do the latter. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but my auction was going to be a strict test of how good my valuations were.

The Auction

In the past, this is where I would write a few words about my strategy and how I tweaked my bids for the specific auction. Since I didn’t do that, you just saved yourself about 500 words of reading. Congratulations. Spend some additional time with your family.

Are you back? I hope that time spent with your loved ones was fun and fulfilling. Here’s how I did.

Table 1: Baseball Prospectus’ LABR NL Auction Results

Position Player Salary Value +/-
C Tyler Flowers 5 $5 0
C Francisco Cervelli 1 $11 10
1B Justin Bour 19 $10 -9
2B Daniel Murphy 19 $13 -6
SS Jose Reyes 6 $2 -4
3B J.P. Crawford 7 $2 -5
CO Matt Carpenter 14 $24 10
MI Scooter Gennett 14 $27 13
OF Andrew McCutchen 24 $20 -4
OF Chris Taylor 22 $18 -4
OF Ronald Acuna 16 $26 10
OF Dexter Fowler 14 $3 -11
OF Michael Conforto 12 $18 6
UT Nick Williams 8 $12 4
P Jake Arrieta 16 $10 -6
P Brad Hand 16 $18 2
P Wade Davis 13 $18 5
P Gio Gonzalez 10 $6 -4
P Julio Teheran 7 $14 7
P Josh Hader 6 $22 16
P Kyle Barraclough 3 $5 2
P Jimmy Nelson 3 DNP -3
P Jhoulys Chacin 1 $19 18
Offensive Total 181 $191 10
Pitching Total 75 $112 37
Total 256 $303 47
R Lane Adams $2
R Jesus Aguilar $24
R Scott Kazmir DNP
R Juan Lagares $3
R Seth Lugo $13
R Brendan Rodgers DNP

When I left the LABR auction that night, I didn’t feel good about this team at all. Arrieta hadn’t signed yet, and while all rumors in Philadelphia pointed to the Phillies, I wasn’t metaphysically confident. I liked Acuna but there were no guarantees he would be in the majors in April. I thought Conforto would struggle in the first half and then pick it up in the second half but what if he looked hurt all year? One challenge with a doctrinaire, value-oriented approach is it is easy to pack profit onto your team, but it doesn’t take risk into account.

As it turned out, the offense was fine. Acuna, Carpenter, Gennett and reserve pick Aguilar provided a strong base across the board. There were disappointments, but this will happen on any fantasy team. The profitability of Aguilar (he was better than any reserve or free agent acquisition in the league) forgave other mistakes. One problem with the offense as it was constructed was balance. I bought Acuna figuring he’d steal 25-30 and that some of the other players would chip in 10-15. Acuna didn’t run nearly that much and everyone else tailed off as well, most notably Taylor. This also wasn’t a great batting average team. Still, with this much volume on offense, a middle-of-the-pack finish in steals and batting average would suffice.

On the pitching side, I walked away without an ace. This wasn’t by design. Dalton del Don of Yahoo! spent early and often on starting pitching, putting everyone else in the room into a bind. As it turned out, I did spend too much on Arrieta, but with the value I got from the rest of the staff, it didn’t matter. The closers I bought were fine, but the stars of the staff were Brewers Jhoulys Chacin and Josh Hader. Packing $41 of value for $7 on two pitchers forgave a lot of mistakes. Lugo wasn’t nearly as impactful as Aguilar on the hitting side, but it was nice to have a hedge in case one of the non-aces on the staff went south.

In some seasons, having a balanced staff and offense across the board would have been enough. But the strategy of multiple aces paid off…but it wasn’t del Don who hit the jackpot.

Steve Gardner decided that it would be best to hand the reins off to another Baseball Prospectus staffer to run the team rather than have me run two teams in LABR. I agreed, and as soon as the draft ended, I passed the team off to Zach Steinhorn. Zach consulted me for decisions but ultimately it was his team to run. Take it away, Zach.

The Season

Thanks Mike. What a unique way to make my LABR debut, as a pinch-manager for a pinch-drafter. Although I trusted Mike’s valuations, I too wasn’t in love with this roster on paper. I tend to be a conservative drafter, especially when it comes to my top players, and the strategy of limiting risk perhaps at the expense of some upside makes even more sense to me in an -only league, where the margin for error is so slim. Anyway, while Mike drafted some players, particularly pitchers, who I liked as underrated guys with profit potential (Gio Gonzalez, Julio Teheran, Jhoulys Chacin, Josh Hader), there were too many question marks on offense. At the time of the draft, Daniel Murphy was expected to begin the season on the DL with no clear return date. Matt Carpenter was banged up and questionable for Opening Day. Ronald Acuna had yet to play a single regular season game in the big leagues, though $16 was a reasonable price for him. I knew we were a little light in speed but viewed Acuna as our only safe bet for 25-plus swipes. There were a lot of strong Chris Taylor believers. I wasn’t one of them.

My inaugural LABR season would be a challenge. Should I immediately make a few trades to modify the roster or simply “trust the process”, practice some patience and give this group a chance? I chose the latter approach, and after we finished the year in second place, just three points out of first, I’m glad I did.

As a logical way to review the in-season happenings, let’s recap both my FAAB buys and trades. Note that the LABR roster rules are very restrictive in that all FAAB acquisitions must remain in active lineups and to make room for an added player, a player purchased at the auction must be dropped. The reserve list is limited to $0 players, guys in the minors and DL players. So, the end-of-season LABR rosters tend to look a lot like the post-draft rosters.

FAAB Purchases (in chronological order)

Miguel Rojas $2 (Week 1) – Needing a middle infield replacement for the injured Murphy, I settled on Rojas, who at the time was really the only available MI who was getting regular at-bats. He’s a marginal fantasy option, even in a non-mixed league, but produced just enough to remain on our roster for almost the entire season, in two stints separated by a very short period of time.

Chad Wallach $1 (Week 2) – Filling in as our second catcher for Tyler Flowers, who missed a month due to injury, Wallach provided us with two hits and one RBI in 18 at-bats. He barely played but I left him in the lineup anyway, because, well, none of the available catchers were playing much either.

Joey Lucchesi $23 (Week 3) – I splurged here and won the Lucchesi bidding by just one dollar. We came out of the draft with only four healthy starting pitchers and when Lucchesi was called up, I felt that I needed to make an aggressive play for him before falling too far behind in strikeouts and wins. This turned out to be merely a decent pickup, as Lucchesi struck out 120 batters across 104 1/3 innings but registered a mediocre 4.31 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.

Wei-Yin Chen $6 (Week 9) – I didn’t get my money’s worth here as Chen made just five starts for the BP team before I dropped him. He earned one win while posting a 5.32 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP. Ugh.

Derek Holland $3 (Week 12) – Holland was serviceable but not great during the approximate one month he spent in our active lineup. But of course, after a roster crunch forced me to drop him, he went on to be great, rising to the level of a solid back-end of the rotation starter in mixed leagues.

Eduardo Escobar $53 (Week 19) – Crossover player time! I lost out on Mike Moustakas but Escobar was the consolation prize. Although Escobar was productive, our hitting didn’t really need much help, so Cole Hamels might have been the better fit. But Hamels ended up going for $65 that week, and I wasn’t bidding anywhere close to that number.

Miguel Rojas $2 (Week 20) – Ah, the Rojas reunion. I dropped him when I added Escobar but Dexter Fowler heading to the DL allowed me to reacquire him. I really did miss Miguel.

Ryan Madson $3 (Week 21) – A total waste of three bucks. I thought Madson could contribute a few saves, but then he got hurt before making a single appearance for our team.

Craig Stammen $2 (Week 22) – To replace the injured Madson in our active lineup, I turned to Stammen, one of the top non-closer relievers in the Senior Circuit. The ERA and WHIP races were getting tight, so I valued his reliability in the ratio categories. This turned out to be a fine investment, as Stammen rewarded us with a 2.70 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and two wins with 18 strikeouts over 16 2/3 innings.

Joe Ross $3 (Week 26), Terrance Gore $1 (Week 26), Touki Toussaint $1 (Week 27) – I’m grouping these final three FAAB buys together for a reason. By mid-September, we had a legitimate shot at catching league-leader Howard Bender, who resided in first place for virtually the entire season. This is when I specifically sought out Mike’s input just to get a second opinion regarding waiver wire options that could maximize our point total in a race that might come down to the final day. Ever since the beginning of August, Gio Gonzalez was destroying our ratios. Even though Gio has long been one of “my guys”, I ultimately agreed with Mike that dropping him was the smart thing to do. It just made so much sense. So what happened after I dropped him for Joe Ross? In three starts, Gonzalez allowed a combined three runs across 15 innings, notching two wins in the process. Wonderful. At least cutting ties with Gio didn’t cost us the title (of course I figured this out!). Ross’ tenure on our roster lasted just one start (6 IP, 3 ER versus the Mets) as his next start would be at Coors Field, and we wanted no part of that. Toussaint stepped in for Ross in the final week and pitched well. The Gore add was purely category-based (obviously) as we had a chance to gain a point in steals. A day or two later, we no longer had that chance.

Trades

Acquired Patrick Corbin from Howard Bender in exchange for Wade Davis (July 2)

Acquired Christian Yelich, Nick Markakis and Wilmer Flores from Derek Carty in exchange for Jesus Aguilar, Andrew McCutchen and Michael Conforto (July 30)

I have mixed feelings about both of these trades, especially the Corbin-for-Davis swap. On one hand, Corbin definitely helped us, registering a 3.16 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and 112 strikeouts over 94 innings in 16 starts for our team. At the time of the trade, we had an embarrassment of riches at the closer position, with four relievers (Brad Hand, Josh Hader, Kyle Barraclough and Davis) getting saves and a seemingly insurmountable lead in the category while we were in the middle of the pack in wins and strikeouts. From a pure statistical standpoint, this trade was a no-brainer for us.

But I wasn’t in love with the idea of trading with our chief competitor even though this was by far the best offer I received when I put Davis on the block. Saves was a clear weakness for Bender, and Davis ended up earning 20 saves as a member of Howard’s team. Those 20 saves would translate to 3.5 points in the final standings and we landed up losing a point in saves after Hand got traded out of a primary closer role, Barraclough lost his ninth-inning job and Hader wasn’t used as a full-time closer. So, that swing of 4.5 points lost us the league, right? Not so fast. Corbin earned us a few points in wins and Howard replacing Corbin with a reliever costed him a point in wins and a point in strikeouts. The end result of this swap was pretty much a wash.

As for the late-July trade with Derek, the only reason why the deal wasn’t a big loss for us was Christian Yelich‘s amazing final two months. In 54 games for our team (one-third of a season), Yelich batted .327 with 21 homers, 52 RBIs, 48 runs scored and eight steals. I made this trade with the primary goal of improving our subpar batting average. Plus, we had huge leads in the HR and RBI categories and I sort of liked the idea of selling high on Aguilar. Our AVG did improve but Markakis didn’t play a role in that improved AVG as he faded down the stretch while Conforto got hot. I’ll call this trade a tie.

The Ending

Zach: Although the final result was a bit disappointing, this team turned out to be better than both of us anticipated. Which player(s) surprised you the most?

Mike: I obviously liked Carpenter, but I didn’t expect him to hit 36 home runs, especially when reports in March were so dim about his health. But Aguilar was obviously the biggest surprise. The reserve phase in NL LABR is rough. You’re tired, it’s the end of a long auction (and I was particularly exhausted, having done the AL auction the night before), and you’re trying to think this through while your brain is scrambled. I was hopeful Aguilar would get traded to an AL team, DH and maybe hit 15-20 home runs. I didn’t realize he’d be one of our anchors.

Zach: Sixteen homers in 279 at-bats for Aguilar last season, so you knew he had power. The issue was playing time, and he was destined to be on the short side of a platoon with Eric Thames at first base. But injuries provide opportunities, and Aguilar certainly took advantage. I’m curious to see how early he will be taken in drafts next year, but I guess we have all offseason to think about that.

Mike: Yeah, you can get back to me in January about 2019.

Was there a point during the season when you thought it was over? On July 22, we were 20 points out of first (in third, behind Derek) and Howard was cruising. Did it all feel academic to you, or did you still think we had a real shot to win?

Zach: Honestly, I thought it was over by around late-June, right before I made the Davis-for-Corbin trade with Howard, which was kind of weird because I felt like I was handing him the title in a way even though the trade would benefit us. It was like I was playing for second place. How do you feel about making trades with direct competitors if you think both teams will benefit? Do you avoid those kinds of trades?

Mike: It depends on the circumstances, but generally yes. In this instance, I can’t blame you for trying. With such a big gap in the standings, it didn’t seem like you had much to lose. Another problem we had was there was a big gap in the standings very early. Once the league coalesced after the first two months, it looked like Howard was running away with it and us and Derek were playing for second. In these expert leagues, I’ve noticed that owners in seventh or eighth with no hope of winning don’t want to hand someone a title and face the wrath of the community. In a sense, your hands were tied.

Zach: Yes, it’s definitely something I felt uneasy about but it’s not like we were in last place. I could rationalize it as wanting to maximize my point total and who knows, maybe Howard’s team collapses in some of the hitting categories. And that’s exactly what happened. I think if the season was two weeks longer, we might have caught him, but we’ll never know!

Mike: Howard bought three of the four best pitchers in the NL in Max Scherzer (earned $40), Aaron Nola ($34) and Corbin ($26). He was way ahead in ERA and WHIP all season and second in wins and strikeouts. Our advantage all season long was in power and runs. Even with your best efforts to trade that excess away, there simply weren’t enough dance partners. And as great as Acuna and especially Yelich were down the stretch, I groaned every time one of them hit a home run. Twelve more steals combined from the duo and we would have tied Howard at 94 points apiece.

And lost the tiebreaker.

Zach: It was a really tough trading league, and I wish I had more options. But speaking of Howard’s aces, did you come out of the draft regretting that you didn’t buy a legit ace? Jake Arrieta was our top starter and he put together a good but not great season.

Mike: Steve Gardner sends out a questionnaire every year after the auction, and one of the questions is “Worth the Extra Dollar”. My answer was Scherzer.

For the last few years, LABR has been a conservative spending league and has been particularly conservative on pitching. But in 2018, the experts flipped the script, spending $67 more on starting pitching than they did in 2017. Doug Dennis of Baseball HQ abandoned his $30 pitching strategy, while del Don, as I noted above, went pitching heavy. Even I played a hand in this; Moyer was also a conservative pitching bidder. I didn’t assume that everyone would behave exactly the way they did in 2017, but I did think I’d have another arm or two there for me than there was.

Even so, I thought you’d be able to secure more arms on the wire. Pitching is generally easier to acquire than hitting via free agency. Were you surprised by the lack of available arms?

Zach: I was, and that’s why I pounced on Joey Lucchesi when he got called up early in the season, bidding $23 out of the $100 season budget. I was a little worried that it would be an overpay but as it turned out, I won the bidding by a dollar. Coming out of the draft, we were very strong in the bullpen but a little short in innings. Lucchesi was good for strikeouts but the ratios were nothing special. Still, looking back, there weren’t many better SP options that I could have spent that money on. It was a strange year in that I usually go heavy on offense in drafts and depend on those waiver wire SPs. I will have to think about altering my approach going forward. We still finished with 44 out of the possible 60 pitching points, but in the end, it was the starting pitching that let us down in September. And then there was the Derek Holland drop right before he went on a roll. Oh well.

Mike: You don’t want to beat yourself too much for missing on players in an -only league. There aren’t many options. We lost in part because we couldn’t find that extra starting pitcher but also because Howard nabbed Juan Soto for $56. This was way back in May and left him with $8 to spend in a league that didn’t allow $0 bids. But Soto delivered, and was a big reason Howard won the league. What did you bid? I know you’re conservative on young players, but are you kicking yourself for missing out on Soto?

Zach: Yes and no. I bid $18 but there was a $3 bid, which makes me feel a little better! Like you mentioned, it was early in the season, so emptying out your FAAB budget in May is always risky. Then again, I do tend to be aggressive with FAAB in the early going. I think the biggest factor here was no one could have expected Soto to make that kind of impact. How much did he go for in NL Tout Wars? Were you an aggressive bidder on him?

Mike: I bid $336 (out of a $1000 budget). It was aggressive, but Lenny Melnick of Roto Experts blew everyone away with a $608 bid.

Let’s jump to the unhappy conclusion. So we were gaining and gaining on Howard and went from looking like we had no chance to having an outside chance in August to suddenly having a real chance to win in September. When did the worm turn for you? When did you think we might actually turn the improbable comeback into a realistic one?

Zach: In early-September, Craig Stammen earned back-to-back relief wins. We were in a tight battle in wins and since getting a win from one of your relievers is such a fluky thing, I had this feeling that we were going to do it. Howard’s offense was fading badly and we actually took over first for about an hour one day. I think I texted you at some point during that hour. But unfortunately, that turned out to be the high point of our season.

Mike:  Yeah, we had the pitching week from hell. We didn’t even need to have a great week, just a mediocre one to have a shot. But it was ugly. A 7.45 ERA and a 1.72 WHIP in 48 1/3 innings. We also needed wins to at least maintain where we were but that didn’t happen either. We had one win from September 12 until the end of the season. One! A mediocre week combined with enough luck to get 4-5 pitching wins, and we walk away with the crown.

And the downside of Howard’s aggressive Soto bid is he ran out of FAAB early and his offense suffered a few injuries that made his team thin. The stars half of his Stars and Scrubs strategy were great, but he was extremely thin on the back end. Where we had a terrible week that sabotaged our chances, Howard did a slow fade that kept giving us hope. Even on the last day, we needed a lot to go right, but still had a real chance to do the impossible.

Zach: Yup, he really tried his best to give away the title, which is what makes the ending so frustrating. At the same time, if you told me in June that we would go into the final week, let alone the final day of the season with a chance to win the league, I would’ve signed up for that. Howard deserved it.

Mike:   Yeah. Grabbing Scherzer/Nola/Corbin was brilliant. And his aggressiveness on Soto paid off.

I was despondent the day the season ended. But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m pretty happy with what we did and how the team finished. The relative success of the team was a testament to how well my valuations can work, even in a roomful of sharks. And I enjoyed working together with you on the team throughout the season. Bret Sayre and I had a much happier outcome in LABR Mixed in 2015 but partnering with a strong player really was a learning experience. I don’t think I would have finished this close to Howard by myself.

Zach: Wow, that’s high praise. Thanks. And I couldn’t have done it without that dollar valuation list you took into the auction room in Phoenix back in March.

Mike: It wasn’t the ending we wanted but it was a memorable season.

Thank you for reading

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