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If there’s one thing everyone can relate to, it’s being the new person in the room. After five years of participating in the LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality) mixed league and its online draft format, I was invited out to Arizona for the first time to participate in one of the original mono-league auctions. This is a big *$^%ing deal, and beyond that, it’s an incredibly tough league.

So how do you prepare for an auction you’ve never participated in with a bunch of really smart people you’ve never played in a league with? I usually find that it’s not until the third season I’m in a league that I really feel like I have a good sense of both the overall style of the room and the stand-out tendencies of the individual owners. But when you don’t have that, there are three important things to do as you prepare for the unknown:

1) Research, research, research. Just because you haven’t been in the room before doesn’t mean you can’t have a half-decent idea of what has happened in previous years. This goes beyond just looking at last year’s prices and making assumptions, as one year of straight pricing can give you more misinformation than information. As we all know, auction prices are a fickle beast and there can be a huge difference between an $18 player that comes out among the first 20 overall players and one that comes out when he’s the top remaining third baseman on the board three hours in. Context is key, so looking at a few years of numbers along with gleaning as much information as you can from your fellow owners paints a better picture. Now, this is much easier when a number of people in the league publish recaps of what happened in these previous drafts, but in the absence of that, talk to those in your league to get a better sense of what to expect. It’ll be incomplete information, but you’re just trying to build an overall picture and any data point can be useful.

2) Get comfortable with your valuations. The less you know a room, the more faith you have to have in the bid limits you set before you sat down to start purchasing players. This is the ultimate poker corollary. The less time you spend thinking about the odds and situations at a poker table, the more time you have to pay attention to the trends that are happening around you. In an auction room, the less you fiddle around with or worry about your numbers, the more you pick up on, whether it’s about the type of strategy a few of the owners are going for or what some remaining needs of your fellow owners are. Ultimately, the latter is more important for the current auction, but the former is going to fill your brain with great data points as you prepare for your second go-round with these owners.

3) Don’t just make a plan, make a few plans. The ultimate fallacy in fantasy baseball is that there is only one correct strategy if you want to win. It’s great and necessary to have an idea of what type of team you’d like to build, but success is determined not by what strategy you choose, but how you execute that strategy (which ultimately goes back to the point about valuations). Shifting your strategy during the auction isn’t a sign that your plan hasn’t worked, but rather a sign that a different plan is going to work better given how everything is shaking out. Clinging to a strategy that is pulling you away from your valuations is the easiest way to build an underwhelming team. There’s only $260 per owner no matter which players you buy.

Pivoting back to the LABR war room, my strategy going in was to try and take advantage of the very weak underbelly of the American League. This season, there are at least six teams that are making little effort at contention, and it does a number on the player pool. However, on top of that, you’ve got a number of contending teams (especially the Astros and Rays) who are very deep on offense. For a mono league like this, that means the hitting pool is going to be deeper than usual due to both the contending and rebuilding team dynamics, and the pitching is going to be far shallower. After all, someone has to get at-bats on these bad teams and basically anyone getting playing time will rack up value in an AL-only format. On the other hand, bad starting pitchers can actively hurt you.

I went in wanting to employ a particular kind of stars-and-scrubs approach that took into account the strangeness of the player pool. On offense, my bids were relatively aggressive on the top 20 hitters and was hoping I’d grab a few of them. On the pitching side, I wanted to get two high-end starters, a functional closer and basically dollar out the rest of the way with a combination of strong relievers and playable innings guys.

So, the plan was set and the players started flying around. Who comprised the list of the $25-plus players that I purchased with this strategy, you ask. Well, here they are:

Francisco Lindor

And that’s it. The winning bids for the stars ended up being more aggressive than I thought they’d be heading in, and more aggressive than I was willing to go. It felt like I was the second-to-last person in on about five or six of them, but I remained disciplined knowing that high prices early mean bargains later.

[Note: here is where there’s a big divergence between mixed and mono leagues. In a mixed league, the stronger endgame would have likely pushed me to go above my prices and grab a few of these guys. Additionally, in mixed leagues, you need star power—balanced lineups are just less effective in general.]

Let’s get into the roster I did purchase.

The Pitching

This part shook out a little closer to my original plan. While I wanted to get two high-end guys, I was able to instead get three very good starters as a counterbalance before I employed the same strategy down ballot. My original estimate was that I’d spend $70 on pitching, but that ended up being $78 as I reallocated a little of the cash I wasn’t spending on the overpriced superstars. Let’s go by plan of attack:

Mike Clevinger ($24)

Jose Berrios ($23)

Rick Porcello ($16)

No, there’s no Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander in here, but the accumulation between the three of these strong starters should equal about what those two would have given me in addition to the dollar starter I’d have matched them with. On top of that, these three work really well together. Of all the starters in the American League this year, there were eight who threw at least 190 innings and had a WHIP under 1.20 in 2018, and the three starters I bought were all on that list. The other five? Corey Kluber, Verlander, Cole, Carlos Carrasco and Luis Severino. Not only that, but they all struck out at least 190 batters. The more innings I can get from those front three starters, the more flexibility I’ll have when it comes to either low-end starters or strong middle relievers during the season.

Clevinger is the upside play. He has had a 3.61 and 3.52 DRA the last two seasons and he will likely be throwing to Roberto Perez for the vast majority of the season. It’s too small of a sample to put a ton of stock in, but in the nine starts Clevinger threw where Perez was behind the plate last year, he had a 1.79 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP with 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Perez’s historically excellent framing numbers makes this an interesting data point. Berrios and Porcello, on the other hand, are the safer plays. I don’t expect either of them to make a run at being a $30 pitcher, but locking in the value they provide as solid SP2s in this format is extremely important. Both guys stand a good shot at 15 wins, 180-plus strikeouts and strong ratios (though they’ll be better in WHIP than ERA, which makes them good balances with Clevinger).

Shane Greene ($7)

Joe Jimenez ($4)

The closers ended up also being slightly more expensive than I thought, but I locked down the Tigers saves by taking their closer in name and their closer in waiting. Jimenez took a big step forward last year, and has the 3.02 DRA to prove it, but Greene underperformed badly with a large gap between his DRA (3.94) and ERA (5.12). If he can limit the long ball more like he did in 2016-2017, he should be perfectly adequate until July when Detroit tries to spin him for a prospect. There are 30 saves to be had between these two in 2019.

Ryne Stanek ($3)

Aaron Sanchez ($2)

Ivan Nova ($2)

Felix Hernandez ($1)

Stanek is the easy one. He should be good for 75-80 very strong relief innings regardless of whether he’s the opener, a more traditional middle reliever or he ends up working his way into high-leverage situations. It’s the Rays, so any of those things could happen. Sanchez and Nova are exact opposites. The much-maligned Blue Jays starter is still only 26 and hopefully beyond his finger/blister issues that have haunted him recently. After being a 3.5 WARP pitcher in 2016, he’s been worth -1.5 WARP over the last two years, yet he still has a career 3.44 ERA. At least he’s got some semblance of upside though, as Nova does not. Over the last three years, Nova’s ERA has fluctuated between 4.14 and 4.19, while his WHIP has fluctuated between 1.25 and 1.28. Even advanced metrics believe he’s basically been the same dude consistently the last three years, and 170 innings of that guy will help stabilize the rest of the staff, especially if I have an injury to one of my big three. King Felix is the ultimate shruggy guy. I do have a general philosophy of believing in superstar pitchers having multiple acts to their careers, but Hernandez has been pretty consistently bad for three years now. As a $1 pitcher, I’ll likely cut him if he struggles out of the gate rather than let him destroy my ratios, but it’s worth a shot.

The Hitting

Like the pitchers, we’ll break this group up into the tiers they fall in:

Francisco Lindor ($36)

I don’t care that he’s injured this spring; he’d be a $40 player if he wasn’t. He’s a five-category stud who anchors my team, plain and simple. Will he possibly run less because of the calf injury? Maybe, but I’m still expecting at least 15-20 steals.

George Springer ($22)

Rafael Devers ($21)

Billy Hamilton ($19)

We’ll get back to Hamilton, which was basically the most predictable purchase of the auction. Springer is a victim of expectations in a few different ways. First of all, he was supposed to be a five-category stud when he first arrived on the scene after hitting .303 with 37 homers and 45 steals in his 2013 minor-league season spread across Double-A and Triple-A. That never quite materialized, but he turned into a top-of-the-order thumper who scored a ton of runs and hit dingers. Then last year, he had his first true down year despite still scoring 100 runs, only hitting .265 with 22 homers. In AL-only formats, he was worth $22 last season. I think there’s a lot of room for profit here and he was one of my favorite buys of the night. Devers was right up at his price point, unlike Springer, but good lord I love his upside. He’s a former elite prospect who will play the full season at 22 and has 31 homers and a .254 average in his first 672 AB in Boston. He’s got the potential to hit .280 with 30 homers this year.

Now, back to Hamilton. I’ve waxed for so long about his value that you’re surely sick of it, but last year in NL-only formats, Hamilton earned $18 in a season where he saw reduced playing time and dropped his previous stolen-base output nearly in half. Kansas City is a nearly perfect fit for him—the expectations are low, the team likes to run and he should get all the playing time he can handle. On top of that, he’s one of the few hitters on the planet who is helped by going from GABP to Kauffman Stadium. With a far more spacious outfield to work with, Hamilton should be able to drop in more singles. And more singles beget more steals, which beget more runs. If you think Adalberto Mondesi can steal 40-50 bases, there’s no reason to think Hamilton can’t steal 50-60. He’s done it plenty of times before.

Luke Voit ($12)

DJ LeMahieu ($12)

Kyle Tucker ($10)

Kendrys Morales ($9)

Josh Reddick ($7)

Three of these guys are boring and will play a bunch—LeMahieu should pick up multi-position eligibility pretty quickly into the season and give my team a boost in batting average and runs, Morales will hit dingers and Reddick will basically be Josh Reddick. Voit is adored by PECOTA and for good reason. He just obliterated the ball after joining the Yankees for the stretch run and there’s really very little separation between him and Matt Olson. Well, aside from the $11 in the auction. Tucker was the last of these guys and the least surprising add to my team from this tier. He’s an elite prospect who will force his way into the Astros lineup relatively quickly into 2019 and make himself known as a five-category contributor almost immediately. If you’re looking for a hot take, I don’t expect there to be much of a difference between him and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. from a per-at-bat fantasy valuation perspective. (Of course, PECOTA doesn’t think that’s much of a hot take.)

Welington Castillo ($9)

Isiah Kiner-Falefa ($9)

I was very much not expecting there to be only two double-digit catchers in the LABR auction, but the relative restraint in backstop spending allowed me to grab two actual, real-life starters. Castillo is relatively forgotten because of the suspension from last year, but he was expected to hit around .260 with 20 homers and paced to do so after he returned. I expect that trend to continue. IKF is basically a perfect AL-only catcher. He won’t hurt my batting average (in fact, he might actually help it), he won’t play exclusively at catcher and he’ll even throw in a few steals for good measure. Auctions always surprise you somehow.

Zack Cozart ($4)

Aledmys Diaz ($4)

Adam Jones ($4)

As you can see, I spread the money around certainly more than I anticipated, with no purchases of hitters at $3 or under. I threw Cozart out at $4 and for some reason, this froze the room. I had him as an $11 player and he’ll get all the playing time he can handle across a few infield positions in Anaheim. Diaz was someone who I figured I’d come away with mostly because I’m more bullish on his playing time and his power potential in Houston. The Astros are likely to try and spell all of their infielders a fair amount because of 2018 injury issues, and Diaz should get some run in the outfield as well. From an offensive standpoint, he’s a big pull hitter and had his career-high fly-ball rate of 41 percent last year. I can hear those Crawford Boxes calling now. Jones is a complete flier since he hasn’t signed yet, but if he somehow ends up in the American League, there’s no reason he can’t hit .260 with 20 homers yet again. If not, it was worth a shot at $4.

The Reserves

After the active portion of the auction is over and everyone’s $260 is spent, there is a six-round reserve draft to fill out the remainder of everyone’s roster. I drew the ninth pick and was certain that the one player I wanted the most would be taken before my draw. I was giddy that he wasn’t.

Pick #1 – Dan Vogelbach

Pick #2 – Clay Buchholz

Pick #3 – Jorge Bonifacio

Pick #4 – Sean Manaea

Pick #5 – Hector Rondon

Pick #6 – Nick Madrigal

Look, it’s been a long journey for me and Dan Vogelbach, but one thing hasn’t changed: I still think he can be a really good hitter in the majors. He absolutely destroyed Triple-A pitching last year after struggling in a small major-league sample, not only putting up a .979 OPS, but walking 18 more times than he struck out. There is no reason whatsoever that Ryon Healy should get in the way of the Mariners finding out if Vogelbach can be their version of Jesus Aguilar. I will never stop fighting for his honor, and thanks to Ben Carsley, the world will forever know how I feel:

        

After nearly 3000 words to this point, we’ll keep this brief about the rest of the reserve picks. Buchholz was really freaking good last year when he was healthy and should be able to pick up starts for as long as his body will allow. Bonifacio is likely to play a fair amount in Kansas City even if he’s not a “starter”, and he’s only a year removed from a 2017 rookie campaign where he was an above-average hitter by DRC+. Also, Brett Phillips and Alex Gordon aren’t exactly superstars. He’ll come in handy if Jones doesn’t sign in the American League. Manaea might not pitch in 2019, but even 6-7 weeks of him would be well worth the pick. It also has the added effect of giving me a free roster spot to start the year since he’ll be moved to the Injured List (still getting used to that one). Rondon has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last four years, and certainly the best one to be non-tendered in that stretch. He has a career 3.17 DRA and he bested that by nearly half a run last year. It’s unlikely he’ll get more than a handful of saves, despite the fact that he got 15 last year, but he doesn’t need to. Finally, I grabbed the prospect I knew I wanted with this last pick. Madrigal may have just been drafted in 2018, but the White Sox are already making arrangements for his arrival by moving Yoan Moncada over to third base. He’d be the best natural hitter in the minors if there were any justice in Toronto, but he could move very quickly and be up on the South Side around the All-Star break.

Overall, I came away from the auction really pleased despite the fact that things did not go according to my original plan. I don’t think this team is a world beater by any means, but when you leave an auction, all you want is to feel like you’ve given yourself a chance to do well in the league if a couple of things break right for you. After all, this isn’t just a game of skill. You can’t win a league (let alone a sharp experts league like AL LABR) without getting a few lucky breaks along the way. All you can do is position yourself to take advantage of them, and in that respect, I followed my plan to a T.

Thanks again to Steve Gardner of USA Today for all of his work in making LABR what it is. It was just an awesome privilege to be a part of it.

For full context, here’s the full AL LABR roster grid.

Thank you for reading

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