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Last year, this was the last bit of normalcy for almost all of us. The world shut down between the LABR and Tout Wars auctions, forcing the latter online, but for one final weekend in late February, this group of heavy hitters descended into the bowels of Florida for one of the great, friendly battles in our community. 

Thus, while it was a bummer to be auctioning online for LABR in 2021, it felt appropriate as the last fantasy domino to fall. Still nestled into Baseball HQ First Pitch weekend, the AL-only version of the League of Alternate Baseball Reality remains the toughest of my way-too-many leagues, including more than a handful with industry participants. Which, of course, makes it the most fun. That’s why we do this, after all. We want to play against the best.

This is my third season in AL-only after transferring from the Mixed Draft in 2019. I spent a chunk of my prep time reviewing where I fell short in my two prior years. It really wasn’t too hard to determine a theme there. I’ve averaged over 41 points in hitting categories, which is enough of a base to be competitive. That all falls apart, however, when you also average 20.5 points in pitching. As it turns out, that won’t cut it in any sense of the word. After spending $78 and $73 on pitching, respectively, over the last two seasons, something had to give. And I had a slightly new (and potentially improved) plan heading into the 2021 auction.

SPEND LESS ON PITCHING

Common sense would tell you that if you’re not getting enough value in one area, you should push more resources into it, yet I’m advocating for doing exactly the opposite. While I can often be accused of overthinking things, hear me out on this.

As with so many things in life, when you have an issue or an area of deficiency, the immediate reaction can often be to throw money at it. And, sure, if you have a pipe burst in your house, you will have to spend some cash to fix it. However, chasing something that historically has been a weakness by doubling down on it is a bad strategy when there are multiple paths to success. As such, I spent $65 on pitching in 2021 with the idea that I could build just as bad of a staff for $10 less, but the extra starter I could buy on offense might tip the scales.

I also went in with a less defined plan for how I was going to allocate those resources, with one exception. I wanted to get one of the high-end closers. That would allow me to acquire saves and a ratios anchor, giving me a little more cushion as I painted the corners with my starters. Ryan Pressly was my guy at $18. I loved him at that price, especially compared Liam Hendriks ($23), Raisel Iglesias ($19), and Trevor Rosenthal ($18). PECOTA has Pressly as the top closer in the American League.

In terms of starters, the prices continued to be higher than my comfort level as they had been in years past. I made no adjustment for that reality, though, because I did not want any reaching to come at the expense of my offense. I threw out Gerrit Cole for my first nomination because I wanted to see whether I could grab him for my price of $37. He went for $40. I was the last person in on Kenta Maeda but wouldn’t go to $26 on him. Eno Sarris wouldn’t even let me have José Urquidy for $15—which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because we’re probably the two highest on him in the industry—but as bummed as I was, I refused to break. We’ll find out in about six months whether I should have. 

The pitchers I drafted could best be described as serviceable. That’s fine with me, of course, as a team of serviceable pitchers would have put me in better shape than previous seasons. PECOTA thinks my ace is Andrew Heaney. I won’t fight it, but that clearly says more about my staff than the $13 of expected value. There are few pitchers in baseball who are helped or hurt more by the framing of their catcher than Dallas Keuchel, and having Yasmani Grandal behind the dish last year helped him to a 1.36 ERA in those seven starts. I’ll take more of that please from the pitcher who I see as my ace. Then, to inject a little bit of upside into the fray, hello James Paxton! He’s my most expensive starter and the one with the highest ceiling, and I only need approximately 100 innings from him to return this value. I generally rounded out the staff with guys who I like in the $1-3 range, but no one who I expect to carry me (or to remain on my roster if they pull a 2020 Julio Teheran on me).

[The other underlying factor here, which is specific for 2021, is that I do believe that both injuries and small-sample biases will be greater than usual due to the 60-game season last year. Because of this, on top of the variability that we usually get from pitchers, I am shying away from making notable bets on any arms. It’s the same reason that I am unlikely to take a pitcher in the first couple of rounds in any snake draft, as well.] 

BE STRONG, BE PROUD, BE ABLE, BE CHARMED

There’s a reason why I use The AX for all of my auctions. I customize my feelings about PECOTA’s projections, and it gives me values that I feel good about heading into even the strongest of rooms. This was tested early in LABR this year, as I bought the first two players thrown out: Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker

There’s an advantage when you’re prepared and confident in your values right out of the gate. There will always be other owners who let a market develop or want to see how some similarly valued players are priced. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either strategy, but I’ve found that the value on the first player thrown out is almost always strong compared to similar players around them. Let’s do some testing, shall we?

Brantley has averaged $25 in AL-only earnings over the last three seasons, and PECOTA loves his repeatable skill set—earning him a $28 projection. Given his age and general level of risk, I didn’t have him valued quite that high but had a $24 price on him. For purposes of comparison, here are all of the outfielders who PECOTA saw with $25-30 projections and their final auction prices:

Player PECOTA $$ LABR $$
Whit Merrifield 28 28
Eddie Rosario 28 29
Luis Robert 28 32
Michael Brantley 28 20
Ramón Laureano 27 23
Eloy Jiménez 27 31
Randy Arozarena 27 29
Austin Meadows 25 24

Is he as exciting as those other players? No. Does it really matter? Also no.

The second player to come out was Kyle Tucker. Since he’s a higher-end hitter without an established market within the context of the auction, let’s look at where he was valued compared to other players within a similar range of NFBC ADP:

Player NFBC ADP LABR $$
Bo Bichette 23 $35
Adalberto Mondesí 24 $34
DJ LeMahieu 25 $30
Kyle Tucker 29 $29
Eloy Jiménez 30 $31
Xander Bogaerts 31 $31
Luis Robert 36 $32
José Abreu 37 $29
Whit Merrifield 40 $28

I had Tucker priced at $33, as did PECOTA, and I was thrilled to get him for a number starting with two. While LeMahieu was also pretty well valued, I look back happy on how I trusted my values and ended up getting a potential fantasy superstar at below par. 

WHERE IS THE PROFIT HERE?

With a few other LABR participants going heavier into a stars-and-scrubs approach—one that I think is generally wise—I decided to zag a little rather than being one of many in that particular fray. It meant that Brantley and Tucker remained my only two players purchased for quite some time. I was able to use the in-room inflation to reduce some of my prices for players who I quite liked. This is why being flexible in philosophy is crucial. You never want to be the fourth or fifth owner in an auction or draft trying the same strategy—especially in a strong room. Everyone only gets $260 no matter how smart your competitors are, and it has to be spent somewhere.

By the time the third round had passed, I was looking at a $2 haircut on each of my bid limits and was able to round out 10 of the remaining 12 spots with players who came in at that mark or better. It started with my fourth Astro in José Altuve, who I believe will have a strong bounce-back season in 2021. His $30 projected value gave me a good chance of being the final bid when his name was thrown out, but his $26 price was better than expected. Josh Donaldson was another veteran who I like to have a strong season. He came in at $4 under. Kyle Lewis, Aaron Hicks, and David Dahl complement my two first auction buys very nicely in the outfield, and having another big power bat at UT in Jorge Soler helps make up for a couple of my infield spots being taken up by players without notable power.

I also did one of my favorite things: get a $1 prospect who I think has a reasonable chance of making the majors this year and grabbing them at the end of the active phase. I like this because LABR rules give more flexibility to reserves than active players, and it’s unlikely that if said top prospect sees playing time in 2021, there won’t be much of a decision as to whether I want to start him. Last year, I did this with Andrew Vaughn, which would have worked nicely if the season hadn’t been shortened. This year’s model is Josh Jung, who should be manning the hot corner in Texas by July 4. This paragraph is brought to you by Know Your League Rules.

BE EXTENDED, BE IN MOTION

The reserves are always the least exciting point of the auction. It’s rare that a reserve makes a huge difference on your team, but my strategy was slightly different this time around due to my general philosophy on injuries in 2021 and what I’ve learned from being in the league for two years now. In short, having relievers on reserve (unless you feel strongly about them) is a waste. There are always relievers available in free agency—and that’s more or less the only position about which that’s true. 

Rarer are impactful second-half players. I went upside-chasing with five of my picks and grabbed a pitcher who seems locked into a rotation spot for now. The only guy who I really, really wanted once the active phase of the auction ended was Taylor Trammell, and I fist-pumped when he fell to me with the sixth pick. (I also was able to fist pump without waking up my wife, who was sleeping three feet away from me at the time, so bonus points abound.) Ronald Guzmán might be the starting first baseman in Texas, and with a swing change in hand, he can slide into Jung’s spot to await his readiness. Finally, I stuck around in Seattle with my final reserve pick to take a very long-shot chance on Julio Rodríguez. There’s about a 10 percent chance that he goes full 2018 Juan Soto. That’s enough for me. Plus, with Lewis and Trammell in tow, it’s a slight amount of fun risk mitigation.

SHOW YOURSELF!

I still enjoy looking at my roster over a week later, which seems to be as good a sign as any. Here it is in all its glory:

C: Yasmani Grandal ($15), Luis Torrens ($2)
1B: Ji-Man Choi ($3)
2B: José Altuve ($26)
SS: Amed Rosario ($13)
3B: Josh Donaldson ($17)
CI: Josh Jung ($1)
MI: Joey Wendle ($10)
OF: Kyle Tucker ($29), Michael Brantley ($20), Aaron Hicks ($18), Kyle Lewis ($17), David Dahl ($9)
UT: Jorge Soler ($15)

Total Hitting: $195

SP: James Paxton ($12), Andrew Heaney ($11), Dallas Keuchel ($11), Spencer Turnbull ($6), José Quintana ($2), Alex Cobb ($2), Kris Bubic ($1)
RP: Ryan Pressly ($18), Hunter Harvey ($2)

Total Pitching: $65

Reserves (in pick order): 

Taylor Trammell, Ronald Guzmán, Carlos Rodon, Nolan Jones, DL Hall, Julio Rodríguez

Thank you for reading

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Bret Hackathorn
3/16
Thank you! I was wondering if any LABR recaps would be coming this year. I always enjoy Mike's breakdown of the NL auction, because I am in an NL only league, but this is great as well Bret.
Bret Sayre
3/16
Thanks, Bret!
Jon Crate
3/17
I looks like you did well. I don't know about Turnbull though man. The guy doesn't exactly get a lot of innings because he throws a ton of pitches, and holy hell could he destroy your ratios. There is a lot of upside though, I'll say that. I just know that I don't have the stomach for him.