Last Saturday, I had the privilege of participating in my fourth Tout Wars NL-only expert league auction, which was my first Tout Wars auction representing Baseball Prospectus. As always, it was an honor simply to be included among so many great fantasy players and baseball minds, and to rub elbows with experts whose work I’ve been reading for the last 15-20 years. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over sitting in a room with Ron Shandler, Lawr Michaels, and Peter Kreutzer and talking baseball with them.

For those of you that followed over me here from my old blog Roto Think Tank, the words I’m about to write already ring like a familiar mantra in your ears. For my new readers that only know me from Baseball Prospectus, my strategy in Rotisserie-style auctions is always the same:

Go where the value takes you.

There are two exceptions to this approach where you should put the brakes on doing nothing but searching for bargains in your auction:

  1. Don’t buy more than two closers (maybe three if they’re all cheap enough). Years ago, an expert in a LABR league who shall remain nameless bought a grand total of five closers. They were all “bargains,” but sinking $75-80 on too many closers hamstrung this owner later in the auction.
  2. Don’t spend more than $110 on your pitching staff. While I generally don’t like to go this high, I will if this is where the bargains are in my auction. Anything past this point, though, and it becomes too difficult to field a competitive offense.

Besides these two rules of thumb, I don’t have any particular restrictions on how I might spend my money. My goal in an auction isn’t to check off a bunch of boxes but rather to buy the best team possible based upon how the room is valuing players.

While I don’t specifically target players, I do like to have a general idea of where I think my auction is going to go, so I compared my NL-only bid prices to the prices players were purchased for in LABR. Based on this comparison, I had the following expectations.

I was going to have a $120 outfield.

In LABR, Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Beltran, Ben Revere, and Andre Ethier all went for $3 or more below my bid limit. I thought there was a good chance I was going to get Gomez and Beltran, and all of the noise around Biogenesis made me think I would walk away with Braun at $40. If Revere and Ethier also fell into my hands around $20, I would own a $120 outfield.

I would have a solid middle infield.

Aaron Hill, Brandon Phillips, and Starlin Castro all went for $3 below my price in LABR. I did not think I would get all three, but suspected I would get one and perhaps two of these hitters.

My corners and catchers would be cheap.

Third base and first base looked like they would be a struggle to fill based on the LABR prices. Only David Freese and Garrett Jones were significantly below my raw bids at the corners, and based on my bid limits, I suspected I was going to do something I never do: buy two $1 catchers.

I would go (relatively) cheap on pitching.

I didn’t come in with a pitching plan, but I suspected I was going to walk away with a $60 pitching staff. Mat Latos went for $15 in LABR, so he was the closest thing to an ace that I would probably acquire, but pitchers in the $7-10 range, like Wade Miley, Brandon McCarty, A.J. Burnett and Matt Garza, would dominate my staff. My strategy surrounding closers was business as usual in Tout Wars. I wouldn’t shy away from a closer at the right price, but I wasn’t going to overpay a mediocre arm to close. The room freezing on a quality closer would change my “strategy” in a hurry, but unless Craig Kimbrel fell to $22 or Aroldis Chapman fell to $20, I was likely going to dump saves.

Some of this worked out the way I thought it would, but most of it did not. Here’s how it went down.

Catchers: Ramon Hernandez ($1, my bid: $2). Gerald Laird $1, $1)

I was dead-on behind the dish. Interestingly enough, nearly every catcher that was purchased went for exactly my bid price or within $1 in either direction. Wellington Castillo ($4), Yasmani Grandal ($2), and A.J. Ellis ($5) were all bargains by my lights, but by the time they were called out, I was mired in dollar derby. Both Hernandez and Laird are fine at a buck; I’m hoping that Hernandez gets cut and picked up by the Yankees or Rays and gets an opportunity to start or at least split playing time.

Corners: Adrian Gonzalez ($26, $28). Pablo Sandoval ($20, $22). David Freese ($18, $20), Hanley Ramirez $17, $18).

Surprise number one is that I bought four quality corner infielders at a combined $7 below my bid prices. Freese was the only one of the four I thought I might buy. The Tout Wars chat room cognoscenti seemed to like the Gonzalez buy even more than my bid price did. Sandoval, Freese, and Ramirez are all injury risks, but the risk is built into the price for all three players. Hanley’s bid prorates his 2012 based on his current timetable; if he moves even somewhat back to his peak form, this could be a serious bargain.

Middle Infield: Starlin Castro ($27, $30). Brandon Phillips ($24, $26), Aaron Hill ($22, $24)

My 2013 Tout Wars middle infield is the closest I have ever come in an expert league to buying the players I was “targeting.” I wasn’t planning on spending $73 on my middle infield, but then that’s the biggest difference between trying to hit category targets versus trying to buy value. All three players were undervalued by my pricing, so all three wound up on my team. Peter Kreutzer pushed me on both Castro and Phillips; had he gone a dollar higher on Castro or Phillips, I would have probably bought one or two middle infielders at $9 or less and had a very different day. The thing I love most about this roster composition is that middle infield is more difficult to fill during the season than outfield or corners, and some of my competitors were forced to run some pretty poor middle infields out there.

Outfield: Carlos Beltran ($19, $23). Andre Ethier ($17, $21). Alfonso Soriano ($13, $15). Ryan Ludwick ($12, $14). Lucas Duda ($9, $11).

This is where my “plan” collapsed. I got Beltran and Ethier, but missed out on Braun, Gomez, and Revere. Speed went for a premium in Tout Wars, and a bidding war pushed Gomez all the way to $25. I did get to $40 on Braun, but Derek Carty pushed him to $41, and at that early phase of the draft I didn’t want to push him to $42, figuring deeper bargains in the outfield might come later. My instincts were dead-on, as I managed to grab $14 of value in my outfield.  All five players are starters, and while there is some age and injury risk here, for $70, it’s a very solid core.

Pitching: Mat Latos ($18, $19). Matt Garza ($7, $9). Andrew Cashner ($3, $6). Cory Luebke ($1, $4). Johnny Venters ($1, $2), Tyler Skaggs ($1, $3), Barry Zito ($1, $2), Travis Wood ($1, $2), Brandon Lyon ($1, $2)

Ah, so that’s why the offense looks so strong. A $34 pitching staff on the other side of the ball will do that.

Unlike in prior years, the NL experts paid a premium for top-flight pitching. In 2012, Cole Hamels fell to me at $23; this year he went for $27. That’s a fair price, but my plan was only to buy an ace if one fell through at a bargain price. Not only did one not fall through, but every starting pitcher I had projected over $20 went for a par price or higher.

Closers were a different story. I had the next-to-last bid on Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Rafael Soriano. Again, my plan wasn’t to buy a closer, but I was willing to abandon my plan if one or two fell into my lap at the “right” price.

Latos was not only the first pitcher I bought, but the first player I bought the entire day. I was the last person in the room to buy a player, and if there was one player all day where I pushed the price past where I wanted to go, it was on Latos. His price was fine, but I might have been better off buying two pitchers among Wade Miley ($8), A.J. Burnett ($9), or Brandon McCarthy ($9) and having a little more depth on my staff.

By my lights, I’m starting out with $49 worth of value on my staff. If I played out the season with this team, that would still be terrible, but I tried to combine some boring low-level arms that will give me innings (Zito, Wood) with some upside plays that will hopefully exceeded my expectations (Cashner, Luebke, Skaggs). Jonny Venters and Brandon Lyon aren’t great CIW candidates (Venters got hurt after I bought him), but of the 4-6 closers that fail every year, it’s not necessarily the worst ones that lose their jobs or get hurt.

Now we’ve reached the obligatory part of the expert auction write-up where I’m supposed to spout platitudes about how much I like my team. Sorry, I can’t do that. I don’t like my team. At least not yet.

Many experts aim for category targets, evaluate how well or poorly they did at hitting those targets, and call it a day in terms of their analysis. My approach is radically different. As outlined above, my goal is to obtain the most value I can at auction. At the conclusion of the auction, I look at my team, analyze what my strengths and deficiencies are, and assess whether or not I can address my deficiencies.

I’m light on speed and I’m way short on pitching, but both of these weaknesses can be addressed in-season. I have more than enough power to trade for both of these commodities, and both are more readily available via the free-agent pool than quality hitting is. The plan is to be patient, wait for my offense to accumulate leads in home runs, runs, and RBI, and use the excess to trade for what I need in-season.

If I can do this, my auction was successful. If I cannot, it wasn’t. The auction is a framework for what I can and can’t do during the season. From this standpoint, my auction was a success: I built the framework I needed to build to succeed. Whether or not I “like” my team will hinge on how well I execute my plan as the season progresses.

Thank you for reading

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So this league allows hitters that go to the AL to remain on your team? You reference Ramon Hernandez going to the Yankees/Rays as a good thing.
NL players that go to the AL can be kept. Players like Kyle Lohse that are free agents at the time of the auction cannot if they go to the "other" league.
Interesting; are the players that are traded to the NL in recompense for these players put through FAAB then?
From the AL that is.
Players traded from the NL are available via FAAB, correct.

First of all who is "Peter Kreuzer"

For manay years Baseball Prospectus was known as a great baseball site, but not for fantasy baseball. It seems that thet have taken a different path. Maybe next year I can give up my BHQ subscription.

Thanks for the article. I was following your picks while listening on XM Radio.
Perhaps an inattentive question: Does the site show anywhere the complete aunction prices and/or projected values for all NL players--- whether for LABR or Tout Wars?
There is a spreadsheet on the Tout Wars site that has the results for all three expert auctions and the one expert draft.

LABR is out on Sports Weekly's site.
Thanks for the write-up Mike...You made 2 great points I like a lot...1/ it is much easier to productively fill in-season holes in the OF and CI than MI...2/ Power is always a premium (and in my opinion the easiest commodity to get good return trade value) so Speed and Pitching can be grabbed off FAAB and trade more readily...

I made the mistake of draft 3 closers in a NL Keeper league and because everyone knew I had saves overkill they wouldn't give me a good value back on one...I should've waited them out but patience is not one of my strengths so I sold LOW...

One more thing, I was following the draft on Sirius and Jason's blog and the Adrian Gonzalez buy really created a lot of response as to the value...I have him targeted in my draft saturday and hope to be as price fortunate as you were..

Good luck this season and thanks for your insughts..Chris

Great write up, Mike. I was following the draft live like Chris, as well. As I was following, I could only imagine you in that room price enforcing players and then being happy to get that offense at the prices you did. The pitching has potential...I am also assuming you can flip a bat for some pitching help.
Sorry Mike but your pitching is'nt good at all, unless Luebke comes back looking like the ace he was before his T.J surgery, but honestly, your rotation really stinks:(.
This is one of the first analyses I've read which acknowledges that the draft is only the first step, and that you can trade from surpluses in season. I have no idea how active expert-league owners are, but I totally identify with this approach for active leagues that have trading/waiver wire/etc. during the year.