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There are moments of calm that come before you sit down to participate in a draft or an auction, even when it’s a heightened environment, because you’ve almost always seen what is about to be thrown at you before. On Saturday, the environment was certainly heightened—as I was at Tout Wars, surrounded by a very well-versed and smart group of participants—but the calm was missing. After all, this wasn’t a standard draft or auction.

The concept behind Tout Wars X is that each year the format will change—testing out new twists and turns on the game that we all love. And in its inaugural season, that format was the monthly game made quite popular by Ron Shandler at his site, shandlerpark.com. So on this day, myself and nine other participants were snake drafting players at set salary cap values to use for the first four weeks of the season. So while the game was new, the stakes were much lower than the other auctions going on around us, simply because we were playing for one-sixth of the upcoming season. At the beginning of each subsequent month, we will all be selecting our teams using a basic salary cap system, just without the fun of the live draft.

Since this was a rather foreign format to me, I wanted to go in with as much of a blank slate as possible. This means that I read the rules and determined what I thought was the best strategy from there. I didn’t read strategy pieces specifically about the format, and I didn’t grill people who had participated last year about what worked and didn’t work for their teams. It’s a very new game, so even those who have been playing from the start are still in the infancy of figuring out the optimal plan of attack in a monthly league. And here are the important rules to note before we dive into my pre-draft strategy (from Shandler Park):

Budget
You have $300 of fake money to spend on 32 roster spots. All players have a fixed salary based on previous performance.

Positions
Every roster must have:

2 catchers
1 first-baseman
1 third-baseman
1 corner infielder (1B or 3B)
1 second-baseman
1 shortstop
1 middle infielder (2B or SS)
5 outfielders
1 utility player (any offensive position)
9 pitchers
9 reserve players (batters and/or pitchers)

Categories
Within each league, every team will be ranked in:

Home runs
Stolen bases
On-base average
Runs Produced (Runs + RBIHR)

Wins + Quality Starts
Saves + Holds
Strikeouts
ERA

In-season roster management
Intra-roster moves (reserve-to-active and active-to-reserve) can be made twice weekly, Mondays and Fridays, by the first pitch of those days' games. You'll be setting your active roster for each Major League series. There is no access to free agents and no trading. You'll play out the four-week season with the 32 players you draft.

There’s a lot to soak in there, but after pouring through the rules and the salary cap values, I noticed a few things that would shape my strategy:

  • Two out of the four pitching categories are counting stats that should be dominated by starting pitchers.
  • While no relievers were truly expensive, there was a premium placed on all players who were either projected to get saves or had a strong chance to get holds.
  • The prices of offensive players undervalued power hitters, especially those who hit in the middle of their respective lineups.

So to gain a little more comfort in a new drafting environment, I came up with a pretty specific game plan that I would stick to barring the group acting in a far different manner than I expected. My hope going in was that other owners wouldn’t put a priority on conserving their money and I’d be able to take advantage of that by drafting purely for value at first. Here was my five-point plan:

1) Draft Chris Davis in the first round and Manny Machado in the second. Not only were these teammates a combined $18 in salary cap value, but Baltimore plays 15 of 25 games at home during this first stretch of the season. Even when the weather is cold, it’s still a wonderful place to hit.

2) Continue taking offense until I have no more spots to fill. This is common sense in a league where values are locked in prior to the draft. Fantasy owners, experts included, see much less fluctuation in prices for hitters than for pitchers—so when you assign the prices, there are always going to be pitchers you like available, if for no other reason than beauty is far more in the eye of the beholder with mound dwellers.

3) Punt Holds+Saves completely and draft 15 starting pitchers. I’m sure you could probably guess where I was going here by just sampling the first two bullet points in what I noticed at first glance. The two counting starting pitcher categories gave me a natural floor in my offensive strategy, since even a very poor team from a skills standpoint could still win two categories outright. So if the pitcher values weren’t there later on, I could make it a six-category game and re-evaluate heading into May. Having so many starters is huge especially in April, when there are more off-days. This essentially guarantees me nine starters every time I set my lineup—and it should give me the ability to play matchups on occasion.

4) Grab my starting pitcher values first, and then see what falls. Building off point #3, I had a group of mid to back-end starting pitchers who I thought were comparatively undervalued, and I wanted to get my hands on them first to try to limit the options of the owners around me. If the other owners were going to spend their money, it would make it difficult for any higher prices pitchers to end up on their rosters, and I could provide the soft landing they would need. I budgeted around $50 for my nine active spots heading into the draft.

5) Take multi-eligiblity position players for my bench. This one is pretty simple as well, as stockpiling starting pitching would mean that I’d have three bench spots for hitters. The fact that there are no trades or waiver wire pickups means that I need to be covered at every position with a small troupe.

Then, the draft started. Here’s the roster that I ended up with after 13 picks:

C – Yadier Molina, $8
C – Yan Gomes, $8
1B – Chris Davis, $11
2B – Aaron Hill, $5
SS – Xander Bogaerts, $5
3B – Manny Machado, $7
CI – Joey Votto, $25
MI
OF – Ryan Braun, $20
OF – Justin Upton, $20
OF – Billy Hamilton, $20
OF – Curtis Granderson, $10
OF – Joc Pederson, $7
UT – Albert Pujols, $17

It took about six or seven rounds for the first participants (or maybe it was Mike Gianella) to comment how much they liked my pitching staff. At one point in the 12th round, I was the only person with fewer than three pitchers—and I had a whopping none. The plan was going extremely well. I took value with the first couple of picks and then grabbed relatively high-priced sluggers when they appeared to be ignored by the room, knowing that I was going to hit the brakes on my spending as I turned towards my pitching staff.

The reason why I waited on middle infield was pretty simple. Even with purchasing the likes of Votto, Braun, Upton and Hamilton, I was still sitting about $20-30 higher than almost every other team by the time I was almost finished filling out my offense. At this point, there were two second basemen sitting out there in the mid-$20s: Dee Gordon and Brian Dozier. I figured it was unlikely that I’d get sniped on both, so I waited until the first one was taken (Gordon) and I swooped in on Dozier in about the 22nd round.

So about that pitching staff. Of the $50 I budgeted for my first nine pitchers, I only spent $36—and here’s where that money went:

SP – Jose Quintana, $11
SP – Danny Duffy, $6
SP – Brandon McCarthy, $6
SP – R.A. Dickey, $5
SP – Kyle Hendricks, $4
SP – T.J. House, $1
SP – Jaime Garcia, $1
SP – Dan Haren, $1
SP – Bartolo Colon, $1

None of these pitchers are top-30 options in their own right, but this wasn’t about skill, it was about value. Another thing I noticed in the prices of pitching was that injury risk was not being properly taken into account. In a monthly league, where a starting pitcher only needs to make it through five starts, the high-performance, high-injury options become bargains. Brandon McCarthy and Jaime Garcia are both very poor bets to stay healthy over a full season, but paying $7 to see if they can stay healthy over a single month? Sign me up every time. Quintana and Dickey, on the other hand, give me a stable base of stats that I can work with.

If you’re counting along at home, you’ll notice that including the Brian Dozier selection, I had spent only $223 of my allotted $300 on my active roster. That meant I had $77 to spend on my nine-man bench. Fortunately for me (and Pat Mayo, who also had a sizable war chest with which to spend in the last third of the draft), there were plenty of star-level players who had fallen through the cracks for various reasons. In fact, here are the 19 players who were listed at $15 or higher who did not get selected at all during the draft:

Michael Brantley – $30
Chris Sale – $26
Victor Martinez – $23
Matt Carpenter – $21
Ben Zobrist – $20
Brett Gardner – $19
Chris Carter – $17
Melky Cabrera – $16
Shin-Soo Choo – $16
Steven Souza – $16
Dellin Betances – $16
Craig Kimbrel – $16
Elvis Andrus – $15
Jayson Werth – $15
Joe Mauer – $15
Kris Bryant – $15
Mark Melancon – $15
Francisco Rodriguez – $15
Julio Teheran – $15

It’s a list that mostly makes sense, since these most of these players fall into two buckets: 1) they’re not projected to play a whole lot in April, or 2) their prices were generally prohibitive. That said, I was still surprised that Gardner, Carter, Cabrera and Choo slipped into the abyss here. I very nearly took Gardner as a reserve, but decided my remaining dollars were better spent elsewhere. And yes, even though Bryant hit two homers while we were drafting (including a moonshot off Felix Hernandez), he remained on the board until the bitter end.

Speaking of that bench, here is what I came away with:

1B – Stephen Vogt, $4
2B – Jace Peterson, $1
OF – Travis Snider, $7
P – Jon Lester, $22
P – Jordan Zimmermann, $20
P – Gio Gonzalez, $13
P – Jered Weaver, $6
P – C.J. Wilson, $4
P – Raisel Iglesias, $1

This was more or less the dream scenario. I would have been happy with any number of pitchers at this point, but grabbing Lester and Zimmermann after locking in the values I did during the active portion of the draft was extremely rewarding because it validated the process I had coming into the draft. Weaver and Wilson were nice surprises as well, as despite the Angels playing a very light home schedule in April, they will also travel to Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco—giving them six of eight possible series in extreme pitchers parks. On the hitting side, I wasn’t quite able to get the multi-eligibility players I was seeking, but Vogt will pick up catcher eligibility about half way through and I have middle infield and outfield covered with Peterson and Snider. Now I just have to hope that Bogaerts doesn’t get hurt, as he’s my only shortstop-eligible player.

So in the end, I accomplished just about four of the five points in my plan heading into the draft. When leaving a more traditional auction, I can look back at the team I put together and get a basic sense of how strong of a squad I put together and handicap my chances of being competitive. Maybe the most fun thing about Tout Wars X is that I can leave the draft very happy with how I stuck to my strategy, but still genuinely have no idea whether that means my team will be any good for this first stretch of the season. Lessons will certainly be learned between now and when my roster selections are due for May, but we’re just going to have to find out what those are together.

On a more personal note, the last two years, I’ve headed into New York City for Tout Wars weekend as a spectator and used it as an opportunity to meet a lot of the fantasy writers that I both read and respect a great deal—so to have the opportunity to participate in one of the leagues this year was really an honor. For that, I want to specifically thank Ron Shandler, Peter Kreutzer, Lawr Michaels, and Jeff Erickson—the fantasy stalwarts who make it happen every year and were kind enough to include me.