As I boarded the Southwest flight from LAX to Phoenix Sky Harbor March 5, I knew I had a busy weekend ahead. Shaking hands, signing books and talking baseball with Baseball Prospectus devotees for two hours at Changing Hands bookstore promised to be fun. I was also fired up to see my first live baseball game since the Cardinals eliminated the Dodgers in the final game of last year’s LDS. But as I pulled out my spreadsheets, a pen and some scratch paper high over the California desert, I had one thing on my mind: LABR.

Hosted by Sports Weekly’s John Hunt, the League of Alternative Baseball Reality brings together some of the brightest and nicest guys in the fantasy baseball biz. It also includes several “regular guys,” as LABR calls them–home league heroes invited to join the table, all smart as a whip, many of whom could recite more words from the latest edition of BP than I can. Baseball Prospectus has been a more recent invitee to the dance; it took six months of counseling before we could accept the concept of wins and RBI not being abominations on the world of baseball statistics. Since then, it’s been a fun annual experience.

This would be my second LABR experience. Heading into last year’s draft, I planned to follow much the same strategy I did in the 2003 Tout Wars National League draft: use the PECOTA Player Forecast Manager as a guide, and look for value picks where bidding stopped several dollars short of the PFM’s predicted dollar value. The strategy worked better in 2003–when Nate Silver, Will Carroll and I teamed to finish second–than it did in ’04–when I finished a decent but uninspiring fifth out of 13 teams. The difference lay mostly in execution: while the plan was the same both years, the in-draft dynamics fell in such a way that 2003 offered more bargains and fewer misses than my 2004 LABR team. (I also did a better job of landing quality free agents off the wire in ’03, bolstering the roster throughout the year).

With PECOTA and the PFM set for its third test run, I knew I had to do a few things differently. Yes, I would still use the PFM as my bible, looking for players who’d cost me less than what the system portended they’d earn. But I needed to guard against a few things as well. Here were my dos and don’ts heading into the draft (offense categories include BA, HR, RBI, R, SB; pitching categories include W, ERA, WHIP, K, S):

  • Don’t value-shop if it doesn’t make sense for my roster. Last year I took the Stars & Scrubs approach to an extreme, spending tons of cash on Barry Bonds, Juan Pierre, Eric Gagne and John Smoltz before most people had cracked open their first Dr. Pepper. Bonds and Pierre worked out fine. But spending money on two premium closers so early in the draft set me back on my heels the rest of the evening, impinging my spending ability and causing me to be too passive on players I really wanted–Adam Dunn, for one–later.

  • Don’t get caught with a bunch of terrible players. One big drawback to a Stars & Scrubs approach is that for every Bonds and Gagne, you’re liable to end up with a Neifi Perez at the end of the draft, having no money to go the extra buck for someone more useful. This wasn’t a hypothetical: I actually ended up with St. Neifi, and several other ciphers. Making sure to avoid roster dead spots, especially in the middle infield, was a key goal.

  • Do get lots of offense. The no-duh of fantasy drafts. Most advanced players have taken to spending a disproportionate amount of the $260 roto budget on hitters, where the dollars spent on offense works out to a higher ratio of total bucks than the typical 14 hitters/nine pitchers split would seem to warrant. This makes a ton of sense when you think about it: Hitters are far easier to project, making for more reliable investments. It’s certainly possible that Mark Prior could return $40 in roto value. But given his health problems last year, the heavy hand of Dusty Baker and the perils that face even the stoutest of pitchers, why take unnecessary risks?

  • Do try to win ugly, if that’s what it takes. Rather than a general “get offense” mantra, I hoped to make value picks throughout my lineup, even if it meant drafting players who could captain a HACKING MASS team. Where years ago many roto players tended to simply look at the batting average, home runs and RBI of the prior year and bid based on repeat performances, the masses have now caught on to performance analysis at the fantasy table. Though on-base percentage and VORP aren’t counted categories in most roto drafts, fantasy players have learned to value players who excel in those areas; if a player produces in real life, the thinking goes, the roto results will come.

    Nuts to that! I’m not the only one who’s heard of Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy or even Hee Seop Choi. If I was going to get my money’s worth, I’d have to draft a Vinny Castilla here, an Endy Chavez there. Would the other players at the table point and laugh at me, thinking the table’s purported stathead had gone loco? Most assuredly. Would a LABR title numb the pain and shut their taunting mouths? Oh yeah. Unlike my 2004 roster, I expected the ’05 version to be full of solid, mid-priced contributors, along with some players who had barely more real-life utility than Neifi Perez, but with a lot more fantasy value.

  • Do value-shop for pitchers, especially cheap closers. I bought three closers at Tout 2003, spent a mint for Gagne and Smoltz at LABR ’04, and didn’t win either one. My philosophy on closers is to assemble an army of them early, then trade them as your needs become clear; as long as you deal ’em early, you should get full value for them, or hopefully more than full value. The key here was to look for opportunities to buy more than the usual one or two closers, but without spending $25, $30 or more on an elite guy. The 2005 draft marked the first time LABR had gone to a 5×5 format (adding runs scored for offense, strikeouts for pitching). This meant that closers who win ugly (cough…Jose Mesa) or toil in unsettled bullpens would go even cheaper than in past years. Grab the bargains and look to flip them ASAP for whatever I couldn’t get at the draft table.

The draft got off to a predictable start, with one superstar after another getting called out immediately. Every draft I’ve ever been in holds to this pattern. Just once I’d like to see something like this: “Todd Helton going once, going twice…sold for $38! Albert Pujols going once, going twice…sold for $41! Steve TrachselSteve Trachsel?! A buck…anyone? Going once, going twice…sold to the grinning idiot for a buck!” It’s not nearly as glamorous to make Steve Trachsel the first player on your roster instead of Pujols. But if everyone’s keyed in to the superstars and you call the right guy out of nowhere, maybe you befuddle people into a $1 steal before anyone can think to bid.

Another thing about all these superstars–I wasn’t getting any of ’em. After landing big name after big name the last two years, I let the big dogs go this time. Carlos Beltran, Bobby Abreu, Ben Sheets…all those guys went for well above what the PFM had divined for them. By this point I was envisioning a roster with no one over $25 on it. One happy byproduct of this tack: Other teams’ money counts were dwindling fast while I waited for the spending spree to calm down.

A little while later, I grabbed three $20+ players in rapid succession: Jeff Kent ($22), Jason Bay ($24), and J.D. Drew ($23). Kent was the result of the “don’t field a donut team” theorem, making sure the middle infield was well covered. Bay and Drew both came a lot cheaper than the other outfielders who’d gone by the board. Bay didn’t have the track record of stardom behind him, while Drew will likely remain something of a health risk every year he takes the field. At these prices, those factors have already been taken into account, so a power spike by Bay or a repeat of Drew’s healthy 2004 would pay off nicely.

A few minutes later, the ugliness began. Cristian Guzman got called for a buck. I looked down at my PFM worksheet–it had him at $13. We were still early in the draft, well before the scarce dollars left on peoples’ teams would throw prices out of whack. I threw out a token bid of $7, figuring a shortstop with some speed hitting near the top of the order in D.C. will comfortably break double figures. $8, someone said…$9 I said back. Sold! BP correspondent and Rotowire big cheese Jeff Erickson and his drafting partner and co-Rotowire poobah Pete Schoenke openly mocked me. “Is outs a category?” Jeff quipped. Guffaws all around–even I laughed. I also liked Guzman as a $9 shortstop, mockery or not. I grabbed D’Angelo Jimenez at $17 a short time later. Leading off in a potent Cincinnati lineup he’ll snag plenty of runs scored, and I think this is the year we see a power breakout breakout to 18-20 homers. My middle infield had filled up, without a Neifi in sight.

More ugliness ensued a little later, as I grabbed Endy Chavez for $11. Terrmel Sledge is a much better hitter who clearly deserves a starting job over Chavez. He’s also not going to get it under Frank Robinson’s watch, with the crusty old manager preferring Chavez’s reliable defense. Five hundred at-bats of Endy should work out to 30 stolen bases, a huge get in an era where players barely run anymore. With Dave Roberts, Juan Pierre and the like going well into the $20s and beyond, I may have already found my steal of the draft. Jeff kept right on laughing and pointing.

I completed the triad of devastation with the ugliest of ugly closers–Jose Mesa. With the closer situation a complete crap shoot in 2003, Mesa went for just $7. After an ’04 season in which Mesa posted a 3.25 ERA and a huge 43 saves, he went for $13. Mesa’s ’04 results are largely considered a mirage, given his miserable peripherals (just 37 Ks in 69.1 innings). The closer dogma in roto holds that closers with lousy indicators–especially strikeout rate–are a sure bet to lose their job. Says who? Lloyd McClendon hasn’t done much to suggest he’ s a maestro of roster construction. The mantra of “it’s his job to lose” that rings out in nearly every major league clubhouse holds in Pittsburgh, too. And of course, I can always trade Mesa for valuable goods down the road.

As the draft went on, it became clear that another team was following a similar draft strategy. The regular guy tandem known as the Edelmaniacs (a father-son duo from New York wearing matching black, logoed Edelmaniac polo shorts that were the hit of the draft) and Team BP held the money edge on the rest of the table for most of the draft, sitting back and waiting for value throughout. The cash in hand enabled me to get creative. Not long after grabbing Mesa, I looked back at the draft board after Chad Cordero‘s name was called out. John Hunt entered the bidding quickly, having been thwarted on several prior attempts to land a closer. I looked back at the draft board behind me and quickly realized that Hunt was still closer-less and would pay big bucks for Cordero, the best stopper left on the board. I’d either make him pay through the nose or win the bidding myself and look to trade him a closer later in the season. When the bidding stopped at $20, I had my second closer.

Had I overbid? Possibly. Cordero may have been the only player who made me think I’d spent a couple bucks too much all evening. But as I scanned Hunt’s impressive list of starting pitchers, I knew I had great ammo to swing a deal, and a potential trading partner who could provide what my team needed.

As the night progressed, I kept hitting my marks, jumping in to grab players at somewhat reduced prices, and building a strong offense. Lacking any kind of poker face, I pumped my fist after snagging Lance Berkman for $17–torn ACL or not, that was a steal. Celebrations or excessive antics of any kind are generally frowned upon at expert league drafts, but I could care less. The next time someone in your home league reprimands you for making an ass of yourself, remind him that you’re all there to have fun. If others want a more serious endeavor, they can always explore The Law of Trig.

The rest of the offense filled in nicely. Veterans such as Craig Biggio and Reggie Sanders went at a discount. I got a bunch of the sleepers on my list as well, including Dave Ross (sneered at for his horrendous batting average last year but a good source of cheap power at catcher who’ll play a lot), Glendon Rusch (my top choice heading into the draft as a cheap pitcher) and Chris Capuano (great strikeout rates, PECOTA likes him, the Brewers will offer more run support and win more this year, and I’m a fan).

My final goal of landing cheap closers worked perfectly. The table got scared off by Greg Aquino‘s so-so peripherals and unproven track record, allowing him to fall to me at $8. Bullpen unrest and the specter of Coors Field pushed Chin-Hui Tsao into my lap for $6. A couple days after the draft the Diamondbacks announced that Aquino had a strained flexor mass in his right elbow that would cost him at least a week of spring training, possibly more. Meanwhile the Rockies have said they’ll move slowly with Tsao, possibly easing him into the closer role a couple months into the season. If I can get a combined 40 saves for $14, though, I’ll be in great shape. With four closers, an offense without any glaring holes and a starting rotation built on the cheap, there’d be plenty of opportunities to work out helpful trades.

It may be the most commonly used phrase of any roto draft, but I’ll say it anyway: I like my team.

Team BP

C Koyie Hill $4
C Dave Ross $2

1B Hee Seop Choi $9
2B Jeff Kent $22
3B Garrett Atkins $13
SS Cristian Guzman $9
CI Sean Burroughs $8
MI D’Angelo Jimenez $17

OF Jason Bay $24
OF J.D. Drew $23
OF Lance Berkman $17
OF Reggie Sanders $14
OF Endy Chavez $11

UT Craig Biggio $12

P Chad Cordero $20
P Jose Mesa $13
P Dontrelle Willis $12
P Greg Aquino $8
P Chin-Hui Tsao $6
P Glendon Rusch $5
P Mark Redman $5
P Chris Capuano $3
P Ramon Ortiz $2
P Paul Wilson $1


P Jose Acevedo
OF Ricky Ledee
P Kyle Davies
2B/3B Brendan Harris
P Derrick Turnbow
P Heath Bell

Post script: John Hunt asked every team owner to e-mail him with a few comments on team strategy, and whether we felt our strategy worked (those comments, along with complete rosters of all 13 LABR teams, will be published in a Sports Weekly coming soon to a newsstand near you). While exchanging e-mails, I mentioned to John that if he wanted to trade from his deep stable of starting pitchers to get a closer for his bullpen-bereft team, I’d be happy to talk. I’d set the record for the earliest trade in LABR in 2004, pulling a six-player deal a week after the draft.

It took less than 48 hours after the draft’s conclusion to break my own record. Jose Mesa and Paul Wilson were shipped to Team Hunt in exchange for Livan Hernandez (an absolute innings sponge whose low ERA and WHIP become all the more valuable given Hernandez’s copious inning counts) and Brian Bruney (a bit of Aquino saves insurance with a strong K rate). Now I really like my team.

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