I’m home. With Tout Wars as my excuse, I’ve launched a nine-day trip to the New York area, a trip that will include a visit to Bristol and our friends at ESPNews; my participation in a panel along with a bunch of BPers at Columbia; guesting with Cory Schwartz on his MLB Radio show, as much local media as I can get my hands around; and, if past trips to New York are any guide, eating about three times my body weight over the course of the week.

Strange…coming into Inwood from JFK last night, my cabbie took the Deegan Expressway, which runs right by Yankee Stadium. Even though I’ve been coming back to New York for 18 years, the sight of the Stadium is still one of those things that gives me chills. I have so many memories of the Stadium, from the first game I can remember there (summer of 1978, day game or doubleheader against the Twins) to how every year my birthday present was tickets to a doubleheader, often a twi-night one. I can remember lining up outside Gate 4 to rush in and catch batting practice, standing in the right-field seats with my glove in one hand and hope in the other.

I remember getting to a game late one day, entering just in time to miss a Kirby Puckett home run, but there for the entire Yankee comeback. I remember sitting in the bleachers for a doubleheader with the Royals, with the latter game going 12 innings. I remember a Ron Hassey infield single with the bases loaded capping a comeback from 5-0. I remember tryouts for my high-school team on the field that sits in the shadow of the Stadium (didn’t make it). I remember countless Don Mattingly doubles, home runs, fielding plays…more than enough to turn a teenager into a hero worshiper.

Retrosheet would probably kill half those memories, but I don’t care. There’s a new ballpark going up next door, and while I have no doubt that memories will be created there, no place will ever give me the chills that Yankee Stadium-my Yankee Stadium-does. It’s strange to think that something new will be taking its place.

From one form of fantasizing to another…as mentioned, I’m here for the AL Tout Wars draft, a league you may have read about in highly-fictionalized form in Fantasyland, James Frey…er, Sam Walker’s account of his first season in the league. (We kid because we care, Sam.) I’ve not done well in Tout, finishing sixth, second and 23rd in my three years. My team was awful last year, finishing behind three members of Walker’s entourage, Matt Berry’s ego, the caterer and the little hairy guy who always drafts for Rick Wilton.

Preparing for a 12-team AL draft is no picnic, but when you have 12 guys who do this stuff for a living, who write books and sell draft guides and win expert leagues routinely, it’s downright nightmarish. There are no sleepers in that room. There’s very little value to be had. The reserve draft consists of one guy saying and a name and four people going, “Damn!” for an hour. Good times.

It’s even harder than that. See, we’re still using the roster construct that Dan Okrent and his acolytes came up with 27 years ago. An active fantasy roster consists of 14 position players and nine pitchers. Now, in 1980, that was a pretty good mix, especially with no reserve lists. Most MLB teams went with 16 position players and nine pitchers, some 15 and 10. There was usually a fair amount of extra talent lying around to be picked up during the season.

Over time, though, MLB teams have changed the way they manage their rosters in two ways that have crippled fantasy players in deep leagues. The first is distribution. Now, rosters are 14/11 and 13/12, with an occasional 12/13 for a week or so. That’s a loss of 14-28 position players in general, absolutely emptying the waiver wire. The second change is increased fluidity among the bottom of each roster. Teams have taken to treating their last two or three roster spots as spaceholders, running various players through on a daily basis. Since those spots belong to no one player, they’re essentially useless to fantasy owners.

What you’re left with is a ratio of fantasy roster spots for position players to actual position players that approaches 1. This means that draft-day mistakes can’t be fixed, injuries can’t be covered, there’s no flexibility. Fantasy baseball was never designed to be settled on draft day; there’s an element of in-season decisionmaking as well, and when the waiver wire consists of eight backup catchers and Bubba Crosby, it detracts from that.

It needs to be said: this isn’t a flaw in the game itself. No one has messed up here, other than perhaps MLB managers who have given away all their offensive flexibility in the pursuit of eight-man bullpens. On the other hand, the problem that “thinking” creates for deep fantasy leagues is real.

It’s probably too late to implement this for anyone in 2007, but if you play in a one-league setup that goes deep, such as 12-team AL or 13-team NL, think about a 13/10 structure that eliminates an outfield, DH or UT slot in favor of a pitcher. This roster construction would more closely reflect the MLB rosters from which we pull, and serve to create more non-rostered depth within the league. It would also completely mess with the valuation systems people have spent years working on, but that’s just a bonus.

Todd Zola of Fantasy takes the idea one step further: he suggests that the last one or two roster spots be flexed between hitters and pitchers, so that you could have a 14/9, 13/10 or even 12/11 roster. Even a limited version of this-one flex spot-would add strategy to a league, and anything that adds strategy is a good thing.

Fantasy baseball is more fun when you can play it throughout the year. Right now, deep leagues are stuck, pinned between a dwindling pool of position players and the frequency with which bench guys are swapped on and off of rosters. If you don’t draft perfectly and get lucky with health-the latter is why I finished second in 2005-you’re stuck.

BP readers sent along some sleepers for the league. Not all fit the bill in a 12-team AL league in which half the guys have a book, a radio show or both-Casey Kotchman is wide awake in this crowd-but two names that popped up more than once were Jason LaRue and Adam Loewen. LaRue’s impossibly-low 2006 BABIP was cited more than once as a reason he’ll bounce back, while a number of people like Loewen’s chance to hold a rotation job with some improved command. Fausto Carmona, Kyle Snyder, Luke Hudson and Marco Scutaro all seem to fit the sleeper bill, and there was a surprising groundswell for Jose Lima. I think he should be bid way up tomorrow. Yup. Lima Time on Sixth Avenue. (You guys all get that?)

Of course, none of this will help me. I’m chum being fed to the sharks tomorrow, likely as not to be eliminated from contention by about the sixth round of bidding, or about the time I go to $16 on Brad Wilkerson, because I’m just that stubborn. If I have a plan, it’s first to not be left with $28 or so in the end game; second, to ensure enough playing time, especially among position players; three, to laugh a lot. Not everyone in the room may feel this way, but I’m in Tout because I really enjoy the friends I’ve made in that room. Sitting there, cracking wise and having fun for six hours is truly a highlight of my year. If I had a choice between getting the best value of the draft or getting off the best line of the day, it wouldn’t even be a close call for me.

I’ll wrap up Tout and start the Top 30 Countdown next week. Have a great weekend, folks, and remember: Opening Day is just nine days away!

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