I was talking to a few people yesterday about fantasy baseball, specifically the difference between an auction and a draft. The comparison I’ve always used is that an auction is like chess to a draft’s checkers, with greater complexity and depth, and more available strategies.

I suppose it’s worth noting now that I was a pretty good checkers player, and I don’t know how to play chess. This is how you end up with no closers, a $20 Jason Kubel, just two pitchers in Opening Day rotations and the wrong backup catcher.

It wasn’t actually that bad. I’m pretty happy with most of my roster, and I think I might have two of the top three starting pitchers in the league. It’s just that I know I made mistakes, and when you’re competing with Ron Shandler and Jeff Erickson and Steve Moyer and the rest of the AL Tout crowd, you really can’t afford too many mistakes. I’m a baseball guy, and they’re all baseball and fantasy baseball guys. The combination of knowledge about the game and a better grasp of concepts such as valuation makes them hard to beat.

AL Tout tends to err on the conservative side of bidding. In fact, we had just seven players go for more than $29:

Alex Rodriguez          43
Carl Crawford           42
Vladimir Guerrero       37
Johan Santana           36
Mark Teixeira           33
Grady Sizemore          31
Ichiro Suzuki           31

I got Carl Crawford for, I believe, the third time in four seasons. I expect more power and a bit less speed from him this season, with perhaps better context numbers if he can slide down to the #2 or #3 spot in the Devil Rays‘ lineup. Johan Santana seems like a bargain at $36, and you can argue that he should be the highest-priced player in the AL. Grady Sizemore was the first player brought up at the auction, and may have caught everyone by surprise, as $31 for him seems low given his age, performance level and skill set. Jeff Erickson was able to pick him up for a good price.

No one else cracked the $30 barrier, with Justin Morneau and Bobby Abreu at $29, and a clutch of guys at $28. The mistake I most regret is letting Manny Ramirez go for $28, also to Erickson. He was arguably the last pure power guy left, and certainly carries as little risk as anyone in the game. With three position players-Crawford, Esteban German and Howie Kendrick-I needed power and an outfielder. My Player Forecast Manager settings generated a price of $24 for Ramirez, though, and while I wasn’t treating those figures as gospel, I was trying to stay close to them. So I declined to bid $29.

This left my team well shy of power, a problem that will only partially be compensated for by its speed and runs scored (Tout is 5×5). The bigger issue was that, as is so often the case for me in auctions, I now had more money than there was available talent. If I’d taken Ramirez, I likely would not have gotten a couple of the guys I did-Bobby Crosby and Alex Gordon on consecutive nominations a few minutes later-but I would also have not been stuck paying $20 for Jason Kubel towards the end of the draft.

Close your mouth.

PFM had Kubel listed at $17, so it wasn’t that bad an overbid. I let a lot of older outfielders go along the way, guys like Raul Ibanez and Magglio Ordonez, allowing money to drift out of the pool and leaving me in control of getting someone like Kubel. Eventually, Kubel was far and away the highest-valued player left, which is actually not a good situation, because it creates a bidding war. (See also Casey Kotchman for $16.) Jason Grey of (or, I forget) decided to squeeze me and bid Kubel to $16. Out of some frustration, I threw out my max bid of $20, which did end the bidding, but had the unfortunate effect of leaving me with a $20 Jason Kubel. Had I gone one dollar more on Ramirez, my team would look much better today.

I was playing checkers. They were playing chess.

I do like my pitching staff, although I liked it more when Chien-Ming Wang wasn’t out for a month. That news came out Saturday morning, and no doubt held his price down to $8, which seems like a bargain even if he makes just 25 starts. I have Felix Hernandez at $23 and John Lackey at $24, prices I like relative to Santana at $36. I think the two might well be two of the top three starters in the AL this year, which would be a nice base to build off of. I will have to catch a break or two: I blew off closers and took four guys who might fall into the role in Al Reyes, Brendan Donnelly, Fernando Rodney and Rafael Betancourt. If even one gets there, my pitching should be all right.

The thing I’ll take from the draft, other than the out-of-body sensation of saying “$20” during the Kubel fiasco, was how much fun it was. This is just a smart, funny group of people, and spending five hours in a draft room with them, as strange as this sounds, is worth two cross-country flights and the terror that they inspire in me. I may never win Tout Wars-I’ve never won a baseball fantasy league-but I will always enjoy it.

Here’s my complete roster, with some comments:

C: Mike Piazza, $17. The comparisons to Frank Thomas are far too facile, but Piazza obliterated the NL last year when not playing in Petco, and he’s not going to have to deal with being a regular catcher any longer. I was a bit uncomfortable with this bid at the time-it was a reaction to my team’s lack of power-but as we get further from the draft table, I like it more.

C: Vance Wilson, $1. My one beef with PFM was that Mike Redmond didn’t make its list of players for a 12-team league. After I nabbed Wilson, who’s a serviceable $1 catcher, Redmond went a few picks later. I’d made a mental note about him, but his name not being in the list caused me to alight on Redmond. So Ben Murphy owes me lunch.

1B: Dan Johnson, $8. I was pretty surprised to see the bidding stop here. Johnson wasn’t a player I’d targeted, due to his struggles as a major leaguer to date, but he’s going to win the A’s first-base job and he does have a terrific minor-league track record. I don’t think there’s a middle ground here; Johnson will earn $18 or $1.

2B: Howie Kendrick, $21. I love me some Howie Kendrick, and I love him more at that price. Getting him allowed me to take some batting-average risks, and makes me strong at a weak position in the AL. Kendrick will be as good a player as you can be with a low walk rate.

SS: Bobby Crosby, $13. Post-hype sleeper? Crosby was an preseason MVP pick a year ago, before a season lost to a .229 BA and back problems. He’s playing well, just not frequently, and I’m hoping for 115-120 games of good performance.

Boy, I’m heavy on the A’s.

3B: Alex Gordon, $19. Although Gordon has no experience above Double-A, this isn’t a risky pick. Gordon is a fully-formed major-league third baseman, and with the chance that he’ll bat as high as fifth in the lineup, a good bet not only for average and home runs, but RBIs as well.

CI: Esteban German, $9. I generally don’t have enough steals or enough playing time in the middle infield. Winning the bidding on German, the 14th player nominated, was an attempt to address both problems. I’m definitely concerned as to where he’ll play once Mark Grudzielanek is healthy, but as important as he was to the Royals‘ excellent second-half offense, I’m optimistic that he’ll retain some kind of role. German was listed at three spots during the auction, as I picked up other players and moved him around. I’m a fan of a Team Pretzel approach.

MI: Brandon Wood, $3. Maybe a mistake, a reaction to the Chone Figgins injury. Wood will open the season as the third baseman in Salt Lake, which should enable him to put up big offensive numbers. Whether he makes it back to the majors in time to earn that price depends on how well Casey Kotchman, Maicer Izturis and other Angels play. It’s pretty hard to know how this is going to play out; I do know I need to fill this spot with a reserve pick or free agent immediately.

OF: Carl Crawford, $42. I’m just not capable of passing on Carl Crawford. I liked him more than I did Rocco Baldelli when they were coming through the D-Rays’ system, and I like him more than a stathead is supposed to like a guy who walks this rarely. He’ll be 26 in August, coming into what should be downballot MVP peak.

OF: Curtis Granderson, $15. I don’t really understand why the bidding stopped here, but I like the price. Granderson’s strikeout rate limits his batting average; his power and his lineup spot, however, make him a fantasy bargain at $15.

OF: Rocco Baldelli, $21. I needed power, and Baldelli should provide that, even if he doesn’t quite slug as well as he did in the second half of last season. The risks here are that he gets traded to a park that doesn’t treat him as kindly as the Trop does, or that he loses time to injuries along the way.

Man, I’m heavy on the Devil Rays, too.

OF: Jason Michaels, $1. Crickets bid when I was in the $1 max-bid phase. Michaels usually starts the year as the wrong side of a platoon and end up playing more than that. He has visible skills-speed, batting average, defense-that play well with his managers, and he does draw enough walks to give him a respectable OBP.

OF: Reed Johnson, $5. The Blue Jays made this pick possible by demoting Adam Lind. I can’t say that I think Johnson is an everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter, but as long as he has those roles, he’s worth this price.

UT: Jason Kubel, $20. Enough said already. Go, Jason.

P: Felix Hernandez, $23. I think he’ll be the second-best starter in the AL this year. His early-season problems with the home-run ball were less evident in the second half, and his ERA was much worse than his overall performance. If he just repeats 2006 with average luck, he’ll approach this value, and I suspect he’s going to be much, much better than this.

P: John Lackey, $24. Big-time strikeout pitcher who provides innings and ERA. His win totals have been low the last few years thanks to poor run support, which I think hurts the perception of him. There’s no guarantee that will turn around, but I’m not above playing the bounce.

P: Chien-Ming Wang, $8. The great mystery of how a guy who throws this well, this hard, can strike out so few guys is intriguing, but not why I took him. No, I just think that even with a bump in his ERA, he’ll be valuable because he’ll get wins thanks to the Yankees‘ offense. Adam Loewen went for $8, as did Jake Westbrook. Matt Garza went for $9. I’m not that upset about Wang at this price.

P: Dustin McGowan, $1. He’ll be back. He’s the Jays’ third- or fourth-best starter, and he’ll make 20-25 starts at above-league-average performance.

P: Hector Carrasco, $1. End-game play for rate stats, with a small chance he could drop into a rotation and pick up some wins. With both Wang and McGowan starting the season off the roster, I wanted a pitcher who will have a job.

P: Brendan Donnelly, $1. This is just me being stubborn in the wake of Jonathan Papelbon‘s return to the closer role in Boston. Donnelly has the skills to be an adequate closer, and will at least provide rate stats in the seventh and eighth innings in Boston.

P: Al Reyes, $1. He’s by far the best pitcher in the Devil Rays’ bullpen, with only his ability to pitch frequently in question. I think this was the best pick I made all day.

P: Fernando Rodney, $3. He gets strikeouts and he gets lefties out, and when Todd Jones falls off this year-the recent history of closers with sub-5.0 strikeout rates is ugly-he’ll be in line for the closer job. Remember how well he pitched in the 2006 postseason.

P: Rafael Betancourt, $3. Like Crawford and Brad Wilkerson-I left the room when he came up for nomination, just to protect myself-Betancourt is a player I seem to have a lot. He has the skills to be a closer, and like Donnelly and Rodney, can return a few bucks just in the rate categories even if Joe Borowski doesn’t open the door for him.

Res: Charlie Haeger. Because Rany and I have been friends for a long time.

Res: Wilfredo Ledezma. I’ve been a fan since he was a Rule 5 guy; the problem is that there’s no path to a real role for him in Detroit.

Res: Jason Tyner. Cheap speed!

Res: Adam Melhuse. He hasn’t hit in two seasons, but I’d rather stash him here than have to chase a waiver-wire catcher when I get aggravated with Wilson. There’s some Strat-O-Matic thinking leaking in here; in roto, having a lefty-hitting catcher doesn’t matter much.

Res: Joaquin Benoit. He’s all skill set, no role, but he did pitch very well out of the bullpen for the Rangers last season. Plus, like Carrasco, he’ll have a job next week, and I need to fill the McGowan and Wang spots.

Res: Hector Luna. He was sent down about six seconds after I made this pick, thanks to a lousy defensive spring training. He’s capable of being a very good bench player for a real team.

Player comments are fun! Send me names of guys you have questions about and I’ll give you my best analysis this week as we head into Opening Day.

Thank you for reading

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