The Draft Day Manifesto
"It's only the best day of the year."
Beloved former commissioner-for-life Don Smith has said that exact same sentence to me every year, once a year, 25 times in a row. And on April 10, at the 26th annual Fat Dog Rotisserie League auction in College Station, Texas, he will say it to me once again.
And, smiling big, I will respond the same way I have for a quarter of a century.
"Nothing better, Don. Nothing better."
We will shake hands, greet everyone else in the league and over the next six hours or so, go about dispersing more than 300 National League major and minor leaguers among the 12 teams in our 4x4 fantasy baseball keeper league.
Ten days after that, on April 20, ESPN will premiere "Silly Little Game," one of our "30 for 30" documentaries, which will detail the creation and rise of fantasy baseball. The film will do a much better job of explaining it than I will, but there are a few relevant facts you ought to know about the game we all play.
Invented in its current form in 1980, it gained more widespread popularity with the publication of the book "Rotisserie League Baseball" in 1984. The inventors of the game, a bunch of amazingly talented writers and editors (Daniel Okrent and Glen Waggoner among them), put out the book and, as might be expected, it was funny and interesting and wonderfully well-written.
And along with the other original 11 members of the Fat Dog Rotisserie League, a 14-year-old Matthew Berry read that book that year and thought it sounded like a helluva lot of fun. (I'll save you the math: I'm 40). By the way, I'm the defending champ of that league. That has nothing to do with anything, except that I know all my league mates will read this and I like reminding them of this. We've all been playing for 25 years. It's as tough as any "expert" league I have ever played in.
Anyway, back to the book. In it, the authors described how they routinely met for lunch at a now-defunct restaurant called La Rotisserie Franšaise, hence naming the game Rotisserie League Baseball or "Roto" for short. It's where a number of Web sites, like our partner Rotowire, and myself got our nicknames. The founders had trash talk among themselves, they had strategy, and most importantly, they laid out the way to play.
Everyone starts with a $260 salary cap, you take players from only one league (in this case the NL), and the players are auctioned off until you come up with a starting lineup: two catchers; one each of first, second, third base and shortstop; five outfielders; a corner man (either a first or third baseman); a middle infield player (either second base or shortstop); a DH, which anyone can play; and nine pitchers. This is crucial: There is no bench. Once you roster a player, he is in your starting lineup until he is either placed on the disabled list or sent to the minors. It is hard-core and not for the faint of heart. Trust me when I tell you there is nothing worse than owning a guy like Livan Hernandez, who goes out there every five days to get totally lit up, but is healthy as a horse and not going anywhere, so there's nothing you can do about it.
If the Tony Award-winning musical "Avenue Q" is to be believed, the Internet is for porn. Fair enough, but the World Wide Web also helped change in a significant way the way we play fantasy sports. Some of it very good: We no longer do our stats by hand, we no longer have to wait a week for USA Today to come out so we can calculate said stats, we can now play with folks from around the world. Some of it neither good nor bad, just different: We call it fantasy baseball, not rotisserie. We more commonly play with 10 categories, not eight (adding runs scored and pitching strikeouts to make up the popular 5x5 variety), and we now have bench players, lessening the impact of drafting a bad player.
But, at least to me, the Web's influence has had negative impacts as well. The two biggest? The majority of leagues do drafts, not auctions. Waivers or first-come, first-served for acquiring free agents as opposed to FAAB (free-agent acquisition budget, which is spent in a weekly blind auction to determine who gets whom). And most leagues play "mixed" (meaning you take players from both the American and the National League) as opposed to just one.
And, honestly, we here at ESPN have been just as guilty as anyone of promoting that style. It's easier, less time-consuming, fewer players to learn and so forth. And an ESPN standard league (10-team, mixed, 5x5, draft-style) is definitely a lot of fun.
Maybe it's because it's the way I was introduced to the game or maybe it's because baseball is a sport that harkens to yesteryear, but I feel that fantasy baseball should as well. At least as far as make-believe hobbies on the Internet go.
Auction-style is the best way to play. There's more strategy, there's less luck, you have a shot at every single player. Unlike in a draft, where only one person is getting a shot at Albert Pujols, if you want him in an auction, you just have to pay the most. But will that cripple you in buying the rest of your team?
And I like single-league play. There was a book that was written awhile ago about fantasy baseball and I'm in it. And there's something I said in the book that I particularly like: "The great thing about fantasy," I am quoted as saying, "is that you have to know who the eff Rod Barajas is."
Playing in an AL- or NL-only league gives you a deeper understanding and knowledge of the game, it makes you appreciate the game more and there's now a rooting interest in almost every at-bat as opposed to only two or three times per trip through the lineup.
I also love FAAB bidding as opposed to first-come, first-served or a waiver wire to pick up new players, and it's for exactly the same reason. Much more strategy involved rather than just being at a computer at exactly the right time or having the first waiver priority. Just like in an auction, with FAAB bidding, everyone has a shot at every single free agent. It requires much more strategy to figure out how you'll spend your FAAB budget over the course of the season, taking even more luck out of the equation.
And as we start the 10th annual baseball version of the Draft Day Manifesto, I bring all this up because we here at ESPN now support all these "old-school" ways. Want to play an AL-only league with an auction draft and weekly FAAB? Can do.
We've added watch lists (so you can track free agents); daily injury and roster alerts; player comparison features; an iPhone app; the ability to integrate with Facebook, MySpace and Twitter; improved autodraft features; and, of course, free live scoring with our awesome FantasyCast application. It's all still 100 percent free.
Now, for those who know me, you've read a lot of this article before, but as always, it's been updated for 2010 and, thanks to the new features here at ESPN, includes a section on auction drafting and some things specific to AL- and NL-only leagues.
Actual baseball players spend their spring working on the fundamentals. How to execute a bunt, how to turn the double play, how to discreetly pick up women they are not married to, post-Tiger. And so, it is the same in fantasy. Let's work on those fundamentals before games start counting. Practice drafting/auctioning in our mock draft lobby and mock auction lobby. Listen to our (award-winning!) Fantasy Focus podcast. And, of course, read everything in sight, starting with this manifesto.
I'm not gonna make you "dominate the competition" or "crush your opponent." Mostly because I don't talk like a late-80s pro wrestler. This article is long, but if you bear with me, what I will do is give you some tools and theories that will maximize your chance at draft day success.
And before we go any further, that's the No. 1 rule about winning fantasy: Do everything possible to stack the odds in your favor, thereby putting yourself in the best position to win. It's all about the odds. Nothing in life is guaranteed, except death, taxes and me getting sucked in by Erik Bedard, year after year.
Whatever move you make -- drafting, trading, free-agent pickups -- just answer this simple question: What gives you the best odds of winning? And then, you know, do that.
Some of this may seem simple, but as long as there are still people willing to pay top dollar for saves, overvaluing rookies at the expense of proven veterans and paying for live stats somewhere else when they can get them 100 percent for free right here on ESPN.com ... I keep marching on. Here we go.
Before the Draft
OK, before the draft/auction. If it's a start-from-scratch league, we'll get to you in a second. But let's talk about those of you in keeper leagues.
If you're in a keeper league, you need to decide whom to keep. No duh. But how do we go about that? By protecting the best players we have, right?
You protect the best value. Not the best players. That's an important distinction.
My rule of thumb is that you keep the guys who are undervalued or (assuming you are in a draft keeper league and not an auction league) somebody so awesome you won't be able to get him back (Chase Utley, for example).
So say, like I do in one of my NL-only keeper leagues, you have Ryan Braun at $38 and Raul Ibanez at $3. As much as it pains me, I'm throwing back the Hebrew Hammer and keeping Raul. Even though Braun is a five-category stud, I think I can get him back for $38 or so. Even if it costs me $39 or $40, it's worth it to me, because Ibanez, should I throw him back, would go for a lot more than the $3 I need to spend. (It's a 5x5 league with a $260 cap and, because it's keeper, people have more money to spend due to inflation. What's that, you ask? We'll get to it in a bit, but the whole Ibanez thing has a lot to do with it.) Even though I expect Ibanez to come down a bit from last year, he's still a very good outfielder and my league mates know I love him, so he'd go for at least five times what I could keep him for.
So you keep your players who are undervalued. Now -- this is important -- what is undervalued?
Depends on your league. Say you've got David Wright at $35. Is he undervalued? If it's a 10-team, $100-cap mixed league, then no -- he's overpriced. Talent is plentiful in that league, even at third base.
But if it's a 13-team, 25-man roster, NL-only league, then yes, he is undervalued. Talent is at a premium in that league, and Wright will earn more than that. So you're going to need to make your own decisions and own judgments in regards to the prices in your own league. Also, if you've been in the league for a number of years, hopefully you've paid attention and know what goes for a lot and what doesn't, so you can take that into consideration, too.
As a general rule, I will keep players if they aren't a bargain, but are at a position where there is a lot of scarcity.
So in an NL-only league, where there aren't a lot of top-tier second basemen, I'll keep Brandon Phillips at $30 even though that's a few more bucks than he's worth. Because I'd rather pay $3 to $5 more for him than be one of 10 teams trying to overpay for Chase Utley. Or worse, hearing myself desperately shout "Skip Schumaker, $15!" late in the auction. Don't laugh. It's funny only when it's not happening to you.
Ideally, you go into the draft with as much money as possible. But that's very different from the most money. You're going to have to spend money at some point. And if it's better spent on a keeper, then so be it.
For those of you in keeper leagues that are NOT auction leagues, you probably have some sort of penalty and/or cap on players you can keep. The approach remains the same.
Keep players who are so amazing that you could not get them back: your Phat Alberts, Han-Rams, A-Rods or players who are undervalued. If you had drafted Aaron Hill in the 15th round of an AL-only last year, it really doesn't matter if you believe he had a career year last season or not; he's a tremendous value based on where he's ranked this year, so you keep him even if the penalty is a 14th-round pick. But say you had Maicer Izturis at the same price. Well, I say you throw him back, because you can get him -- or a similar talent -- in the 14th round, if not later.
Drafting a team -- any team -- in fantasy sports is all about getting the most value out of each slot. I'd wager that more leagues were won last season by getting Ben Zobrist in the last few rounds than were won by getting Chase Utley in the first. It's all about maximizing value.
OK, we know whom we're keeping. Or it's a start-from-scratch draft and we're raring to go. Well, before we draft, we're gonna need to do some draft prep. A lot of it. So let's get going.
Obviously, you should be reading as much as possible. I would be checking this site at least once a day. And not just the fantasy section. Buster Olney, Rob Neyer, Keith Law, Jerry Crasnick and the rest of our baseball team provide great insight. Check out baseball news in local papers and other Web sites. Twitter is an amazing resource (and you can follow me @MatthewBerryTMR if you want).
Don't just read, either. It's not all stats. Watch "SportsCenter," "Baseball Tonight" and ESPNEWS. And once the season starts, watch games. Not just highlights. Games. See how a guy gets his hits. Is he making contact and just not getting the bounces? Or is he swinging wildly and getting lucky? Those five runs the pitcher gave up? Defense's fault? Pitched great for 5½ innings but manager left him in too long? Or does he just suck? That last question should be asked about both the pitcher and the manager. You know who I'm talking about. The more info you can have, the better.
I'll let you check out other places and explore. There are millions of sites devoted to fantasy baseball, many of them good. See which you like, which you trust, which you agree with and which you don't care for.
But understand this. At the end of the day, all the advice you'll find will be speculation, some more informed than others, but in the final analysis, only you are going to "dominate your league" and "crush your competition." All of us (including me) are just making educated guesses.
Regardless, knowledge is power. The more you know about players, lineups, injuries, sleepers, coaching changes, schedules, etc., the better shape you're in. So prepare as if you're testing to get into Yale Law School, because the only thing worse than screwing up on draft day and listening to your buddies tell you you're an ass for the next six months is having to sit in front of a television and say "Come on, Yuniesky Betancourt!"
Speaking of knowledge being power ... I know this sounds stupid, but you'd be amazed at how many people make this mistake. Know your league's rules. Inside and out.
Is it one game, 10 games or 20 games for a player to be eligible at a new position? How do you acquire free agents? If you can add multiple players daily with no transaction limit, then streaming pitchers may be a good strategy option for you. But if you use FAAB and can add only one player a week, you need to have a much deeper and balanced draft.
If you don't use FAAB, are pickups on a first-come, first-served basis, or do you use priority waivers? When is your trade deadline? What are the rules there? Can you keep players beyond this season? For how long? What's that going to do to your team in the future? A keeper league with a large keeper list might encourage a few more late gambles on draft day, whereas in a league where you keep only one or two, it doesn't matter as much. You're keeping your first- or second-round pick most likely, so you can concentrate solely on this year in the draft.
Can you use the DL? Being able to throw guys on the DL without losing a roster spot means you can take more chances on high-risk, high-reward, injury-prone guys. No DL or limited bench slots mean you have to be more conservative. Every rule can make a huge difference. Read them and then read them again. And for the love of all that is pure and good, if your league doesn't have a written set of rules, write some down before you draft. Insist on your league manager making a written constitution and try to think of every possible circumstance. Tiebreakers, penalties for collusion, everything. This is supposed to be fun and nothing sucks that out quicker than angry e-mail wars over rules confusion. Save the angry e-mail wars for deciding who loves the TMR more, baby!
Paperwork will save your life ... or at least your draft
OK, now we need to roll up our sleeves. You need to prepare some paperwork before the draft to make life easier and more efficient for yourself. You'll need a few things.
First, get yourself an up-to-the-minute depth chart for every team in the NL and/or AL. Almost any baseball Web site has them, including this one. Ours are manned by Shawn Cwalinski, aka "C-Dub" for those of you who used to patrol the message boards over at the old TMR site or have used our Insider-only "Answer Guys" service. I can tell you ours are rock-solid. But whichever one you like, find the most up-to-date one you can get.
When the draft is nearing its conclusion and you're desperately searching for a starting middle infielder or a No. 5 starting pitcher, knowing who's starting -- or even who's on the right (left) side of a platoon -- will help a great deal. Trust me. As you should know, generally speaking, the more at-bats you get, the better.
I also like to have a games played-by-position sheet. You don't have to bring it to the draft -- in fact, I wouldn't; the fewer papers you have at the draft, the better -- but on your master list of players, make sure you note who qualifies where. Even if you are doing your draft/auction online (where eligible positions will be listed), knowing who qualifies at multiple positions will help you realize the proper depth of certain positions. That's why our cheat sheets list all of a player's positions and rank him at all of them, too.
Martin Prado is not only a guy I like because of his high batting average and nerdy name, but he qualifies at every infield position except shortstop. He'll be very helpful this year in deeper leagues.
Beware, a lot of magazines will list players at the position they played the most last year or list them where they are supposed to play this year, not where they qualify. Asdrubal Cabrera will be listed as a shortstop in most places, but it's helpful to know he played 28 games at second base as well. Whether you target him or not, that affects the depth of talent at second base, especially in AL-only, so you need to know. Also, most sites, including this one, will base their eligibility on 20 games played last season. Which is fine. Unless you play in a league where you need only 10 games to qualify. That's that whole "know your rules" thing again.
Breaking down the positions
In my humble opinion it should be our cheat sheet, but whatever magazine/Web site list you use for your player rankings, just bring one. And if you are drafting online, look at that site's rankings before you draft. If you don't agree with our rankings, that's fine, but when you are in the draft room on ESPN, those will be what's in front of your face. It's easy to get influenced by them, so have your cheat sheet, with your markings (or your custom draft list that you pre-ranked online, which is super easy to do) in front of you.
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The truth is, it's important not to get too hung up on specific rankings.
If one magazine has Adam Wainwright ahead of Chris Carpenter and another has them reversed, who cares? They both rock and you'd be just fine with either. What is important to do is to mark up your own list with tiers of players who are, in your estimation, of similar ability.
Say you take your list of first basemen in the NL. You've got Sir Albert in a class by himself. Then Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard and I say Pablo Sandoval are next (I'm a big Pablo guy). Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Reynolds (he qualifies there), Adam Dunn and Lance Berkman are the next tier. I've never been a huge Derrek Lee guy, but some would consider him on that list, so fine, let's throw him in there too.
After that it's the solid but unsexy gang, with guys like Adam LaRoche, Jorge Cantu, Martin Prado and Todd Helton mixed among the "is he a fluke?" Garrett Jones, "still waiting on a breakout" James Loney and "can he stay healthy because he'll qualify at first base soon?" Troy Glaus.
So one of those guys is fine for a corner infield slot, but for your big stud first baseman, you decide, "OK, I'm not settling for less than the second tier."
So during the draft or auction, you see Pujols, Howard, Fielder, Dunn, Reynolds and Votto all get bought or drafted. But instead of freaking out, you look at your little sheet and see Sandoval, Gonzalez, Lee and Berkman are still available. You'll be fine and don't need to jump in and spend too much for one of those guys.
Too many fantasy players get hung up on one particular player. And this is a huge mistake, because we're playing fantasy, not real baseball. I'm an Angels fan and I hate, hate, hate, hate the Yankees. But I'll be in there bidding on Robinson Cano with the rest of them if I need him instead of passing now and hoping to get Howie Kendrick later.
A lot of players are generally the same. Maybe this one gets a higher batting average, this one steals a bit more, but at the end of the day, there are groups of players -- as I showed above -- that do more or less the same thing. If you get one guy on that list, you're fine. It doesn't matter which one.
Extrapolate this to every position. (And I'll give my opinion on the tiers when I release my top 250.) But you need to figure out what those groups are before you draft or bid. Doing so will help you figure out where there is position scarcity and where there's surplus, where you need to go early and where you can wait a bit.
This can obviously change for those of you in keeper leagues. You need to take your master list and cross off everyone who was kept. If everyone is keeping a first baseman, then suddenly that's not nearly as abundant, you know? That's why you need to make your lists, group them, etc. If you're lazy and have your ranks by auction values, just group players based on price from your list. More than a three-buck difference and they're a different class of player. Our cheat sheets also include everyone's overall rank and that should help you figure out tiers as well; more than 20 spots (a couple of rounds) and you're talking different ballgame.
I will tell you that scarcity comes much more into play in AL- or NL-only leagues than in 10- or even 12-team mixed leagues. Every draft and auction is different and these are not hard and fast rules by any stretch. But, as a general baseline, if you are in an AL- or NL-only league and faced with a draft day dilemma, some good basic rules regarding scarcity are:
• Offense before pitching (you can always find a middle reliever who won't hurt you on the waiver wire).
• Speed before power.
• Starters before closers (and strikeout guys over control guys).
• Well-rounded guys over a one-category stud (better the 15/15 guy than the five-HR/30-steal guy)
And, of course ...
•A scarce position over a more plentiful one.
So which is scarce this season?
In the American League, I think the corners are fairly shallow. At first base, after Big Tex and Miggy, you've got questions. Is Justin Morneau healthy? Was Kendry Morales a one-year wonder? Will Carlos Pena kill your batting average? Wouldn't you rather see Kevin Youkilis at third base and Victor Martinez at catcher?
I like Kendry and I'm on the Billy Butler bandwagon, but still. Glance at the AL-only third baseman list and it gets ugly quick, especially when you have to play a corner guy, too.
A-Rod and Evan Longoria are studs, as is Youk, who we will throw in here. I like Gordon Beckham a lot later in a draft and, while you prefer power from the corners, you'd be fine with Chone Figgins. But then?
I actually like Adrian Beltre as a sleeper on a one-year deal in Fenway and someone will take Michael Young (not me, I don't believe) but both are question marks and after that? Dude. Gets even uglier. I'd rather pay an extra buck or two and get a stud at these positions in the AL rather than desperately looking to see if Willie Bloomquist has corner eligibility late in the auction (he doesn't, by the way, and if you were to find that revelation devastating, then you'd be in more trouble than he could have helped you out of anyway).
Catchers are decent enough in the AL, I like the depth at second base and shortstop isn't horrible this year.But over in the NL, however, it's the opposite. Catchers consist basically of Brian McCann and a bunch of question marks. Can Geovany Soto and Russell Martin bounce back? Does Bengie Molina keep his gig all year? When does Buster Posey get to the bigs? Will Yadier Molina ever be more than just batting average? Can Ryan Doumit bounce back and stay healthy? Does Miguel Montero keep growing? And so on.
I like the NL depth at first base, shortstop and, all things considered, third base is much better there than in the AL.
But at second base, you've got Chase Utley, Brandon Phillips and ... well, Martin Prado's looking a lot better now, isn't he? I actually like Placido Polanco back in Philly, most likely hitting in front of Utley and Howard, and Ian Stewart qualifies at second (beware, like with Dan Uggla, there's a price for that power) ... but after that?
You're down to hoping for Rickie Weeks to finally put it all together for a full year or realizing Akinori Iwamura is now in Pittsburgh, which, as of press time, still fielded a team in the Major Leagues.
Anyway, the point is ... in any league, especially an AL- or NL-only league, you're gonna have to go at least 50 deep in outfield. And it gets shaky quicker than you think. Much quicker.
Overall, I like the starting pitching depth in the NL more than in the AL, where there are going to be a lot of high-risk, high-reward guys who go late and have high upside: Erik Bedard, Francisco Liriano, Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ben Sheets, Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, etc. etc. There's a case to be made for grabbing one stud starter to anchor your staff and then grabbing a bunch of these types of guys hoping that two of them pan out.
But we'll deal with starting pitching in a bit. Because now it's time for my mantra.
NEVER. PAY. FOR. SAVES.*
I've written this a million times and repeated it until I was blue in the face. Been saying it for a decade now, and I've seen a lot of other folks say it as well.
Never pay for saves.
It's a volatile position; there's a ton of turnover; it's only one category. Assuming you play in a league with people who know what they're doing, you won't be able to leave the draft table with the ideal team. You want to maximize value there and then pick up pieces during the season.
Certain statistics come into the leagues; certain ones do not. Saves is the category with the most waiver-wire depth. Look at this list of players who did not start last season as their team's closer or were on very shaky ground, then notice the saves they wound up with. I make a list like this every year, and every year at least 10 names are on it.
Ryan Franklin (38)
David Aardsma (38)
Fernando Rodney (37)
Huston Street (35)
Rafael Soriano (27)
Leo Nunez (27)
Andrew Bailey (26)
Kevin Gregg (23)
George Sherrill (21)
Mike MacDougal (20)
J.P. Howell (17)
Carlos Marmol (15)
C.J. Wilson (14)
LaTroy Hawkins (11)
Jason Frasor (11)
Ryan Madson (10)
Jim Johnson (10)
Scott Downs (9)
Juan Gutierrez (9)
Now, not paying for saves doesn't mean you shouldn't pay for them at all. You know your league best, and if it's one with deep rosters and an active waiver wire, you might not be able to grab the next Andrew Bailey.
But that doesn't mean you break the bank or use a high draft pick on a guy like Jonathan Papelbon (38 saves, same as Aardsma, Franklin and Brian Wilson). It means you use a late (17th- to 20th-round) pick instead of an earlier pick (say, 10th- to 12th-round). It means you pay in the very low double digits instead of the low 20s.
The argument against finding cheap closers is that you can spend the money and get a sure thing, so you don't constantly have to scrape. Fine, I say. Just tell me who the sure things are. Because the people who spent big money on B.J. Ryan and Brad Lidge (a 7.21 ERA!) last year would like to speak with you.
The other argument is that the elite guys will post great WHIPs and ERAs. And this is true, they will be better in these categories than the Brian Fuenteses of the world. But closers tend to pitch in the neighborhood of only 65 innings or so. That's too few innings to affect your ERA or WHIP in a significant way.
In mixed leagues, it's almost ridiculous how many saves will be plucked from the waiver wire or in the draft's endgame. That said, if you are playing in an AL- or NL-only league, you actually have to pay for saves.
Yeah, you heard me. That's what the asterisk is for. In those leagues, the replacement-player pool is much shallower, and it's much harder to acquire saves during the season because the better middle relievers are already owned, and they're the ones likely to get save opportunities if something happens to the incumbent closer. It's not impossible, mind you, but it is much harder.
In leagues like that, I'll pay for saves, just not a lot. I'll spend $10 to $15 on a low-end closer who definitely has the gig. I'll make sure I have at least one guy and then plan on scouring the waiver wire throughout the year.
I already told you that you should bring only one cheat sheet to your draft, and it needs to be tiered and have positional eligibility clearly defined. That'll be your go-to reference document for deciding which player to take among those still available.
But what about the players who already have been taken? Knowing who is off the board and which team he went to is as important as knowing whom to set your sights on. To that end, I prepare a sheet that has a place for every position for every team in the league. (Online draft software will do this for you.) During the draft, I keep track of every player drafted by every team. If it's a salary-cap league, I also have a place to see how much money the others have left. Those of you with laptops can set up a spreadsheet to do all this for you. If it's a keeper league with a salary cap, it's especially useful to get a lay of the land: how much money everyone has left for how many positions to fill.
I cannot stress how important this is. As the draft progresses, you're going to want to be able to know whom everyone has, what positions they have filled and what they still need.
For example, say Team 1 takes Albert Pujols. You write down "Pujols" in Team 1's first-base slot. This way you can see at a glance what you need in comparison to every other team. Say it's Round 12 and you need a shortstop. But there's a corner guy you really like (we'll say Gordon Beckham) you want to grab as well. You look at your sheet, see almost everyone has a shortstop and, according to your cheat sheet, Alexei Ramirez, Stephen Drew and Jason Bartlett -- all of whom are tiered together -- are still out there.
So you should be OK for your next turn; you don't need to burn the pick here. Conversely, the three teams picking after you all need third-base or corner guys, so you'd better grab Beckham now, else you'll never get him.
This sheet will save your draft more than once toward the end, and that's when leagues are won and lost. Not in the first few rounds. It doesn't take a genius to say "I'll take Albert" in the first round. Grabbing Pablo Sandoval in the 23rd round when three others had their sights set on him? That could have won you your league, baby.
Trust me, just because you know whom you want right now, it doesn't mean you'll remember it when your brain is fried. It takes a few seconds to write a few names down, but the fruits of that labor can savored all summer long.
And now we pause for something really nerdy
If you are in a keeper league with a salary cap, I suggest doing inflation calculation. What the hell's that, you ask? Well, basically, keeper leagues always have guys who are kept well below their value.
I'm proud to have Justin Upton for $5 in my NL keeper league. As a result, the prices of available players will go up in the auction because there is relatively less talent available but more money to spend. Now, just Upton himself won't move the needle too much. But with a couple of guys multiplied by the number of teams in your league, you'll have some figuring to do before you actually know what kind of money is chasing how many players in your league.
So you look at your handy ESPN 5x5 NL-only cheat sheet, and you see we list Hanley Ramirez at $34. But that's only at a start-from-scratch auction. You'll be a better judge of what to pay for Ramirez if you spend a little time calculating draft inflation.
I cannot take credit for the formula, which you probably remember from high school math, and this has been written about elsewhere, but -- here's how you do it.
Let's say it's a standard 10-team league with 25-man rosters and a $260 cap. That means there is a total budget of $2,600 (10 x $260) of available money to spend in your league. Now, you add up how much each team has spent on keepers. For simplicity's sake, let's say each team has kept 10 players at $10 apiece. So each team spent a total of $100, for a total spent of $1,000 (10 x $100).
OK, here's where we get even nerdier. Take whatever price list you have decided to use and calculate how much "value" is being protected. For example, my Justin Upton is projected to earn $23 this year. So although I have him at a $5 price, his value is $23.
So you add up all the total value on the teams. Again, for simplicity's sake, let's say every team is protecting $160 worth of value. The value protected is $1,600 (10 x 160), but the total spent is only $1,000.
Subtract both numbers from $2,600 (the total budget);
• $2,600 minus $1,600 (value protected) = $1,000 of value left.
• $2,600 minus $1,000 (total spent) = $1,600 of money left.
This means at the auction, $1,600 of money is chasing only $1,000 of value. So you now divide money left by value left; $1,600/$1,000 = 1.6. This is your draft inflation rate. This means that at the beginning of the auction, you can spend $1.60 on every $1 of value and still break even. So let's say Ramirez comes up for auction in your NL-only league. And your trusty ESPN draft kit has him listed at $34. You quickly multiply $34 by 1.6 to come up with $54. That's his value in this league at this point in time.
The bidding gets to $40, and your competition, who all have him as a $34-38 player, drop out. That's six bucks more than he's worth, people say. But you know that's actually a bargain for HanRam. You're saving $14!
Inflation calculation is a bit time-consuming and can be a little confusing, but if you want those money lists to help you, you need to do this. Every dollar counts! And where it really helps is with the superstars. The prices get so ridiculous that many folks drop out and they end up becoming the biggest bargains, because sooner or later the league's values will even out unless a bunch of guys leave money at the table. So you just have to ask yourself, would you rather spend those extra five bucks to get Ramirez or Ronnie Belliard?
You've done your research; you've got your cheat sheet; your numbers and rankings all add up. You're ready, right? Not so fast, cowboy. You should have a plan before you step into the draft, knowing what kind of players you're looking to target, when and for how much. We can't devote tons of space to each one, but here's a quick rundown of a couple of the more popular strategies.
The LIMA plan: Invented by Baseball HQ guru Ron Shandler, LIMA stands for "Low Investment Mound Aces." Basically, with a $260 salary cap, you spend only $60 on pitching, $30 of that on a closer. The idea is to get a bunch of pitchers whom your competition frowns upon but whose underlying numbers indicate that they've been unlucky to this point, are primed for a breakout or are simply undervalued because they have no name recognition. If you get enough of those guys, at least a few of them are bound to break out, and your investment is low enough that you won't have to think twice about throwing back a guy who doesn't work out in favor of a good waiver-wire pickup.
Then, with $200 for offense, you load up there, dominating all the offensive categories. You have to really know pitching and pay close attention to the trends all season long, but it has proved very effective to those who know how to play it.
The ZIMA plan: This is my twist on Ron's LIMA plan. Basically, it's the same thing; spend most of your money on offense, then fill in some cheap, low-risk pitching, mixing in starters and high-upside relievers (guys who could close). The difference is that in my version, you spend $30 of the $60 on one upper-tier elite starter (such as Roy Halladay) or two upper-level starting pitchers -- (say, Ricky Nolasco and Cliff Lee) for about that $30-35 and don't pay for saves at all, looking to snag those off the wire later and hoping one or two of your high-upside relief guys turns into a closer.
The MRI theory: This is colleague Pierre Becquey's invention, and I've used it very successfully in various leagues. The idea here is that you get two high-strikeout aces for your staff (last season, in an NL-only league, I had Tim Lincecum and Chris Carpenter), then you spend the rest of your money on middle-relief guys. All need to have high strikeout rates and preferably have the potential to close, like Huston Street last season. (I always add one twist here: I'll be willing to go to low double digits if a decent middle-of-the-pack closer is available; think Brian Wilson or Ryan Franklin.) You're going to dominate in ERA and WHIP thanks to the mix of your aces and the fact that your middle relievers' ERA and WHIP will be a lot more valuable to your squad because you're pitching so few innings.
That allows you to Maximize your Relief Innings, hence "MRI." Once you've laid out your ERA/WHIP cushion, you can go fishing for starters later in the season to pad your wins and strikeouts (where you'll be in the middle of the pack, thanks to your high strikeout-per-nine-innings rates) while knowing exactly what kind of punishment your ratios can take.
Positional scarcity: This is where you go after players who play positions at which there is not a lot of talent. The idea is that there is a much bigger difference between Brandon Phillips and Luis Castillo than between Matt Holliday and Alex Rios. Almost every first baseman and outfielder is an offensive guy, while there are many catchers and shortstops who have major league jobs thanks to their defense but do nothing for your roto team.
So you go after Joe Mauer or David Wright (remembering that third base is pretty scarce this season), letting others fight over Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard. I am a position-scarcity guy as well and usually will use the money I'm saving for offense by using LIMA to pay a premium for players at scarce positions. And even this season, in which I believe outfield is shallower than years past, it'll be easier to find an in-season outfielder who will come out of nowhere than to find a shortstop or catcher that way. But even more than position scarcity, I am into ...
... Category scarcity: This one is my invention. (At least I've never read about it anywhere else. I am sure someone else has thought of it.) I actually do a combo of this and ZIMA. I don't care so much about positions as I do categories. Not as many guys get steals, saves and strikeouts as other categories. So I go for those guys. I try to protect batting average, ERA and WHIP at all costs.
I go for a balanced team; don't get me wrong. But I want to make sure I'm covered in the categories that are hard to get after the draft, regardless of whether my speed comes from the outfield, the infield or catcher. Note that last season, 99 players had at least 10 steals, and 46 had at least 20. Mostly, I just make sure that every offensive player I draft (save for catcher and one bopper or two) can steal at least 10 bases. If every player is well-rounded, you have much less chasing to do during the season. And these days, it's much easier to find those well-rounded guys.
Modified Labadini: The Labadini Plan, as it is known, is named after Larry Labadini, who first tried it in a national competition in 1996. (I'm telling you, it's all old-school this year!) Of his $260 budget, he spent $251 of it on offense and just $9 (or $1 per player) on pitching. This is extreme, obviously, but I do believe you can do a modified version of this, especially in our standard 10-team mixed leagues. The idea is that you way undervalue pitching and spend, say, $30 to $40 of your $260 on pitching. (Or don't take a starter until at least Round 12.) That's because in a mixed league with only 10 or 12 teams, there will be lots of quality starting pitching both late (and cheap) in the draft and available during the season on the waiver wire.
If you do this, you must nail offense and be the kind of person who works the waiver wire very well. But considering I already feel you don't need to pay for saves, this definitely can work. A subset version of this is ...
... Streaming pitchers: Again, the idea is that you have both a fairly large free-agent pool and the ability to change your roster daily. Or at least add multiple people every week. This works best in head-to-head formats, but the idea here is that you just play the matchups every day, grabbing junk pitchers who have favorable matchups off the waiver wire. You have a constant turnover of pitchers, as every day you go with whoever has the best matchup. This really works only in mixed leagues and leagues that do not have transactional limits.
High-risk, high-reward pitching: I suppose this could work with offense as well, but as I mentioned before, this year especially I feel there are a bunch of high-risk, high-reward pitchers. Guys who previously have performed at a very high level but for whatever reason (injury, poor performance last season, etc.) will be going cheap or later in drafts this year than they normally do. Some of these guys (Erik Bedard, Aaron Harang, Cole Hamels, Ben Sheets, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Francisco Liriano, Joba Chamberlain, David Price, Roy Oswalt, Scott Kazmir, Justin Duchscherer, John Maine, Jake Peavy, Derek Lowe among them) will pan out. Now, I'm not saying I like all of these guys (you'll have to read "Love/Hate," coming soon, to see which ones I do like), but the point remains. More than any year in recent memory, if you're the gambling type, this is your year to wait, wait, wait on pitching and then go all upside.
Best player available: At your time in the draft or auction, you just go for the best guy available and let the positions fall where they may. In an auction, you just wait until a bargain comes up and grab it, no matter what your team looks like. It's a much more basic, carefree approach, assuming that by doing this, at the end of everything, you will have a good, balanced team.
By the way, never get in an early bidding war if you can help it. Another guy will come along. Second, be cautious when drafting rookies and young players. For every Pablo Sandoval who comes through, there are a lot more Matt Wieters types who will take longer to develop. Dependable ain't sexy, but it does help you win.
Regardless of which plan you choose (and there are a lot of others not on this list), have one. And be ready to chuck it, or at least bend it, if the draft doesn't go the way you hoped. And it often won't. You must be patient and stay focused, but if you stick to your guns when you shouldn't, you'll end up shooting yourself in the foot. It's a "know the rules before you break them" kind of thing.
OK, it's game day, baby. Time for the big show. Don't bother cramming on the way in or anything stupid like that. It's like a test. You know it or you don't. You're pregnant or you're not. You tell her "No, of course that dress doesn't make your butt look fat," or you sleep on the couch.
You want to project an air of confidence -- even if you don't feel it. Make others sweat, be it in person or through chatter in your draft engine. That's my first draft day hint.
1. Never show fear. Just be confident. You don't have to be cocky or a jerk. But occasionally sighing a breath of relief when the guy before you picks as if to say, "Glad you didn't grab the correct guy," will do wonders to rattle your weaker-willed leaguemates.
2. In auctions, throw out a young, hyped player early. Reliable performers like Roy Halladay and David Wright will be thrown out soon enough. But the first guy I'm throwing out this year is Stephen Strasburg. He'll go for at least $5 more than he should because he's sexy and everyone has money at that point. That extra $5 off the table will be helpful much later in the auction.
3. If you find yourself getting run out of a position, don't panic! Say you've got Pick 11 in a 12-team league and find yourself on the short end of a second-base run. Instead of reaching for a guy like Clint Barmes just to have someone, grab another closer, even if you already have two. Or a second decent shortstop. Give yourself something to trade for what you need.
4. If you are in a snake draft, especially at one end of one, grab what you need when you can. Let's say you really want a good No. 1 first baseman. You see there are at least six guys left whom you wouldn't mind having. So you grab another starting pitcher. But one good run, and you're left holding the bag. It's 20 picks until you get to choose again, if not more. Don't wait. Grab what you need, get surplus later (unless you're in a situation like I described above).
5. Don't listen to anyone else during the draft! (Basically, don't fall for No. 1.) First -- and this is the secret we fantasy "experts" hold tightly to our chests -- nobody knows anything! That's a quote from William Goldman about Hollywood, but it's appropriate here as well. Yes, we "experts" probably spend a lot more time looking at stats, trends, players and teams and the like than you do, but that's because you have a life. And we've probably been playing a bit longer. So we probably have a more informed opinion. But that's all it is. An opinion. An educated guess. Emphasis on the word "guess."
So if I'm telling you that "experts" (and notice I put the word in quotes, just like you all do in Conversation) aren't always right ... other people in your league sure as hell aren't. If they mock your pick or sneer at your team, who cares? Screw them. Don't let it rattle you! I often find the loudest guy at the draft is usually the stupidest. I've seen too many good drafts screwed up because someone listened to some loud jerk rather than trusting his own opinions. Listen, you've done the research, you've played the game ... you've even read this far. You're into it. And your opinion is as good as, if not better than, anyone else's in that room.
6. For those in auction leagues, especially keepers, consider bringing last season's rosters with you. Say someone throws Miguel Cabrera, you look at last year's roster and see one guy had him at $36. It's likely that the guy who owned him last year will go up to $36 to get him back. How many times have you said to yourself, "Aw, hell, I'll throw him back, see if I can get him cheaper. If not, I can still pay $36 to get him back."
So you bid the guy up to $36. It's not a strategy for the weak of heart; you can get stuck. But worst-case scenario, you're stuck with Miguel Cabrera. Not the worst thing in the world. And if you're successful, you can take a lot of money off the table a little bit at a time.
7. For the players you do get, write down the name of the last guy who bid on him or the ones who complained that you snatched him up right out of their draft queue. That will come in handy later when you're looking for trade partners.
8. The later the draft or auction goes -- and it will go long -- the more people get antsy and stop paying attention. This is when you need to be your sharpest. This is when the cheap guys come in. This is when you get the $1 Aaron Hill. This is when you win or lose your league. Not by paying $45 for Chase Utley.
9. Always look for bargains. No duh, right? Yes, but look everywhere. To me, Hanley Ramirez at $43 is a bargain in a keeper league. Because in a keeper, I think he's worth $57 this season. Many times, the best bargains are the superstars. Whatever you had to pay for Tim Lincecum last year, he more than earned it.
10. I have participated in a number of "expert" drafts for all sports with some "big" names in fantasy sports. And in every draft, someone goes out of turn, tries to get a player already taken, makes some very questionable picks ... so if I'm telling you that guys who do this for a living make mistakes, go easy on your draftmates.
Have fun. Remember, we do this for leisure. We all (especially I) take it very seriously, and I play to win, but it's not worth ruining friendships over.
Unless you've got a shot at winning. In which case, you can always get a new friend.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- likes to think of the Manifesto as the "Cher" of fantasy articles. Some parts of it are newer than others. He is also the creator of RotoPass.com, a Web site that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. Cyberstalk the TMR | Be his Cyberfriend
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