"A strategy works best when it works alone."
The first time I participated in Tout Wars, the famed experts league, years ago, veteran participant John Coleman uttered those words, and they have stuck with me since. A simple yet powerful concept.
If you're trying to find something different for draft day to maybe throw a knuckleball by your fellow owners, here are some strategies that can be used regardless of your draft format.
High Risk, High Reward
Second place is the first loser. If you're the kind of player who would rather have a sequence of year-end finishes of 11th, first and 11th, as opposed to second, second and second, this might be the strategy for you.
Load up your team with two categories of players: 1) proven players coming off of down seasons; and 2) injury-prone players, or guys coming back from a major health issue this past season. These players will be available at discounted prices, and the overall potential of your team likely will be the highest in your league.
In his book "Mad As Hell," Mike Lupica relates a story about reporter Dick Schaap going to interview Tony Phillips in the late '80s, when Phillips was a part of the A's infield. Phillips was coming off of a bad season but had turned it around. He chastised Schaap, saying, "You're like the rest of the front-runners, coming around now that I'm doing good." To which Schaap responded, "You wanted me to come around when you were hitting .203?"
The lesson: Don't be like Dick Schaap. It can pay off if you are the first guy to jump on the bandwagon when the player has just hit .203 (or .240 if it's Paul Konerko). While everyone that got burned by Justin Verlander this past year stays away, I'll be ready to scoop him up.
It's boom or bust, if the luck goes your way, you could have an unstoppable team -- or you could finish firmly rooted in the basement. Grab Konerko, Travis Hafner, and Aaron Harang at bargain prices, stock up on aspirin, and roll the dice.
Going for broke? Yep. Incredibly risky? Absolutely. But as my friend Joe Sheehan says: "Flags fly forever."
Dumping a Category
How about players like Takashi Saito and Manny Corpas? They led the customary list of pitchers who were closers at the start of the 2008 season and didn't finish with the job, a list which is always in double-digits. Some may see that as even more of a reason to invest in the top tier of closers, but that's just not getting you an optimal return on your investment.
Matthew Berry always makes it a point in his Draft Day Manifesto to point out the saves that came from players who were not their team's closer to start the season. By my count, 13 players who were not the stopper at the beginning of the season registered at least nine saves. It's like that every year. Rather than going after the top closers, that's a reason to not chase them on draft day. You can get them later.
I won a LABR title by dumping saves. It wasn't planned, but when you have a highly competitive league in which the spread among teams is thin, it's possible. I did try to acquire saves during the season, but it was cost-prohibitive, so I focused my attention on the other categories.
On the flip side, I also have won a Tout Wars title while ignoring saves on draft day and trading for them later. I ended up picking up four points in the category rather than zero, which wound up being enough. Strengthen your offense or starting pitching instead of going after saves. Then see which closers appear healthy and stable during the season and use your excess in other areas to acquire one. I would argue that is a less risky way to proceed than investing a lot in them on draft day.
Am I saying saves aren't important? No. What I am saying is chasing them at the draft table isn't necessarily the most efficient use of your resources.
Saves is not the only category you can forsake at the draft table. Don't be concerned with batting average, and load up with players like Adam Dunn and Jack Cust. You're not going to win a title without being competitive in the power categories, but why pay full price? Get your pop on the cheap. The bonus is sometimes you luck into a decent batting average with a few players from whom you were least expecting it, and you wind up not dumping the category despite your best efforts. Put another way: Don't pay for batting average. Pay for a player's contributions in other categories and take batting average out of the equation entirely. This might be even more effective than forgetting about saves. You could even use a combination of the two.
In an ideal draft, don't dump anything. But if the going rate for certain production is out of your comfort zone, don't chase, and look for opportunities elsewhere.
All Younger Players
In this one, you'll want to build up a combination of rookies and almost-rookies about to emerge, such as Travis Snider, Chris Davis, David Price and Max Scherzer, with already-established players who still have upside, like Adam Jones, Stephen Drew, Lastings Milledge and Jon Lester. You even throw in some guys who haven't lived up to the hype yet, like Alex Gordon and Howie Kendrick, and then fill out your roster with sleeper players like Brandon Morrow, Brett Gardner and Ubaldo Jimenez.
The obvious downside of this strategy is that for every Joba Chamberlain, there are half a dozen players like Clay Buchholz, who don't produce out of the gate. It is also the nature of the fantasy player to overvalue the potential of a promising rookie or second-year player, and some of these players may be more expensive to acquire than you were planning on. But the premise is to bank on catching enough breakout years for a relatively cheap price to be competitive.
The Low-Risk Strategy
With this method, you are looking for stable, reliable production. Rookies and players coming off significant injuries need not apply. Solid veterans are what you want to fill your roster.
In some cases you will have to pay for every bit of that reliability, meaning your chances of getting bargains are less.
Is this a boring strategy? Certainly, in the sense that there are no hot "potential breakout" players involved. However, it can be a successful -- and less stressful -- one. When in doubt, clobber them with consistency.
Shadow the Winner
If you are in a league that has been around for more than one year, one strategy is to emulate what has been previously successful. How did this past year's winner construct his team on draft day? What was the composition of his final roster? What categories did he do the best in? How did he accomplish that? Is there a guy that always seems to be battling for the title every year? What makes him successful? You can learn a lot by studying the rosters and standings of the previous season.
Bonus tip: In an auction setting, bid up the defending champ on every player he's bidding on. You run the risk that he will catch on and start bidding on players he has no interest in to counteract you, but at the very least you might be able to annoy him and throw him off his game a bit.
Most fantasy owners are more concerned with their offense, so if we're going by the idea of trying to use a strategy that works alone, how about being the guy who goes after all the best pitching?
I have seen a league in which an owner drafted nothing but the best pitchers and outfielders over the first 10 rounds and wound up winning it all. The next season, he did it again, with the same result. Some people might not have the stomach for this because you never know when you'll hear the words "Sabathia" and "MRI" in the same sentence, but if you're feeling bold -- and a little lucky -- there's no reason it can't work.
These are all strategies that could be helpful in deciding how you want to approach your draft, but the overriding rule about any strategy is to be flexible. The dynamics of each draft are different. If particular players are presenting buying opportunities, don't be afraid to change course to take advantage of the value that is available.
Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.