We are entering the best three weeks of the sporting year.
And as readers of this column know, that's not just because college basketball will appear on thousands of office televisions around the land today - though that is pretty great. Let's make it a national rest period, like the Italians take in late summer.
Anyway, as I was saying, it's also fantasy baseball draft season. And let's admit it - draft day is the pinnacle for our consensual illusion. It's the time when we gather with friends we may not see for the rest of the year and attempt to humiliate them with baseball knowledge (and heaps of cruel, base humor.) It's the time when all the theorizing committed in this space and others is put to the test of an actual market. It's the time when we suck down chips and swill soda as if we were still in college.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I like doing it about as much as anything in this absurd existence. My first auction remains 10 days off, but during work or a chat with my wife, I'll find myself thinking, "So, the American League catcher pool ... is it essential that I buy two of the top 15 or can I just let one of those spots go?"
Since it's the season, here's a quick refresher on auction strategy (drafts are easier because you basically pick the best player available for the first five rounds and then start filling holes at the thinnest positions.)
The most important theme for an auction is: Never lose sight of the big picture. Many fantasy players spend February and March memorizing the fantasy prices generated by preview guides and Web sites. After a while, it seems self-evident that say, Carlos Lee is a $27 player or Erik Bedard doesn't provide good value past $16. Thus, many players will feel good on draft day if they land Lee for $24 and Bedard for $14. But they'll beat themselves up if they pay $31 for Lee and $19 for Bedard.
Here's the thing. You don't win fantasy leagues by accruing the most draft-day bargains. You win by generating points in each statistical category. It sounds simple, but it's easy to forget. You can leave the auction with 14 bargains for your offense, but if they all generate value through batting average and speed, you're not going to have enough points in home runs or RBIs.
Avoiding that is also simple. Set statistical goals for each category and then, using projections from your favorite source, try to meet them by the end of the draft. When looking for goals, I usually pick the totals that finished third in a category in the same fantasy league last year.
These parameters will be a godsend when you face tough choices. For example, if you have only three offensive spots left and you're 40 short of your home run goal, you may want to pass on the next speedy infielder, even if he's available at a bargain.
I also tend to enter with goals for each position. I might decide that I can afford $15 total for my two catcher spots and that I want a major league starter in each of those holes. That means I won't be able to bid on the top players at the position, but I'll make a list of seven or eight catchers who should sell between $6 and $10 each. I'll then make sure to buy from that list. I set more specific goals for the more talent-rich positions. I might decide that first base will be my chief power source and make a list of three or four targets based on that notion. Or I might conclude that because third base is especially deep, I'll avoid bidding wars on Alex Rodriguez or David Wright.
With deeper positions, such as outfield and pitching, I often let the big-ticket players go and fill in with mid-priced talent later in the auction. You don't need rigid goals for those spots because there's usually another decent solution right around the corner.
Actually, don't be too rigid about these mini-plans, especially not early in the auction. If Wright falls into your lap at $3 under your projected price, take him and skimp slightly on first base or outfield spots. Never avoid bidding on a premium player simply because you don't expect to get him. My teams usually include at least one significant, unanticipated buy.
Auctions present a complex web of player pools, and you have to keep all of them in mind. You have to know when only one quality second baseman remains, but you also need to know when there are only two players left who could steal 20 bases.
That's the macro stuff. Here are a few micro-tactics I like:
If you're in a league where the stars go for big money, buy the first player nominated because your fellow owners are probably feeling the most cautious they will for a few hours.
If the stars are selling hot and heavy early in the auction, toss out a middle reliever you like and see if you can slide him through for $1.
If the penultimate elite pitcher has just been purchased and it's your nomination, throw out the last ace. Some pitching-starved soul will pay a fortune for him, and that's money you won't have to compete with later in the auction. The same scenario can apply for the last stars at any position.
That's about all the counsel I have for now. Happy drafting!
Read a blog on fantasy sports at www.baltimoresun.com/fantasy.