'Experts league' has its share of drafting mistakes, regrets

The Baltimore Sun

Your friendly neighborhood columnist dived headlong into his fantasy season Sunday with a six-hour auction during the day and a mixed-league draft at night.

As is often the case in this foolish pursuit, my best-laid plans became obsolete about an hour after I called out the first bid. So this recap shall serve as a bit of a cautionary tale. But before I explain, let me set up the day.

You may remember about five weeks ago, I offered to set up a league for fantasy hard-cores. Well, it came together, and we all met and went through an 11-team, American League auction last weekend.

I've never started a league from scratch with guys I didn't know, and the vibe was interesting -- friendly but wary. Without a single casual player in the room, there were none of the usual follies. No stupid buys on injured players. No frenzied bidding wars between two beer-fueled owners. Whenever we took a five-minute bathroom break, heads remained buried in draft prep materials.

That's not to say it was grim. Two of our older owners are partners, and they've christened their team the Grumpy Old Men. So they showed up with matching hats, one of which said "Grumpy Walt" and the other "Grumpy Jim." I liked that.

Eventually, the friendly taunts that are such a part of fantasy drafting began to flow more freely.

As commissioner, I threw out the first nomination, Vladimir Guerrero. I figured I'd start with a frontline star to get a sense of how much guys would pay for top talent. I also figured I might snag Vladdy at a bargain rate if my peers started a bit timidly. Well, they didn't.

Guerrero went for $36, a bit higher than the price you'd see in most draft guides, but nothing crazy. That set the tone for our day, as even the biggest bats and hottest rookies went for reasonable prices. It was almost like being in one of those national experts leagues, where everyone shares a similar sense of each player's value.

I'm not used to this. Inflation plays heavily in my other keeper leagues, so I'm used to seeing stars go for 50 percent above book value. As a result, I couldn't turn away when Roy Halladay, the No. 2 starter on my board, and Joe Nathan, the No. 1 closer, were available at $28 each.

Even now, I think those were fine buys, but the problem was my strategy hinged on buying three to four mid-range starters and a discount closer. I've found that in almost any auction, the middle- to upper-middle-class pitchers prove the best bargains. I figured that if I could just be patient, they'd fall to me. And they would have.

I got Felix Hernandez for $20, which was great because I think he could become the league's second best starter this year. But my pitching budget was tapped at that point, so I had to pass on guys like John Lackey, Jeremy Bonderman and Dan Haren at $17 each or C.C. Sabathia at $19 or A.J. Burnett at $13. I think I'd have been better off with three from that group and a cheaper closer. Oh well.

I wasn't alone. Grumpy Walt and Grumpy Jim said they had hoped to snare two cheap closers. Their first two buys of the draft? B.J. Ryan at $26 and J.J. Putz at $22. Yep, this game confounds even the wisest among us.

Anyway, I always like to stay among the upper third of owners in available money at any point in the draft. I don't want to have the most because that probably means I've passed on some good buys. But I don't want to have the least because having to pass on mid-draft bargains stinks. I showed little of the desired patience Sunday.

I jumped early on Carlos Guillen, whose tremendous batting average and solid power make him the most overlooked star shortstop in baseball. Then, I just had to have Nick Markakis, who really showed me something by overcoming last year's early struggles without ever having to return to the minors.

And I felt I needed an elite power hitter, meaning Guerrero, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Travis Hafner or Mark Teixeira. That led me to go $37 on Hafner, who's the best hitter in the American League but doesn't run and is only eligible at designated hitter.

Again, none of these strike me as bad buys individually, but I lost track of the big picture and left myself without much flexibility. That meant I ended up with four middle relievers (all of whom I like), a catcher who hardly plays in Vance Wilson and one more reserve than I wanted in the outfield (though Elijah Dukes could be a steal at $1 if he can maintain his sanity.)

I hate feeling out of control, and that's exactly what happened Sunday.

I guess I did fine. When I ran some post-draft projections, my team looked like a contender. I thrived in the reserve auction, where we got a fresh budget to bid on prospects and leftovers. It's like dessert compared to the closing moments of the regular auction, which are more like forcing down your mom's brussels sprouts.

I rostered Yankees uber-prospect Philip Hughes, who could wipe away my starter shortage if called up early, and Blue Jays outfielder Adam Lind, who could give my offense a boost should Frank Thomas turn brittle again.

I'm proud of the league overall. As treasurer Jayson Hill said in an e-mail, "I know we use the term 'expert league' very loosely, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more even distribution of talent than we have."

As any fantasy veteran knows, however, it's hard to leave an auction without regrets.


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