Money watch

Every time I think I have this fantasy thing figured out, it smacks me upside the head.

Take my auction a week ago for the American League keeper league I started with readers last season. With stars such as Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz locked up, I was pretty sure that National League transplant Miguel Cabrera was the best player available - by a lot.


As the winner of the inaugural campaign (I'll always have that one, guys), I had the right to nominate the first player for auction. So I tossed out Cabrera, knowing I wanted him and figuring that bidding might be a little sluggish, as it often is out of the gate. I would have been happy to pay $45, maybe even $50, to get a sure thing.

Problem was, another owner, Chuck Sardelis, felt the same burning need. I'm sure he blanched when I bid $49, just as I did when he bid $50. Somehow, the numbers kept climbing. Once you're willing to go a little crazy for a player, why not go a lot crazy?


I finally won this game of brinksmanship at $57, or $20 more than anyone would pay for another player the whole night. Seemingly stunned by my big buy, fellow owners tightened their purse strings. For the next few rounds, name players went at or below the values seen in many preseason guides. And I didn't have the budget to get in on these solid buys.

By the middle of the auction, there was way too much money left for the quality of players remaining. And that leads to what, kids? Inflation.

In most keeper leagues in which I've played, inflation is highest on stars. A guy such as Cabrera might go $20 over book value, but the middle-tier regulars go for sane prices. This auction produced the opposite effect. With so many stars off the table at reasonable costs, we were forced into bidding wars for guys such as Milton Bradley, Yuniesky Betancourt and Franklin Gutierrez. I mean, David Eckstein went for $20, or $9 more than Gary Sheffield. Shaun Marcum went for $14, just $4 less than Roy Halladay.

I had to pay $16 for Carlos Quentin, $12 for Jacque Jones and $7 for Tony Pena Jr. Those are the types of buys that make a man feel dirty.

It was one of the wackiest auction dynamics I've seen, and I have to admit I didn't see the pattern until it was too late to take advantage. I punted the saves category without really meaning to and ended up with shabby catchers and a thin outfield. I bought a top-heavy squad that will need huge seasons from Cabrera, Paul Konerko, Nick Markakis and B.J. Upton to have a shot at another title.

I also couldn't help but notice that my league mates were out for blood after I won by 19 points last year. Every time I bid on a player, his price seemed to skyrocket. One owner, Jim Daly, even turned his backside on me and mockingly told me to kiss it after he forced me to bid $35 on Konerko. (I love his petty spirit, by the way.)

That's why auctions are more fun than drafts. You have no idea what might happen.

I turned in a much more controlled performance in my NL auction Saturday. I entered with a strong, relatively cheap core led by Matt Holliday and Hanley Ramirez. Really, all I had to do was protect my position.


But that can be hard in 40 Acres, a 16-year-old league that loves to pay for offense like no other. Six players went for $60 or more. But I expected that and knew I would only pay such a price for two guys - David Wright and Chase Utley. I took a New York Mets lover to $72 on Wright and then snagged Utley (a lesser hitter but more dominant at his position) for $9 less - a perfect start.

I tend to divide auctions into three tiers. In the first, most of the superstars go for $40 or more. In the second, most of the lesser stars and solid regulars go between $10 and $30. In the third and longest, owners grind it out for the best leftovers.

To have a really good auction, you must do well in all three tiers. For example, several owners had great teams at lunchtime, when we were halfway into tier two. But they hamstrung themselves by leaving too little money for tier three and were left paying $1 each for the dregs of the NL.

I never want to have the most money at any one time, because that means I've probably failed to take advantage of good buys. But I always want to have close to the most money, so I can go the extra dollar on a player I like or need. It's important to know the difference between wanting and needing to win the bidding on a player.

For example, I paid $20 for Derek Lowe near the end of tier two, because I saw no good, low-risk starters remaining. An hour later, I had a shot to get Kelly Johnson, a player I love, for $23. But I saw several solid, cheaper options at second base and knew that if I bought Johnson, I'd struggle to get a first baseman and the skilled middle relievers I needed to fill out my staff.

I ended up with a team that's full of stars and packed with solid regulars at spots such as No. 2 catcher and corner and middle infield.


But enough self-love (and let's hope I haven't jinxed myself horribly). The greatest thing about drafting with a longtime league is the camaraderie. I love that, when a reliable but unspectacular player comes up (think Xavier Nady or Randy Winn,) we all say "dirty" and reminisce about how former owner Darius Tandon built his teams around such guys. I love that Rob Utley reminds me every year how I traded him Darryl Kile just days before the pitcher's sad death. I love Ed Chan's quizzical looks when he is asked whether he wants to bid on a player.

Detractors pick on fantasy players for their lack of humanity. I beg to differ.