Good hit, sketchy pitch: Reviewing the Tout Wars mixer

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Ryan Braun, still a building block
Ryan Braun, still a building block

My other car is a Ferrari. That’s basically my story when Tout Wars comes up.

I’ve played in many industry leagues and had my share of success (yes, I know no one cares), but I’ve yet to take down a Tout Wars title. Just two seconds on the resume, and those were a while ago. It’s the white whale of my portfolio, the highest priority. There’s no money in Tout, of course (other than some side props), but the winner gets to name a sandwich at the next year’s party at Foley’s in NYC.

And I’m all about enjoying every sandwich.

The last three years in the Tout Mixer, I’ve finished 6th, 6th and 7th (out of 15 teams). It means I’m finishing ahead of the majority of competitors, but not getting a good swing at the title. We all know, there’s no trophy for finishing in the top half or so. This isn’t some 50-50 contest or double-up.

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Last year I probably screwed up a good chance at deep contention, securing a pretty good team at auction and then skidding off the road. I hit on Wil Myers and Kyle Hendricks, two pet sleepers, and also got Daniel Murphy for a scant $8. If all the Tout teams were forced to play with the draft-day rosters, I would have finished in first. Alas, I had a so-so year with FAABing and made a few dreadful deals, and with that I meandered down the standings. So it goes.

I’m a feel player at any auction. I don’t have a set strategy or a cutesy acronym I’m trying to establish. I have a rough idea of what a player’s range is, and in the early portion of an auction, I’m looking to buy players at or below cost (keeping in mind, if you’re going to pay market or even market-plus for anyone, make sure it’s a player you really want or really like).

Once the auction gets deeper, it’s more about playing poker. I keep close tabs on the financial personality of the auction — budgets, needs, max bids — and try to read what someone’s intentions are, especially on midgame and late bids. Do they really want the player? Are they trying to move the price up? Would they be screwed, for lack of a better term, if stuck with the current bid?

Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at reading a room, knowing when I can nudge someone along and knowing when to get out. I also want any auction room to feel I might back off a bid at any time, so I’m not easy to push around. I feel I’ve stuck opponents with bids far more often than I’ve been stuck myself. But again, until they’re eating my sandwich at Foley’s, none of this matters very much.

Two more things to consider as we look deeper into the 2017 Mixed Auction — a word about pace and context.

My buddy Jeff Erickson of Rotowire was the auctioneer, and he runs a very quick, tight auction. There’s no time to do research or much second-level thinking — you’re pressed for instant decisions at every turn. Although not every auction is run this way, this is how it should be, especially within the industry. But it also means that sometimes you wind up in the quicksand before you’ve had a second to consider the step you’re taking.

As with any auction, the prices are heavily dependent on when the players were nominated and how the room was calibrated at the time. Prices observed out of context don’t tell a fair, complete story. Tout also offers a rebate for players who encounter serious injury, which means some of the endgame players will be bought for budget-draining resources, just to maximize their possible reclaim value later. There’s no reason to leave money on the table, even table scraps.

A few loose strategies, subject to adjustment as needed, that I took into the draft:

— I wasn’t going to sweat stolen bases. They’re more scarce in today’s game, sure, but that means it’s easier to compete in the category. If I needed to fix my steals situation in the reserve draft, in free agency, or through trade, that’s not a concern. You can always find speed later; I don’t want to overpay for it with premium chips.

— I wanted a foundation of saves without paying for the elite guys. This just feels like the sweet spot to invest, most of the time. Saves will also enter the league every year, like steals will, but it feels like the newly-minted closers (or even the closing spec plays) are more contested than the rabbits are.

— My big-money purchases are likely to be hitters. Offense still feels more reliable to me, more floor offered, while pitchers have more risk involved. There also tends to be more divergence of opinion for pitchers after you get past the Top 30 or so — I think Mike Salfino has been saying that for years — and that usually means it’s easier to get your later-pitching targets than it is hitting targets. Consider Hendricks at $4 last year.

So what actually happened in this thing? How did we do?

I liked the final roster, didn’t love it. I quickly got my feet wet with a number of big-name bats (Machado, Lindor, Myers, Lucroy, Braun), and I’m fine with all of them. I also landed Zach Britton ($19) and Kelvin Herrera ($14) for reasonable prices, and I even added cheaper saves later. But the secondary and tertiary aces I was angling towards — names like Julio Teheran and Kenta Maeda — went for more money than I wanted, and I wound up being a pitcher or two short, talent-wise. (If I was the suspicious type, I’d say writing What’s In My Wallet mid-March winds up hurting me, opening my playbook too wide. But maybe it’s just coincidence; other people are allowed to like the good players I like.)

Time for the full roster. We use 5×5 scoring, with OBP subbed in for batting average. (Full results are here; make sure you click the Mix Auction tab at the top. You can also toggle to other Tout results, if you wish.)

Texas Two Step
Texas Two Step

— Catchers: Jonathan Lucroy $22, Sandy Leon $1

I thought Buster Posey might be back on my team last year, off a disappointing 2016, but he went for a full-on $28. Lucroy and Gary Sanchez ($21) essentially went for the same amount, and I’ll bet on the proven player every time in that instance. The Rangers also have a much deeper lineup than the Yankees do; does everyone realize New York finished 22nd in scoring last year? This is not a good team.

No one takes Leon’s season at face value, but he can give a lot back and still be worth a buck. If he can merely hold the job and get some part of the Fenway undertow, I’ll be happy. If not, I’ll be fishing in the FA pool.

— Corners: Wil Myers $25, Manny Machado $39, Adrian Gonzalez $8

Machado was my first purchase with the idea that he’s a good shortstop or third baseman, but he eventually fit into my roster at third. I don’t care if he runs again or not, he’s going to be a strong base in the other four categories. And heck, if he doesn’t run, maybe it keeps him healthy. I also like my top purchase being on someone who’s a high-pedigree player at a tender age (Machado turns 25 in July), in the hitter’s league and in a home-run park. All those boxes check here.

Myers has been hurt a few times, but is he more injury prone or accident prone? Does everyone realize Petco is no longer the Death Valley park it used to be? I’ll concede Myers has to carry some health risk, but I am not at all concerned about what he’ll do when he is healthy. And like most younger, healthy players, the bases are there if wanted. Myers wants to keep running, apparently.

No one likes Gonzalez this year, me included. But I’ll eat my hat if he’s not worth $8.

— Middles: Daniel Murphy $23, Francisco Lindor $26, Dustin Pedroia $11

Go where the runs are, right? Boston was the top offense last year (by runs), Cleveland fifth, Washington eighth (and I expect the Nats to run away with that division this year, and move up this list). For reasonable prices, I’ve landed key members of three very good offenses.

Pedroia turned out to be a roster construction mistake, however, because he was a later purchase — when the money would have fit my pitching staff better. Ultimately, a number of solid middle infield options went for less than $11 — and some just a couple of bucks. No knock on Pedroia, but I should have bought a cheaper MI and used the extra bucks on the mound.

— Outfield/Utility: Ryan Braun $30, Jackie Bradley $10, Kendrys Morales $6, Melky Cabrera $2, Michael Saunders $1, Kolten Wong $1

I can’t claim Braun is a giveaway at that price, but what’s not to like? He’s a proven and versatile performer who has shown a willingness — and a capability — of playing hurt. A rock-solid place to invest your money.

Bradley has pros and cons, but I’ll be happy to find out at $10. Morales only qualifies at DH in Tout — he’s first base and outfield in Yahoo — but I would have chased him up a few more bucks. He was excellent last year and now moves to a better backdrop. Cabrera is a boring Ibanez All-Star, Saunders the same thing.

Wong? I wish the Cardinals liked him as much as I do. I misjudged the strength of the $1 market at the time (when David Peralta later went for a buck, I wanted to throw up). I’d need an extra outfielder or two in the reserve draft.

Pretty good offense overall, right? Well, it came with a shoe to drop — one of the sketchiest pitching staffs in the room. I only spent $55 on those nine guys, and most of it ($35) went on three relievers. (I never shoot for a hitting/pitching ratio, by the way. I think that sort of aim winds up being too constricting in the actual proceedings. I realize some people play differently, and have had success as such. That’s fine, too.)

— Starting Pitching: Jameson Taillon $9, Matt Shoemaker $6, Ian Kennedy, $2, Junior Guerra $1, Jeremy Hellickson $1, Alex Cobb $1

Say whatever you want, but I love my pitching staff for what it should be — the second and third tier of a balanced diet. There are 1-2 pitchers missing at the top, though. It’s unlikely to expect that I’ll fill those types of slots through FAABing — talent like that is unlikely to emerge, after we take about 120 starting pitchers off the board.

I’ll fight for Taillon, Shoemaker and Kennedy all day — as your No. 3-5 arms. Tallion has the right park, defense, pedigree, pitching coach — and he was strong in his debut. Shoemaker became a different pitcher after he refined his splitter. Kennedy is a boring, stealth vet who can easily make me a profit here.

Guerra? I’ll blame Salfino if it fails. Hellickson? Lucky last year, but he’s in a good division. Cobb is worth a speculation play for a buck. I know this is my team weakness, but in a deeper mixed league, everyone will have an underbelly somewhere.

(I should also mention I nominated Mike Foltynewicz for a dollar, at a time when just one owner could trump in. And voila, Derek Van Riper said $2, much to my chagrin. Make sure Folty’s on your lottery-ticket list.)

— Relief Pitching: Zack Britton $19, Kelvin Herrera $14, Ryan Madson $2

Britton has as long a leash as any closer, and Herrera was one of the rare Wallet guys I was able to land. Madson has obvious fleas and plenty of competition, but even if he’s in the middle of a committee, it’s easy to earn a profit here.

— Bench: Kevin Pillar, Trevor Bauer, Mallex Smith, Seth Smith, Zack Wheeler, Raul Mondesi

By using Rotowire’s draft software, paying attention, and staying fresh, I always expect I’ll make solid reserve-round picks (and not pick anyone who’s already selected; that happens a few times every year). Last year I hit on Rajai Davis and Madson; the previous year, I clicked on Trevor Plouffe. Pillar, Mondesi and Mallex Smith address my stolen-base gap; Seth Smith is an on-base machine; and maybe Bauer and Wheeler will be useful starters, somewhere above the Stream Police.

My only goal at the auction is to build a team that looks like a reasonable contender, and I think I’ve accomplished that. I like my offense and love where I spent my big tickets; players who offer a combination of floor and upside. I don’t have a great speed team, but it won’t take much to go right for that to be fixed. The starting staff is undeniably weak; the closers, on paper, pretty strong.

For whatever projections mean to you, here’s what they say: Clay Davenport’s numbers have me in second, Rotowire’s have me in fifth (an eyelash out of third; I didn’t input the reserve players), and Baseball HQ’s have me in the bottom half. That’s enough validation for me. Projections fly out of mind and memory the moment a real pitch is thrown.