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Keeper Auctions: A Dionysian Binge

I am the 1969 Expos of my NL-only keeper league.

No, that doesn't mean I've kept Rusty Staub for a 38th season. It means I'm an expansion team, just like Montreal in '69. When you're an expansion team in a mature keeper league, there's a pretty decent chance that you're going to get kicked around a little – like the 52-110 Expos. Hopefully, things won't go that badly for the debut edition of my squad … But they might.

There's really a lot of kept talent on the other teams. Albert Pujols? He's kept at $50. Roy Oswalt? Kept at $45. Chris Carpenter? He's $25. Ryan Howard? Kept at $9 by the defending league champ, my brother-in-law. He also has Chase Utley at $18, Miguel Cabrera at $22 and David Wright at $18. I'm probably not beating him this season. So what we're doing here will merely be an exercise in team building. I'll walk you through the process of preparing for an auction in which a bunch – though not all – of the elite players are already gone – Or at least I'll show you how a geek with a lot of discretionary time prepares for such things. This week I'll offer some guiding principles for keeper and auction leagues. Next week, post-auction, we'll see if I followed any of them.

Somehow I've never gotten myself in a league that has the "standard" format: 12 teams each with $260 to spend on 23 players. This NL-only league isn't standard, either. It's an eight-team league, and we each have $300 to spend on 21 roster spots (13 hitters, 9 pitchers). The auction is followed by a supplemental draft for bench players. No doubt many of you are in leagues that deviate from the 12/$260/23 format, too. Unfortunately, all the draft kits and/or un-cancelable subscriptions I've bought have projected auction values for standard leagues. That's inconvenient, but not insurmountable.

I always adjust values to my league's configuration. It's worth it, if only to have some sort of check against spending with Hicks-ian recklessness. In a league where many of the best players are kept and lots of the dollars are already spent, a certain amount of light math is involved in projecting prices. This gets us to the first of our bolded subheadings:

How much, exactly, is Rich Aurilia worth to me?

Not just him, but everyone else, too. Understand the market. Can you win a league if you walk into the auction with a rolled up 2005 draft guide, a pencil, and a cooler? Sure, it can happen. You'll certainly have fun. You might end up with Karim Garcia, but you'll have fun. And that's why we all do this. Still, I like to prepare like it's Scholastic Bowl.

I download projections for something like 1,000 players, then I tweak things to account for expected playing time. When I'm comfortable with my pile of names and statistics, I delete most of them. Why? Because I really just want to know what my fantasy league is going to look like. In my NL league, I know that exactly 104 hitters and 72 pitchers are going to come up for bid. I'm only interested in ranking the pool of players that I consider likely to be on league rosters. This is useful because it's then easy to determine A) what stats a league-average player should produce in each category, and B) which players are projected to be above and below those averages.

For example, I've forecasted that a perfectly average hitter in my eight-team league would put up this line: 76 R, 18 HR, 68 RBI, 10 SB, .286 AVG. I then rank players in each category based on how far above or below the mean they're expected to be, sum the category scores, and convert the total to dollars. None of this is particularly hard. There are sites that will do this for you, too. Allocating dollars involves figuring out how much can be spent in your league ($2,400 in mine), deciding where the $1 players begin in your rankings (hey, it's Aurilia!), and converting points to dollars. Here are my top ten NL hitters, with what I consider to be their value in my league:

Albert Pujols, $44
Alfonso Soriano, $42
Ryan Howard, $40
Miguel Cabrera, $37
Jose Reyes, $35
David Wright, $33
Matt Holliday, $33
Jason Bay, $32
Lance Berkman, $31
Chase Utley, $31

Seem OK? Well, it's not really relevant, because only one of those players will be available at my auction: Reyes. And since the other nine guys – as well as dozens of other useful players – are keepers, I have to back them and their dollars out of my projections then recalculate things. Most kept players are on rosters at a fraction of their true value, so it frees plenty of auction dollars to throw at less-worthy targets.

In this league, I'm actually replacing an owner who's left – no doubt frustrated by the years of dominance ahead for the Howard-Utley-Cabrera-Wright axis – but I don't get to inherit his team (he was the Reyes owner). Instead, all of the defunct team's players go back into the auction pool. I built a small collection of keepers in an expansion draft – again, just like the nascent Expos. The other owners protected a few players from their 2006 rosters and I picked through the scraps. Here's what I'll bring into the auction:

Chad Cordero, $27
Ryan Zimmerman, $21
Adam LaRoche, $17
Felipe Lopez, $14
Willy Taveras, $14
Jose Valverde, $14
Chris Burke, $10
Corey Hart, $10
Ian Snell, $5

Nice, but not a winning core. That's an obscene price for Cordero, even in a league with a $300 budget. I'm planning on a 75/25 split for hitting and pitching (more on that later), which means I may only spend $75 total for my pitching staff, and I've already allocated $41 of it to closers. Cordero's only going to pitch 75 innings this year, and 40 of those might be in Boston. And still I'm giving him $27. Incredible. But here's why: everyone in this league is keeping closers. It's only going to be Dempster, Isringhausen, and that unknowable batch of Marlins available at the auction. I'm scared of what those dudes will go for. This brings me to the second thought for owners in auction leagues:

Finding values isn't tricky. The hard part is knowing when to overspend.

I've already figured out how much money everyone should go for. It would be great if I could just sit back and pick off players who are going for less than their true value. But unless I were incredibly lucky, and those values were distributed evenly across all categories, I'd end up with a lousy team. I don't give away categories. As a general rule, you'll find that two of the worst decisions you can make are to punt categories and to completely run away with them. They both have costs. Balance your team so that you can compete everywhere. If you're a category outlier, you can't pick up points. Ever. And all we ultimately care about are points, not the scarcity of this or that.

So: overspending. Take another look at my kept players. I don't have much, but I do have two base-stealers. Taveras and Lopez will combine for 90 steals in 2007. At least that's my plan for them. Throw in a modest SB contribution from Burke and Hart and I'm done. I'm not spending a thing to acquire steals in this auction, which should take me out of the Reyes frenzy – Jimmy Rollins, Juan Pierre, and Rafael Furcal are available too, and I won't be in on them, either. No, for me it's all going to be about power, at every position. LaRoche and Zimmerman bring a little to my team, but look again at the expected mean for HR. It's 18 per player. Think Adam LaRoche is going to make up for the 18 home runs that Willy Taveras won't hit? Me neither. So if I have to overspend to get power, I will.

There are only two players in the auction pool who I project to finish two standard deviations above the mean in HR: Adam Dunn and Andruw Jones. Carlos Lee will be available, too, as will Bill Hall, Carlos Delgado and Prince Fielder. But if I'm going to overspend on anyone, it's likely going to be on Dunn or Jones. And then I'm just going to kind of hope that a contract-year phenomenon takes hold, and they don't combine for 1,000 at bats of .250 hitting. There's no place in the auction where I can "get" batting average, the best available starters are strictly lower tier, and – once again – Ryan Dempster may be the best saves option. But there are two true elite mashers available, and I'm getting at least one of them.

OK, at this point, the subheadings come fast. Try to keep up.

Keepers can change positional scarcity.

You wouldn't think that in an eight team NL only league, there'd be an issue at third base. But in this league, one guy is keeping Cabrera, Wright, and Aramis Ramirez. Garrett Atkins, Zimmerman, Chad Tracy, Freddy Sanchez, and Scott Rolen are also kept. So my league will basically have three teams bidding the heck out of Chipper Jones and Edwin Encarnacion. No bargains there. Curiously, there are a bunch of middle infielders available. I expect this odd landscape to have a big impact on player prices.

That is, unless my fellow owners completely forget that in a keeper situation, positional scarcity changes. They may. I wouldn't really mind having a cheap Encarnacion at my corner infield slot. I'm sure I'll have a bunch of cheaper high-upside pitchers in my rotation – guys just like Snell, basically. Remember that 75/25 split I'm budgeting? Well, only 38 percent of the starting positions in my league are pitchers, and none of the top-tier NL starters are available. I'd much rather take a shot with keep-able youth (think Anthony Reyes and Tom Gorzelanny).

Remember: it isn't real money. Spend all of it.

In most auctions, there's at least one owner who will sit there all day muttering, "These prices are nuts. It's this easy-credit economy. Blah-blah-$35 is way too much-blah …" When it's all over, he's still got, like, $15 left.

Fine, except that it was never real money. That dude can't go out and buy something with the $15 of imaginary baseball money he's saved. It just means he didn't get players. In my league, the keeper thing means that you may have a few dollars left over – it's always nice to get a useful player at $1 instead of $5 – We give $4 raises each year, apparently to cover off-season cost of living increases in our imaginary NL world. A little bit of saved money is thus OK. Still, if you've got $10 left over at the end of the auction, keepers or not, you've screwed up.

Know your enemies.

There could be a News-n-Notes item that says Austin Kearns is on the 15-day DL awaiting gender reassignment, and my brother-in-law would still own him. They've been through a lot together, and not just fantasy-wise. Probably nine of the ten most disgusting things I've ever heard were said either to Kearns or by Kearns at a game at Wrigley Field a few years ago. My brother-in-law and I were sitting in the right field bleachers, and it's possible we were involved in the dialogue in some way. Who can recall? Anyway, I know that he'll bid on Kearns, and I'm fairly sure he'll own him. It's the power of shared experience. This is an advantage at auction, however slight. I'll definitely bid Kearns up.

I've also learned that the league's commissioner tends to conserve open pitching slots, then collects a bunch of terrific arms at a discount. I'd like to get in on that action, and cut into whatever advantage he manages to create during the auction. Which brings us to this:

Get financial leverage, and soon.

If there's a bright side to not having a strong team, it's that I'll have a lot of money to spend. I'm going in with $168 to allocate to 12 players. Not bad. But one team – the guy who finished second last year – has $214 to spend on 13 spots. In my estimation, he also needs to acquire power, just like me. So it's imperative that I work to spend his money early. My plan is to throw out Reyes immediately. This will elicit groans, but I don't care. The guy with all the money needs both a shortstop and a middle infielder. I'm guessing he's cleared all that cap space for the player who is, without question, the most valuable guy available. If I can get him to drop $50 on his first purchase, I'll have completely wiped out his financial advantage.

That's the plan, anyway. I'm tracking dollars and roster spots throughout the auction, too. Everyone should do this. I guarantee there will be several times when I need to know exactly how much another owner can bid.

If it's a keeper league, get prospects. But not too many.

Something like half of all the can't-miss prospects will either miss altogether (Edwin Jackson), or be annoyingly slow to develop (Andy Marte). If you load up on them, you won't win. Well, not unless the plan is to flip them for useful stars at some point. I've put together a short list of prospects who might be a year away from being truly helpful, but I'd only really like to land two or three of them. And I'd like to get them at $1. I'm not going to rank them; that would be insane. The auction is coming up. The league knows I write about this stuff. Let's just say that my list include most of the usual suspects (Homer Bailey, Ryan Braun) and a few less-hyped guys who project extremely well (Joey Votto, Hunter Pence). But again, no matter which prospects I buy, I'm not going to rely on them.

Despite the fog of gloom that should surround my inaugural season, I'm actually kind of excited. There are two things I can say with absolute certainty about my fantasy portfolio: the keeper leagues are the ones I obsess over, and auctions are the events I most enjoy. When you combine these things, you have a Dionysian binge of geekery.

Next week, I'll deconstruct the binge.

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