March 29, 2006

This will be my last column for a while.  I will be taking some time off to pursue some other opportunities but I didn't want to leave you empty-handed so I though I'd offer a few thoughts about my Tout Wars draft that might help you with yours.

As with any highly competitive league, it's very tough to find a profit margin.  There were no real sleeper players because everyone knows the rosters down to the 40th man and then some.  Even young players don't sneak past the weight of expectation.  Both Grady Sizemore and Felix Hernandez, as good as they both are, went for the full value of their potential this year, or at least very close to it.  Even the smallest incremental improvements a player might have demonstrated last year caused his price to increase significantly because no one wants to be left out on a breakout season.  Finding profit, then, had to come from known sources rather than developing ones.  At least, that was my supposition. 

Profit would have to come from guys everyone knows about but had fallen out of favor either because they had already peaked or (and this is where I concentrated my efforts) were coming off an injury-plagued season.  There would be some reluctance to embrace their full potential value because of the associated risk that they might fall victim once again.  Guys like Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Bobby Crosby, Adam Kennedy, Ramon Hernandez, Milton Bradley and Magglio Ordonez would all be considerably higher priced had they been completely healthy last year.  Even players like Aaron Boone and Travis Lee, who were two years removed from their injuries but showed considerable rust in the first half last year were ideal players for my strategy.  My thinking was two-fold:

a) Injuries can't really be predicted.  The reality is that anyone can get injured so avoiding guys who were injured or paying an extra dollar or two for a guy because he is perceived to be injury-proof is a siren's song.  Garret Anderson, for example had eight consecutive years of accumulating over 600 at bats, but in 2004 when he was only 32 years old got ambushed by arthritic back troubles.  There is some level of predictability with certain injuries or players (like Juan Gonzalez) and maladies like Anderson's are hard to diagnose and therefore tend to linger.  But if the physicians can figure out the root of the problem, most of the time it can be fully treated (or come within a reasonable approximation of such) with surgery or rehab. 

b) Assuming a) is true and most of the guys who were injured were successfully treated, then a good number of those guys should bounce back to somewhere close to their previous levels of performance.  Obviously there are plenty of mitigating factors like a change of ballpark or league, the severity of the injury, the age of the player, etc.  But if they could produce somewhere in the neighborhood of their peak production then they would end up being worth more than their auction price. 

Unlike the description of me in Sam Walker's book, it's not that I have an affinity or some soul bond for injured players.  It's just that in a league as knowledgeable and competitive as Tout, that segment of the player population seems to be the only place to buy a lot of upside. 

That said, I am leery of players like Scott Podsednik and Joey Gathright because they are one groin tweak or hammy pull from becoming a very expensive 4th outfielder.  For most players an injury like that will sideline them for a couple of weeks and that's about the extent of it.  For guys who depend solely on their speed for the value, even after they return from such an injury their production suffers for quite a bit after they return.  Although he's more than just a speed merchant, Carlos Beltran's value took a huge hit last year when he wasn't able to run despite the fact that he played most of the season.  If you want to talk about injury risks, any player whose value can be wiped out by a minor injury is what I consider a huge risk.  Sure, the payoff for getting one of those guys can be great because they can salt away a category by themselves and can be very useful in trades.  But how much is he worth if he comes up a little gimpy?  Hamstring pulls are one of the most common injuries in baseball.  From August to the end of the season when Podsednik was battling a minor groin pull he hit .283 with 7 steals (8 caught stealing) no homers, 7 RBI and 22 runs scored.  This spring, he's recovering from hernia surgery and has already felt the first twinge in his groin.  The payoff might turn out great for getting him, but he could just as easily be an unmitigated disaster.

Anyway, old Long Gandhi faves Matt Lawton and Gary Matthews also made the team, as well as 2004 alum Johnny Damon.  I even got Damon at the same 2004 price: $26.  I didn't knowingly target him but I'm not complaining as I think he'll get to run more with the Yanks and should still score 120 runs.  Who knows, Yankee Stadium might even help his batting average, although based on his career numbers there (.252/.301/.346) I'm not overly optimistic.

The other part of the plan was to load up on starting pitchers who showed good strikeout potential last year and to pick up the set-up men behind the two weakest closers in the AL.  The starters I ended up with were a combination of second half surgers from last year (CC Sabathia, Jose Contreras) and high end talents (AJ Burnett, Erik Bedard, Kelvim Escobar, Denny Bautista).  I also rostered Juan Cruz and Dustin McGowan in the reserve rounds, both of whom could yield some quality innings.  Given the paucity of closing options in Arizona, I'd like to see Cruz get a chance to get some saves there.  I also ended up with Kris Benson, although that wasn't my plan.  I made the mistake of thinking that some of the other owners were desperate for innings and I was simply hoping to drive his price up.  I brain-cramped and got stuck with him but I'm not totally disappointed.  He does have potential, Camden Yards is a good park for right-handed power pitchers and if there's any Oriole pitcher Leo Mazzone will have a profound impact on, it's probably Benson.  You can find a detailed explanation as to why Mazzone and Benson make a good fit in my book.  (I apologize for the shameless plug).

Another guy I ended up with but didn't plan to get was Burnett.  When the bidding stopped at $12, I had this eerie feeling that the clouds had parted and I was like Wile E. Coyote floating above a deep chasm with the cliff ledge several feet behind me.  It didn't dawn on me until after he was placed on my roster that I had forgotten that he had a pretty big scare this spring with his elbow.  But the pain he experienced was from scar tissue and has not been a concern since so he still has a decent chance to turn a profit.  The talent is certainly there and the Blue Jays have done a good job with another guy who has similar style and ability, Roy Halladay.  Hopefully my Acme rocket booster will get me to the other side.

Bob Wickman (loss of effectiveness) and Eddie Guardado (bum shoulder) could each finish the season with 40 saves apiece, but in case either of them don't I have Rafael Soriano and Fernando Cabrera waiting in the wings to pick up the remaining save opportunities. 

This year I don't have as many concerns with holes to fill as I did last year so that's one positive.  Even so, the player pool for the draft wasn't limited to players who were on the active major league roster at the time of the draft.  So instead of all the decent back-ups being taken in the later rounds, a number of high regarded prospects who had been sent down to minor league camp were being rostered.  Unlike last year when the free agent pool was fairly barren to start the season, there should be a number of decent options available early on for injury replacements.  That should help me bridge the gap until my squad gets completely healthy.

The other interesting development was that most of the speed available was gone by the middle of the second round and predominantly to two teams.  I didn't mind because I ended up with enough players who steal bases that I might still finish 3rd or 4th in the category.   It'll be interesting to see how the trading goes as the season progresses.  Regardless, it looks like I've put together a potentially good all-around hitting team with some upside in the rotation which is about the best I could hope for coming out of a draft. 

That's about it for now.  Namaste and Geaux Tigers!