Along with never having played in an AL-only league, I had never been involved in a league that uses a Free Agent Acquisition Budget or FAAB. Every other league I had participated either had daily transaction (in which case there were never ties because transactions were enacted the instant they were submitted) or had a system by which free agents were awarded based on priority, usually by rounds in reverse order of the standings.
If you're not familiar with it, FAAB is an in-season budget by which all free agents are acquired. The FAAB for Tout Wars is 100 units, which is roughly 2/5 as much as the budget used in the spring auction draft.
The first thing I found out about FAAB is that there really isn't any way to gauge what a player should go for. Unlike a regular auction draft, the talent pool isn't completely on the table when you bid, because players are always coming from the minors and you never know position or level of talent from week to week. This makes it next to impossible to develop useful projection/price table.
For instance, Joe Borchard is probably going to be a decent hitter. Were he a major league regular, he'd probably go for $12-18 in the regular draft. However, he's in the minors now and there's really no way of predicting when he'll get called up. So we have no way of predicting how many major league at bats he'll get, and thus how much impact he will have this season. But for the sake of argument, let's say that Carlos Lee gets injured and the White Sox call him up. What's he worth? If Lee's injury is only mild, then probably not much because once Lee returns, there's a good chance Borchard gets sent back down. But let's say that the Sox were shopping Lee when he got injured. Is Borchard worth more? He gets a chance to play now and there's a chance that Lee will get dealt when he returns from the DL. So maybe yes. But if no team wants Lee, then Borchard is stuck in the middle (or more precisely, on the bench), leaving whoever acquires him in limbo. So there's as much chance that he could be worth nothing and it wouldn't be because of anything he does on the field.
Conversely, what's a player worth who isn't as talented, but is assured regular at bats? Or a hotshot starting pitching prospect who'll be used in relief because his team already has a decent rotation? Is he worth more than a mediocre starting prospect who's virtually guaranteed starts? Since it's incredibly difficult to project playing time for most of these players, it's next to impossible to calculate a projectable value.
I looked back at the previous year's FAAB logs to see if I could find any bidding patterns. Generally players went from $0-$4, unless there was some hype surrounding them or that particular team was desperate for a commodity, in which case, the player went for around $10. Of course, there were exceptions. Occasionally mediocre players went for as much as 20% of a budget, while budding stars went for practically nothing. Trade deadline acquisitions of a single player who had crossed over from the other league occasionally consumed more than half of a team's budget.
It was then it dawned on me that FAAB might be used as something more than a way to improve my team; it could be used as a decent tool for finding out about my opponents. Most of the people I am competing against in Tout were people I had never met until the day of the auction. So I don't know how they reacted to success or failure or pressure... anything. Since I would be working from a blank slate, I wanted to find out as much as I could about them as quickly as possible. So, I developed a strategy by which I hoped I could not only find out about my opponents, but perhaps work to a tactical advantage by midseason.
The first part of the plan was to drive up the perceived cost of free agents. I would begin the season paying artificially high amounts for free agents for which there was little or no hype. I didn't necessarily have to spend a lot of my budget, but I wanted to obviously pay much more than perceived value. So while I probably could have obtained Geronimo Gil and Gary Matthews Jr for a combined 5 units, I spent a total of 13 on them. By the end of this season, I imagine both will be worth twice that much, but in the spring, the general sense was that these were $0-$1 players. So the gauntlet was thrown down - if you want a decent player from the free agent pool, you are gonna have to pay.
And while in most seasons, most owners would look at me and probably laugh because, at that rate, I'd be out of money before the All-Star break, this season was different because a possible labor stoppage looms. What good is it to have most of your FAAB budget at the July 31st trading deadline if the season is gonna end the following week because of a strike? Not only was I pushing to drive up the prices with my bidding, but everyone now had some incentive to spend their budgets because there might not be a tomorrow, or at least there might not be a final third of the season.
Pretty much every week for the first month and a half, I was overbidding on players, hoping to pressure the prices upward. To some extent, the experiment has been a success. Half the teams in the league have spent more than half of their FAAB budget, two of which have less than 20% left. Promising young players like Aaron Harang and Chris Snelling went for almost a third of the winning team's total budget, despite neither being guaranteed playing time for the remainder of the season. But it wasn't just the winning teams that were trying to spend big bucks on these guys. There were numerous bids that were in excess of what these players would have gone for last year. So lots of people were looking to spend. More importantly, there was a trickle down effect on players with less potential: the price of non-closer relievers, spot starters and part-time position players had gone up as well.
So, I have accomplished at least some of what I set out to do. I was able to discern which owners were willing to do things that they probably wouldn't consider doing under normal circumstances (spending more on free agents), and I discovered which ones follow their game plan regardless of what's going on around them (risked not getting free agents with "normal" bids). I was also able to drain a good portion of the league's available FAAB budget. The downside of this experiment is that in the process I have drained much of my own budget.
True, it will be a bummer not being able to splurge if someone like Cliff Floyd comes over to the AL at the deadline. But given the labor climate, I'm not convinced major players with big contracts will be moving much anyway. In 1994, very few big name players switched teams at the deadline and this year is beginning to look eerily similar.
Hopefully, some of my reserves will get a shot at full-time in the second half and not only offset the loss of potential free agents, but provide me with quality major league depth to trade for either what I need or to recoup my depleted FAAB. If not, well, I may just have to get lucky and get one of those budding stars for practically nothing.