How I Lost Tout
September 30, 2005

Last year around this time I wrote a column chronicling how I managed to finish first over a tremendous field of baseball and fantasy baseball experts in the AL Tout Wars competition.  In it, I compared my teams' tendency for storming from behind in the second half to that of legendary racehorse Seabiscuit.  In retrospect, that might not have been the best choice for analogy because in the race directly following his historic match race upset of heavily favored Triple Crown winner War Admiral, Seabiscuit pulled up lame.  "Pulling up lame" would be a generous description of what my Tout team did this year; "inert from the beginning" seems more accurate. 

Just as a pitcher was a significant key to my victory in 2004, so too was a pitcher the seed of my failure this year.  But it wasn't his performance on the field that killed me; it was his cost at the draft.

A number of people have suggested that I wasn't able to employ my usual draft strategy of avoiding any player who cost more than $25 and that is what doomed my team.  There may be some truth to that as a number of other owners seemed to have at least an eye toward mimicking what I did last year.  And truth be told, four of the top six teams in this year's finish bought two or fewer players who cost $25 or more.  Unfortunately, mine won't be one of them but their strong finishes appear to give some additional legitimacy to the strategy. 

Others might point to the abnormally high number of down years I got from the players I did roster.  Vernon Wells and Vlad Guerrero, the two players I spent a fair chunk of my salary allowance on, both failed to meet expectations albeit only slightly.  Despite being given full-time positions to start the year, Michael Cuddyer and Travis Lee both fumbled their way to having their playing time reduced as the season progressed.  I took a risk in the middle infield rostering rookies Jose Lopez and Jason Bartlett.  Lopez had a clear shot to establish himself to start the year when Pokey Reese went down with a shoulder injury, but he also fell victim to injury just before the season began.  Bartlett got off to a shaky start which prompted a demotion to AAA for a couple of months.  I had expected that Frank Thomas would return from his ankle injury in July to give me three decent months of production, but his injury healed slower than expected, he came back a little too soon and got re-injured.  So all I ended up from him was a month of homers followed by a front row seat for his return to the DL.  Dmitri Young came up lame mid-season which affected his production the rest of the way.  Bobby Kielty also came up lame which cost him at bats in the second half.  But even knowing what I know now, I don't think I would have done anything different in drafting these particular players.   They were all decent risks that just had the breaks go against them.

No, my biggest mistake came when I rostered a much lesser known player.  Here's what I said immediately after the draft - "Things were going fairly smoothly until Juan Cruz' name came up.  Normally, he's the kind of high upside pitcher I'll pay an extra dollar or two to grab.  But that's a luxury of the mid-level game I usually play.  With a large chunk of my budget allocated by the middle rounds, penurious use of the remaining dollars was important in order to get the best possible talent with the end game bargains.  The difference between a $1 player and a $2 player at that point can be huge.  But for some reason I lost sight of that and obsessed on getting Cruz.  It cost me $7.  Don't get me wrong, I love the guy's talent and I'm pretty confident he can earn $7 even if he doesn't get a save this year.  But at the point I acquired him, I would have been much better off letting him go and spending that extra $6 on outfielders.  Instead of BJ Surhoff and Joe Borchard - two guys I'm not overly confident will get over 250 at bats this season -  I could have picked up Gary Matthews, Grady Sizemore, Gabe Gross or Jay Payton, all guys I like a lot more."

For the record, Borchard has all of five major league at bats this season.  BJ Surhoff did a little better, finishing with slightly more than 300 ABs, hitting .260 with 5 homers, 30 runs and 31 RBI.  But the other four outfielders I mentioned that I had targeted have done the following so far this season with three games left to play:

Matthews - .255, 17 homers, 71 runs, 52 RBI, 9 steals
Sizemore - .291, 22 homers, 111 runs, 81 RBI, 22 steals
Gross -  .235, 1 homer, 10 runs, 6 RBI, 1 steal
Payton - .272, 18 homers, 62 runs, 63 RBI, 0 steals.

As you can see, any one of those guys would have been better than Borchard and three of the four could have made a huge difference in the standings.  Payton alone could have been worth 14 points in homers, runs and RBI.  Moreover, because of the hole created in the outfield due to my insistence on acquiring Cruz, I had to make a trade earlier than I would normally in order to shore up my offensive deficiency.  That trade, unfortunately, turned out to be Tim Wakefield for Jody Gerut.  At the time it didn't seem like a terrible deal because the same week it was consummated, Cleveland team doctors declared that Coco Crisp would miss up to 3 months of the season due to a hand injury, thus making Gerut a full-time player in a potent Indians' line-up.  Obviously, it didn't turn out that way.  A week later it was determined that Crisp's injury would only cost him a week or two, then Gerut fumbled his way completely out of Cleveland... then Chicago... and then for all intents and purposes, Pittsburgh, too.  In the meantime, Wakefield chipped in 12 wins, 119 Ks and a 1.18 WHIP for another team.  Even worse, without Wakefield's quality innings to stabilize my staff, I had to rely on waiver pitchers like Sean Douglass for innings.  That wasn't so bad while he was doing well in July, but when he gave up 30 earned runs over a span of five August starts it destroyed my team's chances of moving up in ERA.  It also meant that I had to keep hoping that I could get some decent innings from Joe Mays.  That, my friends, is the height of wishful thinking.  And lastly, the unresolved hole in my outfield forced me to look to other positions for additional production.  Unfortunately, the only position that consistently had options on the free agent market was catcher and most of those were guys who'd be lucky to get 100 at bats.  Sifting through that list on a weekly basis to finally end up with Sal Fasano ended up costing me 21 FAAB, or more than a fifth of my total allotment.  So not only was it bad that Cruz didn't perform as expected - shoulder troubles to start the season sent him to the DL, then to AAA -  but the residual effect of acquiring him dominoed into plenty more troubles. 

My friend Steve Moyer once said that in a league where the competition is so evenly matched the eventual winner is usually determined by who finishes with the fewest injuries.  There may be some merit there although my squad certainly had it's fair share of injuries last year.  Unfortunately, my mistake in the draft cost me an opportunity to test that theory this year. 

So... what to take from my misfortune... well, there are several lessons I learned:

For one, I probably won't depend as much on production from rookies.  I had four on my squad and three failed to produce.  Bartlett and Lopez will eventually be good players, probably as soon as next year; Borchard was simply a bad choice.  Joe Mauer turned out pretty well for me so avoiding rookies altogether is taking it to an unnecessary extreme.  It's just important to understand that plenty of managers either don't have the patience to endure their struggles or don't trust them to produce like they did in the minors.  So rostering rookies has additional risks beyond what they may or may not produce on the field. 

The second lesson is to take my own advice and never make a trade before June unless it's simply too good to pass up.  Trading Wakefield in what would turn out to be his career year for Gerut, a player coming back from injury, will go down as one of the worst trades of the season and possibly the worst I've ever made.  Instead, I should have been more aggressive with my FAAB, paying top dollar for available free agents like Damon Hollins, Aaron Hill and Chris Shelton. 

The third lesson I learned is never pay for a back-up catcher.  Frankly, it's pretty rare to get decent production from that spot so it's probably not worth spending any FAAB on once the season begins.  

But the final and most important lesson, to paraphrase Thucydides who opined that "a collision at sea can ruin your whole day", is that a blunder in the draft can ruin your whole season.  Never obsess on acquiring a player, especially one who is not guaranteed a position or a role and/or who hasn't demonstrated that he can succeed in his potentially new role.  When I left the draft I was hoping that Cruz would come through for me, either establishing himself as a starter or as a closer because if he didn't I would have a major struggle on my hands for the 2005 season.  My fear turned out to be prophetic.  That was an especially tough lesson because it slapped me in the face every day for the entire season. 

Even though my season is concluding on a down note, I learned enough that I can hope my earlier comparison to Seabiscuit turns out to be prophetic as well.  America's most beloved steed - there was an urban legend that the horse generated more newsprint in the US than either Adolf Hitler or FDR during his prime - miraculously recovered from his career- and life-threatening injury to return to his winning ways the following year.  Hopefully, my columns have been helpful to your fantasy baseball endeavors this year.  Good luck next season.  Namaste.