2010 - An XFL Odyssey
November 16, 2009

The last couple of years I've cut down the number of leagues in which I particiapte down to just one: the XFL.  I chose that one as my last stand primarily because it is a keeper league, but it has a few unusual features that make it as challenging as any league I've ever been in. 

The first tweak is that we hold our auction draft in November rather than in the spring.  That's before any publications come out with projections for the following year and before any free agent movement.  For that matter, it's before almost all winter player movement.  So one really has to do one's homework to figure out which players are likely to end up in advantageous situations and which ones are going to have a tough time finding playing time.  There's also the issue of players getting injured in the offseason playing basketball or riding a motorcycle.

The second tweak is that we have an additional online draft to fill the 17-man reserve rosters at the end of spring training.  The eligible players can be anyone who was not taken in the auction draft.  So we've had high school players, foreign players and retirees drafted along with the usual suspects.  It may not sound it but this draft is possibly the most ciritical to in-season success because of two other tweaks:

1) we only have waiver pickups once per month and even then they are limited to 3 players, and
2) any player who was taken while in the minors before reaching 50 major league at bats or 10 major league innings pitched will have their salary increase by only $3 per year instead of the standard $5.   This draft is the only time such players may be taken.

So it's important to pick up prospects for the future, but equally important to pick up quality back-ups in case one of your regular players goes down with injury because you won't have easy access to free agents to replace them.  So while 17 players seems like a lot for the bench, if you consider taking one player to cover each position (catcher, corner, middle infield, outfield) plus a couple of starting pitchers and maybe a reliever or two to hopefully luck into some saves, you've already exhausted half your bench.  That leaves nine or ten spots to speculate on prospects, with the success rate for prospects actually panning out probably less than 50%.  With 15 teams drafting, Baseball America's top 100 gets rifled through pretty quickly.  That's why sometimes a high schooler or a retiree gets picked up.  More pressure has been put on the top prospect list with an increasing number being protected. 

2006 - 26 prospects kept
2007 - 26 prospects kept
2008 - 31 prospects kept
2009 - 41 prospects kept

This year, there were 47 prospects held over.  So if you depend on the BA Top 100 list for your future, it's going to be tough.  I'm sure Baseball America will sell at least 15 more of their prospect handbooks - the one that profiles the top 30 prospects for each team - this year.  The reason for this is simple - the teams that have had the most value in their keeper lists have won the league the last three seasons.  I expect the trend to continue.

My teams have done pretty well in general since I've been in the league, finishing in the top four 3 out of the five years I've been participating, with a legit chance to win in two of them.  But honestly I've been building rather than going for broke each year.  This upcoming year is the first year that my team has a real shot of making a statement.  I've been collecting high upside players early in their careers and the first of them are just now beginning to enter their prime.  This is the core and their playing experience when I first acquired them:

C  Joe Mauer........$16 (rookie MLB)
3B Gordon Beckham...$4  (A-ball)
OF Grady Sizemore...$16 (rookie MLB)
OF Justin Upton.....$10 (A-ball)
OF Jay Bruce........$7  (A-ball)

Each of those players will have their salary increase by $3 each year so they'll be on my roster a while.  The rest of my present future are Marlins' outfielder Mike Stanton, Nationals' catcher Derek Norris, Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish and LSU Tiger pitcher Anthony Ranauldo.  They too will have their salaries increase by $3 as long as they are on my roster beginning when they make their major league debut.  Until then, they carry a salary of $0, so they only cost is a roster spot.

In addition, I carried over Miguel Montero, Carlos Pena and Ryan Zimmerman from last year to next, as well as two closers, Brian Wilson and Rafael Soriano.  The last player I kept was Derek Holland, who is also a +3 player.  I'm not optimistic that he'll realize his full potential this year, maybe not even next but I'd like to think he'll follow Jon Danks career curve and pay dividends in his second season.  A couple of reasons why I'm hopeful is that I really like what I've heard about the conditioning program that Nolan Ryan has the Rangers' pitchers doing and there's little debate that Holland's pitching coach, Mike Maddux is one of the best.  So I'm buying Holland's talent, but what I'm really buying is his potential for improvement due to the guys guiding his career. 

That's my 15, the total allowable to carry over from one year to the next.

With my hitting keepers, I'm pretty well set in the power department, so I really had no urgency to get into the bidding wars for the premier power hitters that were avalaible in this year's draft: ARod, Manny, etc.  I could use my money to speculate on speed, my achilles heel the past two years.   The other thing it allowed me to do was to spend a little extra on my starting pitching staff with eye toward getting some serious upside.

To that end, I targeted Brandon Phillips, Ryan Theriot and Ian Desmond for the middle infield and Alexis Rios, Brett Gardner and Michael Brantley in the outfield.  For the pitching staff I was hoping to land Johan Santana for well under value given his recent surgery, and then back him up with Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, a cheap closer and a couple speculative picks who have shown the skills to become very good starting pitchers. 

I got all the hitters I targeted and pretty much got the pitching I wanted with one notable exception.  Here's why I like the guys I got:

Phillips is coming off a down year in large part because of a wrist injury.  A healthy Brandon Phillips is one of the most productive fantasy infielders in the game, averaging 19 homers and 26 steals a season the last four years.  Ryan Theriot is a nice cheap source of middle infield speed; he doesn't steal enough to warrant the big bidding at a draft but by the end of the year he usually finishes with around 20 steals.  If the Nationals give Desmond the starting job - and there's really no reason why they shouldn't given how well he performed in September - he should finish with around 20 steals and maybe double digit homers, too.  Rios was surprisingly bad last year but his swing was screwed up and just he never got on track.  The White Sox started re-building his swing from scratch after they traded for him and it looked like he was just starting to get it back over the final two weeks of the season: 14 of 44 (.318) with 4 walks (against 4 Ks), 2 homers and 4 steals.  I don't think anyone questions he has the natural talent to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases and in that park he has a real chance to do something much better.  Brett Gardner stole 26 bases in a part-time role and has stolen 39 as a major leaguer in 375 career at bats.  He really fell apart at the plate in the second half of last season but he pays excellent defense and even if the Yankees only use him as a defensive replacement and pinch runner, he should pick up 15-20 steals.  For $1, that seemed like a pretty good deal.  I like Michael Brantley's chances of grabbing the other outfield spot in Cleveland opposite Sizemore and Choo.  He plays solid defense, has walked more than he struck out in the minors, gets on base at a pretty good clip and steals bases with incredible efficiency: 150 steals versus 34 caught in the minors (81.5% success rate which would rank among the best in the majors).  He has no power, but if he wins a full-time job out of spring and keeps it, it's reasonable to expect 30-40 steals from him. 

As for the pitching, I did not get Santana but I did land Roy Oswalt pretty cheaply.  He didn't have a great year in Houston but given how badly the team played, last season wasn't too different than what he's done the last five years.  For $15, I'll take that kind of stability.  I like Ricky Nolasco going into this year.  In 2009, he was a bit unlucky on balls in play and incredibly unlucky leaving runners on base.  The law of averages says that will improve.  Also, his velocity was picking up toward the end of the season, which bodes well for a better start than last.  The same things can be said of Ervin Santana, whose velocity was down due to the elbow strain to begin the year, but was almost back to the same form he showed in 2008 as the season closed.  I took a chance on Phil Hughes, who was great out of the bullpen and looked like he was ready for a shot at the rotation if Chamberlain, Wang and Pettitte don't fair well.  I also took Jordan Zimmermann.  I didn't really want to as I thought he would get passed up in the auction and be available for the draft because he's recovering from elbow surgery.  Once he was brought up I didn't want to be in a position that I would have to trade for him.  He's an amazing competitor and it would not surprise me if he's back early from rehab, maybe by mid-season.  He's a year older than Tommy Hanson but I think the two are comparable talents given how they've fared at the same ages throughout their amateur and professional careers.  The equalizer for Hanson's advantage in age is that Zimmermann has better velocity.  However, I'm mostly targeting him for 2011 as a keeper.   My cheap closer was Kerry Wood, who admittedly has had a checkered injury history, but until he gets traded he still has the job in Cleveland and was still striking out better than a batter per inning. 

This spring's reserve draft should be very interesting.  More emphasis is going toward acquiring prospects and not just the total number but when they are drafted.  In 2007, only 4 prospects were taken with the first 30 picks.  Last year, 12 were and by the end of the 5th round 28 prospects had been taken in 75 picks.  The pressure to take prospects early will be immense given how few are still left on the board before the draft even begins with all the keepers.  So there could be some value in taking veterans early on.  It should be interesting regardless.

2010 preseason XFL rosters
(Red = keepers, black = acquired in November auction)

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