Anatomy of a Keeper Draft
November 8, 2010

Whenever I have been involved in an expert league draft, I have always found it interesting to hear/read the critiques of the bidding, as well as the analysis/rating of the resulting teams.  With a keeper draft, it's even more interesting because salary inflation is such a critical aspect of the pricing, yet is completely ignored in most of the ad hoc evaluations. 

In all the drafts in which I have participated, I wrote down the picks as they happened so I could use them as both reference points for mistakes I may have made, but also as data points for tendencies from my fellow competitors.  Normally I don't share this information widely but I found the most recent XFL draft so intriguing that I thought it would be fun to give an insider's perspective on how these things play out and offer possible explanations for the results.

First, we must begin with the keeper lists.  All players have their salaries increase from the previous year except for players who have accumulated less than 50 at bats or 10 innings pitched in the major leagues.  Players who were drafted under those circumstances see their salaries increase yearly by $3.  All others increase by $5.  Here are the pre-draft rosters.

As you can see, there are a lot of empty spaces under the catching position.  Nineteen, all totaled.  Given the sparse number of impact catchers, bidding for catchers would be very aggressive, driving up prices for the best of them into the stratosphere where 5-tool outfielders live.  There would also be heavy demand on middle infielders and closers.  Given the relative scarcity of quality in that regard, the best would go for a premium, at least in theory.  Lastly, I saw only two premium outfielders - Matt Holliday and Carl Crawford - available so those two guys would draw a lot of money off the table.  Sure, there are plenty of other talented outfielders, like Grady Sizemore and Carlos Beltran but they had questions about their future performance, either coming off a down year or an injury-diminished season.

There were four premium first baseman - Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira and Adam Dunn - who should command big money ($40+) and one premium starting pitcher, CC Sabathia.  Third base really only had one premium name available - Alex Rodriguez - but there were a number of decent options after him.  So with that in mind, I thought demand would be pretty light as many of the pitching and corner spots were already filled. 

So my strategy was to toss out as many big money names as possible in order to drain the coffers and then sneak in to grab Derrek Lee coming off an injury-plagued year, but who should be completely healthy in 2011,  My hope was to get him for $25-30.  I also wanted to come away with one top closer, either Joe Nathan or Brian Wilson, both of whom I would pay up to $20 for.  I also needed to find some cheap outfield speed.  And lastly, I wanted to grab one second tier starter with first tier potential, someone like Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vazquez, etc., for about $15 and then fill in the rest of the roster in the end game with $1-3 upside plays.

One last note before I get into the draft itself.  Last year I had Miguel Montero on my squad and I seriously considered protecting him at $11.  I looked at his second half performance the last two year and saw that his command of the strikezone deteriorated each year so I wasn't completely sold on the notion that next year was going to be his breakout year.  It might well be, but I thought I could find a comparable catcher capable of hitting 10-15 homers with an on base of .340 for less than $11, like Chris Iannetta or Alex Avila.  Both guys were coming off disappointing seasons and I felt like bidding would be muted on them.  And I already had Derek Norris as a farm player, who probably will be moved from catching when he eventually makes the majors but not before, so he'll still qualify as a catcher for at least a year.

OK, so here's what went down:

1st Round
Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     Sabathia       $27     Kreutzer
Erickson   Iannetta       $10     Erickson
Feldman    Crawford       $46     Van Hook
Kreutzer   Teixeira       $39     Wiseguys
McCaffery  Pujols         $64     Moyer
Michaels   AJ Burnett     $4      Michaels
Dennis     M. Rivera      $18     Wiseguys
Ambrosius  C. Figgins     $19     Feldman
Zola       Papelbon       $12     Drooker
Moyer      A Rod          $43     Shandler
Van Hook   Garza          $20     Wiseguys
Drooker    Rollins        $27     Erickson
Walton     Jeter          $22     Feldman
Shandler   Holliday       $49     Feldman
Wood       McCann         $31     Erickson

Just to confirm your suspicions, the "Toss" is the person who threw out the player for bidding, and the "Bidder" is the person who won the bidding.  Anyway, I was a bit alarmed when Sabathia went for $27 (last year he went for $32) and then my primary target for catcher was thrown out as the second player in the draft.  There was simply too much money in the coffers for me to get into a bidding war this early so I had to let him go for $10.  When Crawford and Teixeira went for incredibly reasonable prices - I was expecting Tex to surge into the mid-40s - I started to get really worried that there would be too much money on the table by the time it got to my guys and I would have to pick between having a good first baseman or having a rest of the team.  The Pujols bid was not at all surprising given that he was protected the previous year for $68.  Through the first ten names thrown out, there was really no sign that money was going to come out or that inflation was having an impact.  Other than the Pujols bid, these looked like bids one would find at a regular single-season mixed league draft.  It wasn't until the bidding for Holliday that I felt that maybe the early rounds were going to correct some of the pre-draft inflation.

2nd Round

Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     Dunn           $39     Shandler
Erickson   Montero        $19     Wiseguys
Feldman    Doumit         $13     VanHook
Kreutzer   N. Walker      $17     Walton
McCaffery  G. Sizemore    $30     Winick
Michaels   Cervelli       $5      Walton
Dennis     B. Wilson      $19     Wood
Ambrosius  Broxton        $12     Shandler
Zola       Napoli         $23     Dennis
Moyer      R. Martin      $11     Michaels
VanHook    Fielder        $40     Kreutzer
Drooker    Kendrick       $16     Ambrosius
Walton     Y. Molina      $12     Ambrosius
Shandler   Swisher        $27     Dennis
Wood       Granderson     $27     Ambrosius

When Dunn went for $39, I thought I was going to let out a Charlie Brown-esque "Argh!" because yet another top cornerman was rostered for a very reasonable price.  And when Montero went for $19, I went scrambling for more names of catchers whom I could live with on my roster because Avila was likely going to be out of my price range.  I'm not really sure what the catching situation will be in Pittsburgh, but as I saw it, with Ryan Doumit sharing time with Chris Snyder and still going for $13, I was sure that the guy that the Tigers want to be their everyday catcher was going to go for more.  It was at this point where we saw the first real signs of inflation.  Brian Walton needed his whole middle infield and with two of the top names already gone, he had to start spending some money.  I like Grady Sizemore quite a bit and in any normal year where he's completely healthy he's worth $30 easy.  But coming off microfracture surgery, $30 is closer to the high end of what I would have paid in a single season league and close to value as a $35 keeper in 2012.  I had gone into the draft allotting $20 to get Brian Wilson, and as much as I like him and as good as he was this year, spending $19 on him was grossly overpaying for saves as it turns out.  But more on that later.  What I found most interesting about this draft was that every time it looked like a guy had bid himself out of the draft with an overbid, he would come back just a few players with a brilliant undervalue pick-up.  This happened over and over and with every owner.  For example, when Steve Moyer spent $64 on Albert Pujols, I thought to myself that there was no way he'd have enough money left over to get a good closer, much less the two it usually takes to stay in the race without dumping the category.  In a few rounds, I found out how wrong I was. 

3rd Round
Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     Oswalt         $21     Kreutzer
Erickson   Jaso           $11     Kreutzer
Feldman    D. Lee         $16     Wood
Kreutzer   A. Ramirez     $23     Kreutzer
McCaffery  B. Phillips    $24     Van Hook
Michaels   Ichiro         $20     Walton
Dennis     Quentin        $21     Michaels
Ambrosius  R Franklin     $10     Michaels
Zola       Beckett        $10     Michaels
Moyer      Posada         $12     Van Hook
VanHook    J. Sanchez     $16     Michaels
Drooker    Loney          $14     Walton
Walton     F. Rodriguez   $10     Drooker
Shandler   C. Lee         $19     Walton
Wood       B. Roberts     $18     Michaels

I had Oswalt last year for $15 and seriously considered keeping him for $20 but his numbers were ridiculously good last year... perhaps too good.... career bests in many respects.  My philosophy is generally to let a player go if he can't do any better than what he just did and that's how I felt about Oswalt.  I did expect him to go for more than $21 though.  Perhaps his price was an indication that everyone else felt the same way.  With the third toss came my moment of truth: Derrek Lee.  Sure, he's mid-30s and coming off a down year.  But thumb injuries are notoriously tough on power numbers and he plays defense well enough that he'll get a full-time job on pretty much whichever team he wants given the number of teams that are looking for first basemen this winter.  As long as he's healthy, I feel strongly his numbers will rebound next year.  When I got him for $16 (expecting to pay $25) my outside expression was that of  "yes, I'd like thousand island dressing with my salad" but inside I was doing a Mark Gastineau sack dance.  That lasted about a minute because 1) I had to figure out where I was going to have to spend the extra money and 2) you can see that the prices of closers was dropping fast - Ryan Franklin for $10, Francisco Rodriguez for $10 - making my Brian Wilson pick start to look really bad and meaning everyone else would have a lot of extra money as well.  It would get worse.

4th Round
Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     W Rodriguez    $14     Kreutzer
Erickson   Lilly          $14     Ambrosius
Feldman    J. Motte       $1      Feldman
Kreutzer   B. Abreu       $20     Dennis
McCaffery  Adam Jones     $15     Erickson
Michaels   C. Breslow     $1      Michaels
Dennis     A. Avila       $7      Wood
Ambrosius  Dempster       $11     Wiseguys
Zola       Nolasco        $15     Wood
Moyer      Jo Santana     $13     Wood
VanHook    A. Gonzalez    $10     Shandler
Drooker    Furcal         $14     Zola
Walton     Niemann        $5      Wiseguys
Shandler   Shields        $10     Shandler
Wood       J. Vazquez     $6      Michaels

Remember when I was talking about overbids being followed up by brilliant gets?  I'm not sure Jonathan Sanchez is going to be a true ace.  He certainly has the stuff for it but he's still a work in progress so one has to really be a believer to spend $16 on him in this bidding environment.  However, one doesn't have to be much of a believer to spend $6 on Javier Vazquez.  That kind of turn-around happened so many times in this draft, it was actually thrilling to watch.  As soon as someone would appear to have overbid himself into the end-game wasteland, he would come back with a fantastic win to get right back into the thick of things.  If only someone had written a book and made a movie about this league, this year.  Oh well.  I did get my catcher in this round and for less than I was expecting, as well as the starter I was targeting, Ricky Nolasco.  I was price enforcing on Johan Santana when the bidding suddenly stopped as if there was a breaking news bulletin that he had decided to switch arms for pitching.  So that answered the question I had earlier as to where I was going to spend my extra Derrek Lee money. 

5th Round
Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     Zambrano       $8      Feldman
Erickson   M. Young       $25     Feldman
Feldman    C. Kimbrell    $7      Dennis
Kreutzer   Takahashi      $1      Kreutzer
McCaffery  C. Beltran     $19     Walton
Michaels   B. Molina      $2      Michaels
Dennis     M. Olivo       $7      Feldman
Ambrosius  A. Bailey      $13     Wiseguys
Zola       T. Hudson      $17     Wiseguys
Moyer      G. Floyd       $7      Shandler
VanHook    Hanigan        $6      Winick
Drooker    C. Pena        $9      Wiseguys
Walton     R. Hernandez   $2      Dennis
Shandler   A. Hill        $15     Erickson
Wood       M. Ramirez     $7      Ambrosius

Again: bidding $12 for Yadier Molina in the second round... I don't know about that.  Getting Manny Ramirez for $7?  All day, every day.  Greg Ambrosius would also later land Alfonso Soriano for $5.  That's kind of a big deal.

6th Round
Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     J. Bay         $15     Walton
Erickson   Pelfrey        $3      Ambrosius
Feldman    Nathan         $7      Feldman
Kreutzer   JD Drew        $12     Dennis
McCaffery  Jo. Lopez      $3      Wiseguys
Michaels   Lackey         $6      Winick
Dennis     T. Hunter      $25     Dennis
Ambrosius  V. Guerrero    $8      VanHook
Zola       Peavy          $8      Michaels
Moyer      C. Sale        $7      Dennis
VanHook    Uribe          $10     VanHook
Drooker    Jo. Valverde   $12     Dennis
Walton     Aardsma        $7      Moyer
Shandler   Willingham     $14     Winick
Wood       Jenks          $7      Moyer

This was the round where I felt like I had just eaten humble pie made from crows.  Three closers - Joe Nathan, David Aardsma and Bobby Jenks - all went for $7.  I could nearly have had all three for the price I paid for Brian Wilson.  I really hope Wilson strikes out 120 guys and saves 60 games next year with an ERA under 1.00.

7th Round

Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick     J. Zimmermann  $7      Kreutzer
Erickson   Kuroda         $9      VanHook
Feldman    Thole          $2      Shandler
Kreutzer   E. Santana     $8      Feldman
McCaffery  D. Ortiz       $11     Walton
Michaels   K. Slowey      $6      Michaels
Dennis     D. Span        $20     Kreutzer
Ambrosius  Ra. Davis      $6      Feldman
Zola       T. Snider      $5      Erickson
Moyer      Sandoval       $11     Walton
VanHook    F. Cordero     $5      Walton
Drooker    H. Street      $9      Feldman
Walton     S. Baker       $5      Erickson
Shandler   Raburn         $10     Dennis
Wood       E. Jackson     $4      Wood

I sat next to Ron Shandler at the table and he was in on every catcher that was brought up for bidding.  And each time he would sigh wistfully as he came up one dollar short.  And then Josh Thole fell into his lap for $2.  Patience (or as it is literally translated from the Bible "long-suffering") is indeed a virtue.  I've always liked Edwin Jackson and based on his performance in Chicago last year I think he might have finally put everything together to be the ace he was projected as when he first came up as a 20-year old Dodger fireballer.  Don Cooper is a very good and hugely under-appreciated pitching coach so I do believe last year's results were real. 

8th Round
Toss     Player      $$$   Bidder
Winick      Coghlan       $2      Drooker
Erickson    H. Bailey     $6      Ambrosius
Feldman     Infante       $7      Feldman
Kreutzer    Lowrie        $12     Kreutzer
McCaffery   Crisp         $13     Wiseguys
Michaels    M. Ordonez    $6      Kreutzer
Dennis      C. Headley    $10     Zola
Ambrosius   A. Gordon     $7      Erickson
Zola        Lind          $14     Feldman
Moyer       M. Tejada     $4      Ambrosius
VanHook     F. Rodney     $6      Walton
Drooker     Niese         $12     Wiseguys
Walton      F. Lewis      $3      Walton
Shandler    B. Hawpe      $1      Shandler
Wood        M. Joyce      $1      Wood

I was hoping I could get Coco Crisp for around $10 if things broke right, but after the draft when I spoke with the Wiseguys duo of Gene McCaffery and John Menna, it was clear I never had a chance of rostering him.  They told me they would have been willing to go as high as $20 on the 5-tool speedster.  And if he manages to stay healthy for a full-season I have no doubt he'll be worth much more than that.  The 8th round was the last one in which everyone was eligible to bid.  The remaining rounds comprised the endgame in which teams jockeyed for the last remaining name players and filled out their rosters.  Here are the final results:

Completed rosters

What I want to emphasize is that you can't judge a draft by one pick-up; a successful draft must be judged by what the team needed and what the team got.  I came into this draft needing some power, a lot of speed and some decent pitching.  I feel pretty good that I got power, although that hinges on whether Pat Burrell hit enough in San Francisco over the second half of 2010 to get a full-time job in the National League and whether Chipper Jones can stay healthy and effective for at least a half a season.  I am pretty confident with the pitching I bought.  Sure, there are some concerns about Nolasco's knee and Santana's shoulder but preliminary reports are that their surgeries went well and both guys have the kind of character and determination to make rehab a priority this winter.  But my effort to acquire speed would have to be termed an epic failure.  If anything, my team got slower; I acquired negative speed if that's even possible.

Fortunately, there's five months of off-season for trading and a spring supplemental draft to fill out the 17-man reserve roster.  So hopefully between now and next April I'll have acquired what I need to compete.  Here's the follow-up on the final rounds.