Once More Into the Breach...
November 15, 2011

After last year's complete flop in the XFL, I was a little reluctant to follow the same path by publicly analyzing the November draft.  However, the exercise seemed useful as it provided some insight into how these scenarios play out.  Almost everyone thinks they can do a better job of drafting than the people actually participating in the draft, but just about everything looks easy in hindsight.  This is one of the reasons not everyone can be a closer.  Sure, it's easy on paper but once you're in the game and the outcome is solely on your shoulders it's a different story.  That said, let the kibbutzing begin.

Coming into this draft I don't think anyone would argue I had a pretty solid list of keepers. 
Buster Posey - $7
Joe Mauer - $22
Brandon Belt - $4
Gordon Beckham - $10
Zack Cozart - $4
Justin Upton - $16
Jay Bruce - $13
Mike Stanton - $7
Stephen Strasburg - $7
Drew Pomeranz - $4

Minor Leaguers:

Yu Darvish
Trevor Bauer
Derek Norris
Anthony Rendon
Jonathan Singleton

XM Radio broadcast the draft live and beforehand the host of the broadcast asked me why I had not held onto Colby Lewis at $11.  I'm not sure if he was baiting me, or just trying to lay some groundwork as to how the league works or whether he was just high on Lewis, but I told him that mid-range pitchers like Lewis are typically acquired between the $8-15 range and that if I was indeed interested in re-aquiring Lewis I could probably get him at that price.  As it turns out, I could have had him for much less.   I hope to provide a link to the interviews and to a rebroadcast of the draft sometime in the near future. 

Anyway, with those keepers, I decided what I needed most from this draft was some stable production, namely in the form of established players.  I already had the upside plays with all the young talent.  All I needed to do is grab some established veterans who would provide guaranteed production.  So I focused on grabbing one of the top available aces (Halladay, Sabathia, Greinke) plus one of the top available first basemen (Pujols, Teixeira or Konerko) and one of the top available third basemen (Zimmerman or ARod) and I would fill in the rest with whatever was available, hopefully with cheap speed in the outfield as a bonus. 

A wise man once said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, so I also made sure I had a back-up plan or two just in case that didn't work out.  My fall back play was to grab one of the second tier firstbasemen who have some upside but big questions (Napoli, Goldschmidt, Dunn or Morneau), a couple power hitters from the outfield and fill in with speed where I could find it.  Regardless, I had to come away with an ace pitcher and I had set aside as much as $40 to do it.  I was willing to spend as much as $40 on a first baseman and as much as $30 on Zimmerman, $25 on ARod.  In retrospect, I should have raised those limits but unlike last year I don't think it was a critical mistake. 

So here's how the first round played out:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker CC Sabathia $27 Moyer
Shandler Albert Pujols $66 Michaels
Wood Chase Utley $26 Dennis
Ambrosius Mariano Rivera $17 Moyer
Feldman Mike Napoli $29 Erickson
Moyer Ryan Lavarnway $8 Wood
Kreutzer Adam Jones $21 Van Hook
Winick Roy Halladay $42 Michaels
Zola Jose Reyes $38 Erickson
McCaffrey Alex Rodriguez $29 Van Hook
Dennis Adam Dunn $12 Moyer
Michaels Asdrubal Cabrera 2$4 Van Hook
Erickson Brian McCann $25 Dennis
Walton Zack Greinke $21 Wood
Van Hook Jose Valverde $15 Moyer

This year's champion, Don Drooker, opened the bidding on CC Sabathia who went for a very reasonable $27.  Want to know something weird?  Sabathia was the first player thrown out last year... and he went for $27 then, too.  Maybe he should change his uniform number.  My primary target was Halladay so I let that one go even though it was well below my threshhold.  Good news, I thought to myself... aces are going cheap this year.  This meant I would have more money to spend on first basemen.  Lesson One: never count your players before they're rostered.  I had figured that Pujols would go above $60 so I wasn't counting on him, and sure enough he broke the bid record.  But Teixeira looked very gettable at this point.  Get Teixeira and Halladay and call it a day.  Yeah, well...

Lawr Michaels, who had entered the draft with the most money to spend, rostered Pujols, and as it turned out, Halladay as well... for $42, a point that would prove very interesting once the draft concluded.  Despite having the most money to spend and rostering the most expensive hitter and the most expensive pitcher, Lawr left the draft with $48 on the table.  I do not know his reasons but that fact had a profound impact on the pricing in later rounds.  But I digress... I considered Napoli because he was eligible at first base and catcher and could provide a great safety net at a position noted for frequent injuries, a reality that was made abundantly clear to me last year.  However, paying $29 for last year's career year didn't seem like a good use of funds regardless of how flexible he is.  And Teixiera was still available and I only had one spot for a first baseman.  Subsequently, I got caught up in a bidding war with Jeff Winick over Ryan Lavarnway and ended up paying $8 for my catcher insurance policy.  That said...

Lavarnway was appealing for several reasons, the first of which is the guy can really hit.  He has a career .284/.376/.521 slash line in the minors with a good yet aggressive eye at the plate.  Last year he popped 34 homers across three levels.  By comparison, last year's catching sensation Alex Avila had a .280/.372/.424 career slash line in the minors along the same age parameters.  Finding catchers with 25 homer power is pretty hard, and hitting in a line-up as loaded as the Red Sox means he won't have a great deal of pressure to produce right out of gate.  The fact that he was one of Boston's few productive hitters in the final week last year will also buy him some leeway with Red Sox Nation if he gets off to a slow start.  Also working in his favor, at least in XFL terms, is that he didn't surpass the 50 at bat threshhold to lose his farm status so his salary, should he prove to be keeper-worthy, will only increase by +3 per year.  So even though I overpaid for Lavarnway on the surface, he's actually a pretty good risk, especially at catcher.  Also appealing was the fact that his removal from the free agent pool meant that the other teams had one fewer quality bat to bid for at catcher, and seeing as how there were 19 spots that needed to be filled, I was hoping that would put some pressure on the other owners to overpay for good catching. 

When Halladay went for $42 I was very nervous that I was going to have to go way over my limit to land Greinke.  As it turns out, I rostered him for far below what I expected and in hindsight, it might be the best move I made all draft.  Halladay will be turning 35 this year and as great as he's been, there simply haven't been too many pitchers in history who continued to pitch at their career best levels into their mid-30s.  In fact, Halladay, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling and Jim Bunning are the only starters in the modern era to post a season with better than 7.0 Ks per 9 innings and a WHIP under 1.13 at age 34.  Only Schilling, Johnson, Clemens and Ryan did it again at age 35 or later.  Combine that with the fact there's a very real possibility that the Phillies infield defense won't be as good this coming year with Howard out for part of the season, Utley working on iffy knees and Rollins potentially gone as a free-agent, there's a decent chance that Halladay's performance could drop off, perhaps even significantly.  On the other side of the coin, Greinke was a bit unlucky in 2011 with both injuries and balls in play and there's a strong probability that his infield defense will improve this offseason with the likely departure of Betancourt at short and Fielder at first (who isn't bad but there are much better glovemen available).  So it wouldn't take a stretch of the imagination to see Greinke perform much better than last year, a year in which he struck out better than 10 batters per nine innings pitched. 

Round 2:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker Mark Teixeira $45 Erickson
Shandler Jimmy Rollins $26 Ambrosius
Wood Matt Holliday $40 Kreutzer
Ambrosius Victor Martinez $24 McCaffrey
Feldman Michael Young $25 Walton
Moyer Stephen Drew $11 Walton
Kreutzer Paul Konerko $38 Shandler
Winick Miguel Montero $24 McCaffrey
Zola Carl Crawford $39 Kreutzer
McCaffrey Ryan Zimmerman $39 McCaffrey
Dennis Derek Jeter $14 Feldman
Michaels Bobby Abreu $2 Michaels
Erickson Erick  Aybar $15 Dennis
Walton Ubaldo Jimenez $14 Ambrosius
Van Hook Joaquin Soria $13 Ambrosius

I don't know if my taking Lavarnway in the first round had an impact on the bidding, but I did notice that McCann, Victor Martinez and Miguel Montero went for a combined $73 in the subsequent 20 players tossed.

OK, so much for Teixiera.  I was in on him up to $44 but I just couldn't bring myself to keep the bidding going.  Jeff Erickson looked like he was willing to go much higher and at this point I just didn't see the wisdom of spending so much on one player who has been in decline the past three seasons, with the type of skillset and at an age where huge rebounds are not commonplace.  Of course, in a keeper draft talent maintains primacy over money so in retrospect I should have pushed it to at least $47.  I also bowed out late on the bidding for Konerko, who like Teixeira is experiencing a bit of a decline (particularly after the Break last year) but is four years older.  Not to sound like a broken record, but I was in late on Zimmerman, too, and as much as I like Zimm as a player, I couldn't justify spending $40 on him, age 27 season or not.  To be clear, in my opinion Zimmerman is the best third baseman in the majors.  But fantasy baseball doesn't count defense or intangibles and the fact of the matter is that he's averaged 21 homers, 80 RBI and 80 runs for six years now and he spent the second half of last season working through some mechanical issues.  I still think he has George Brett-type upside, but at $40 he will have more than spent those earnings.  Granted, my roster needed stability and guaranteed production but in the next round I got almost the exact same production for $18.

Round 3:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker Brian Wilson $12 McCaffrey
Shandler Giovanny Soto $14 Moyer
Wood Shin-Soo Choo $27 Walton
Ambrosius Chad Billingsley $11 Drooker
Feldman Todd Helton $6 Feldman
Moyer Chris Iannetta $15 Drooker
Kreutzer Andre Ethier $25 Dennis
Winick John Buck $7 Winick
Zola Brandon Phillips $22 Dennis
McCaffrey Josh Johnson $18 McCaffrey
Dennis Russell Martin $8 Van Hook
Michaels Carlos Quentin $18 Wood
Erickson Ricky Nolasco $9 Shandler
Walton Kurt Suzuki $5 Ambrosius
Van Hook Carlos Marmol $11 Erickson

Obviously Carlos Quentin doesn't play third base so I still have a hole to fill on the roster, but for $20 less I got as much homer, RBI and run scoring potential as I would have gotten from overpaying for Zimmerman.  I lose some ground in on base percentage but the difference wasn't enough to grind my teeth over. 

I seriously considered getting into a bidding war over Josh Johnson because he is a special talent.  But since his last two seasons concluded early due to shoulder issues, and last year my own team's misfortunes sprang from pitchers who were trying to make it back from shoulder problems, that was one risk I was determined to avoid this year.  Consequently, I also stayed away from Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana, both pitchers I really like talent-wise but who have struggled to keep their shoulders pain-free.  I love watching them pitch but that's just too much agita to roster. 

Round 4:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker Paul Goldschmidt $20 Wood
Shandler AJ Burnett $5 Shandler
Wood Matt Garza $19 Wood
Ambrosius Carlos Lee $12 Walton
Feldman Yadier Molina $10 Dennis
Moyer Yunel Escobar $10 Michaels
Kreutzer Alex Rios $2 Zola
Winick Tim Hudson $12 Moyer
Zola Ichiro Suzuki $20 Moyer
McCaffrey Jon Niese $6 McCaffrey
Dennis Domonic Brown $14 Winick
Michaels Andrew Bailey $7 Erickson
Erickson Chris Perez $11 Walton
Walton Ivan Nova $6 Van Hook
Van Hook Clay Buchholz $10 Kreutzer

In spring training, I pointed out Paul Goldschmidt as someone to keep an eye on.  He just looked like he belonged in the majors, the way he carried himself, the way his at bats played out... there was just something that said "big leaguer".  I know that's not useful for any kind of meaningful analysis, but there are things that affect career trending that aren't revealed by a study of the numbers.  But you know what is?  Before last season the Diamondbacks asked him to work on cutting down his strikeouts and he responded by reducing his rate by almost 7% while advancing a level.  As a bonus he nearly doubled his walk rate, too.  To me, that indicates not only is he coachable but he's also smart enough to figure out how pitchers are trying to get him out and make the appropriate adjustments.  If you watched the post season, he showed some very advanced thinking at the plate in key situations.  I'm not saying I'll get the same production as Teixieria or Konerko at half the price, but I do think there are a lot of positives in his ledger.

I also like Matt Garza quite a bit this year.  He was unlucky in several metrics in 2011 and with new, much smarter management in Chicago I think his supporting cast will only get better.  He made a name for himself as a prospect in 2006 advancing through four levels with spectacular ERAs, WHIPS, control and strikeout rates on his way to the majors.  There are a number of signs pointing to 2012 as the year he realizes the potential he showed back then.

I talked with several of the participants after the draft and it was fairly unanimous that the simultaneous broadcast was distracting at times during the bidding.  The commentators were occasionally quite loud in their conversations and since they were sitting only about 15 feet away from the table, it was hard to hear who was being bid on and what the bid was.  This partially explains some of the unusually low winning bids on some players.

Round 5:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker Mark Reynolds $17 Michaels
Shandler Nick Markakis $31 Shandler
Wood Chris Sale $9 Winick
Ambrosius David Ortiz $14 Ambrosius
Feldman Miguel Olivo $2 Erickson
Moyer Shane Victorino $19 Walton
Kreutzer Marlon Byrd $4 Winick
Winick Roy Oswalt $9 Feldman
Zola Torii Hunter $14 Dennis
McCaffrey Jonathan Sanchez $5 McCaffrey
Dennis Jim Johnson $3 Wood
Michaels Johnny Giavotella $6 McCaffrey
Erickson Jason Motte $6 Wood
Walton Sergio Santos $6 Winick
Van Hook Rick Porcello $3 Ambrosius

I was in on the bidding for Chris Sale.   I always come away impressed seeing him perform whether it's on the mound or in interviews.  I don't know how exactly that will play out this coming season but I'm optimistic that he will be able to put his considerable talent to good use.  Afterward, Jeff Winick (who is from Chicago) confessed it was just stupid pride that made him stay in the bidding but I doubt he'll end up regretting it when the season is over.  Sale shouldn't have much trouble making the transition from the bullpen to the rotation, especially with pitching guru Don Cooper guiding him. 

From this round I came away with two relievers... well, I hope two closers.  Neither guy has been named the de facto closer for his team, but both performed very well down the stretch and barring a catastrophic spring I would hope that both have a head start toward claiming the job.  Kenley Jansen was another reliever I wanted who is in a similar position, but roster spots are limited and these two were the first to be offered. 

Round 6:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker Chipper Jones $4 Winick
Shandler Michael Cuddyer $11 Van Hook
Wood Brian Roberts $7 Wood
Ambrosius Vernon Wells $2 Kreutzer
Feldman Trevor Cahill $6 Wood
Moyer Rafael Furcal $6 Zola
Kreutzer Derrek Lee $5 Ambrosius
Winick Justin Morneau $8 Winick
Zola Jayson Werth $22 Wood
McCaffrey Aaron Hill $10 Kreutzer
Dennis Wandy Rodriguez $10 Ambrosius
Michaels Jason Kubel $4 Erickson
Erickson Ryan Dempster $6 Drooker
Walton Francisco Liriano $3 Winick
Van Hook Brain Anderson $6 Erickson

No doubt you are asking, "why Brian Roberts?"  The honest answer is that I thought he was a decent risk.  That and since I hadn't planned on having this much money at this point in the draft I didn't know where else to spend it.  The original plan was to have spent most of the cash on corner guys and an ace or two, but when that didn't transpire I still had a ton of money and only one starter, a middle infield, a third base and an outfield slot to spend it on.  I had designated my final two pitching slots for Juan Nicasio and Addison Reed and neither of them was going to cost a great deal.  As you can surmise, by this time in the draft the pickings for non-outfield offense were pretty slim. 

That said, medical reports for Roberts have been good over the last month: no symptoms from his concussion and all his other nicks and bruises have fully healed.  Assuming that's not just offseason falderall, a fully healthy Roberts, even at age 34, is a .350 on base, 25-30 steal middle infielder if he can stay on the field for the full season.  Even with the concussion issues his stolen base rate and success rate have not dropped off substantially from what he offered in 2009.  If he's completely healthy, I got a $20-25 player for $7.  If not, I didn't spend much and will get his replacement, however inferior, for $1. 

Trevor Cahill, like Greinke and Garza, was undone in 2011 by some bad luck but has a very nice minor league pedrigee pointing to better days ahead and is trending in the right direction.  Like them he also a smart GM who knows how to improve a supporting cast.  Billy Beane will have his work cut out for him this winter as the A's infield defense went south in a big way last year.

And now we get to Jayson Werth.  There were a lot of "I told you sos" handed out last year as Werth struggled through his first season in Washington.  Yes, the park played a part.  But what isn't often mentioned is that he was asked to do a lot of things he normally isn't asked to do.  For example, the previous two years, 86% of his at bats came from either the 5th or the 6th spot in the line-up.  In 2011, it was less than 40%.  Team injuries and lack of talent in the line-up was the culprit.  That won't be as much of an issue in 2012 as GM Mike Rizzo has made it a priority to find a lead-off hitter and some more depth, meaning Werth should fit back in the 5-hole where he is most comfortable.  Combine that with some better luck with balls in play and we should see a season more in line with what he did in Philly. 

Round 7:

Toss Player Salary Roster
Drooker Carlos Beltran $15 Feldman
Shandler James McDonald $2 Drooker
Wood Juan Nicasio $1 Wood
Ambrosius Nick Swisher $17 Winick
Feldman Huston Street $3 Winick
Moyer Homer Bailey $3 McCaffrey
Kreutzer Vladimir Guerrero $1 Kreutzer
Winick Jose Tabata $10 Winick
Zola Kendrys Morales $8 McCaffrey
McCaffrey Neil Walker $10 Walton
Dennis Hiroki Kuroda $3 Drooker
Michaels Chase Headley $8 Wood
Erickson Alfonso Soriano $6 Moyer
Walton Emilio Bonifacio $13 Walton
Van Hook Johnny Venters $2 Van Hook

I still didn't have a third basemen but I was more or less targeting Chase Headley at this point in the draft.  Even though he plays in a very tough park for hitters, he gets on base, steals a few bags and should see a boost in home run power as he enters his peak years.  The Padres are rumored to be open to trading him because they feel they have other options at third (James Darnell, Jedd Gyorko and Logan Forsythe) so he might actually see a significant boost in his power numbers if he falls into the right situation.  Last year's lack of home run production is concerning but can be partially explained by a hand injury.  His doubles rate actually increased so the power is still there.  If he ends up in a better park, we could see 15-20 homers out of Headley with regular playing time in addition to the aforementioned goodness. 

Round 8 and beyond:

Drooker Ian Desmond $13 Winick
Shandler Ryan Doumit $4 Winick
Wood Addison Reed $1 Wood
Ambrosius Mike Morse $15 Walton
Feldman David Robertson $2 Walton
Moyer Carlos Pena $12 Winick
Kreutzer Edwin Jackson $1 Kreutzer
Winick    none
Zola Grady Sizemore $12 McCaffrey
McCaffrey Dayan Viciedo $1 McCaffrey
Dennis Daniel Bard $4 Kreutzer
Michaels Aaron Crow $4 Van Hook
Erickson Delmon Young $3 Erickson
Walton Colby Lewis $3 Zola
Van Hook JD Martinez $4 Ambrosius

Both Nicasio and Reed possess mid-90s fastballs with very good control.  Both experienced some bad luck - Nicasio with strand rates and Reed with balls in play - but the talent is there to be excellent contributors this year.  Nicasio will have to overcome some physical and psychological obstacles from his unfortunate incident with a comebacker last year but all signs so far have been positive.  Along with Pomeranz, Darvish and Bauer, these two will add to a pitching staff that has some quality youth and upside. 

On the offensive side, obviously there are some question marks.  Will Brandon Belt get a chance to play everyday?  Has Brian Roberts fully recovered?  Can Carlos Quentin stay healthy enough for 550 at bats?  Will a change of management help both he and Gordon Beckham, not to mention Adam Dunn and Alex Rios?  Regardless of who ends up being the White Sox hitting coach, it will help immensely having Robin Ventura as the manager over Ozzie Guillen.  I'm not down on Ozzie Guillen... he brings a lot to the table.  But Ventura, like Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia, was a good hitter and knows what it takes to keep a consistent swing for a full season.  I'm not sure that's one of Guillen's strengths. 

I ended up leaving the table with $27 in tow so perhaps in retrospect I should have gone higher on Alex Rodriguez or one of the other big names.  However, the question is this: could I have gotten ARod for $37?  He went for $29 but as with several players that doesn't mean I could have ended up with him for one dollar more than he went.  In the case of Zimmerman, it was Gene McCaffrey and I alone taking him from the high 20s to his final price of $39 and I am convinced Gene would have gone into the mid 40s before pausing.  So while it seems like I left a lot of money on the table, I'm not convinced it was useable.  And then the other question is would the other player have justified the extra expenditure?  Time will tell.  One advantage of leaving money on the table is that it gives cap room to make deals during the season.  The XFL has a hard cap on active salary of $325, so an extra $27 of wiggle room is pretty significant if I need to take on a big salary in trade.  And with keeper lists as loaded as they are, leaving some money on the table isn't necessarily a sign of not understanding the value in the player pool, especially considering this draft takes place just days after the free agency period opens and a full four months before spring training games even begin.

Like most drafts, my Plan A didn't come to fruition.  There are simply too many moving parts for a draft plan to fall in place perfectly, at least in a deep competitive league like this one.  I'm not even sure most people come away with Plan B in tact.  However, I didn't need to divert to any players who were not on my "want list" (I prioritize a list of 40 or so players I'd like to roster before any baseball draft in which I participate) and I'm pretty sure I didn't repeat last year's Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Regardless, this was only the opening salvo as almost half the players that will eventually comprise our teams are still unrostered, to be added in the spring supplemental draft at the end of March.  All I wanted to do is come away with some big pieces in place and have an eye for a few feasible options to fill out the rest in the spring.  For now I'll call this Plan C for "capable"... and hopefully, "championship".

XFL Starting Rosters for 2012