Roster analysis: the new guy

For those of you who don’t know me, allow me to briefly introduce myself. My name is Mark Himmelstein, the THT Fantasy staff’s most recent addition. Throughout the season, I’ll be covering the Trader’s Corner column, the inaugural edition of which you can find here, along with various other analyses and discussions.

As the newest member of the crew, I was eager to get involved in a few leagues with my fellow writers and show what I can do. I was invited to join the Hardball Times Fantasy League, and of course, graciously accepted.

The league features 12 teams, all managed by THT writers, including a large portion of the fantasy staff. It’s in the rotisserie format with the standard 5×5 scoring categories. The draft was an online auction with starting budgets of $260.

Michael Stein, of the THT Fantasy feature The Verdict, already went over his team here. Now let’s take a look at mine.

Roster

C – Miguel Montero ($10)
1B – Paul Konerko ($17)
2B – Brandon Phillips ($15)
3B – Mark Reynolds ($11)
SS – Starlin Castro ($21)
CI – Mat Gamel ($3)
MI – Danny Espinosa ($1)
OF – Justin Upton ($46)
OF – Jason Heyward ($17)
OF – Michael Bourn ($14)
OF – Matt Joyce ($4)
Util – Alex Presley ($2)
Util – Alex Rios ($2)

SP – Stephen Strasburg ($22)
SP – Brandon Beachy ($10)
SP – Mat Latos ($9)
RP – Jason Motte ($9)
RP – Joel Hanrahan ($9)
P – Greg Holland ($3)
P – Jonathan Broxton ($4)
P – Matt Thornton ($2)
P – Frank Francisco ($2)

BN – Mike Aviles ($3)
BN – Carlos Lee ($1)
BN – Tommy Hanson ($6)
BN – Anibal Sanchez ($6)
BN – Mike Minor ($5)

Discussion

My approach to the auction was to exploit the extra knowledge I had on the other writers’ respective approaches. As the new guy and a long time reader of THT Fantasy, I know far more about their strategies and the players they like than they do about mine. That meant patience, and a willingness to exploit a market established by others rather than setting and dominating the market myself.

The result was that instead of a few true stars I have a large abundance of mid-range talent. This isn’t a traditional approach to auctions, and while it paid off in certain areas, it led to two mistakes. In hindsight, both should have been perfectly manageable, but neither was so damaging that they killed my game-plan.

The first mistake was how I handled my top target—Justin Upton. I should have taken the initiative and nominated him myself. Instead, I let other stars come off the board first, and Upton was one of the last elite bats put on the block. That meant inflation, and I paid more than I would have liked.

The second mistake was leaving money on the table—$6 to be exact. A few owners were playing a strong stars-and-scrubs strategy and I wanted to leave myself enough money down the stretch to take control of the endgame market. It worked for most of the guys I had in the cross-hairs, but then came Lucas Duda.

Corner Infield was the one position I was yet to fill. Lucas Duda makes a fine target for this position, but I hadn’t realized just how exhausted the the CI ranks had become after him. Only a few of us had flexible budgets left, so I nominated him, and Brad Johnson quickly engaged me in a small bidding war. I blinked first, and let him fall to Brad.

The choice essentially came to retaining enough of a budget to trump any subsequent nominations, but leaving some money on the table, or rostering Duda and waiting until everyone else exhausted their budgets as well to fill out the rest of my roster.

Brad later informed me he was willing to go further on Duda, so in hindsight, I probably would have lost him anyway. But it never feels good to leave money on the table.

With both mistakes the lesson is that I tried to be too fine, especially early, and it cost me some opportunity. If I had forced Upton onto the block sooner, I probably could have had him a bit cheaper. And if I had been more aggressive on high end talent, I wouldn’t have been left wanting at CI and could have avoided leaving money on the table without necessarily sacrificing depth elsewhere.

Despite these mistakes, I still feel my roster is plenty strong. While I lack a true second-tier talent, I don’t see any glaring weaknesses and should have plenty of room to compete in all 10 categories.

Here are some thoughts on a few of my particular selections and tactics.

Starlin Castro, Mark Reynolds, and Danny Espinosa

In terms of “actual” value, I overpaid for Castro. I knew it as I was doing it and I was willing to do it. Castro is a unique player who, in the auction format, I’ll consider paying a premium on. The reason is that he brings not only a nice balance of skills, but in particular stability in a very difficult category to find it in: batting average.

I wanted to beef up batting average early, allowing me to target some undervalued, low-average bargains late. I managed to snag both Reynolds and Espinosa at prices I consider more than fair to complete this strategy.

For reference, Oliver projects Castro to be worth only $17 in this format, but Reynolds $19 (with just a .226 batting average) and Espinosa $11. So while I paid a $4 premium on Castro’s projection, in total I paid $29 for $47 in projected value between the three, with the returns spread across all five categories. Other projections aren’t quite as bullish on my projected profit from this trio, but still agree I should earn more than I paid in aggregate.

This not a tactic I would recommend in a snake draft format, where it’s more difficult to target individual players at specific costs. The reason this works in auction is because you can get involved on any player at any time, whereas in a snake you’re inherently cut off from a large percentage of the talent pool.

If I had selected Castro in the third round of a snake draft, I would have viewed the overpay as either a waste or a handcuff in terms of how I selected with subsequent picks. I might have passed on a nice value because they didn’t offer enough power to complement Castro’s batting average and speed. If I wanted to target Reynolds and Espinosa in particular, I likely would have had to pay much more than the equivalent of $12, killing a significant portion of the total value of the package.

Stephen Strasburg

While in the abstract I’m not thrilled with a pitching staff fronted by Strasburg, I view this as a tremendous bargain.

Oliver sees Strasburg producing a line of 12-2.96-1.05-191 in 165 innings. On its own, that’s a decent price for that line, but then you also have to consider I’ll have 40-60 extra innings to fill. A lot of other experts view this as a negative. I view their caution as an opportunity.

Those innings will come at the end of the year; the time of September call-ups and last place teams ready to fold up. It will be clear who the weak offenses are, and I can stream into strong match-ups and target some of the quality young arms getting their first taste of major league action.

I’m confident I can produce better-than-replacement-level results for free from Strasburg’s vacated roster spot, and ultimately wind up with a line not too different from Justin Verlander‘s projected 17-3.09-1.09-241 in 235 innings—a full $30 value at 70 cents on the dollar.

It’s a risky tactic, to be sure, but there’s a lot of potential payoff.

Paul Konerko and Brandon Phillips

I view both first base and second base as having deep talent pools and high replacement levels this year, so in many leagues I wait as long as I can to fill them. But in this league I suspected a lot of the other owners would be thinking similarly and that a lot of the low-end value would disappear.

This turned out to be true to an extent—Ike Davis ($14), Jason Kipnis ($13), Paul Goldschmidt ($10), and Dustin Ackley ($10) all cost more than I wanted to pay. At first base we’d also already had Mark Teixeira go for $30 and Eric Hosmer for $22, two guys I consider similar to Konerko, so I think there’s a decent chance I hit the sweet spot here.

There was more value at second base, including my later selection of Espinosa for $1, but I’m still okay with Phillips for $15. He’s not a roster-maker at that price, but also not a roster-breaker.

Michael Bourn

Bourn, like Castro and Reynolds, is not someone I typically target—especially in snake drafts. I don’t like investing a lot in players with such limited categorical depth. Fortunately, the one owner who I knew would be willing to bid Bourn past this point had depleted his budget, and since I wanted a bit of outfield stability with the more volatile Jason Heyward already on my roster, I went for Bourn.

Going out of my comfort zone was something I was prepared to do in this draft, and I’m perfectly content getting Bourn for $14—cheaper than fellow speedsters Desmond Jennings ($18) and Dee Gordon ($15), and not much more than the inferior Brett Gardner ($10).

Miguel Montero

Matt Wieters is my top catcher target this year, but after getting into a bidding war over him with Josh Shepardson, I let him go for $18. I’m not in love with Montero, but I like him plenty at $10.

This is the only team I’m running this year where I don’t own Wieters.

Mat Latos, Tommy Hanson, and Anibal Sanchez

The room got very frugal at the point at which these three were nominated, and I was perfectly keen to take advantage. I would have easily spent the six bucks I left on the table to win the bidding on these guys.

Latos is someone I didn’t necessarily expect to target going into draft season, and not someone I feel the need to overpay for, but somehow I own him on almost all of my teams. I’m not sure if he’s simply getting overlooked, people are more concerned about the ballpark shift than they should be, or if Dusty Baker just scares the bejeezus out of people. Whatever it is, I see both a quality offensive and defensive team in the Reds and a neutral enough batted ball profile from Latos that I’m not terribly worried about the shift from Petco to Great American Ballpark.

It’s also worth mentioning that Latos has a higher career home run per fly ball rate at Petco (8.3 percent) than on the road (7.8 percent). I’m not sure that point is particularly meaningful, but I’d rather the split be structured this way than vice versa, since it might suggest he alters his approach in more hitter friendly confines to reduce the longball.

Hanson’s shoulder and revamped mechanics scare me, but I spent $6 for a guy with $20-25 upside. No problems here.

Sanchez is a popular sleeper this year, and I was quite surprised to get him at this price. Although the projections aren’t as crazy about him as one might think based on the hype, at $6 I have no problem banking on his improving strikeout rate, strong looking Miami offense, and big looking new ballpark.

Mat Gamel and Carlos Lee

This was the result of the drop-off behind Lucas Duda at the CI position. After losing the staring contest with Brad, I knew I was going to be weak here, so I went after the veteran Lee for some stability and a prayer for resurgence, pairing him with the youngster Gamel in the hopes that he can reach his breakout potential.

Gamel’s been putting up gaudy numbers in the Pacific Coast League for years (.301/.374/.512 career line over 1247 plate appearances). While we’re all trained to take PCL numbers with a grain of salt, the American divisions aren’t nearly as hitter friendly as their Pacific counterparts. Greer Stadium (home of the Nashville Sound, the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate) has actually played almost perfectly neutral over the last few years. Hopefully, the 26-year-old slugger can quickly assuage my concerns now that he finally has a bit of job security in Milwaukee.

Mike Aviles

Getting Aviles was another consequence of letting Duda pass. He was still on the board after Brad won Duda, and I was able to instantly lock him onto my roster with a $3 opening nomination, since no one else had the budget room to beat me.

Being that Aviles was someone that I was turned onto largely by other writers at THT, I was pleasantly surprised he lasted long enough for this to happen. He’s another player I’m winding up with on a lot of teams. He has eligibility all over the infield, decent power and speed, and a career .350 wOBA against left-handed pitchers. Add that up, and he looks to me like an ideal reserve hitter. He’ll be in my lineup virtually every time the Red Sox face a lefty. Plus, he makes a fine backup in case there’s an injury to any of my middle infielders and can even provide some support at CI.

Closers

Stocking up on closers was a last second decision, not a planned strategy. I bought Motte early for $9. Then I snuck in nominations on both Holland and Broxton, figuring I could get a cheap closer between them and that the other might wind up being a playable non-closing reliever anyway. Finally, I paid $9 for Hanrahan, since I had the budget space and wanted the security.

Then the incident over Duda happened. Knowing there wasn’t going to be another opportunity to spend big money, and that aside from CI my roster was pretty complete, I decided cornering the stopper market might be my best bet. The quality scrubs were all gone and my pitching and offense both felt as strong as they were going to get. So I grabbed up a few more closers, figuring I could leverage the scarcity of saves into small, necessary upgrades later in the year, when it becomes more clear what my needs are.

I picked up Francisco for job security and Thornton for potential value regardless of saves. I’ll either build up a nice buffer in the category early, or I’ll be able to dangle some of these guys for minor roster adjustments on an as-needed basis, removing the guesswork and useless $1 bids from the end of the auction.

Conclusion

Mistakes aside, I’m happy with this team. I could have been more aggressive early, and in future seasons in this league I certainly will be, if only by virtue of the fact that the other writers will know more of what to expect from me and any advantage of playing the role of the “wild card” will be wiped away.

I don’t see any reason I can’t make a strong run with this roster. I have a lots of power, plenty of speed, no obvious problem in batting average, and I put together a low cost pitching staff that figures to generate quality results. Add a dash of luck, and you have the recipe for a successful fantasy season.

Feel free to share your own opinions in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Andrew said...

    After looking at both teams I definitely think you made out a lot better.  At the very least you minimized the risk of your team(compared only to one team really)  I agree with your Strausberg and replacement value having a good impact on your team especially if you can get above replacement production later in the year.  I took a similar approach last year with Nelson Cruz.  I don’t agree that Castro’s avg will counterbalance fully Reynolds and Espinosa, espically with Heyward, Joyce, Rios and Lee on the Roster as well.  I think you’re power/speed #‘s will be there but Hits and Avg will be harder to come by than you’d expect.  That’s my opinion anyway.  I do finding myself owning Reynolds a lot this year.

  2. Plasmaj said...

    At least for me, these draft analysis posts ( this and Stein’s) would be more useful if we could see the entire draft results so the picks make more sense in context.

  3. Mark Himmelstein said...

    @Plasmaj

    I do believe that is on the docket, apologies that it hasn’t reared it’s head yet but keep your eyes peeled.

    @Andrew

    Thanks!

    I’d be a bit more cautious about applying the hybrid strategy to a player you expect to get injured. Strasburg is a special case because we know we can remove him from our rosters at a certain point this season.

    That’s a unique condition and specifically doesn’t entail the costs of tying up a DL/bench spot and the variables of expected injury and unknown timeframes. Now, any potential injury risk Strasburg might present is a separate issue, and is a massive risk for my team, but if he plays simply as expected there are few hidden variables or costs, as there often are in hybrid strategies.

    As for batting average, it’s certainly not something I view as a strength, but I’m not worried about just yet. I tend to believe drafting a roster to make batting average a strength includes too many costs to be an efficient strategy. I prefer to simply try and avoid making it a weakness.

    Rios and and Heyward are both due positive BABIP regression (the former in particular actually set a career low in K% last year), much as Carlos Lee saw following 2010. I only drafted Lee for the small chance he sees a Berkman-like resurgence, but he’s also a decent contact hitter for a former slugger. And Joyce isn’t a massive average sink—he may not hit .277 again but should still be well above .240, and will be benched against weak matchups when more favorable ones are available.

    Meanwhile Alex Presley and Justin Upton should both be assets, both with the potential to hit .300, and virtually everyone else (aside from Gamel) projects neutral to slightly above average, essentially .260 to .280, and probably a bit more towards the high end of that range.

    Oliver is also bearish on Rios in particular, but he’s a case where I disagree with the Oliver projection. He gets a bad projection wrap because his BABIP has been sub-par in two of the last three years (the timeframes most projections, including Oliver, assign weights to), but those are also the only two times in his career the mark has been below .300. They’re also the only times in his career his IFFB was above 10%, so that’s something I’ll be watching closely.

    Even if Rios’s BABIP regresses just to .280, he should still hit at least .260. If either his BABIP makes it all the way back to .300 or he maintains the three year trend of improvement in K% he’s on and the BABIP regresses to .280, he likely hits in the .270 range. If both happen, it bumps up to .280+. I’m comfortable viewing him in the .260 range with a fair bit of volatility on either side.

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