My buddies and I held our fantasy baseball draft a week ago Sunday. Our league is one of the longest, continuous fantasy pools in the country. The Lakewood Players League, as it is known, has been in existence, in one form or fashion, for over 30 years.
The current format has been in place since 1987. My older brother Tom, who has served as our commissioner since the beginning, tabulated the statistics by hand in the early going. We then contracted with a service called FASTats from 1988-1998. In 1999, we used an internet service (commissioner.com) for the first time. We moved to sportsline.com in 2001 and have stuck with this scoring service ever since.
There are 16 teams in our league this year. Other than in 1995 — the year after the strike that cancelled the World Series — when we had just 11 franchises (and I had to be talked into participating at the last minute), our league has had 13 to 16 teams every year. We draft new rosters annually. While "keeper" leagues can be fun, it is our belief that they can get a bit uneven after a few years, discouraging the weaker owners from participating year in and year out and making it difficult to find replacements to take over the worst teams.
Our league is unusual in that we don't allow trades or waiver wire pickups. To make up for the lack of these transactions, we expanded our rosters from 26 to 28 players two years ago and added a third mid-season replacement draft (at each of the quarter poles) where we allow teams, in the reverse order of the standings, to throw back and pick up two players (for a total of six over the course of the season).
Stolen bases have minimal value in our league. Unlike most fantasy/rotisserie pools, stolen bases are not one of four or five offensive categories. Heck, they're not even a separate category in our league. Instead, we take net stolen bases (defined as SB - 2*CS), multiply that by .5 and add it to walks plus hit by pitches. In other words, we treat (net) stolen bases as "extra" bases, if you will. As such, the Juan Pierres and Scott Podsedniks of the world hold about as much value in our fantasy league as they do in real baseball. Close to zero. Just the way I like it.
We have also reduced the value of closers by making saves worth half as much as the other pitching categories (IP, ERA, WHIP, and K minus BB). However, our league is far from pure as we have a few team-dependent stats such as wins, win percentage, runs scored, and runs batted among our mix of counting and rate stats (with the former two also treated as half categories).
What I most like about fantasy baseball vs. other fantasy sports are the number of teams, players, positions, stats, and games — all of which combine to reduce the randomness and dependency on one or two players a la football. Fantasy baseball, in my mind, is a true test. Sure, injuries play a factor (just like in real baseball), but the owner who wins it all basically has the best collection of players in our league.
I've won the LPL fantasy baseball pool six times since 1987, including back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 and a three-peat from 1995-1997. My last championship was in 2006. I have finished third or better every year since 2001 sans one. I am coming off two second place finishes in a row and am hopeful that I can get back into the winner's circle again this year.
I drew No. 1 out of a hat for the first time since 1999. I had the option of either going first or sliding down to any spot of my choosing. With a serpent draft format in a 16-team league, picking first means you have the No. 1, 32, 33, 64, 65, etc. choices. What's a guy to do? I kept No. 1 and picked Albert Pujols. I've never had Prince Albert on my team before. In fact, I haven't even had a shot at him since 2003 when I selected Manny Ramirez with the 11th pick and Pujols went two spots later at 13. He was taken first or second from 2004 through 2007, then dropped to seventh last year due to concerns going into the season about his elbow.
Here is how I drafted round-by-round:
1. Albert Pujols: For me (and probably most others in my shoes), it was between Pujols and Hanley Ramirez. Some people take Ramirez because of the value of stolen bases in most fantasy pools. Others take him because of positional scarcity. I love Hanley but chose Pujols. Only time will tell if I made the right choice.
2. Nick Markakis: I had him ranked as my fifth-best outfielder. The top four (Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun, and Manny Ramirez) were all taken in the first 24 picks. Carlos Beltran was chosen 25th. The top three 2B, 3B, and SS were off the board as well. I thought Markakis was the next-best bat available among players not named Chipper Jones. I'm expecting a .300 season with 20+ HR, 40+ 2B, and close to or more than 100 BB, R, and RBI (or a virtual repeat of 2008 with a few more ribbies thrown in). Those across-the-board stats work for me in that spot.
3. Ricky Nolasco: I stepped up on Nolasco. Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Jake Peavy, Josh Beckett, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, and Roy Oswalt were off the board. Although this pick isn't looking too swift after two starts, Nolasco may have been the best pitcher in the majors from June 10 through the end of last season.
4. Matt Holliday: I was surprised that Holliday was still available as my fellow owners apparently shied away due to the trade that sent him from Colorado to Oakland. Even if Holliday falls a tad short of Greg Rybarczyk's projection, I will be happy with him at No. 64.
5. Alexei Ramirez: This was the first time I thought long and hard about my choice. His hack-tastic approach at the plate bothers me, but Alexei is a second baseman *and* shortstop out of the shoot in our league and the two-position flexibility was enough to sway me to take him over Troy Tulowitzki, who was the next-highest SS on my board. Like Nolasco, Ramirez is off to a less than thunderous start, but he hit .304/.331/.502 with 21 HR in 118 games once he was inserted into the starting lineup on May 16.
6. Josh Johnson: This pick is looking better with each start this season. I probably had him ranked higher than any other competitor in my pool. Johnson was a plus/plus/plus K/BB/GB pitcher last year and seems poised to improve upon his half season in 2008 now that he is two years removed from Tommy John surgery. The 25-year-old righthander throws a mid-90s fastball that touched 97 on the radar gun for GameDay and 98 for TV in the ninth inning of his complete-game victory over the Mets yesterday, as well as a nasty slider.
7. Kevin Slowey: Greg Maddux light. We double count walks via WHIP and K-BB, making Slowey at least as valuable in our league as in real baseball. He posted an ERA under 4.00 with a WHIP of 1.15 and a K/BB ratio over 5:1 last year. Check out his minor league stats when you get the chance.
8. Chris Iannetta: With eight catchers already gone at this point in the draft, I was quite pleased to get Iannetta. He hit .264/.390/.505 with 18 HR and 56 BB in 104 games last year. Iannetta, who turned 26 earlier this month, is off to a slow start but should be fine as long as manager Clint Hurdle doesn't panic and go with Yorvit Torrealba as his regular catcher.
9. David Price: I expect Price will be recalled no later than May 15. Although it's unlikely that the young lefthander will overpower major league hitters for six innings as a starter the way he did for an inning as a reliever in the postseason last October, there's little reason to think the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball won't have a successful rookie season.
10. Nelson Cruz: Fantastic minor league, (partial season) major league, WBC, and spring training stats coupled with a great ballpark and lineup were enough to convince me that Cruz could put up some BIG numbers this year. Going into the draft, I had an inkling that I liked Cruz more than anyone else. Who knows, I may have been able to float him for another 32 picks, but I didn't want to take that chance.
11. Scott Baker: I think he fell a couple of rounds due to a sore arm that cost him a start last week. However, he is scheduled to make his first start on Wednesday at home against the Blue Jays. If Baker is healthy, he will be a steal at No. 161 in the draft.
12. Rickie Weeks: Long on potential, short on results to this point in his career. Call me a sucker, but I think he is going to hit around .260 with 15-20 HR and score 100 runs.
13. Rick Ankiel: I just had to remind myself that Ankiel hit .270/.343/.537 with 20 HR and 50 RBI in the first half before suffering an injury and limping home with a .245/.319/.415 (5 HR, 21 RBI) second half. I'm betting that he will be produce better numbers over a full season in 2009 than 2008.
14. Alex Gordon: The NCAA Player of the Year, the Minor League Player of the Year, and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 draft should be about ready to break out this year, no? I was jazzed when he went yard in his first AB of the season but am fully aware that he has gone 1-for-14 since and sat out yesterday with a stiff right hip. He produced counting stats last year that were equal to or better than his rookie campaign in 2007 while increasing his walk rate nearly 70% and decreasing his strikeout rate ever so slightly.
15. Frank Francisco: One of my two "sleeper" relievers. Francisco throws gas and didn't allow an earned run from August 18-on last season while posting a 21/4 K/BB ratio and five saves.
16. Tommy Hanson: Great minor league, Arizona Fall League, and spring stats. Hanson was the first pitcher to win the MVP award in the AFL when he struck out 49 batters in 28.2 innings with a miniscule ERA of 0.63 in a hitter-friendly environment. He whiffed 10 batters in 4.1 scoreless innings in his Triple-A debut last Thursday. With Tom Glavine unable to answer the opening bell, Hanson could be in Atlanta's rotation as early as this week.
17. Brandon Morrow: Like Francisco, Morrow is not on the best team for a closer but he is in a weak division and a favorable ballpark. I saw the fireballing righthander implode in his opening game but manager Don Wakamatsu stuck with Morrow and allowed him to save two games over the course of three days.
18. Paul Maholm: Having drafted two minor league starters up to this point, I needed a solid fifth and chose Maholm to go along with Nolasco, Johnson, Slowey, and Baker. The lefty throws strikes, generates more than his share of groundballs, and eats innings. Exactly what the doctor ordered at that spot.
19. Kelly Shoppach: Did you know that Shoppach was third in HR among all MLB catchers with 21 last season, just two behind the co-leaders (Brian McCann and Geovany Soto)? He won't hit much more than .250 or .260 but could crank 20 HR again with sufficient playing time.
20. Brett Anderson: With five starting pitchers in hand plus two high-ceiling minor leaguers, I wanted someone who was not only expected to take a regular turn in the rotation but had a little bit more upside than the fourth and fifth type starters that were still available. Anderson gives me both. Was pleasantly surprised to see him throwing as hard as 94-95 on the radar gun in his MLB debut last week.
21. Chone Figgins: Not as valuable in our league as most other fantasy formats but still above-average in a few categories.
22. Adam Jones: Only 23, Jones is probably a year away from being a fantasy star. His spring and first-week stats, along with the fact that he is batting second between Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, give me hope that he can be serviceable this year if called upon.
23. Stephen Strasburg: Partly for fun but also as a potential difference maker down the stretch. There isn't a starting rotation in the majors that he wouldn't make better right now.
24. Grant Balfour: Third-highest weighted Z-score among all relievers last year. Fastball sits at 94-95 and can reach the upper 90s on occasion.
25. Lyle Overbay: What can I say? Except for Overbay, every starting first baseman in baseball may have been taken at this point. Look, if Pujols gets hurt, my team's not going to win it anyway.
26. Brandon Wood: Only a phone call away. Wood will be up in no time if Erik Aybar or Chone Figgins get hurt or if the Angels use him as trade bait for a starting pitcher. Either way, I think he is (finally) ready to play every day in the majors and could hit in the .260s with 20 HR if given the opportunity.
27. Chan Ho Park: Nothing special here. With two minor leaguers and an amateur among my starting pitchers at this juncture, I opted for Park, who performed well as a starter last year and this spring.
28. Aaron Miles: Assuming Wood gets some PT, Miles is my third-string SS and 2B. He is a leading candidate to get tossed back at our first replacement draft in mid- to late-May.
Oh, after the first week, I'm in third place. It's early. But it's sure fun.