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Wednesday 29th Mar 2017

In 30 years of playing auction-style Fantasy Baseball, winning over 25 championships can be good news and bad news. The good news is that you've proven your skills by establishing strategies and methods for success. The bad news could be that you're hesitant to adjust and make significant changes because you're afraid to mess with the baseline that has achieved positive results. That was the quandary that presented itself last year as the 15 owners in the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL) gathered in Phoenix for their 13th annual draft.

As a quick refresher, the XFL is the only experts keeper league within the fantasy industry and the names of many of the owners are familiar to those who have viewed the landscape of fantasy sports over the years. These brilliant guys produce websites, magazines, newsletters and blogs that help guide you in becoming a better player in your league. The league is a 5x5 format (with on-base percentage replacing batting average), a 23-player live auction draft in early November with a $260 budget and a supplemental snake draft in late March to round out the 40-man rosters (23 players are active each week during the season). Donald's Dux (my squad) has captured four championships and holds the best overall performance record over the first 13 campaigns.

The Dux adjusted their long-time strategy of sticking with a 70/30 spilt for hitting and pitching because the team's offensive keepers last November were statistically valued much higher than their salaries. That allowed the shifting of money to pitching and the Dux ended up spending about 43% on pitchers in an attempt to balance the roster. Unfortunately, injuries to Yasiel Puig, Devin Mesoraco and Carlos Gomez somewhat derailed the offense. On the pitching side, Tanner Roark lost his rotation spot during the off-season, Kyle Lohse imploded, Ervin Santana got suspended and Addison Reed and Steve Cishek lost their closer gigs early in the season. The Dux were in last place in April and spent the entire campaign trying to make up ground. With that back story, 90 points (56 in hitting, 34 in pitching) and a 7th place finish doesn't look that bad, but after finishing 1st, 1st, 2nd and 2nd over the previous four years, it was certainly a disappointment.

So, as we approached the November Draft for the 2016 season, the first question was whether the strategy was flawed or was it just the player choices. Objectively, it seems like the answer is the players because despite the attempt to balance the roster, only 38% of the team's points came from the expensive pitching. This is a key question, as the Dux keeper list falls into a similar category once again.

Here's the keeper list for the Dux that was frozen on October 23rd:

C - Devin Mesoraco $11
C - Francisco Cervelli $6
1B - Jose Abreu $7
3B - Matt Duffy $10
1/3 - Anthony Rizzo $23
2B -
SS - Brandon Crawford $6
2/S - Eugenio Suarez $10
OF - Yasiel Puig $10
OF - Colby Rasmus $6
OF - Andrew McCutchen $22
OF - Michael Brantley $17
OF -
U -
P - Jacob deGrom $15
P -
P -
P -
P -
P -
P -
P -
P -

The 11 hitters had a salary total of $128, while the one pitcher equaled $15, leaving $117 to buy 11 players at the draft table. Historically, under the 70/30 strategy, the allocation would have been $54 for the three hitters and $63 for the eight pitchers. Realistically, however, the hitters on the keeper list could be worth $50+ more than their salary, while the single pitcher didn't have a plus side of more than $10. The answer of course, was to set aside 30 years of success once again and try to balance the roster. The decision was to shift at least $10 from hitting to pitching at the draft, leaving approximately $44 for the three hitters and $73 for the eight pitchers. So, the draft strategy was as follows:

> Find a consistent base-stealing OF in the $20 range, a regular 2B for $15-$20 and one end-gamer at Utility.

> On the pitching side, allocate $45 for four starting pitchers, $20+ for two closers and two end-gamers for the final pitching spots.

Not much research needed to be done on the offensive side, as I could bid on any position player and was only concerned about getting regular playing time and some stolen bases. On the pitching side, the plan needed to be a little more precise. My advice to players has always been to not "chase" any particular player. Find a group of players that fit your need and focus on getting one of them. Based on that criteria, three starting pitching tiers were established with a goal of getting one from each of the top two tiers and two or three from the third tier. Here's the basic list that was generated:

Tier 1 - Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann, Jon Lester

Tier 2 - Tyson Ross, Francisco Liriano, Andrew Cashner

Tier 3 - Gio Gonzalez, Alex Wood, Jason Hammel, James Shields, Mike Leake, Garrett Richards, Julio Teheran, Jaime Garcia and others.

For the $20 allocation on the two closers, the list included David Robertson, Kenley Jansen, Hector Rondon, Francisco Rodriguez, Craig Kimbrel, Zach Britton and A.J. Ramos. The end-gamer list had Arodys Vizcaino, Anthony DeSclafani, Brett Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, Jose Quintana, Collin McHugh, Andrew Heaney, Dellin Betances, Drew Smyly, Ian Kennedy and Roberto Osuna along with every other available pitcher.

Before reviewing the results of the draft, there's one other important league rule for readers to understand. Even though the word "list" is being used in this discussion, the really unique aspect of the XFL is that team owners can bring nothing to the table...no lists, no projections, no research, no draft software, no laptops, no tablets and no smart phones. When you sit at the table, major league depth charts are handed out with the names of keepers crossed off and that is your only reference material during the auction. Even the depth charts are as neutral as possible with players listed by position and alphabetically. You don't get any help, as the typical MLB team could have 12 relief pitchers on the sheet and you need to know which one might get (or be next in line for) saves.

The actual approach at the draft table needed to be somewhat passive-aggressive. Passive in the sense of being patient, as eight of the teams had more money to spend, and aggressive in the sense of acquiring solid starting pitchers. It became apparent early on that the available dollars at the table were going to impact pitching prices dramatically. When Jon Lester went for $22 and Tyson Ross for $20, the Dux needed to start being aggressive. Francisco Liriano was my first target and while the $18 price tag was steep, he had solid numbers in '15 and is under contract with the Pirates for 2016.

Zach Britton was the last cut on my keeper list because his salary of $15 was justified based on performance. For my second acquisition, Britton came back onto the squad for that exact $15 figure at the table. In essence, it was like getting an extra keeper.

Looking for a second closer, I put Arodys Vizcaino on the table for $1 and figured he might go in the $5-$6 range because he's not yet totally established in the job. When the bidding went beyond that plateau, I backed off and was surprised that the eventual price was $11. Not much later, the Dux paid the same $11 for A.J. Ramos. For perspective, Kenley Jansen, David Robertson and Craig Kimbrel were $16 each while Huston Street and Roberto Osuna were sold for $14 each.

With $44 spent on three pitchers, it was time to address the speed issue. Ben Revere was on the Dux last year and produced an $18 statistical season in this format. There's a reasonable expectation that he could have even better numbers in 2016 hitting ahead of Donaldson, Bautista and Encarnacion, so when I got him at the table for $18, it fit perfectly on my squad.

Back to pitching for their 5th pick, the Dux rostered Jeff Samardzija for $11. Despite a lousy '15 season, he's still a power-arm free agent who will hopefully land in a better spot than U.S. Cellular Field.

With four pitchers taken for $55, it was time to focus on 2B. I did make some lower-end bids on players like Howie Kendrick (went for $10), Dustin Pedroia  ($13) and Ben Zobrist ($23) and didn't get involved in Neil Walker at $13, Daniel Murphy at $18, Ian Kinsler at $19 or Robinson Cano at $31. My brain was still telling me to add some speed at this position, leaving more options for my Utility spot. Cesar Hernandez of the Phillies had 405 at-bats in 2015 with a .339 OBP and 19 steals, creating $8 worth of value in this format. With Chase Utley gone, the 2B job (and lead-off spot) is his to lose. The Dux put him on the table for $2 but were prepared to bid up to $8-$10 for the upside potential. The fact that this bid was answered with the sound of "crickets" indicates that the Old Duck is either really smart or really stupid.

Getting Hernandez for $2 impacted my budget for the remainder of the draft. With $24 still allocated for the Utility spot, it was obvious some additional money could be shifted to pitching. That allowed me to win the bidding on James Shields for $15. While 2015 wasn't a great season for this veteran, he was durable and had a good K/9 rate. At this point, inflation was impacting the bidding significantly as evidenced by prices like Joe Ross for $15, Jaime Garcia for $16 and Michael Pineda for $19.

Using more of the new-found pitching dollars, another SP was added in John Lackey for $8. He produced $14 worth of value on 2015 and could end up back in St. Louis again next season. This gives the Dux squad five rotation starters who pitched a total of 1,012 innings in 2015.

Now the end-game began in earnest, as the Dux had $19 remaining for the Utility spot and two pitchers. The offensive slot was the priority and the decision came down to choosing between power (HR and RBI) or the best player available. As often happens in this situation, the choice may fall in your lap when a particular player is brought up by one of your rivals. In this case, it was Phillies centerfielder Odubel Herrera. Taken in the Rule 5 Draft, but still only 23 years old, he posted a .344 OBP with eight home runs and 16 stolen bases in his rookie season...and earned $10 in this league's categories. The price was $11 and the pick seemed even better 72 hours later when the report came across the wire that Michael Brantley had shoulder surgery and may not be ready for opening day. As for the needed power, there are always low OBP players with pop who don't get taken in November but will be available in our supplemental draft in March. This time around, the list includes names like Mark Trumbo, Nick Swisher, Andre Ethier, Domingo Santana, Ryan Howard, Matt Adams and others.

With $8 left for two pitchers, another unique aspect of November drafting came into play. With the previous season so fresh in our memories, we can be easily fooled by a player's most recent performance. For example, Edinson Volquez going for $9 in this draft was certainly influenced somewhat by his postseason heroics, as was the spirited bidding for Zobrist. On the other end of the spectrum was Jason Hammel and his short stint in a key playoff game. I brought him up and closed the deal for $5 even though his 2015 stat line of 10-7, 3.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 172 K's in 171 IP earned $7 in Roto value. In addition, he's under contract with the Cubs for '16 with a $10 Million salary. Even one of my friends watching the proceedings questioned my pick by saying, "He was lousy in the playoffs." In the 1981 World Series, Dave Winfield went 1-for-22.

The final pitching slot was a crap shoot and the Dux added Jerad Eickhoff of the Phillies for $1. The team will be terrible, but in eight starts at the end of '15, he posted a 2.65 ERA with a 1.04 WHIP and had a 49/14 K-to-BB ratio in 51 IP. A more interesting pick than pitchers left on the board such as Jeff Locke, Matt Cain, Brett Anderson, Tom Koehler, Wily Peralta, Jonathon Niese or Charlie Morton.

The final math was $258 spent and a 62/38 percentage split between hitting and pitching. Realistically, you can't go into a league with this type of inflation thinking that your $117 can buy $117 in value. However, looking at the 11 players drafted, it's reasonable to assume that their worth is right at $100. Added to the $202 estimated value of the keepers, that's $300+ of value in a $260 league. That seems like a reasonable start for the 2016 season. Of course, many additions in the March Supplemental phase will improve numerous rosters and fill gaps due to November draft mistakes, injuries and role changes. Thanks to their 7th place finish, the Dux have the 6th pick in March, so there may be an impactful player available in that spot.

Just to keep your mind percolating during the off-season, here are a few prices from last weekend that might surprise you in either direction:

> The most expensive hitter was Miguel Cabrera at $45...close behind was Adrian Gonzalez at $42.

> The most expensive pitcher was Cole Hamels at $26.

> Troy Tulowitzki was $33 while Jose Reyes was $13.

> Justin Bour ($11) was only two bucks less than Ryan Zimmerman ($13).

> Brett Gardner ($24) went for more than twice the figure of Jacoby Ellsbury ($10).

> Roto players still believe in Hanley Ramirez ($19) but not Pablo Sandoval ($1).

> Teams were also more than willing to take chances on players coming back from injuries like $11 for Zack Wheeler, $3 for Homer Bailey and $1 bids on Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jurickson Profar.

You can peruse additional league information at fantasyxperts.com

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