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Tuesday 20th Feb 2018

Last Sunday evening in Phoenix, I once again had the pleasure of competing against fellow industry analysts and long-time friends at the 2017 League of Alternative Baseball Reality National League draft (LABR-NL). An exciting four-hour auction battle covered live on SiriusXM Radio ensued.

Rather than blather on about my team, which you can see among the others here, I will review several of the trends I experienced in hopes they might assist you in your preparation this spring.

I am rarely active early in auction drafts, preferring to get a feel for prices - but that changed this year. The gold standard for NL closers, Kenley Jansen, was the second player thrown out. Being caught with a minimal saves total in 2016 due to a failed gamble to cobble together saves in-season may have cost me the title. I had a firm hold on second-place most of the year, but saw no way to the top other than to attempt a Hail Mary play in September in which I made a series of trades to try to recover five lost months of saves in one month. It failed and I fell to third in the end. I vowed to not repeat that in 2017.

Obviously, at the point Jansen was thrown out on Sunday, the market for saves – or anything else, for that matter - had not yet been established, but I quickly decided to jump in, anyway. I paid a fair price of $22, but it soon became clear that it was not a bargain. The other top closers went in the $17-18 range with the next tier in the $11 neighborhood. Had I shown more patience, I would not have rostered as good of a closer as Jansen, but I could easily have saved $4-5.

Speaking of closers, though Fernando Rodney was part of my 2016 draft, I could still appreciate his appeal as a cheap $5 lottery pick. The proven closer on an improving team was a nice low-risk buy for Glenn Colton and Rick Wolf. Overall, the closer market was depressed, and in fact, much later on, I was able to roster both Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez for a total of $6. Unless Joaquin Benoit slips in and could hold the job in Philadelphia – which I doubt - I should have a leg up on saves this year with two NL teams’ ninth-innings covered. That would be a nice luxury in a 12-team format.

Jansen’s $22 price reminds me of another player who went for the same amount – Javier Baez. The Cubs star’s eligibility at second, third and short definitely has value – especially in a format in which active players cannot be moved to reserve unless injured or sent to the Minors. Still, I always pay special attention to prominent players on the prior season’s World Championship club for evidence of the halo effect. Since the Cubs just have a lot of very good players, I don’t know if it was truly a factor in why Baez’ price seemed high.

Since my primary volition is writing about the St. Louis Cardinals, which is well-known among my peers, anytime a St. Louis player is thrown out, I can feel a dozen pair of eyes moving to me. As seems often to be the case, my knowledge of the players’ warts as well as their strengths meant I ended the draft with zero members of the team. One surprising winning bid to me was $5 on Michael Wacha. If his shoulder continues to hold up, the right-hander will be worth double that price – or he could end up back on the disabled list – a risk I chose not to take.

One Cardinal who I did chase - and stayed in the bidding too long - was Carlos Martinez. While I like the young right-hander a lot, a duel with Perry Van Hook, drafting for Lenny Melnick, quickly escalated over $20. I admit I was relieved (and went church-mouse quiet) when Perry said, “$24”.

One of my perhaps more questionable choices was spending $15 on Pirates third baseman Jung-ho Kang, in limbo after his third DWI conviction in Korea. Concern by others at the table over the uncertain length of a likely suspension coupled with the unproven Josh Bell at first led to the price about which I was most surprised. David Freese sold for $9, a player I had in the $3 area. Despite Bell’s inexperience, he still was rostered for a robust $19, so it appears at least two others at the table were less concerned about his rookie season. Even so, the Bucs also have John Jaso as a first base option. He went for just $1, a deal I like far better than $9 for Freese.

I felt like I had plenty of choices at first base, but I found myself in a bit of a jam after bailing out perhaps too early on several of the big names, whose prices were high for my tastes. By the time my list was down to two primary choices, I did not go $23 on Brandon Belt, but ended up having to spend the same on Adrian Gonzalez. The alternative was to have to accept a lesser player at the position.

In terms of the competition, I can find something to like on every roster, but I especially admire the top end of the pitching staff of Steve Gardner - Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke and Kenta Maeda – acquired for a total of $55. Derek Van Riper also has a strong and deep rotation with Johnny Cueto, Jameson Taillon, Jeff Samardzija, Jerad Eickhoff and Ivan Nova. In part due to his usual strategy of minimal spend on pitching, $30 in total, 2016 second-place finisher Doug Dennis assembled a formidable offense, with just one hitter under $10 (Wilmer Flores at $7).

Following the LABR drafts, Lawr Michaels and I recorded a podcast with the leagues’ host, Steve Gardner of USA TODAY. We of course recap the AL and NL action, respectively. Check out the podcast here.


Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

Those who read my columns regularly (when they are actually about fantasy baseball league rules) may recall that I often stress two things. One is to religiously follow your league constitution to the letter wherever possible. The other is to keep your league rules fresh and current.

Ideally, if the latter is executed well, the former can more easily follow. However, being realistic, no set of rules, no matter how comprehensive they are, can handle every possible situation. Or can they?

In one of my keeper leagues, populated by a group of highly-experienced, opinionated and very busy industry players, a problem recently presented itself that brought this to life. When submitting keepers this past fall, one owner inadvertently listed a player at first base and outfield, when in reality, the player had lost his prior eligibility at first.

For the November auction draft, the player in question was placed at first base on the keeper roster, but no one noticed the problem until afterward. Now, the situation had multiplied. This owner had six outfielders and no corner infielder, with no multi-position eligibility players who could be shifted. In other words, an illegal roster had been drafted.

The good news in the bad is that not only had this happened before in the league, but a rule change had been enacted afterward to address the situation.

In the current case, draft day logs verified that the last outfielder chosen was considered the illegal transaction, so that purchase would be voided. (The owner’s utility spot, another possibility, had been filled earlier in the draft.) That extra outfielder will be returned to the free agent pool for the league’s Stage Two draft in March and carry a cap and keeper value of one dollar less than the price paid on draft day. The rules clearly spelled this out.

The bad news is that the formal rule change was incomplete. As written, it did not specify how the illegally-drafted player would be replaced on the offending owner’s roster. In this example, governing how and when the owner would be allowed to fill his open corner infield spot was not explicitly documented.

An approach was initially suggested that seemed fair - at first blush. The offending owner could pick a replacement corner infielder from the undrafted player pool. That replacement player would carry the same value – relevant for cap and keeper purposes – as the illegally-drafted one.

However, I was less comfortable with this idea the more I thought about it. Since this same situation had occurred before, how did we deal with it then? Though we probably don’t remember, let’s try to go back and reconstruct how we dealt with the replacement player at that time. Even if we did not write it all into the rules, we should act consistently.

Fortunately, the league SWAT found the old emails. From them, it was determined the prior offending owner was allowed an extra pick to fill his roster at the end of the league’s Stage Two draft. That is a serpentine-style draft held in March. Of course, the owner does not have to wait until the last round to select a new corner infielder to ensure he has a valid lineup for opening day. Also, he is not precluded from re-drafting the initially illegally-chosen outfielder as a reserve.

Once we discovered we had a clear precedent, how to address the problem was as simple as A-B-C - Always Be Consistent.

Our final step was to add one sentence to the constitution - to put the already-established precedent into a clear rule governing how the replacement player is to be chosen. That way, when this happens again, which it likely will, it can be resolved even more easily.

In this example, the rules did their job, but they still needed our help. Making sure that past decisions were remembered kept us from potentially creating a new rule when the old one ended up serving us just fine.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

Last week, we looked in on the contenders for the two Cy Young Award races for 2016.

In the American League, Boston’s Rick Porcello maintains a sizeable lead against all contenders, while the fight for the National League honors is narrowing down to Chicago’s Jon Lester or Max Scherzer of the Nationals, according to ESPN’s Cy Young Award Predictor.

However, the oddsmakers do not agree.

In odds published by Bovada.lv on Wednesday, in a surprise to me, Chris Sale has lowest odds in the American League at 8/5, with Porcello and Corey Kluber next at 2/1 each. ESPN has Kluber pegged as a distant second with Sale miles off the pace in fifth. The latter seems more accurate to me.

The National League odds do have Scherzer and Lester with the lowest odds, at 1/5 and 5/11, respectively. That is reversed from ESPN’s tool, where the pair are neck-and-neck.

Looking at the betting odds, the 2016 Most Valuable Player races suggest one clear favorite and one very tight race.

With the Cubs plowing their way to baseball’s best record, their offensive leader, third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, seems to be the consensus front-runner in the NL. The oddsmakers concur, with Bryant at 1/2.

Next behind Bryant is the Nats’ Daniel Murphy at 3/2. The latter is second in the NL in batting average and has put together a strong season, but I cannot see him knocking off the Cubs star.

The only other candidate even on the NL MVP betting board is MLB RBI leader Nolan Arenado at 6/1. The third baseman is cursed by playing for a non-contending Colorado Rockies squad. I see his chances of actually winning as being considerably worse despite leading the NL in home runs, just one ahead of Bryant.

Looking at fWAR, Bryant is the NL leader, in large part due to his defense, with a contender no longer on the betting board, shortstop Corey Seager of the Dodgers, right behind. In a bit of a surprise, Bryant’s teammate, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, is also no longer on the board.

When looking at Bovada’s lines for the AL MVP, I was initially amazed. Then I stepped back and considered the importance of bettors’ emotions.

A player I had not previously considered among the very top tier of candidates, Boston designated hitter David Ortiz, has the lowest odds at 2/1. I get that the Big Papi Farewell Tour has been a smashing success, but until I looked, I did not realize that the 40-year-old is second in the league in RBI, though down the page in the top 10 in home runs and batting average.

This suggests to me that perhaps Ortiz should consider playing another season, but I don’t see him as the AL MVP.

Right behind Oritz at 9/4 is Houston star Jose Altuve. The second baseman is a far superior all-around player, with a Gold Glove Award from 2015, a firm grip on the AL batting title lead to go with more than 24 home runs and stolen bases alike plus well over 90 RBI.

Next on the AL odds list at 4/1 is the Red Sox player I would put slightly ahead of Papi in the MVP race, outfielder Mookie Betts. Betts leads the AL in runs scored (one back of Bryant for the MLB lead), has 25 steals, over 30 home runs, over 100 RBI and currently has the same .318 batting average as teammate Ortiz.

Sadly, the man who many (including me) believe is the best player in baseball is no better than 4/1 in the odds. Of course, I am referring to Mike Trout. The Angels outfielder is tied with the aforementioned Red Sox pair at .318, but his “meager” home run and RBI totals of 28 and 95, respectively, lag the leaders. Yet, his 26 steals are just one behind Altuve.

WAR is clearly Trout’s friend, backing up my perception of him being the best in the game. His 8.8 fWAR dwarfs even Bryant. But because the Halos have been out of the playoff hunt for a long time, Trout’s 2016 MVP chances lag behind.

As it has turned out, the man who was considered MLB’s best player during the prior decade and Trout’s current teammate, Albert Pujols, has better power numbers at 30 and 114.

I cannot get rid of this nagging feeling in the back of my head that Pujols should have doubled his MVP total of three had the voters been able to see through Barry Bonds at the time. In the future, for different reasons, we may also end up looking back at Trout’s dominance, wondering why he always came so close, only to miss out time and time again.

In 2016, Trout could easily finish second in the race for the fourth time in five years as a Major Leaguer, with his only win in 2014. Just one MVP to date just doesn’t seem right.

Still, when all is considered, I am going with Altuve as the AL winner. I think that is where the writers will land, as I don’t have a vote, after all. Trout may lag while Papi and Betts could steal first-place votes from one another.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

The last couple of weeks, we looked at the top contenders for the Cy Young Awards and Most Valuable Player Award races in the American and National Leagues.

This time around, my focus is Rookies of the Year.

In the Senior Circuit, the situation is not unlike the MVP race, in that there is a clear front-runner, but the AL winner may come down to the wire.

Like Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs seems a shoo-in for the NL MVP, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager looks to be in the driver’s seat for the league’s top first-year player honors. In fact, Seager is the only rookie to receive serious mention in the MVP race, with an fWAR for the season second among all NL players, behind only Bryant (7.6 to 8.4).

Three other National League middle infielders should also receive respectable vote totals. Colorado’s Trevor Story got off to a very impressive start, but just as with St. Louis’ Aledmys Diaz, injuries slowed their first-year impact. Story was done for the year at the end of July, but by then amassed 27 home runs, while Diaz is being eased back into action late in the season.

Trea Turner of the Nationals took awhile to stick, but once he did, Washington added a plus bat and a player who can cover second and short as well as center field. Had Turner arrived in April and played this well all year long, it could have been a two-horse race with Seager.

The top NL rookie pitchers are imports. Kenta Maeda of the Dodgers does not blow hitters away, but mastered four pitches he can locate on demand and has already won 16 games. Seung-hwan Oh of St. Louis had over 300 career saves in Korea and Japan, but was setting up until Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal ran into injury and inefficiency. Since taking over the ninth in late July, Oh has been lights-out.

The American League Rookie of the Year race looks to be a toss-up.

In the first half, the award seemed headed for the engraver with Michael Fulmer’s name on it. The 23-year-old right-hander has faded since the break, but is still leading the league with his 2.95 ERA.

Now, the momentum is with Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. As Hall of Famer Greg Maddux once famously said, “Chicks dig the long ball.” Despite having played in just 49 games this season and not becoming a regular until August, Sanchez has 20 home runs, reaching that mark faster than any player in MLB history. I think that is the 23-year-old’s ticket to the award.

In another year, Seattle closer Edwin Diaz could and perhaps should win. Despite not getting as much attention in the Northwest, the 22-year-old has fanned a whopping 82 in just 48 1/3 innings and saved 17 of 20 opportunities.

Two other early AL contenders have also fallen off a bit as the season wore on, but have bright careers ahead. Both are outfielders – Texas’ Nomar Mazara and Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin.

My prediction is that Seager will be the 2016 National League Rookie of the Year, with the controversial majority choice of Sanchez edging out Fulmer for the American League honor.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

With less than three weeks remaining in the 2016 Major League Baseball regular season, it is a good time to check on the races for the top pitching awards in the American and National Leagues, the Cy Young Awards.

If the annual recognition was decided by algorithms instead of via the votes of selected members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, what we might get is results similar to a tool that runs on ESPN’s website.

The “MLB Cy Young Predictor” formula, borrowed from sabermetric pioneer Bill James and Rob Neyer, includes innings pitched, earned runs, strikeouts, walks, saves, shutouts, wins, losses and provides bonus points for a division title. The intent is not to determine the best pitcher, but instead to most accurately predict where the voters will land.

It seems to work pretty well, with nine of the last 10 winners over the most recent five years correctly predicted by the formula. The one miss was a second-place finisher in the real voting.

Here in 2016 in the Senior Circuit, three-time winner Clayton Kershaw is out of the race, having missed over two months before returning this past Friday. That leaves a scrum among six players, all within eight points on a basis of 165.

Half of them are employed by the Chicago Cubs, with Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, currently ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively. In reality, winning could be a challenge for any of these three. All are worthy, but with none of them standing out over the others, votes could be split.

The current leader, Max Scherzer of Washington, was the 2013 American League winner while with Detroit and also has another pair of top-five finishes. He is closely followed by Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, just 1.8 points behind.

Scherzer is on track to make four more starts. If he continues his most recent success, he could solidify his lead. Over his last four outings totaling 29 1/3 innings, the 32-year-old right-hander has allowed just four runs for a 1.21 ERA. Scherzer fanned 34 against just four walks.

Jansen isn’t about to concede, however. Since allowing a run on August 26, the right-hander has fired off eight straight scoreless appearances with six saves on just two hits and no walks to go with 13 punchouts. Simply dominating.

I would still make this a clear call for Scherzer except for one thing. His final start would be in Game 162. However, the Nats will have the East Division and the second NL post-season seed locked up long before then. Instead, manager Dusty Baker may rest Scherzer for part or all of the game, or even rejuggle his rotation to maximize his ace’s post-season starts.

While the NL race may go down to the wire, any intrigue over the identity of the American League winner appears to be over.

Ironically, the clear leader is Scherzer’s former Tigers rotation mate, Rick Porcello. The rub for Detroit is neither 2016 Cy Young Award leader is still with the team. They traded Porcello to Boston in the Yoenis Cespedes deal prior to the 2015 season, during the same winter that Scherzer departed as a free agent.

Already logging 20 wins in his first 30 starts, Porcello has a dominating 25 1/3-point lead over Corey Kluber in the projected Cy Young Award race. Cleveland’s Kluber, the 2014 winner, seems too far behind at this late date to make an effective charge. In other words, Porcello would need to pull a colossal collapse to lose his edge.

Who knows? Perhaps the former Detroit teammates could meet on the game’s biggest stage in late October before taking home the top pitching awards the next month.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 17-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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