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Saturday 17th Feb 2018

So says today's column title: a memorable line from one of my favorite movies of all time, Being There. It was spoken repeatedly by Peter Sellers’ character, Chance the Gardener, reflecting his obsession with watching television. 

It is now that time again – spring training baseball has arrived. Even if we cannot be there in person, more and more games are being brought into our homes each year.

As Billy Joel once wrote and sung, “…you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine…” So it goes with our grand game. You might think that is an odd comment coming from a purveyor of the written word, but it is true.

Baseball is made to be seen and the time has finally come once again. On Friday afternoon, the Giants’ Tim Lincecum threw the first baseball of 2011 to batterymate Buster Posey as the Cactus League officially got underway.

As the contest was only on the radio, not televised, I have no way of knowing for sure if the members of the defending World Champs were wearing “bright orange pairs of pants.” The problem of no visuals will be remedied on Saturday as the first three televised games of the spring will be played.

Even though only a small percentage of baseball fans are able to travel to Florida or Arizona in person, from our homes, we can see up to a whopping 150 spring games televised by MLB. The best part is that those crazy and inexplicable blackouts that bedevil millions of baseball fans throughout the entire regular season are lifted in the spring.

What better way to find out who might be winning those positional battles all over spring training camps than to catch the action live (or on delay)? Sure, we still want you to come here to Mastersball to read all the expert commentary we have to offer, but there’s more.

From where I sit, snow is still on the ground and two weeks remain until my annual Florida trip. I can’t wait that long to see Grapefruit and Cactus League action and will instead pretend that spring is already here. That shouldn’t be surprising given my immediate alternative is watching more snow being driven down at a 45 degree angle straight out of the North.

In recent years, I have subscribed to MLB.TV, which is priced at $119.95 and $99.95 depending on features desired. There are also monthly options at a higher overall rate. This price includes spring training and the regular season plus audio. The latter includes many spring games not televised, such as Friday’s Diamondbacks-Giants Arizona opener.

In terms of devices, games can be viewed wherever you travel using a PC, Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android phone, as well as Sony PlayStation 3, Roku, Boxee and Samsung and LG Blu-ray players and televisions. You may want to test out your preferred approach during the spring to ensure the quality meets your viewing standards.

A reminder that MLB.TV subscriptions auto-renew each March 1, so if that is of concern to you, consider using a one-time-only credit card number available from many card providers at no charge.

For those who stay put, there is also the continued option of the MLB Extra Innings package, which is available on DirecTV and many cable systems for around $209 or in six monthly payments of $34.99. EI lacks the mobility of MLB.TV (at least without a placeshifting box), but most believe picture quality is superior.

I am not an expert on EI, but I have been told those channels are not active for spring training. Some games should be available on regional sports networks if one subscribes to a sports package, however.

Note too, that I am not an employee of MLB and do not get anything from this other than the satisfaction of helping my fellow baseball aficionados see the games you want to watch, so enjoy!

And, an added note: If your television provider offers MLB Network, their spring coverage of 83 games begins Saturday with the Phillies and Yankees squaring off at 1:00 PM, ET.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com.

It was a bad week for the top two players in our Mastersball projections for 2011. Albert Pujols made a decision to become a free agent this fall, while Miguel Cabrera had his second alcohol-related incident.

At this point, the latter is not expected to serve any jail time. His manager, Jim Leyland, is unconcerned over the arrest, telling The Detroit News, “I think Miguel Cabrera is probably going to have the biggest year of his life."

Despite his obvious terrible judgment, Cabrera has displaced Pujols at the top of my draft list. I will share with you my thought process as to why I am dropping Albert down to number two. Granted, that isn’t much of a fall, but still may seem blasphemous to some.

When I am not here dispensing fantasy baseball opinions at Mastersball, I focus my writing energies on the St. Louis Cardinals, including covering Mr. Pujols. As anyone who follows baseball knows, the club’s superstar first baseman has just one year remaining on his current commitment.

Normally, contract negotiations aren’t cause for much concern in fantasy baseball circles. There are some who believe that players might perform better in the final year of a deal, while on a “salary drive.” Yet there are probably just as many owners who fear a player may stumble under the pressure and impending career uncertainty.

At first blush, Pujols would seem to be impervious to such trivial matters. In fact, he may be resistant to nuclear attack. In his ten seasons with the Cardinals, the 31-year-old batted at least .300 with 30 or more home runs and at least 100 RBI every single year, extending his own existing Major League record.

2011 is a bit different, however. Pujols has never been an impending free agent before. He signed his current deal before he ever reached arbitration. Now, there is a standoff as the player and club have ceased contract negotiations until after the season. Pujols is almost certainly going to test his market value as a free agent.

Though he says he wants to be a Cardinal forever, Pujols has to be wondering if circumstances will allow him to remain in his only home as a major leaguer.

While the acknowledged best player in baseball has nothing to fear regarding his financial security, having watched him closely over the years, I fear the situation may weigh on him during 2011. Perhaps it won’t be one overriding factor, but a thousand cuts might even cause the great Pujols to shed some blood.

Despite Pujols having written ten of the most consistent years in baseball history on his resume, if there would ever be a time for him to be impacted by external factors, it is now.

Though he says he is done talking about the contract, Pujols is destined to be queried at every road stop as to how he might like playing in that city in the future. Anything that threatens to take Pujols away from his game focus will be met with anger and disgust. I know; I have seen it first hand.

The media will continue to speculate all year long how many years and how much money it will take and which clubs are viewed to be the leaders in the derby to secure Pujols’ ongoing services. As the season progresses into the fall, the hype will only grow to what may become LeBron James levels of noise.

Deep inside, Pujols may have to deal with personal considerations. He might be concerned about the possibility of relocating his young family to a new city and area of the country. His wife is from the nearby Kansas City area, as are a number of Pujols’ American relatives. He is a native of the Dominican Republic.

The agent representing Pujols, Dan Lozano, broke off from the Beverly Hills Sports Council last year, taking his top client with him. Lozano may be motivated to place his name among MLB’s agent heavyweights by scoring a record contract for Pujols. Alex Rodriguez/Scott Boras remain the champions at 10 years/$275 million, of course.

Further, a player who has probably never been booed in his life may face backlash from some his adoring legions of Cardinals fans. Having stated in the past that money was not the issue, Pujols’ actions seem to be indicating that it in fact may be.

His only major league manager, Tony La Russa, may have been worried about this perception issue when earlier this week, he tried to paint the Players’ Union as the bad guys. La Russa claimed the Union is applying significant pressure on Pujols to hit the open market and seek top dollar.

These allegations were flatly denied by Union head Michael Weiner, yet does anyone doubt that baseball’s labor organizers would not want to see Pujols accepting a hometown discount from St. Louis?

My feeling is that La Russa is concerned both about the impact on Pujols as well as his baseball team and was trying to do whatever he could to draw heat away. If that is the case, it would not be the first time La Russa has deployed this type of diversionary tactic. Despite his likely intentions, did the manager just add to his player’s woes?

Pujols does hold the no-trade protection card, a right he earned at the completion of his tenth season as a major leaguer. He has made it clear he would veto any move and the Cardinals say they will respect his wishes.

Yet the combination of these many pressures could knock baseball’s top player down at least one notch in fantasy production this season. Perhaps the dip would be so small that few would notice, but Pujols has always been measured on a different scale than others. 

In the meantime, character flaws and all, Cabrera is my new number one.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com.

Normally, this is the time of year baseball fans anxious for hot stove news read optimistic report after optimistic report about players being in the best shape of their careers.

Not so for at least one prominent young National League third baseman while another may be shedding that out of shape image - again.

Everyone knows Kung Fu Panda, roly-poly third baseman Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. Fantasy players are all too familiar with him as an overweight disappointment in 2010, who lost his job several times, and whose general manager threatened to banish him to the minors in 2011 if the Panda doesn’t report to camp in shape.

This occurred a year after baseball watchers were led to believe that the team’s “Operation Panda,” their fat camp intended to help Sandoval shed his extra pounds, had been successful. The problem is that Panda put that weight right back on between November and the start of 2010 spring training.

If we are to believe what we read, Sandoval took the criticism and challenge from GM Brian Sabean to heart.

A recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle stated that Sandoval looks “really great” after training this winter with private fitness coaches. Before getting too excited, however, the news is a second-hand account from former Giants teammate Rich Aurilia who ran into Sandoval at a Phoenix mall.

No scales were apparently available at the local Old Navy, but Sandoval told Aurilia he has shed 17 pounds. Several other corroborating stories quoting various weight loss amounts by the giant Giant were cited by the Chron.

I was trying to decide whether or not to write this article when on Friday afternoon, I received a gift from heaven, well Twitter heaven, anyway. It was the equivalent of a flat, 80 MPH fastball soft-tossed over the center of the plate, served up by an unwitting Andrew Baggarly, Giants beat reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.

Baggarly, known in the Twitterverse as @extrabaggs, tweeted the following.

"@extrabaggs: Pablo Sandoval says he has worked with Barry Bonds on improving his plate discipline."

I couldn’t help myself. I just couldn’t. My retort was quick, short and sweet;

 "@B_Walton: Which plate: home or dinner?"

Now we have the sequel, Panda II, set 3,600 miles to the east. It is the story of Pittsburgh Pirate Pedro Alvarez, who may have picked up those pounds Sandoval has reportedly already lost several times over.

Last week, a blogger at piratesreport.com expressed serious concerns about the Bucs’ third sacker’s off-season conditioning. According to the story, Alvarez has “ballooned in excess of 240 pounds, at least 15 pounds more than he finished last season.”

In an unusual response during a chat session at MLB.com on Wednesday, Pittsburgh team president Frank Coonelly directly refuted the piratesreport.com article, calling the characterization “not accurate.”

Coonelly then went on to say this, however: “Pedro has gotten stronger through an extensive offseason conditioning program, but there is still work to be done with respect to body weight and composition.”

As they say, ‘if it looks like a panda, walks like a panda and quacks like a panda…’

By the way, Alvarez turns 24 years of age this week, same as fellow rotund hot corner man Sandoval.

Keep a close eye on both third basemen in spring camp. A notoriously shallow position can’t afford to lose two young players expected to fetch double-digit values on draft day in mixed leagues. The potential hit in NL-only leagues would be even greater.

While many fantasy players are expecting big things from the two this season, it isn’t a literal hope, after all.

Freese warning: As long as we are on the subject of young National League third basemen to watch in spring training, and since we’ve covered the East and West Divisions already, let’s take one from the Central, too. I offer a third exhibit, the Cardinals’ David Freese.

While his weight is just fine, there is caution because he is coming off three ankle surgeries in the last two years. Just three weeks ago, an upbeat Freese told me that he expected to be fully ready for opening day.

Not so fast.

New news from beat writer Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has the Cardinals delighted if Freese proves to be able to answer the bell for 115 games in 2011, with an alarming comment that his ongoing ankle problems are due to an arthritic condition.

This means some combination of ex-Twin Nick Punto, Tyler Greene or Allen Craig may start at the hot corner in about one-third of St. Louis’ schedule or more. Tamp down your Freese expectations accordingly.



Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com.

An important consideration when evaluating changes to league rules is to give them a fair and open hearing with league members before implementation, even if your league mates aren’t allowed to vote on whether the changes will be made. No matter how hard we try, we don’t always consider all ramifications. And when we do encounter problems, take definitive steps to rectify the situation.

Another factor worth considering is to ensure you get down to the basics. Too often, prospective rules changes are brought up without discussing the actual problem you are trying to address, and considering a spectrum of alternatives. There can be many ways to modify behavior, including the most basic choice of carrot versus stick.

In one of my re-draft leagues, Tout Wars, the leaders became concerned over owners tuning out when it became clear they could not win in a given season. This affected the competitiveness of the league. One would have thought the embarrassment of finishing poorly in such a high-profile environment would have been enough motivation, but it clearly was not for some.

To address this, the rule-meisters initially chose to swing a stick – a big stick. An owner would be removed from his league if over two years he did not achieve a total of 100 or 105 points, depending on the format (AL, NL or mixed).

It apparently sounded good to the leaders at the time, as it was announced without discussion. The league bosses actually called the idea “fun”, which would require a masochistic sense of humor to appreciate.

Two years later, with several high-profile owners having not met the minimum point criterion, it led to a realization that the rule was “unduly harsh and disruptive” as well as “unpleasant and unworkable,” according to those who had introduced the death penalty in the first place. Out the window it went before ever being enforced.

The second time around, with a clean sheet of paper, a more reasonable approach to the same core problem – how to keep owners fully engaged - was chosen, one that has a blend of both carrot and stick elements.

In the past implementation, the only results that really mattered each year were the league winners and those at the other end of the spectrum – the unfortunates who ended up with so few points that future participation could have been at risk under the 100/105-point rule. A fifth versus sixth-place finish, for example, meant virtually nothing - other than passing bragging rights between two competitors and friends, perhaps.

Under the new rules, that changes. The order of the next year’s reserve snake draft rounds will reflect the previous year’s standings. I applaud this simple, but effective choice. Going forward, there will be a tangible value in finishing fifth rather than sixth.

If only this change had been enacted sooner, it could have helped me greatly in 2010. Coming off a first-place NL Tout finish in 2009, under the new rules, I would have received the first selection in the reserve draft.

Having taken a risk in drafting Dan Murphy, I had targeted a first reserve round handcuff with Ike Davis, then still in the minors. Unfortunately, the old rules called for the reserve draft order to be drawn from a hat after the regular auction was complete. Until then, I had no way of knowing in what place I would select my reserves.

Due to the luck of the draw, my spot was late, which meant I lost out on Davis. I ended up with Freddie Freeman, who to deliver any 2010 value, needed injury help he didn’t get from Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus and for Derrek Lee to have remained in Chicago. I still wonder what might have been, as I struggled at the corners all season long and finished in second place.

The other change in the Tout Wars rules reminds us the old stick still remains close by, though the punishment is not fatal as was the previous banishment, at least on paper.

Teams that finish below pre-defined point thresholds will be docked one FAAB dollar the next season for each point of underachievement. For example, in NL Tout, the line selected was 65 points. A team that ends at 52 points in 2011 will have 13 dollars docked from its 2012 FAAB budget of $100. In other words, that owner will have just $87 to work with during season two because of his subpar finish in season one.

There was no precise mathematical formula used to select the thresholds. Past standings were reviewed with intent to draw the line at the bottom tier of annual finishers. While this would capture more offenders than the previous, lower on-average two-year threshold, the penalty is far less severe, as well.

Like almost every rules change, this is a modification of one that a Tout leader had encountered in another of his leagues. After all, that is the best route to take if possible. Learn from others, which is also what this column is all about.

Both changes to the Tout Wars rules - the reserve draft order and FAAB reduction – are intended to keep owners fully engaged all season long. I am most interested to see how they work out in practice in 2012 and 2013.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com.

I have spoken with a number of fantasy owners intrigued by the concept of holding their first-ever auction draft, but with legitimate concerns about trying out the format.

Perhaps not all league members are seasoned competitors or are quick with player values. Some may fear that the additional pressure of having to come up with dollar amounts while being on the clock will force them to make bad decisions or even miss out on desired players.

If any of that sounds familiar, I have a potential solution for you. Hold a hybrid auction-snake draft.

What is this, you ask? Run the draft in snake order, both in nominating players as well as in all bidding. This way, every owner is given the explicit opportunity to either pass or bid on each nominated player in the auction.

Of course, some supporting ground rules would be needed. First of all, once an owner passes on a player, he should not be allowed to re-enter the bidding on that player on any subsequent trips around the table.

Next, some time constraints are needed as the sequential bidding can prolong a draft considerably. One method is to set a 30-second time limit for bidding. Since owners always know when their turn will be once a player is nominated, they should have time to prepare by making their decision on whether or not to bid and at what price before the table comes around to them.

Another time-saver is to force reasonable opening bids. Require an owner to sit out of the bidding for a player if the next bidder increases his opening bid by $10 or more. This avoids a $1 start on Albert Pujols and having to suffer through 40 more $1 raises until he gets anywhere near his actual value. Once owners get their heads around this rule, it is rarely if ever needed.

One of the best formats in which to try this approach would be in a keeper league, since fewer players are bid on. To do that the first year, however, an agreed-to system to assign fair dollar values to keepers would need to be established up front. This could prove to be a challenge.

In one of my long-standing local keeper leagues, this hybrid approach was not adopted as an interim to moving to a regular auction draft. Instead, it was liked so well that it was written into the constitution. The format offers comfort to the majority of that league’s owners through having more time to think and react while still enabling them to enjoy the benefits of bidding.

This hybrid auction-snake is not right for everyone. The more serious owner especially will grow increasingly weary of the extended bidding process for each player. Yet not everyone comes from the same base of experience or has the same interest level.

If you are thinking about getting into auctions and wonder if this could be a way for you to put a first toe into the water, but all means, consider giving it a try.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com.

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