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Wednesday 29th Mar 2017

I drafted well, made a few trades that really paid off along with a number of strong FAAB pickups. But it was not until September, when Trea Turner continued to get on base and swipe bags at will, Justin Upton homered every other game and Justin Verlander pitched like it was 2011 that I thought there was a legitimate chance of winning the Tout Wars Mixed Auction league. Most of the final few weeks were spent bouncing between first and second place before taking the lead for good with only a few days remaining. After spending some time reflecting on this championship season, it's time to write about it. 

MVP (hitter): Jose Altuve - I felt comfortable shelling out 31 bucks for Altuve's services, confident he would earn back at least that in the form of a .350-plus OBP, 35-plus steals and 85-plus runs. If he could somehow match last season's 15 homers, that would be special. As it turned out, the Astros second baseman fell a bit short in stolen bases, but I'm not complaining. He easily exceeded every other projection while still ranking among the top four players in the AL in thefts. With this MVP-worthy season, Altuve raised his fantasy stock from top-15 pick to top-5 pick. I'd have no problem paying the increased price in 2017, which could approach $40 in an auction. However, note that only five of his 24 home runs came after August 1st, so counting on another 20-home run season might be a little too optimistic.  

MVP (pitcher): Jon Lester - Paying 25-plus dollars for a "true ace" is not my style. Instead, my preference is targeting a pitcher in the low-end ace/high-end SP2 tier with the potential to deliver a "true ace" caliber season. Lester was the guy I wanted and indeed purchased at a reasonable cost of $21. I'd say it all worked out pretty well. The Cubs southpaw earned a price hike for 2017, but even so, the continually underrated hurler should be well worth the investment. 

Best bargain auction purchase (hitter): Carlos Beltran - Beltran cost $2 as my fifth outfielder, and I was expecting 130 games, 20 homers and 70 RBI. Instead, the 39-year-old enjoyed his most productive season since 2012, batting .295 with 29 homers and 93 RBI in 151 games split between the Yankees and Rangers. Beltran proved he can still be a middle of the order bat, but can he remain injury-free for a second straight season? I wouldn't be surprised if Carlos eventually finds a home in the Hall of Fame, but at a price that figures to be in the $10-$15 range, I'll likely steer clear of him in 2017.

Best bargain auction purchase (pitcher): Jose Quintana - Julio Teheran ($6) deserves an honorable mention, but Quintana's overall numbers are better. This $9 buy turned in a career year, though his lack of run support (13 wins despite a 3.20 ERA) was frustrating. There's little reason to think that Quintana, who turns 28 in January, will regress in 2017, and I'll be willing to spend the 15 bucks it will take to draft him at the auction table.  

Best FAAB addition (hitter): Travis Jankowski - Although Jankowski faded in September (.256 OBP, 1 SB), he remained productive long enough to reward me with 16 steals. A glance at the final standings reveals that those 16 swipes were worth four points, a fine return for 152 FAAB dollars. Jankowski's fantasy outlook for 2017 is a mystery, as San Diego's outfield picture is crowded, with Manuel Margot his main competition. If given regular at-bats, Jankowski could be a quality mixed league asset. Stay tuned.

Best FAAB addition (pitcher): Ervin Santana - Santana hasn't exactly been the model of consistency but the veteran righty is usually a safe bet for a quality start, and that's all you can ask from a back-end of the rotation mixed league starter. So one day in early-July, I spotted Big Erv on the waiver wire and figured he really didn't belong there despite struggling in May and June. This was a case of perfect timing, as 12 FAAB dollars bought a 2.40 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over 15 starts to go along with 89 strikeouts across 97 1/3 innings. I won't be trying to draft Santana next year, but wouldn't mind owning him for the price of a late-round pick or a couple of dollars in an auction.

Best trade: Aaron Nola and Jay Bruce for Justin Verlander and Matt Kemp - Speaking of perfect timing, this swap seemed balanced when it was agreed to in late-June. Nola was in the midst of a rough stretch but after his outstanding April and May, there was reason to think he would bounce back. Meanwhile, despite a strong strikeout rate, Verlander sported a mediocre 4.30 ERA. Still, I was looking for more stability in my starting rotation, and in that respect, considering Nola's thin big league track record, he was the riskier option. To make up for the moderate (but at the time not significant) starting pitching upgrade, I was willing to accept what at the time was an outfield downgrade from Bruce to Kemp. Well, we all know how this turned out. In 18 starts for my squad, Verlander went 9-3 with a 1.98 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 147 strikeouts over 123 innings. Nola would make only four more starts before missing the remainder of the season due to an elbow injury. Bruce would register a .763 OPS in the second half after posting an .853 OPS prior to the All-Star break while Kemp provided 19 homers and 55 RBI in 81 games.

Best move I didn't make: Trading Trea Turner - It was early-May and Turner, a reserve round pick, wasn't close to being called up. Getting tired of waiting and figuring I could use a boost in power, I thought it might make some sense to part with Trea and his upside for a known commodity in Lucas Duda. Eventual runner-up Fred Zinkie had expressed interest in Turner but was unwilling to meet my asking price of Duda and Alcides Escobar for Turner and Trevor Plouffe. I actually formally proposed this. All Fred needed to do was click "Accept". Phew.

As always, thanks to the Tout Wars brain-trust for running these leagues, and special thanks to Peter Kreutzer (aka Rotoman) for his yeoman's work as the Mixed Auction league commissioner. 

In last week's column, we took a trip around the diamond to look at some of the overachieving hitters of 2016. Let's now head to the mound to complete our All-Value team. Hopefully, you own at least one of these pleasant surprises. But if you don't, please don't beat yourself up too much. Who could have predicted this?

SP Rick Porcello - The no-brainer choice as the ace of this staff, Porcello's second year in Boston has certainly gone better than his first season with the Red Sox, when he posted a 4.92 ERA and 1.36 WHIP to go along with a 9-15 record. Through 31 starts this season, the 27-year-old righty is 21-4 with a 3.08 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. This AL Cy Young Award favorite went for a grand total of $1 in the Tout Wars Mixed Auction. But before viewing Porcello as an elite fantasy option for 2017, note that he posted a sub-4.00 ERA in only two of his previous seven seasons. As far as his long-term outlook goes, I remain skeptical.

SP J.A. Happ - If Porcello is the ace of this rotation, Happ, the only other 20-game winner in the Majors heading into the final week of the season, is the clear-cut #2. There was a time when much was expected from Happ, but a career full of inconsistency relegated him to "failed former top prospect" status. Well, at 33 years of age, he's enjoying a career-best season. But will I be anxious to own him in fantasy leagues next year? No, not really.

SP Aaron Sanchez - First, he pitched well enough in spring training to earn the fifth spot in Toronto's rotation. Then, he pitched well enough through the season's first four months (11-1, 2.71 ERA) to challenge for the title of staff ace. The Blue Jays have made a conscious effort to limit the 24-year-old's workload in recent weeks, and Sanchez hasn't been quite as sharp since the beginning of August. But there's a lot to like about any pitcher who registers a 3.12 ERA and 1.18 WHIP through 28 outings in his first season as a full-time big league starter. 

SP Kenta Maeda - No one really knew what to expect from Maeda in his rookie season. But it didn't take long for the Japanese import to make his mark, as he pitched to a 1.41 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in April. There have been some bumps in the road for Maeda (5.04 ERA in May), but all in all, his 2016 campaign can be described as an overwhelming success. Perhaps most impressively, his strikeout rate has remained steady throughout, consistently hovering right around a whiff per inning. Consider him a safe third or fourth starter in mixed leagues for 2017.  

SP Rich Hill - Injuries have been a recurring issue for Hill throughout his career, but when on the field this season, the 36-year-old southpaw posted exceptional numbers, including a 2.05 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 rate. Assuming that the impending free agent continues to serve as a starter in 2017, he could once again outperform his draft day price tag, which should be reasonable thanks to his injury history.

CL Roberto Osuna - Remember when Drew Storen was the favorite for saves in Toronto? Storen, the owner of a 5.70 ERA, is currently pitching in middle relief for the Mariners. Meanwhile, Osuna has emerged as one of the game's most reliable stoppers, notching 34 saves in 37 chances to go along with a 2.42 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 10.9 K/9 rate. And two bucks was all it took to purchase him in the Tout Wars Mixed Auction.

So, those of you in the "don't pay for saves" crowd can point to Osuna as another example as to why your draft approach is the correct draft approach.

But that's a debate for another day. 

First place, second place, first place, second place. That sums up my team's journey over the past week or two in the Tout Wars Mixed Auction league. A quick look at the category breakdowns makes it clear that the winner, which could realistically be any one of four teams, will not be determined until the final weekend of the season, maybe even the final day. Or maybe even the day after the final day, as Tout Wars counts stats accumulated in tiebreaker games.

Every year, whether it be in Tout Wars or any of my other leagues, I'm reminded that sometimes your best moves are the moves you don't make. I made a conscious effort this season to be more active in the trade market and even a little more willing to cut ties with an under-performing drafted player in favor of a less proven but more productive waiver wire option. But I did not all of a sudden turn into an impulsive owner who makes irrational decisions based on small sample sizes. Patience has been a quality that has served me well as a fantasy owner. Sometimes, I'm too patient. But I think I found the right balance this season, and looking back, it's scary to think about where I would be in the standings had I not practiced some patience.

On June 1st, Yasmani Grandal was batting .184 with four homers and 15 RBI. At that point, trading the Dodgers backstop for any top-15 type catcher seemed like a good idea. But I had high hopes for Grandal heading into the season and believed he could post career-best numbers if only he could stay healthy. And he was healthy. Three-plus months, 21 homers and 49 RBI later, Grandal is indeed wrapping up a career year, and with ten home runs and 21 RBI since the beginning of August, he's been one of my most productive hitters for quite some time.

I ended up drafting Justin Upton in four of my six leagues this year, and I was comfortable paying $30 for him in Tout Wars. Sure, he's streaky. But in the end, the numbers are always there, and 2016 would be no different. The new Tigers outfielder would also benefit from a lineup upgrade compared to his supporting cast in San Diego. I have always valued the younger Upton's season to season consistency, and that's why he has been a member of many of my fantasy squads over the years. But in early-June, when he was batting .213 with three homers and 11 RBI, I decided that I had enough. The only problem was that he carried zero trade value unless I wanted to sell him for 20 cents on the dollar. I had no choice but to keep him, and I'm glad I did. The .295 OBP is disappointing, but with three weeks to go, Upton is well within reach of matching or exceeding last season's 26 homers and 81 RBI.  

Brandon Finnegan was a popular late-round breakout pick heading into this season, but after drafting him in the reserve rounds, the Reds southpaw resided on my bench for much of the first half. The walk rate was too high and the consistency just wasn't there. I almost dropped him on several occasions and even considered a mid-season trade offer of five FAAB bucks for Finnegan's services. My counteroffer of Finnegan for 20 FAAB dollars was rejected, and that was the end of that. In seven starts since the beginning of August, the 23-year-old has registered a 2.76 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Also of note is that his strikeout rate has increased from 6.5 K/9 in the first half to 9.3 K/9 in the second half. Finnegan has found a home in my starting lineup, and there's a good chance he will remain there through the end of the season.

We waited and waited and waited some more for Trea Turner to make his 2016 big league debut. During this time, I got tired of waiting and offered Turner along with Trevor Plouffe to Fred Zinkie for Lucas Duda and Alcides Escobar. My offer was rejected. Phew. Finally, Turner was called up by the Nationals. The date was June 3rd, and in his first start of the season, he went 3-for-3 with a double and a walk. A few days later, he was back in Triple-A. Nats fans and fantasy owners were furious. This made no sense. Turner would not return to the big club until early-July, at which time Manager Dusty Baker, in response to questions about Turner's lack of playing time, pointed out that "This isn't a tryout camp." Huh? The speedster had nothing left to prove in the Minors. All he needed was regular at-bats. It all worked out in the end, with Turner learning the centerfield position, which turned out to be his ticket to everyday playing time. He's now my third-most valuable hitter, behind only Jose Altuve and Edwin Encarnacion. The wait was well worth it.  

Now excuse me while I check the standings.

Two weeks to go, and though most of my fantasy focus at this point in the season is geared towards finishing strong and possibly even winning a league title or two, it is also a time for reflection. And since the biggest key to winning in fantasy is earning as much profit as possible, whether it be through the draft or via the waiver wire, one of my annual end of season traditions is to assemble a team of players who all exceeded draft day expectations by a hefty margin. And chances are high that at least one of these guys resides on the roster of the vast majority of contending fantasy squads. Let's focus on hitters this week before moving to the mound next week.

C Wilson Ramos - After drafting Ramos in multiple leagues year after year only to be disappointed, I ended up investing in him in only one league this season. And that's too bad, because the Nationals backstop has finally realized his potential, setting career highs across the board. Top 5 catcher heading into 2017? Yeah, I'd say so.

1B Mike Napoli - Staying healthy has been a challenge for Napoli in recent years, but not in 2016. The Indians first baseman is surprisingly enjoying a career year in his age-34 season, and the best part is that he opened the year on the waiver wire in many mixed leagues. Congrats to those of you who stumbled across his 34 homers, 98 RBIs and 89 runs scored through 139 games for the price of a roster spot.

2B Daniel Murphy - What else is there to say? I didn't have any problem with the Mets cutting ties with Murphy this past winter and his $8 price at the Tout Wars Mixed Auction seemed like a fairly accurate measure of his fantasy value. I even viewed Neil Walker as an upgrade at second base for the Amazins. Not quite. Walker pieced together a productive year before succumbing to season-ending back surgery earlier this month. Meanwhile, Murphy is a legitimate MVP candidate. Is this the new Daniel Murphy? Is this what we should expect for 2017? I don't know. But I do know that I won't be willing to pay the 25-plus dollars it will take to find out.  

SS Jonathan Villar - Back in March, Orlando Arcia garnered all of the attention. It was only a matter of time before Arcia would get called up to the big leagues and take over as the everyday shortstop for the Brewers. Villar was seen as merely a placeholder. Well, this placeholder just so happens to sport a .289 batting average with 16 homers and 54 steals through 143 games. That's pretty good production from an April waiver wire pickup.

3B Jake Lamb - Sticking to the early-season waiver wire pickup theme, Lamb was hitting .291 with 20 homers and 61 RBIs at the All-Star break, and though his production has tailed off considerably in the second half, he had already given his owners much more than they paid for. And perhaps his second half fade will lower his draft day price tag to the point where he can again deliver a profit in 2017.

OF Wil Myers - There must be something special about the number 8, because like Daniel Murphy, Myers was purchased for $8 at the Tout Wars Mixed Auction draft table. All he's done is record 25 homers, 83 RBIs, 89 runs and 25 steals through 142 games. After capturing AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, Myers battled health woes and underperformance from 2014-2015, so it's nice to see him finally put it all together. Do note, however, that his bat has cooled off in the second half to the tune of a .215 average, six home runs and 23 RBIs. Still, at just 25 years of age, there's clearly a lot to like about Myers going forward.

OF Mark Trumbo - Trumbo was your prototypical undervalued hitter pick entering this season, and I fully expected him to challenge for 30-35 homers now that he would be playing half of his games at hitter-friendly Camden Yards. But I didn't expect him to challenge for 45 homers, or 95 runs. And consistent power production hasn't been a problem, as he's recorded at least six homers and 15 RBIs in every month from April through August. Trumbo has exceeded even the most optimistic stat projections, and that's why he belongs on this team.

OF Jackie Bradley Jr. - Bradley Jr. could never quite figure things out at the big league level. Then 2016 happened, and we're now looking at a potential perennial All-Star.

And all it took to draft this potential perennial All-Star was one dollar in the Tout Wars Mixed Auction.

Talk about a dollar well spent.

Ah, September. It's the time when fantasy titles are won or lost, the time when nightly box score scanning turns into hourly box score scanning if you are fortunate enough to still be in contention. The league trade deadline has passed, so all you can do is set lineups, scour the waiver wire in hopes of adding a true difference maker (good luck with that) and relax (good luck with that). 

I've never fully subscribed to the "second half player" theory, that there are certain players who can be relied upon to perform at a higher level during the latter portion of the season. And the "September player" theory is even harder to buy into since the sample size is small. But I wouldn't dismiss the idea entirely, as some players might simply need more time to meet expectations. So, I figured that a fun, and possibly even educational, exercise would be to look at some of the top offensive producers from last September with the goal of determining their chances of enjoying a similar level of success this September.

Justin Bour has been sidelined since early-July due to an ankle sprain, but the Marlins are hopeful that their first baseman can return to action within the next week. This season has certainly been a frustrating one for Bour and his fantasy owners, but perhaps he can close out 2016 on a high note. Keep in mind that the 28-year-old launched nine home runs to go along with 25 RBI last September. Bour could provide a power boost to the patient owners who stashed him on their DL, and he might even reside on the waiver wire in some shallower mixed formats.

Christian Yelich is quietly putting together a stellar season in his age-24 campaign, hitting .307 with 18 homers, 83 RBI and 70 runs scored through 129 games while using his trademark elite batting eye to register a .383 OBP. The Marlins left fielder was tied for 5th in the Majors in runs scored last September (22) and ranked in the top-9 in Hits (36), so it would not be surprising to see him finish the year in impressive fashion.

Eventually, the 37-year-old Adrian Beltre will show signs of decline. But it hasn't happened yet, and at this point it remains to be seen if it will ever happen. With a full month still to play, the Rangers third baseman has already posted his highest home run and RBI totals since 2013, and if last September is any indication (.327 AVG, 29 RBI), his bat is unlikely to cool off down the stretch. As for 2017, I'll continue to shy away from him in drafts because he will eventually show signs of decline. At least I think so.

Starlin Castro has been decent but far from exceptional in his first season with the Yankees. The 19 homers are nice, but outside of the power, he hasn't been much of a fantasy factor (.267 AVG, 4 SB). This is a guy who was once a strong contributor in both the batting average and stolen base departments, so the one-dimensional nature of his current fantasy value is concerning. And this is why I'm not putting too much stock into last season's red-hot September during which he batted .426 with five homers and 20 RBI. Castro is an acceptable starting MI in mixed leagues, and that's about it.

Ender Inciarte is fresh off a month of August that included a .371 batting average, 26 runs scored and two steals. After getting on base at a mediocre .294 clip in the first half, the Braves centerfielder sports a lofty .424 OBP since the All-Star break. Inciarte swiped eight bags (tied for 2nd in the Majors) while batting .317 last September with the Diamondbacks. Aside from the elite speedsters, a player's stolen base production is difficult to predict. But if Inciarte can increase his activity on the basepaths while maintaining his OBP improvement, owners who stuck with the 25-year-old through the rough times will be handsomely rewarded. 

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