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Monday, March 23, 2009
Updated: March 24, 3:49 PM ET
NL LABR draft recap: Believe in Utley

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Money, meet mouth. Mouth, meet money. I'm sure you'll be the best of friends.

For a guy who makes his living dishing out fantasy baseball advice, doesn't the draft strategy "put your money where your mouth is" seem somewhat apropos? Wouldn't feel right if I didn't inject a healthy dose of my own advice into my own teams, and there might not be a more prime instance to do that than in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league.

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What makes that league more special than any other? Well, LABR has been the longest-standing experts league in the country, with its results published each spring in USA Today's Sports Weekly. Those results serve, in a sense, as a "price guide" of the game, for the most part adhering as closely to traditional market values as any league out there. No one really pulls a fast one on anyone in LABR; everyone knows his stuff. It's akin to attending a baseball card show where there aren't any bargain boxes and every dealer asks for exactly book value for a George Brett rookie card.

When bargains are generally taken out of the equation, targeting the players you feel most strongly about is your best bet. That's the approach I took in 2008, when Nate McLouth was so clearly one of "my guys" that I nabbed him for $12. (I remember at the time being willing to go to $15-17.) Not that McLouth was the sole driving force behind my second LABR championship last season (my first title came in 2002) -- it might have been my rock-solid middle-infield combo of Hanley Ramirez and Chase Utley, my in-season signing of CC Sabathia or my reserve-draft selection of Ryan Dempster -- but nabbing a guy like that and putting my money where my mouth was definitely proved to be a successful strategy.

So that remained my strategic approach this year, though I added one tasty nugget. Having recently examined baseball's statistical trends in the "post-steroid" era -- I know, we have no guarantees the game is completely clean, but it is improving -- one thing I felt strongly about heading into LABR was that prime-age players are about as good an investment as you'll find. I was willing to spend the extra buck or two on players in the age 24-27 range, and fill out the remainder of the roster with either "my guys" or players I had slotting in a buck or two beneath my projected values.

One glitch in the system: I hadn't expected that days before the draft, our usual auctioneer, Perry Van Hook, would be a last-minute substitution to the LABR roster. Sigh. Van Hook, a master auctioneer, instead adopted the role of thorn in my side -- literally; he was sitting directly to my left -- bidding me up on many of my round-out-the-roster bargain candidates and $1 nominees.

Oh well, can't win all of those. And I've always got more on the list.

ESPN's drafters at LABR

AL-only: Christopher Harris
AL-only: Jason Grey
NL-only: Tristan H. Cockcroft
NL-only: Nate Ravitz

My Team

(Note: This was an NL-only league with a $260 auction budget for each of 13 teams and standard rosters except 10 pitching slots instead of the usual nine. The draft took place on March 7.)

C Yadier Molina $9: Catchers as a whole feel like they cost more and more each season -- Chris Iannetta went for $20! -- so I was pleased to get a respectable, can't-hurt-you talent like this for under $10. It's not like his 2008 BABIP was insanely high, either (.310).

C Ramon Castro $1: Never pay for your No. 2 catcher. I prefer a $1 gamble with either decent pop (Castro) or a respectable batting average (maybe Ryan Hanigan, also $1).

1B Prince Fielder $31: It's abundantly clear to me that Fielder is going to be my anchor, either in the traditional sense or the "boy, he sure sank me into the second division quickly" sense. If it helps you any, Prince, those Morningstar Chik'n patties actually simulate the real thing pretty well … as I hope you'll simulate your 2007 season.

Chase Utley
With Chase Utley recovering well from offseason hip surgery, his draft-day price keeps on rising.
2B Chase Utley $36: Stephania Bell promised me he'd be healthy come Opening Day. OK, so it was more a suggestion than an actual promise, but I've been echoing that sentiment the entire offseason anyway. I overpaid by a few bucks, but if you're going to overpay, why not do it for one of the game's best talents at one of its thinnest positions?

3B Brett Wallace $1: One year from now -- OK, maybe two -- a $1 Wallace will be a steal. Hey, maybe we'll see him in September.

SS Stephen Drew $22: If he doesn't fit the definition of "monster breakout candidate," I don't know who does.

CI Adam LaRoche $16: Pro: He has earned this price or more in each of the past three seasons, and he's 29, still near his prime. Con: Carlos Delgado cost the same for potentially more production, and LaRoche is a dreadful first-half player (.771 career OPS).

MI Eugenio Velez $8: My desperation steals guy. By this point I was really cornered in the category and forced to pay. It didn't help that Dave Roberts had been released a couple of days sooner, guaranteeing Velez more draft-day attention.

OF Hunter Pence $26: I'm not even that much of a Pence fan, but at 26 years old, he fit my strategy perfectly. Not much downside other than overpaying by a couple of bucks.

OF Randy Winn $14: No one seems to respect the guy, but he has batted .294 and averaged 13 homers, 68 RBIs, 20 steals and 85 runs over the past seven seasons.

OF Josh Anderson $6: Another "desperation-steals" guy, a part of the auction that positively killed me. At least he's hitting .292 (14-for-48) this spring. Doesn't help that Jordan Schafer is faring even better (.385, 15-for-39).

OF Micah Hoffpauir $1: He hit in the minors, he hit in his brief stint with the Cubs last year and he's hitting this spring, too. And I'm not the biggest fan of Derrek Lee, who is now 33 years old. Hey, for $1, you just never know.

OF Matt Stairs $1: Note to Phillies: Please trade Stairs to an American League club. He ended up being my guy because I was desperate for cheap outfielders after being outbid on numerous $1 nominees.

U Matt Diaz $1: I've always been a fan, and can build a case he'll have the highest average of anyone who gets 200 at-bats in that outfield. And yes, I know that's narrowing his value to a very small window. It's depressing when platoonmates are all that remain.

P Chad Billingsley $23: See Drew, Stephen. It's an overbid, but Dan Haren (selected by Nate Ravitz for $26) was the only pitcher I wanted more to anchor this staff.

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson's peripherals aren't great, but if he can repeat his 41 saves from 2008, he'll be worth his draft-day price.
P Brian Wilson $13: He had unreasonably high numbers in both BABIP (.329) and home run to fly ball percentage (13.7), things I think will even out enough to help him keep his job. It helps that the only other Giants reliever I see as having closer makeup, Sergio Romo, is probably going to begin the year on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

P Chad Qualls $13: He made my "Kings of Command" list for 2009. Remember that "money where my mouth is" theme?

P Hiroki Kuroda $11: Fairly safe, consistent, and pitching great so far this spring. I can only hope he called Daisuke Matsuzaka to get some tips on how to have a monster sophomore season. Yes, I'll even accept one that's mostly generated by good luck.

P Chris Perez $10: This was a bit of price enforcing; I had no intention of buying three closers -- or at least closer hopefuls. Unfortunately, the news since hasn't been in his favor, but that is the risk we take drafting the first week of March. If he goes for even $5 in Tout Wars this coming weekend, I'll be a little surprised.

P Ubaldo Jimenez $9: Three days later he set a WBC record with 10 strikeouts in a game. Needless to say, I was pretty happy about that.

P Carlos Villanueva $4: See Qualls, Chad, though after Villanueva's horrible performance on March 17, I have to hope that his landing in Ken Macha's doghouse is more a motivational ploy than an "I don't trust this guy" statement. I continue to ask myself, who else could close in Trevor Hoffman's absence?

P Jamie Moyer $2: His good 2008 was worth $14 in this format, and his so-so 2007 was worth $6, and that might be the best case I can make for the guy. The catch: I can't reserve him playing matchups, so while there's $2 value to be had here, the downside presents me a lot more pain than it might have had he been my first reserve pick.

P Micah Owings $1: Can I get credit for his hitting stats at least, if he's not the fifth starter? Though I think he will be the fifth starter, because he looks gooooood this spring.

P Carlos Carrasco $1: LABR has a rule that the pitchers you slot into your active roster at the draft must remain active so long as they're on an active big league roster, while reserves can be activated and demoted anytime you want. My way of skirting that rule in order to play some matchups is to pick a pitcher I know won't be on the Opening Day roster so I can immediately reserve him.

Reserve picks

(The following picks were taken in a snake draft. It's worth noting that only your reserve picks may have free movement between the active and reserve list during the season, so finding pitchers and spare hitters to plug in when you need to is at a premium.)

Where should they go? Insider
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1. Tim Redding: This pick sure went sour quickly. What can I say, he was the 315th player picked, and at the time, Freddy Garcia and Livan Hernandez were looking horrible. OK, Garcia still looks horrible, but Hernandez doesn't. One thing's for sure: I won't be the guy blowing my FAAB budget on Hernandez, because I don't trust having that guy active every week -- another LABR rule -- any more than I might have Redding.

2. Juan Uribe: Someone has to step in for the demoted Wallace as my third baseman. Might as well be a guy with a little pop and second base eligibility.

3. Collin Balester: Though he has endured some struggles in the past couple of weeks, Balester remains a high-upside pick in that wide-open Nationals rotation. Even if he begins the year in the minors, I bet there's some matchups potential in him this year.

4. Seth McClung: Speaking of matchups types, here's a candidate, whose road ERA in 2008 was 3.44. Plus, between the health problems of Braden Looper and the aforementioned Hoffman, a rotation spot or cheap saves is possible.

5. Franklin Morales: He bounced back during winter ball, with a 2.72 ERA and 37 K's in 53 innings, and has been adequate so far this spring. Hey, you never know.

6. Kyle Kendrick: Sure, he has performed horribly so far this spring, but he's an eventual fifth-starter candidate on the defending World Series champs, and because he was a reserve pick, at least I can pick and choose his matchups if I want. Hey, you never know.

Conclusions

On the surface, this team seems like it has more holes than last year's, but if you check back to 2008, Marcus Giles and Scott Hatteberg were two active $1 hitters who didn't offer me even one game played. This year, I have only one I can't necessarily count on for a single game (Wallace). The big difference: I don't see a Dempster or Kyle Lohse coming from my reserve picks, but then that's the point of getting those guys more than 300 players into things; they shouldn't be expected to have much value at all.

At least we can make trades, and sticking to that whole "money where my mouth is" theme, if I'm advising you to better your team via the trade route, it'd follow I do the same, right?

ESPN.com fantasy baseball analyst Tristan H. Cockcroft is a two-time LABR champion, most recently winning in 2008. You can e-mail him here.