Tout Wars experts make mistakes, too

Tout Wars was founded in 1998 with one specific purpose: To become fantasy baseball's version of the All-Star game.

Each year, the Tout Wars executive committee invites some of the top fantasy experts, authors, hosts, pundits and columnists to New York City to draft teams in one of three 5x5 auction leagues (AL-only, NL-only and mixed). While there's no prize money and no trophy, and all participants must pay their own expenses, the competition for spots is tougher than ever.

This year's drafts, which were held last weekend in midtown Manhattan, included industry leaders like Ron Shandler of BaseballHQ.com and "The Baseball Forecaster," Baseball Prospectus columnist Joe Sheehan, "Bill James Handbook" editor Steve Moyer, ESPN.com fantasy czar Matthew Berry and Mike Siano and Cory Schwartz of MLB.com's "Fantasy 411" -- along with top guns from Rotowire, Rotoworld, CBS Sportsline and a dozen others.

In 2006, Wall Street Journal sports columnist Sam Walker published "Fantasyland," an account of his rookie season in the American League side of Tout Wars. The book, which was just released in paperback, has became a New York Times best-seller and is being developed as a movie. Tout Wars has also served as a pipeline to the major leagues. In recent years, seven current or former Touts have landed jobs as consultants, scouts or statisticians for major league teams including the St. Louis Cardinals, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays.

This year, ESPN.com will be hosting Tout Wars and providing the scoring through our League Manager. We'll also be following the competition online, and we've invited the Tout Wars experts to give us regular updates explaining their strategies and roster moves and offering their thoughts on sleepers, studs and duds.

In this week's first installment, "Fantasyland" author Sam Walker, the 2005 AL Tout Wars champion, breaks down the three Tout Wars drafts and points out some lessons that might help you win your league.

American League

Earlier this week during a radio interview for my book, Fantasyland, the host asked me a question that I didn't have a ready answer for. He wanted to know why I play fantasy baseball.

Obviously, there's no single explanation. I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that I love baseball and that I like to dabble in the statistics a bit. I'm sure it probably helps me escape from all the mundane details of life. And there's always the possibility that I am suffering from a relatively serious head injury.

But because I was on the air and on the spot, I had to come up with something simple. So I decided to say the first word that popped into my mind. "Humiliation," I said.

If you're really honest about it, you know that your relationship with the people in your fantasy league is not a healthy one. You may like some of these people. You may even admire them from time to time. But what you really want from this peculiar set of friends is to sit down with them once a year at the draft table and watch them do things that are breathtakingly stupid.

When I arrived at the 2007 Tout Wars American League draft on March 24, I was convinced that it was going to be my last. Ever since my rookie season in 2004 when I grossly overpaid for pitching, drafted Bill Mueller as a hidden source of power and threw out Sidney Ponson for $12 -- only to hear the chirping of crickets -- I had always been the guy who came out of the draft room on the stupid end of the equals sign. Every year I would walk home from the draft kicking myself over some unbelievable blunder.

Even after I won the league in 2005, I couldn't shake my reputation. With an ESPN camera rolling, I kicked off the draft by offering up the first player for bidding: Felix Rodriguez for $10. There were a few seconds of silence followed by the exchanging of glances. Then somebody spoke up. "Sam, did you mean Felix Hernandez?"

I'd had enough.

But this year, as we mingled before the draft, I felt an unusual vibe in the room. Maybe it was the fact that I'd held my own most of last season, or that Trace Wood, the defending AL champion, had defected to the NL. Maybe it was the newish faces there, like Rick Wolf and Glenn Colton from Rotoworld and Mike Siano from MLB.com. For some reason, I felt like this year could be different.

By the time the first hour had passed, I was starting to worry. I'd landed Daisuke Matsuzaka for $21, Troy Glaus for $19 and Jeremy Bonderman for $22 -- all prices that were nicely below my projections. Then it happened. Curt Schilling's price hit $19 and there was a lull at the table. I'd already spent plenty of money on pitching and didn't need Schilling, but decided to do my part and enforce his price, which I had pegged at closer to $23. So I bid $20 and, after an agonizing silence, pasted Schilling on my roster.

I turned to Nando DiFino, my friend and Tout Wars partner. When I'm not around (and sometimes when I am) my league-mates like to refer to Nando as "Sam Walker's Brain" which is generally pretty accurate. He saw the look on my face and laughed. I told him I'd just made another fatal blunder at the draft, this time by overvaluing pitchers and dooming my team to another year of anemic offense. "Are people laughing at me?" I asked in a whisper.

In the hours that followed, after I had already prepared myself for another six months of self-flagellation, something remarkable happened. The "experts" in my league -- some of the sharpest minds in fantasy baseball analysis -- started to panic like a bunch of rookies. First there were darting eyes. Then came the furrowed brows and occasional beads of sweat. When Dean Peterson of STATS paid $16 for Joe Crede, I assumed it was just because he always pays a premium for White Sox players. After Rick Wilton paid $21 for Josh Barfield, I figured -- hey, positional scarcity.

But by the time the board began to get thin, my Tout Wars opponents started to behave like a pack of frugal old ladies making a run on a failing bank. After hoarding their money for the first five hours of the draft, these guys began clobbering each other with their handbags to get ahold of whatever scraps they could find.

2001 champion Lawr Michaels of Creativesports.com paid $16 for Casey Kotchman and $17 for Casey Blake. Two-time AL winner Jason Grey of Fantasybaseball.com spent $9 for Twins pitcher Matt Garza, who was optioned to Triple-A four days later. Never mind that Jay Gibbons didn't have a clear role with the Orioles and had missed three days with an abdominal strain; he sparked a bidding war that ended with a $19 offer from Wolf and Colton.

Even Ron Shandler of BaseballHQ, the founding father of Tout Wars and its most decorated champion, contributed to the afternoon's entertainment. He spent $16 on Ty Wigginton and then, for an encore, $19 on Nick Punto and his aching groin. (For $1 more, he could have had Curt Schilling.)

There are a few things worth taking away from this abomination of a draft. There's a real shortage of outfield depth in the American League this year, so it pays to lock up some legitimate talent early. A lot of big arms (at least ones that are not connected to Johan Santana) don't seem to be attracting a lot of enthusiasm in the early rounds, so don't take them too soon and don't be afraid to take an extra arm. And no matter how long you've been playing in auction leagues, don't forget to pay attention to how much money your opponents have left.

As for me, I'm not saying that my team is invincible. My power core of Nick Swisher, Troy Glaus, Bobby Abreu and Gary Sheffield could easily sputter in home runs and kill my batting average. And I didn't fully escape the inflation: I paid $15 for Jose Guillen, which, if you've read Fantasyland, is a story unto itself.

But at the end of the day, I knew that lightning had struck. My early spending hadn't been the latest chapter in my own long history of personal humiliation. If I'd looked stupid at the time, it was because I was the only sane man in the room.

Tout Wars NL | Tout Wars Mixed