It goes without saying that this year’s fantasy baseball March draft season is unlike any other we have seen (and hopefully will see for quite some time).  It also goes without saying that world events and health issues override sports, and of course override fantasy sports. That said, with all of the stress people are under, if anyone chooses to spend their time concentrating on the escape, fun and camaraderie of fantasy sports in a safe and responsible way, then, by all means, do so.  That is what the Tout Wars board decided for this weekend, saying “the drafts should go on” and encouraging the Touts to continue to inform and entertain in a safe responsible fashion. With that in mind and hopefully for one year only, Tout Wars moved to an online auction room to battle for supremacy in the fantasy baseball world. Todd Zola did great work making the online auction experience as seamless as possible.  Thank you, Todd! That said, not even the great Lord Zola could replace the unique and wonderful experience of the in-person auction. Nor could he or anyone avoid all technical glitches.  (Though if truth be told, the glitch in which Mike Gianella bid over $51 on Franmil Reyes thinking he was Mike Trout and Chris Liss using Jonathan Holder as a “placeholder” for Shohei Ohtani the hitter were strong moments of techno-driven comic relief so there is that).  

With all that in mind and on our minds, Rick Wolf and I sat down at the virtual auction table and set about regaining our Tout Wars AL title (we fell two stolen bases short of repeating our 2018 win).  It is an honor to draft with and compete against the likes of Jeff Erickson, Chris Liss, Howard Bender, Doug Dennis, defending champ Rob Leibowitz and more. It is even a greater honor to call these and all the Touts friends.  So, without further delay, here is how it all worked out. 

The Strategy:

Follow the SMART System and Rules of Engagement that has proven so successful and netted us not only Tout Wars titles in 2014 and 2018 but also five LABR AL titles, including back to back in 2018 and 2019 (You can find the details of SMART here

We budgeted $205 of the $260 mythical dollars on hitting and the remaining $55 on pitching [spoiler alert, we ended up spending $200 on hitting and $60 on pitching].  Ordinarily, we like to roster one Ace or Anchor to follow the A in SMART. However, in the AL, there is no pitcher that satisfies our criteria. Gerritt Cole is great but his cost is huge and is going to have to pitch in a new home and will have all the pressure of justifying that $324 million contract.  Stated another way, he violates the Rule of Engagement that says do not pay full price for a big-money free agent in his first year in a new home. The other candidates for “Ace” or “Anchor” -- Justin Verlander , Blake Snell , and Mike Clevinger -- all have injury issues, the latter two for the second year in a row.  Thus, we adjusted to the odd reality of this 2020 AL talent pool and decided to stick with high upside starting pitchers whose price tag was $10 or below, grab two closers and then cherry-pick pitchers we like cheap while loading up on hitting. Why? We continue to believe that hitting is just more predictable than pitching.

The Team:

C:  Christian Vázquez $8 and Jason Castro $3:    We had a plan to limit spending on catchers and thus budgeted away from the high cost of Gary Sánchez and Yasmani Grandal .  Both violate the Rules of Engagement in that Sanchez is already dealing with back injuries (never pay full price for injured players) and Grandal is in his first year on a big contract in a new home (and also is already dealing with injury issues).   We really did not have Vazquez in our plans but when the bidding stalled at $8 for a guy who hit 23 dingers and posted a solid .320 OBP in a good park and in what is still going to be a good lineup, we pounced. When you consider that Austin Romine who has never been a starter, plays for what will be a bad Tigers team and hit only 8 dingers last year in Yankee Stadium went for one dollar less, you have to like the bargain.

As to Jason Castro , we think this is a major bargain.  Last year, Castro hit 13 dingers in only 237 AB while posting a strong (and very strong for a catcher) .330+ OBP.  When you add in the fact that Castro hit the ball hard over 50% of the time, has posted line drive rates of 25% or more for three years running and will get more playing time not having to battle Mitch Garver for a spot in the lineup, you have to like the odds that Castro will far outpace this small cost.

1B:  José Abreu $25:  This is exactly the price we paid for Abreu a year ago in Tout Wars when he delivered to the tune of 33 dingers, 123 RBI and a .330 OBP.  Yes, Abreu will be 33 but the 1B position is quite weak in the AL, the Pale Hose lineup is far better than last year and Abreu has shown no signs of slowing down.  Indeed, he had his career-best barrel rate, hard-hit percentage and exit velocity in 2019.  

3B:  Yoán Moncada $27 and Travis Shaw $6:  Yoán Moncada had a break out year in 2019 at the age of 24 smacking 25 dingers, stealing 10 bags and getting on base at a .367 clip.  If he does anywhere close to that again, we will be very happy. However, there remains a lot of room to grow. Yes, the .406 BABIP will regress, however, given his speed and how hard he hits the ball (top-10 in the MLB in exit velocity and top-10-percent in hard-hit rate), his BABIP will remain quite high.  Moreover, this is a 25-year-old that despite his tender age has almost 1,500 big league at-bats. There is surely room to grow and we predict he will. Indeed, the advanced metrics show such growth. Moncada’s hard-hit and line-drive rates have gone up each year in Chicago while his infield popups have gone down each of those years.  

As to Shaw, people seem to forget that he is still under 30 and was hurt last year at the same time he was trying an ill-fated swing change.  Now reportedly healthy and back to his successful swing, there is a very good chance that he returns to the player who hit over 30 HR and posted a .345+ OBP in both 2017 and 2018.  Oh, and for good measure, Shaw will quickly add 1B eligibility in the first week or so of the season.    

2B:  D.J. LeMahieu $25:  Yeah, yeah, he is unlikely to knock in 100 runs again hitting leadoff (or the annualized equivalent if there are not 162 games).  However, he does not have to replicate his .375 OBP, 100+ runs and RBI, and 26 dingers to earn the $25 we paid. First, DJ is a very valuable commodity in a deep AL-only league as he qualifies at 1B, 2B, and 3B.  This will allow us to move him around as the inevitable injuries hit or to take advantage of waiver wire or trade opportunities. Moreover, I think DJ has put to rest the nonsensical narrative that he cannot hit outside of Coors.  First, Yankee Stadium is hardly a pitcher’s park. Second, DJ hit the ball harder more often than he ever had while continuing his strong evenly-distributed pull-middle-oppo spray chart. Finally, his contact rate stayed over 85% and his zone contact over 90% -- both signs of a very skilled hitter.

SS:  Gleyber Torres $30 and J.P. Crawford $6:  Torres is a star.  Period, full stop. When the biggest criticism you hear is that he hit a lot of his homers against Baltimore, you know you have a real deal player (plus, are dingers against a bad Orioles team in 2020 going to count less?  I think not). In his age 23 season when many are still toiling in the minors, Torres blasted 38 dingers and got on base at a .337 clip despite serious bad luck in the second half (BABIP below .260). Torres is still getting better.  Watch him play. He has a very mature approach at the plate and continues to learn and improve. The future MVP (maybe not in 2020 but it is very possible) is also multi-positional as he qualifies at both 2B and SS.    

As to Crawford, I have always believed he was hyped too soon.  Real and fantasy baseball folks expected too much of the then 22-year-old when he arrived in Philadelphia.  So much so that few realize he only turned 25 this past January. Stated another way, Crawford is the classic post-hype sleeper.  He has an everyday job (huge in AL-only context). In only 345 AB last year, Crawford hit 7 dingers and stole 5 bags. If he just produces at that rate in 2020 playing full time, that would be a full year equivalent of 10 dingers and 7 bags which alone might be worth $6.  However, there are many positive signs that say the numbers will be even better. On the soft data front, Crawford reportedly gained 10 pounds of muscle and adjusted his swing over the winter. On the hard data front, he hit the ball harder and made better contact than in his prior two MLB stints.  Oh, and he did put up a .420 OBP in AAA before arriving in Seattle for good in 2020. Crawford is not likely a league winner but he will likely earn us a nice profit. 

First Tier OF:  Jorge Soler $26, Max Kepler $20 and Byron Buxton $18:  With our big money, productive infield, we looked to value hunt among young outfielders.    As to Soler, he had a monster year in 2019 that none of the Touts seemed to buy was close to repeatable.  Honestly, I do not get it. He does not need to come close to approaching 48 dingers, 95 runs, 117 RBI or a .354 OBP to earn $26 in an only league.  Yes, he has had some health issues in the past but DHing a lot should help. The power is unquestionably real and the solid OBP has always been a Soler calling card.  If healthy, he could easily hit 40 dingers with a solid OBP again. However, even if he “falls” to 30 dingers with a .335 OBP and 80 runs and RBI, he well earns $26.  

As to Kepler, I am just as confused as to why the bidding stopped as I am with Soler.  Frankly, I just do not get why he went for only $20. 36 dingers and a .336 OBP is pretty strong stuff, especially considering he missed a lot of time down the stretch.  Minnesota continues to be a very good hitting team and thus will continue to produce opportunities for Kepler (indeed with Josh Donaldson in the fold and the possibility of a full year of Buxton and Sano, they could be the top hitting team).  What is it that people see that says Kepler will regress?  Kepler’s hard-hit, fly ball, line drive and zone contact rates all went up.  Moreover, he improved dramatically against lefties with an .880 OPS just two years after posting a weak .453 against lefties.  

As to Buxton, well, we needed speed and it made sense from our perspective to take the risk.  In 2019 in only 271 AB, Buxton stole 14 bags (with 10 dingers). So, the floor is pretty high and the ceiling almost limitless.  Yes, this is a gamble but one that could pay off and one that based on our team construct was worth the risk (i.e., the ever-present need for speed).

Second Tier OF:  Kevin Pillar $4 and Delino DeShields $1:  Neither of these three are superstars.  That said, Pillar will play in Boston and has been a consistent, though unspectacular offensive producer.  He has averaged over 17 dingers and 14 swipes for the last three years. For $4, I will gladly take a combined 30+ HRs and SBs.  As to Deshields, we tossed him out figuring his speed would garner some action and get an opposing owner to spend some scarce capital in the end-game.  We were surprised to hear see no other bids and then hear the corny online voice say “you want 'em you got bought 'em.” Swipes are scarce and Deshields has averaged 24 steals a year over the last three years in part-time work so there is surely hope for profit.  Oh, and the Indians hardly have a group of all-stars patrolling the outfield that will prevent Deshields from getting some opportunity to play and when he plays, he runs.  

Utility:  Maikel Franco $1:  Again, here is a player we called out for $1 and were shocked by the virtual crickets.  Do we love him? Hardly. That said, he is still only 27, has averaged 22 dingers a year for the last four years and the Royals have every reason to give him the opportunity to prove he can produce.  You have to have some end-game $1 guys so at least ours will play and has a decent track record.  

Our Top 4 Starting Pitchers:  Lance McCullers $10; Andrew Heaney $10; Dylan Cease $6; Kyle Gibson $4:  As noted above, we made the decision that there was no starting pitcher in the AL that met all of our qualifications for ace or anchor due to injury, new team or lack of track record.  This makes me nervous but we did win LABR AL in 2019 with the “no ace is worth the price being charged strategy” so there is hope! Now let’s take a look at our top four who cost us a total of $30.

To be perfectly honest, Lance McCullers was not on our list of players we really wanted until I attended the annual fantasy baseball lunch with baseball whiz, BAT creator and buddy Derek Carty that our friend Chris Throop so generously makes happen during draft season.  During the course of the event, Derek could not stop gushing about McCullers – so much so that I went back to re-examine. What I discovered was a terrific pitcher whose main flaw was that he would only throw 120 instead of 200 innings. However, those 120 innings are likely to be a much greater percentage of what a “horse” throws in the truncated 2020 season.  When McCullers last toed the rubber in 2018, he posted a 3.86 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 142 K’s in 128 innings. For $10, I would take that in 2020. However, the advanced metrics, including an elite groundball rate well over 50% and a swinging strike rate over 13%, say he should have been better. Moreover, the FIP, xFIP, and Siera all say the ERA should have been lower.  Finally, when I see a pitcher averaging over 94MPH with two additional swing and miss pitches (curve and change for McCullers), I see potential stardom. Thanks to Derek for opening my eyes.  

Andrew Heaney being on our team is also a product of not worrying about his ability to potentially throw 180+ innings.  With a likely shortened season and a $10 price tag, profit should be forthcoming. The 2019 4.91 ERA is deceiving as the 3.87 SIERA shows.  There is little doubt he is a strikeout guy as his 11+ K/9 in 2019 shows. The swing and miss results are backed up by two pitches with 15+% swinging strike rates (curve and change) and a third with an 11+ % swinging-strike rate (sinker).  Finally, his velocity has been increasing year over year for four years, so further growth there is possible as well – velocity growth that will only make his other pitches more difficult to spot and square up.  

Dylan Cease and Kyle Gibson for a total of $10 is what really makes this staff exciting for me.  Both guys are also on our LABR AL squad so that will tell you we are all in. At first blush, Cease had some troubling numbers in his first MLB tour (5.79 ERA and 1.55 WHIP).  However, his xFIP was over a run and a half lower and his groundball rate of 47% was solid. Indeed, if you compare Cease to other MLB hurlers over the second half, you see some encouraging numbers:  he was top 5 in all of baseball at inducing infield flies (which are automatic outs) and top 10% in limiting hard-hit percentage. Oh, and continuing the theme of hard throwers with swing and miss offerings, check this out:  Cease averaged over 96 MPH on his fastball and both his change and slider had solid swinging strike rates. Finally, his strong September was very encouraging, especially the 30+% K rate and sub 30% hard-hit rate.  

For his part, Gibson is a guy who appears to really have turned the corner in the second half, a half that saw his swinging strike and first-pitch strike rates improve dramatically.  Combine that with his continuously improving velocity (up almost 2.5 MPH since 2016) and three pitches with a 16+% swinging-strike rate and you have potential big-time bargain on your hands.  Oh, and did I mention that like Cease, Gibson induced a ton of infield flies in the second half. Gibson also induced hitters to chase outside of the zone more than all but a few MLB starters.  Yes, Gibson has burned people before but not this time.

Our Other Starting Pitchers:  Domingo Germán $2; Justus Sheffield $1:  German may not pitch a ton in 2020 given he will miss the first 63 games of what likely will be a shortened season.  However, even if he pitches half the season, a guy who won 18 games, struck out almost 4 batters for every walk and struck out more than a batter per inning is a gamble worth taking.  As to Sheffield, he was terrible in 2019. There is no getting around that as his 5.50 ERA and 1.72 WHIP. However, looking behind the numbers, one sees a pitcher with a nasty slider (swinging strike rate around 24%), solid change (swinging strike rate of approximately 15%), strong ground ball rate (50+%) and elite spin rate and you get a guy who can be a bargain by year’s end.   

Relievers:  Joe Jiménez $12; Ian Kennedy $13; and Trevor Rosenthal $1:  Candidly, I would have rather rostered one of the top three closers on our board (Aroldis Chapman , Roberto Osuna or Ken Giles ).  However, each kept climbing beyond our budget. Instead, we rostered two decent second-tier closers along with a handcuff to one of them.  I figure that there may be some ugly innings for Jimenez but the Tigers will be bad and will have strong motivation to stick with Joe to see what they have.  That means he saves the games the Tigers win. As to Kennedy, the rumors that Mike Matheny will play matchups with his pen are less worrisome for us with Rosenthal and his re-discovered 99 MPH velocity in the fold.  Before you scoff at Rosenthal, check out those 9K’s and no BB before spring was canceled. That hardly looks like the wild reliever of years past.  

Bottom Line:  We followed the plan of loading up on hitting.  That hitting is balanced and deep and the pitching staff has upside and a few potential Aces.  Time will tell if our plan worked but so far so good in our view. Good luck to all the Touts in 2020.