Tout NL: A strong middle class

If I've learned anything over the course of playing in Tout Wars for the last four years, it's that Trace Wood of longgandhi.com is not an easy man to beat. The trouble with this guy is that he doesn't just read the box scores and crunch a few numbers like the rest of us. He plays fantasy baseball the way he cooks crawfish poppers: by baking everything from scratch.

The dude takes the raw data before the season and works the numbers himself. He watches his players play and listens to what their managers have to say about them. Then he stops to think this over, to knead it with his bull detector and let it all bake into a solid pastry. While most of us are content to read the numbers and follow the conventional wisdom from the newspapers, he forms his own conclusions and sticks to them.

His track record speaks for itself. If you look back at the year when Johan Santana broke out and won his first Cy Young Award, you'll see that it was Trace Wood who bought him in Tout Wars for $19. When Frank Thomas came from nowhere last season to hit 39 bombs, it was no surprise that Trace Wood was in on the bidding. And when someone (who shall remain nameless) decided to release Akinori Otsuka just before he took over as the closer in Texas, that person didn't even have to check the waiver wire to know who picked the guy up.

By developing an uncanny ability to value players, Trace has won two AL Tout Wars titles in three years and nearly won a third while making most of his competitors look like yellow belts. When he announced he was switching to the National League competition this year, I told him I was sorry to see him go. But I was lying.

Don't worry, I haven't taken a job as Trace Wood's public relations manager -- and I'm not saying he's a genius whom you should follow blindly. What I'm saying is that if there was ever a year to shadow somebody's picks in the National League, it's this one. And you could do a lot worse than setting your sights on Trace.

The reason I say this is that the NL Tout Wars draft, unlike the American League side, seems to have been conducted by people who did not spend the morning at a complimentary tequila tasting. I'm not sure if Barry Bonds is really worth $15 this season, but in this league, even most of the surprising bids were at least defensible. This league shows us the real value of an experts competition: When the owners don't get hijacked by stupidity, they are -- as a whole -- very good at telling us what the fantasy value of major league ballplayers really is.

If you take a look at the results, you'll see some telling patterns this year that apply to the National League as a whole. Roughly 20 percent of all the players bought at auction in this league cost between $5 and $8. In fact, there were eighteen $6 players alone -- which was five more than all the $6 players in the Mixed and AL drafts combined.

When you see a bubble like this in an efficient draft market, you can rightly conclude that there's a strong lower middle class in the National League this year, and that this is a pool that the smart owners should exploit. Among the players in that $5 to $8 range, the types most available are catchers (7), corner infielders (8) and outfielders (11). But the most plentiful position by far is pitchers -- there were roughly 25 of them taken in this zone -- including Noah Lowry, Zach Duke, Kip Wells, Matt Capps, John Maine, Rafael Soriano and Oliver Perez. If you ask me, I'd be willing to bet there are some excellent profits waiting to be made in that bunch.

So if there's a lot of value in the draft at the low end, the real question becomes: Which high- and mid-level players should you spend money on? It's here that Trace Wood comes into the picture. When he dominated Tout Wars in 2004, the year I wrote about the AL competition in "Fantasyland," he did it with a strategy of trying to fill his roster with unappreciated players in the middle price range who would cost less than they should. This year, however, upon moving to a new league where nobody knows which players he likes, Trace seems to have decided to pursue his favorite guys at whatever prices it took to get them. He spent $33 on Hanley Ramirez and $25 on Willy Taveras. In the middle range, he spent $18 on Brad Hawpe, $15 on Salomon Torres, $13 for John Patterson and $12 for Wilson Betemit. He also ponied up $7 for Claudio Vargas, which may seem like a lot given the pitcher's recent track record. For a guy who has built his record on his ability to value major league players, these are some bold moves that bear watching.

To be sure, I haven't talked to Trace about his draft strategy. I bet he'll have at least a dozen rebuttals to the arguments I've made here. But take my word on this, the dude has something up his sleeve. And when Trace Wood lays it all out there for a group of unlikely players, odds are one or two of them are going to pull a Johan Santana. I'd never advise you to follow someone blindly, but until he shows that he's no better than the rest of us, I'd advise you to follow Trace Wood around with a pair of dark sunglasses.

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