Let me set a scene for you.
9:28 a.m. Saturday. I am in my bed, on hour number five of sleep. My cell phone, which I keep on the dresser next to me, is shaking violently. I can ignore the first two text messages -- we all do. But then it starts ringing. And ringing again. Finally, I sit up, reach for the phone, and pick up the call without even looking at the caller ID.
"Nando," the voice on the other end answers, "it's Sias."
"How many times have you called?"
"Four," he says, "and I sent three texts."
"I need to know if I should pick up Mark DeRosa or Khalil Greene for my bench."
This, ever since I worked on the book Fantasyland, is what I have come to consider a normal call from one of my friends between the months of March and October.
"DeRosa," I said. And closed my phone. Two minutes later, just as I was about to re-enter my dream (about running a successful pizza parlor with the three chefs from the Cinnamon Toast Crunch box), the phone shakes again.
"Are you sure I want DeRosa? Because Greene homered last night."
At this point, any other person would turn the phone off and go back to sleep. But since I've known Sias for 10 years (and because his job working PR for a brewery has more than its share of perks), I gave him a three-minute explanation of why DeRosa is a better fit for his bench than Greene. I used expert-sounding terms, like "multi-positionality" and "ballpark adjustments" to hammer my point home. He was satisfied, I was awake, and we parted ways. And just as I was about to fall asleep for a third time in six hours, the phone shook again. It was Sias. I hit ignore.
Two minutes later, I receive a text.
"I forgot to ask. How do you make an Irish coffee?"
You see, I am a member of a select group of sick, twisted individuals who study baseball all year long. You can kidnap and blindfold a fantasy baseball expert any day of the year (for argument's sake, let's say this expert is Ron Shandler, from BaseballHQ), put him in the trunk of a car, drive in any direction on any road for as long as you'd like, pull over to get gas, pop open the trunk, take off the blindfold, and force Shandler at gunpoint to discuss baseball with everyone who walks by. And you know what? He will teach them things they may not have ever known about their team. He'll rattle off a list of minor league prospects, introduce the locals to split stats that they never even bothered to look and finish it off with a reference to some heroes of the team's past. Fantasy baseball isn't just something we start considering on Opening Day. It is a year-long obsession of stats, profiles and scouting that we have inside of our heads, and that makes us the most popular speed dial for friends and family from St. Patrick's Day through Halloween.
Which brings us to this column. And how you can use it to your advantage.
Most fantasy players have never heard of the Free Agent Acquisition Budget, or FAAB. It was invented by the group of men -- and one woman -- who created the game (quick aside: anyone who plays fantasy should track down a copy of the original Rotisserie League Baseball book from 1984 and revel in its greatness. You can get it for $3 at most online used bookstores), and is a sometimes maddening practice: You are allotted $100 at the start of the year, and you use this money to bid on free agents. Like an eBay for free agents for your pretend team. Arcane? Maybe. But it has its charm.
For instance, that one loser friend of yours who doesn't have a job, sits on that waiver wire, and picks up the hot rookie who was just added to the database at 3:01 a.m.? FAAB prevents this. Once a week, teams submit blind bids, and the owner with the highest bid gets the player. It gets to be an exercise in psychology and player evaluation. Sure, Dmitri Young might be worth a $7 bid, but you really need him to fill that first base hole, and that dude Steve who works in IT has a hole in utility. So how high do you go? $15? Or is he thinking $15? Maybe I should go $16 ... and your mind outbids itself using the same thought process as "rock, paper, scissors," until you somehow find yourself comfortable with a bid of $37 for Dmitri Young. You submit your bid, and two hours later, the results of FAAB are e-mailed. Usually, it turns out that you were the only one to bid on Young. Steve actually went after and won Todd Walker for $1. But that's what makes it fun. It's also the reason some leagues turn to the Vickery system, such as the Tout Wars leagues featured below. We'll deal with the Vickery format next week.
Still, how does this concern you, and your non-FAAB league?
The players who are bid up for more money are the ones the experts think will perform. The more money they cost, the more important they tend to be. For those of you in deep leagues, you may want to pay more attention to the AL- and NL-only FAAB results. Pickings are ridiculously slim here, but you can find gems in middle relievers, closer speculation and possible injury-replacement breakout starters. Last year, for instance, Akinori Otsuka was picked up through free agency by Trace Wood, the eventual AL champion.
For those of you in more shallow leagues, where you still find time to talk to your girlfriends, and you don't consider the last-minute "Extra Innings" deal to be an Easter gift to you personally from above, Mixed Tout and ESPNX -- which is the in-house league being played out in the ESPN Prize League format -- results are your barometers.
Don't be intimidated by the dollar signs and numbers if you play in a simple add/drop league. Apply the concept of the free-agent acquisition to your team and you have instant advice from a fantasy expert. In the context of this column, you have instant advice from over 40 of the greatest minds in the game. In one cute little package.
So, please, enjoy the first edition of Play Like the Pros and use it to your advantage as you beat the other teams in your league to the punch.
ESPN Expert League (ESPNX)
For more information on Tout Wars, please visit the official Tout Wars Web site.
Nando DiFino is a fantasy analyst for TalentedMrRoto.com and ESPN.com. You can emai him at Nando@TalentedMrRoto.com