"Always the bridesmaid, never the bride."
No self-respecting fantasy analyst wants that phrase attached to his name. As a married man who -- to the best of my recollection -- did not play the role of bride in the nuptial ceremony, I like it even less. But to my unending chagrin, that phrase best sums up my experience in the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR).
Needless to say, I'm hoping for a breakthrough in 2009. I approached the draft much like any other but spent a bit more time on strategy than in years past. I planned to bid aggressively early on and attempt to come away with two or three studs on offense, as well as one ace to anchor my pitching staff. To the dismay of my podcast co-host Matthew Berry, I was willing to pay for saves, but only in the person of a reliable, proven closer. If that wasn't in the cards, I had no intention of paying double digits for someone who'd be no better than even money to have his job after the All-Star break.
As for specific players, I only had a handful in my sights before the draft. For my ace, I specifically wanted either Brandon Webb or Dan Haren (preferably Haren), feeling that Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana would be overpriced, while Cole Hamels and Jake Peavy carried too much risk (Hamels for lack of proven, year-over-year durability; and Peavy for both injury and trade-out-of-Petco concerns). I liked Dan Uggla and Carlos Zambrano for essentially the same reason: Both have warts -- Uggla's batting average; Zambrano's high WHIP, high workload and declining skill trends -- that depress their values to the point that they become bargains, especially in a room full of people who make their livings -- or at least part of their livings -- dispensing fantasy advice. I've witnessed this phenomenon firsthand for years. Everyone wants to write about owning Jay Bruce and Yovani Gallardo. No one wants to write about one owning Uggla and Zambrano. Well, almost no one, because
you know who has two thumbs and paid just $33 combined for Uggla and Zambrano?
ESPN's drafters at LABR
(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 March 7.)
C Miguel Montero $3: I decided not to pay for catchers. Maybe he hits 10 homers?
1B Todd Helton $6: Whatever. It's six bucks. Call me stupid if it makes you feel better about yourself. Or even if it doesn't. It's your Conversation.
2B Dan Uggla $21: Yep. THIS GUY! While I didn't surround him with batting-average stalwarts like I'd hoped, I still think that's a killer price for 30 homers and 100-some runs and RBIs at second base.
SS Jeff Keppinger $5: It was late and there wasn't much left. I'm hoping for .270-10-50.
3B Aramis Ramirez $29: I was this close to letting him go. At the last second I scanned the remaining third basemen and decided that if I had to overpay by a buck or two, it was going to be for Ramirez and not Kevin Kouzmanoff or Jorge Cantu.
MI Orlando Hudson $13: He's unlikely to earn more than $16, and just as unlikely to earn less than $10.
CI Martin Prado $3: ESPN has him projected for a .316 batting average. I thought that looked odd, so I checked another projection system I trust. That one had him at .328. As the backup to Chipper Jones, he has some upside.
OF Ryan Braun $37: I did not target him, but at nearly a 20 percent discount from the prices of the cream of the crop, he was well worth it.
OF Carlos Beltran $34: I remember paying this exact price for him in AL-only LABR several years ago, when he was considered one of the five best players in the league. Seems reasonable.
OF Michael Bourn $12: A player I had little interest in owning, Bourn nonetheless has a ton of speed, and he was terribly unlucky last season (a .291 batting average on balls in play, according to Fangraphs.com). Plus, his job looks pretty safe, a premise my leaguemates confirmed in choosing not to select Darin Erstad, even in the reserve phase of the draft.
OF Ryan Church $8: Another player I don't love, but Church has $20 upside if he plays 150 games, and almost no downside given the Mets' lack of corner outfield options.
OF Eric Byrnes $9: Let me get this straight: People assume he's not going to play because, pardon me, Chad Tracy is going to be in the lineup every day? I say Byrnes bounces back and pays for himself even if he plays just 100 games.
UT Carlos Gonzalez $3: There's maybe a 20 percent chance he delivers significant value this year, but in the utility slot he'll be easy to replace.
P Dan Haren $26: Time will tell if the strategy was sound, but you have to give me credit for getting the guy I wanted.
P Carlos Zambrano $12: Yep, I'm going there again. THIS GUY! This bridesmaid puts his money where his mouth is.
P J.J. Putz $10: Matthew thinks I overpaid. My argument is this: He's worth $6 even if he gets no saves at all. Isn't $4 a fair price for the possibility that K-Rod breaks down?
P Mike Pelfrey $9: Put me in the camp that believes Federal Bailout Field will be a Shea-like pitchers' park.
P John Maine $9: Random anecdote: I received more compliments for this buy -- which I wasn't even fully committed to -- than any other, which either means the experts loved this buy or really, really hated the rest of my squad.
P Jason Motte $5: I figure he's as good a bet as any Cardinals reliever to get saves.
P Sergio Romo $2: Believing Brian Wilson is reliable for little more than lying in bed, I was hoping to get two from the trio of Romo, Bobby Howry and Jeremy Affeldt. Unfortunately, I threw Howry out for a buck and didn't have an extra one when he went to $2.
P Kyle McClellan $1: A good pitcher who will protect my ratios and could work his way into the save picture.
P Geoff Geary $1: If you want glamour and glitz, look elsewhere. Geary is nothing more than 50 innings of a good ERA and WHIP, although some would argue he's the most logical understudy to Jose Valverde.
(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.)
2. John Bowker: I figure he's good for 300 at-bats on the San Francisco Triple-A's.
3. Joe Thurston: At the time of the draft, he was considered a serious candidate for the second-base job in St. Louis.
4. Saul Rivera: When you don't draft a closer, you have to take a few chances like this one. That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.
6. Yorvit Torrealba: I was surprised he didn't go in the auction portion of the draft. Really, he's not one of the 26 best catchers in the National League? Sadly, given my other two, I might have to use him.
All things considered, I think I made out well, and the team looks better now than it did on draft day. As of today, Jason Motte looks like the front-runner for the closer job in St. Louis, Todd Helton is playing and hitting home runs, Chipper Jones looks ready to cough up at-bats to Martin Prado and Carlos Zambrano has 15 strikeouts and only three walks in 16 spring innings. If just a couple of those things break my way, the answer to the question "Who won the LABR-NL league in 2009?" just might be
(That's right, two thumbs.)
Nate Ravitz is an editor for ESPN Fantasy and co-host of the Fantasy Focus podcast.