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Play Like the Pros: And in the end...

This was never my column to begin with. It belonged to the 50-plus experts who played in the ESPNX and Tout Wars Leagues. It served a purpose: to help readers recognize trends in the free-agent market and to act on these before friends, family and co-workers figured out who someone like Rajai Davis played for. Therefore, in the spirit of "Play Like the Pros," I asked the experts to share the moves that made or broke their season for them. What follows are their responses.


But, let's give a virtual Yoo-hoo shower to the champions of the respective leagues:


ESPNX: Tristan H. Cockcroft
AL Tout Wars: Jeff Erickson, RotoWire.com
NL Tout Wars: Mike Lombardo, Wise Guy Sports
Mixed Tout Wars: Larry Schechter, SandlotShrink (third consecutive title)


And "Play Like the Pros" would be nowhere without the solid commissionership of Todd Zola from FantasyBaseball.com, who waded through the massive onslaught of bids, transactions, trades and FAAB reclaims to steward the ship through the waters of free agency.


But enough with the mushiness ... on to the advice!:


• Mike Lombardo, Wise Guy Sports (NL Tout Champion)


"The key to my season was undoubtedly the acquisition of Luis Castillo during the FAABonanza auction. At the time, I said:


Snagging Castillo was a huge coup for my team, especially since it obviated the need for me to pursue Chris Roberson, Victorino's replacement, who landed on my DL.


"Of course, there was no way I could have known at the time that without Castillo, I probably wouldn't have a chance to win. In 149 ABs for my team, he hit .329 with 31 runs, one home run, 18 RBIs and nine stolen bases. Those numbers have added at least seven points to my team's standings.


• Matthew Berry, ESPN


"Carlos Pena for a buck at the end paid off handsomely for me, and drafting Jeremy Accardo in the reserve round went well, but, as is always the case, you need to get a little lucky with injuries to take home the title, and Miguel Tejada's injury and Chone Figgins missing a few weeks down the stretch were killers, as was losing Erik Bedard for the last month or so. I feel pretty good about the year, but oh ... what could have been..."


• David Adler, Baseball HQ


"At the auction, I used HQ's 'Portfolio3' plan, which stresses taking high-reliability, high-skill players on both offense and pitching. Unfortunately, even high-reliability players can get injured (i.e., Teixeira, Vlad, Furcal). The overall power shortage throughout the majors also seemed to hit me particularly hard -- my HR and RBI numbers were much lower than projected.


"One lesson learned -- speed guys who do nothing else (on my team: Chris Duffy, Dave Roberts, Nick Punto, the new Coco Crisp) are pretty worthless in shallow mixed leagues. There's now enough speed around the majors to not waste roster spots on these guys."


• Lawr Michaels, CREATiVESPORTS


"If I had drafted better, healthier players, I would have been higher in the standings."


• Pete Becker, ESPN


"My downfall was overzealous chasing of middle relievers on draft day. I'll finish first in WHIP and second in ERA -- my team was set up to succeed in those categories -- but if I could have one do-over, it'd be to chase one more starter or bat on draft day and rely on early-season scouting to pick up the high-K, low-ratio relievers that I crave. I had enough decent offense and top-of-the-rotation pitching that careful investment in a better supporting cast could have made all the difference."


• Brian Feldman, Baseball Hot Sheet


"What broke the Wilton/Feldman team? How about, 'You know your season is in
the toilet when your starting shortstop is Ben Zobrist, he gets demoted in May, and the only replacement option for two months is Neifi Perez...'"


• Brian Walton, CREATiVESPORTS


"My goal this season was to win the league, of course, but secondarily it was to beat Trace Wood, former AL Tout champ who joined the NL this season. I failed miserably in the former, but I am ahead of Trace. Gotta take small victories when you can get them.


"In the draft, I placed a big $25 bet on Chris B. Young. Except for a terrible average, he came through. Unfortunately, average is still a scoring category. But what killed my team was a starting staff that lacked aces and solid closers.


"Those kinds of players just aren't out there via FAAB, but for me, FAAB was a series of missed opportunities. Braden Looper ($6) in mid-August was the only real contributor. Until I got Esteban Loaiza late in the season (a wasted $40), my largest pickup was the Braves' Anthony Lerew ($19) in May, who almost immediately was lost for the remainder of the season. I can relate."


• Mike Siano, MLB.com


"The bad: Remembering the crickets is the only sound that eases the pain, but I had nine bucks left and corner open and when Carlos Pena was thrown out, I scoffed and passed. Who did I get instead? The guy ranked in front of him on the depth chart, of course, the great Greg Norton.


"The good: A-Rod was worth every penny and Fausto Carmona at a buck was pure gold."


• Ron Shandler, Baseball HQ


"For me, this year was an oddity because most of the forecasting errors were situations that probably could not have been predicted yet had large-scale impacts on the standings. the Great Power Blackout, the Speed Explosion and the Pitching Peripheral Anomalies all served to have me spend 2007 scratching my head.


"I invested in power studs like Paul Konerko and Mark Teixeira, and while they hit in tune with the times, it was not enough. Orlando Cabrera, FAAB pickup Reggie Willits, and yes, even Nick Punto contributed the stolen bases I expected, but again, not enough. Erik Bedard and Javier Vazquez anchored my pitching staff, but I had to deal them both away to fill other holes. Their replacements posted solid peripherals but still fell short; it was deep FAAB investments like Andy Sonnanstine and J.P. Howell ($25 apiece) that probably hurt the most.


"Oh, and that trade with Berry. I hate Richie Sexson.


"The one nice thing about the 2007 season is that it's over."


• Craig Leshen, AskRotoman.com


"Who made my team? Jorge Posada, Ryan Howard, Ken Griffey Jr., Magglio Ordonez, Ichiro Suzuki, Johan Santana, Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Isringhausen, Felix Rodriguez and Jose Valverde.


"Who broke my team?
David Ortiz: Paid way to much for a guy who was eligible only at utility and didn't hit 40-plus home runs. What a wuss. Chris Duncan: I had high expectations. Hank Blalock: Remember that guy? Melvin Mora: Contract year? Yeah, right. Jered Weaver: I had high expectations. Larry Schechter: Please kick him out; he keeps winning."


• Sam Walker, Fantasyland


"Hits and wins. Or the profound absence of both. That's what derailed the
Streetwalkers' championship hopes.


"In March, I came to the draft ready to replicate the Walker winning strategy from 2005. On the pitching side, this involves picking up strong starters from contending teams, a few bullpen aces who should get vulture wins, a midrange closer and a couple of bullpen guys who could morph into starters or closers. On offense, our MO is to punt steals and use the extra cash to stack the lineup with hitters who have 20-homer potential no matter what their batting averages look like. We always nab four or five cheap youngsters with starting roles in hopes a couple of them will learn to bang it.


"But this year I'd planned to make a few adjustments, all on offense. I was determined to spend extra money on a player who would deliver more than 200 hits to help keep my average in the middle of the pack. To keep the price down, I focused on players like Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco, who don't steal much (and who have the advantage of playing for God's chosen team).


"But once the draft started, my Achilles' heel flared up. I couldn't stop myself from bidding on stud pitchers selling for less than I thought they should. Before long I had Curt Schilling, Mark Buehrle, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jeremy Bonderman in my rotation, but no reliable hit machine. I wound up going big for Bobby Abreu, hoping his steals might make up for lost points in average.


"The result is a testament to the rule that you can't chase wins. I figured we'd shovel them in, but we finished closer to the bottom. Even the unexpectedly early Phil Hughes call-up didn't help. Joe Borowski was cheap and brilliant, and Joakim Soria and Hideki Okajima were nice surprises, but the vulture wins never came. Just as I'd feared, our average was wretched. The only reason we crawled out of last place in that category in September was the performance of two improbably great FAAB pickups: Tike Redman and Timo Perez.


"We also came up one trade short. Sending Buehrle and Dustin Pedroia to Jason Grey for B.J. Upton and some stuff from his junk drawer wasn't a great deal, but it didn't hurt us and didn't really help Grey. My real mistake was not being cautious enough about the stamina of Bonderman and Dice-K. I should have dealt one or both of them while they still looked like K machines.


"So I'm looking at third place. There's no way anybody was going to catch Jeff Erickson this season. His history-making run was as impressive as it was clearly fueled by large doses of HGH. But with a bit more discipline I could have finished second. And if that's good enough for the Tigers, it would have been good enough for me."


• J.P. Kastner, CREATiVESPORTS.com


"Before the season even started, I projected that the number of home runs would decrease to 2005 levels and that there would be an increase in the number of stolen bases. That would increase the value of home runs and decrease the value of stolen bases overall. So, my strategy was to invest some of the auction money normally allocated to saves, to home runs.


"With only $15 budgeted for saves, I needed to be frugal, but they were expensive. I invested all of it in Brad Lidge. I then paid $19 in FAAB for Jorge Julio. That catastrophic closer combination earned me a total of zero saves. On top of it all, I lost my rotation anchor, Chris Carpenter, very early in the season. Eventually, I dumped saves completely. The net result of bad luck, poor player selection and injuries was that I had to find four starters from my reserve draft and from free agency.


"I scoured the free-agent pool and looked for the hot hand. At the start of July, I was fourth in ERA by switching pitchers around and picking the right matchups. After the All-Star break, my house of cards fell. I had an 8.00 ERA for two weeks at the end of July. That dropped me from fourth to dead last in ERA.


"The final result of those mistakes was that I wasn't able to trade my power. I needed my power just to keep from being dead last.


"On the plus side, I found some great value in the free-agent pool. I paid just $1 for Hunter Pence, $12 for Freddy Sanchez, and $1 for Gil Meche, and my second-best overall pitcher was Tom Gorzelanny (whom I drafted in the reserve draft)."


• Steve Moyer, Baseball Info Solutions


"My team was destroyed by two things: The disappointing offense of the David Ortiz/J.D. Drew/Jermaine Dye trio, and Eric Gagne.


"Let me explain. The upside on Gagne in the preseason was 30 saves. I figured, even if I didn't get that, my drafted team was solid enough that I could forego FAAB until the trade deadline and pick up a second closer then (Chad Cordero?).


"That totally fell apart. Gagne messed around with minor injuries early on, the Rangers didn't have a lot of save situations when he was healthy and then, of course, no closers came over at the deadline; meanwhile, Gagne was traded out of the closer job and pitched poorly for the Red Sox. My booby prize for saving my FAAB was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who's been OK, but no big deal.


"Then there was Mr. Dependable, Justin Duchscherer, who should've been in perfect position to assume saves for the injured Huston Street. Instead -- being on my team, of course -- he decided to take the year off just as Street went down."


• Phil Hertz, Baseball HQ


"There was good and bad this season, as in most seasons. The good: a great trade in which I sent superfluous closer Matt Capps away in exchange for Tom Glavine, just as he got hot, and Tim Lincecum, just as he turned his season around. Also, using the bulk of my FAAB to obtain Milton Bradley, whom I used for about a month, and then traded --
just in time -- for Mike Jacobs.


"The bad: trading Adrian Gonzalez for Ben Sheets just before the start in which he hurt his finger. Also watching as six of my starters were injured or were shut down in September: Sheets, Lincecum, Greg Maddux, Orlando Hernandez, Troy Patton and Rheal Cormier.


"If half of those guys had stayed healthy, I might have won."


• Peter Kreutzer, Ask Rotoman


The end of Chris Carpenter's season on opening day ended my season early, though my team's first-half woes came as much from the total failure of my four backup starters (Chuck James, Adam Wainwright, Jason Jennings and Clay Hensley). With no effective starting pitching, and a cheap but miserable Armando Benitez as closer, it was no surprise I was buried deep in the cellar in no time flat.


"I also tried to improve via the waiver wire. Week after week I got outbid for marginal guys who may have improved my team (and in some cases would have). I did pick up a few fill-ins, but when it was time for the trading deadline FAAB pickup, I had the most money. And I used it on Mark Teixeira, the best player available by far.


"You'd think that it was Teixeira who pulled me out of the cellar, and maybe it was. I did move up in hitting because of him, but I've also benefited because Bobby Howry became a closer for a while, and James and Wainwright have been good in the second half (and Jennings and Hensley haven't pitched much).


"I know that this is a long bit of business to answer the question about the one event that changed my season, but in the short form I think I'm saying that Teixeira helped me move up to the top of the bottom pack, but it wouldn't have happened if other important parts of the team didn't come through."


• Trace Wood, Long Gandhi


"There wasn't any one thing that sank my team -- it was a weekly compilation of disappointments. With the exception of six guys -- Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Theriot, Brad Hawpe (always trust the LSU guys), Geoff Jenkins, Nate McLouth and Rich Hill -- every guy I drafted ranged from modest disappointment to spectacular failure."


• Joe Sheehan, Baseball Prospectus


"People got hurt. The end."

Nando Di Fino is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com.