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March 20, 2008

The obligatory "How'd your baseball fantasy draft go, Attila?" post

All winter long, I've been inundated with emails telling me that if I order some pills, I can strengthen and prolong my fantasy . . . baseball team. One ignores this type of email at one's own peril. I ignored it. And I drew the 12th pick in our 12-team league.

We have a straight 5 x 5 league, with no salaries. You just pick any guy who's available when it's your turn. I call it "wussy rules," but it's all anyone in my league is willing to do, and really, it works perfectly well. It's just not for alpha males. With us, the order of selection snakes around, which means that in Round 1, the teams pick 1st through 12th, but in Round 2, it's 12th through 1st. For me, as the 12th man, that means I pick back to back. I get picks 12 and 13, 36 and 37, 60 and 61, and so on.

There's something very mellow about this. When you have someone picking in between -- say, you're 11th and you pick 11th and 14th -- it can be stressful. Which of your two guys do you pick first? If you wait for one of them, will he still be there three picks later? But when you're 12th (or 1st), you just make your two picks and grab a beer while the others are sweating.

The other thing about picking last is that you don't have to sweat your first-round pick. Obviously, A-Rod won't be around, and you don't have to worry about David Wright vs. Jimmy Rollins vs. Matt Holliday. There'll be someone pretty good still around when you pick, and it'll be pretty obvious who it is. Me, I picked Prince Fielder, 1B-Milwaukee, who led the NL last year with 50 homers, to go with 119 RBIs and a .288 average. Not bad for last pick.

My strategy, as I've written before, focuses on pitching, and specifically on WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched). So for each of the first four double picks I got, I would take one pitcher and one hitter. My own preference list for pitchers was based in large part on WHIP, so with Johan Santana going in the 11th pick, I chose Fielder followed by Jake Peavy. My next three pitchers were C.C. Sabathia (pick 36), Takashi Saito, a reliever (pick 60), and A.J. Burnett (pick 96). I added Clay Buchholz in Round 13 and Shawn Hill in Round 19. All in all, I did pretty well in pitching for a last-pick guy.

As for hitting, it's hard to complain too much. Everyone I picked has pretty good power and most have a decent batting average. I didn't get the cream of the crop, because I was focusing on pitching, but everyone has some pop in his bat. I got Chipper (Larry) Jones and Dan Uggla for my infield and Brad Hawpe, Aaron Rowand, and Ken Griffey, Jr., for my outfield, with probably Pat Burrell playing utility (essentially a DH). Each had at least 27 homers last year and 88 RBIs. (Hawpe had 116 RBIs.) Even my two most mediocre starters (Varitek at catcher and Peralta at shortstop) are passable.

I failed in two ways, both of them from lack of preparation. First, in years past, I'd made a list of players in order of preference at each position, and I'd noted how many stolen bases each one had. I didn't pick Juan Pierre types -- all steals, little else -- but I was able to piece together a team where most players had a decent number of steals. I didn't bother this year, and it hurt me. If I don't do something quickly, I'm going to be dead last in that category.

My second failing was with relief pitchers, who are mostly useful for the saves category. Instead of bringing with me a list of likely closers, as I've done in the past, I used last year's list. Two relief pitchers I drafted won't be closers this year. I discovered this when I drafted them and everyone else laughed at me. (These in-person drafts with people you know tend to involve the mockery gene that's attached to the Y chromosome. A couple of guys mocked me for picking Lastings Milledge -- in the 16th round. I said, "Yeah, I guess I wasted my 16th-round pick on him.") I ended up with two real closers, getting Brian Wilson of the Giants in my final pick, but I'm going to have to fix things.

The final thing I should mention about picking 12th is that this lowers the bar for success. As the last-place guy, I can invoke the survival rule that seems to operate in the Middle East. Remember the 1991 Gulf War, when we destroyed almost the entire Iraqi military with overwhelming force? Well, Saddam Hussein personally survived that onslaught, so in his own eyes, he won. The same will work with me this year in fantasy baseball. With the 12th pick, I should finish dead last, but I plan to be in contention, anyway. At least, if I can get some steals and a better second closer. And if I don't finish dead last, I've won.