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Draft and Auction Strategy: Tips for Assembling Your Fantasy Team

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Draft and Auction Strategy

This is the third part in the four-part guide to managing your fantasy team. This first two were Draft Preparation and Player Valuation.

Assuming you've read the other articles, you know the player pool, have a good idea of what each player's prospective numbers are worth and have a good grasp of your league parameters. What's left is to execute on that understanding in your snake draft or auction.

1. Draft Strategy

The strategy for the first 2-3 rounds of every draft depends somewhat on where you're slotted. In subsequent rounds draft slot matters less as Average Draft Position (ADP), i.e., market value, is more fluid, and so there are more possibilities of what might be available to you.

A. Subjective Rankings vs. Average Draft Position (ADP)

You're going to have opinions on particular players, some of which are in line with market value, and some which are not. If the goal is to get the best players for their draft slots, then your opinion is the numerator (who you think the best players are) while market value is the denominator (what those players cost). As such, you need not only to have a good grasp of what players will do, but also what their going rate is.

My philosophy in a draft (as opposed to an auction) is to be aggressive. Take the players you think are best in a given round, so long as you're pretty sure they won't come back to you in a subsequent one. Don't worry about getting the player with the highest ADP for its own sake. ADP is useful only insofar as it tells you when you can wait until the next round on a player. The only way you can "reach" for a player, i.e., taking someone earlier than you should have, is when you draft a player in Round X when there's a 80-plus percent chance he'd be available in Round X+1. Otherwise, always take the player you expect to be the best on the board for your team, irrespective of how the market values him.

B. League Depth

The depth of your league, i.e., the size of the player universe (AL-only, or mixed, for example), the number of teams in it and the size of the rosters and benches, matters a great deal. In shallower leagues, e.g., 12-team or fewer mixed, there will always be quality players late in the draft and on the waiver wire. As such, the difference-makers are mostly elite players, and merely productive players are only marginally valuable. In that case, you'll want to aggressively draft players with the maximum possible upside, like Billy Hamilton or Aroldis Chapman, earlier than usual even if their downsides are steep. You can always find adequate replacements, so there's little penalty if they don't pan out.

In deeper mixed leagues or especially "only" leagues, the equation changes dramatically. The waiver wire is thinner, and blandly productive players like Alex Gordon or Nick Markakis are actually significant upgrades from what's freely available. In that case, you should focus more on a player's floor than his ceiling - at least until you get into the later rounds. If a player doesn't pan out, he is not easily replaced, and missing on middle-round picks is more costly.

C. First Round

The first round sets the tone for your draft, largely determining the base of your categorical and positional strengths and weaknesses. Each slot is different, but for the sake of simplicity, let's divide it into early, middle and late positions.

1. Early Position

This could be slots 1-3 or even 1-5 depending on the depth of the elite player pool. This year (2013), the consensus is a top three (Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout) in some order, though in some circles the "regression police" seem to have it out for Trout and are preferring the safety and positional scarcity of second baseman Robinson Cano instead. In any event, in early position, my preference is largely to ignore position scarcity and get a player who will deliver you massive stats in four - or preferably five - categories.

Wherever one falls on the positional scarcity question generally, I especially don't think it's a good idea to worry about it early in the first round where the per-pick drop-off in value is greatest. If you're going to draft a shortstop in the first three picks, it better be one like Hanley Ramirez circa 2009 where his projected stats merit the selection apart from the slot he fills on your roster. Consider the positional scarcity a bonus.

2. Middle position

This is after the initial drop-off from the consensus top group - picks 4-8 in some seasons or even 4-12 or 4-14 as the case may be this year where the non-elite first rounders are so interchangeable.

My feelings are roughly the same as in early position, but you won't get quite as much across-the-board production. You typically want a rock solid four-category hitter (Cano) or a slightly risky five-category hitter (Carlos Gonzalez).

3. Late position

This is usually the last 3-5 picks of the first round. You'll usually have the choice of a monster three category producer (Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista), a more modest four category one (Joey Votto, Prince Fielder), a risky 4-5-category one with upside (Bryce Harper, Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki) or an elite pitcher (Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw). Of course, where you'd be willing to take a pitcher will change depending upon the era and the degree to which a pitcher is an outlier - in the early 2000's, for example, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were perennial top-five picks and well worth it.

I don't have a problem with any of these choices. Playing it safe with Fielder, for example, isn't my style, but there's a case to be made that you shouldn't gamble on a pick where you have the most to lose. I'd rather take a player on the rise like Stanton or Harper where there could be another level than a reliable one at his peak. And taking a pitcher can work, but you then have to forgo subsequent pitching bargains as you catch up on hitting, and that can cost you if the entire league - as many do - devalues pitching.

D. Rounds 2-3

Some people like to get 75 homers and 75 steals in the first three rounds, while others like to get two hitters and one elite pitcher. Still others try to shore up scarce positions and fill in later with more plentiful outfield and pitching options. I subscribe to none of these rules, preferring to go best available player for three rounds, no matter what that looks like. To me, Rounds 1-3 are simply about maximum stat gathering, and shoring up weaknesses is something you do later in the draft and during the regular season via waiver wire and trades.

E. Middle Rounds

1. Roster Flexibility

Many leagues force you to draft your entire starting roster before you can take a reserve. In cases like this, you'll want to maintain as much roster flexibility as practicable. That means if you have four outfielders by Round 8, you probably don't want to take a fifth OF in Round 9 unless he's the best player available by a decent margin because doing so cuts you off from future OF bargains. (Unless you want to use your utility spot which limits your flexibility further). Likewise, getting two first basemen early cuts you out of potential first and third base bargains later in the draft by filling up your corner slot. You don't want to take this too far - at some point, it's a certainty you'll be locked out of certain positions. But all things being equal, it's better to have one 1B and one 3B with your corner open, and one second baseman and one shortstop with your MI open for the maximum ability to capitalize on bargains.

2. Category balance vs. Surplus

Whereas your first few picks are about getting the most overall stats, the middle rounds are about balancing out your categorical strengths and weaknesses. In a no-trade format like the NFBC, this is even more important as you can't easily convert a surplus into value later in the year. In a trading league - so long as people are reasonable - you can come out of your draft with four closers or nine starters or a team with tons of power and too little speed. By season's end, you'll want balance as you don't get extra credit for margin of victory across the categories, but it doesn't matter when you get your numbers. If you have nine starting pitchers and accumulate huge surpluses in wins and strikeouts by July, you can trade for five closers and get all of your saves in August and September. Again, it doesn't matter when you get your numbers, only that you get them at some point.

Just keep in mind there's not always a perfect trade fit for your team, so you'll often have to pay a premium to re-align the categories later in the year.

F. Positional Scarcity

Jeff Erickson and I discussed this topic in detail below:

There are three types of players that are scarce (one can make an argument for third base and even outfield where you need five of them, but both are more marginal these days):

1. Middle Infielders

Because you typically need one second baseman, one shortstop and one middle infielder, and second base and shortstop are comparably scarce, plan to draft 1.5 times as many of each as the the number of teams in your league. For example, in a 12-team league, expect roughly 18 second basemen and 18 shortstops to be drafted, making players 16-20 the rough baseline at the positions. While the 16-20th second baseman is probably less productive than the 60-70th OF (5 OF * 12 plus half the UT slot), it's not by a huge margin in most formats - at least in this era. All stats being equal, always take the middle infielder over the OF or first baseman, but don't give up a significant amount of production just to fill a middle infield slot.

2. Catchers

If you're going to attach a significant premium to a scarce position, the place to do it is at catcher - at least in standard leagues that require you to carry two of them. (In one-catcher Yahoo! leagues, feel free to ignore this). Even in a 12-team mixed league, you're going 24 catchers deep, and that means the back end of the draft will have either catchers who produce very little or ones who hit for power but harm your batting average. In 15-team mixed leagues, the back-end of the pool is even more stark. You don't necessarily need to get the top catchers on the board - often those are overpriced given the elevated injury risk and limited upside at the position - but you might want to get two competent ones who contribute without hurting you.

3. Closers

Closers are unique in that they're the only players in the pool who get you saves. You can punt catchers and middle infielders so long as your other offensive players carry you in the five hitting categories, but no matter how good your starting pitching is, it can never help you in saves. In leagues where you can tank categories and still win, there's a point at which you can forgo closers, but in most leagues - where the teams at the bottom quit, and teams at the top are strong across the board - you're probably going to have to acquire saves at some point.

G. Categorical Scarcity

1. Averages

It's worth being aware of how common each stat category is for your format. For example, in 2012 14-team mixed leagues, the average offensive starter had roughly 77 runs, 20 homers, 74 RBI, 12 steals and batted .280. That means steals are the most scarce commodity on offense, though cheap speed is available late because it comes divorced from other categories. There's not much cheap power late (unless you're willing to take on a crippling batting average) because it's connected to RBI and runs.

On the pitching side, the prevalence of relievers that no one uses who outperform starters like Ricky Romero and Tim Lincecum (who everyone used) makes it hard to come up with reliable averages (that and the fact that the distribution of starters and relievers varies roster by roster).

2. Chasing Categorical Targets

By looking at the last 1-3 years of your league results, you can get a sense of how many homers, RBI, runs, steals, wins, etc. it takes to finish in the top-4 in every category, and you can tailor your draft accordingly. So if 250 home runs is typically good for fourth place, and your projections have you at 270 homers through Round 20, you might want decide to take a stolen base specialist instead of potential power hitter late.

Personally, in trade leagues, I don't mind having a surplus, and in any event, your projections might not be accurate, there will be injuries, and you'll get more than you think out of your last few roster spots if you stay active. But it can't hurt to have an idea of what it takes to perform well in each category.

H. Later Rounds/End Game

The later rounds are all about upside because the players you're considering aren't all that much more valuable than what's freely available on the waiver wire. In other words, there's very little downside if they don't pan out. So it's important to take players whose best-case scenarios are useful to you even if they're not guaranteed to have jobs.

In fact, if you were to do minimal preparation for your draft and simply downloaded a projections-based cheat sheet, you would still need to identify the upside plays in the middle and late rounds so you're not simply ceding all the potential sleepers to more knowledgeable drafters.

I. Injured Players

When considering an injured player there are three questions to ask:

1. How long will he be out?

2. Will he be 100 percent when he returns?

Just because Mark Teixeira will be back in 8-10 weeks from his wrist injury doesn't mean he'll immediately be able to hit with his customary power.

3. What kind of production can I expect in his place?

I drafted Curtis Granderson (out until early May) in the sixth round of the 12-team mixed NFBC draft in early March. If one were to look simply at Granderson's projected stats over 4.5 months, he'd slot far lower. But because it's a 12-team mixed league, I know I'll have a productive outfielder to slot into his place for 1.5 months. When you add those stats to Granderson's, it should exceed the production of a typical sixth-round pick. (And unlike Teixeira, Granderson has a simple forearm bone injury that's unlikely to affect him after he returns).

J. End Slots vs. Middle Slots

Earlier I broke down the draft into early, middle and late slots, but one could also break it down to "end slots," "middle slots" and "in between." In a 12-team league, the end slots would be picks 1, 2, 11 and 12. The middle would be 5-8, and the in-between would be 3, 4, 9 and 10. On the end slots, you pick twice in a row (or in the span of four picks), and then you wait a long time for the draft to get back to you. The advantage is that you can plan two picks at a time, and the disadvantage is you can miss out on long catcher or closer runs, as you're essentially waiting two rounds before you pick again. The middle slots are more likely to get in on positional runs, but have to wait an entire round after every pick. The "in between" slots have elements of both. There's no hard and fast rule about how to draft from the various slots, but it does very much affect the results.

One tip I'd have for the end slots is not to panic if you miss out on a run of good closers and simply take a mediocre one to make sure you get saves. Sometimes where you're slotted cuts you out of a certain strategy, and your best bet is to change course and take the best available player even if it's a starting pitcher and you're already strong in pitching. Never be bullied into taking a player you think is a poor value at that slot. Instead, embrace your fate by taking the best player even if it costs you roster balance at the time.

2. Auction strategy

While drafts are about being aggressive - more so even than you might be comfortable with - auctions are usually about patience and often excruciating discipline. While you can still target the players you like, you have to be willing to let them go when the bidding gets too high, and you have to be willing to wait as long as necessary for bargains to arrive (assuming the bargains aren't available early as is sometimes the case).

A. Mixed Leagues

Most mixed leagues are drafts, but when they're auctions, you need to realize how much higher replacement value is and therefore how much more valuable superstars are. Never use AL-only dollar values for your mixed-league auction. While Miguel Cabrera might be a $42 player in AL-only leagues, he's worth closer to $50 in mixed ones as you need not fear rostering more $1 and $2 players in the mixed-league end game. Even players on the waiver wire often have full-time jobs in 14-team (or fewer) mixed leagues.

B. Only leagues

In only leagues, one can still buy superstars, but one must be much more careful about running out of money as even mid-level players like Mitch Moreland and Michael Brantley offer significant value over replacement. In only leagues, the freely available talent pool is nearly zero - the waiver wire has a few punchless back-up catchers, middle infielders, low-end No. 5 starters and middle relievers.

C. Agnostic vs. Genius

A few years ago, I wrote an article highlighting two different auction strategies: Agnostic and Genius. The former simply bids on players up to a certain profitable price point below market value and lets them go after that. If the bidding stops, he gets a player. If the bidding keeps going, he doesn't. The agnostic has no preference as to which players he acquires so long as they're a couple dollars cheaper than market value. He has no idea who he wants or who he'll wind up with - he lets the auction dictate that.

The "genius" believes he knows better than the market and will target certain players he believes to be undervalued and bid on them aggressively. He will also avoid certain players even if they come at a slight bargain. There are limits to the genius strategy, of course - if a target gets overbid to the point where all the potential profit is squeezed out, or if an unfavored player is so far below market value that he's an obvious profit. But for the most part, if things go as expected, the genius will get his guys.

Most owners are a combination of the two approaches, both of which are viable. The key to doing both well is knowing when to let your target go and when to jump in on a player you previously had no interest in. It requires a grasp of player valuation and also a sense of the auction dynamics - what's left on the board and how players have been valued relative to one another thus far.

D. Nominating Players

When it's your turn to nominate, you should do one of two things: (1) Nominate a player you don't like or don't need, so you force other people to spend money on him; or (2) Nominate a player you like or need so you find out whether you can get him at a reasonable price, or need to let him go and move onto another target. I like to do the former typically as I want to get as much money off the table on other players, so the competition for my targeted players will be diminished.

E. Knowing the Player Pool

As your auction goes on, you'll be faced with many snap decisions requiring you to bid or drop out. In order to make the right choices, you'll need to know what's left in the player pool at the various positions, how much money you have left and how much money your competitors who might be targeting similar players have left.

F. Pre-planning/Slotting vs. Improvising

Some people slot themselves players of certain values, e.g., one $30 player, two $20 players, etc. Others want two big batting average players, one productive catcher, etc. Some owners make precise auction plans and other owners fly by the seat of their pants, grabbing bargains as they go and targeting players within a reasonable price range.

Personally, I'll take some ideas into the auction - for example, I felt batting average was undervalued in AL LABR this year, and I wanted to fill my offense with as many at-bats as possible. As such, I wound up with two productive catchers (Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez) both of whom hit for average. But I didn't have a rigid plan. I wanted Ichiro for batting average, too, but let him go when the bidding got to $20.

Even if you prefer to have a careful plan worked out, you'll always have to be somewhat flexible because you can't predict what other owners will do. In NL LABR Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton both went for more than Andrew McCutchen, something that few would have seen coming. Moreover, when a player is brought up can drastically alter his value, and no one knows who 12 different owners will bring up according to team needs at various times.

E. Budgeting - Middle and End Game

You have two goals with your money in an auction: (1) Spend all of it; and (2) Spend it judiciously so you acquire as many bargains as possible. These goals can run into conflict with one another as many owners wait forever for bargains that never arrive and leave money on the table, and others spend money too fast and are frozen out of the better deals that often come late in the auction.

The key is to have a good sense of player values and the depth of the player pool so you know when to pounce and when to keep your mouth shut even when you like a player and even when you can afford him.

One easy strategy is to buy 4-5 big-ticket players from $25-$40 early, spending two-thirds of your budget on proven commodities and then to hold your tongue for a couple hours until you're one of the owners with the most money left in the end game and use it to carefully pick and choose among the $1 - $10 players remaining. That way you ensure you've spent all your money, and you still have a chance to bargain hunt late. It can backfire if the biggest bargains are in the middle of the draft, but it's unlikely to sink you as you're not leaving money on the table, and you'll have some control over the end game.

F. End-game nominating strategy.

When you get down to the very end of the auction, you'll have tough nominating decisions. If you're down to $1 bids, you obviously have to choose players you like, lest you get stuck with someone you don't want. But by doing so you run the risk that someone with $2 to bid takes them from you.

Even more tricky is when you're targeting a particular third baseman, for example, and have a few dollars left, when someone brings up the only other viable third baseman for $1. If you bid $2, you might get him, but then you won't have room for the player you're targeting. But if you don't bid $2, you'll miss out, and when your target comes up, someone might outbid you anyway, leaving you with an even worse option. (This actually happened to me in LABR as I was waiting on Scott Sizemore with my $2, passed on Wilson Betemit, got outbid on Sizemore later and wound up stuck with Pedro Ciriaco instead.)

It helps to look at other people's rosters to see if they have more money than you and to check whether they need a third baseman, but often those owners need several players and don't particularly care for the player you're targeting anyway.

For this reason, it's sometimes worth nominating the player you hoped to get earlier, running the risk that someone will outbid you because at least you'll find out where you stand. If you're outbid, you know that ship has sailed, and you can move on to the next best player.

G. Keeping track of others' situations

As mentioned above, it's helpful in the end game to know who has what money left and what positional needs. It can inform whether you hold out for a target or cave in for a lesser option, knowing you probably won't get your targeted player anyway.

The downside of keeping track of everyone else's budget and roster is it's a distraction from the auction itself, and it's not always informative anyway - as sometimes owners with money are targeting other positions than you'd think, or simply have wildly different opinions than you about players.