The Long Game: Auction Prep and the Success Cycle

The Long Game: Auction Prep and the Success Cycle

This article is part of our The Long Game series.

Last time out, I looked at how to assemble and finalize your keeper roster. Now let's take a look at what to do with that keeper list, and how to formulate an optimal overall strategy as you head into your auction.

When getting ready for your auction, the first question you need to ask yourself is whether you think you can win it all this season. Sometimes, the answer is a resounding and obvious "Yes!" or "Ugh, no", but other times you may not be entirely sure where you stand in relation to your league-mates. There are ways you can evaluate the strength of your keeper list, however, and figure out whether you really have a shot this season.

Calculating Inflation

I touched on this last column, but once all the keeper lists have been locked in, it's time to break down your league's inflation rate for the year. As an example, I'll be using Rotowire's Staff Keeper League (we just held the auction and reserve/minors draft Monday night), which is about as extreme an inflationary environment as you'll find due to its generous rules when it comes to rookie and reserve pick contracts. In a nutshell, not only do promoted minor league picks all start with a $3 salary and reserve picks with a $5 salary, their contracts don't actually kick in until the year after they lose their minor league eligibility (or, in the case of a reserve pick, simply the following season). For instance,

Last time out, I looked at how to assemble and finalize your keeper roster. Now let's take a look at what to do with that keeper list, and how to formulate an optimal overall strategy as you head into your auction.

When getting ready for your auction, the first question you need to ask yourself is whether you think you can win it all this season. Sometimes, the answer is a resounding and obvious "Yes!" or "Ugh, no", but other times you may not be entirely sure where you stand in relation to your league-mates. There are ways you can evaluate the strength of your keeper list, however, and figure out whether you really have a shot this season.

Calculating Inflation

I touched on this last column, but once all the keeper lists have been locked in, it's time to break down your league's inflation rate for the year. As an example, I'll be using Rotowire's Staff Keeper League (we just held the auction and reserve/minors draft Monday night), which is about as extreme an inflationary environment as you'll find due to its generous rules when it comes to rookie and reserve pick contracts. In a nutshell, not only do promoted minor league picks all start with a $3 salary and reserve picks with a $5 salary, their contracts don't actually kick in until the year after they lose their minor league eligibility (or, in the case of a reserve pick, simply the following season). For instance, I currently have Ozzie Albies in my farm system. If he gets called up by the Braves in the second half and plays more than 20 big league games, he'll lose his prospect eligibility. However, he'll still only have a $0 contract for 2017, and will be protectable as a $3A in 2018. Similarly, I grabbed the Reds' Cody Reed as a reserve pick. He counts as a $0 player this season if I add him to my active roster, and would be a $5A in 2018.

As you might imagine, that creates a lot of surplus value on people's keeper lists.

To calculate inflation for your league, add up the total salary for all the protected players and subtract it from everyone's starting auction budgets. This gives you the total amount of money available to be spent at the auction. Then, calculate the projected values for all keepers, and subtract that from the starting budgets. This gives you the total amount of value available to be bought at the auction. (Fiddly little note: in the SKL, we penalize auction budgets if you buy out a long-term player contract early. If your league does this as well, only apply the penalties to the available auction budgets, not the value available for bid). Divide the remaining money by the remaining value, and you have your inflation rate.

In the Staff Keeper League, the 18 teams headed to the virtual table with $2496 left to spend from their base $260 budgets. However, there was only $1586 worth of players to spend it on, producing a genuinely horrific inflation rate of 57.4 percent. That meant $20 players might be expected to go for $31 or more, and $30 players for $47-plus, but of course inflation hits stars much harder than it does... well, let's just say that Madison Bumgarner going for $57 suddenly doesn't look so strange, nor does the fact that Clayton Kershaw got protected as a keeper for $74.

Incidentally, this is the worst inflation has ever been in the league. Two years ago, the inflation rate was only 44.3 percent, which was still pretty gross but at least had been fairly steady and predictable for the previous few years. It's risen dramatically in the two seasons since. There seemed to be a league-wide shift in how elite prospects were valued and prized – and how long their long-term deals were after their rookie contracts expired – starting about five years ago, and it's come home to roost now.

Determining Contenders and Pretenders

Hopefully you kept the salary and value breakdowns of each team's keeper list, because they are useful for more than just calculating inflation. Once you have the league-wide inflation rate, use those salary and value totals for each individual team to rank them in three categories:

1. Value. This is the raw projected value of each team's keeper list.

Obviously, teams that come into an auction with more value locked in have an edge on the competition. In the Staff Keeper League, Ryan Rufe's keeper list had the highest projected value at $235. Mine was a weak 12th at $162. However, a mediocre ranking here isn't necessarily the end of the world.

2. Profit. This is the projected value of each keeper list, minus the total salary of their keepers.

Frankly, profit is a better indicator of success than raw value. Having keepers with a high projected value is great, but if you're paying market value for them, they will only get you so far. It's having good keepers at great salaries that really puts you in a spot to succeed. Chris Liss and Tim Schuler's team dominated here in the SKL, with a projected profit of $143 from their keepers. My keepers performed a little better than in the raw-value rankings, coming in eighth with a projected profit of $60.

3. Projected Value. This is the projected value of a team's keepers, plus the expected value they'll be able to acquire at the auction.

This is where it all comes together. Now that you have an inflation rate, you know the purchasing power of each team as well. A rate of 57.4 percent means $20 players might go for $31, true, but to flip the equation on its head, it means that every dollar spent at the auction table will only get you about 64 cents in actual in-season production. Apply the inflation rate to each team's remaining auction budget, add it to the value of their keepers, and you'll produce an estimate of the value of their team at the end of the auction. Obviously, some teams will do better at the auction than others in terms of getting bargains and such, but it gives you a good baseline for determining whether each team has a realistic shot at a title, or at least of finishing in the money.

In the SKL, Liss and Schuler's team came out on top again with a $334 projected value. Frankly, they are the heavy favorites heading into this season. The top six teams in the league finish in the money, and the teams who came in second through sixth here ranged from $317 in projected value down to $281. My team missed the cut but wasn't too far off the mark, coming in eighth again at $262.

Approaching the Auction

Now that you have a better grasp on where you stand relative to the rest of your league, how do you use that knowledge to approach the auction? There are three basic strategies:

1. Go For It

If your keeper list ranks among the league leaders in Profit and Projected Value, you have a roster that's ready to contend for a title. Ideally, your keepers will fill the "scrubs" role from a salary perspective in a Stars and Scrubs strategy, and you'll buy the biggest stars you can in the auction to fill any statistical holes. It's still useful to pick up a couple of low-salary, high-upside players to use as trade chips over the summer, but your primary goal should be to put the finishing touches on your juggernaut.

Don't be afraid to throw money around if you're in this group. The higher the rate of inflation, the more volatility there will be in top-end salaries, so if you need a specific type of player (elite base stealer, ace starting pitcher, etc.) and the supply of them in the player pool is limited, spend whatever you have to in order to land one. The absolute last thing you want to do is head into an auction with a great keeper list and then flinch at the auction, come away without any of your top targets and have to fill in around your core with mediocre, over-priced spare parts from the endgame when there's no one left worth spending big money on. Speaking from bitter experience, that's the best way I know to fritter away a real chance at a title.

2. Serve Two Masters

If you find yourself in the middle of the pack in Profit and Projected Value – as I did this season in the SKL – you can of course choose to go for it anyway and hope some good luck boosts you into the money tier, or simply give up on the current season and focus primarily on acquiring future assets, but it is possible to balance both strategies. In fact, a balanced strategy might be the optimal approach if you have a young but unproven keeper list, as opposed to a list made of up of solid but uninspiring veterans at reasonable prices.

Let's break it down using my roster in the SKL. While the projected value of my keeper list isn't great, I can identify a number of players who can plausibly outperform their projections. Tommy Joseph and Lance Lynn, for different reasons, have relatively conservative playing time estimates. If Joseph sees 500 at-bats instead of 400, and Lynn tosses 150 innings instead of 125, I've already closed the gap on the top six. Any number of my young players – Josh Bell, Kevin Gausman, Mike Montgomery – could have breakout campaigns. My minor league system also has a bunch of near-ready prospects, including Albies, Brent Honeywell, Jesse Winker and Tyler O'Neill, who could supply some "bonus" production if they get called up. The key to my season may well be Byron Buxton, though, who I picked up at something of a discount last season in a dump deal for Kenta Maeda when his original owner began to sour on him. If the progress he showed down the stretch in 2016 proves to be for real, he'll provide my roster with an elite, foundational player that can accelerate the final stage of the rebuild I started two seasons ago.

With so many paths to additional value, a money finish could well be within reach, so I approach the auction accordingly. The biggest holes on my roster were the need for a true ace to carry the pitching staff in ratios and Ks, and a second baseman with pop from a thin player pool that only got thinner when Jason Kipnis' shoulder became a concern. I spent what I needed in each spot, landing Bumgarner plus Starlin Castro for an exorbitant $16. Kipnis' injury made Castro my main target at the position, as I didn't need Dee Gordon's steals and preferred Castro's power to DJ LeMahieu's batting average, or Neil Walker's aging back. I was more agnostic when it came to filling my outfield holes, however, and was able to land some relative bargains. Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce and Kole Calhoun for a combined $67 may not seem like a great deal at first glance, but their combined projected value in 18-team 5x5 is $57. With our ludicrous inflation rate, that's highway robbery.

With my present-day needs covered, I was able to make some strong buys geared towards my future as well. Wilson Ramos as my second catcher may not earn his $7 salary in 2017, but if he proves healthy in the second half, he's an easy keeper for 2018 at that price. Trevor Bauer is a post-post-post-hype sleeper at this point, but for $7, he's also a solid keeper if he takes any kind of step forward in his development. And then there's my final player of the night, Amed Rosario for $2. He joins the list of prospects who might make an impact for me in the second half, and grabbing him essentially gave me an extra first-round pick in the minor league draft. I also made sure to pluck solid options to replace him at Ut during the reserve draft in David Freese and Paulo Orlando.

If I have some good luck this season in terms of injuries and breakouts, I should be vying for a spot in the money, even if it's only fifth or sixth. If not, I've added a lot of possible value to my 2018 keeper core, and have some big names and expiring contracts to deal over the summer. My options are wide open, depending on how things play out, which is exactly the outcome you want if your path isn't immediately clear heading into the auction.

3. Plan For Next Year

If your keeper list ranks near the bottom in Profit and Projected Value, this obviously isn't going to be your year until you conduct a near-perfect auction and execute an extraordinarily lucrative series of trades over the course of the summer. Rather than banking on a fantasy season for the ages, you're better off focusing on improving your keeper list for next year.

Now, that doesn't mean you should shy away from buying big names at the auction. Far from it. Your money needs to go somewhere, after all. Focus your efforts less on filling statistical and positional holes and more on buying players that can bring the biggest return in a trade. For instance, had I elected to punt this season, my top target in the auction would have been Bryce Harper (who went for $60) instead of Bumgarner. A healthy Harper is arguably the most valuable fantasy asset in the game, and could have fetched a king's ransom in a trade to a team that needed one big power bat to put them over the top. Truly elite names, and elite suppliers of tough-to-find categories, should be your quarry at the auction table.

The rest of your open roster spots should be used on upside plays. Pitchers who just blew out their elbows and are gone for the season make for great buys when you figure your team is effectively out for the season too. In fact, any injured player makes a good buy when you aren't concerned with his short-term production. Kipnis and his balky shoulder ended up going for only $21, which definitely makes him a keeper option headed into next year if he's healthy.

If your league rules allow for it, prospects on the cusp on the majors like Rosario, or who could advance quickly like Nick Senzel (who was also a $2 buy in the SKL endgame), can also pay big dividends. Don't go overboard in the bidding for top prospects, however. Yoan Moncada was bought at auction last year and protected this year at a salary of $20, which means he'll need to be signed to a long-term contract next offseason, potentially without yet having established himself as a star. Coming off a .228/.305/.356 campaign, Moncada could well be back in the free agent pool before he's provided any profit at all for his original employer.

Every bid and every addition to your roster should be made with the goal of improving next year's team. Solid guys going for around their market value, older players who still produce at a high level but could unexpectedly fall off a cliff (I'm looking at you, Nelson Cruz), so-called sleepers who have too much buzz around them to actually be purchased cheaply…these can all be safely ignored, or at least shunned once the bidding escalates past the point that will make them reasonably profitable. All you want to do is improve next year's bottom line.

Too often, fantasy players head into an auction without a clear plan in place, figuring they'll just "get good value" and go from there. Having a strategy and a goal in place – knowing where your team sits on the success cycle and whether you're in win-now mode, just starting a rebuild, or just coming out of one – can give you just as big an edge on the competition as having a $3 Andrew Benintendi to build your roster around.

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only MLB Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire MLB fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Siegrist
Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.
College Baseball Picks Today: Best Bets for Friday, March 1
College Baseball Picks Today: Best Bets for Friday, March 1
Six Mid-Round Pitchers with League Winning Upside (Video)
Six Mid-Round Pitchers with League Winning Upside (Video)
Five Sneaky Outfielders We Can't Stop Drafting (Video)
Five Sneaky Outfielders We Can't Stop Drafting (Video)
MLB Futures: Home Run Leaders and Head-to-Head HR Picks
MLB Futures: Home Run Leaders and Head-to-Head HR Picks