RotoWire Partners

MLB Barometer: Adapting in Auctions

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Director of Media for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire's shows on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210).

This weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in my eighth Tout Wars auction, which took place at Richmond County Bank Park – home of the Staten Island Yankees. The venue was easily my favorite from the years I have been involved in the league, as the SI Yanks’ staff set us up with a great draft space inside the home clubhouse, lockers with personalized name plates, good food and a chance to take a few hacks in the batting cage throughout the day, while showing us a park that features one of the best backdrops in baseball.

Last year, I walked out of Rock & Reilly's in midtown following the Tout Wars Mixed League Auction knowing that I faced an uphill battle to make a run at a title.

A more aggressive than usual draft table pushed up prices on top-tier players, and I failed to adjust quickly enough to get a core of high-end talent, and several mid-tier misfires (Rougned Odor, Stephen Piscotty, Ben Zobrist and Mark Melancon, among others) left me chasing production at several categories throughout the season.

I finished 14th out of 15 teams.

The 15-team mixed auction has become a stars-and-scrubs bonanza in recent years, with top players regularly fetching prices in the neighborhood of $50, and several others selling at $30 and above.

Being willing to pay for players above your projected values is important, especially in mixed league formats, as you can inadvertently fall short of the necessary category targets by waiting too long for players to fall at or below your values, and ending up with a mixed-league roster packed with mid-tier players. Additionally, if the bulk of the teams in the room are pushing up the bidding early, the $1-2 players later in the auction will be worth $5-10, leaving plenty of "value" in the endgame.

I typically enter this auction with a plan of getting two of the top three hitters, while taking a very flexible approach to pitching based on the prices of the aces and top closers. If the top pitching is consistently high, I will pay the premium for bats instead, with the hope of getting enough quality in the "second tier" of starting arms and a small group of quality starters (think 75-150 range ADP guys) to back them up.

Once things were underway, the most expensive players in the pool were gone after the first two nominations with Jose Altuve ($49 to Joe Pisapia) and Mike Trout ($56 to defending champion Jeff Zimmerman). Altuve 's projected value in the RotoWire Draft Software was just less than $39, while Trout actually went for $0.74 less than his projection (Tout Wars rotisserie leagues replace AVG with OBP). The third player nominated – Trea Turner – was projected at $33.45 in the software, but I expected the price to top out around $42-44 based on the first two players sold, and how they're generally valued by comparison. Fortunately, I won Turner for $41, getting on the board early, and making a significant dent in the stolen bases needed to be near the top of the category this season.

With Turner as one building block, I was content to focus on the power and run-production centric elite bats – and I ultimately regret not pushing Gary Sanchez to $31 (sold to Fred Zinkie at $30) or J.D. Martinez to $34 ($33 to Tim Heaney), as both players were within $1 of their valuation, and the second player I eventually purchased – Nolan Arenado – went for a little more than $2 above his valuation. Ultimately, I think the pairing still worked, as Sanchez's occasional days off as a catcher will likely limit his overall counting totals a bit, and offsetting Turner as a SB/R/AVG dominant player with a HR/RBI dominant player was logical.

Throughout the Tout Wars auctions, starting pitching was as pricey as I have seen over the course of the decade I have played in the leagues. In the mixed auction, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale all went for at least $40, while Corey Kluber eventually sold for $39. I didn't think I could justify the extra few bucks for the top-four starters with $85 already tied up in two players early. Fortunately, Stephen Strasburg sold for $28 as the 23rd player off the block (after three of the big four had been sold), offering me a potential ace at enough of a relative discount to fit my initial plan of two top-10 bats and one top-six arm.

Strasburg's flaws are well known at this point, and drafting him as your first starter should steer you toward addressing your second and third starting pitcher slots much earlier than you would if you landed one of the top-four starters ahead of him on virtually all draft boards. Ideally, a target like Jose Quintana is perfect.

I unexpectedly won Shohei Ohtani (the pitcher … the Tout Wars leagues elected to make him available as two separate players) at $12, whose stock is falling following his most recent Cactus League outing Friday and the subsequent comments from Angels general manager Billy Eppler. I wouldn't have bid $12 if I didn't think he was worth at least that much, and I started to wonder how much Ohtani might have sold for just two weeks ago if we had the exact same room of 15 players going through the bidding process.

Two weeks ago at the American League LABR auction, Eno Sarris of The Athletic paid $18 for Ohtani (who in that league is only one player that can be moved between a pitching slot and a utility slot as desired, though I doubt that added more than $1 to his price if it even did that), while in the same league size and type Saturday, Vlad Sedler paid $15 for Ohtani in an auction that saw Jose Berrios and Trevor Bauer sell for the same price (Berrios was $17 at LABR, Bauer was $15, for the sake of comparison).

Should the market shift that much, that quickly, on a player who has so much talent?

Like it or not, we’re influenced by things we see and hear throughout draft season.

Around 11 a.m. EST when I won Ohtani for $12, the headline on the RotoWire homepage read:

Shohei Ohtani: Could begin season in minors

There is a service time consideration with any rookie player, but the Angels’ dependance on Ohtani in 2018 should still guide him to the Opening Day roster despite bloated ratios and some hard contact allowed when he’s caught too much of the strike zone in Arizona this spring. Plus, the Angels can move forward with Ohtani on their 25-man roster to begin the season as they’ve presumably planned all along (perhaps as a show of good faith since Ohtani chose to leave Japan early and sign for a well below market value deal this winter), and simply demote him to Double-A or Triple-A after the games begin to count if his spring struggles linger into April or May.

In addition to the usual adjustment a player makes while getting used to day-to-day life in a new country, Ohtani is followed by an enormous contingent of baseball media, and most important, he’s coming back from a 2017 season in which an ankle injury limited him to just 25.1 innings. Aside from the rust and the cultural adjustment, Ohtani is also transitioning to using MLB baseballs instead of NPB ones.

"What’s the point, Walter?"

Flexibility in auctions is extremely important. Both in terms of top-end dollar values, and in how you structure the bottom half of your roster with values depending on how the top half comes together.

I wasn’t targeting Ohtani at all, and now I had him on my roster. It was critically important to adjust quickly for something that I simply had not thought much about prior to Saturday.

With Strasburg as the ace, and Ohtani taking up another meaningful portion of my pitching budget, I had to find stability with a couple veterans capable of delivering a high volume of innings, which eventually led me to Jon Lester ($13) and Sonny Gray ($6) several nominations after I had scooped up Cody Allen ($17) and Jacob Faria ($7). Another adjustment was being limited in how much I could spend on a second closer, which kept me away from Corey Knebel ($16) and Felipe Rivero ($17) later on, and forced me to make a decision on which closers outside my top 10 I preferred.

With a slightly higher-than-expected split on pitching, I didn’t spend more than $15 on any of the hitters I purchased after the first two, but I found a lot of value throughout the second half of the auction including Eric Hosmer ($15), Greg Bird ($15), Yoenis Cespedes ($13), Travis Shaw ($9), Manny Margot ($9), Trevor Story ($9), Aaron Hicks ($4), Stephen Piscotty ($2), Jose Martinez ($1) and Neil Walker ($1), all of whom could have justifiably cost $5 more than they sold for, but didn’t because of the universal aggressive spending early on.

The full results from all five Tout Wars events (four auctions, one draft) can be viewed here.

As for Ohtani, he’s clearly a "faller" this week based on the market’s response to his spring training, but as I noted last week, there will be players written up who are falling that merit consideration as buy-low targets.

RISERS

Noah Syndergaard, SP, NYM -
Lighting up the radar gun and looking filthy on the mound again this spring, Thor’s stock has soared in the second half of March, as he sold for $35 in the aforementioned Tout Wars Mixed League auction Saturday, and has crept up to an ADP of 24th overall in the nine NFBC Main Event drafts that have already been completed this month. Syndergaard was a viable option at the first wheel (15th-16th overall picks) in that same format a year ago, and it appears a season that was almost completely washed out by injury has been largely undone with a healthy run in the Grapefruit League (a 23:6 K:BB with a 1.35 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and zero homers allowed in 20 innings will do that). If nothing else, he’s making people re-think their preferences within the group of starting pitchers available after the Big Four are gone. The question becomes: Do you prefer the hitters being drafted in the middle of Round 2 with one of the pitchers often available in the middle of Round 3, or Syndergaard paired with one of the middle of Round 3 bats?

Ronald Acuna, OF, ATL -
I have been adamant that the Braves intend to get Acuna the Kris Bryant treatment this season, where he’ll get approximately 10 days at Triple-A Gwinnett before he takes over as the Braves’ right fielder for the next decade. His price is creeping up, and whether it’s just the byproduct of more people getting highlights of him launching homers in Florida this spring, or just an increased realization that he’s not the "typical" top-ranked player on prospect lists is anybody’s guess. In the same nine drafts where Syndergaard was routinely going in the top 25, Acuna was pushed up more than 15 spots from his overall NFBC ADP (111.39). Acuna is a better prospect than Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Rhys Hoskins ever were – and they put together huge seasons as rookies in 2017 after getting picked in the endgame of most drafts, if they were even drafted at all.

Eduardo Escobar, 3B, MIN -
In leagues that require 15 games played at a position the previous season, Escobar qualifies at shortstop already. Elsewhere, he’ll likely pickup eligibility there after taking over as the Twins’ starting shortstop following Jorge Polanco’s positive PED test. Unless you follow the Twins closely, or had him on a roster last year, you may be surprised to learn that Escobar swatted 21 homers while chipping in five steals last season. He’s posted an OPS higher than .750 in two of the last three seasons, and (Polanco is not listed as a faller below, but the implications of missing half of the season due to a suspension are straightforward.) With a more pull-heavy approach, Escobar launched flyballs at a career-high 45.3 percent rate, making it possible that the increased pop he showed last year was a bit more than a juiced-ball fueled improvement. He’s unlikely to match Marwin Gonzalez’s positional versatility in 2018, but he could meet or exceed Gonzalez’s playing time and production as a regular in the Twins’ lineup throughout the first half.

Jose Pirela, OF, SD -
The Padres may have an ongoing competition for playing time in left field and at second base this season, but Pirela’s ability to play both spots should give him a leg up in the battle to begin the season. With a surprisingly strong .288/.347/.490 line in 83 games (344 plate appearances last season), Pirela had his first prolonged run of success at the big-league level. As a 28-year-old, he may not have a long leash if he falls into a prolonged slump, as the line of younger replacements at both spots is lengthy (Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe and Travis Jankowski in the outfield; Cory Spangenberg, Carlos Asuaje and Luis Urias at second base), but Pirela is a low-risk reserve target capable of returning a nice profit in deeper formats if he gets anywhere close to his 2017 ISO (.202) over a full season.

FALLERS

Zack Greinke, SP, ARI -
Greinke completed a 40-pitch bullpen session Sunday, which apparently went well as he told Owen Perkins of MLB.com that he felt good afterward:

"If I felt this good every day for the rest of my career, it would be amazing," Greinke said. "I'll definitely be making the next outing. I felt healthy and the pitches were pretty good. Hopefully that continues. It should; it was a good day."
Recently, the D-backs pushed back an upcoming spring start after Greinke left his outing on March 14 after just 19 pitches due to a groin strain. That injury popped up after he was clocked at 84-86 mph the first innings of his start March 9, but his velocity returned prior to his early exit the next time out. Prior to the "good news" from Sunday’s session, Greinke’s ADP fell from 47.86 overall to 58.11 in the nine Main Events from March. From the NL LABR auction two weeks ago to the NL Tout Wars auction on Saturday, Greinke’s price dropped from $28 to $24. The reduced price should make him viable as an SP2 in the later part of the fourth round assuming that things continue to progress as the team plans with his schedule, even if if that includes a missed turn in the rotation during the first week of the season.

Shohei Ohtani, SP, LAA -
The aforementioned disappointing spring has left owners hesitant to pay the early season draft prices for Ohtani in recent weeks. In the latest RotoWire Roundtable Rankings, he checked in at No. 98 overall, slightly behind Gerrit Cole (89), Masahiro Tanaka (91) and James Paxton (94), and slightly ahead of Luis Castillo (100), Kyle Hendricks (103) and Jon Lester (109) – and six spots ahead of his March Main Event ADP (104.11).

Consider the following …

RotoWire Projections

PITCHERIPK/9BB/9ERAWHIP
Cole175.08.492.423.701.23
Tanaka182.08.701.833.911.14
Paxton163.09.502.323.201.19
Ohtani163.08.783.423.201.27
Castillo164.08.782.583.241.10
Hendricks163.08.062.262.871.10
Lester192.08.972.993.521.18


Steamer Projections

PITCHERIPK/9BB/9ERAWHIP
Cole175.08.482.854.191.26
Tanaka176.08.602.064.011.21
Paxton176.09.122.623.541.21
Ohtani148.011.123.593.561.21
Castillo144.08.972.943.911.26
Hendricks170.07.522.554.051.19
Lester195.08.612.783.911.26

ZiPS Projections

PITCHERIPK/9BB/9ERAWHIP
Cole190.08.622.273.791.22
Tanaka173.08.951.723.641.12
Paxton134.19.652.483.221.18
Ohtani140.010.163.663.471.26
Castillo156.18.412.363.801.20
Hendricks155.07.902.263.481.19
Lester170.18.932.543.541.20

The market may have previously overvalued Ohtani based on the Year 1 ceiling, but things appear to have settled at a point that is in line with the three projection systems shown in the tables above. With the Angels’ plan to use a six-man rotation, getting depth starting pitchers in the middle rounds becomes increasingly important if you end up scooping him up at the slightly discounted price, since that arrangement will almost guarantee he doesn’t eclipse 165 innings this season.

Willie Calhoun, OF, TEX -
There are legitimate concerns about Calhoun’s defense, which justified a somewhat unexpected demotion to Triple-A to begin the season. He’s a rare low-K% power bat from the left side, who might be able to outrake the shortcomings of his glove, but the Rangers are positioned to begin the year with a combination of Drew Robinson, Ryan Rua and former top prospect Jurickson Profar handling left field. Profar is out of minor-league options, which might have forced the Rangers’ hand with Calhoun somewhat. Keep an eye on how the Rangers utilize Robinson and Profar defensively, as that might reveal their eventual plans for both players once Calhoun is ready to take over in left field, likely before the end of May.

Ryan McMahon, 1B, COL -
The return of Carlos Gonzalez to the Rockies appears to be pushing Ian Desmond back into the starting role at first base, which keeps David Dahl in a battle with Gerardo Parra and possibly Raimel Tapia for the bulk of the playing time in left field. McMahon is just 23, and since he spent a half season at Triple-A, his demotion might be a reasonably short one until injuries in the outfield (forcing Desmond back to the outfield, or a potential injury to Desmond) creates an opening for him on the large side of a platoon. Like Calhoun, it will be tempting to stash McMahon with one of six or seven reserve spots until he’s playing in Colorado again, as the payoff from a role in that home park with the quality of the supporting cast around him could be significant. McMahon was a consensus top-50 overall prospect entering 2016, a season in which he spent the entire season playing road games when the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate in Hartford experienced construction delays with its new stadium.