- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Sometimes a fantasy owner simply needs to break away from comfortable strategies that have worked in the past to try something new. It might be difficult, might take some practice, but when I walked into the Arizona Republic building in downtown Phoenix for Sunday night's LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality) NL auction, I had already decided to switch things up, go with some fresh tactics. A year ago my team was a disaster. It started when my lone closer blew out his elbow days after the auction and didn't improve during the summer when most key offensive players underachieved and all the potential health risks seemed to get hurt.
So my team this season looks unlike teams I've constructed in the past, but that's OK. Fresh tactics, right? There are myriad ways to win a league, even one as deep as this, with 12 owners playing 5x5 using only NL players. I generally like to sit back in auctions and pounce on late-game bargains, but with this talented crew of wise, veterans from the fantasy industry, there's the risk of having little to purchase in the second half of the auction, as teams take shape. So I went aggressive. Really aggressive. And I really like it!
Eric's 2013 NL-only LABR team
C: Miguel Montero, ARI -- $18
C: Ryan Hanigan, CIN -- $1
1B: Brandon Belt, SF -- $16
2B: Brandon Phillips, CIN -- $23
SS: Jimmy Rollins, PHI -- $22
3B: David Freese, STL -- $17
CI: Taylor Green, MIL -- $2
MI: Brent Lillibridge, CHC -- $1
OF: Ryan Braun, MIL -- $40
OF: Domonic Brown, PHI -- $8
OF: Darin Ruf, PHI -- $2
OF: Brett Jackson, CHC -- $2
OF: Kirk Nieuwenhuis, NYM -- $2
UT: Tony Campana, ARI -- $1
P: Cole Hamels, PHI -- $26
P: Madison Bumgarner, SF -- $20
P: Tim Hudson, ATL -- $11
P: Bronson Arroyo, CIN -- $2
P: Clayton Richard, SD -- $2
P: Ted Lilly, LA -- $2
P: Kyle Kendrick, PHI -- $2
P: Jonathan Papelbon, PHI -- $20
P: Jason Motte, STL -- $20
My team is listed at right (the full story, participants, rosters are here). There were the three main goals I wanted to achieve.
Spend for safe, reliable closers: It wasn't merely because I was burned on Ryan Madson last season, and I realize I preach to never pay for saves, but in an NL-only format, the stakes are different. Rather than save token dollars (the cap is $260) on the likes of Jason Grilli, Brandon League and Bobby Parnell, none locks for large save totals, I targeted Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Motte, the Nos. 2 and 3 NL options after Craig Kimbrel, for $20 each. And that's precisely where the bidding ended. These are excellent closers and they'll provide great innings and strikeouts with little risk, and one will surely make top trade bait in August if needed.
Spend for starting pitching: It's never recommended to enter an auction with a preconceived split of how much to spend on hitting versus pitching. I cannot recall ever spending $100 on arms before, but it's irrelevant. It's about team construction, and in a deep league in which a common midseason practice is to add top middle relievers to save team ERA and WHIP, the elite 200-inning anchors are valuable. Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner and even Tim Hudson are worth it, though in retrospect with the inexpensive arms I got later, Hudson's money should have gone to an outfielder. Still, a year ago I had really bad luck with Chris Carpenter, Daniel Hudson and Jair Jurrjens, and this crew is more reliable, even the $2 fillers.
Target an anchor bat: I generally don't spend more than $25 on any players, opting for balance. In this league, however, it's been tough to get sleepers. On Sunday, outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Adam Eaton were high on my list, but they ended up going for $19 and $18, respectively. I was willing to go to $40 for the best player in the NL, safe in the knowledge top numbers are pending. I thought I'd end up with Justin Upton, or perhaps slip Bryce Harper through at $30, but I took Ryan Braun first. Harper ended up at $35, as did Upton and Carlos Gonzalez, while Matt Kemp and Giancarlo Stanton were $36. Overall, $40 for Braun works for me, and had other fantasy industry veterans in the room asking if I was OK, knowing how this strategy -- much of what I did on the night, really -- was new for me. In the end, others noted my team projected well enough to contend, barring massive injuries or underachievement, and that's all you can ask the first week of March.
After securing Braun, my first hitter, and half my pitchers, it was about filling in offensive gaps. I overspent on catcher Miguel Montero ($18), but wanted some production from this weak position, as only five of the top 15 backstops in ESPN live drafts are from the NL, and in LABR we need 24 of them active. I didn't necessarily have to have middle infielders Brandon Phillips and Jimmy Rollins, and it was not because those positions are scarce (because they're not), but they're reliable, veteran contributors for power and speed. You just have to spend more for the givens, as opposed to assuming unprovens like Josh Rutledge or Jean Segura will provide top numbers.
At first base, I was in on the Ryan Howard bidding, as I think he goes back to 30-plus home runs and 100 RBIs, and regret not extending the bidding when it stopped at $17. Otherwise, corner infielders went for a premium, like Freddie Freeman for $25. Brandon Belt for $16 could be a bargain, I suppose. I had spoken to Belt a few hours earlier at Scottsdale Stadium, blogged about it Tuesday, and am confident he can hit 15 home runs, steal 10 bases and be safer than Howard in batting average.
There's a Phillies-centric theme to the team, though other than Papelbon and Domonic Brown, it wasn't really planned. Nobody heads into an auction saying they have to get Kyle Kendrick, for example. I think Brown went for a good price. I can't say I would have gone to $10. It's only spring baseball, but he's taking walks, homered off a lefty the other day and seems more competent defensively. He really should get 500 at-bats and earn the $8 I spent. I don't expect much from the rest of the outfield, though Darin Ruf has 20-home run power, Tony Campana has 30-steal speed, and Brett Jackson will provide relevant totals of each someday. Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Marlon Byrd aren't special; they're Mets. But they were all cheap, and there's a good base of offensive numbers here, and pitching to deal.