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ISSUE 120 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/16/2007

Inside the Lines: The Fantasy Commandments

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ah, the sounds of spring. Birds chirping, shoes sloshing through giant puddles and children laughing while at play –- - these are noises we usually associate with the annual Upper Midwest thaw/flood that takes place this time of year.

Yet for millions of sports fans such as myself, the ides of March brings with it more than just NCAA-style Madness. The clicking of a keyboard is the sound most commonly heard by my ears in springtime, as I study up for the season's most important activity – fantasy baseball. Fantasy drafts are typically held this month, as the regular season begins April 1.

For the uninitiated, here's the skinny: “Fantasy baseball” puts any Tom, Dick, Harry or Sally in charge of their own virtual Major League baseball squad. Point totals and league standings are generated by the real-life performances and statistics earned by the players on each team's active roster. Participants work the waiver wire and trading hotline in the style of real-life professional baseball personnel. Fantasy owners battle through injuries and slumps right along with major league managers through the 162-game, six-month schedule.

Whether you're a grizzled fantasy veteran such as myself or a newcomer to our storied (virtual) pastime, no one should enter a fantasy draft without proper preparation. Lucky for you, I'm here to provide five fantasy baseball “commandments” as draft day approaches.

Fantasy commandment #1: Thou shalt draft run producers early and often.

Unlike “real” baseball, in the fantasy realm good hitting almost always beats good pitching. Most leagues employ a “5x5” format, in which five offensive categories (batting average, home runs, RBI, runs scored and stolen bases) are counted along with five pitching categories (ERA, wins, saves, strikeouts and WHIP). There are numerous offensive players (Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran, to name a few) that will help your team in four or more of these categories, while only two pitchers (Johan Santana and perhaps Chris Carpenter) will have the same effect from the mound.

Pitching may win baseball games, but hitting wins fantasy championships.

Fantasy commandment #2: Thou shalt not overpay for saves.

Saves are one of the most difficult categories to fill in fantasy baseball. Closers, as any fan knows, are a tenuous bunch. In 2006 alone, we saw at least two supposedly “sure-thing” closers absolutely implode –- - Milwaukee's Derrick Turnbow and Houston's Brad Lidge - -– and numerous other closers come out of the woodwork to post spectacular save totals (Baltimore's Chris Ray and Seattle's J.J. Putz). Don't fall into the trap of wasting early picks on closers, even if they are studs like Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera. Saves can almost always be found on the scrap heap for cheap, if you pay attention to the waiver wire throughout the year.

Fantasy commandment #3: Thou shalt covet pitchers with high strikeout rates.

As more people are realizing all the time, wins might be the most overrated statistic in baseball. In a world where starting pitchers usually only go five or six innings, more and more victories are blown or “vultured” by relief pitchers, meaning that the win totals of even the game's elite pitchers can vary wildly from year to year (Santana, if you remember, won only 16 games in 2005). The most reliable measurement of consistent success for a starting pitcher is his strikeout totals. Pitchers that strike guys out usually have low ERAs and WHIPs year after year, as strikeouts are unaffected by outside factors like team performance.

I would shy away from pitchers like the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang (a 19-game winner last year who struck out just 76 batters) and target guys like Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman (202 strikeouts in '06), San Francisco's Matt Cain (the 22-year old struck out 179 as a rookie) and Anaheim's John Lackey. None posted incredible win totals last year but all are less likely to regress because they blow batters away with regularity.

Fantasy commandment #4: Thou shalt seek out bargains and sleepers.

As much as draft day preparation will help you in your quest for a fantasy title, there is also a good amount of luck involved. Nobody knows which players will stay healthy all season long, which newcomers will emerge as stars and which veterans will experience a drop-off. In some ways, however, if you make your own luck –by reading up on projected “sleepers” before your draft, you are more likely to land the next Pujols in the last round. Don't stock your team with question marks, but leaving a few spots open for “wild cards” is a calculated risk that could pay off big in the end. A few of the sleepers I like in 2007 are Anaheim second baseman Howie Kendrick, Kansas City outfielder Mark Teahen, new Oakland DH Mike Piazza and Twins right-hander Matt Garza.

Fantasy commandment #5: Thou shalt “punt” a position if necessary.

Just like real-life baseball, fantasy baseball is a team game. As great as it would be to compile a squad full of power-hitting outfielders and first basemen, each owner still needs to start a guy at all eight defensive positions. This means certain “positions of scarcity” (second base and catcher come immediately to mind) will be tough to fill –- - only a couple of elite players qualify at those positions, relegating the majority of fantasy owners to claw over mediocre players. My advice to you is this: Don't overpay for mediocrity, even at a thin position. The difference in production between the fifth-ranked fantasy catcher and the 10th-ranked catcher will be negligible in the end. If you don't land Joe Mauer or Philadelphia's Chase Utley, you might be better served “punting” the position and grabbing the best player available at the end of the draft.

Fantasy baseball, unlike fantasy football (the country's most popular fantasy game), is a marathon, not a sprint. Dedicated owners will pour countless hours into their squads before the season is through, but those (virtual) blood, sweet and tears will all be worth it if your team takes home the championship. Study up for your draft, but always keep the immortal words of Mike Tice foremost in your mind: Enjoy the season!

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