March 13, 2009

I've been vacationing on Kauai for the last two weeks (I know, you weep for me) and one of the best things about taking a vacation this time of year is that it allows me to decompress, refocus and -- of course -- get ready for my fantasy baseball drafts.

Nothing happened in the fantasy world though, did it?


Actually, there were at least two huge developments. The bikinis and waves (and dear god, the roosters -- more on this later) were great, but they didn't distract me from the news on AlexRodriguez and Terrell Owens. As anyone even remotely interested in fantasy baseball knows now, A-Rod underwent "hybrid" surgery for a torn labrum and is expected to be out from anywhere from four to 10 weeks. This generates some questions:

First, what the hell is hybrid surgery? Does that mean one of his surgeons was a Cylon and one was human? (See, that joke would be so much funnier for you if you actually watched Battlestar Galactica. It's your fault that you don't.)

Second, I'm left wondering about the difference between those two time estimates. Six weeks is a pretty large cushion. What that tells me is that the Yankees, A-Rod and his agent want you to think it's just four weeks -- and those with a bit more knowledge and/or cynicism think it'll take much longer. To me, it means there's no incentive to pay for Rodriguez at this point. If he only misses a month of the season, he'll still be a solid bet at third, but only if he can immediately step in and be A-Rod -- which is a valid, open question at this point.

Then, somewhat out of the blue, the Dallas Cowboys waived Owens, who quickly signed a relatively cheap, one-year contract with the Bills for $6.5 million. I'm a little stunned by this -- it makes me wonder what's going on here. Owens is a notorious clubhouse distraction despite Marion Barber III's comment that he's actually a good guy. Everyone says that about him, but if they must keep doing it -- well -- it tells you everything you need to know. It's not like the Cowboys have a long history of allowing only Eagle Scouts onto their active roster, but the Bills?

As soon as Owens was sent packing, my brother said to me, "You know who should sign Owens? The 49ers." It was somewhat of a joke, but he's right about one thing: Owens needed to go to a team that desperately needed a vertical threat, and it turns out that team is Buffalo. This move clearly boosts the value of both Trent Edwards and Lee Evans --- but don't go overboard. The Bills aren't a good team and Owens never plays 16 games, a fact that will matter much more when the quarterback isn't as capable as Tony Romo. Speaking of Romo, he's probably the biggest loser here. The guy is talented, but he's now limited to one proven catching threat in Jason Witten, and he still has Wade Phillips as his coach. (This, by the way, is how you know Jerry Jones is crazy. If I had the option to keep Phillips or Owens, Wade would be looking for work in a red-hot second.) I just don't get it. The Cowboys are instantly much farther away from being a competitive team without Owens than with him, and I'll have a hard time being convinced otherwise.

But enough about football, it's the season of the fantasy baseball draft, and that's a whole holiday in itself.

I've been playing fantasy baseball for a preposterously long time -- Vanilla Ice had a No. 1 album for two months the year I started competing -- and at this point, my feelings about it are pretty locked down. There's always the temptation to tweak and manipulate your leagues for various reasons, and that motivation generally comes from a good place. Perhaps you've been in a league that allows unlimited daily pickups and daily lineup transactions, and last season, someone used this to pick up a new starting pitcher every day and eke past you in Wins. Maybe that's worth a tweak. There are several ways to do it, including innings limits, weekly roster moves, etc., and I have no problem with those minor changes.

What I don't like is when folks try to make their leagues look like "real" baseball. And here's why -- real baseball isn't as good as fantasy baseball.

Yeah, I said it. In fantasy baseball, if my players are hitting the juice, stealing signs or punching opposing players in the face, I'm fine with it (unless I own that opposing player, of course). Anything that helps my team win is acceptable, within the rules of my league. If it happens on the real field, I can be assured of two things: Bud Selig will do nothing about it, and it'll bum me out about the players I used to root for as a kid.

Plus, this line of thinking leads to atrocious decisions like adding errors as a category.

Let me take a moment here -- errors are perhaps the dumbest statistic in all of baseball. They are judged by openly biased "judges" and often reward slow players who can't get to a ball to boot it, rather than the guy with plus range who overthrows first or kicks the ball. They're just dumb. In fact, I'm not a fan of any negative stat in fantasy sports. Caught stealing? Heck, I want my guys running every single time they get on base. (Again, in fantasy baseball only.) A blown save? Crushing -- but if it doesn't count, it's just the absence of an actual save.

I have one exception to my rule of not aping actual baseball, and it's making the switch from Batting Average to On Base Percentage. It's something far too many leagues don't do. How much will Adam Dunn go for in your league? If you only count batting average, he's got a serious liability. He only hit .236 last season despite swatting at least 40 HRs for the fifth consecutive year. But Dunn's value to his team far exceeds his BA, largely because he walks as much or more than anyone else in the league. If you watch baseball at all, you know that an important measure of success is getting on base frequently -- whether it's via a base hit, getting hit by a pitch or taking a walk. But if your league only counts BA, then you actively root against guys taking walks, and that's just silly. Players who force pitchers to throw eight or nine pitches and end up walking have actually done better in many senses than clowns who slap weak singles on the first pitch.

What's more, using BA hides the incompetence of some players. Take, for example, the Crushin' Russian, Padres 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff. You may observe his 23 HR, 84 RBI and .260 average and think, "Hmmm, not bad." But his OBP was only .299! In 647 plate appearances last year, he walked a paltry 23 times. That's not helping your team. It's something I call Francouer-itis, after Jeff Francouer of the Braves, who seems to be allergic to his bat, flailing it away at every opportunity. For a guy who's supposed to be a threat at the plate he's developed a reputation among pitchers (and in scouting reports) as a free swinger who'll take a crack at just about anything. The fact that he's never walked more than 42 times in a season is directly related to his offensive woes.

OK, so there's that. The next stuff about the drafts is the nitty gritty -- would you rather have Player A, or Player B? There's one example here I spent a lot of time noodling over on the beach, and it's this: Given the chance, would you rather own Mark Teixeira or Miguel Cabrera? These are two of the most prolific sluggers in baseball and they provide similar -- yet, in some ways different -- offensive strengths. The short answer would be to flip a coin -- you can't go wrong. But now Teixeira is surrounded by one of the deepest lineups in baseball and a solid pitching staff. He'll probably be sandwiched between another two sluggers and put up monster numbers. Cabrera, on the other hand, has managed to stay eligible at 3B and is younger with more upside. Cabrera is this year's sexy pick, and while that's not unfounded, it also makes me a little nervous. I'm taking Teixeira here, though again -- I don't think you can go wrong with either.

OK -- I can't finish up without returning to the rooster. Seriously, if you've been to Kauai, you know what I'm talking about. Apparently, some time in the past a huge storm hit the island and a lot of chickens got loose. At least that's the story I heard, and it sounds about right -- because the island is simply rife with feral chickens. They're everywhere. I've never watched a hen and her five chicks take a stroll along the beach before and it's both funny and annoying -- because there aren't just hens, there are roosters. And they don't limit their wake-up calls to sunrise. In fact, they pretty much never shut up. Do you like bolting awake every morning at about 4:45 AM on vacation? How about to the sound of a wild rooster marking his territory? If so, then rent a house in Poipu Beach, my friend. I'm sure that the lush resorts have fixed this problem (I walked around one that appeared to be chicken-free), but for those of us on a tighter budget, it's all about the rooster.

But you know what? You wake up hours before sunrise in Kauai ... and you're still in Kauai. That's a good way of thinking about your drafts, too. If you end up paying $29 for Luis Castillo, and you know something's gone very wrong, at least you're still playing fantasy baseball.

Don't fear the rooster.

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