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2021 Fantasy Baseball: Auction League Overview & Strategies

Shawn Childs explains the basics behind fantasy baseball auction leagues and potential strategies to make the most of this exciting format

In the fantasy baseball market, there are many different formats and league sizes, especially in auctions. I've played in American League and National League formats with 12 teams plus 15-team mixed leagues. Each league could also have keepers (players held for more than one year) or trading, which changes all players' value during the auction. Over the last 17 seasons, I've played in the high-stakes fantasy market where there is no trading, which puts pressure on a fantasy owner to develop a winning plan before the auction. 

When doing an auction league with no trading, a fantasy owner has a small margin for error. No other owner is going to be knocking on your door looking to take your third closer off your hands via a trade. If your team is out of balance (strong in some categories and weak in others), you can't trade hitting for pitching or even speed for saves. You can win an auction many different ways, but many owners can lose the battle during the auction due to a questionable game plan or even foresight. Every year the player pool will change slightly. Your job as an owner is to evaluate the inventory and develop a strategy you can execute at the draft table. If you come away with enough pieces to the puzzle, you can manage your way to a championship.

Whatever game plan you decide to use, you must be ready to adjust if you don't get your key players. A fantasy owner can roster any player they want in an auction, but it comes with a price. 

In most baseball auction leagues, each team starts with $260 to buy 14 hitters and nine pitchers. The goal is to accumulate the most league points in five hitting categories (batting average, runs, home runs, RBI, and steals) and five pitching categories (wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, and saves). 

In a 12-team league, a first-place finish in a category would be worth 12 points, second place is 11 points, and so on until reaching 12th place (one point). The winner of each league is determined by adding up all ten categories. 

Calling Out Players to Improve Your Team Building Chances

A common mistake fantasy owners make is hoping the players they want don't get called out early. It sounds good in principle, but the problem is all the other good players are coming off the board while you are sitting back holding your money. If you wait and miss on your targeted players, you will have fewer options left to build your team.

It is essential to get your key players called out as quickly as possible. If you want a player in the auction and you believe he is the key to your team winning, I would like to call him as soon as possible. By doing this, you find out how much he will cost you (higher or lower than your predicted price point) or if you need to start looking for someone else to build your team around. The quicker you know where you stand on critical players, the better chance you have of executing your plan or adjusting on the fly. 

Atlanta Braves Ronald Acuna Jr.

For example, let's say I wanted to build my team around Ronald Acuna or Fernando Tatis Jr., and I believed he has a chance to hit over .300 with 30+ home runs and 30+ stolen bases with a target value was $43. If I miss on him, I will need to find another player with a step down in overall expectations. In essence, I should have a secondary plan to shift to another player with a similar skill set with less upside, but I would then save some of my budget. 

In this example, my second elite option for power and speed could be Mookie Betts. If Acuna gets called out first and someone decides they are willing to pay $46, Betts would be attainable if his salary falls within your expected budget and his targeted salary.

Now, if Betts gets called out first and someone buys him for $39 while you are sitting on Acuna as your first key player, you have a further dropdown in the player pool if Acuna is purchased by another owner above your budgeted salary target. The matter could be a lot worse if 10 or more top players get called up before Acuna. This freelancing style could lead to an imbalance in roster construction in a non-trading format where a trade can't fix a shortfall in a category.

In this example, a detour off of Acuna may push a fantasy owner to Juan Soto, which in turn brings less upside in speed but a potentially high ceiling in batting average. This decision would then force a fantasy owner to find his speed in a different way while making sure not to give away his power edge. 

If the drop-down off Acuna led me to Trea Turner, I would set his foundation in steals with 20-home run power and strength in batting average. My second targeted player may/should bring more home runs with a chance at hitter fort average with a 100/100 type skill set. 

Again, if Soto, Turner, and Betts get called out in the auction before Acuna or Tatis, a fantasy owner needs to get more creative with less inventory to build their offense for a fantasy team. 

The other option is not missing on your targeted core player or players by overpaying with the theory of making up the lost dollars later in the auction. 

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Game Plan and Early Spending

During the auction, it is crucial to focus on your game plan early while not worrying about how the other owners are spending their money. My goal is to build my foundation in hitting and pitching while keeping my foot on the gas if the players I like are called out early. I'm willing to spend $200 of my $260 on my key players. 

This strategy then requires me to shut down my spending for a long time in the middle of the auction. 

I see many fantasy owners get aggravated when one or more fantasy owners hold onto their money. They are concerned that an owner will overbid them on a key player they want later in the auction. If you invested $185 on 10 players and the other owner spent $40 on two players, he is eight players behind you. He will think he has all the power in the world with the big stack, but the truth is someone will always be bidding against him. Each of the other owners will need players also. He will be competing with at least one owner most of the time for each player when he tries to fill his roster, which will force him to pay full price or a premium on some players even in the middle part of an auction.

Fernando Tatis Jr

Keep an Open Mind Early

When you sit down at the draft table to do an auction, your best opportunity for players could be the first couple of players called out. It is essential to understand each player's possible value while being ready to fire as soon as the auction starts. If you sit back and wait, you might miss on a discounted player or a possible stud. I know $33 player might not sound like a discount, but that same player might go for $38 if he was called out a couple of rounds later in the auction.

In my early example between Ronald Acuna, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Mookie Betts, Betts can't be dismissed if he's called out first, and his salary falls below value. If the bidding is fading on Betts at $34, it may be wise to buy the built-in value for $35 with the understanding that there could be a fight at the top end for Acuna or Tatis. If you pass on Betts, and Acuna and Tatis do go for more than expected, you would have missed an edge if Betts plays as expected in 2020.

Targeting the Last Top Player on the Board

Another common mistake is waiting for the best player left on the board. You will see this happen a lot late in auctions. No one wants to call out a player because they want him as cheap as possible. Four or five owners sit back, just waiting for the right time to add this player to their team. When he's called, most of their hearts are broken. This player usually cost the winning owner a few more dollars than expected. 

You can use this to your advantage at certain positions during the auction. If you like two or three guys who rate about the same, say at second base, I will try to buy the first option of these players called out. By doing this, you avoid overpaying for the best "available option" left later in the auction. Many times this happens to the last speed option or even a closer. 

End Game

As I mentioned early, when the auction starts, I don't care what money any other owner has until I get down to about $60. Each owner will need to spend at least $200 on the nucleus of their team. The other teams will catch up to you when they start their filling roster spots. 

When you get down to $60, you need to put on the brakes and start looking for bargains players. The more disciplined you are, the better chance you will have of getting the players you want. If you can shut it down totally when you get to $35-$40, you will have the leverage in the end game. You will need almost every owner to have less than $20 to hold an edge over them late in the auction.

To execute this type of aggressive style, a fantasy owner has to have the vision to see the outs at each position while also having a game plan to build the backend of your roster.

Final Notes

Winning an auction league comes with a healthy game plan followed up by execution while also needing the targeted players to deliver their expected stats. Every owner in the auction will know the players and come up with similar evaluations. When you try to implement your plan, there will be battles for critical players. You will win some and lose some. You just hope you win the right ones. I would much rather lose with a team I like than lose with a team with players I didn't want.

Remember, the more thought invested in a game plan with variations will help a fantasy owner make better decisions in the split seconds of bidding on players.

READ MORE: 2021 Fantasy Baseball Hub

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Take your game to the next level with an SI Fantasy+ subscription. Get insights from Michael Fabiano, Shawn Childs, and the entire fantasy team all year-round.