By all accounts, the Cooperstown League fantasy draft was the most fun the managers have had all year. For 2 1/2 hours, we not only picked our teams but picked apart each other's picks. As usual, the banter was more entertaining than the strategizing. With 16 teams, there were a lot of 10- and 15-minute gaps between picks, but you could razz people almost continuously. Chief baiter was Rob Pendell, perpetrator of the aptly named Connecticut Shtick. At one point, he was so occupied with typing out a punch line that he almost forgot to make his own pick. It's good to know that Rob's priorities are in line with mine.
There were many surprises along the way, a good deal of cursing, and plenty of harmless anxiety. You wait for ten minutes to get the guy you really need to draft in that spot, crawling through a mine-field of a dozen other picks, feeling the relief when other managers ignore the guy you're craving, until you only have two or three more to get through, and then it's the last pick before your turn and your guy is still there. And then you see his name come up, and find out that the Podunk Pustules, the team that has no chance to win the league, for some reason found it necessary to draft the player who was the key to your whole strategy. All you can do is summon the spirit of the immortal Joe Schultz, manager of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, type a hasty "shitfuck!" and come up with another pick in a hurry.
Having gone on record with my strategy before the draft, I have to say that everything I planned on came about, and my team's only problems are the things I forgot to consider in my plan. I wrote that I'd be very happy to have a starting rotation built around Jake Peavy, Aaron Harang, and John Maine. My Gabe Sox nabbed all three of them, albeit in the first five rounds, shortchanging my offense a bit. Still, I got Maine just three picks ahead of Freddy Berowski, screwing up his pitching plans. I even took a closer in round 6, Francisco Cordero, who had 44 saves last year. After that, I focused on the guys who should lock up a third straight Holds title, unless one or two of them take over closer jobs. The quartet of Rafael Betancourt, Scot Shields, Scott Downs, and Joaquin Benoit combined for 106 holds last season, way more than my league-leading total. If they can come close to that, I'll lock up Holds, the Key Irrelevant Stat in my master plan. Lost in the shuffle of this mad quest for holds was the fact that I forgot to draft a fourth starting pitcher until all the good ones were gone. I picked up Jon Lester as a fourth starter late, figuring he'll win games for the Red Sox even if he doesn't pitch that well. Overall, the consensus is that I have one of the two or three best pitching staffs, at least on a computer screen.
The offense is another story. I have two big run producers from last year, a cast of mid-level performers (solid but unspectacular) filling four other spots in the 10-man starting lineup (one from each position plus two "utility" guys), and a bunch of question marks for the rest, mostly young players who might be blossoming stars this year or flat-out busts. The two studs, drafted second and fourth, are Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Pena. In a league whose offensive categories include total bases and on-base percentage, they both figure to put up more big numbers this season. The solid but unexceptional quartet are left fielder Raul Ibanez and infielders Orlando Cabrera, Aaron Hill, and Edwin Encarnacion. Ibanez was my one "panic pick," a last-second choice in Round 10 after frenzied indecision during the 90 seconds allowed for each pick. I had Michael Bourn on tap to play left field but thought he'd be available later, had some other players on my queue, then saw Ibanez's name about ten seconds before my time was up and for some reason hit the button. Bourn went two rounds later shortly before I would have taken him, and now I deeply regret this hasty move since stolen bases looms as my weakest category. Last season's panic pick, Ramon Hernandez, was a huge waste of a 9th-round pick. I hope I don't get burned by Ibanez. He has driven in 228 runs the last two seasons, so he ought to be fine, it's just drafter's remorse at taking a guy who provides little besides the RBI someone else can give me instead of the guy who could solve my stolen bases problem all by himself.
My first big gamble on offense was Josh Hamilton, my 7th-round pick. That got a loud yelp of protest from Rob Pendell, who drafted Francisco Liriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Philip Hughes in adjacent rounds, compared to whom Hamilton is a sure thing. I got a lot of production from him last year when he played for my favorite team, the Reds, and was disgusted when they traded him during the winter. He seems primed for stardom, is hitting around .600 in spring training for the Rangers, and might be their cleanup hitter. I just wish I could be saying those things about his prospects with the Reds. I could've taken veteran run-producers like Todd Helton, Ken Griffey, and Paul Konerko in this spot, but went with Hamilton.
After taking Cabrera, Betancourt, and Ibanez in the next three rounds, I gambled again in Round 11 by grabbing J.R. Towles. In my pre-draft blog, I linked him with Geovany Soto as favored catching prospects, and I was astonished to see Soto go in the fifth round, much earlier than I projected. Towles is nursing a sore hamstring and hasn't played much so far, but I'm counting on him to play the bulk of the time, though I added Gregg Zaun in my final pick as a reliable backup catcher. Last season I carried only one catcher most of the season and it hurt me. There were 30-40 days when I had no catcher playing, and in this league you have to have every position filled to the max to pile up those numbers. There are no negative stats in this league--that is, no strikeouts for hitters, no errors, no losses for pitchers, etc. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing your guys every day you can, unless they're facing guys like Santana and Peavy.
After filling in my starting infield and bolstering my bullpen in the middle rounds, I spent rounds 17-19 picking up hitters who showed a lot of potential as part-timers last season. They'll start this season in the utility spots, and I need two of the three to nail down jobs and hold them. In Round 17 I took Daric Barton, who gave my Gabe Sox a big boost down the stretch last season. In 72 at-bats, he hit .347 with 16 runs, 4 HR, 46 total bases, and a .429 on-base%. He is pegged as the starting first baseman for the A's this season if all goes well, hitting in the middle of the lineup. I don't expect him to hit .347, but if he keeps the job he can give me the 20 HR, 90 RBI, and .375 OBP that most teams in our league are going to get from their main utility guy. In round 18 I got Nate McLouth, who has a good shot to start the season as the Pirates' centerfielder and leadoff hitter. If so, he might be the solution to my stolen base deficiency. Last season, in 329 at-bats, roughly half a season for an everyday leadoff hitter, he stole 22 bases and added 13 HR and 62 runs. I'll be very happy if he can increase those totals by 50% as a regular. Since he plays all three outfield positions, he's a one-man outfield bench in fantasy ball. With my 19th pick, I took Jeff Keppinger, who has the edge at the moment for the starting shortstop job with the Reds, with Alex Gonzalez sidelined by knee surgery. Keppinger also gave the Gabe Sox a big shot in the arm last September, hitting a very productive .332 for the Reds. Too bad he's a mediocre fielder who can't lay claim to a position based on all-around play. He needs to make the most of his chance in Gonzalez's absence, has to hit so well that Dusty Baker has no choice but to keep him in the lineup.
So that's how my team shapes up. Like most teams, there's a strong nucleus and a lot of question marks. I'm not going to make any changes yet, unlike the half-dozen managers who have already begun raiding the free-agent ranks and discarding dubious draft picks. My post-draft excitement came the next morning, when Freddy Berowski invaded my office to harangue the manager at the next desk, Bill Francis, about his team. The two of them went back and forth for 25 minutes, trashing each other's choices and chances, and as they went on and on it became easier to think they were both right. I do know that their trash talking will continue all season, and at some point they'll give up on the pennant chase and care only about beating each other. Even if they won't admit it. So it goes in the Cooperstown League.