Handling a Timid Auction

Last week over the course of two nights, the Second FanGraphs staff league held our annual auction. As always, I entered with a simple strategy – stay calm, nab the one or two big names you need, but mostly let the rest of the league cash out early, and clean up with sleepers and guys who slip through the cracks.

That didn’t work out so well this time. You can see the way the auction went here. If you scroll through far enough, you’ll see that those sleepers didn’t sleep and the guys falling through the cracks didn’t fall that far. An overabundance of caution led to moderate early prices and too much cash to spend later. So what’s an owner to do?

The primary reason this happened is because there is some groupthink at work in this league. Every owner in the league is a FanGraphs writer and while that doesn’t mean we think exactly the same, or that we don’t challenge each other, we do often start from a similar premise and do share a lot of baseball values. When you add the fact that this is a points league – meaning that no one needed steals or power or saves or Ks more than anyone else – there was a lot of overlap in valuation and strategy and the result was that we all tried to wait out the same sleepers.

Somehow this meant that top talent went cheap ($29 Prince Fielder, anyone?) in a lot of cases, while many guys I expected to go cheap did not ($9 Gregory Polanco? $10 Khris Davis?). And this threw my auction into a tizzy. At the end, I walked out with a team I like that looks nothing like what I expected.

But what is valuable for you is how to learn from this and what to do when your auction gets timid and no one is spending the big bucks early. I see two strategies, and I took the second (although not because I think it is best).

The strategy I took was to save my cash to find the right discounts. I grabbed a pile of players who could provide value but have questions around them. In this league, prospects were going high, so I actually looked at playing time questions. I needed depth in MI so I grabbed both Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks, along with Chris Owings. I needed OF help, so Corey Dickerson found a spot on my roster.

I also targeted players who could create trade value for me. Pre-auction, I was very happy with my Wilson Ramos/Yan Gomes combo, but adding Devin Mesoraco puts me in a good position to have a catcher to trade. If Ike Davis can pan out, Adam Lind or Brandon Belt would be expendable. I had Nick Castellanos as Josh Donaldson/OF insurance, but added Matt Davidson, potentially allowing me to move another 3B at some point.

The strategy I maybe SHOULD have taken was to quickly note the low prices and buy early. I didn’t need a 1B, but a $30 Prince Fielder would have looked awfully nice. I wasn’t planning to spend a ton on relievers, but a $22 Craig Kimbrel may have been worth it. The problem I ran into is that it took me too long to see what was happening. I somehow missed how much cash everyone had left, even after the big names went off the board early.

The reality is, both of these approaches can work – the key is recognizing what is happening in the auction and adjusting accordingly. Come in with a plan, but be prepared to scrap it. Your plan should be built based on a particular spending environment, and if the actual auction doesn’t match your projections, then your projections need to change.

I was slow to adapt, and so instead of adding James Shields and Carlos Gonzalez, I ended up with Matt Holliday, a slew of young pitchers with potential, and flyers that could turn into trade chips. If things break the right way, this strategy could be the better long-term play, but in the meantime it will lead to a lot of anxiety.

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Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

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We had the same thing happen in our draft the other day. Almost everybody ended up leaving money on the table because we were waiting for each other to jump. A couple big stars went for huge prices, but there were a lot of bargains on second tier guys that I think a lot of us wish we would have jumped on instead of waiting for deals late.