The Playbook, Inning 3: Salary cap draft strategies


(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. It has been updated for 2024 where applicable.)

Bear with me for a moment. While to this point we’ve discussed mostly introductory fantasy baseball tips, today we’ll take a bit of a leap to more advanced play. Don’t let that scare you off as there’s a very important reason to do this.

Simply put, a salary-cap draft is the best method for drafting.

As you select your method of drafting, I ask you to carefully consider each possible format rather than to quickly pick “snake draft” either as a way of opting for the simplest or just taking the default in your league. Draft day is the highlight of your league experience, and you want it to count.

To be clear, a salary-cap draft is more complicated, requires more organization from all involved, demands a more strategic approach and, most importantly, takes more time to conduct. Be prepared for the greater level of commitment required.

That said — and mainly if you can carve out the time for it — a salary-cap draft is well worth the effort. It’s a more equitable way of awarding players, and it grants considerably greater freedom to build the style of team you want. In a draft, the unlucky manager who draws the No. 10 slot cannot possibly roster any of the first nine players selected (meaning certainly no Ronald Acuna Jr. or Mookie Betts, both of whom would be long gone by then, no matter the format in which you play). In a salary-cap draft, every manager has a genuine opportunity to roster every player, not to mention that if the intent is to build a roster fronted by first-rounders Acuna and Betts but supported by nothing but low-salary players, that can be done.

How does a salary-cap draft work?

The player selection format for the original Rotisserie baseball draft in 1980, a salary-cap draft works similarly to how auctions work in the real world. The primary difference is that every team receives an equal, predetermined budget — generally $260, although the amount can be any number you choose — with which to buy a roster of players, rather than involving actual cash (although there are some rare league examples that do that) and being variable depending upon one’s personal budget (though, again, there are leagues that do that, but I strongly recommend against it).

Teams take turns, in order, nominating players to be put up for bid, with other teams in the league then free to bid whatever larger number they wish in an attempt to “purchase” the player’s contract. The team that holds the highest bid when the sale is proclaimed complete is awarded said contract, and the process continues with the next player, and so on, until every team’s roster is full.

If at all possible, get a master of ceremonies to manage your salary-cap draft (even if it’s the ESPN draft room). This role is critical; this individual keeps the process running smoothly, is an independent arbiter in the case of bid or sale disputes, and set the cadence for player sales, which helps managers determine the amount of time with which they have to make decisions. In these respects, the master of ceremonies role is every bit as important to a league as the commissioner’s. Select a friend to serve in this role, and be kind with making it worth their time — buy them a calzone and an adult beverage, for example.

As far as the bids themselves, generally salary-cap drafts work with bids in whole-dollar increments, beginning with a minimum $1, so subsequent bids of say $4, $9, $10, $13 and $15 would all be eligible bids. Some leagues do allow bids in multiples of cents, such as 10 cents, 25 cents or 50 cents, especially those with smaller salary caps. Feel free to experiment with your system if you feel comfortable, but I strongly suggest the original roto arrangement of $260 caps, $1 minimum bids and bids in whole-number increments, not only as a traditionalist but also because the $260-cap system is the one most frequently represented in industry rankings/price sheets, not to mention that it averages to $11.30 allotted per roster spot.

Some salary-cap drafts require that bids, following a player’s initial nomination, proceed in a specific order. For example, if a team nominates Bobby Witt Jr. for $1, the order would proceed clockwise to the next team at the table for a prospective bid, at which point that second team would have the option of either raising the bid or passing on the player, though a “pass” would eliminate that team from consideration for future bids on that player, should the process make its way back around the table. I don’t recommend this format for beginner or intermediate fantasy baseball players, especially those new to the salary-cap draft format, but I admit that I have also never played in a league that used it. My suspicion is that it’d be more time-consuming than a traditional salary-cap draft, due to the greater amount of organization as well as a decreased likelihood of “jump bids” — a topic we’ll get into a little later.

More wrinkles to keep in mind when structuring your salary-cap draft: Remember that every team must have enough available funds with which to fill every roster spot, meaning that in a draft with a $1-minimum bid, a team with 10 spots remaining to fill must have a minimum of $10 remaining in its budget. This is why the ESPN draft room provides not only the total budget each team has remaining but also its maximum bid amount, which is the portion of the budget remaining for that team that still retains $1 for every remaining roster spot.

Teams are not only restricted from purchasing players who cannot fill a specific spot on their roster, they are restricted from nominating them as well. This prevents the possibility of a team that has already filled its shortstop, middle infield and designated hitter/utility spots from nominating Zach Neto for $1 to a room unwilling to raise the Neto bid to $2.

If you’re conducting your salary-cap draft live and in person — always my preferred method — the best way to track and prevent any rules mishaps is to provide a full, visual display of all teams, rosters and purchases, so people can quickly reference them midstream. This can be done with a computer and projector, or with a large paper board, which can be filled in either with player stickers or by pen. You can even all meet at a local eatery to draft, but use the ESPN draft room on the big screen!

Once we’ve decided upon a salary-cap draft, how do I prepare for it?

Here’s where the heightened level of strategy comes in.

One of the reasons the salary-cap draft format works so well is that it best mimics an open market. The team that places the highest value upon a player is almost always going to roster that player, certainly much more often than in a snake draft.

What you need to do is determine your value of each player in your league’s player pool. We’ve already examined the different league types. Now, with the one you’ve selected — be it mixed, AL- or NL-only, 10-, 12-, 15-team or greater, and points, roto and seasonal or head-to-head — you need to identify all players who you think are valuable enough to fill every eligible roster spot in your league. This means that in a league with two catchers and 12 teams, a minimum of 24 catchers will be selected and therefore rostered for a minimum $1 bid.

It’s also helpful to determine a number of “fringe” players you think might be worth rostering but whom you probably wouldn’t have make the cut. This is most important to help with determining your replacement-level player — we’ll get to that topic shortly — but also to help with a potential serpentine reserve draft or for quick adjustments in the event that you find you have a roster need — say, some additional stolen bases in a roto league — that wouldn’t be filled by the endgame players you have remaining on your price sheet.

Once you identify this roster-worthy subset of your league’s player pool, you need to rank and price each according to your salary-cap draft’s format. To do this, take the per-team budget and multiply it by the number of teams in your league, meaning that in a 10-team, traditional roto format with a $260 cap, the total amount of money that’ll be allocated to your entire player pool is $2,600 — not a cent more and not a cent less.

You’ll next need to determine the percentage of that pool to allocate to hitters versus pitchers. A 65% hitters/35% pitchers split is common in traditional rotisserie, although with the increasing amount of pitching specialization, that split sometimes can range as high as 70%/30%. My preferred starting point — in the absence of historical league data indicating a clear leaning otherwise — is 68%/32%, but you can adjust that upward or downward depending upon your preference. The key is splitting up your leaguewide budget into totals for hitters and pitchers, and in the previous $2,600 example, a 68%/32% split would mean you should allocate $1,768 to all hitters in your pool and $832 to all pitchers.

Incidentally, in certain points-based leagues, the hitting/pitching split can and should be lower — often 60%/40% or even lower on the hitting side. In my longtime points league, for example, our hitting/pitching split has averaged 57%/43% during the past three seasons, but that’s also a league that starts only 12 hitters and eight pitchers. If you’re using a traditional rotisserie scoring system, I’d recommend making your starting point 62%/38%. If you’re using ESPN’s standard points system, I’d advise a 60%/40% split.

The best way to determine how much money to assign to each player is to craft your own set of projections, then use those to calculate dollar values. In a points league, this is easier. Since each player’s output results in a single number — Freddie Freeman‘s ESPN projection has him earning 528 points this season — you’d take every player’s projected point total, then subtract the projected point total of the best player outside your selected player pool at his position, to get the aforementioned “replacement-level” player, and the value you’re extracting is the player’s “value above replacement.” So if you’re examining the catcher pool, for instance, Adley Rutschman‘s 395 projected points using ESPN scoring would turn into 133 points above replacement in a 10-team, one-catcher points league because the No. 11 catcher, Jonah Heim, is projected for 262 points; and it’d be 243 in a 12-team, two-catcher league because the No. 25 catcher, Patrick Bailey, is projected for 152.

In a roto league this is more challenging, and a familiarity with spreadsheets can be quite a help. In order to calculate dollar values, you’ll need to convert each player’s projection into a single number, so that you can determine his value above replacement as in the points-league example above. The simpler — but not the only — way to do that is to figure out the average number in each of your categories from all members of your player pool, then determine the standard deviation — again, spreadsheets are a huge help here — of each category. You’ll then compare each player’s total to the league’s average in the category, then divide by the standard deviation, do this for each category and come to a final “valuation” number for that player. So, for example, in a 15-team league using ESPN’s projections, the average number of home runs by the selected player pool is 21.00, and the standard deviation is 8.10. Using Freeman’s projection again as the example, his value in the home run category would be 28 minus 21.00, divided by 8.10, resulting in 0.86. You’d then find those results for his RBI, runs scored, stolen bases and batting average and total them up.

There are several methods for calculating roto values, though, including determining Standings Gain Points, a topic somewhat too complicated to dive into in detail here but that can be researched with a quick web search.

Just as in the points-league calculation method, you would then take these player values, compare them to the replacement-level player at each position, and come to a final value above replacement.

Once you’ve got your player values above replacement, determining dollar amounts for all players is the easiest part: You multiply each player’s value above replacement by the total league budget, then divide by the total of all players’ value above replacement. To ensure accuracy, the highest-priced player will generally range in dollar value from $35 to $50, and you’ll probably have up to a dozen players in the $30-plus tier, depending upon the price of your No. 1 player.

If all that sounds complicated — and there’s no doubt that it is — we have a handy shortcut available to help: our ESPN+ Fantasy Baseball Value Generator, which can do all the work for you, providing values for your specific league type. It’s one of the most valuable tools available for fantasy baseball managers, and I run every league’s player pool in which I play through it, even if just for a starting or reference point. You can always run your league through the generator, then make manual tweaks if you’d rather not do calculations from scratch. It’s up to you how much detail you can/want to put into the process.

Always, always, ALWAYS use dollar values calculating to the nearest cent, rather than to the nearest dollar. Detail counts on a cheat sheet, and it’s often helpful at the draft table to know that the difference between players who round to $15 in price can actually be up to 99 cents in true value — for example, $15.49 versus $14.50.

You’ve priced your players, now let’s go draft!

If you’ve priced your players properly, you can attend your league’s salary-cap draft with nothing more than a simple sheet of players, their dollar values and perhaps some basic notes and/or projections. I’ve been asked many a time what materials to bring, and that’d be my answer. The more materials you bring and the more complex your cheat sheet, the less focused you’ll be; these work in inverse proportion to one another. In this case, focus is substantially more important than it would be in a draft, where you have more decision-making time between picks and aren’t potentially in the bidding on every player.

We’ll dig deeper into the structure of your cheat sheet in Inning 4 of the Playbook, but for a basic structure of a salary-cap draft cheat sheet, I list the player’s name, team, eligible positions, dollar value, and leave space to write down the winning bid and his basic projection (including specific categories in roto in order to address mid-draft needs). The space to write down the bids is important only in that in the event you’ve grossly miscalculated the market at a specific position, you can quickly see that unfolding and adjust if needed.

Your aim: Roster a team full of players for the greatest amount below your listed prices as you possibly can.

That’s not to urge you to be at the mercy of your price sheet at all times. Depending upon how much advanced research (and dollar value calculations) you put into the preparation process, you’ll know how flexible to be at the draft table. In short: If you’ve painstakingly crafted your own projections and the resulting player prices, then you know precisely your expected worth of every player and shouldn’t stray from them. If, by comparison, you’ve quickly printed out our points-league cheat sheet five minutes before your salary-cap draft and made no manual adjustments, you can feel free to stray somewhat from those values where you see fit as your own player opinions differ.

But know this: The more you stray from your cheat sheet, the greater your odds of making a mistake and overbidding at the table.

To give an example of this approach, let’s take my cheat sheet from the 2020 League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) AL-only draft — being that the 2021 LABR and Tout Wars drafts were online due to the pandemic, while the 2022 such drafts were conducted before the lockout had been settled, and therefore both years had much different dynamics. I had Mike Trout priced at a league-high $42.10, Francisco Lindor at $36.89, J.D. Martinez at $35.32, Alex Bregman at $34.09 and Jose Altuve at $32.90. The eventual contract prices of these five players were $43, $36, $35, $34 and $31, so you could naturally guess which ones I was in on the bidding until the end — Lindor was mine for $36, and I nearly paired him with Altuve before bailing out at the last second.

That demonstrates an important point: You should press your cheat-sheet values to the final dollar — and in rare, typically needs-based circumstances, a buck or two beyond — for the highest-rated players only, while approaching the lower-priced players more conservatively. These high-priced players are the ones with a greater likelihood of return on your investment, after all. I was much more willing to bid right up to Lindor’s listed price tag than, say, my $14.43 Willie Calhoun who sold for $15, despite the fact that I very much liked Calhoun entering the 2020 season.

Ignore any and all advice regarding the point in the draft “where bargains are found.” In the earlier days of fantasy baseball, it was common to find that the most feverish bidding occurred in the first few rounds of bids, and therefore advice centered upon “showing up to your salary-cap draft an hour late” in order to go bargain-hunting. That direction subsequently bred a lot of lazy fantasy managers who passed on the early-round bidding, letting bargains slide into those early rounds. I’ve found in my own salary-cap drafts that the league’s best bargain is as apt to be the first overall player nominated as it is the 100th, or the first player either before or after a designated break period — you’ll need a few of these since the entire process is lengthy — or the final round’s worth of players. The best advice: Bargains can be found at any time. Be prepared.

Other than how it impacts your roster structure or categorical needs, never let one purchase influence another. In other words, don’t let a bargain purchase of one player convince you that you have “profit to burn” on another player, “justifying” a subsequent overbid. Returning to the LABR example, I purchased Charlie Morton for $24, or roughly $3 beneath my listed price for the right-hander, but in no way whatsoever did I feel that afforded me the luxury of placing a $17 bid on my $15-priced Frankie Montas, despite the fact that I very much liked Montas entering 2020, too.

The idea, after all, is to complete your salary-cap draft with a full, spent $260 on your roster, but with that roster totaling at least $290 in value — and preferably $300-plus, in less-competitive leagues — per your cheat sheet’s prescribed prices. Remember, you want potential profit, and if you don’t accrue at least that much value from your draft-day roster, someone else in the room clearly will, and you’ll be at a significant disadvantage.

Do my nominations matter?

Your nomination strategy is paramount, and perhaps the most underrated part of salary-cap draft strategy nowadays.

It’s another case of stale advice taking hold: In the past, it was suggested to spend the entirety of the early rounds nominating nothing but players you weren’t interested in rostering, and the entirety of the latter rounds nominating only players you want. The problem there is predictability, and you want some sort of variance in your nominations. If you’ve priced your players properly, you should be prepared to roster every player in your league’s pool, because you know precisely the proper price for each and should be unwilling to bid any more than that.

I find that the early rounds are a good time to nominate the higher-priced and/or buzzworthy players, whom you think will fetch hefty bids and eat up larger percentages of other teams’ budgets but aren’t players about whom you’re the most passionate. Elly De La Cruz is an excellent such example, a much more roto- than points-league oriented player who has drawn raves from scouts for his combination of power and speed, and who for a good stretch of the offseason was going consistently among the first 20 picks of NFBC-style, 15-team leagues. His skill set tantalizes fantasy managers with dreams of a 30/30 — or maybe even greater! — campaign, but he also batted .191 with 105 strikeouts in 262 at-bats after the All-Star break and struggled mightily against sliders, indicating adjustments he must make to realize his full potential. De La Cruz would be an excellent early-round nomination due to the buzz surrounding him, perhaps fetching a bid closer to $10-12 in points leagues than my listed price of $4 — and maybe someone bringing a roto mindset to the table might push his price closer to $20!

Separating your cheat sheet into value tiers (players of similar value within positions) and identifying likely “strike” spots (areas where you hope to win at least one player) is another good way to determine nominations. Again in that 2020 LABR-AL draft, while my intent was to purchase Cole as my ace in the $40 range — he ultimately sold for $43 and I had to pass — my fallback plan was to secure one from among my tier of Shane Bieber ($27), Charlie Morton (also $27) or Lucas Giolito ($24). As such, once Cole was off the board, a good nomination strategy was to bring up each of them in an attempt to secure the first one possible for the greatest discount I could get. Granted, you cannot control the room’s nominations and you’ll only nominate a player every 12 turns in such a 12-team league, meaning you don’t entirely control how the sale of players within that tier unfolds, but it’s a much better idea to attack the areas of the player pool you want to roster sooner, rather than to let the room decide how those players get nominated. You want as much control over how you fill your roster as you can get.

In the later rounds, take great care with whom and how you nominate. At all points, you should be prepared to absorb your opening bid into your roster. Never, ever make a bid you’re unwilling to accept as a sale. The deeper you get into the draft, and the smaller your competition’s budgets get, the more you should be steering your nominations only to the players you actually want to roster.

In the endgame — the final bids, when leaguewide budgets often afford most teams only the minimum bid — it’s a wise idea to always know where your competition stands, both in terms of remaining budget and available roster spots. This is why I always bring a computer with me to the draft, to track this. That way, if you’re in need of a second catcher in the latter stages, are willing to pay $4 to secure the still-available Jake Rogers‘ services, see that only four other teams have an available opening for a catcher and that all of them have only minimum $1 bids (LABR’s minimum), you know you can immediately nominate Rogers for $1 because no one else can possibly outbid you — guaranteeing yourself a $3 profit.

Conversely, if you’re down to minimum $1 bids, see two teams with available openings for catchers but that one can bid $2 to $4 yet is also in desperate need of saves — even speculative save-getters — it might be wiser to nominate a prospective closer to try to drain that team’s budget to the minimum-bid threshold rather than nominate Rogers for $1. It’s possible that one of those opponents might subsequently nominate Rogers for $1 and block you out — that’s part of the risk you take — but if you still see 2-3 catchers you’d accept with a $1 bid, it might be worth that chance.

How you handle bids themselves matters, too

Remember this in a salary-cap draft: Be unpredictable.

The best way to secure the maximum number of bargain purchases is to never let your competition know what you’re thinking. This is akin to a game of poker; tells are a bad thing. If you’re a habitual snacker who loves to chomp on that Doritos chip every time you make a bid you’d love to have win the player, stop it!

Vary your bids wherever possible. Bid incrementally in minimum-priced numbers at one stage, but jump bids by $5, or perhaps even more, for others. Bid quickly for one player, but wait until the master of ceremonies gets to “going twice” in the “going once, going twice … sold!” call for another. Avoid bidding entirely for one player, then feverishly bid 6-7 times for the next, even if you have an equal opinion about each. And if you’re that aforementioned Doritos fan, make a bid for a player you clearly don’t want, then do your chomping, just to throw your competition off your scent.

One trick to consider is the “freeze bid”: This means to carefully consider a time to either nominate a player for or jump the bid to exactly your desired final price, in an attempt to catch the rest of the room off-guard — or “freeze” them in their tracks, if you will. Typically, the best freeze bids are done by managers who have a detailed set of player prices, know that the player is worth exactly or nearly the bid’s amount, and expect the rest of the room to be unable to make a judgment on the player’s worth before the master of ceremonies’ subsequent once-twice-sold.

For a classic example from one of my own leagues, in the 2015 Tout Wars NL-only league, I had priced Clayton Kershaw at $39.64 and Max Scherzer at $32.25, but felt that Scherzer would be the one more likely to settle at a price beneath my listed amount. With the opening nomination, I threw “Scherzer $30,” to a silent room. Whether it was a matter of lack of preparedness or fear among the group about his minor injury at the time, he wound up as one of that draft’s best bargains –although Kershaw who went for $37 with the very next nomination also qualified. (In the interest of transparency, my team finished second that year to Kershaw’s.)

Avoid overbidding traps wherever you can. As mentioned in the nomination strategy section, separating players into tiers of value is a good practice, but be careful not to get caught up in feverish bidding within tiers of greatest interest to you, overpaying for a player in the process — especially a lower-priced player within a certain tier. If everyone within that tier seems to cost too much, it probably means there’ll be pockets of bargains elsewhere in the draft, and it’d be better to adjust midstream and find those. Strike whenever and wherever you see value, but don’t, say, pay $26 for your $21-priced Tarik Skubal just because you didn’t want to pay $34 for your $32-priced Pablo Lopez or $29 for your $29-priced George Kirby when they were nominated earlier. The proper decision there is to get Kirby for $29, fill your need and move on to find bargains elsewhere.

Finally, and perhaps most critically when dealing with salary-cap drafts, never let yourself get rattled. Mistakes are never a good thing, but if they happen, they should never be construed as title-killing events. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my own drafts — such as paying $15 for a $14-valued Nomar Mazara contract in LABR-AL in 2020, mostly because I felt he was one of the few genuine power sources remaining on the board — but had to quickly move on from them, so as to not subject myself to subsequent, and likely much worse, mistakes. Salary-cap drafts move quickly, and you need to remain focused at all times.

Composure, confidence and consistency with your strategy: They’re the keys to your draft-day approach.

Now, consider yourself a seasoned salary-cap league manager! Go get ’em.

Up next is Inning 4, where we’ll dive deeper into building the perfect cheat sheet, as well as discuss snake-draft strategy.

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