March 07, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

We're ticking ever more quickly toward fantasy draft time in baseball. So it seems a good day to talk general strategy.

Fantasy tactics differ greatly between leagues that select players through auction and those that use drafts. Auctions require a greater understanding of markets and game theory. But drafts can be just as hard because you don't have a shot at every player.

I prefer auctions because the landscape can be so unpredictable.

I go into an auction with a list of eight or 10 guys around whom I'd like to build and expect to get four of them. I also go in with a loose idea of how much I want to spend on pitching and hitting and how much I want to spend on each position.

Maybe I'll plan to buy two $40 sluggers with my fantasy money, one at first base and one in the outfield, a speedy middle infielder in the $20-$25 range and a premium closer at $30. The other pieces then fall around those building blocks.

At the same time, I go in with goals for each statistical category. If you finish fourth in every category in a 12-team league, you'll have a good shot at winning. So check out how many steals, homers, wins, strikeouts etc., were needed to finish fourth in those categories last year. As your auction proceeds, make sure the players you're selecting are projected to meet those marks.

Also keep in mind that an auction unfolds in tiers. The big stars - and most of the money - go off the table early. A middle phase follows in which owners chase the remaining good players to fill specific needs. Then comes the vital end game, in which most players go for less than $10 and bargains are available to the savvy owner.

You don't want to be shut out of any tier. I never care if I have the most money at a given moment (if you're too cautious, you'll end up with money unspent and a weak team). But I always want to be near the top.

Here's the discipline. If you've accomplished your goals in tier one, don't try to buy another player until the auction enters tier two. If you've filled your needs in tier two, hold off until tier three. Leave yourself in a position to be an aggressive buyer at all points of the auction.

Some owners go in with very rigid notions of how much they'll spend on each player. That's fine but you also have to watch as the market changes during the opening rounds. If power hitters are drained off early, you may have to go a few extra dollars or risk losing any shot at a top-tier home run guy.

If you're in a keeper league, I recommend calculating inflation. The owners in your league will be keeping players at salaries far lower than they would earn on the open market. And that means the prices for available players will be higher than those you see in preview magazines and on Web sites.

A lot of fantasy players don't bother with inflation because it involves tedious math. But it's really not that hard. I calculate separate inflation numbers for pitchers and hitters. So first, you need to figure what percentage of its budget your league spends on hitters. Seventy percent for hitters and 30 percent for pitchers is a fairly typical split so we'll work with that.

If you play with the typical $260 budget, 70 percent equals $182. Multiply that by 12 teams and your league is expected to spend $2,184 on offense.

Now, add up the salaries of all the hitters kept in your league. Let's say that's 48 hitters at a cost of $480. Next, add up the actual values you think those keepers will earn. You can use values from your favorite magazine or Web site. Or you can use your own. Just make sure you work with the same set of values for every player. Let's say the 48 kept hitters are expected to earn $960 of value.

Now, subtract $480 from $2,184 to get the money available for hitters in your auction. That figure is $1,704. Next, subtract the expected value of $960 from the available $2,184. You get $1,224.

Finally, divide $1,704 by $1,224 and you get 1.39. That means you're dealing with a 39 percent inflation rate and you want to multiply every player's expected price in the auction by 1.39. The $40 figure you see for Albert Pujols in a magazine becomes $56 in your auction.

Repeat the same process for pitchers.

Inflation rates usually aren't that high, but they can rise to 30 percent in some leagues, so it's worth knowing the adjusted values. Otherwise, you might think you're wise in laying off the Pujols bidding at $45 when in fact, you should go to $55.

We all leave drafts touting the bargains we think we snagged. But remember, you don't win fantasy leagues by accumulating the most bargains. You win them by accumulating points in every category. If you have to buy some players at their projected price or higher to win categories, do it.

childs.walker@baltsun.com