Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Real Deal

It’s playoff time again – not in the bigs but in the all-important Fantasy league.

Last year I coasted to a 2nd place regular-season finish and drew a 1st round bye, only to get smoked in the 2nd round of the playoffs. This year, barring catastrophe in today's games, it looks like I’m going to finish 5th (6 of the 10 teams make the post-season). So on paper at least, this time I’m one of the cool teams – the kind you don’t want to play after your bye week.

Of course, my probable 1st-round opponent – the 4th place Embodied Agents (formerly the Embodied Systems … don’t ask) is another scary team. The Embodied brings the offense and I bring the pitching, but he has manhandled me better than any other opponent in our head-to-heads this year. In preparation for the match-up, I’ve dumped a handful of my loyal players, mostly infielders (my Achilles heel all year), in favor of guys who have been hot for the past month or are playing on contenders (or for that matter, the world-beating D-Rays). Gotta pull out all the stops!

It was a weird year for me, but the competition was great. 3 points to our beleaguered commish for delivering the ever-evasive quality of parity (and for making sure the trash talk never got boring, and sustained a high standard of offensiveness).

My season was like the Tower of Terror at Six Flags – a sheer drop, straight down from 200 feet. I started off red-hot in the first week of April and carried it through to May but slowly came back to earth week by week. I fell out of 1st and 2nd place for good during June, settled in at 3rd and 4th for most of July, the spent the dog days mired in 5th, just hoping I could keep it glued together long enough to play .500 ball and land a playoff spot. Like my team of 40 year old former All Stars, I collapsed across the finish line. Whew!

What happened? I have no excuses, because the 4 teams ahead of me all drafted much better. In retrospect, the season-ending injury in June to my best hitter (Clint Barmes) took me out of it, and the season-ending injury in July to my best pitcher and most creative draft choice (Roy Halladay) pretty much put the nail in the coffin. With Halladay, my pitching was the best in the league. Without Halladay, my staff was still really good, but vulnerable. Meanwhile, I never could scrape up any reliable infielders, and with Beltran putting up a mystifying .260/14/62 season, I treaded water all year without an offensive superstar. My only rocks on offense were the odd couple of Johnny D and Matsui (the good Matsui, that is).

But enough about me. Let’s look at the winners and losers and check those pre-season predictions from April:

1. MANIC PHOTONS. I didn’t see this coming. The Photes were not only the runaway #1 team in the league, but they pretty much embarrassed everyone along the way. The cakewalk included headline-worthy scalpings of my 1st and 2nd place pre-season picks, the Liberal Elite and Lock & Load (Blue’s team). They had to settle for 2nd and 3rd, respectively. The Photes were the only team in the league to completely avoid injury, which needs to happen if you’re going to win, but it was the draft that won her the regular season title. The meat was Ichiro, Juan Pierre, Victor Martinez and Bobby Abreu, making her a lock every week to at least win R, SB, AVG, OPS and yes, 3B. Now add the potatoes to the equation: Derrek Lee, surprise triple crown guy. See what I mean? Also, having her money players in the OF and at 1B kept her E’s way down. It was a GREAT strategy given our stat categories. But it wasn’t all hitting – the pitching staff featured Peavy, AJ Burnett and Isringhausen and a better supporting cast than the rest of us drafted. Unless there’s a lightning bolt from the Blue (so to speak), the Cup is hers to lose.

2. THE LIBERAL ELITE. His draft was so unbelievably good that he has to be scratching his head right now. His anchors on offense are Big Papi, Ensberg and Jeff Kent. The pitching is even scarier, including Carpenter, Oswalt, the Big Unit and three A-List closers. I keep thinking the Elite would have contended for 1st if it weren’t for a couple of peculiar cold spells. In any event, he draws a bye for the 2nd year in a row, so he won’t have to play the Photes until the Finals (last year he went down in the 2nd round, same as me). This year maybe his luck will change. An Elite-Photes finale would certainly be entertaining and epic. If that happens, I will be checking that score every day!

3. LOCK & LOAD. The Load is an old-school throwback. He manages and conducts himself like Billy Martin or Earl Weaver. His trash talking is volatile and his roster changes are frequent. And by frequent I mean hourly. If you forget to check the standings one day, you could miss the entire Load career of some poor, doomed, spot starter. He built a team of solid journeymen around Pujols and Jeter and picked up Andrew Jones at just the right time. Most of all, the Load had a knack of riding guys when they were hot. He deserves the 3 spot, great job.

4. EMBODIED AGENTS. Out of the other nine teams, the Embodied Whatevers is the one guy I haven’t matched up well against. And of course I draw him in the 4 vs 5 matchup in the 1st round of the playoffs. Argh! He’s built around Manny, Burrell and Teixeira, and the draft pick that I let go, Jose Reyes. @#$%!! The relievers are great, with Nathan, Street and Rincon, and the starters are cool because they include Schilling and Clement. (3 points for sticking with Schilling.)

5. WHO’S YOUR DEALER. What I didn’t have in offense I made up for in high-energy, democratically distributed trash talk. I think I projected myself to finish in the middle of the league, so at least that was a good call. Even if I had been patient with Jose Reyes, Travis Hafner and Andruw Jones – all of whom I dropped before the All-Star break – I still wouldn't have finished in the Top 2. Oh well… Woulda shoulda coulda. My offense is weak, so I’ll be relying on Pedro, Roger, Smoltz and Lieber in the playoffs, plus the Hold/Save combo of Flash and Mariano. Wish me luck!

6. NUCLEOPHILIC ATTACK. The Nuclear One was silent but deadly, making only one roster change all summer long. (Compare that to 80+ roster moves for the trigger-happy Load.) The Nuke’s laissez-faire strategy had to be extremely frustrating to the hyperactive, yet doomed GMs in the 2nd division below him. He is top-heavy with closers; the starters are weak. Everyone in the line-up, paced by Soriano and Aramis Ramirez (DL!) is batting .290 with at least 20. Ironically, the Nukes draw the Load in the 3 vs 6 match-up in Round 1. I expect there to be, shall we say… fireworks. Bonus: if the Nukes win the Cup, the Load wears a Sawx hat all winter. Woo woo! The visual image alone is enough to perk me up.

7. PETROGRAD BOLSHEVIKS. How do you say Ouch in Ukranian? Lady Vicky managed his team the same way he trash talks: As if the toilet is overflowing. Whenever he'd make a roster move, I always had a visual image of the Three Stooges wielding plungers, wearing furry Russian ushanka hats, and bumping into each other like Keystone cops. A-Rod and Junior were his best players. The rest of his offense (I-Rod, Edmonds) batted .300 but let him down in the other categories. The pitching came up way short of expectations. Dontrelle was great, but Pettitte and Zito were too little too late.

8. GOING GOING GONORRHEA. The 3G was easier to beat than he was to spell. Having said that, he took me down late in the season when I really needed a win. I don’t think he was ever happy with our league because no one would ever make trades, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Unfortunately, we were more interested in trash talking than trading. Even at this point of the season, he’s still great on paper: Sheffield, Dunn, Cabrera and Tejada. Of the starters, though, only Bartolo Colon supported him – Schmidt and others disappointed. The 3G was very, very shrewd and deserved a lot better. One time the commish accidentally hit “Accept” on a 3G proposed trade (and later had to exercise his commish powers to "undo" it). Also this: one day in July, I checked the scores early before leaving for work, fully intending to pick up Giambi before the sunrise. But it was already too late – the 3G had picked him up the night before!

9. THE REBEL ALLIANCE. When good teams go bad… There’s really no rhyme or reason for the Alliance ending this far down, especially since her draft was really good, especially on offense. A lot of those guys ended up 30/90 but should have been even better. And NONE of her pitchers – all big-name starters and relievers like Mussina, Prior, Lackey, etc. – emerged to have a great season. The Alliance was sort of like the Cubs – lots of good things that should have happened but somehow didn’t.

10. HAVANA DAYDREAMERS. Both communist bloc members missed the playoffs this year – they should have known better – but all of our hard-luck stories pale in comparison to Havana’s. Bonds and Nomar went down for the season before we even had a chance to start exhaling after the draft. And from there it went downhill. Pretty much everyone, save Carlos Delgado, let him down on offense. And he had three ridiculously good closers – K-Rod, Cordero and Wickman – but none of the starters lived up to billing, including Santana. Esto es una pesadilla. No mas, no mas!

PLAYOFF ODDS:

Photes, 1-1
Elite, 2-1
Load, 5-1
Whatevers, 8-1
Dealer, 15-1
Nukes, 20-1

LOWER BRACKET:

3G, 3-2
Alliance, 10-1
Vickies, 12-1
Havana, 20-1

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