How to Build Your Dream Team

The Internet brings fantasy baseball to new heights

The first thing to understand about fantasy baseball is that the name is something of a misnomer. Unlike Strat-O-Matic and other baseball board games of yore, fantasy does not conjure imaginary play from dice and cards. Nor does it require traveling to a camp where you might embarrass yourself trying to hit a retired major leaguer's curve ball. Instead, fantasy baseball is a statistical competition derived from the actual performance of today's big league ballplayers. The only make-believe element is that you get to build and run your own team. Every fantasy player is his (or her) own George Steinbrenner and Joe Torre rolled into one.

Fantasy pre-dated the Internet, but the game has come to full flower online. Getting started is easy. ESPN.go.com, FOXSports.com, USAToday.com, MLB.com, and scores of other Web sites are eager to sign you up, at prices ranging from $15 to as much as $90 per team. The big-time sports sites have attached an increasing number of bells and whistles to their games, including prize money. You can either participate anonymously or organize a group of friends or co-workers into a league of your own and pay a Web service $300 to $400 a year to crunch your data.

Based on the experience of our eight-team league at BusinessWeek, now entering its 12th season, I highly recommend the latter approach. It's much more fun to compete against people you know, and you can customize and fine-tune the rules of your game as you see fit.

At BusinessWeek, we play fantasy in its original and arguably most compelling form -- Rotissierie. In most fantasy games, owners simply pick the players they want, creating variants of All-Star teams. Barry Bonds is yours if you want him, as every fantasy owner should. In Rotisserie, owners compete in drafting players. The odds are you will not end up with Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, or Pedro Martinez -- much less all four of these superstars -- no matter how keenly you covet them.

Be forewarned: Rotisserie is labor-intensive. Many Roto leagues confine themselves to the players of one league, American or National. (We use the American League). But to compete in even such a league still requires you to keep tabs on 300 to 400 players and the inner workings of 14 AL teams or 16 NL clubs.

The preseason player draft is far and away the most important event of the Roto season. There are countless variations in methodology, but all drafts are essentially exercises in competitive bargain-shopping. The object is not simply to pick as many of the best players as possible, but to load up on those players who will exceed preseason expectations by the widest margin. Like value investing, Roto turns around the difference between intrinsic value -- which is only established over the course of a season -- and market value, a player's perceived worth at draft time.

Of course, value has many components in Roto world. BW's league uses 10 performance categories, which have been tweaked and adjusted over the years in a continuing attempt to make our game resemble real baseball. The categories are equally divided between pitching and hitting (table). Experience has shown that you can win in our league without finishing first in more than one or two of these categories. Yet it has been virtually impossible to come out on top while finishing last in even one category. In other words, balance is critical.

Like real managers, Roto managers must fill a lineup card. In our league, each team's active roster includes 10 pitchers (five starters and five relievers) and 14 hitters (the nine who start in the majors, plus an extra outfielder, two extra infielders, and two utility players). We also carry 15 reserves. Our unusually large 38-player rosters make for a long and grueling draft of four to five hours, but allow us more latitude to make substitutions once the season starts. Make sure you sign up with a Web site that allows you to make daily hitter substitutions.

The Warren Buffetts of Roto do not have the luxury of buying and holding. Players are injured and benched all the time, forcing the Roto owner to improvise constantly. The best sources of info about who will and who won't be playing are the hometown newspapers in major league cities. Rotoworld.com does a fine job of summarizing the most pertinent reports and provides links to all the local papers. Read skeptically even so. MLB managers disperse much disinformation in hopes of misleading competitors and motivating their own players.

There are dozens of Web sites retailing Roto advice. The best I have found is BaseballHQ.com, which does a superb job blending the practical and the theoretical. Many was the day that I passed the office of Senior Writer John Byrne, who won our league last season, and found him studying BaseballHQ when he should have been finishing a story or something. Not that I'm bitter. A new baseball season is about to begin, and hope springs eternal in Roto land.

By Tony Bianco

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