When you start up a new game, you get the choice of playing with an MLB team as it is constructed in real life, a completely fictitious league with fictitious team names and players, or a historical replay team. They all play the same, it's just a matter of which you prefer, and you can have multiple saved games at once so you can try everything your little heart desires.
Choosing a Team
Whether you choose a real or fake league, your choice of team will largely dictate how you construct and manage your team. It's obviously a lot easier if you're the Yankees with a massive fanbase and payroll and can sign free agents all willy nilly and don't have to worry so much about signing players to poor contracts. The real fun/challenge though is choosing a small market team and being forced to make smart decisions with contracts, rookies and staying away from the pricey free agents.
Fantasy Draft/Building A Team
Here is where the strategy begins. If you choose to begin your league with a fantasy draft you have a daunting 45 round draft ahead of you. Now is where you must devise a plan for your team. If you're a large market team with a big payroll (150M+) you can feel free to draft MLB ready players and not have to worry about what they'll cost you. In this scenario I prefer to take an elite bat in the first round as there's usually enough ace-quality pitchers to last until the second round. You definitely want to end up with at least one ace pitcher on your team though, so don't dawdle in your quest for pitching. I actually prefer to land two aces if I can, since once you make it to the playoffs only your top 3 pitchers will throw for you. I qualify an “ace” as a pitcher that has green or blue pitcher ratings across the board, with multiple plus pitches. After you've got 2 elite pitchers, build yourself a potent offense.
DO NOT under any circumstances waste an early pick on a relief pitcher! They are plentiful and only used for a couple innings per week, and the computer knows that too. Closers and relievers will fall in the draft, and deservedly so. Quite frankly you can get by pretty easily with a 3-4 star closer and similarly rated relievers, and their salaries will be smaller in the long run as well.
If you're drafting for a small-market team like the Astros, you're going to want to draft very specifically. Sort players by batting or pitching potential rather than current ratings and load up your farm system. You're going to want to take as many high-potential bats and arms as you can for your minors and draft either young stud players that you can sign for long-term contacts at the pro level for a decent price, draft horrendous veterans, or a mixture of both. You're going to want your team to be absolutely terrible at the pro level for a solid two seasons so you can get top draft picks the following year(s) and further stock your farm system. The reason behind this is since your salary cap will limit you from signing all your good players to mega contracts, you need to get your young studs to peak at the pro level at about the same time while they're still either on their rookie contracts or signed under arbitration. If everybody peaks at the same time, you have your best shot at making the playoffs and winning the championship (or Round 3 as they lamely call it in the game).
Pay attention to the defensive attributes of your position players as well, as these will affect your pitchers' effectiveness. If you have a great pitcher that has a bunch of crummy defenders playing the field behind him with a catcher that can't throw out any base stealers, he's going to end up with a disappointing ERA and your whole team suffers.
Once you've played a few seasons and are looking into signing free agents or trading for players, have a look at their previous seasons' statistics. You'll find that some players consistently over- or under-perform their player ratings. This tends to hold true into future seasons as well, so bear that in mind when obtaining these guys.
Rotation/Bullpen, Depth Charts and Lineups
As stated previously, the most effective way to win and go deep into the playoffs is to have a very strong 1-2-3 starting rotation, and you can fill in your 4-5 starters pretty cheap and easily after that. For the bullpen, you want to have at least 2 lefties ideally to face the batters that have bad splits against left-handed pitchers, and there are a lot of them. You also want to have one really good middle reliever with some pretty good stamina that can log you a lot of quality innings over the course of the season. Aside from that you want to have a really good closer to lock down the games your good starters have thrown 7-8 innings in. You're going to lose a lot of frustrating games if you have a poor closer that blows half the games he pitches in. Finally, there are a lot of slots for bullpen arms you can use, but don't be afraid to leave a spot unused. You may need that spot on your active roster for hitting depth, particularly if you're deploying a platoon at a position.
It's vital to properly set up your depth chart. One effective way to keep your team costs down is to use a platoon at one or multiple positions. If you have two players that play the same position, but one is great vs righties and poor vs lefties and the other player is the opposite, you can set up your team accordingly. You can typically only do this at one position though as active roster constraints limit your bench. This is where it comes in handy to have backup players that can fill in at multiple positions so you can use the extra roster spots on platoon partners.
One of the most enjoyable parts, at least for me, is setting up your lineups once you've constructed your teams' depth chart. This is pretty straightforward; you want your best on-base and speed players in your 1-2 spots, followed by your sluggers and run producers, and the offensive scrap at the bottom of the lineup. Just pay attention to your players with bad splits vs lefties or righties and move them up or down in your lineup accordingly.
Manager Strategy Settings
Be sure to set your strategies (found in the Team menu) according to your philosophy and roster construction. If you have a lot of speedsters, be sure to set your stealing bases, base running and hit and run preferences to aggressive/frequent. If you have these set aggressively though and have a slow team, you're going to get caught stealing a lot when you simulate through games.
This is pretty straightforward as well, only a few things to watch for – like lefty-righty matchups once you're into the bullpen. Also for stealing bases, it's a bit of a crapshoot regardless of your SB rating and the catchers' arm and defense rating, but if your baserunner is an elite runner and the catcher has a red (low) rating, I'm still going for it every time. I also will choose to “pitch around” an elite hitter if he's really the only threat on the opposing team, and a good chunk of the time you will end up getting him out anyway.
Annual Rookie Drafts
The rookie drafts are one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. Your draft slot will be determined by your previous years' record relative to every other team in the league. Always sort by hitting or pitching potential. From there, sort by contact potential or power potential for hitters, and for pitchers sort by stuff. Pitchers can occasionally be successful with poor stuff if they have high movement and control ratings, but the best way to assure success is to find a pitcher with great stuff. As with inaugural drafts, don't take relievers high; they will fall to later rounds despite their 4 or 5 star ratings. This is also a crucial part of team-building; sometimes hitters will exceed their projected ratings, sometimes they will never reach their potential. For pitching, it's the same way generally speaking, but read on to find a way to help control your destiny more specifically for pitchers...
Changing Your Pitchers' Repertoire
This is the biggest tip for success in player drafting or acquisitions. If you go to a player page, you'll see an Edit tab. There's not much you can actually change here, but you can alter what pitches your pitcher throws. This is vitally important in altering your pitchers' career. When you look at your pitchers' pitch ratings, if you see a pitch that is very poor, go into the editor and uncheck the pitch to make him stop throwing it. Not only will dropping a bad pitch increase the stuff rating, it generally increases the rating of the other pitches he throws.
On the flip side, if you're drafting or already own a reliever with a strong stamina rating and only two pitches (relievers generally only throw 2 pitches) look into adding an additional pitch to his repertoire. If he throws a fastball (they almost always do) try adding a cutter, forkball or splitter. These are basically variations of a fastball and usually you can find a solid offering to add. All you need is an average third pitch and you'll see your pitchers projected role change from “bullpen” or “strictly pullpen” to “starter”. If you can find a reliever with good (green or blue) stamina, as well as 2 elite pitches and average to plus movement and control, sometimes all you need is to add one more pitch to turn this elite reliever into an elite starting pitcher.
Sometimes it takes the pitcher a while to “learn” this new pitch, so it's best to do this during the rookie draft, as most of their ratings will gradually rise to meet their projections throughout their time in the minor leagues.
WARNING!! This strategy is incredibly risky! While this method is a great way to turn an average starter or reliever into an elite starter or reliever, this method can also absolutely destroy a pitcher very quickly. Only check and uncheck a pitch once, and in general as absolutely little as possible. The more you add and delete pitches, the greater the odds are no one pitch is going to end up to be any good and the stuff as a whole is going to tank to worthlessness. That's why the best time to play with the pitches is BEFORE THEY ARE ON YOUR TEAM. You can edit the rookies and free agents' pitch mix before you ever draft or sign them, so if you totally screw up the pitcher you can just not draft or sign them.
Promoting Your Rookies
When you see a blue arrow by your minor league players' name, that means he's ready for the bigs. You don't HAVE to promote him, and generally speaking waiting to promote a player until he's fully or almost reached his full potential is the best way to go. The second your player sees the majors starts his clock to arbitration and eventually free agency, so waiting until your players are absolutely good and ready to contribute to your team is essential to keeping your team salary under control while also having success as a franchise.
Having said that, it is a good idea to promote your rookies before too long, or their skills will begin to stagnate and their potential shrinks. Once you promote your player, you'll notice they generally advance by leaps and bounds in their first year or two of the major leagues, sometimes even beyond their initial potential ratings. Occasionally you'll draft or trade for a rookie that never comes anywhere close to reaching his potential; this is very frustrating but there's nothing you can really do. Sometimes it just happens, regardless of whether you properly promote your players or not.
Contract Extensions, Arbitration and Free Agent Signings
From your Front Office page, you can see your teams' salary cap, and more specifically the remaining budget for the current season and the next season. At the end of each season, you will want to check out the financial info for your active roster, and minor league roster as well if you've demoted anyone that's been with the team for a while and either has an expiring contract or is eligible for arbitration. Relievers are consistently over-valued in the game contractually, so generally when they hit arbitration you'll want to cut them if you're short of cap room. Particularly if a closer has amassed a ton of saves with a low ERA, he's going to be a massive cap hit when he's arb-eligible. There are a ton of relievers that will hardly cost anything in free agency, so just let these bullpen guys go.
If your team is stacked and also maxed to the cap, letting your players hit arbitration regardless of the cost is an effective way to exceed your cap and retain your studs an extra year. Once you can no longer afford (or just don't want to keep) a player whose contract has expired, they'll hit free agency. Once that player is signed by another team, often you will be awarded a draft pick from the other team relative to the value of the player. This is a VERY important thing to keep in mind on the flip side too, that is often hidden in the contract page – when you sign free agents, you potentially will be stripped of a pick and it will be given to the team that he previously played for. You have to scroll to the bottom of the contract page to find what type of free agent that player is. A Type A or B player signing will mean you lose a pick. If there is no mention of this, the player can be signed without consequence.
When evaluating whether to extend players or sign free agents, keep in mind your teams' salary cap. It's pretty tough to field a competitive team if you have a $100M cap and have two studs soaking up $20M each. Also, never spend too much for relievers. $5M is too much for anything except retaining a strong closer, or a reliever that logs 100 innings a year. Over time, you'll be able to evaluate what makes a good or bad contract. Sometimes players ask for too much, sometimes they'll be a tremendous bargain to your team if you offer them an extension. Usually the best contracts come when you sign a player to a long-term extension while the player is still in his low- to mid-20s. Once a player hits 30, he begins to decline, and that's when you want to let players go. The studs will retain their ratings longer – sometimes well into their late 30s – but generally speaking, you want to let your players go when their contracts are up and they're in their 30s.
If you have any additional questions or comments, or if I missed something or mentioned something inaccurate, let me know in the comments. Thanks for visiting the page and happy playing!