The Ultimate Guide to Fantasy Salary Cap (Auction) Leagues

Most salary cap advice on the internet is really basic. It's "don't nominate players you want" and not much else deeper. So, here it is, The Ultimate Guide to Fantasy Salary Cap (Auction) Leagues.

I've written everything here so that it applies just as well to football as to baseball. (On a few occasions, I've noted by emoji ⚾ when something is sport-specific.)

(This article is a work-in-progress. I'm just trying to push out what I have so far, and then keep adding.)

A Note about Naming: Auctions and Salary Cap Drafts

When the modern era of fantasy sports kicked off in 1980, players were divided among fantasy teams with an auction. And, despite being largely supplanted by the snake draft format, there continued to be auctions for the next 40+ years.

Before the 2021 football season, however, the major league platforms made the decision that the auction terminology was outdated. You can perhaps see why it’s a bad look: Groups of (often white) fantasy players purchasing (mostly black) athletes. The major platforms made the following changes to their terminology:

Old New
Auction Salary cap
Price Salary
Bid Offer
Owner Manager
Owned Rostered
Sold Signed

There are a couple of minor places where this causes some problems. First of all, there is already a "salary cap" fantasy format, where salaries are fixed and not determined by, well, an auction.

Secondly, even if you change the words around, it’s hard to describe the event as something other than an auction. Players are presented one-at-a-time, and managers make ever-increasing offers for the current player available. As the offers slow to a stop, the player signs with the team with the highest offer. That sounds to any normal person like the steps of an auction.

On the whole, however, I think the updated terminology is worth using, and I’ll do my best to do so. I make one exception for the phrase "bidding war." I don't know how to reword that, and it is frequently used to describe offers to a free agent, even outside of an auction.

Part I: Getting Projected Salaries

Create Dollar Values

The first thing you need before starting your draft is a set of dollar values. How much are you willing to offer for each of the players available?

Let me outline three possible paths to creating your own dollar values.

Wing it

One strategy is to

Adjust Your Values

For a long time, I was adamant that my dollar values represented the pure truth of what should be offered for various players.

Over time, I’ve softened, and I’ve learned a valuable lesson:

A player is worth what the market is willing to pay.

⚾ You may be convinced that the true value for pitchers is less than what your league spends on pitching. However, if you don’t draft any pitchers, your team will still not be very good.

🏈You may be convinced that the true value of WR is less than what your league spends on WR. However, if you don’t draft any WR, your team will still not be very good.

Here’s the good news: After you make adjustments, you can actually identify discounts at each position. Instead of a whole position looking like a bargain or an overpay, now you’ll see more clearly which 2-4 players look especially appealing and which 2-4 are the easiest to avoid.

Sources for adjustments

There are a couple of places to look to find out where your values diverge from the market.

Past draft results

First off, do you have past draft results for this league? Especially if your league has custom scoring, this will be a valuable source of information.

Just be aware: Drafters may change strategies. Maybe the person who never went over $25 last season now feels like that approach didn’t work. Next year they’re planning on being in on all of the $40+ players, which makes that tier more competitive and the next tier more affordable.

Average salaries from league sites

If you don’t have draft history, you can also look at the average salaries on your league’s website. This is the salary cap equivalent of ADP (average draft position). This reflects their standard league format and budget, so keep that in mind if your league diverges much from that.

Typical adjustments

Increase high end values

One common scenario is for top-end salaries to be a bit higher than your project, and low-end salaries to be a little lower. The reason is that managers will have more varied opinions about the lower tiers. You think a player is worth $5, someone else thinks $1, and another team doesn’t even think they are worth drafting. This disagreement results in lower prices for this group, seen most clearly on the players under $10.

If the $6 players go for $4 and the $5 for $3, that means there’s excess money allocated in this range. Money which smart managers will spend…at the top!

🏈 Decrease DEF

If you generate dollar values for DEF, I’ve found that they often end up much higher than what people actually pay. Defense is very unpredictable, and projections tend to be overconfident when they should be regressing teams closer to the mean. You may need to cut DEF salaries by half or more.

⚾ Increase SB and SV

In rotisserie scoring, teams are often motivated to lock up scarce resources, like SB and SV. You may need to bump up the values for players with speed (at the expense of power hitters) as well as the elite tier of closers.

⚾ Decrease catchers

I think that the problem with catchers is that they get a ton of their value from their position, more so than their stats. So small swings in their production create an outsized impact in their value. Be prepared to reduce all catcher values if your league is going to spend less on this position.

Select keepers

This section may not apply to your league, but for those in keeper leagues, you now have the right data to make keeper decisions.

The basic calculation is to take each player’s projected salary and subtract their keeper salary. You want to keep the players with the largest gap between projected and actual salaries.

Factor in age and upside

Your projected salaries give a single number to everyone. But it’s obvious that you’d rather keep a $10 second-year player at $1 over a 35-year-old veteran at a similar value. This is especially true if you are able to keep players for multiple years: A younger player is much more likely to be worth keeping two years from now.

Factor in inflation

This is tricky, because we can’t calculate inflation until after keepers have been announced. Maybe you have an idea from past years.

Here’s a scenario where it matters. Let’s say you can keep a player at $40 and your projected salary for them is $39. That’s a negative value, which wouldn’t make for a great choice of keeper.

But what if there turns out to be 20% inflation? That player projected for $39 could easily go for $47 at the draft. All of a sudden, that $40 keeper price doesn’t seem too bad.

Allow some lottery picks

You may find yourself wanting to keep some players who do not project to be worth positive value. I think this is often okay.

These are your lottery picks. If they don’t work, you’re going to drop them; no harm done. As long as they don’t prevent you from keeping players at solid values, it’s low risk, high reward.

Calculate inflation from keepers

One more thing, just for keeper leagues: You need to calculate inflation.

If teams have locked in below-market salaries for their keepers, it frees up room in their budget for spending extra (above-market) on the remaining players.

Here are the basic steps to calculating inflation:

  1. Add up the salaries for all of the kept players. Subtract this number from the total draft money (the sum of every team’s salary cap). This is how much money is available at the draft.
  2. Add up the projected values for all of the kept players. If you (and your league) are doing things right, the total projected values for keepers should be significantly higher than the total of the keeper salaries. Subtract this number from the total draft money. This is how much player value is available at the draft.
  3. Divide the available value from #2 by the available money from #1. This is the inflation rate.
  4. Multiply the projected values of all remaining players by the inflation rate.

Part 2: Making a Plan

Find the Biggest Values

For a league where the settings are similar to the site’s defaults, my first step is to take my projected salaries and compare them with the average salaries on the league site.

I note the players who have the biggest gaps in value. (If it looks like most of the players at a position are a value, you did something wrong. You need to go back to Part 1 and adjust your values.) There should be a handful of players at every position that seem undervalued, a handful who are overvalued, and a good number where the market value looks accurate.

With those seemingly undervalued players, I build some rosters. I start with a blank spreadsheet and type out the roster slots with $1 allocated to each one. Then I fill in various targets, seeing what the roster looks like when I hit the salary cap.

Do this a few times, and you start to gain some insight. “Hmm… All of my favorite values at this particular position are in the $5-10 range. That would free up some cap space for this other position…”

Eventually, my roster-building leads to some tentative draft strategies.

Plan A: Get Player 1 ($32) or Player 2 ($33) at this position, plus one of Player 3 ($28), Player 4 ($28), or Player 5 ($25) at that position.

Plan B: Get two of Players 6, 7, and 8 for under $30. Wait on the other position for a couple of Players 9-12 under $20.

It would probably make more sense with real player names, but it would also be constantly out-of-date. Hopefully you get the idea.

Budget for positions

Decide your aggression

There are a couple of common approaches to how aggressive you are with making offers.

One approach is stars-and-scrubs (or studs-and-duds). You spend heavily on the high-priced early nominations, putting maybe 70-90% of your cap towards just a few top-tier players. With your cash gone, you sit out the middle tiers, coming back only at the very end to try to pick up the leftovers at $1-2.

Another approach is spread-the-wealth. You may not sign any player for above $30, but you’ll find five of them around $25.

The final approach is a balanced approach. You play a little bit in every tier, perhaps getting a $35 player, one at $30, another at $25, and so on. Your team looks like what someone might get in a snake draft.

When I’m thinking through potential rosters, I try to imagine scenarios for each approach. Then, when the draft arrives, I usually start with stars-and-scrubs. I’m prepared, however, to pivot to the other approaches if the star prices are too high. The way a draft unfolds (with high price players early), you can always pivot away from stars-and-scrubs, but it doesn’t work the opposite direction: You can’t pivot to stars-and-scrubs, because those players are already gone before you realize your plan isn’t working.

⚾ Will You Punt?

In a baseball rotisserie league, you may, at this point, need to decide if you want to punt any categories. The basic idea of punting is to ignore one or more categories, hoping that you come out ahead overall by pouring all of your resources into the remaining categories.

While I love to think about punting strategies, I don’t generally advise doing it. There is a lot of randomness in fantasy, and players may contribute in ways you didn’t expect. Punting closes the door on some of those unexpected opportunities.

One exception: Punting at the draft doesn’t have to mean giving up on a category for the season. It may just mean that you think you can find saves or stolen bases for free on the waiver wire. I think this version of punting is still worth considering.

Punting saves

One of the most common baseball mantras is “don’t pay for saves.” There is always a lot of turnover among closers, which means there will be lots of unexpected sources for saves that show up midseason. At the draft, you could target three cheap “closers-in-waiting” who contribute in ERA and WHIP. Maybe one or two ends up closing for their team. If you pick up another closer or two off of free agency, you can finish middle of the pack with minimal draft investment.

Punting power (Sweeney or Sweeny Plan)

Back in the early days of fantasy baseball, Hugh Sweeny attempted a strategy of punting HR and RBI. He invested heavily in pitching; for hitting it was a couple of high-dollar SB/AVG anchors combined with cheap sources in those categories.

Part 3 - Organizing for the Draft

Organize your Sheets

Sometimes drafters show up with a three-ring binder full of information. Maybe that works for them, but I prefer to have a fairly minimal set that lets me quickly find what I need.

If I’m coming into a draft using pen and paper, I really only have two sheets with me:

Player lists

I sort players by position with a column of projected salaries beside each position. I usually can fit this on 2-3 pages. If I have a good estimate for market salaries (i.e. from the site’s average salaries), I’ll include that, too. I cross off players as they are signed, writing the actual salaries beside the projected ones.

I’ll also include a couple of notes for players. For baseball, I mark if a player qualifies at other positions. I’ll write a “+” or “-” to indicate targets and players to avoid, mostly based on a large gap between the projected salary and the market salary.

Roster/planning sheet

I also have a mostly blank sheet for writing my roster in progress. I’m also tracking my spent and remaining cash. Near the end of the draft, I’ll use this sheet to keep a little “queue” of players that I’m targeting for the final slots.

Draft Software

There are many software tools available to help you keep your own draft on track. Some come and go, so I won’t list them here.

Some tools are customized spreadsheets, prebuilt with features for tracking a draft. Others are downloadable programs. Many modern apps run in the browser, potentially even syncing with an online draft room.

I’ll just list a couple of caveats for using them:

Can you keep up with the draft?

I’ve found that some tools, especially custom spreadsheets, take a lot of clicking to keep up-to-date. If your draft is moving quickly, you may start falling behind on picks.

What is your plan B?

If something goes wrong in the software, are you ready to switch to pen and paper? I’d be ready with printed positional cheat sheets, just in case.

Scout your opponents

Here are some things to look for:

Favorite teams

Are the managers in your league fans of certain teams? It can be hard to shake the optimism that comes from believing the best about the players you are rooting for.

At this stage, I just want to be careful about centering all my plans around signing a player from one of those teams, knowing there is a heightened risk of a bidding war. I need to make sure I have other options if one plan doesn’t work out.


There are some managers who dream about rookie sleepers breaking out, propelling their team to victory. In my experience, there are usually enough of these dreamers that rookie prices get driven up to the point where most of their value evaporates.

Certain positions

⚾ In baseball this often shows up with the hitting/pitching split. There are some teams who are typically willing to spend a little extra on pitching, or a little extra on hitting.

In football, with relatively fewer positions, this may be less pronounced.

Nominating players they want

Perhaps the best intel you can discover is if managers nominate mostly players that they desire. (I’ll talk more about this when we get to nominating strategy.) If you can notice this trend, it can be a great opportunity to drive up that manager’s salaries.

This is easier to notice in person, but I’ll make some effort to track it for online drafts, too. Part of my routine immediately after an online draft is to copy and paste the draft log from the draft room. Then I recreate the nominations and look for this pattern.

Mental and physical preparation

One last thing before the draft starts. Are you mentally and physically ready? Are you hydrated? Have you gone to the bathroom? With a late night draft, are you properly caffeinated?

Is the draft plan clear in your mind? Talking through your plan and your potential course-corrections with another person (even if they don’t play fantasy) can help solidify your thinking and reveal potential traps.

Part 4 - In the Draft

The Very First Nomination

I’m always on the lookout for a bit of a discount on the first player nominated. Managers are still feeling nervous and trying to get comfortable. They want to get a feel for prices before they really jump in. With no real data to go on, you start to question if your projected salaries are all off.

All of that can lead to a small discount on the first player, especially in a less-experienced group. As long as the offers on the first player are below my projection, I swallow my doubt and keep making offers.

The First Dozen Players

The first dozen or so players will tell you a lot about whether you need to make adjustments.

Since I default to my stars-and-scrub plan, I’m going to be active here. I need to get at least two or three of these early nominations at fair salaries for that to be a good strategy.

If teams are aggressive out of the gate, I’m going to pivot to a different plan.

Use breaks to check other teams or own needs

When to Overpay

Make adjustments for categories or aggression


Who to nominate in your draft is quite the art.

The worst approach is to exclusively nominate players that you are targeting. If the other managers notice (and they probably will), they will use that information to make you overpay.

Slightly better is to only nominate players that you do not want on your team. That tells the observant managers that one team (of many) is definitely uninterested, and that’s less useful than knowing that one team is definitely interested.

Nominate to test the water

Nominate your targets when there are comparable options

Let’s say you’ve identified a group of three similarly valued players at a position–a tier. One of the three you are especially interested in.

It’s probably wise to nominate your target first. Other managers, seeing the pool of available players, may feel like they are able to wait for one of the others. Going first may be your best shot at a discount.

What often happens next is basic economics. As the supply goes down, as long as there is still demand, then the price will go up. The last player in the tier is often the worst deal, as now-desperate managers fight for the last toy on the shelf.

Remember this rule for draft tiers: In a snake draft, you want the last player in a tier. In a salary cap draft, you want the first player in a tier.

Nominate your targets if you have lots of cash

What if you find yourself with the most cap space among the managers? This probably means you need to start spending some money, even if it doesn’t look like a deal according to your values. Now’s the time to nominate (and sign)

The opposite is also true. If you’ve spent most of your budget, there’s no point in nominating players that you want. Your best bet is to hope they stay available until other teams have caught back up to your level.

Nominate unwanted players to clear cash from the room

For many teams, this is their default modus operandi. I think it’s fine as a fallback when you don’t see a strategic nomination option. An unwanted player could mean a player you suspect to be overvalued by your league, or it could be a player at a position where you are already strong.

Nominate where others aren’t looking

One of the tactics that Ken Jennings used during his Jeopardy streak was jumping around the game board with his selections. Most contestants worked through a single category at a time, which allowed them to get in a mental groove. By selecting seemingly at random, Jennings gave himself a second’s advantage for preparing for what’s next.

Although it’s not required, salary caps typically start with the highest tier players and move steadily down the lists. Jumping to somewhere in the middle while everyone else is looking at the top gives you a tiny edge in preparation. Most teams will need to spend a couple of seconds finding that player and considering whether they want him or not. Sometimes, that couple of seconds is all you need to get a bit of a bargain for yourself or to prompt a rash decision from someone else.

Make Offers on Everyone

Generally, I try to be active on each player nominated. For one thing, this helps make the draft a little faster. It also hides from other managers which players I’m actually interested in.

And one more thing: Some online draft rooms will switch you to autodraft if you are inactive too long. Even in stretches of the draft where I’m not going to sign any player, I keep submitting offers to keep myself active in the room.

The Jump Offer

While most offers progress $1 at a time, you may want to try to jump up the current offer by several dollars at once.

For high tier players, this will just speed up the draft. For a player who is going to go for $40+, there’s no risk to jumping the offer up to $25.

There is a chance that jumping up your offer will freeze the room (and Ariel Cohen calls this a “freeze bid”). Managers typically have the countdowns for many offers ($18…$19…$20…) to make their decision about a player. Jumping your offer cuts into their decision time, and managers tend not to make offers when they are undecided.

One final reason to jump up your offer is to try to hit a competitor's max offer. If you find yourself competing against someone whose maximum offer is $8, and they have offered $2, $4, and $6 for the current nomination. If you offer $7, they will probably offer their max of $8, and you will need $9 to sign the player. You can probably save yourself a dollar by offering $8 instead of $7, knocking them out of the bidding.

Go to $11

According to Ariel Cohen, more players are signed for round numbers ($10, $20, $30) than you would expect if salaries were randomly distributed.

This seems to indicate that these round numbers make natural stopping points for managers’ offers. A manager who values a player at $16 and makes an offer at $18 then says, “$20 is as high as I can go.”

This preference for tens may be something to use to your advantage. Ideally, you want to get in the first offer at $20 (or $30), because others may hesitate to go to $21 or $31. If you can’t you might at least offer $21 or $31, knowing that it has a slightly higher chance of getting accepted. Price Enforcing Price enforcing is making offers on a player you are not interested in, usually to drive up the price for your competitors.

Obviously, you have to be careful. Extracting a couple dollars from another team is not worth accidentally signing a player that breaks your plan. In order to price enforce, I need to feel very confident that the other manager is going to keep making offers, and I need to be okay if I sign the player at a bad price. In the end, I don’t often price enforce.

Watching for Tells

In poker, a tell is an unintentional behavior that signals a player’s intentions. You can find the same tells in a salary cap draft room.

Some things to watch for:

If you are able to read any of these tells reliably, it’s an opportunity for price enforcing.

The Hammer

Know Managers’ Max Offers

Most online draft rooms and most draft assistants will show you each team’s maximum offer, which is their remaining money - $1 for each of their unfilled slots.

Watching this number for your leaguemates gives you a couple of opportunities to eke out a little advantage. If it’s clear that another manager wants a player, you can jump your offer to exactly their maximum, saving yourself the dollar you’d have to pay to outbid them.

For a player you don’t have to have, it’s very satisfying to drive someone up to their max and then letting them sign a player. Their max drops to $1, which will shut them out from competing in any of the remaining nominations.

Speed of Offers

You typically have 10 seconds from the time of the current offer to submit your own. If you know you are going to make an offer, should you do it immediately, or should you wait?

Fast offers

Rapid offers put pressure on your opponent. When the process is drawn out, they may have 30-60 seconds to better assess a player's value and their team needs. Quickly entering offers can cut down that thinking time dramatically.

This could also backfire: An opponent may hastily make offers on a player that they don't really want, driving up your price. Facing a rash opponent, maybe you shouldn't rush out your bids so quickly.

The fast offer also signals that you are unbeatable. Your opponent should stop now, because they cannot stop you from signing this player. I think, more likely, it tells them to drive up the price on you.

Slow offers

I admit, sometimes, when I find myself with the leading offer, I'm hit with a feeling that I've just made a huge mistake. I have bid too much. I just blew the money that I needed for someone else. I am all alone with a crazy, off-base evaluation for this player. Then, with one second on the clock, someone ups their offer and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

So that's the motivation for the last-second offer: You're trying to stimulate some buyer's remorse. You want the person to feel like the prices have soared dangerously high

There's risk this route, too. It's incredibly frustrating to have written a player down on my roster sheet just for someone snuck in a higher offer. My natural reaction is to keep making offers in a rage. Or, maybe your opponent thinks you are reaching your max, and they just need to counter-offer one more time... Perhaps the slow offer isn't the best way to get a discount, after all.

In an online draft, the last-second offer also risks failing due to a connection glitch.


In the end, I'm not sure what the best offer speed strategy is. I tend to like to keep the draft moving, but I don't want to signal that I'm fanatical about a player, either. I usually default to a middle-range, five-second-ish offer that doesn't give anything away about my level of interest or my max price.

After the Draft

Following the draft, I do a couple of things:

Track nominations

Before the draft room disappears, I copy and paste the draft log and use it to recreate the nomination history. It’s helpful for future years to know which managers tend to nominate players they want. While my memory is fresh, I also note players that kicked off a bidding war and see if there’s anything there to use to my advantage.

Assess strengths and weaknesses

While I hope to make adjustments in the draft to get a balanced team, sometimes I’m looking at an excess or a lack at some position (or category).


Working with a partner

Drafting a team with a partner can be a huge advantage, and several of the most successful fantasy players have tag-teamed the draft.

Split roles

There is a lot to keep track of in a fast-moving draft. You and your partner can manage more things by dividing up your roles.

Dividing roles also keeps you from stepping on each other’s toes. Having one person make all of the offers prevents errors where you each thought the other was going to do it.

The system that makes sense to me is to have one person watch the room, and the other person to watch the draft sheets or software.

The first person is your team’s spokesperson. They make the offers. They are studying the other managers. If you watch right when a nomination comes out, you can often see which managers are interested in a player.

The spokesperson needs a cool head. They don’t get caught up in bidding wars. They don’t panic when they miss a couple of players in a row.

The other person is the man behind the curtains. They are looking to see which player targets look more valuable with your current roster construction. They are planning nominations. If you are tracking the rosters of the other managers (i.e. with draft software), they keep the spokesperson informed of other teams’ needs.

Consensus judgment

I have often realized, after talking to someone else, that my judgment of a player’s value is way off from the market. Having two heads helps soften some of those outlier opinions.

Differences from snake

Every player is available

In a snake draft, there are some players that you will not be able to draft. If you are picking 10th, there is no scenario where the consensus number one (or two or three) will fall to you. You just have to accept that those players cannot be a part of your draft plan.

In a salary cap draft, no player is off limits.

Build your team as you like

Even with the first overall pick, you have limits in a snake draft. Unless your league lets you trade picks, you cannot build around two top-tier players. The only team-building strategy is with one player from each round.

A salary cap draft offers lots of ways to build a team. You can take all three of the top players, and then hold off on making offers for a while. You can wait while others draft the most expensive stars, then swoop in and start signing contracts in the $25 range.


This article was inspired by the auction draft episodes of the Beat the Shift podcast, with Ariel Cohen and Reuven Guy talking to several experienced drafters (Derek VanRiper, Glenn Colton, and Steve Gardner). I've tried to address many of the same topics that they cover on those podcasts.

There are also topics that are mentioned in The Process: Integrating Values and Biases into a Winning Fantasy Baseball Formula, by Jeff Zimmerman and Tanner Bell.

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I'm Mays. I've been playing fantasy since I was in high school (over two decades ago).

My speciality has always been player valuation—converting player stats into rankings and salary values. VBD for fantasy football? Rotisserie z-scores? We go way back. In 2009, I started Last Player Picked, a site that generated fantasy values customized for your league.

These days, I'm building DraftKick and Projectile, a fantasy baseball site with in-season projection visualizations.

You can find me on Twitter at @MaysCopeland or email me at