Know how it all began
Fantasy Baseball was born in 1980 when a group of fans, including writer and editor Dan Okrent, gathered at the New York restaurant La Rotisserie Francaise. They wrote their own rules to determine how they would draft players and keep score so that a league winner could be determined at the end of the season. It came to be known as "rotisserie" baseball, and though there are many different types of games, the hobby is more commonly known today as "fantasy," and baseball is one of many sports involved.
Put in the time
The people who win leagues are not always the ones who spend the most time on their teams, but the ones who spend that time wisely. While leagues aren't necessarily won on draft day, establishing the foundations of a strong team in the early going makes winning that much easier. Hence, now is a perfect time to devote some energy into researching the player pool and devising a worthwhile strategy. The 2008 MLB.com Fantasy Preview is a great place to start, as it contains more than 800 player bios and rankings by position, as well as video highlights of more than 120 players.
Find a league that suits you
There are a few different types of leagues you can join. In mixed formats, you and your friends can draft players from all 30 Major League clubs. There are also leagues that limit the pool to American League or National League players.
There's also a matter of how many teams you want in your league. Having too many makes it difficult to find good players; those formats are probably best left to the experts who have an idea of how many home runs backup Player X is expected to hit. On the other hand, spreading out the game's All-Stars among a handful of teams can take some of the edge off the competition. A 10- or 12-team mixed league is a good place for the fantasy novice to get started.
Then there's the scoring system. Based on the categories -- more on that below -- some leagues award points throughout the season as stats accumulate; in other words, if you're leading your 10-team league in home runs, that gives you 10 points. Other formats, like the MLB.com 2008 Open, use a head-to-head scoring system in which you're matched up against another team for a week. If you beat the other team in the majority of the scoring categories, that gives you a win.
Scoring categories can differ throughout leagues, so be sure to know what yours are before your draft rolls around. The 5x5 format awards points in five categories for pitchers (wins, saves, ERA, strikeouts and WHIP) and five for position players (AVG, runs, HR, RBIs and SB). Some formats are 4x4 (no runs or strikeouts), and other leagues devise their own scoring systems. The MLB.com 2008 Open counts total bases and walks, as well as bonus points for a shutout or the rare no-hitter.
There are generally two ways in which you can conduct a draft for your league. In straight drafts, you take turns selecting players until all roster spots are filled. In auction drafts, you get to bid fictional fantasy money on whichever players you like, but each team has only a set amount to spend.
Seek help from the experts
The MLB.com fantasy section features regular advice columns, as well as charts to keep you updated in regard to team position battles and injuries. Throughout the season, checking back regularly will help you make the tough decisions about which players to trade or who's worth grabbing off the waiver wire.
Before your draft, have an idea of how high or low each player should be valued. Where should a top catcher like Victor Martinez be taken? And at what point should you invest in a young, emerging ace like Tim Lincecum? Form your own opinions before draft day and stick to your guns.
A player's fantasy value is based on how much better (or worse) he turns out to be relative to your predraft expectations. While playing it safe may be necessary early on, the trick to winning championships is grabbing players who provide the biggest bang for your buck.
Whatever game plan you carry into draft day, adjusting to developing trends is important. If your opponents are focusing on outfielders, perhaps there are cheap infielders and pitchers available. If everyone is chasing power, get some stolen bases. The goal is to buy bargains every step of the way by zigging while everyone else is zagging.
Eye emerging talent
While it's tempting to lock up a Cy Young-caliber starter to win the pitching categories, keep in mind that new arms emerge every season. Owners who pounced on Lincecum, Fausto Carmona and Joakim Soria last year discovered that the up-and-comers make for terrific bargains.
Be wary of pitchers
Hitters are generally more reliable than pitchers, so budget accordingly (in auction leagues), even if they can both earn the same number of points for your team. In draft leagues, only the absolute best, most reliable pitchers, such as Johan Santana, are taken in the first few rounds.
There are many other fantasy fundamentals, and you'll get the hang of them after you jump in. Along the way, you'll find that some owners take the process more seriously than others, but it's important to remember that signing up for fantasy baseball is just another way to have fun with our national pastime.
So join a league now, and best of luck with your selections!