Fantasy Baseball Draft Day Strategy
When I sat down to write this fantasy baseball draft strategy article, I thought to myself, you know I could write your average boring, run of the mill, basic draft strategy article that you can get anywhere but what good is that really? How does that help you win your league? I'm going to be honest, I have never had a truly great fantasy baseball draft in the last five years. Probably not the best thing to admit in the first paragraph of a fantasy baseball draft strategy guide, but you know what, I hope that you will appreciate my honesty and agree with me that my sample size has been too small and my lack of patience during the season is the main culprit for that. In all honesty, I have had much greater success with fantasy football drafts over the years, so what I have tried to do with this article is to give you my personal approach to drafting in fantasy baseball this spring, my overall strategy, what variables I consider and general advice I follow, all the way down to which specific players I have circled on my cheat sheet. Not all of the advice I give will work for you, everything you are about to read is my informed opinion as a fantasy baseball analyst. Hopefully it will help you as you sit down to come up with your own draft strategy.
The basics that you need to know before your draft are your league rules and settings. Make sure that you know what positions you need to fill, for example is it a two catcher league? How many outfielders do you start? These are all important factors. Also make sure that you know your leagues scoring settings. Certain players have more or less value depending on which stats your league uses. Also be mindful of factors like position eligibility and whether your league is head-to-Head or Rotisserie. Finally, come up with a cheat sheet that works for you. Since I'm a company man, I will promote our tiered rankings, but your strategy should be to rank players according to where you would feel comfortable drafting them.
My overall general strategy when I go into any fantasy football or baseball draft is to take the same consistent approach everytime. Avoid risk early and grab as many lottery tickets and rebound candidates as possible in the late rounds. I tend to gravitate to players who are consistent studs, who even if they have a "down" year, will still be an elite player and give me the greatest odds of returning early round value. I tend to gravitate towards players with little upside, but extremely high floors, that way I know what level of production to expect out of my early round studs and what areas, for example do I need to pick up power or speed, I need to target in the late rounds.
I also tend to jump on injured players who are falling in drafts because they are hurt right now. A prime example of a player to target at a discounted rate this season is Curtis Granderson. The same goes for injured aging sluggers like David Ortiz and Mark Teixeira. If they come back healthy at some point, I know they will be productive, which makes them a greater value as they continue to slide on draft day.
Auction vs. Snake Draft
If you don't download and listen to the FFToolbox podcast, you are truly missing out. We will be talking fantasy baseball all season long on the podcast and during a recent episode, I explained why I despise snake drafts and prefer auction drafts when it comes to both fantasy baseball and fantasy football. An auction draft can be intimidating for first timers, but I promise you that it is worth it at the end of the day. There is much more strategy and skill involved in building a roster through an auction draft, it is a truer test of a fantasy owners skill and at its very core, the most appealing aspect of an auction is that every owner has the ability to acquire every single player. In a snake draft, unless I draw one of the first three picks, I won't be able to build my team around Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun or Mike Trout. In an auction, if I want to spend the money, I can get any one of or a combination of those three. I find that the best part of an auction to be right about three hours in, long after the pizza break, when everyone is beginning to tire out, this is the time that fantasy leagues are won, when you whip out your list of late-round value targets and begin to pick them up one by one.
Snake Draft Strategy
A snake draft is antiquated but still widely utilized as the "fairest" way to draft in many leagues. The approach to a snake draft is simple in my opinion. Take the best player on the board regardless of position. Even if you stockpile extra players at a position (depth is never a bad thing) you can always trade an extra outfielder or starting pitcher for a greater return down the road than taking a second baseman or catcher just because you don't have one on your roster yet. Don't worry about average draft position when you draft. If you want Bryce Harper on your team and know he isn't going to make it back to you in the next round, I have no problem with reaching for him. Thats the big difference between a snake draft and an auction. It is okay to reach for someone you want in a snake draft because you have no other choice. It's your team, if you want Stephen Strasburg, take him early if thats who you want to build around. I have no problem with that.
"Stars and scrubs" is another term that is broadly used to summarize auction strategy that entails paying top dollar for a couple elite talents and using the leftover money, typically no more than $5 per player on the rest of your roster. You want to spend on stars as opposed to overpaying for potential and mediocre talent in an auction. The "scrubs" part of the strategy gets a bad reputation. Scrubs makes it sound like these are players who are barely on the fantasy radar, when in fact this is not true at all. A lot of these "scrubs" have the potential to become breakout, impact fantasy performers like Mike Trout was last year. I will give you a few of my 2013 "scrub" targets later in this article.
In a 12 team mixed league, my auction strategy is to get as many studs as you can. There is so much available talent that you can acquire cheap bargains "scrubs" late in the draft to fill holes or hope that one or two late lottery tickets come through. My strategy is to spend on as many elite hitters as possible and make sure that I acquire one or two "ace" top-15 pitchers to build my pitching staff around. I would rather spend most of my budget on elite proven talent than overpay for upside in the middle rounds. For example, I would rather spend on Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano than get into a bidding wars and overpay for a upside players like Eric Hosmer or Brett Lawrie. The same goes on the pitching side of the spectrum. I would much rather pick up studs like Justin Verlander and R.A. Dickey or Yu Darvish and just wait for late undervalued picks like Tom Milone and Jeremy Hellickson rather than overspend on a combination of upside pitchers like Chris Sale, Matt Moore, Brandon Morrow, Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson etc. for the same price. At the end of the day, the ammount of money you waste on mid-tier starting pitching if you wait in an auction is the equivalent to what you would have paid for a Verlander, Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez. Stars and scrubs is not the only strategy you can employ in an auction, but if you are confident in your ability to find value at the end of the draft or on the free agent market then there is no better strategy in my opinion.
General Draft Advice
Target Five-Category Studs, Avoid Anchors
At the end of the day, you want to build your team around players who will contrbute in all five standard categories: batting average, runs, home runs, RBI and stolen bases. While not every player on your roster, especially at the middle infield positions is going to provide above average production in all five categories, you want to avoid anchors who will weigh you down in certain categories.
What Exactly is Average?
As long as you avoid true batting average anchors, players with extremely low contact rates like Adam Dunn, Dan Uggla or Pedro Alvarez, your team will be fine in batting average, but players who consistently hit above .300 are at even more of a premium these days. Players with added value due to their consistent batting average and on-base skills include: Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, Robinson Cano, Buster Posey, Adrian Beltre, Ryan Braun, David Ortiz, Billy Butler, Yadier Molina, Prince Fielder and Derek Jeter.
Don't Pay For Saves
This philosophy has been around for years and in the words of Ron Burgundy, scholars maintain that the true origin/founder of the strategy was lost years ago. Regardless, do not pay for saves either in a snake draft or an auction. In my opinion, the only closer worth what he will get paid on draft day is Craig Kimbrel. Elite closers do provide a boost to your ERA and WHIP in head-to-head leagues, but outside of the elite guys (who have their fair share of meltdowns too) all closers are one-category contributors. Closers rack up saves, but don't provide any help in other categories, the turnover rate at the position year-after-year is well documented and there will always be saves on the wavier wire. Spend your money elsewhere on draft day and be vigilent on the wavier wire. Punting saves entirely isn't a smart strategy, but overpaying to win one category might be worse.
Draft Hard, Stream Harder
I love to build my pitching staff around a stud like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez, but getting one of those guys doesn't ensure that you will win your league. One strategy that I highly recommend is streaming starters. Like any experiment or strategy, there is always the risk that it will blow up in your face. The harsh reality of streaming starters is that there is a reason these guys are available on the wavier wire in the first place and that you will get burned from time to time. However, if you are vigilent and can identify which pitchers have have the best odds for success, for instance looking at home/road or day/night splits, you can give your team a boost in wins and strikeouts every week. Streaming starters is not for the risk adverse, but over the course of a full season, the benefits, especially in a rotisserie league, tend to outweigh the risk.
An essential part of any draft strategy is coming up with a list of players that you know going into the draft that you are willing to overpay for and want to build around. I left off "elite" early round talent and tried to focus on a few players that are on my target list that I believe will significantly outperform their average draft position that I want on my roster.
R.A. Dickey - SP - Toronto Blue Jays
I had the chance to talk to Tim Wakefield last summer and he told me that Dickey has a chance to be the best knuckleball pitcher ever, heck he might be already. Dickey's widely documented ability to throw the pitch much faster (over 80-mph) than any other knuckler in history makes him a one-of-a-kind pitcher who has the chance to repeat his success over the last three seasons north of the border in Toronto. Dickey's move indoors to a dome should allow him to have greater command of his knuckleball, which should make him even scarier. As a Red Sox fan who had to hear about the wind "wrecking havoc on Wakefield's knuckleball" for years, not having to deal with the elements should only benefit Dickey. Bottomline, he was the best pitcher in fantasy baseball last season and you will not have to pay that price for him on draft day, this is a no-brainer, go get Dickey.
Ben Zobrist - 2B/SS/OF - Tampa Bay Rays
Versatility is extremely underrated when it comes to fantasy baseball. The ability to move Zobrist around from the outfield to both middle infield slots is a bonus in daily head-to-head leagues, especially if you end up with a surplus at one position. After posting identical numbers in each of the last two seasons, there may not be a safer middle infielder than Zobrist. Be prepared to pay the early round price tag on draft day.
Victor Martinez - C - Detroit Tigers
Batting average is becoming a scarce commodity and Martinez, a - career hitter, has a chance to be the most valuable, if not the best bargain at the catcher position in all of fantasy baseball this season. Martinez, who is catcher eligible in most leagues, will serve as the Detroit Tigers everyday designated hitter. The end result of that, is a catcher who plays every day and will get more at-bats than any other catcher in fantasy baseball. By all spring training accounts, Martinez is fully recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered during a workout prior to last season. Martinez is my favorite value in all of fantasy baseball this season.
Norichika Aoki - OF - Milwaukee Brewers
Maybe nobody is buying what Aoki did last year as legitimate, but the foreign import batted .288 with 10 home runs, 50 RBI, 30 stolen bases and 81 runs scored. Even if the speed drops off, Aoki is one of the best bargains in all of fantasy baseball as a five-category producer, based on where he is getting drafted in the late rounds.
Kenley Jansen - RP - Los Angeles Dodgers
I hate paying for saves, but I love the strikeouts that Kenley Jansen racks up. His 99 strikeouts in 65 innings last season are almost as much as some back of a fantasy rotation starting pitchers. If Jansen were the Dodgers closer, not Brandon League, he would be one of the first ten closers off the board, but since he doesn't have the job yet, he can be grabbed at a discount on draft day. Even if he doesn't close right out of the gate like last season, Jansen is a much better piece to own than most fringe starters in fantasy baseball, making him a piece that you can plug into your lineup and get solid production out of. Lets get real here, if the Dodgers struggle out of the gate and League blows a save or two, there is no way they don't turn to Jansen who has shown he can get the job done in the past.
Jeremy Hellickson - SP - Tampa Bay Rays
The strikeouts will never be elite, but few pitchers (if any) are better at working with traffic on the basepaths. Hellickson's low ERA can be chalked up to his uncanny ability to strand runners on base. Jason Collette of Baseball Prospectus pointed out recently on the Tower's of Power podcast (which is outstanding by the way) that Hellickson is the only pitcher in baseball in the last five years to post a strand rate above 85 percent in more than one season. While most pitchers struggle with men on base, Hellickson freakishly gets better. I love him as a late round pickup for the back of my fantasy rotation. He doesn't have a high ceiling, but you know he isn't ever going to hurt your ERA or WHIP.
Tom Milone - SP - Oakland Athletics
The Oakland A's control artist is always a solid play at home, but not on the road. In the late rounds, you can do a lot worse than Tom Milone. He's a solid back of a fantasy rotation piece, the type of guy I like to have on my roster. I wrote (and drafted) Milone in every league last season, so I won't go any further here. Bottomline, you can't teach control and much like other elite control specialists, Milone has the potential to get better as he gets more experience.
The following players are all players that are going late in drafts or can be snagged at a discount rate in an auction who are nice lottery tickets to grab. Some of these guys are not going to get drafted, but need to at least be on your radar as we enter the 2013 season. When it comes to lottery tickets, the best players to grab are veterans who have flashed a useful fantasy skill in the past like elite power (Carlos Quentin, Ryan Ludwick, etc.) or stolen base ability (Juan Pierre, Peter Bourjos, etc.) or younger players and prospects who could make an impact if they get significant playing time like Billy Hamilton, Oscar Tavaras, Leonys Martin, Nolan Arenado, etc. This list could be 100 players long, but here are the select March Madness Sweet 16 players that I have on my rosters or watch list. Some of these are purely gut calls, so make of them what you will.
David Phelps - SP/RP - New York Yankees
Has done nothing but pitch well, either as a starter or out of the bullpen. Posted a 3.34 ERA with 96 K in 99.2 innings as a rookie last season and has the inside track on winning the Yankees number five starter job with an outstanding spring training so far (0.64 ERA prior to giving up four runs in five innings in his latest outing on March 16th). Given Phil Hughes struggles to stay healthy and Ivan Nova's inconsistency, Phelps should be a solid contributor for fantasy owners if he can stay in the rotation.
Josh Rutledge - 2B/SS - Colorado Rockies
The buzz on Rutledge is starting to build as we get closer to the season and while he will play second base for the Rockies, his eligibilty at the wafer-thin shortstop position, after hitting .274 with eight home runs in 73 games in place of Troy Tulowitzski last season, provides an additional boost to his 2013 fantasy value.
Oscar Taveras - OF - St. Louis Cardinals
The best hitting prospect in the minor leagues, Taveras by all accounts is ready to hit in the Major Leagues right now. The problem is that the Cardinals do not have a place for Taveras unless they decide to platoon him with centerfielder Jon Jay. For more on Taveras, check out our Top 10 Prospects article on FFToolbox, but the bottomline is that he can flat out hit and will be up at some point in 2013.
Nolan Aranado - 3B - Colorado Rockies
USA Today's fantasy baseball guru Steve Gardner told us that Arenado has the chance to be a special player for the Colorado Rockies. He might even make the Opening Day roster as the teams starting third baseman. A white hot 2011 season put Arenado on the radar, but his prospect stock took a hit when he struggled last season. A .314 batting average with four home runs so far in Spring Training has Arenado's stock soaring. Arenado is at the top of my list when it comes to late round lottery picks in 2013.
Billy Hamilton - OF - Cincinnati Reds
Hamilton will start the season in Triple A, but if/when he gets called up to the Big Red Machine, he could win you the stolen base category almost by himself.
Ryan Ludwick - OF - Cincinnati Reds
Ludwick hit .275 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI's after being traded from San Diego to Cincinnati last season. Clearly the move back to a hitters park had a psychological effect on Ludwick, who re-signed with the Reds this offseason. Ludwick might not match last season's power numbers, but as a late round pick, there is virtually no downside here.
Carlos Quentin - OF - San Diego Padres
I wrote about Quentin in my bounce-back article, so check that out for a more in-depth breakdown. Bottomline, if Quentin can stay healthy, he will produce monster power numbers. One of the best values in all of fantasy baseball in my opinion, Quentin will cost next to nothing on draft day.
Trevor Rosenthal - RP - St. Louis Cardinals
It's looking more and more like he's going to stay in the Cardinals bullpen, where he was outstanding in his debut last season. The 100-mph fastball and the strikeouts that come with it make Rosenthal worth picking up in the late rounds of all fantasy drafts even if he is setting up. With his lethal arsenal, Rosenthal has the chance to close games or move back to the rotation if injuries strike in 2013.
Jackie Bradley - OF - Boston Red Sox
If you don't know who Jackie Bradley is, I can promise that you will very soon. The Red Sox leadoff man of the future is a gifted defensive centerfielder who is one of the best contact hitters in the minor leagues. He has made a strong case to make the Red Sox Opening Day roste, posting an incredible .457 batting average in spring training, but is more likely to begin the year in the minors. Bradley may be the best outfielder in the Red Sox organization right now, so look for him to have a big fantasy impact when he arrives at Fenway Park at some point this season.
Brandon Moss - 1B/OF - Oakland Athletics
Moss was not on anyones radar last season, emerging out of nowhere to slug 21 home runs. The offseason trade of Chris Carter means that Moss will no longer platoon at first base and while that may expose his weakness against left-handed pitching, he should post solid power numbers and be a worthy addition to any fantasy roster.
Jhoulys Chacin - SP - Colorado Rockies
Chacin, the Rockies Opening Day starter, looked great when he returned late last season, posting a 2.84 ERA after the All-Star break. At this point, Chacin is going undrafted or is a very late round pick in all fantasy leagues. The talent has always been there and if he can limit the walks, generate a few more strikeouts, pitch to contact and generate groundball outs, Chacin has the change to be a useful back of a fantasy rotation pitcher. At the very least, Chacin is worth starting on the road where he posted a 2.74 ERA in seven starts last season. His ugly 6.34 ERA in seven starts at Coors Field leaves much to be desired.
Leonys Martin - OF - Texas Rangers
The key variable when it comes to predicting breakout players is often playing time. Martin is projected to open the season as the Rangers starting centerfielder and has the tools to be a very valuable player in fantasy baseball after posting a .359 batting average in Triple A last season. Martin is an excellent late-round pick in all fantasy drafts this season.
Peter Bourjos - OF - Los Angeles Angels
He may be the best defensive centerfielder in baseball, which counts for nothing in fantasy, but it should enable him to stay on the field this season. Bourjos has the speed to be a difference-maker and could rack up plenty of runs scored despite batting near the bottom of the Angels potent lineup if he can get on base consistently. Worthy of a roster spot, Bourjos won't become a star, but his speed makes him a valuable fantasy commodity.
Mike Carp - OF - Boston Red Sox
Carp's 2012 season was derailed by injuries and 2011 power breakout was legitimate, which makes him a player to keep an eye on in 2013. With David Ortiz still not healthy and the Red Sox lack of depth in the outfield, Carp should get plenty of at-bats and could be a cheap source of power for fantasy owners if you can live with the strikeouts.
Darin Ruf - OF - Philadelphia Phillies
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel may be Ruf's biggest fan on the planet, which is great because if he can overlook the converted first baseman's atrocious defense in left field, the production at the plate will be enough to keep him in the lineup. With power becoming a scare commodity, Ruf's 41 home runs last season between Double A and the Majors is flat out impressive. We don't count defense in fantasy baseball and as long as Ruf can stay in the lineup, his power makes him a very valuable fantasy commodity.
Rubby De La Rosa - SP - Boston Red Sox
One of the top pitching prospects in the game, De La Rosa had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and was traded to the Red Sox in last summers blockbuster salary dump. De La Rosa has been clocked at 100-mph in Spring Training and while he will start the year at Triple A Pawtucket, he has a chance to impact the Boston rotation at some point this season. De La Rosa's arsenal and pitching style are modeled after Pedro Martinez, who had nothing but positive things to say about him this spring. De La Rosa is a name to watch and a player worth stashing, he could be the next ace for the rebuilding Red Sox.
Don't Check Out After The Draft
The season doesnt end with the draft, it is only getting started. Even if you totally blow it in the draft, savvy fantasy baseball owners who work the wavier wire can find gems like Fernando Rodney, who was available on the wavier wire in the pre-season in pretty much all leagues last year before going on to a record setting season, and turn their season around. A good draft or a poor draft doesn't guarantee success or a lack of it. One transaction can be the difference in-season. Most importantly, even when it gets stressful, remember that fantasy baseball is supposed to be fun, so enjoy it.
For more hard-hitting analysis or if you ever have any questions, feel free to follow/ask me on Twitter: @GeorgeBissell