Tuesday night was my fifth mixed LABR draft, and frankly, my results have been decidedly…mixed. The first three years, I managed the team with Mike Gianella and since then, I’ve been on my own as Mike got his own team in one of the March live auctions. In those four seasons, the Baseball Prospectus team has finished first, sixth, 11th and 14th. On the whole, it’s not a bad showing given the sheer fantasy baseball talent in the league, but the goal each year is to win. Our dynasty podcast is called There Is No Offseason, and to be on-brand (and there was a lot of being on-brand this year), my draft strategy might as well have been called There Is No Second Place.
Now, that’s not to say my picks were reckless by just chasing upside, but my strategy has changed a little—it just manifested itself in the second half of the draft. Whereas last year, my middle rounds included a lot of well-priced veterans (or at least I thought), this year, it included more players who had a shot at returning $15-20 in value rather than just trying to get $8 out of a $5 draft slot. The latter works better when the offensive environment is shy, but when there are 20-homer bats growing on trees, you have to aim higher. Free agency was not as weak last year, especially on the offensive side, as it had been in previous years and I’ve grown less interested in trying to avoid the waiver wire skirmishes.
Of course, like all my drafts (and the drafts of my former partner in this league), the shift from safety to upside was not made on the fly. It was baked into my rankings, which I used in a very similar way to last season. In terms of preparation, I dove even deeper into the pre-draft ordering, enhancing my usual top 150 list into a full top 300 for this year. Going any deeper than that is just unnecessary, as I was still taking players from my list well into the reserve rounds, despite the draft being 400 deep at that point. There’s a lot of room for improvisation at the end, and my guess is that if all of the owners did this exercise, numbers 251 through 300 would look extremely different across the board.
However, before I get into my individual team, I want to take a look at a couple of trends I was watching as the draft was unfolding. As LABR mixed is really the start of fantasy draft season, I thought it gave some good insight into what to expect in your draft:
Will all four aces actually go in the first round, and should they?
Yes, and yes. I had all four of Clayton Kershaw (taken third), Max Scherzer (taken 11th), Chris Sale (taken 12th) and Corey Kluber (taken 14th) inside my top-15 and they all were gone by the time the 15th pick even came around. We’ve talked about this on Flags Fly Forever this off-season, and we’re likely to talk about it even more when we discuss pitchers in greater detail, but the difference between the top four aces and the rest of the pack is very noticeable in a couple of different ways. First is just the sheer performance drop-off. Kluber, Sale and Scherzer all earned at least $39 in mixed leagues last year, per Mike’s valuations, and Kershaw only earned $34 because of the time missed due to injury. The fifth most valuable pitcher was Stephen Strasburg at $31 and Luis Severino was the only other to earn $30. Then you’re paying for the consistency. All four of these guys have been stable values over the last 4-5 seasons with some very slight exceptions, and the difference in their innings totals compared to the average innings of the rest of the starters is significant. Only 18 pitchers threw more than 190 innings in 2017. That number isn’t likely to increase in 2018.
The question then changes, and becomes…
How many offensive players should be above the fold?
Ask 10 different fantasy analysts and you’ll likely get 10 different answers on this, and drafting out of the 10 spot in LABR gave me the opportunity to really take this question to heart. For me, by the time the dust had settled, I had nine offensive players I knew I’d take before the first pitcher came off the board, which meant it was extremely likely I’d go hitter/hitter in the first two rounds. Here were the top 15 players in my queue:
1) Mike Trout – because of course
2) Jose Altuve – because of course
3) Paul Goldschmidt – this was pre humidor news, probably would move him down to 6 or 7 now
4) Trea Turner – the steals are just so valuable
5) Bryce Harper – a superstar in a walk year
6) Nolan Arenado – steady greatness in Coors
7) Mookie Betts – can’t go wrong with .300-20-20
8) Kris Bryant – hidden step forward in 2017 becomes unhidden in 2018
9) Carlos Correa – it’s crazy how good he is at such a young age
10) Clayton Kershaw – still the best of the best
11) Max Scherzer – still in the National League with all the strikeouts
12) Charlie Blackmon – more steady greatness in Coors
13) Chris Sale – all the strikeouts, just in the American League
14) Corey Kluber – see Sale, Chris
15) Francisco Lindor – may just be Mookie Betts at shortstop
Needless to say, I thought a couple of teams picking after me played this extremely well. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the right player falling, but Paul Sporer and Jason Collette getting Bryant with the 17th pick is quite the value, especially after getting an ace in the first—making a formidable one-two punch. This also dovetails nicely into my actual draft, which I promise I’m getting to. But one more question first…
Do the elite closers actually get taken where they deserve to go in 2018?
Also, yes. LABR has historically waited a little longer than market for the top tier of closers, but not this year. There also hasn’t been a year where it’s more appropriate to do so than 2018, given that the number of innings you get out of a closer hasn’t changed in lockstep with what you get out of a starter. This makes the ERA/WHIP/K effect of an elite stopper like Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel slightly higher than we’re accustomed to. Stephania Bell and Derek Van Riper chose wisely by taking each of them in the third round, as that’s where they should be going.
Now, my 2018 team. I’m sure all of the owners in this league came away pleased with how our squads shook out after these 29 rounds, and I’m certainly one of them. For the purposes of discussing my team, I’m going to break it down into three segments: the steady hands, the preferences and the moon shots.
The Steady Hands (Rounds 1-7)
This is the only section I’ll go pick-by-pick, I promise.
Pick 1.10 – Bryce Harper
Given how my list above stood in my queue, I had assumed going into the draft that I was going to get Kris Bryant in the first round and be happy with it. Sure, I had some hope of Harper or Betts falling to me, but the only way that might happen is if all three of Kershaw, Blackmon and Stanton were taken in the top-nine. The first seven picks were close enough to chalk: Trout, Altuve, Kershaw, Turner, Arenado, Blackmon, Goldschmidt. My assumption is that it would go Harper at 8, Betts at 9. I did not have Stanton in my top-15, but I do get the attraction. Yet, when I saw Jake Ciely take Stanton at 8 over Harper, I knew where this was going. None of us know all of our fellow experts’ proclivities, but one of the ones I know for sure is that Scott Pianowski was not going to take Harper at 9, especially not when Betts was on the table. So he fell into my lap. And I may have shrieked slightly.
Pick 2.21 – Francisco Lindor
If Lindor toyed with joining the launch angle revolution in the first half, he really perfected it in the second. Right up until the All-Star Break, his fly-ball jump coincided with a stark drop in batting average and led to less thievery on the basepaths. So while the homers were nice, it wasn’t actually helping him at all from a value perspective. It all came together in the second half, as he ramped into a true five-category contributor. Expecting a .290 average, 25 homers and 20 steals is perfectly reasonable over a full 2018.
Pick 3.40 – Alex Bregman
This one was a shocker. I know I’m the high guy on Bregman, and I had him ranked inside my personal top-25 for a similar reason to Lindor. In the second half, Bregman put aside his struggles and took a step forward both in the contact and power departments. I expect him to hit over .300 this year and top 20 homers, while also contributing 15 or so steals and a ton of counting stats in that excellent lineup. His eligibility at both SS and 3B also helps my flexibility as the draft goes on.
Pick 4.51 – Billy Hamilton
Like you didn’t think this would happen. Hamilton has been a consistent super-elite option in steals while the landscape around him has changed, as fewer players are running at a useful rate. This is and has always been a value proposition, not a target.
Pick 5.70 – Jose Quintana
I thought once pitching went off the board early in Rounds 2-4, I’d have to reach a little to get an ace, but Quintana was the top player available in my rankings when the 70th pick came calling. He bumped up his strikeouts when he came over to the NL last year, and has been able to consistently stay on the mound over the last five years. That defense and offense behind him will help vault him into true SP1 territory this year.
Pick 6.81 – Andrew McCutchen
He’s not an exciting pick anymore, but the way people are avoiding Cutch makes it seem like he just completely shit the bed last year. He most certainly did not. Not only did he have a solid season overall, but he turned on the superstar engine after sporting a .631 OPS on May 26. Yes, we’re arbitrary endpointing here, but in his last 109 games last year, he hit .312/.401/.543 with 22 homers and paced for triple-digit runs and RBI. The steals may no longer be a big part of his game, and the power may shrink a little more in San Francisco, but he’s still very good.
Pick 7.100 – Chris Taylor
Taylor was the second player in my queue when I took McCutchen, so I was pretty surprised to see him still there 19 picks later. This price bakes in a step back from his breakout 2017, which is likely warranted, but his progression was mostly real. The five-category contribution party should continue into 2018.
The Preferences (Rounds 8-15)
Surprisingly, five of these eight picks ended up being pitchers, which left me with six arms after 15 rounds—four more than I had in the 2017 version of this draft. Again, this was not by design in that I set out to grab this many pitchers regardless of who they were. I just was a little more aggressive in placing pitchers who I thought were either undervalued or had strong room for growth. More surprisingly, two of these pitchers were closers, marking the first time I’ve drafted two legit closers this early. The market generally gets away from me by this point and I end up piecing it together later, which is still a valid strategy, but the value was too good on the guys that were left, so I pounced.
I call this the preferences because while the first seven players I took were straight chalk from my queue, this is where I started to deviate a little. Raisel Iglesias was fourth on my board when I took him, but he and Ken Giles formed the last pair of high-end closers in my book and the combination of already having over 100 steals (Adam Eaton was the top player in my queue) and my pitching situation (I only had one and would need to keep pace in strikeouts some way) gave me an opportunity to deviate. Iglesias should pitch more innings than any other closer in 2018 and has a good shot at 100 strikeouts to pair with his strong ratios. The second closer I grabbed was Hector Neris in the 12th round, and I’m not sure why he hadn’t gone before then. He’s a high-strikeout closer on an up-and-coming team with little competition (I’m not worried about Pat Neshek taking his job).
The starters I took shade from one end of the spectrum to the other. Kyle Hendricks is being undervalued because he doesn’t throw 95, but that’s fine with me. He’s got a career 2.94 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and strikes out 7.7 batters per nine. He also should rack up wins on that team. Jon Gray, on the other hand, is being undervalued because people are afraid of Coors Field. It may have been a small-ish sample last year, but when Gray took his step forward, he wasn’t hampered by his home park, where he had a 3.13 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. He would be a top-15 starter at sea level. Why he went outside the top-40 starters in LABR is something I do not understand. Blake Snell is the riskiest of the group, but he might carry the highest upside. He made some mechanical changes in the summer and improved his command and control drastically over August and September, hinting at a potential top-20 starter season if he can maintain those gains.
The hitters shouldn’t be much of a surprise if you have seen my previous teams or read my stuff. I am super into Kyle Schwarber, and I think he’ll hit 35 homers this year. He should not be available in the 10th round of drafts. The pick I’m probably least confident about in this range is Ryan Zimmerman in the 11th. He’s extremely unlikely to repeat the 36 homers, but the average and RBI should hold relatively steady and he should be good for 25-30 homers if he can stay healthy again. Brian McCann is on the team because for some reason we need to draft catchers. It’s really unfortunate how that works.
The Moon Shots (Rounds 16-28)
This is the point of the draft where I felt confident enough in my first 15 picks that I shifted into just trying to buy as much upside as possible. The general safety of both my hitting and pitching up to this point along with the fact that I think I can get a couple of starters on both sides of the coin off the waiver wire cemented the strategy. With these 13 players, if I can get four every-week starters, I’ll be happy. Here’s how they break down by position:
Middle Infielders – Amed Rosario, Franklin Barreto
Corner Infielders – Jedd Gyorko, Ryan McMahon, Lucas Duda
Outfielders – Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson, Raimel Tapia, Jesse Winker
Starting Pitchers – Felix Hernandez, Steven Matz, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon
Of this group, the players I’m most confident in from a performance standpoint are Brantley, Gyorko, Rosario and Pederson. I think they should all play relatively regularly and stand to be in my lineup every week until they no longer play regularly (which, of course, could eventually be the case with one or two of these players). The guys I’m most worried about from a health perspective are Brantley, Matz and Rodon. That said, four months of the good version of any of these three would be a huge win and worth the opportunity cost to take all three. Plus, with Rodon and Brantley scheduled to start the season on the DL, I’ll be able to gamble on two more fun reserve players prior to Opening Day.
The Kurt Suzuki (Round 29)
My god, why does there have to be a second catcher spot?
So after three and a half hours and 29 picks, this is what the Opening Day lineup for my team looks like. The rounds in which they were taken are in parenthesis:
C – Brian McCann (15)
C – Kurt Suzuki (29)
1B – Ryan Zimmerman (11)
2B – Chris Taylor (7)
SS – Francisco Lindor (2)
3B – Alex Bregman (3)
CI – Jedd Gyorko (20)
MI – Amed Rosario (17)
OF1 – Bryce Harper (1)
OF2 – Billy Hamilton (4)
OF3 – Andrew McCutchen (6)
OF4 – Kyle Schwarber (10)
OF5 – Joc Pederson (18)
UT – Ryan McMahon (22)
SP1 – Jose Quintana (5)
SP2 – Kyle Hendricks (9)
SP3 – Jon Gray (12)
SP4 – Blake Snell (14)
SP5 – Felix Hernandez (19)
SP6 – Steven Matz (21)
SP7 – Lucas Giolito (23)
CL1 – Raisel Iglesias (8)
CL2 – Hector Neris (13)
I’ve certainly got more room to play with on the offensive side than the pitching side, but that is to be expected with my rankings and my strategy. It will also likely need to see me be more aggressive in the trade market because I’m not sure which of those moon shots will hit, and it could cause some positional issues for me. It’s a good thing Fred Zinkie and Scott Pianowski are in the league—a lot of experts, myself included, tend to apply more scrutiny to expert league trades than trades in other leagues, which can lead to bad process. Those two are great at not falling into that trap.
The season is long. The season is hard. Players will bust. Players will break. But right now, at the end of the draft, and before those inevitabilities happen, I feel good. I think this is a team that can win if a few bounces go my way. Given all of my injuries from 2017, here’s hoping I’m in for some better luck in 2018.
The full draft results are available here.