Fantasy baseball is about preparation, about having the most information heading into your draft, and the best plan for success. Here are some guidelines for being the most-prepared GM in your league:
1. You can’t win your league championship in the first two rounds, but you can certainly lose it.
The first two rounds are filled with big names and well-known commodities. The key to early-round success is selecting the player who is relatively certain to put up the biggest numbers regardless of position. Other than the obvious selections (Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, etc.), this is where you should grab your big sluggers who can put up your power numbers or a Carl Crawford who can do just about everything. Reaching slightly for a well-rounded hitter who can pile up the steals like a Derek Jeter or Grady Sizemore wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The worst thing you can do here is gamble on an injury risk (Derrek Lee), a declining veteran (Miguel Tejada), or an overrated catcher (Victor Martinez).
2. Avoid injury risks until you have acquired all of your starters.
If you pencil in Barry Bonds, J.D. Drew and Ken Griffey Jr. into a starting spot in your outfield, you’re going to be in trouble. Guys like this can cripple your fantasy squad if you’re counting on receiving an entire season of productivity out of them. If you’re in a weekly league, don’t bother; in a league with daily lineup changes, they can be an asset off the bench. This same rule applies to pitchers like Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and A.J. Burnett. They are all worth having on your team at the outset, but only grab these players after you have solid performers in all eight starting positions and have acquired your top six pitchers. Do the math and this amounts to a draft pick only after the 14th round. Injury-riddled players are often high-risk, high-reward, but you can minimize your risk by selecting them only after your initial roster is set. At that point, don’t be afraid to take a risk on a star performer like Chipper Jones or Drew, guys who may have slipped because of injury concerns.
3. Don’t be afraid to reach for shortstops.
Of all the shortstops available, there are only six (Jose Reyes, Derek Jeter, Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Jimmy Rollins, and Rafael Furcal) who would be guaranteed to have value if they played a position such as outfield or first base. Three more shortstops (Michael Young, Carlos Guillen, and Edgar Renteria) round out the list of guys who should be expected to produce above-average numbers. Stephen Drew has the potential to post good to great stats, but hasn’t established himself yet, while Bill Hall or Felipe Lopez have value, but they might not play any shortstop this season. I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable starting the season with any of them as my starter.
What this means is that if you want one of the top guys, you’re going to have to reach a bit. The alternative of ending up with someone like Julio Lugo or Orlando Cabrera should be enough to compel you to act. It is a matter of marginal value by position. It’s much better to end up with Rafael Furcal and an eighth-round outfielder like Magglio Ordonez than to have a fifth-round outfielder and a below-average shortstop. Also, look at where the positional depth might be in your league. Positional scarcity in the majors is changing; for example, there is a plethora of excellent third basemen out there.
4. Be sure to get at least two solid closers and as many as four.
In roto leagues especially, top-tier closers are worth much more than the saves they record. A low ERA and WHIP, along with a few wins and 75-100 Ks can be an invaluable boost to the numbers your starters post. The inevitable run on closers is likely to begin by the fourth or fifth round this year, and if you can get Joe Nathan or Francisco Rodriguez at that point, you should go for it. Otherwise, draft for value. You’ll need to exit your draft with at minimum two solid closers, and three or four would be preferable. Solid fantasy closers sometimes emerge from nowhere, but as long as you have two at the conclusion of your draft, there’s no need to panic. Keep your eye on the waiver wire and you’ll be fine. Not many people drafted J.J. Putz last year.
5. Don’t draft more than one starting pitcher until at least the sixth round.
There are so many solid #2 and #3 starters available in the sixth through 12th rounds that it is foolish to spend more than one pick on a starter early on. (The exception to this rule is if you can select Johan Santana and Chris Carpenter one and two or one and three. You should consider yourself lucky and take the chance.) The reason that it’s fine to reach for a shortstop is the same reason why you should never reach for a starting pitcher. The dropoff between a sixth-round shortstop and a 12th-round shortstop is immense, while the difference between a sixth- and a 12th-round starter is virtually nil. Consider this comparison of last year’s 12th-best fantasy starter, Curt Schilling, and the 48th-best starter, Jon Garland:
The difference is small, so small in fact that it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice the chance to grab a Carlos Delgado-type slugger in favor of taking a risk on a starting pitcher. It is much wiser to load up on five or six starters between the eighth and 15th rounds, and then wait and see which ones you can count on as the season progresses.
6. Young players with upside are better than aging former stars.
Delmon Young over Torii Hunter. Brian McCann over Victor Martinez. Robinson Cano and Rickie Weeks over Jeff Kent. See the pattern? Drafting young stars over old ones minimizes injury risk and maximizes potential offensive breakout. Last year we saw this strategy manifest itself in the form of Jose Reyes, Ryan Howard, and Ryan Zimmerman. This also holds true for pitchers, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. Young studs like Justin Verlander, Scott Kazmir, and Jeremy Bonderman can be counted on to continue their improvement and vault their draft status above the likes of aging hurlers John Smoltz and Barry Zito. The younger players have a higher ceiling than someone like a Jarrod Washburn or Kevin Millwood.
7. Take risks late in the draft.
Once you have a solid lineup set, now is the time to take some risks on players who might be coming off an injury (Nick Johnson, Chipper Jones), are young and talented but unproven (B.J. Upton, Howie Kendrick), or are trying to rebound from an unusually disappointing season (Brad Lidge, Pat Burrell). While most people like to dub these types of players as “sleepers,” that name really only fits if you haven’t done your homework or if a player really comes out of nowhere (Dan Uggla, for example). A sneak peak of some other guys to keep your eye on for this season includes Mike Hampton, Tom Gorzelanny, Chris Young (the Arizona outfielder), and Carlos Quentin.
Hopefully this prevents you from ending up with a team that consists of two catchers drafted in the first four rounds, a 42-year-old as your third-best power threat, and a bunch of guys who wouldn’t even start in the AL East.
Matthew Kleine is an outfielder at DePauw University and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus Radio. He can be reached here.