In each of my first two years (well, “years,” given the truncated 2020), I have finished seventh out of 15 participants in the Tout Wars Draft and Hold League. Yeah, baby, I am … MR. COMPETENCE! You want a credentialed professional to guide you toward a completely non-embarrassing, totally forgettable, utterly pedestrian, mid-table finish in your league? I’m your dang huckleberry, friendo.
Sarcasm aside, I knew that I would need to take some risks in the 2021 draft. This is, frankly, contrary to my nature as a fantasy player. I’m fairly conservative, with the occasional, well-considered, targeted risk. And, to be fair, there’s plenty about this draft that soothed my safety-seeking soul.
That said, by way of introducing the biggest risk I took in this, or any, draft, let me present that ever-popular player-comparison construct, “Player A vs. Player B.” Here are two 50th-percentile PECOTA projections for 2021:
“Uh, dude,” I hear you saying to yourself, “this is pretty much the same player.” You’d take Player A, sure—everything except steals is just a tad better—but you don’t have to imagine a particularly thick error bar to see the same player delivering either of these outcomes. So, what am I on about?
Player A is the projection for José Ramírez, who was drafted in the first round, 14th overall, in the present league. Player B is … well, Player B is three players. They are the average projections of Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Adalberto Mondesí, who happen to be my first three picks of this draft. Yes, I began my draft with not one, nor two, but three José Ramírezes.
After that record-scratch moment, let me back up a bit to explain how we got here. By my choosing, I had the eighth pick in the draft. My logic here was simple: I had a clear top eight, and picking in the middle of the first round meant that I would likely get an ace to anchor my rotation in the second round. I had assumed my first-round pick would likely be Trea Turner, or possibly Gerrit Cole. If I picked Turner, then I’d go starter in the second. If Cole, then perhaps Manny Machado. Or perhaps a second starter.
As the first round unfolded, my plans were altered when Gerrit Cole went fifth to Michael Florio, and Brad Johnson drafted Shane Bieber with the sixth pick. Mookie Betts and Mike Trout were still on the board. I would get one of those two. When Michael Stein took Betts, there it was: Mike Trout, he of the career .418 OBP, not to mention copious other baseballing gifts, would be my first pick. Trout was at the top of my overall board, but I can’t fault any of the picks ahead of me. They were all sensible, defensible picks. Still, I was elated to catch a Trout with my first cast into the 50-round-deep waters.
Then, the pitchers started to disappear. Six of the nine picks from 13 to 21 were starters. I could have taken a Scherzer, a Kershaw, or a Flaherty in the second round, but Cody Bellinger was still on the board. Pitching? What’s that? Even if there’s some volatility in the batting average, Bellinger is a rock-solid OBP performer (PECOTA projects for .364) with the likelihood of double-digit steals to boot. And, presuming a healthy shoulder, all the power you could want.
OK, now I needed to take some pitchers, right? From 25 to 34, seven more starters came off the board. My third-round escape plans—namely Zac Gallen or Blake Snell—were long gone. I could reach for Kenta Maeda, but as I was walking my dog, trying to strategize the pick (bless the slow draft in such situations), I had a thought: Mondesí. The OBP sinkhole, the one-category fantasy oddity, the player who I said I’d avoid at all costs. I had the on-base percentage to burn, and should I roster the Royals’ mercurial shortstop, my steals would be well-covered, along with enough in the other counting categories.
I ran some numbers, and even with Mondesí’s projected .280 OBP, there it was: three José Ramírezes. I hasten to add that those are projections, and reality will surely have its own high-spin curveballs to throw my way. Without going through a round-by-round analysis, my offensive foundation was set. The rest was trying to build a strong pitching staff and grab value where I could with the hitting.
Here’s what I ended up with. Behold!
What follows is my roster, broken down by position (with additional positional eligibility in parentheses). Tout Wars only required five games at a position in 2020 to gain eligibility at that position for 2021. Picks are given by round and overall pick number.
Murphy is a catcher I’m targeting this year, especially in OBP leagues. With his power and on-base ability, he profiles as a Will Smith starter kit. In his 200 major-league plate appearances, he has posted a .355 OBP and a .491 slugging percentage. He should also get all the playing time he can handle, if he can remain healthy. Posey is also an OBP asset who should have mostly-full-time work (again, health permitting). While double-digit home runs might be a big ask, he may garner additional plate appearances at first base, and he’ll DH in AL parks.
Casali backs up Posey in case of an early-season injury. My suspicion is that the Giants would prefer to have Joey Bart spend the bulk of the year in Triple-A, which makes Casali a safe bet to garner plenty of time should Posey be sidelined. Torrens is likely to begin the season as the short side of a timeshare with Tom Murphy in Seattle; his upside could vault him into a starting role before too long.
I have Bellinger inked in as my starting first baseman, and the relative thinness of the position on my roster hopefully merits my faith that he is, and should remain, healthy. Should Bellinger have to miss an extended amount of time, I would almost certainly slide Max Muncy over from second base before I dipped into Moreland territory. Moreland could see time for me at the CI or UT slots, but he’s likely to be a long-sided platoon for the A’s, which doesn’t necessarily equate to fantasy glory. Beer is someone who I seem to land in Draft & Hold each year. His plusses? An eminently punnable name and a 111 DRC+ projection by PECOTA. His minuses? The lack of a National League DH means that he likely has to pass both Christian Walker and Pavin Smith on the depth chart to get meaningful playing time in Arizona. A thirst-quenching Beer run isn’t out of the question, however.
While I’m kind of “meh” on Muncy as a player, there’s no question that, with his career .359 OBP, he provides added value in an on-base format. His power is also above reproach, as he hit 35 bombs apiece in 2018 and 2019, and was on a low-30s pace in 2020. Profar’s value has been depressed because of the playing-time crunch in San Diego, but given even 75 percent playing time, he projects to be a double-digit performer in both homers and steals—along with the dual eligibility that is vital in this format.
Bote and Alberto are hedges against Hoerner and Mondesí (more on them below), respectively. With Bote and Hoerner, I should have the Cubs’ starting second baseman, and Bote might actually be the better fantasy option. And should a not-entirely-surprising Kris Bryant injury or trade occur, Bote is the natural fit to take over at the hot corner. Alberto, on the other hand, is a “break glass in case of Mondesí emergency” option. If he gets any significant playing time on my squad, it means that things have gone horribly wrong in Kansas City (or all of my other second base options have mysteriously vanished from the earth).
Along with Profar, Bote, and Alberto, Hoerner also has second-base eligibility. I’m pretty well-covered.
Turner’s playing time could be a bit of a pain, but last season the batted-ball skills were at their best levels since 2017. Rostering the Dodger near pick 200 was a pretty easy call, especially when I could back him up with steady Eddie (or, wait—the ManYouCanRelyOn Bri…on?) Anderson. The Marlin has quietly turned into a 20-25-homer, three-true-outcomes guy whose average might suffer more than his on-base percentage. Kieboom is a late bet on the post-hype-prospect-fatigue-just-got-Lasik profile. There’s every chance that he’s just not a good major-league hitter, but he does take a lot of walks. It seemed reasonable to make the bet in the 25th round.
As previously mentioned, Horner, Bote, and Alberto can also fill in for me at third base, though heaven forfend that I need them to. (Yes, I just wrote “forfend.” It’s been a long pre-season.)
Welp, it’s ride or die with Mondesí and his sinkhole OBP/jet-fueled speed combo. Even with his on-base risk, it would take a pretty colossal bust for Mondesí to lose playing time—with the relative absence of a functioning major-league second baseman, even a Bobby Witt, Jr., call-up likely means that either Witt or Mondesí will shift to the keystone. And 50, possibly 60, steals are in play. That’s why he’s here. Hoerner is a low-ceiling former prospect, but with regular playing time he could be a useful accumulator.
Crawford is pretty much WYSIWYG. There are no surprises left in his trick bag, no secret mousses to take his moist hair to yet another level of damp. But there absolutely will come a time when I will need to use him and be glad that he’s tucked away on my roster. For what it’s worth, 2020 was Crawford’s best season by DRC+ since 2015, but last year’s mark was still only 98. So there you go. Tejeda got a taste of the majors in 2020, and he looked not-quite-ready. But there is some power upside with the young shortstop, and because it’s the Rangers, playing time is never too far away.
As a merciless self-critic of my own teams, I have to say (cautiously, quietly): I like this outfield. Of course, when you start with Trout in an OBP league, that’s a big “no, duh.” But even after the Angels’ epochal talent, you have Yaz, who put together a season legitimately worthy of non-jokey MVP votes, and Happ, who looks to lead off for the Cubs and shines in OBP formats.
Kepler is also an OBP value and sneaky runs play. He’ll hit at the top of the order for one of the deepest offenses in the American League. I seem to be getting Peralta in a number of drafts this season. While he doesn’t have the pop of more elite outfielders, his career slash line of .291/.346/.475 is absolutely playable, especially after pick No. 300. I felt like I couldn’t pass up his fellow D-Back Calhoun in the next round. (Again, a low-average hitter who is better in on-base formats, are you sensing a theme?) And even though he will begin the season on the injured list, he’s already on track to return from knee surgery before the end of April.
Akiyama is also currently sidelined, stuck in a crowded outfield, and hopes to improve upon a difficult first season in MLB. That said, he has the on-base skills to lead off for the Reds, and if he finds his way into that role, will be an asset in OBP, runs, and steals—even if the home runs are likely in the single digits. Haseley is a low-ceiling player, but he should be the Phillies starting center fielder, now that he’s returned from an early-March groin injury.
That leaves one player, the long-shot potential league-winner: Julio Rodríguez of the Mariners. I have typically allowed myself no more than one or two prospect stashes in this league, but I was frankly surprised to find J-Rod still out there in the 40th. Seattle will be under a microscope for how they handle Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and Rodríguez. While there’s a stronger rationale for leaving Rodríguez in the minors all year, should he force the issue (Juan Soto-style) and earn a midseason call-up, he could be an instant lineup anchor.
In addition to these outfielders, Bellinger, Profar, and Beer are also outfield-eligible, should I need to shuffle some positions.
Carlos Carrasco (4.53)
Hyun-jin Ryu (5.68)
Charlie Morton (8.113)
Tyler Mahle (11.158)
José Urquidy (12.173)
John Means (17.248)
Kwang-hyun Kim (20.293)
Yusei Kikuchi (24.353)
Alec Mills (30.443)
Ross Stripling (32.473)
Kohei Arihara (37.548)
Chris Flexen (38.563)
Kyle Gibson (43.638)
Tyler Beede (49.728)
Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans. Wait, what do they say about best-laid plans? I’m pretty sure they don’t say: “Draft three aging, injury-risk starters for the top of your rotation.”
As mentioned above, the aforementioned “Three JoRams” gambit necessitated some back-filling for my pitching. Obviously, I need the best versions of these three—or at least 80 percent of the best—to clear my path toward a title. Equally obviously, Carrasco is already hurt (his elbow troubles cropped up a few days after his selection, and the hamstring tear a week or so after that). Ryu and Morton have undeniable skills, and now I’m counting on them to deliver those goods over a relatively full workload. This is the price you pay when you don’t draft a starter until pick No. 53.
After these three, I’m counting on a couple of pitchers to take a step forward. There’s no question that Mahle and Urquidy are risks, but each of them should have a spot high in their respective teams’ rotations and, barring injury, should deliver a near-full workload. Mahle may have some strikeout upside, and Urquidy should keep low ratios. There’s a non-zero chance that either or both of these pitchers could bust, but buying into growth is necessary to win such a competitive league.
Most of the rest of the starters are nailed-on rotation pieces, which was intentional. This year, you’re going to need innings—even if they’re Alec Mills innings or Kyle Gibson innings. I do like Kikuchi to make the jump from end-game to mid-game starter this season and was pleased to land him after pick No. 350. Arihara and Flexen are interesting because they are among the few pitchers (possibly the only pitchers?) in the majors who pitched a triple-digit number of competitive innings in 2020: Arihara threw 132 2/3 frames for the Nippon Ham Fighters in NPB, while Flexen logged 116 2/3 innings for the Doosan Bears in the KBO. Both are more stretched out than nearly every other starter in the majors; the question, of course, is the quality of the innings they might deliver.
My reliever strategy for 2020 is pretty well expressed here: Grab one top-five or top-six closer, and then go fishing. In a draft-and-hold, it’s easier to stockpile potential saves, but obviously their benefit depends on landing a closer’s job (or a two-way split, at worst) so that you can reliably plug them into a lineup spot. Díaz, for me, is a top-five closer, with the skills to help out in strikeouts as well as saves (with some collapse risk, admittedly). Rogers is likely in a timeshare but has better skills than Alex Colomé, and has a stint as the Twins’ closer already on his resume.
Then, the parade of possibles: after Taylor, the Tanners and Tylers of the world. Scott might be the closer in Baltimore now, with Hunter Harvey on the injury shelf. There are paths to saves for others on this list, ranging from the plausible (Sims, Rainey) to the unlikely (Knebel, Merryweather). Nonetheless, the downside of rolling with only one “sure-fire” closer is the need to place chips on any number of spots on the closer roulette table.
And there it is: the Tout Wars squad for 2021. I feel reasonably good about the offense, and I feel reasonably unsure about the pitching. It’s hard to mess up a draft that begins with three José Ramírezes, but given the pitching uncertainties of this year and my lack of rotation anchors, I may be just the person to do it.
Thank you for reading
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