Maybe some of you out there in reader-land don’t realize this, so let me take just a brief moment to point out something very important. SPRING TRAINING GAMES BEGIN TODAY! That’s right, the Phillies take on Florida State in an exhibition game this afternoon, officially kicking off the 2011 spring season. Yes, I know that it’s only an exhibition and that actual Cactus league games begin tomorrow, while the Grapefruit league begins on Saturday. Still, starting today there will be live updates online to follow and the all-important box scores to pore over once again.
It really is a beautiful thing.
The beginning of spring games means we’re into the home stretch for our fantasy draft preparations. Most of you will be drafting in the next several weeks, and the time is now to start developing a plan and formulating a strategy on exactly how you want the draft to go. The more time you spend working on this strategy and exploring what to do with each situation that could arise, the better off you’ll be.
I can’t count how many people I’ve seen go into a draft without a well thought-out plan in place, thinking that they know the player pool and they can freelance their way to greatness. They have no real idea of proper team construction. They often get flustered as the one-minute clock ticks down, pressuring them to make their pick. If a player they have their sights set on goes with the pick before them, they go “tilt” and make a forced, last-minute decision, rather than knowing ahead of time which direction to go. I’m here today to spell out a little of what I’m doing in building my draft plan, in the hopes that it will help some of you as well.
I’m no expert on this game. I don’t claim that how I build my draft plan is the best way—it’s just the way I’ve had the most success. I’m also always looking for new and better ideas, and strive to learn from those who are truly experts in fantasy baseball. I’m also aware that until you find out your draft spot, you can’t accurately predict which players you’ll target in each round. This is more of a basic overview of what I’m doing to set my plan in place before I have my draft slot. The league I am preparing for is a national competition, which is broken down into 15-team leagues. We roster 30 total players, 23 starters (two catchers, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, five outfielders, a utility man, a corner infielder, a middle infielder, nine pitchers) and seven bench slots.
By this point, I have my player rankings updated and broken down into tiers of value. The first thing I look for is where the most severe dropoffs are, and make sure I target a player in that tier.
For example, I believe that shortstop is the weakest overall position this year. According to my rankings, eight players are a class above the rest of the field. Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki are in a tier to themselves. Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are a cut below them, then Derek Jeter, Alexei Ramirez, Elvis Andrus and Stephen Drew are all serviceable options. After them, everyone has serious questions, downside or both.
I know going into my draft that I want one of the top eight shortstops. Let’s say that it’s the seventh round, and Drew is the last of these players available. I have him lined up and ready to go, and the person drafting in front of me takes him just before my pick. What do I do now? Unprepared for such an instance, some people would just grab the next best shortstop on their list, maybe Rafael Furcal. Knowing of the tremendous falloff after the top eight, I know that once Drew is gone, I’m not looking for a shortstop until at least the 15th round, and I look for value elsewhere with the current pick.
Another position where I see this top-heavy inventory is at first base. The top couple of tiers are very solid, but it goes downhill quickly after that. Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera make up the top tier on their own. After that, Joey Votto, Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez are firmly in tier two, with Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder right behind them. After these seven, Kendry Morales, Justin Morneau, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko would all be quality additions, but come with more risk. After Konerko, other than maybe Billy Butler, there isn’t a whole lot that entices me. Especially in a league that starts a corner infielder and utility player in addition to a first baseman, I’m making sure to target one of the top seven here as well. If I happen to miss on the top group, then I’m making sure I get one of those next four.
Another area I focus on is what I want to do with my catchers. In a 15-team, two-catcher league the talent at this position gets thin very quickly. Some people like to acquire top talent early and have two “plus” catchers on their team. Others like to punt the position completely and draft two players in the 20th round or later. My preference falls somewhere between these two extremes.
I believe that although the top tier of catchers is great, they aren’t worth the price you pay to get them. Therefore Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Brian McCann and Buster Posey in all likelihood won’t be on my teams. Just below this top group lies Carlos Santana, who I love this year and will consider, depending on how far he falls. The next tier contains Mike Napoli, Jorge Posada, Geovany Soto, Kurt Suzuki and Miguel Montero. It’s in this group that I see the most value currently, and if I miss on Santana, I’m looking for my No. 1 catcher out of this group. I prefer to take my second catcher as a mid-late round pick and look for someone who’s getting full time at-bats and won’t be a complete drain on my average, like Carlos Ruiz or Yadier Molina.
You should also be giving heavy consideration to where you want to draft your closers. Some prefer to wait on closers, drafting a couple of guys who have a job in the mid-late teens and then working the free agent market all year, but I’m not a fan of this strategy. When doing this, not only are your closers speculative and a potential drain on your ratios, but you also end up wasting a good portion of your free agent budget chasing saves. In a national competition like this, you generally need between 90 and 100 saves to compete for the title. That’s roughly 2.5 closers over the course of the year.
My strategy starts with locking up one of the elite closers early on. This means getting one from the group of Mariano Rivera, Heath Bell, Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Carlos Marmol and Neftali Feliz. I prefer to lock up my second closer in the 11th or 12th round, to make sure that I have someone with a stable job. When doing so, I also look for a player with limited competition for the role so I can handcuff his replacement in the reserve rounds.
I’ve heard from numerous people who think the most important thing you can do is build a team with all hitters early on and then use your knowledge of the player pool to fill out your rotation in the mid-late rounds. While this can be a viable strategy in smaller leagues, in this 15-team format, it’s insanely difficult. You would literally need to hit on every pitcher you took, which seems highly improbable. You need to find a couple of the top arms to build your rotation around.
Currently, I am trying to identify who I want the ace of my rotation to be, and figuring out where I want to draft the rest of my pitchers. The way I’m leaning at this moment, my ace would need to be selected in round three, and I would follow up with my second starter in round eight. This would leave me with seven hitters and three pitchers through my first 10 rounds, and allow me to build my rotation in rounds 11-20, where I see the most value. However, if another pitcher I like as a No. 2 starter falls to the ninth or 10th round, I could always deviate from the plan and push back my corner infielder or second baseman to the spot where I would normally grab my No. 3 pitcher.
These are a few of the things I’m looking at as I develop my plan of attack. If you have questions, comments, concerns, insight, etc. feel free to let me know!