Draft strategy: Bottom-filling your roster

When preparing for your draft, chances are, the names you’re primarily thinking about are Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and other guys you’re hoping to land in the first few rounds. But do you really spend any time thinking about the last few rounds? And if you do, is it anything more than an afterthought?

One strategy I take going into nearly every single snake draft is that of “bottom-filling my roster.” If I have, say, the 9th overall pick in the draft, unless I know my competition extremely well, I probably won’t be able to zero in on one particular player. It will simply be a matter of seeing who falls to me. And regardless of what pick I have, once the third and fourth rounds come along, there is very little chance I’ll be able to plan with any certainty which players I’m going to get, or even which positions I’m going to fill, unless I’m planning on reaching.

Despite this, these are the rounds most people think about in their draft preparations. It is only natural; the first few rounds are where the stars are… where you’re able to make a sexy pick. Honestly, who gets excited when they take Mark Buehrle in Round 20? Not me. But wouldn’t you have much more confidence saying, “I’m going to take Mark Buehrle in Round 20″ than “I’m going to take Justin Morneau in Round 4″?

We need to make sure, that we don’t overlook the importance of these later rounds. For the purpose of this article, we’ll completely ignore how uplifting it can be for a team to snare a guy like Ryan Braun in the twenty-first round and focus solely on the draft preparation benefits you can reap by utilizing this strategy. By preparing for the later rounds first, you can more easily prepare for the early and middle rounds. By having a specific plan for the later rounds, you can adjust to unexpected, early round events that occur during the draft.

While it can be difficult to target specific players early in the draft, if you consider the end of the draft, it is much easier to figure out who will be there for you, especially if you’ve done a few mocks. By allowing for certainty at the end of the draft, it makes the uncertainty early on much more manageable.

I think the best way to illustrate this strategy is to go over how I’ve been planning for the late rounds this year in a traditional, 12-team mixed league. One of the key components to my draft strategy is to ignore closers for almost the entire draft, the reason for which I’ll discuss in another article.

Closers

In my first mock draft of the year (an experts draft at Mock Draft Central), I didn’t take a closer until Round 18 and still came away with Troy Percival, C.J. Wilson, and Tony Pena. In preparing for drafts, I always pencil in three closers somewhere in these last few rounds:

Round 15 –
Round 16 –
Round 17 –
Round 18 –
Round 19 – Troy Percival
Round 20 – Tony Pena
Round 21 – C.J. Wilson
Round 22 –
Round 23 –

Be flexible here. Know that you’re going to take closers in this general area, but don’t get too enamored by any particular one. If you end up with Brandon Lyon, Brian Wilson, and Eric Gagne instead, be happy about it. Or if Rafael Soriano is there in Round 17 or 18, go for it.

If you’re in a draft where closers start going off really early, which happened to me in another draft this year, be a little flexible. Realize that lots of closers lose their jobs, and that taking a top setup man with a shot at the closer’s role – like Heath Bell, Rafael Betancourt, or Carlos Marmol – in these rounds is far preferable to reaching for a guy like Percival in Round 14. Far preferable.

In the draft I was just talking about, Tony Pena went in Round 12 and Carlos Marmol in Round 14. In these instances, you need to be a little creative. I took George Sherrill in Round 18, who now looks like he’ll be the closer in Baltimore. Closer situations change quickly, and if nothing else, you’ve always got the waiver wire.

Starting Pitchers

After penciling in my closers, I like to put a few starters in there, usually two or three. Every year, starters come (seemingly) out of nowhere, netting some lucky owner great profit. Look at Jamie Shields, Kelvim Escobar, Javier Vazquez, Erik Bedard, and Rich Hill, to name a few from last year. That would have been a staff capable of winning the pitching categories outright in many leagues. And those are just the ones that reasonably could have been predicted.

There were also guys like Fausto Carmona that really did come out of nowhere or who got really lucky. Sometimes these guys are drafted in the late rounds; sometimes they come off the waiver wire. Either way, the point remains: you don’t need to load up on top starters early. It is important to get a few, but you don’t need five of them.

Filling in guys who are either undervalued or have some serious untapped potential in these rounds is a great route to take. Here’s how I might fill them out this year:

Round 15 –
Round 16 –
Round 17 – Jeremy Bonderman
Round 18 –
Round 19 – Troy Percival
Round 20 – Tony Pena
Round 21 – C.J. Wilson
Round 22 – Greg Maddux
Round 23 – Scott Baker

Backup options, like with closers, are essential. If someone else is high on these guys and they get taken a few picks before you’d like them, you need a fallback plan. Guys like Kevin Slowey, Clay Buchholz, Andy Sonnanstine, Randy Johnson, Derek Lowe, and Chris Capuano are great choices. Again – as with closers – if someone like Jamie Shields falls this far, feel free to deviate from the plan.

Second catcher

In years when I think I can get #1 catcher production out of my #2 catcher and take him in one of these rounds, I like to pencil him in here as well. This year, Geovany Soto – who I discussed the merits of at THT Fantasy Focus back in November – fits the bill. Alternatives could include Chris Snyder and J.R. Towles, but don’t reach too far for them. Soto after Round 12 wouldn’t be bad, but don’t go too crazy. Most second catchers provide very similar production to each other, so only reach if you think one of them can provide the production of a #1 catcher.

Round 15 – Geovany Soto
Round 16 –
Round 17 – Jeremy Bonderman
Round 18 –
Round 19 – Troy Percival
Round 20 – Tony Pena
Round 21 – C.J. Wilson
Round 22 – Greg Maddux
Round 23 –Scott Baker

Very specific targets

Each year, I find myself targeting one or two very specific players who, for whatever reason, I think are falling well below where their true value lies. This year, these players are Frank Thomas and Francisco Liriano. This is actually the second year in a row I’ve been targeting Thomas. While he is getting older and can only fill your utility spot, he still has a stable skill set and excellent power. I cannot believe how he keeps going overlooked.

His value is different in every league, though, so don’t be afraid to take him a little early. If you think he is a good value in, say, the tenth round, don’t be afraid to pencil him in a little earlier than where I have him on the list below. Facing certain conditions, I’ve taken him as early as Round 12 and been okay with it.

Liriano is a guy I profiled back in November at THT Fantasy Focus, and one that I absolutely love. In that article, I said, “How many players can strike out 10 batters per game, walk under 3, and have a nearly elite ground ball rate? Umm… one. Francisco Liriano.” I would not be surprised at all if he winds up as a top five fantasy starter this year. As such, I’ve made it a point to try and get him in every draft.

This extends a little beyond “bottom-filling,” but it’s worth mentioning because it deals with the same concepts. I usually take Liriano in Round 10 or 11. Just be careful; the value of a guy like Liriano is vastly different depending on who you talk to. If he is gone before you want him, have a good backup pitcher ready or your staff might not start out quite as strong as you’d like. Worse case scenario, you trade one of your hitters for another pitcher.

Round 11 – Francisco Liriano

Round 15 – Geovany Soto
Round 16 – Frank Thomas
Round 17 – Jeremy Bonderman
Round 18 –
Round 19 – Troy Percival
Round 20 – Tony Pena
Round 21 – C.J. Wilson
Round 22 – Greg Maddux
Round 23 – Scott Baker

High-risk player

The final component of this strategy is an optional adjustment. This entails filling an empty round or two (Round 18, in this case) with a top prospect. You don’t need to make a commitment to this before the draft; decide once the time comes and you have seen how the early and middle rounds shake out. Maybe you won’t find any good-valued shortstops early on, and you’ll have to use this round on your starter. But if you’ve got most of your spots filled, a prospect with star potential could be an excellent choice here.

A few guys to target this year include Evan Longoria, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Colby Rasmus, or even a Brandon Wood or Andy LaRoche type. If your draft is extended to allow for bench players, making a few picks like this is an excellent strategy (and consequently, one I’ll discuss in more depth later on).

Round 11 – Francisco Liriano

Round 15 – Geovany Soto
Round 16 – Frank Thomas
Round 17 – Jeremy Bonderman
Round 18 – Evan Longoria
Round 19 – Troy Percival
Round 20 – Tony Pena
Round 21 – C.J. Wilson
Round 22 – Greg Maddux
Round 23 – Scott Baker

Final roster

Implementing all of these changes (ignoring the optional component) would give you a roster that looks like this:

C –
C – Geovany Soto
1B –
2B –
3B –
SS –
CI –
MI –
OF –
OF –
OF –
OF –
OF –
UT – Frank Thomas

P –
P –
P – Francisco Liriano
P – Jeremy Bonderman
P – C.J. Wilson
P – Brandon Lyon
P – Heath Bell
P – Greg Maddux
P – Scott Baker

Having this filled out before the big day arrives can be hugely important to your success at the draft table. By doing this, we’ve filled out 7/9 of our pitching staff. Now, we will only need to decide on when to take our two top starters (which we can decide on during the draft as we see how the market develops), and then we can go “best hitter available” everywhere else.

Auctions

As a side note, be aware that this strategy can also work in auctions. Set aside a certain amount of money for each player or a certain amount for groups of players (i.e. $7 for closers, however it is distributed). Be sure not to be so focused on this, though, that you miss out on bargains in the middle tier of players. Auctions give you greater roster flexibility, so use it in conjunction with bottom-filling. Use plenty of these guys…

Contingency plans

Make sure you have plenty of contingency plans. Filling out the end of the draft like this is pretty easy because there are vastly differing opinions about these late round players. That means most owners aren’t even considering your guys. All it takes, though, is one owner to take a player early for you to lose out. Have plenty of backup plans with this same type of structure to account for all scenarios. One of the most important ones to account for this year is someone taking Geovany Soto earlier than expected. Figure out where you would take your backup options if this scenario plays out (hint: late, unless you think they can give #1 catcher production).

Strategy summary

Summarizing the benefits of this plan:

  • Not overpaying for saves means using resources more efficiently in the early and middle rounds.
  • Allows you to take two or three top-notch starters and still load up on offense.
  • Good pitchers can be found late. You’ll have a good chance of getting one or two, maybe three. If none pan out, you can still trade from your strength: offense.

Closing thoughts

Hopefully I’ve conveyed this point by now, but if not, let me make it perfectly clear: this strategy is not to be taken as gospel. Use this strategy as a means of more easily handling the earlier rounds. Be flexible. If something better comes along, take advantage of it. If C.C. Sabathia, Dan Haren, and John Smoltz are there in Rounds 13, 14, and 15, you sure as heck better take them, even if you already have a couple of top starters.

And make sure you have plenty of contingency plans. You don’t want to arrive in Round 18 and have all your targets gone already.

Expect plenty more strategy articles through February and March as we approach Draft Day.

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