The fantasy alphabet, part seven: X, Y, and Z

X is for X-factors

Retrace a previous year’s draft, and your “hindsight is 20-20” goggles will light up. Can’t believe I passed on this guy here. Can’t believe I drafted this guy in the first round. Look who was taken right before my third-round bust… Swearing might be a side effect, but it’s a valuable exercise, affirming the obvious: A draft isn’t won or lost in one round, with one superstar, or with one sleeper. It’s a grab bag, and a highly varying grab bag if you run snake drafts (which I highly discourage: Think of a grab bag with keys to a Porsche and keys to a Toyota Camry, a crapshoot).

If you are subjected to snake drafts, the first round is not only the universally accepted starting place, but also where a team can, predictably, fall apart. Draft risky, and you’re riding a roller coaster without a seat belt. In auctions, much of the same philosophy is true, though without the constraints of drafting in a set position, you can target your main man and spend what you need on him. That’s old news. What you may forget is that you should always settle on the safe, sometimes unsexy pick when anchoring your team with a big name or big money star.

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The chart above compares the Average Draft Positions of the 12 first-round picks on an ESPN.com auction draft with their corresponding dollar values, assigned by lastplayerpicked.com to a standard league team with a 70/30 split in terms of money allotted to hitting/pitching.

A lot of the red bars challenge, in height, the blue bars on the graph above, which is of course what you’re striving for. It doesn’t take a keen eye to see that Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria (to a lesser extent) busted.

It’s easy to cry, “How were we to know?” Indeed, it’s impossible to dip into the future and see Hanley’s nagging injuries, Crawford’s new contract jitters, and Longoria’s poor ball-in-play luck.

Despite the red flags in Ramirez’s case and my own bias against position scarcity in the first few rounds (why I wouldn’t have been the one to grab Longoria in my first round), I would like to examine Carl Crawford. Because he was a steady producer in Tampa Bay, many figured the move to Fenway would be a smooth transition; he played in the same division, after all, played half of his games in a hitter’s haven, and shared the pressures of a new contract with fellow big money signee, Adrian Gonzalez. It was shaping up to be Crawford’s best year, and a minor reach in a draft could be easily justified.

The problem is the inherent one of all moving players; there is a certain level of adjustment, a certain comfort that is lost, and a certain pressure to succeed. It’s simply common sense to draft a player in a familiar situation, preparing for the year in the same manner he did in the previous offseason, surrounded by the same counterparts and teammates, with talent that is proven.

Many of the top performers on the chart above fit the bill, and the only glaring exception to the rule was Longoria. The simple explanation is that luck prevailed, and that his failing was an anomaly. Safe, smart owners will target a proven player with a familiar situation on draft day, and save their risks for later in the draft. There’s always a Curtis Granderson waiting in the mid-to-late rounds, but sometimes one Hanley Ramirez (circa 2011) will ruin your team with one click or one word: “Sold.”

Y is for Yonder Alonso, and some sleepers for 2012

Yonder Alsonso: Alonso is reportedly being shopped this offseason by Walt Jocketty and Co., as he is blocked at his natural first base position by Joey Votto. Alonso is a bad left fielder by all metrics, including UZR, and as such, might be shipped for pitching in the offseason or at some point next year. The possibility of a trade is precisely why a late-round pick in Alonso would be a wise adjustment. The knock in his game from scouts has never been his hitting—his major league numbers in 98 plate appearances (five homers with a .943 OPS and a .409 wOBA (none sustainable, but impressive nonetheless)) backed up his solid Triple-A numbers (an .870 OPS and .296 average with double-digit homers in 409 plate appearances). Bill James projects bearish totals of 11 home runs, 37 runs, 44 RBIs, and a .277 batting average, but the small numbers stem from the fact that Alonso is projected for only 371 plate appearances in Cincinnati. Should he be shipped to the White Sox or another team, it would be fair in my eyes to double those projections.

Tyler Pastornicky: The Braves did not offer Alex Gonzalez arbitration after a .281 wOBA, which leaves a glaring hole at the shortstop position. Enter Tyler Pastornicky? Acquired from the Blue Jays as part of the Yunel Escobar deal, Pastornicky possesses excellent speed and solid contact skills, and despite only having 117 Triple-A plate appearances (in which he hit .365 with seven steals), he may be thrust into the role as early as Opening Day. He’d be a wise pick as a backup middle infielder in NL-only leagues in particular, and could pay off to the tune of a .280 average with 20+ steals.

Adam Wainwright: Is it possible that Adam Wainwright, the stud pitcher who built up a beastly 2.42 ERA/1.05 WHIP/20 win/213 K season in 2010 could be considered a sleeper? Sure, Tommy John surgery can do that to you, and certainly, he may find himself struggling to find his command at first and will likely be under an innings limit. Wainwright deemed himself ready for the 2011 World Series (likely out of desperation to try to make the roster), which is a testament to how healthy he views himself, and is backed by a solid enough record to warrant a mid-to-late round flier for his immense upside. He may be comparable in 2012 to Jordan Zimmerman in 2011; ace-like innings up to September, for a small price (the deflated value from Zimmerman stemmed from injury concerns too), but such risks in the late rounds can win leagues.

Z is for Zack Greinke’s NL journey and the power of observation

Zack Greinke’s transition to the NL was a shaky one, no doubt. He suffered an injury in a pickup basketball game that caused him to miss nearly a month of the season, and when he returned, his numbers were awful (a 5.29 May ERA, followed by a 6.04 showing in June). When all was said and done, Greinke had turned his year around, putting up a 3.02 ERA or better in each of the last three months of the season, and his 2.56 xFIP speaks wonders about his true talent last year, as does his superb 10.54 K/9, a career high.

Greinke, because of his less than impressive 3.83 ERA and stellar but not gleaming 1.20 WHIP, may still be underrated next year, but more can be learned about the simple power of observation in his case. Greinke was 9-3 with a 2.59 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP, and 102 strikeouts in 97.1 innings after the All-Star break, but from first look at his numbers last year, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Certain people may have followed Zack Greinke over the 2011 season and understood that he struggled a bit with luck and was downright filthy for a good stretch of the season. A fair number, though, will look at his 2011 stats while his name is tossed out in the draft room, and will write him off for his unimpressive numbers. The totals don’t exactly jump off the page, but the simple lesson is that writing down your simple evaluations and observations of players will do wonders in the heat of the moment.

If you follow fantasy with a pair of keen eyes, and keep one of those eyes on your team and the other on the rest of the action around the league, you’ll pick up, no doubt, on countless trends and splits that will serve as valuable information on draft day. Zack Greinke isn’t an ace, he nearly had a 4.00 ERA last year! Plus, he sucked in the playoffs! True, you’ll say with a smirk, and pencil him into your lineup confidently, knowing you know more—a wonderful feeling indeed.

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