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How to Win: Last Minute Draft Strategy

On today's Very Special Episode of How to Win, I'm not going to cover a particular stat or position. Instead, I'm going to take a step back and share what I've learned from this year's drafting season and try to pass on this newfound knowledge in time for the final weekend of drafting. If this comes too late to you...I'm sorry. Just remember that it came too late for my first several drafts too.

Maybe I haven't been in the most drafts this year, but I think I've been in more than most: Thursday was my third, and I was assistant to my wife on two more. (Yeah, I'm lucky that my wife is a fantasy baseball junkie too.) Drafts and mocks have basically been my job this month. Well, they are my job, actually. I've done Roto, H2H, standard 5x5, non-standard categories, shallow 23-rounders, deep 27-rounders with 15 teams, Yahoo!, ESPN, and later today I'll cap the season with a monster 30-round, 14-team, CBS H2H points league. So I'm gonna be needing my own advice.

Know Your Format
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are literally several different formats out there: know your format! How many DL slots do you have? Is it points or categories? Five-by-five or something more arcane? Weekly matchups or roto style? One catcher or two? Weekly changes or daily? Is there an innings cap or not? The possibilities could go on and on. For at least another sentence. The point is that these things--even the smaller seeming ones--can make a huge difference in how you draft. Take that DL slots one: I drafted for Blog Wars not too long ago, but at the end of the draft I couldn't remember how many DL slots we had. The clock was running out and my Internet was slow and I couldn't find the league settings fast enough. So I found out the hard way and Colby Lewis is my waiver claim, not on my bench.

Some players are differently valuable in different formats. For instance, Curtis Granderson, Hanley Ramirez, Chase Headley, Matt Garza, and any other injured player is a lot more useful in H2H leagues that utilize DL slots. Discount them if you're playing standard roto, where their April (or more) absences are just as important as their (presumed) presence down the stretch in September. Discount them even more if your league doesn't give you a DL.

A really important one for me is the difference between weekly and daily formats. In a weekly format you typically play two relievers and need to fill the rest of your spots with starters; three relievers is pretty much the max you can afford. So don't get more than that, and don't waste a pick on a non-closer. Daily is totally different. Non-closers who get strikeouts are useful, and you can pile on the closers to win big in saves without sacrificing your wins and K's. Similarly, don't bother with a platoon hitter in all but the deepest weekly formats. In daily though, even Raul Ibanez can come in handy.

Catcher Strategy

With five drafts in my pocket, I have yet to draft (or suggest to draft) a catcher early. With fewer at-bats than other players, they impact your team less in average, help less in counting stats, and generally aren't any good at all. Plus, quality catchers run pretty deep. Three years ago, wouldn't you have been thrilled to have Ryan Doumit's .270 average and 15 HR's at catcher? Yes. Now, he's the 14th catcher in my rankings and even lower in others. Whether it's a single or double catcher league, I've been following pretty much the same strategy: wait for a great deal on a catcher, or be the last one to get one. Is Buster Posey great? Yeah. Should you use a first-round pick to get him? No. Snatch him up if he falls to the third. On Thursday (in a single-catcher league), I waited until the 20th round before I took my catcher, Brian McCann. Two rounds later I took Doumit to fill in while he's injured. I could get nearly equal catching production to people who used much earlier picks for this position.

Starter Strategy

There is no one good strategy for starers, but the most important thing to do will be to stick to yours. I actually don't recommend going into the draft with a set strategy for starters; instead, I let my first couple picks determine my course. Sometimes I've gone with a single ace (usually Strasburg) and waited for a while. I've taken pairs of aces with back-to-back picks (maybe Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia), and I've grabbed three sub-aces-with-strikeouts a little later on (Max Scherzer, Yovani Gallardo, James Shields). Depending on how much risk I've already assumed, I might load up on high upside starters in the middle rounds, snag one or two seemingly dependable starters, or wait all the way until the late rounds to fill out my rotation with a mix of sleepers (Marco Estrada is a favorite) and boring vets (Ryan Dempster and Bronson Arroyo come to mind).

Reliever Strategy

Get three relievers. I just don't see that much downside. I had always been the guy that gets one reliever and then happily ignores them until the 15th round and beyond, snatching up several bottom-dwellers in after the 20th. Well, not only did that strategy torpedo me in saves in last year's Silver League (I can't believe Carlos Marmol, Grant Balfour, and Greg Holland were closers then, are closers now, and still sunk me in saves by losing their jobs) it isn't nearly as viable this year. With several teams in an unsettled limbo at closer, the saves pool is shallower than ever at a very risky position.

In some drafts I've reached for an early top gun (I just had to have Rivera on a team in his last season; there was no way my wife and I could pass on Kimbrel in the 5th round), but I've aimed for three closers in each draft. Nearly every time I've gotten at least two closers from a big tier that I consider to be solid values around the 10th-12th rounds: John Axford, Jason Grilli, Glen Perkins, Rafael Betancourt, Greg Holland and Tom Wilhelmsen. Actually, J.J. Putz, Rafael Soriano, and Sergio Romo are in that group for me too, but everyone else values them a bit higher I guess.

After these guys, most closers have serious question marks or less than a full hold on the job. Let someone else take the risks. As for playing the waiver wire for saves in season: do it! But starting with a solid relief corps means you'll win bigger and have goods to trade down the line. It also means you're safer in case you have a slower free agent trigger finger than other teams in your league.

On every team, I feel like I have a solid group of closers less likely than most to lose their jobs to ineffectiveness and the rest of my team still looks pretty strong. I haven't been able to afford a fourth closer...they're just all gone by the 15th round or so, even the likes of Bobby Parnell and Casey Janssen.

Speaking of Janssen, it looks like he can start moving up draft boards with his sudden return to health and Sergio Santos beginning to struggle.

Get three closers.

Speed Strategy

So you didn't get Mike Trout or Ryan Braun with your first pick, which means that you probably aren't getting 30 steals out of a heavy hitter. (Let's face it, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Gonzalez won't be doing that, and I bet Matt Kemp won't either.) Where do you get speed? Fortunately you've got choices, most of which belong in the outfield or at shortstop. You can use an early pick for an elite base-stealer like Jose Reyes, Jacoby Ellsbury, B.J. Upton, or Michael Bourn. You can wait until the end at both positions and take Elvis Andrus (who won't be there, but he should be), Alcides Escobar, or Everth Cabrera at short, or Brett Gardner, Coco Crisp, Ichiro Suzuki, Cameron Maybin, Drew Stubbs, or other "speed bums" in the outfield. I strongly suggest getting at least one of the latter group in any deep format.

Watch out for sneaky players in the early and middle rounds that steal bases on top of their regular value. Remember that speed is priced into their draft cost, but that players like Shin-Soo Choo, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, and Yoenis Cespedes can help you a lot as a group, but none of them can crash the category all by himself.

Roll with the Punches, Go with the Flow, Blah, Blah, Blah

You've got to be flexible with your rankings and your draft strategy. If shortstops are flying off the board to the tune of Erick Aybar in the 7th round, then do what it takes to make sure you aren't left starting Alexei Ramirez or Zack Cozart, even if it means drafting Alcides Escobar, J.J. Hardy, or Everth Cabrera ten rounds ahead of where you planned. It won't kill your team: the fair market price for their services got more expensive; for some other position it will have necessarily become cheaper. If you can't adjust, you'll be left in the dust. Similar things can happen to catchers and relievers,and it's important to balance flexing with your league-mates, and striking your own path. Don't take Addison Reed in the third round just because seven closers just went off the board. But take him in the 10th if you need a second closer and he's the only good one left.

Don't Just Make Tiers, Use Them!

It's easy to just go down your player list, even if you've broken everything up into tiers. Don't do that. Your tiers (or ours--you can use them for free) are there for a reason. Do you need speed or power? Hopefully there's some of both in that fifth OF tier. Do you want to take a big risk with your fifth starter, or get someone steady to balance out risks you've already taken? There should be a sprinkling of both in the tier.

Forget Your Tiers and Rankings

You probably didn't get up this morning and make all your tiers and rankings fresh for today's draft. If you did...well, okay. Otherwise, you've had time to gather more information, read more analysis, gauge the relative wisdom of the crowds you've drafted with, and otherwise reevaluate every player in the game. I know I ranked Danny Espinosa near Jimmy Rollins, but I just can't bring myself to draft Espinosa where I've got him ranked: I was just too high on him in my personal tiers. If I want Carlos Gomez, I'll have to bump him way up--he's just too popular to land where I've tiered him, so if I need his power/speed combo, I have to decide whether or not to overpay. Roy Halladay is another example of this: he goes deeper and deeper into my rankings seemingly every time, as the news has yet to be positive about him. He's dropped from my initial expectation of the 5th round, to the 7th, and then the 10th, and lately the 12th. 

Trust yourself and the decisions you made about most players. Unless you have good reason not to.

Position Scarcity

Intimately related to the three sections above, your strategy for dealing with scarce positions (second base, shortstop) relative to deep ones (first base, outfield, pitcher, catcher) will be different in every league.

Take the standard Yahoo! format (of which I am not a fan, by the way): with eligibility down to basically three innings (actually 5 games started), basically everybody is eligible everywhere. (Get extra value in Kyle Seager at 2B, Mark Trumbo at 3B, and Martin Prado at SS and 2B.) On top of that, the standard format doesn't include MI or CI, but does give you two Util slots. What does that mean? You're now expected to have one 2B from an expanded pool, one SS from an expanded pool, and one 3B from an expanded pool...and you might as well take three 1B since you can play them all. In this format, 1B and OF are extra valuable and you can get pretty good production at the "premium positions" without using early picks. My wife took Joey Votto with her first pick, and there was no good reason not to grab Edwin Encarnacion with her third. Her production up the middle is just fine!

Contrast that with the style we use for the RotoAuthority and Silver Leagues, where we run five OF's, a MI, and a CI. It's like every position is scarce! Don't neglect your outfield in these formats (or, like me, you may have a team in which Coco Crisp is your number two OF), but make sure to fill at least one infield position in the first few rounds. Notice also, that the injuries to Ramirez and Headley, plus the questions about Pablo Sandoval have made 3B a noticeably shallower position than it was at the beginning of Spring Training.

Don't Drink and Draft (Unless You're in my Leagues)

I get that it's more fun. Of course it is. But fantasy baseball isn't about fun, it's about winning! Plus, you can have a good time without impairing your strategy to the point where Yahoo!'s autodraft mechanism is a safer bet than your judgement. In a related vein, I don't recommend drafting anywhere with an environment that isn't conducive to clear thinking. Sometimes this means draft in your home...sometimes it means get as far away from your home as possible.

A Few Final Words

I don't have any final words. If you haven't drafted yet, good luck!



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