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The Market Report: Ideal First-Round Picks

The Market Report is a weekly analysis of player valuations in the fantasy marketplace in an effort to find undervalued commodities.

Given that pitchers and catchers report next month, it's officially fantasy baseball season. In the weeks leading up to Opening Day, this column will analyze ADP data in order to cull out players whose market value is widely divergent from expected fantasy value. As a result, readers will not only be able to assemble a list of undervalued players as draft season draws near, but they will also gain insight as to how competitors value specific commodities, such as positional scarcity and categorical needs.

For this initial column let's take a look at the most important choice that any fantasy owner makes in a straight draft league. In reality, the most pivotal decision of a fantasy manager is also the first one. That is to say, no pick influences the fate of a fantasy team more so than the player chosen in Round One. While there's little profit to be gained in the first round due to the tremendous investment placed in the player, there's also potential for disaster at the same time. In other words, the downside is far greater than the upside when drafting a player in Round One.

With that in mind, it's always been my philosophy to play it safe in the first round. I've been playing this game for over a decade, and I've always prioritized floor over ceiling with this crucial decision. In particular, I've made an effort to select players with both stable skill sets and track records of good health. Naturally, the next question then becomes which players meet this criteria as we enter the 2014 season? Whom should we target in the first round of our drafts in March?

Well, in order to answer this question we first need to know whom our competition views as the cream of the crop for the upcoming season. Given that there's insufficient data on Mock Draft Central at this early stage in the offseason, I've turned to an alternative source where some of the top fantasy mangers in the world put their money on the line, the NFBC Draft Champions Leagues.

Based on ADP data a typical first round in a 12-team league shakes out as follows:

1. Mike Trout

2. Miguel Cabrera

3. Paul Goldschmidt

4. Andrew McCutchen

5. Clayton Kershaw

6. Chris Davis

7. Ryan Braun

8. Jacoby Ellsbury

9. Hanley Ramirez

10. Adam Jones

11. Carlos Gonzalez 

12. Robinson Cano

Before identifying my favorite targets for Round One, I'd like to discuss the players currently going in the first round whom I don't view as worthy of such a signficant investment. In total, there are three such players: Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Hanley Ramirez.

Let's start with Braun. We're clearly working with incomplete information here, as we simply don't know the extent to which PEDs have aided his production. I personally think the effect of PEDs is largedly overstated. In fact, I was hoping the Hebrew Hammer would fall to the late-second round in drafts this spring, but it doesn't appear that's going to be the case. Accordingly, I'm not willing to pay for Braun at his current pricetag.

With Ellsbury and Ramirez, the reasons are more concrete. For one, both players have spent plenty of time on the DL. Jacoby has missed significant portions of two of the previous four seasons while Hanley has failed to play 100 games two of the past three years. Moreover, even when this duo has been on the field, each has been far from consistent. In 2011 Ellsbury enjoyed a power breakout with 32 HR over 660 at-bats. In hindsight, however, that season stands out as an anomaly, as he's hit just 33 HR in 2252 other career at-bats. Similarly, Hanley hit a combined .252 over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and it looked like his days of hitting .300 were behind him. Then last year, he was remarkably the top player in fantasy baseball on a per-game basis, batting .345 with 20 HR in only 304 at-bats. While both players are incredibly talented then, I just don't know what I'm getting with either one. When it comes to the first round, that's simply not good enough for me.

So which players are worthy of the first round as we enter the 2014 season? Below you'll find my top six as of this first week of January. I've presented these studs in mini-tiers based on how I'd value them right now. Let's get to the rankings...

Otherworldly Studs on the Path to Cooperstown

1. Mike Trout

2. Miguel Cabrera

What can I say about this dynamic duo? Trout is the best player I've seen since Bonds, while Cabrera may have passed up Pujols as the best right-handed hitter of this generation. From a fantasy perspective, my only takeaway is that I'd much prefer a top-two pick this spring. Not only do I feel like rostering one of these two gives an owner a leg up on the competition, but I also see little difference between players currently going at the beginning of the second round and those being drafted toward the end of the second round. If you play in a league that uses KDS preference to assign draft order, I highly recommend prioritizing first and second ahead of any other draft slots.

So why is Trout ahead of Miggy? Well, Cabrera's left groin injury clearly affected him down the stretch last season, as he slugged just .333 over 72 at-bats in September. He underwent surgery in late-October and should be fine for Spring Training, so it's not something to fret over too much. Even so, when making the first overall pick, a fantasy manager can't be too picky. After finishing as the top fantasy player overall in 2012, Trout fell all the way back to second this past season. In fact, on closer examination he actually improved his walk rate while cutting back on his strikeout rate at the same time. It's scary, but Trout is only getting better.

Safest Options in a Game of Uncertainty

3. Andrew McCutchen

4. Clayton Kershaw

5. Adam Jones

6. Robinson Cano

Before discussing the specific players within this tier, I'd like to point out my rationale behind playing it safe in Round One. I don't think the average fantasy player realizes just how much turnover there is in the first round from one year to the next. Research conducted by BaseballHQ has found that two-thirds of players finishing in the top 15 weren't in the top 15 the previous season. What's more, there isn't much wisdom in the masses, as there's only been a 36% success rate of a player drafted in Round One actually returning first round value over the past ten years. In other words, the fantasy community as a whole isn't all that great at prognosticating the top players overall. Hence, fantasy baseball has become largely a game of uncertainty.

With that in mind, fantasy owners shouldn't just blindly draft in accordance with ADP. I'm perfectly fine sacrificing some upside and selecting a durable, consistent performer with a high floor in Round One. For me, this group of four players all possess the qualities that I look for in a Round One pick. Each comes with a track record of consistent production; in fact, all have returned top-15 value on average over the past two years. In addition, at the very least you can count on this group to show up to work, as their injury histories are completely blank over the past three seasons. Accordingly, if I can't have Trout or Cabrera, these are the four players I'll be targeting in the first round of drafts.

For a few reasons it's at this point in the first round where things start to get interesting. The market agrees with me that Trout and Cabrera are the clear-cut top two entering drafts this spring. After that pair, though, my rankings no longer match up with the consensus. While I see a marked dropoff after the top two, Cutch looks the best option if drafting third. He's the only player besides Trout and Cabrera to finish in the top six in each of the past two seasons. He's gone 20 / 20 for three straight years, and he's only missed a handful of games in his career. Although he's not widely viewed as an elite batsman, McCutchen actually finished fifth in the game in well-hit average (WHAV) according to ESPN. Finally, Cutch possesses a rare ability to contribute in all five fantasy categories. When a player possesses skills that lead to production across the board, it's just highly unlikely that he'll be a complete bust.

While McCutchen looks like one of the safest hitters, Clayton Kershaw may be the safest option overall on draft boards. As an aside, it's always been my philosophy to wait on pitching. As DIPS theory has become mainstream, though, I've begun to reconsider that mindset. In the past I never would have taken a pitcher in Round One, but I'm not sure a fantasy owner can compete in the pitching categories anymore without paying for pitching to a certain extent. Offense continues to dwindle from one year to the next while pitchers have posted more and more pristine results. Sure, it's all relative, as the 30th best starting pitcher is still the 30th best starting pitcher; he just posts better numbers today. Even so, the fact remains there's little room for error in building a pitching staff today. In the span of a decade, rostering a pitcher who posts a 4.00 ERA has gone from inconsequential to downright disastrous for a staff. With all of that in mind, I've come around in my  philosophy on pitching this offseason, and that's most certainly reflected in my ranking of Clayton Kershaw at fourth overall.

If that ranking is surprising, then the next one might really shock you. When you hear the name Adam Jones, you might not think of a first round-caliber talent. Believe it or not, though, the only players with better average finishes on the ESPN Player Rater over the past two seasons are precisely the same four players I've ranked ahead of Jones. While the low walk rate is a tad worrisome, Jones possesses a rare ability to consistently make contact despite not being all that selective. Paradoxically, a lack of patience can actually benefit a player from a fantasy perspective to a certain extent, as fewer walks result in additional at-bats, thereby boosting the value the player contributes to the AVG category. Like McCutchen, Jones is also able to help fantasy owners across the board. Overall then, I'm more than content drafting this fantasy star in the middle of Round One, as he represents one of the safest options in today's Rotisserie game.

Finally, Robinson Cano may lack the upside of other players currently going in Round One in his new home in Seattle. Nevertheless, here's a player with one of the highest floors in the game. Cano's past five seasons are the very definition of consistency. While most fantasy pundits believe that his value takes a hit in leaving New York, I'm not so sure the change in venues will be too detrimental. Sure, from a power standpoint one would assume this move in ballparks wouldn't do Cano any favors. That being said, the star second baseman would have only lost one home run had he played in Safeco Field last season. Even if we assume he loses a handful of home runs, this is still one of the most durable players in the game with a highly stable skill set to boot. While I would have ranked Cano fourth overall in pinstripes, I think the fantasy community is making a mistake by letting him fall to his current ADP of 12. 

Next week we'll look at how to approach drafting at the back end of the first round, if by chance you can't get one of these six fantasy studs.

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