5x5 Categories

Fantasy Stars: Bottom of the First (Round)

Last week, on Fantasy Stars, we looked at the players who were getting the most love at MockDraftCentral by Average Draft Position (ADP): Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, Carlos Gonzalez, and Robinson Cano. Fast forward a little and CarGo is off that list (as he should be), replaced by Andrew McCutchen (ADP 5.93) in the 6th spot. We'll take a look at his case, and then the rest of the first round picks. (Even poor Carlos Gonzalez!)

As always, the stats by the name of each player are the Big 5: AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB

Andrew McCutchen OF .327/31/107/96/20

Based on hearsy, chatter, and a climbing ADP, McCutchen seems to be a trendy early pick in fantasy drafts. (I mean, where else would he be?) With power and some speed, he's got the rare combination that 5x5 leaguers love to death. He hit for a killer batting average, he's young (26), and his surface stats keep trending upwards. Can you say superstar?

 Maybe you shouldn't. Yeah, I said it. I'm down on Andrew McCutchen. I'm that guy. You should be too. (Or girl, as the case may be.) I'm not so down that I wouldn't draft him, but I wouldn't draft him in the first round, so I'm way down on him compared to most people. The first reason is this: while he's been trending upward as a player for the last three years--as we should expect from someone his age--the speed has been going the opposite way. This is pretty common--a player focuses more on power and less on speed, even as the body's natural aging curve slows him down. It's fine in real baseball, but you're gonna miss the steals on your fantasy squad. But wait, there's more! Not only is he stealing less, he's getting caught more. As a rookie (in just 433 AB) he was 22/27 in steals. Then he bumped his total to 33/43, but it dropped to just 23/33, and last year just 20/33. I labeled him a bust candidate in steals just a couple days ago, and that still holds. He's getting caught more and running less. He's probably slower, and his team isn't running him as much. I'd bet a lot that his steals go down in 2013, taking some of his value with them.

The steals aren't the only place where I'm skeptical that he'll retain all his gains. Last year he put up a BABIP of .375--way above (and inflating) his career mark of .326. Some of that could have been added by a real increase in talent, but I don't imagine it was much. Two years ago, with a very average .291 BABIP, he was a liability in batting average. I'm not saying don't draft McCutchen--for instance, I think the power increase is real--but sixth overall is a reach, for a guy of diminishing speed and an inflated BABIP.

Here are the next six first rounders:

Albert Pujols 1B                ADP 7.02
Joey Votto 1B                     ADP 8.94
Carlos Gonzalez OF           ADP 10.12
Buster Posey C                ADP 10.20
Clayton Kershaw SP    ADP 12.64 
Prince Fielder 1B          ADP 13.96

So, we've finally made it to some 1B, plus we get the unusual sights of a C and a SP in the first round. Weird!

 Albert Pujols 1B .285/30/85/105/8

How the mighty have fallen! From having to arm-wrestle Hanley Ramirez for first overall every year to just the second player drafted out of his own lineup. Poor Albert. There is good news: without Cabrera, Pujols is back to being the top 1B in baseball. The move to Angel Stadium and the AL in general seem to have hurt Pujols's overall numbers, but if the line above is your bad season, I'd say you're still pretty good. If I get Pujols in the middle of the first round, I'll be ecstatic. Maybe the down turn is due to nothing more than simple ageing, and therefore here to stay, more or less. I'll still take him. At 33 (today, oddly enough--happy birthday!), he seems in line for a pretty graceful ageing curve.

For 2013, I'd be willing to bet that last year's line is closer to the lower-case scenario than the midpoint. Take out his April doldrums and you've got a much better season. One thing you shouldn't get your hopes up about is a big rebound in batting average: the .282 BABIP he put up last year was his fourth consecutive number below .300. I'd say we're looking at the new normal.

Joey Votto 1B .337/14/59/56/5

If last year's injury is behind him, and his power is back to form, Votto will be a great pick in the middle of the first. Those are some big if's, though. Without delving into his precise health status (check him out in Spring Training), it's worth noting that last year's .230 ISO was actually better than the .222 he put up in 2011. And that's counting the total power outage of his few second half games. So, maybe the 37 bombs of 2010 are more like the outlier.

Speaking of outliers, that .404 BABIP certainly is one. The good news is that his career mark is .359, so there seems to be some kind of skill going on there. Expect the BA to go down, but not to go from great to bad, as some players above might be seeing. More like, from great to just really good.  

With all this bad news, why do I still like Votto? For one thing, his 2011 was still pretty darn good, and in these days of lighter offense, they'll do just fine. The remote possibility that a season more like 2010 could be in the cards adds a nice bit of upside to balance out the risk. Just make sure you pay attention to his Spring scouting reports.

Carlos Gonzalez .303/22/89/85/20

CarGo is the same as he was last week, except that he's now being picked ninth overall. Believe it or not, it's a pretty big difference. It's not enough to make me really want to get him in the first--his health keeps his counting stats below the elite level. Sure, he could stay healthy and be truly elite, but he hasn't done it yet. As it is, he's splitting the difference between a great power hitter and a great base stealer and I'd much rather take one of the all-power 1B or OF drafted near him, and then grab a speed demon like Coco Crisp later on. Drop him into the second round, though, and you've got a different story. All the way to the third and you know I'm snatching him right up.

 Buster Posey C .336/24/78/103/1

Is it as weird for you as it is to me to consider a catcher in the first round? Well, I'm not about to toss him out just for the sheer strangeness of it. Winning the MVP and all, he really was great last year. How about next year? Let's examine his BA. Admitting, for a moment, the inherent uncertainty in the category, Posey's BABIP was a great-but-still-reasonable .368. As in, it wouldn't be the most shocking thing in the world if he did something similar again. All the better, his career BABIP is .339, so his odds of helping in the BA department seem pretty high.

His homers look similar, in that he ought to have great power, for a catcher. One potential red flag, however, is that his HR/FB rate spiked pretty high last year--to18.8%. It's tough to know his true talent level, though, since he's played so few seasons and he's young enough that he could still be making improvements as he cruises through his prime.

Examining him next to his competition (Yadier Molina and Joe Mauerfor instance, let alone Miguel Montero, Matt Wieters, A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Santana, Brian McCann, Mike Napoli, and everyone else) makes him look even better. No one touches his awesomeness. At least, not any catchers.

And that's where the problem lies. How badly do you want a catcher as your team's anchor? Posey is by far the best catcher available, but he's not nearly as productive as a tater mashing 1B or a power-speed OF. What makes Robinson Cano so great is that he does produce like a 1B. Posey doesn't, and, as a catcher, can't. Add the extra injury risk of the position and I have a hard time calling his name in the first round. Of course, if I do that, I'm all but guaranteed a sub-par player behind the plate.

 Clayton Kershaw SP (stats in IP/W/K/ERA/WHIP) 227.2/14/229/2.53/1.02

Kershaw is undoubtedly among the top starters, but as I've written before, I don't think he's far above some of the other elite pitchers--certainly not the way that Cabrera and Cano are above 3B or 2B, or even close to how much better Posey is than his fellow catchers. In fact, I'd call Kershaw the number two starter at best, behind Stephen Strasburg, so I definitely take issue with this pick. If you're taking a starter in the first, make it Strasburg.

That said, Kershaw is a boss. His K/9 ranks with the league leaders (except those named Strasburg, Darvish, and Scherzer) at 9.05--and his career numbers show he's capable of even more. He's been an innings horse since the kid gloves came off (three years in a row of 200+ IP, two in a row over 220 IP). His team should be a winner next year, so he's not at a disadvantage in wins like some aces (cough, cough Felix Hernandez). His K/BB rate is a great (if not elite) 3.63. His fastball even hits 93 mph on the radar gun.

The trouble with Kershaw in the first round is that, while everything in the paragraph above is true, it's true of several pitchers. If you get Kershaw in the first round and a position player in the second, while someone else takes Strasburg or Justin Verlander in the second, who got a better position player to anchor their lineup? How about someone picking in the third that takes Cole Hamels, Jared Weaver, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, King Felix, Cliff Lee, R.A. Dickey or...you get my point. 

 Prince Fielder 1B .313/30/83/108/1

Prince's stock is up this year, even after his production went down last year. Why? Ask Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira. First base is suddenly shallower than it has been in a long time. Given Fielder's age (still just 29), it isn't unreasonable to think that he could get more comfortable with his league and park and increase on last year's numbers. Even if he just holds the line, he's still clearly in the top tier at 1B, with only Pujols and Votto for company. If you can nab him the bottom of the first round of your draft, do it. The next chances to shore up your 1B slot aren't going to be very pretty.

Of course, it's not really position scarcity that makes Fielder a great pick, it's his own excellence. Last year's mild BABIP spike will probably even back out, leaving him with an average closer to his .287 career number than last year's mark, but that won't hurt. Especially if it comes with even a small bump in his homers. More in Fielder's favor is his health: he's played 157 games in every full season of his career--since 2006. Freak injuries can hit everyone, but Prince has a track record that embarrasses players like Votto, Kemp, and Gonzalez. Fielder is the sort of solidly excellent, low-risk player that I usually prefer in the first round. He'll anchor your offense in four categories and leave you free to take a risk in the second.

I'd reorder the whole group of players like this: Trout, Cabrera, Braun, Pujols, Cano, Fielder, Votto, Posey, Gonzalez, McCutchen, Kemp, Kershaw. Depending on their Spring Trainings, Kemp could move way up or Votto way down. In the fog of uncertainty, though, this is how I'd draft. A couple players that I think should be in the first are: Strasburg, Jose Bautista, maybe Adrian Beltre, and possibly even Curtis Granderson. Tune in next week for the Top of the Second (Round).

How to Win: Stolen Bases

Each week on How to Win, we'll be taking an in-depth look at a single category from the standard 5x5 league format. We'll feature draft and season strategies, league leaders, category sleepers, potential busts, and much more. This week, we center on stolen bases. Last year I drafted Jacoby Ellsbury in the first round, because I was sure getting that one great thief would be enough to win. It...um...wasn't.

Quick Overview
When many of us started playing fantasy, it was in the middle of a power heyday, stolen bases and the thieves who stole them were a rare and hot commodity. Things have changed, though, and the best advice I can give is not to go too crazy over steals for one simple reason: bad players can steal bases. Fringe major leaguers can give a lot of value in this category, which means that even fantasy leagues that snap up anyone with even a little power frequently have some emergency base-stealers waiting on the waiver wire.

2012's top 24
1. Mike Trout OF                     49
2. Rajai Davis OF                    46
3. Everth Cabrera SS               44
4. Michael Bourn OF              42
5. Ben Revere OF                     40
5. Jose Reyes SS                       40
6. Coco Crisp OF                      39
6. Shane Victorino OF           39
9. Juan Pierre OF                    37
9. Carlos Gomez OF                37 
11. Alcides Escobar SS           35
12. Jose Altuve 2B                   33
13. Dee Gordon SS                   32 
14. Jason Kipnis 2B                 31
14. B.J. Upton OF                     31
14. Desmond Jennings OF    31
17. Ryan Braun OF                 30
17. Norichika Aoki OF          30
17. Jimmy Rollins SS             30
17. Drew Stubbs OF               30
17. Jarrod Dyson OF             30
17. Emilio Bonifacio OF       30
23. Angel Pagan OF              29
23. Ichiro Suzuki OF             29
24. Jordan Schafer OF         27

Worth noting: Carlos Gonzalez and Andrew McCutchen  are counted as 5-category stars, but missed the cut with 20 steals each. Justin Upton slumped to just 18, while the injured Jacoby Ellsbury managed just 14 and Matt Kemp stole just 9.

When I first made this list, it went all the way down to players with just 21 steals. Then I realized I had limited my player pool to all those qualified for the batting title. Big mistake. It's important to remember that some of the most productive base stealers might be part timers like Davis and Pierre, or otherwise low-impact hitters like Cabrera and Schafer. In a way, this makes those few players who produce at the plate and on the basepaths more valuable (but we all knew that) and less valuable--because those steals really can be replaced.

Just to add a little historical context, here are the last three years' top thieves. Not a lot of power at the top of that list....

2010-2012's top 12
1. Michael Bourn OF        155 
2. Juan Pierre OF              132
3. Rajai Davis OF             130
4. Coco Crisp OF               120
5. Ichiro Suzuki OF          111
6. Jose Reyes SS                109
6. B.J. Upton OF               109
8. Drew Stubbs OF           100
9. Angel Pagan OF            98
9. Brett Gardner OF      98
11. Shane Victorino           92
12. Elvis Andrus SS        90 

Good Players Who Also Steal
Getting a steals-only burner isn't the only way to rack up points in this category. Here are some players who won't show up on the lists above but add steals anyway: Paul Goldschmidt (18), Chase Headley (17), Yoenis Cespedes (16), Adam Jones (16), Eric Hosmer (16), David Wright (15), Aaron Hill (14), Edwin Encarnacion (13), Brett Lawrie (13), Kyle Seager (13), Yadier Molina (12), Austin Jackson (12), Chase Utley (11), Josh Reddick (11), Curtis Granderson (10). None of these guys really count as "power-speed threats," but all would we worth drafting even if their steals totaled zero. Instead, they just help you out.

Plus Ones
So many speedy players are only speedy players, that a player who's a threat to steal a base and do even one other thing has a lot of extra value. Here are some quality thieves you can count on reasonably hope for a good average (if not much else) from: Revere, Pierre, Altuve, Aoki, Ichiro, Alejandro De Aza, Jon Jay, Martin Prado, Denard Span.

If batting average isn't your thing, maybe you'll like these guys, who score a few runs to go with their steals (and, again, not much else): Andrus, Dustin Ackley, Victorino, Gomez, Escobar, Crisp, Cameron Maybin, Will Venable. Add anyone who starts leading off to this list too, whatever they did last year.  

Cheap Steals
Here are some players you shouldn't have to reach too far to get, but they'll add those steals nonetheless. All have an ADP of 100 or more and stole at least 20 bases last year -- and should again. De Aza, Aoki, Revere, Victorino, Crisp, Maybin, Pierre, Aybar, Michael Saunders, Stubbs, Cabrera. All these guys could provide useful value, but my favorite has to be Cabrera, with his 44 steals and his 239.30 ADP. If all the shortstops who can actually hit are gone, Cabrera makes a great alternative to guys like Andrus and Gordon.

Potential Busts
The easiest way for a base stealer to bust is to get pulled from the lineup or sent down to the minors. The next easiest, though, is to get caught a few too many times and convince their team take the green light off. Here are some guys we expect to get steals out of...but that maybe their manager should shut down: Starlin Castro, McCutchen, Wright, Andrus, Jackson, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Upton. Castro and McCutchen worry me especially, because they're getting caught a ton on the bases and they're both getting drafted very early. Someone taking McCutchen in the first round won't be thrilled if he turns into a four-category player next year. 

A Few Last Words
There are a lot of ways to win in stolen bases, but I think the best thing to do is to mix and match the strategies available. If you can get a power-speed guy in the first couple rounds, go for it. Drafting several good players who happen to steal bases can pad your totals without forcing you to use early picks on high-quantity base stealers. Nabbing a couple plus-ones toward the end of the draft is a great way to fill out your MI slot or your fourth or fifth OF. The most important thing you can do, though, is keep an eye on the waiver wire, because you can find a lot more steals there than homers. 

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