Fantasy Stars


RotoAuthority Unscripted: What to Do with Albert Pujols?

Last week, I got into a comments debate about Albert Pujols with a reader known only as “Tom.” We went back and forth on Pujols’ value, his outlook for the rest of the season, and whether or not a particular trade involving a number of high profile players makes sense. At one point I--harried with the huge demands of being a big-time fantasy expert (or was it my day job?)--promised to put off finishing my analysis of Albert Pujols. 

Well, Tom, here’s your answer. Since this is RotoAuthority Unscripted, I promise to go into this article and my investigation without cherry-picking the evidence to fit my original recommendation—I’ll go where the facts lead me. As best as I can understand them. Also, I promise not to make this a particularly well-organized article. I take the “unscripted” label very seriously.

For those of you not old enough to remember, Albert Pujols was once among the greatest players to ever live, spending 10 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, with lows of 32 homers, .299 batting average, 99 RBI, 99 Runs Scored, and 143 Games Played. Seriously, those are the worst numbers he put up in the decade from 2001-2011. So…you could say that things have changed somewhat, as Pujols has only exceeded those career lows in one stat since moving to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Is that even still their name? Can’t we just go back to California Angels?) He drove in 105 RBI in 2012. It’s been a story of ageing, huge paydays, dropping BABIP’s, bad defence, the inability to run, and plantar fasciitis. Maybe LA isn’t for everyone.

So, that’s the past, but it’s an important backdrop to what’s going on with Pujols now, because your fantasy team isn’t locked into a hundred ten-year contract with him, and his play this year hasn’t been unambiguously good or bad. So, is he someone to trade for or someone to trade away? And what can we really expect to see from him for the next four months?

 Here’s the Pujolsian line thus far in 2014.

Runs

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

35

15

35

2

.245

.304

.486

 And here are some of his slightly-farther-under-the-hood numbers.

BB%

SO%

ISO

BABIP

7.0%

12.6%

.241

.226

So his production has been pretty ambiguous: the power is there (15 homers ties him for 8th in MLB) but he’s killing you in average and probably worse in OBP. His ISO is pretty good for the “New Albert” (starting 2011), and actually fits into the lower range of the earlier, better part of his career. His BABIP, however is by far the worst of his career and marks the third year in a row of decline.

Nice! We can chalk Albert’s struggles up to some bad luck, assume that his average will bounce back and be happy that it hasn’t hurt his power in the meantime. Right?

With a mid-career player, or one who hasn’t been hobbled by injuries that line of thinking would work just fine. But that’s not what we have. There are two other serious possible explanations for Pujols’ BABIP troubles, neither of which recommend him very well at all: one or more important skills has permanently regressed due to age; he remains injured, perhaps chronically so, impacting one of those “important skills.” In the bad-luck scenario, Pujols is an easy trade for candidate. In the other scenarios, he may well be someone you should be shipping off your team…or maybe still trading for, if the price and your expectations are low enough.

Let’s take a look at some of Pujols’ batted ball data, and see how this is happening.

 

GB/FB

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB

2014

1.14

15.9

44.9

39.3

20.2

17.9

Career

1.02

18.9

41.0

40.1

13.1

18.7

 Once again, we’ve got a seriously mixed bag here. I’ve bolded the three most interesting numbers. The first is his line drive percentage—it’s way down from his career numbers—so that’s actually pretty easy to see as the cause of his BABIP troubles…but it leaves the answer unknown: is it down due to skill diminution or bad luck? Where have those line drives been going?

Straight up in the air it turns out: his popups (IFFB’s) are far above his career norms, and even far above his more recent, less illustrious years. So that’ll kill your BABIP right there, hitting a bunch of popups instead of liners. I’ve always heard that popups are just a hair off of flyballs, so maybe the increased infield flies are the result of Pujols trying for more power on every swing…just a guess, so don’t bank on that one. It is worth noting, though, that his previous highest IFFB rates came much earlier in his career, in higher-power years.

The last number to stand out significantly is that HR/FB rate that’s actually pretty close to his career norm. That’s a big deal because this rate is by far the highest that he’s posted as an Angel. If he has changed his approach to get more power, it’s working. 

In our comment debate, Tom mentioned that Pujols’ flyball distance is about ten feet less than his career norm. I assume that rate is counting infield flies among the flyballs—so I think we’ve found our culprit for the statistical oddity of shorter flies and more homers at the same time. All those popups. We may be back to the drawing board if the flyball distance doesn’t count IFFB’s though. I honestly couldn’t find that information, so if you know, I’ll be happy to be shown the light, either way. 

Pujols has been hot and cold this season: he was a fantasy monster to start the season, putting up huge numbers in March/April, and he’s cooled a fair bit since then. In particular, Pujols’ strikeout rate shot up and his homers went way down. It’s too early to say if the strikeouts are a one-month aberration or a trend. Nine homers in a month, however, is probably just something to be happy about and not expect every time out. Most of his other indicators were pretty similar, however, including his BABIP: .237 in March/April and .241 in May. (Things aren’t off to such a good start in June, either, but we’ll let that go for now).

The elephant in the room is still that BABIP, with it’s thinly veiled suggestion of debilitating injury. Pujols certainly doesn’t look so great running, and his defence isn’t exactly what it used to be, but he’s played in 61 of the Angels’ 62 games, 47 of them at first base. It’s entirely possible that his foot is still bothering him…but less possible to prove. As far as placing odds on his health for the rest of the season…well, I wish I could, because I’d be a lot better at fantasy baseball if I had that kind of clairvoyance.

Pujols has had one killer month and one less-than-awesome month, and—by the looks of it—he’s done a bit of self-reinvention. If he doesn’t still have the skills to be baseball’s best all-around hitter, he’s concentrating on power, even at the cost of more whiffs, more popups, and a lower batting average. The results are there in the home runs, and with a good lineup around him, you can expect them to be there in RBI and Runs Scored as well. 

After taking another look at Pujols, I feel less confident that he’ll be doing much to drag his average up into levels that help you out. I do suspect that he’s lost something when it comes to his hit tool. That said, I also suspect that he’s run into some good, old-fashioned small sample luck: a .226 BABIP is really low, and I think it will go up a bit, brining his .245 average in to a more palatable level. 

I also think his power is pretty real: the homers are serious, and they’re not just the most important part left in his game, they’re also the most important fantasy category. Now, before you have me down as predicting that he'll keep up with his early homer pace and have 45 homers under his belt by the season's end, I'll admit that his HR/FB rate has probably also gotten some small sample luck--just the good kind. 

But even if Pujols only manages five homers per month for the rest of the season (his low end this year), he'll still end up with about 35 bombs--that's pretty good. I honestly wouldn't be shocked if it were even a little better than that. Given the leaguewide diminishing levels of power, getting a serious homer source should be a high priority for just about everybody. Pujols may have just one thing left, but he’s got the one thing we all need the most. That, combined with getting a good deal based on his recent slumping, seems to make him a strong trade for candidate. I’d pull the trigger on a Pujols deal. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t deal him away for the right price either….

 

 

 



Fantasy Stars: Bottom of the Third (Round)

It's the final edition of Fantasy Stars, which I know brings tears to my eyes and yours. Dry 'em off, though, because we at RotoAuthority are kicking off our Player Rankings in just two days! 

After a whole week of waiting, here are the last of our fantasy stars. Check out the top half of the third round here, and last week's bonus column here. As always on Fantasy Stars, the Average Draft Position (ADP) numbers come from MockDraftCentral and come from 154 qualifying drafts. The stats shown with the position players are the Big 5:  AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB and IP/SV/K/ERA/WHIP for relief pitchers. (No starters this round.)

Bottom of the Third (Round)

31. Craig Kimbrel, RP         ADP 33.23

32. Hanley Ramirez, SS     ADP 34.44

33. Jason Heyward, OF     ADP 36.45

34. Allen Craig, 1B              ADP 37.51

35. Starlin Catro, SS           ADP 37.52

36. Ian Kinsler, 2B             ADP 37.88

31. Craig Kimbrel, RP  62.2/42/116/1.01/0.65 (Saves, in bold, replace wins here.)
Kimbrel is the only elite relief pitcher and he's the only one that you can justify taking anywhere near this early. He isn't a tier ahead of all other relievers, he's several tiers ahead. Between his otherworldly excellence, and the paucity of other dependable closers with the track records to keep their jobs through rough patches, Kimbrel really stands out. Just look at those ratios, let alone the whiffs. He gives you half of a great starter's K's in under a third of the innings. If you play in a standard league, the kind with an innings cap, he's a great choice here.

If you're in a weekly league...I'd actually pass. The low innings that are a strength with a cap are a weakness without one, just as they are for all mortal relievers. Yes, he's the best, but in head to head, you don't necessarily want the best. At least not in the third round.

A final note of caution comes in just two words: Eric Gagne. Remember how good he was? Yes, Kimbrel strikes more guys out, yes his ERA and WHIP make it look like 1968...but great relievers flame out in a way that other players don't; they're subject to a lot more luck than other players, plus the usual injury cautions that come with pitchers. Even the best reliever in the game carries a lot of downside.

32. Hanley Ramirez, SS .257/24/79/92/21
Remember the days when Hanley used to arm-wrestle Albert Pujols for the number-one overall pick? I do, and maybe Hanley does too. After a horrific and injury-marred 2011, he bounced back pretty well in 2012. Not all the way back to the top--leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of all who drafted him with such hopes, I'm sure. Considering his numbers in line with those of other shortstops, not to mention the fact that a whole year in Los Angeles' lineup instead of Miami's, and I could see Ramirez inching up closer to his glory days. Not all the way there, but closer.

He won't be 30 until after the season and he made it up to the Majors nice and young, which gives him a better-than average shot of staying productive longer. I like him a lot as the number-two shortstop in the game, but if you draft him and he's better than he was last year, don't thank me--thank my wife, because it was she who first looked at Hanley's numbers with an objective eye and suggested a rebound to me. I was gonna take Starlin Castro....

    
33. Jason Heyward, OF .269/27/93/82/21
Heyward isn't 24 yet and he's already one of the best outfielders in baseball. He's got the track record and the prospect-pedrigree to get better, and he makes a very nice upside play here in the bottom of the third round. He's the third Braves outfielder being drafted, but he's got a great chance to be the best next year. If he inches the average up just a little, he becomes a 5-category player, since he added a bit of speed to his game last year. (I'm telling you, all the cool kids steal bases these days.) 

That same average represents his risk factor, but it isn't a huge risk. If he plays exactly as he did last year, this will be only a small overpay. How many already-good, former top-prospects don't get even better at age 23? Not enough to make me think twice about drafting Heyward here, or even higher.

    
34. Allen Craig, 1B/OF .307/22/76/92/2
Allen Craig is 28. He's not elderly, by baseball's standards or those of the real world, but he is too old to have been a prospect last year. He burst onto the scene like one, with 22 homers and a great average in just 514 PA. He'll go into next year as the Cardinals' first baseman, and he'll have some good hitters around him. But he's 28, and he turns 29 in the middle of the season.

I'm not ready to relegate him to the Quad-A status of a half-year wonder--he really does seem better than that--but he's being drafted closer to where the elite first basemen are than those with serious question marks, and he has those question marks. His position isn't as deep as it once was, and drafters are reaching for production there, but this is a reach too much. At this point in the draft, you're better off skipping by first base, taking from another position, and grabbing a similarly risky player a few rounds later. Or, you could just take the much safer and still excellent Billy Butler. Could Craig be better than Butler next year? Sure. But Craig could be terrible next year, and Butler almost certainly won't be. 

             
35. Starlin Catro, SS  .283/14/78/78/25
Right here you can read what I thought of Castro two weeks ago, in spot 30. My feelings haven't changed. He's a great player, an elite shortstop, and he isn't as good as Jose Reyes. He's a good enough choice here, but only if Reyes and Ramirez are off the board. 

      
36. Ian Kinsler, 2B .256/19/105/72/21
Our own Mark Polishuk discusses the relative merits of Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia here, but I'll just look at Kinsler for the moment. First of all, look at his stats from year to year: is he a power hitter or isn't he? Is he a speed guy, or isn't he? I guess he's both, but with all the time he misses it's hard to be sure.

He's now had two full seasons in a row, which is weird enough, but this time his performance slipped badly, especially in homers and steals. If he's a 20/20 guy with a lousy average and a ton of runs scored, there are a lot of better second basemen. If he's a 30/30 guy with a lousy average and a ton of runs there's only one better second baseman. So who is he? I honestly don't know, but at 31 the former looks more likely than it ever has before. There's a lot of risk here, and there are several second sackers who have lower risk factors and lower price tags. No, Pedroia, Ben Zobrist, Jason Kipnis, and Aaron Hill don't have the upside that Kinsler has, but they won't cost you as much either.

Here's a re-ranked third round, for tradition's sake: Strasburg, Longoria, Ramirez, Gonzalez, Wright, Heyward, Upton, Kimbrel, Bruce, Castro, Kinsler, Craig.

Finally, several players fell out of the Fantasy Stars rankings altogether: Yadier Molina, Cliff Lee, David Price, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jose Reyes. I would definitely take Reyes in the third round (right ahead of Wright), but all the others look a lot more sensible in their new landing spots.

These rankings will change and change again before draft day, so keep mocking, and keep checking the rankings. Remember, though, that ADP won't let you read the minds of the other owners in your league. If he's your guy, and you're getting value, grab him now, even if ADP says he should still be around by your next turn. You never know who's having the same thought as you.



Fantasy Stars: Top of the Third (Round)

Welcome to the penultimate edition of Fantasy Stars. This week we'll be looking at the first six players off the board in the third round. Last week, we discussed the latter half of the second round, ending on Josh Hamilton in pick number 24. He's been passed up by David Wright and Giancarlo Stanton and dropped a spot into pick 25. The picks are still close enough that their strategic value really isn't any different. For our purposes, we'll just pretend like Wright is still Mr. Number 25 and lead off the top of the third with him.

As always on Fantasy Stars, the Average Draft Position (ADP) numbers come from  MockDraftCentral and come from 111 qualifying drafts. The stats shown with the players are the Big 5:  AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB for position players and IP/W/K/ERA/WHIP for starting pitchers. 

25. David Wright, 3B              ADP 25.83
26. Cliff Lee, SP                         ADP 30.05
27. Yadier Molina, C             ADP 30.93
28. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF      ADP 31.07
29. Jose Reyes, SS                  ADP 31.38
30. Starlin Castro, SS            ADP 33.97 

In these picks, drafters seem to be paying a little more attention to position scarcity than in the first and second round, with two shortstops, a third baseman, and a catcher. Nothing wrong with that in my mind; the third round is a great time start caring about these sorts of things.

25. David Wright, 3B    .306/21/91/93/15
Wright is a pretty acceptable pick here. He bounced back from his injury-marred 2011 campaign and, while he hasn't recovered his mid-00's form, he's returned to near the top of a tough position. Cabrera is a clear number one, Beltre the clear number two, and Wright probably ought to be the number three guy at third base. (Though you could make a case for Evan Longoria too.)

It should be made clear that this is a position scarcity move, however. Wright isn't the player he was at his peak, and he hasn't shown signs of returning. The HR's have dropped to the low 20's; between that drop and the Mets' lineup I'd be pretty surprised if he matched last year's Run and RBI totals. With a SB% of just 60% last year, it would make sense to see him run less and less. His batting average is still good, though, thanks to a career's worth of great BABIP's, and I don't imagine that changing for 2013 unless injuries bite again. When you go after him, though, you have to remember that average is the only category in which he's an impact player. 

26. Cliff Lee, SP 211/6/207/3.16/1.11
Cliff Lee was so good in 2012. His 3.16 ERA matched his 3.13 FIP almost exactly. He posted the second best  K/9 rate of his career, 8.83. His K/BB of 7.39 led the Majors by almost two full points. Too bad he played for the Houston Astros and they couldn't muster up a win for him until the Fourth of July. Oh, what? He didn't play for the Astros? Then how did that happen? The Phillies weren't good last year, and a lot of their good points are tied up in Lee's left arm (not to mention the arms of Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay), but they aren't so bad that what happened last year should be considered the norm.

Mock drafters aren't nearly as worried as I would have liked, because I was selfishly hoping for some sneaky value here. I guess playing fantasy baseball against Buzzie Bavasi puts too much emphasis on fantasy. Regardless, I like using a third round pick on Lee, and I think he might be the best bet in pitching after Strasburg, Kershaw, and Verlander are gone. The one caveat is the one I mentioned about David Price in the last go around, and that's that there remain several high-quality starters that will still be available to someone using this pick on Lee.

27. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF .271/4/43/26/14
In the RotoAuthority Silver League, I made Ellsbury my proud first pick at the end of the first round. Coming off a 2011 in which he'd been one of the best players in baseball and added sudden power to his game of blazing speed and good batting average, I was pretty excited. Even if the power fell off, I'd be left with a game-changing base stealer. It was a no-lose situation.

As you may recall, I lost. Injuries have been a big part of Ellsbury's career, killing two of his last three seasons. I took the risk on my fellow Oregonian last year, and I'd do it again this year--for a discount. I don't expect much power in 2013--his ISO of .099 was less than half of the .230 he posted in his big 2011--but the upside is there. The downside remains a season lost to injury, but the median remains too: a good average hitter with enough speed to carry your team to the top of the category. Unless something drastic changes in his health, he'll be a risk every year, in fantasy and in real life, but for now he's a pretty good risk to take. 

I would rather have him in the fourth round than right here, but if you believe more fervently in his power potential, or can't bear to draft the likes of Coco Crisp or Alcides Escobar later on, I can understand. I probably wouldn't take him with OF's Curtis Granderson or B.J. Upton still on the board, and I definitely wouldn't take him over Jose Reyes, who we'll be looking at momentarily.

 28. Yadier Molina, C .315/22/65/76/12
When Yadier Molina first came up, he hit like...well...he hit like his brother Jose. Then he added batting average and he was a good average, nothing else catcher. Then in 2011 his power output more than doubled, from six to 14 homers. Then, in 2012 he clubbed 22 and slugged .501 with a .186 ISO. For kicks, he added 12 stolen bases, proving my thesis that everyone is stealing bases and their value is dropping accordingly. But that's another story, this one belongs to the new Best Molina Brother.

Yadier Molina is an easy choice for second catcher off the board, coming as he does without the health concerns of Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, or Carlos Santana, and without a single weakness in his category game.

Not every projection system is bullish about Molina retaining all the power he found last year, but even a reversion to his 2011 numbers is like Miguel Montero but with stolen bases. His batting average is also one of the safest looking, since he managed it with just a slightly above-average .316 BABIP. Actually, it wouldn't take much good luck for his average to improve next season.

So, he's the catcher you want--do you want a catcher in the second round? Just because he's the best catcher left no longer means that he's the only good catcher left. (It sure used to.) Mauer, Napoli, Santana, Montero, Matt Wieters, Wilin Rosario, Salvador Perez, and Victor Martinez are all pretty good. You can even dream on Jesus Montero, hope for a Brian McCann comeback, or an A.J. Pierzynski repeat. There's a lot more depth at catcher than we're all used to, which means I'd rather take one of the shortstops coming up next, get the fourth or fifth best catcher and have two good players at weak positions. Remember also that a catcher's low playing time limits the goodness of his batting average.

29. Jose Reyes, SS .287/11/86/57/40
Reyes is a great choice here. Actually, I think he's a pretty good choice in the second round too. Shortstop is such a weak position and Reyes has stats that would be impact numbers even in the outfield. That combination makes him a great investment. 

I think it's reasonable to bet on Reyes to increase his homer total. Though Marlins Park in Miami and Rogers Centre in Toronto had almost identical overall park effects last year, their HR effects couldn't have been more different: 0.720 in Miami, 1.030 in Toronto. He's going from a park that depressed homers at a huge rate (making it the fifth-worst) to one that's more or less average. I don't think Reyes will break 20 homers this year, but he could certainly scrape it, which would be pretty good for a shortstop who didn't steal bases by the dozen.

He turns 30 this year, so it's probably too late to wish for a return of his 60-steal days, but another 40 if he can stay healthy wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Expect a healthy Reyes to give three categories of excellence and throw in a few extras in homers. Don't get too excited about his RBI total, but who's quibbling at this point?

30. Starlin Castro, SS .283/14/78/78/25
Whenever I see two position scarce players in a row, I wonder if the whole of mock drafters are going on a collective position run. Well, a small one. Or, at least, one big groupthink knee-jerk reaction. It's not that I don't like Castro, it's just that he's not as good as Reyes and it seems odd that they should have such apparently equal value.

To be fair, the big difference is in steals, and that isn't so big that Castro couldn't conceivably close the gap as he improves. Right? Don't bet on it. Castro's SB% is almost exactly 66%--or right on the new break-even for success on the basepaths. If I were his manager, I'd keep him running exactly as much as he is right now. Reyes is succeeding more than 78% of the time, which is to say he might help the team by running even more. Maybe the Blue Jays will notice that and maybe they won't, but I bet they aren't going to be slowing him down any time soon.

Castro could improve in this or any other aspect of his game (he is just 23), he also might not. The third round isn't a terrible time to grab a player who is good now and has a decent chance of getting better but he's no sure thing, and he isn't the only shortstop who might see some improvement in the immediate future. 

Here's how I would reorder these players: Reyes, Wright, Lee, Castro, Ellsbury, Molina. In a departure from previous weeks, I think all six are sensible third round picks. While there are some whole positions I might shy away from, these are the players I'd take if I were going to draft a catcher or a starter. 

Tune in next week, for the exciting conclusion of the third round, not to mention the Fantasy Stars series. Don't spend too much time mourning the loss because the Player Rankings will be taking its place!



Fantasy Stars: Bottom of the Second (Round)

This week on Fantasy Stars, we finish off the second round of a standard fantasy draft. In case you missed it, last week we caught the top half of the second. Some time before that, we caught the top and bottom of the first. Check those out if you haven't yet. Before we begin, I might as well give you the old bad news/good news treatment. The bad: Fantasy Stars will be coming to a close in two weeks, after the third round is covered. Why? Well, they're not exactly stars after that point, are they? 

The good news: we'll be rolling out our first set of Player Rankings in their place! If I know fantasy junkies, you're as excited as I am for the rankings, and I just used bold, underline, and an exclamation point all at once.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves any more than we already have--here's the bottom half of the second fantasy round. As always on Fantasy Stars, the Average Draft Position (ADP) numbers come from MockDraftCentral and come from 104 qualifying drafts. The stats shown with the players are the Big 5:  AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB for position players and IP/W/K/ERA/WHIP for starting pitchers. 

19. Stephen Strasburg, SP       ADP 22.09
20. David Price, SP                   ADP 23.12
21. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B        ADP 23.24
22. Adam Jones, OF                 ADP 24.71
23. Josh Hamilton, OF           ADP 25.14
24. Giancarlo Stanton, OF     ADP 25.38 

19. Stephen Strasburg, SP 159.1/15/197/3.16/1.15
You should know by now that I'm all about Strasburg. I honestly believe that he's the best fantasy pitcher to draft this year, and that there is more day light between him and number two (Kershaw/Verlander), than there is between them and the next guy. I love Strasburg's strikeouts: he whiffed 30.2% of all the batters he faced last year, good for an 11.13 K/9. His K/BB was great too, even for an ace, at 4.10. So why is he available with this pick? My guess is irrational fear of the unknown and irrational safety in numbers.

Nobody in your league will laugh at you if you draft Kershaw or Verlander nice and early. Nobody will flame you in your mock draft--they have high ADP's, so everyone else is doing it. You could be cool and do it too and you'll be fine. Or, you could be even cooler, and get a distinct advantage in strikeouts while enjoying all the benefits of great pitching for good teams by nabbing Strasburg.

The main reason not to like Strasburg are both related to how much he will pitch, and not at all to how well. Everyone seems to agree that his talent is special. The arguments I've heard are these: he might get hurt, he might get an innings cap. First of all, yes, he might get hurt. So might any pitcher. Strasburg has an injury history, but it's with a nice, predictable, first Tommy John surgery. I don't see any objective evidence to think he's any more injury-risky than any other great young pitcher. I do see objective evidence that he's better than other great young pitchers.

As far as that IP cap goes, don't bet on it. Last year, Washington flamed out of the playoffs despite baseball's best record. This year, they're fighting for the hearts and minds of their citizens over the suddenly-fun-to-watch Orioles, and the ever-continuing drama of politics. Oh, and they're fighting to win the World Series for the first time since 1924! Until Davey Johnson or Mike Rizzo come out and say Strasburg is on a definite innings limit, I'm not gonna act like he is. In fact, I probably won't even if they do say it.

20. David Price, SP 211/20/205/2.56/1.10
Finally, I get to argue about a pitcher not ranked higher than Strasburg. Forget that drafting Price here makes him look like Strasburg's equal, that doesn't matter. The questions are, should you get a pitcher in the second round, and should Price be the one when the top three are off the board?

The first question is easy enough to answer: no, probably not. Why? Because there are a decent number of good pitchers out there, aces to build your staff around. They start going in the first round with Kershaw, but--depending on who you're willing to call an ace--they hang around until somewhere around the sixth round with CC Sabathia. I like to get two such pitchers, but in most leagues you won't need to use a second round pick to do it--a third and fifth will do just fine, for instance. After the top three are gone, the next eight or so are pretty similar, and all valuable.

But, assuming you should get a pitcher here (I mean, it is defensible), is Price the one you want? He did win 20 games last year with a 2.56 ERA, so yeah, he totally is. Then again, he won just 12 games with a 3.49 ERA in 2011, so no, you don't want him. To make matters worse, he did it with nearly identical K/9's (8.75 and 8.74) and K/BB's (2.53 and 2.52). His BABIP allowed, his WHIP, and his AVG against all stayed pretty much the same too. What changed? His HR/9 dropped from 0.88 in 2011 to 0.68 in 2012, and his LOB% jumped from 73.3% to 81.1%. Unfortunately, that last one isn't a very repeatable stat. 

His FIP also changed from 2011 to 2012, and for the better, going from 3.32 to 3.05. Of course, the bad news is that he went from a little unlucky, to better but very lucky. Everything here says to expect his ERA to jump up again next year, though Tropicana Field (park effect 0.874) will probably keep his ERA under his FIP. So he'll be good in ERA, very likely, but he probably won't be stellar either.

For an ace, Price is good but not at the top with strikeouts (205) and K/BB (3.47), while pitching a high level of innings (211) for a good team. He should help nicely in all four starter categories without being the best at any. He's a defensible pick, seeing how lousy the Phillies have become, hurting their aces wins in the process. I can see taking Price here, but ultimately, I don't really want to be the one taking the first player in a tier of similar ones, and that's who Price is: the most balanced of a group that includes R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, and maybe Jered Weaver.

21. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B .286/20/82/82/18
You know it's a bad sign for offense in baseball when the number-four first baseman in baseball couldn't slug .500 in Arizona. Let's face it, this is a bad pick. Goldschmidt has a lot of consonants in his name and he stole bases as a first baseman. He's also sort of young at 25 and could therefore improve. Cool. Don't pick him in the second round.

I believe in taking calculated risks in fantasy baseball, not trendy ones, and that's what Goldschmidt has become. In a down year for first basemen in general, he rebounded from an early slump and put up a pretty nice total season, earning him the love of fantasy owners everywhere. He was good, and he'd be a good option at first base. But the second round is not where you draft someone with one good-but-not-amazing season under his belt. Not when there are All-Stars still available in the outfield, and not when he didn't really out hit Adam LaRoche--who can be drafted over 100 picks later. By taking Goldschmidt you're paying for upside he might or might not realize and those 18 steals--which are nice, but steals are the new candy--you can find them all over the place. If you really want a little bit of power and a little bit of speed in the second round, take Jimmy Rollins. Otherwise, grab a proven power hitter or a risk with a bigger upside.

22. Adam Jones .287/32/103/82/16
Speaking of proven power hitters and risks with bigger upside, Adam Jones is basically both of those at once. At 27, he's in the middle of his prime and he's made what is in retrospect, pretty steady progress throughout his career. With consistently good-but-not-awesome average, he'll do no harm there, while helping a lot in three categories and throwing in a few steals for fun. This is the sort of player who's worth a second round pick. What he did last year was good enough to feel pretty safe about his floor. The way he got there was consistent enough to feel like more improvement is distinctly possible. If it happens, great, you got a bargain. If it doesn't, well, you overpaid a little but really enjoyed what you got, so it's okay.

The argument against him is just this: there are probably better outfielders left on the board. That's the board's fault, though, not Jones's. If Stanton and Granderson are available when you take Jones, I think that's a mistake. But they really, really shouldn't be available, so Jones is a perfectly acceptable pick here.

23. Josh Hamilton, OF .285/43/103/128/7
Hamilton is a totally unique case in all of baseball given the intersection of his personal history and his professional health. There isn't much to be sure about, except that he's missed significant time to injury in three of his six "full" Major League seasons--including almost half of 2009. Actually, we can also be sure that he's hit like a beast in those seasons and struck out even more.

Our own Mark Polishuk gives good reasons not to draft Hamilton and the most compelling are the strikeouts. His whiff total ballooned from 95 in 2011 to 162 in 2012, meaning he struck out in just over a quarter of his total at bats. That's basically like facing Justin Verlander every time you bat. Age, injury worries, and the move to a rough park add on reasons to worry, each ratcheting up the risk of using a draft pick on Hamilton, or lowering his upside. At his best, Hamilton is easily a top-tier fantasy outfielder, but it's always a question whether or not you'll get his best. I like him better than Mark does for 2013, but not by enough to draft him in the second round. Maybe in the third....

24. Giancarlo Stanton, OF .290/37/75/86/6
Stanton's 37 homers ranked 7th in all baseball, and he did it in without playing enough to qualify for the batting title. That playing time was lost to a knee injury that I'm not at all worried about, given that 18 of those homers came in August or later, after his return. His .608 SLG ranked second only to David Ortiz among players with 300 PA or more. There is no reason whatsoever for Stanton to be ranked this low in the second round. Homers are seriously the new scarcity, and Stanton is well worth paying whatever price it takes to get him.

If you still aren't convinced, check out his ISO last year: .318! Well above Ortiz, Hamilton, or Jose Bautista, and .041 points ahead of anybody else. This guy has power, consistently putting over a quarter of his fly balls into the seats--including a 28.9% mark last year. And he's just 23. He could get better. Not like, maybe this year is the year he puts it all together, not like, it's an odd-numbered year so he should produce, not like, he's in his prime and might still get better before he starts to decline, no Giancarlo Stanton is a real, live young player who has not yet entered the range of ages normally considered peak years. Why is he not the third outfielder off the board? 

The knocks on Stanton are that he's got no speed and the Miami Marlins are gonna be execrable next year. Just putrid. Oh well. With homers like those, he'll be in line for plenty of Runs and RBI's no matter where he plays. Right now, he's easily the best bargain in the first two rounds.

Given just the players currently being drafted in the second round, here's how I'd reorder them: Strasburg, Stanton, Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Troy Tulowitzki, Verlander, Jones, Hamilton, Price, Harper, Upton, Goldschmidt.

Everyone from Strasburg to Beltre I'd consider grabbing in the first round, while everyone from Hamilton onward is best left for later in the draft. Some players getting drafted later that I'd consider slotting into the second round include: Granderson, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, and maybe Adrian Gonzalez and Evan Longoria. But we'll have to check them out next time....

 



Fantasy Stars: Top of the Second (Round)

After covering the top and bottom of the first round of a standard fantasy draft, we're charging ahead into the second. In a standard draft, picks 13-18 represent the second choice of the last six teams to draft. Thanks to the quick turnaround here, the differences in the value of the picks starts out pretty low. Actually, it starts out at nil, since the twelfth team in draft order gets to take pick number 13 as well.

As always on Fantasy Stars, the Average Draft Position (ADP) numbers come from MockDraftCentral and come from 110 qualifying drafts. The stats shown with the players are the Big 5:  AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB for position players and IP/W/K/ERA/WHIP for starting pitchers. 

13. Jose Bautista OF             ADP 13.97
14. Justin Upton OF             ADP 14.65
15. Justin Verlander SP       ADP 15.27
16. Adrian Beltre 3B             ADP 15.99
17. Troy Tulowitzki SS        ADP 17.01
18. Bryce Harper OF            ADP 19.85

Technically speaking, Bautista is getting drafted 12th and Prince Fielder is going 13th, but since they'd both be going to the same team, there isn't a valuation change to analyze for Fielder. So, let's just call Bautista number 13.

13. Jose Bautista OF.241/27/64/65/5
So far, the news coming out about Bautista is that he's healing well and is performing baseball activities, and he looks to be ready for the start of the season, after last season's catastrophic wrist injury. Watch him and the news about him in Spring Training of course, but for the moment let's assume that everything knowable is fine. If that changes, so will this valuation.

Even a healthy Bautista isn't a perfect player. Not only is he not a five-category player, he's not even a four-category guy: last year's low batting average can be traced to an awful .215 BABIP, which should recover plenty. However, the best BABIP of his career was just .309 (in 2011), and that netted him just a .302 average. Something in the .270-ish range seems most likely for him, but I'd probably take the low on that.

But I'd still take Bautista with this pick. (I might not pair him with Prince, but that isn't the point.) The three categories in which he produces, he excels. He's got a ton of power, in a way that's more reminiscent of the late 90's and early 2000's than it is this age of pitchers and speedsters. He doesn't just have heavy power, but so few other players have even medium power these days that his homers are a lot more valuable than they once were. On top of that, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, and maybe even Melky Cabrera and Brett Lowrie should give him plenty of runners to hit in, and give him plenty of pitches to hit. Expect to see him among the league's leaders in RBI's and Runs. Too bad he doesn't retain his 3B eligiblity.

14. Justin Upton OF .280/17/107/67/18
Pass. Upton's stock hasn't taken much of a hit after his dismal 2012, and I'm pretty surprised. All right, I know he was going in the second half of the first round in a lot of drafts last year, but let's face it, the second half of the first round is basically the same as the first half of the second. I don't know if it's denial, wishful thinking, or what, but it seems like if you're gonna draft someone who was this disappointing last year, you should only do so at a discount. What if he repeats and the power doesn't return? This is two seasons out of the last three in which he's hit fewer than 20 homers, so I don't think that possibility is all that shocking. Using an early second-round pick on a pick with as high a downside as Upton just isn't worth it.

It isn't just Upton's downside that makes me want to pass, though. It's that I'm not that thrilled with his upside. As a Mariner fan, I was downright grateful he turned down a trade to Seattle, actually. Upton possesses that mythical "power/speed" combo in theory, but he didn't exactly do either last year. In fact, his career high in steals is just 21. In the old days, that was big news. Not so much anymore. He's less like Mike Trout and more like Mike Cameron (but without jumping over outfield walls). He strikes out a ton (at least 121 every year since 2008) and it takes a BABIP miracle to give him a quality batting average. He hits homers (some years), but not as many as potentially comparable outfielders being drafted behind him like Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones, Giancarlo Stanton, and Curtis Granderson.

I suppose the argument to be made in his favor is his age: he's still just 25. Adam Jones took the Big Step this past year, and Upton himself seemed to do so in 2011. But what if he didn't? What if disappointing expectations runs in the family? That doesn't make him a useless fantasy player, but the risk of it is enough to make him a bad fantasy pick as long as their are lower-risk options with similar upside available. If he lights the world on fire next year, that will be exactly what his owners pay for. Anything less than greatness and this pick could have been better spent.

15. Justin Verlander SP 238.1/17/239/2.64/1.06
It isn't relevant, but is it weird to draft consecutive Justins? Either way, I don't like either pick. For different reasons, though. Verlander is among the least risky pitchers I can think of (but that's what I thought about Roy Halladay, so...) and he's very clearly at the top of his game. He's even consistent with the wins, which is hard for any great pitcher.

No, my disagreement with taking Verlander here is simply one of opportunity-cost. As long as Stephen Strasburg is out there, I think other starters are second-best. He just generates so many more whiffs than the next-greatest. On the flip side of things, I do agree that Verlander (with Clayton Kershaw) represents the clear next best ace pitchers. But the difference between him and other aces isn't so large that I want to get Verlander an entire round earlier than I can get, say, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, or David Price. The differences between Verlander and those types of pitchers are real, but small. Much smaller than the differences that still exist between position players at this point in the draft.

16. Adrian Beltre 3B .321/36/95/102/1
I admitted above to being a Mariners fan, and I honestly have had to overcome some anti-Beltre bias. But I'm over now, and I guess he can be as excellent as he wants with Texas and leave me to ponder just how much a player's home park can matter. Interestingly enough, he hit 16 of his 36 homers away from the Ballpark in Arlington and he batted just under .300 on the road, so you won't need to bench him during away games to enjoy his home greatness.

Beltre has become a beast, and there's little reason not to draft him like one. He's a four-category star, he hits in a dangerous lineup and he fields a thin position. He was significantly better than the next 3B getting drafted--David Wright--and significantly healthier than the one after that--Evan Longoria. Beltre is a safe choice in the second round, but a good one, a quality anchor at a position that will be a black hole on many fantasy teams.

17. Troy Tulowitzki SS .287/8/33/27/2
I always imagine myself as having this rule about never drafting anyone remotely fragile in the early rounds. The trouble is, that rule comes in direct conflict with my other rule about getting the best value I can. Since 2007, when Tulo powered the Rockies into the World Series, he's had one totally lost season (last year), one mostly lost season (2008, when his injuries presumptively hit his productivity and his playing time), and three All Star seasons (in two of which he still hit the DL). So he's all about risk and reward.

Few players even could be worth this kind of risk, but before the season I took him first overall in the RotoAuthority mock draft because he is so much more valuable in the power categories than any of his peers. He's basically a mashing first baseman with a slick glove for shortstop. For a player like that, this kind of discount is understandable. Assuming he looks healthy in Spring Training, I wouldn't have anything to say against someone who took Tulo here. It's a risk, even big one, but it has enormous upside. For what it's worth, I'd understand anyone who preferred to stay away.

18. Bryce Harper OF .270/22/98/59/18
This is a pick that puzzles me a little. Harper was the best prospect in baseball before last year, and he had a great year for any rookie (except, of course, Mike Trout) at just 19 years old. He showed a little bit of everything, and there's all the reason in the world to think that he'll improve into a truly great player of any age. I think he's likely to be a great fantasy player for 2013.

But I don't think that's certain. His line wasn't overwhelmingly good and he is still just 20 years old. Picking him in the second round is, to me, basically assuming the best-case scenario--that he'll develop in a linear way and make big improvements. He might. You could say he probably will, but he also might not. Plenty of other great prospects have taken steps other than directly into greatness in their second season. Harper could improve just a little, he could slip a bit, he could stay basically the same player, and in all cases he'll be a good player next year. In none of those cases, though, would Harper be worth a second round pick. Like Upton, there are several players who carry lower risk than he does. Unlike Upton, however, his upside doesn't seem to be limited by much at all. I'd pick Harper, but I'd wait another round and I wouldn't worry if he wasn't still there.

Here's how I'd reorder these picks: Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Troy Tulowitzki, Verlander, Harper, Upton. The only three that I'd consider taking in the top of the second round are Bautista, Beltre, and Tulo.

 

 



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).



Fantasy Stars: Top of the First (Round)

Each week in Fantasy Stars we'll be looking at a different segment of the fantasy baseball population. Instead of giving you our analysis of who you should draft with the week's range of picks--don't worry, we'll be talking about that all over the place--we'll look at who is being drafted there. Know your competition, I say, and the competition is all those people so excited for fantasy baseball that they've already drafted at MockDraftCentral.com.

I was a little surprised to see that a pretty robust 61 mock drafts have already happened since the calendar turned to 2013, so the sample size isn't as small as I had worried about. It's still small, though, and where players are being drafted at the end of Spring Training will have shifted plenty. That's why we're starting at the top, even at the risk of talking way too much about Mike Trout.

Top Players 1-6 by ADP

Miguel Cabrera 3B             ADP 1.36
Ryan Braun OF                  ADP 2.90
Mike Trout OF                       ADP 3.87
Carlos Gonzalez OF        ADP 4.69
Robinson Cano 2B           ADP 5.11
Matt Kemp OF                   ADP 5.92 

It's pretty clear that these players are the first six picks in the majority of drafts, as the seventh player on the list is Albert Pujols, with an 8.08 ADP. We'll have to wait till next time to look at his tier, though, as he isn't a risk to unseat any of these players...yet.

For me, two things spring right to mind when looking at these players: first, two of them spent a significant portion of 2012 on the DL (Kemp and Gonzalez), and only two play in the infield. As a bonus, somehow none of them are 1B-eligible, something that hasn't happened in recent memory, though you can thank the fact that the Tigers don't care about defense any more than your fantasy team does for Cabrera's presence at 3B.

It looks like the mock drafters are making two main choices when they draft, and you'll be doing the same on draft day if you get one of the top six picks: play it safe or take a risk, get an elite OF or take the best player  by far at a scarce position.

Safe choices:                        Risks:
Miguel Cabrera                   Mike Trout
Ryan Braun                         Carlos Gonzalez 
Robinson Cano                  Matt Kemp

Whether or not the risks are truly risky is tough to be sure of (for instance, I don't think the negative risk of taking Trout is all that high...but that's another article), since last year people were worried about Ryan Braun's potential suspension and nobody was worried that Matt Kemp would get hurt and miss a third of the season. Every pick is a risk, but we never know by exactly how much.

Still, three of fantasy baseball's safest names are definitely Cabrera, Braun, and Cano. At the very least, they are the most traditional choices. But are they the right ones? Are the risks smart ones to make? Let's look at each player individually. (Stats presented: BA/HR/R/RBI/SB)

Miguel Cabrera .330/44/109/139/4

So, Miggy's clearly a four-category beast and a near-zero in steals. We already knew that and the lack of steals is really the only mark against taking him first. I might argue elsewhere that (spoiler alert) Trout is a better pick, but if you're confident in getting steals later on, maybe Cabrera is for you. If you do get him, I suggest tempering your homer expectations, as last year's 44 were a career best by seven.

As great as his power is maybe the best thing about Cabrera is the batting average: he's been incredibly consistent in what's usually a very unpredictable category, with .320 averages or better in seven of his nine full seasons in the Majors. His career BABIP is .331, so that seems to clearly count as a skill. Indeed, his worst averages have still been in the .290's. 

All this would make Cabrera an easy top pick even if he played OF or 1B, but the pool isn't so deep at 3B. (Though it's not as shallow as it could be, with David Wright, Adrian Beltre, and Evan Longoria in the next three spots on the list.) 

Ryan Braun .319/41/108/112/30

Braun is a fantasy machine, with MVP numbers in four categories and All-Star numbers in steals. His average, while not in Cabrera's territory, sits at .313 for his career, so he's much more likely than not to provide a good return again there. The runs and RBI's shouldn't be going anywhere either, though a dip in homers is likely: again like Cabrera, he set a career high and he's usually closer to 30 bombs than 40. Fortunately, that's still good enough to make him one of fantasy and real baseball's best players.

The steals are more interesting, as the 29-year-old seems to have added them to his repertoire just for fun two years ago. After hanging around the 15 mark for most of his career, he jumped up to 33 in 2011 and stayed near that last year. Since he isn't being counted on to steal bases for his team, they could theoretically dry up at any time. The good news is that he's adding runs to the Brewers with an 83% success rate for the past two years, so they don't have any reason to tell him to slow down. My only caution is that things that come quickly seem to go quickly too.

Mike Trout .326/30/129/83/49

If Braun's steals came quickly, Trout's home run power came like lightning. Plenty of people are going to be wondering two things: was Trout's rookie season too good to be true, and is his power for real?

To the first question: he's too good not to be true. Plenty of rookies take the Majors by storm their first year and peter out into nothingness sometime thereafter. None of those rookies were position players as good as Trout. He could regress in a meaningful way and still be one of the top five players in baseball. If he stays exactly the same, he'll still be the best in fantasy, thanks to his power/speed combo.

What about that power? Well, think about it this way: ESPN's Hit Tracker counted just eight of Trouts homers as "just enoughs." If you want, take all those homers away, but give him another three weeks of playing time. Now instead of a 30HR/49 SB player, you're looking at about a 25/60 player. That's probably worth the risk.

Carlos Gonzalez .303/22/89/85/20

Maybe it's just that I can't get the 1990's out of my head, but I'm not too impressed by CarGo. He's good, don't get me wrong. I mean, he's great. But top of the first round? I'm not buying it, for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is his health. Clearly, he's a great ballplayer and a power/speed cornerstone for a fantasy team. But what about all those days when he's sitting on the DL, or when he's playing at less than full strength? In his three years as a superstar, Gonzalez has yet to play more than 145 games. Last year he made it into 135, in 2011 it was 127. Whatever the reason, Gonzalez misses time, and you have to temper his stats with whoever you get to replace him off the waiver wire, even it's only for a couple weeks. What's more, someone who frequently misses a little time, might be expected to miss larger periods of time.

Health alone isn't the only issue: he's just significantly less good than some of the players around him: he's broken the 30-HR barrier just once and he holds a .298 career average. He's not an elite stealer either, with a career high of 26. He's not bad at all; he's even great. But he doesn't belong at the top of the draft either. I'm guessing other people will notice and we'll see him settling in nearer to the end of the first round or the beginning of the second. If he doesn't, you won't see him on any of my teams.

Robinson Cano .313/33/105/94/3

Cano seems to me to be moving his way up fantasy depth charts by default, as more and more players around him see their games slip. Maybe that's so, or maybe not, either way Cano is a clear cut above anyone else at his position, with Ian Kinsler his only real competition. As one of my "safe" choices, Cano has proved consistency, and that's what lands him in the top of the first, and why he should be drafted far ahead of anyone else at 2B. Ahead of plenty of OF's too.

Like Cabrera, he's a four-category stud who does nothing in steals. Oh well. Since 2009 he's hit at least 25 homers, batted at least .302, and scored at least 100 runs, each year. In the Yankee lineup (even if it isn't quite what it used to be), and in Yankee Stadium, there's plenty of reason to think the runs and RBI's will keep coming. Unlike Trout (and perhaps Gonzalez) he doesn't carry much upside, but he doesn't need to. Even at 30 years old, he's still in his prime and should be treated like an elite 1B. At 2B.

Matt Kemp .303/23/74/69/9

Kemp is another player that I'd rather leave to someone else. Taking a little risk for a lot of reward in the first few picks of a fantasy draft is one thing. Drafting a player who missed a full third of last season, and whose injuries may remain (he had surgery in October that should be fully healed by Opening Day) is not good risk/reward strategy. The reward (a season like his 2011) is immense, but the risk (more of 2012, including the decrease in stolen bases) is too great. Like Gonzalez, the upside here is truly impressive, worth taking. But not worth taking in the first few picks, when the opportunity cost is so high.

At his best, Kemp is one of fantasy baseball's power/speed heroes, but how sure can we be that we'll be getting Kemp's best in 2013? Thanks to what happened last year, less sure than we can for most players. I believe in taking bold risks throughout a fantasy draft, but some risks are better to leave in the hands of your opponents. 

A caveat to all this pessimism is that we still get to watch Spring Training. How will Kemp perform in Florida? If he's all running on all cylinders in the Spring, then maybe this worry is for nothing and you'll be taking advantage of owners who want to play it safe by nabbing him. Great! But if he isn't stealing, taking extra bases, or generally looking fast and athletic, I'd place my money elsewhere.

For the top six picks, I really like four of them. I'd reorder them all like this: Trout, Cabrera, Braun, Cano...Gonzalez and Kemp somewhat farther behind, but probably still in the first round.

Editor's Note: ADP may have changed somewhat since this article's first draft. Not to worry, the analysis still applies and any players who might have skipped ahead won't be missed next time around....




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