First Rounders


The Market Report: Less than Ideal First-Round Picks

Last night I presented the players I consider to be ideal first-round targets. Once again, I search for durable, consistent performers and prioritize floor over ceiling. After the obvious top two of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, the four other players I'm targeting in Round One are Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Jones, and Robinson Cano.

While my top six all met the criteria I look for in a first round pick, each player in this next group falls short for one reason or another. Having said that, it's not as if a fantasy owner can simply pass on making a selection in Round One; you have to pick someone. While I'd rather not choose to build the foundation of my roster around one of these players, at some point the potential reward outweighs the inherent risk. Each of these hitters is certainly capable of outperforming their current ADP. Still, I'm a firm believer in the probabilistic concept of value, and there are many outcomes in which each player in this next tier falls well short of their current pricetags. Let's continue with the rankings...

Players Who Worry Me

7. Carlos Gonzalez

8. Paul Goldschmidt

9. Chris Davis

In many ways CarGo does everything you could ever ask of a fantasy player. He can run; he can hit; he can hit for power. No, seriously, I mean he can really hit a baseball. In fact, no player hit the ball farther on average last season. Moreover, only a few players hit the ball hard more frequently. Oh yeah, and he gets to play in the most favorable hitting environment in the game, helping to boost his counting statistics. In short, when he's on the field, CarGo is the closest thing we have in this game to Mike Trout. But therein lies the problem: CarGo just can't seem to stay on the field. He's averaged just 124 games over the past three years, although he managed to go 20 / 20 each season in spite of the missed time. More so than any other player then, CarGo is the ultimate wild card in the first round with his current ADP of 11. Aside from Trout and Cabrera, for my money no player is more likely to finish as the top fantasy performer in 2014; after all, let's not forget that it was CarGo who was the #1 player before he injured his finger last year. For some reason, though, the superstar outfielder opted against surgery this offseason. I know he felt good after swinging a bat, but it just seems to be one thing or another with CarGo. Once again, this may be picky on my part, but I'm just not comfortable drafting a player if I don't trust him to stay healthy. While the projections might say otherwise, I just can't pull the trigger on CarGo before the aforementioned safer options.

Just behind CarGo in average flyball distance last season was Paul Goldschmidt. Like CarGo, here's a player who packs the statline for a fantasy owner. I actually think Goldy is for real, but the problem is he's only performed at this elite level once. I'd like to yet again cite the great research over at BaseballHQ on the first round. Over the past ten years, only 14% of players who finished in the top 15 for the first time were able to repeat in the top 15 the following season. Nothing in Goldschmidt's breakout looks flukey from a statistical perspective, but we have to play the percentages in this game. If you think he's the exception to the rule, then more power to you. Just realize that you're betting against history. In my opinion, it's premature for Goldschmidt to already be the consensus choice at third overall. A top-five pick shouldn't be spent on someone who's only done it once. 

On that note, Chris Davis was clearly the fantasy MVP of the 2013 season. Even if the player rater you use didn't have him as the top player overall, nobody was more profitable when comparing production to investment. I'm on record in that I think he's mostly for real. The power is undeniable, and the projections agree this is your best bet to lead baseball in home runs in 2014. Still, I can't get over one potentially fatal flaw to his Rotisserie game. I've pointed out that it all starts with consistency and health when making a selection in Round One. Well, when it comes to hitters, there's one more skill I desire in my first round picks. To paraphrase fantasy god Ron Shandler, nothing happens until a hitter puts the ball in play. As good as he was last year, Davis still struck out at the the seventh highest rate in the game. As any scout can vouch, the power tool can only be useful if it comes with some competency in the hit tool. Make no mistake: Davis improved as a hitter last season, making significant strides in plate discipline. Still, when a player makes contact less frequently, the range of possible outcomes for his seasonal output widens, as the denominator of balls in play declines. I hope I'm wrong because I own him in a pair of keeper leagues, but Davis does worry me a tad entering 2014. 

Ideal Second-Round Picks

10. Edwin Encarnacion

11. Adrian Beltre

12. Joey Votto

As I mentioned last week, there are three players currently going in the top 12 whom I don't view as worthy of the first round, so it follows that there must also be three players going outside the top 12 whom I'd take in Round One. Let me preface this by saying that I'd much prefer to draft each of these hitters in the second round. If push came to shove, though, I'd be willing to draft any of them at the back end of the first round, assuming all players I've ranked ahead of them were already taken.

Let's start with perhaps my greatest Man Crush entering the 2014 season, Edwin Encarnacion. Based on other rankings I've seen for 2014, placing Edwin 10th overall may be rather aggressive. I make an effort to be agnostic in playing this game and focus solely on the numbers. When I remove the names of players and judge them stritly by their statistical profiles, though, I'm left wondering why Edwin isn't already considered a fantasy superstar. Over the past two years, only two hitters have more HR than Encarnacion: Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. That's it. Now what if I told you that during the same timespan, it's actually Edwin who's posted the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of that trio. Granted, I'm not here to tell you that Edwin is Miggy's equal when it comes to hitting a baseball. As an extreme flyball hitter, Encarnacion will never post a higher AVG than Cabrera. However, when it comes to making hard contact, this duo is in the same stratosphere. In addition, there's evidence to suggest that Encarnacion is capable of hitting .300; after all, when comparing his .247 BABIP to his .296 xBABIP, few players were subjected to as much misfortune by the Luck Dragons last year. It's worth pointing out that he does come with some risk, as he underwent wrist surgery in September. Fortunately for fantasy owners, that risk is somewhat mitigated by the fact that he won't cost a first round pick, as his current ADP lies toward the back end of the second round. He's particularly a prime target in Yahoo leagues, where he'll even be eligible at 3B, adding positional flexibility. OK, I'll stop salavating at Edwin's prospects for 2014...

Next in my rankings comes another player whose name seldom comes up in any discussion of candidates for the first round, Adrian Beltre. Since leaving Seattle, Beltre has been nothing short of a fantasy star. In fact, he's averaged 32 HR and 100 RBI while hitting .314. In today's offensive environment that makes the stud third baseman incredibly valuable, even if he fails to contribute any SB. He ranked seventh in hard contact this past season, so he can still really hit despite entering his age-35 season. The only players with a higher average finish on the ESPN Player Rater over the past two years are the same players I've ranked as my top five overall. Perhaps Beltre isn't considered worthy of the first round because he's so consistent it's almost boring. Well, that's precisely the type of player I target in the early rounds. Once again, the good thing is he should be available in the middle of the second round based on his current ADP. The thought of starting a team with Cano and Beltre seems just about perfect to me.

Closing out my top 12 is a player whose fantasy value seems to have declined through no fault of his own, Joey Votto. From a real baseball perspective, few would argue against the notion that Votto is one of the top hitters in all of baseball. While fantasy worth doesn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with the value of a player in real baseball, Votto has also been viewed as a fantasy stud for several years now. In fact, he's been a first round pick for each of the previous three seasons. In 2013 the skilled batsman put together yet another .400+ OBP with plus contributions in AVG, HR, and R. Even so, the fantasy community seems to value him around 20th overall. The culprit seems to be the low total of 73 RBI, as Votto often hit behind sub-.300 OBP hitters like Zack Cozart in the two-hole. While he probably won't be able to post 100 RBI, I think the fact that he had only 73 RBI was mostly an aberration. Hitters of this caliber simply shouldn't last until the back end of the second round. If I draft Joey Votto, I'm paying for the consistently high AVG with good power to boot. Competing in the counting categories is at least in part a result of simply accruing at-bats, and I'm of the mindset that I can make up those 20 RBI by simply outworking most of my opponents.

So there you have it, my top 12 for 2014. With the first round out of the way, we'll begin to search for values at each position, starting next week with catchers.



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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