Point/Counterpoint: Ryan Braun, First-Rounder?

Ryan Braun is a divisive guy: some see him as an elite talent ready to retake the league by storm after a lost year…others see a player returning from injury, disappointing play, and…oh yeah, a huge PED suspension.

So, which side are you on? Taking Braun with your first pick…or leaving the risk till later or someone else’s team. Our team tackles both sides of the debate.

Alex: I’ll take Braun in the first, no question. There are two reasons: Braun…and everybody else.

Braun’s last season was just about as rough as it gets, I’ll admit. To be honest, though, I don’t see the problems he faced carrying over into this season. First of all, it seems pretty likely that he was playing hurt when things were so rough last year with his thumb injury. I’m no medical expert, but it doesn’t take one to suspect that that was probably the reason behind his disappointing performance. Unless I hear the thumb is healthy, I’m feeling pretty confident about his hitting.

But what about the PED’s? How good can he be without the juice? I guess it all depends on how much credit you’re willing to give steroids and other performance enhancing chemicals. Me, not much. It seems to me that they can add to the talent that’s already there—PED’s might have given Braun the edge, but they didn’t make him a superstar. And yeah, I’ll bet my first round pick on that.

With all the drama of the last year, it’s easy to overlook just how good Ryan Braun really has been. But let’s not—here’s his batting line from 2010-2012:

.318 AVG/.384 OBP/.563 SLG, 99 HR, 318 R, 326 RBI, 77 SB

Given the mulligan for 2013, and you’re talking about a first pick type of player, not just a first rounder.

One caveat is that his base stealing really fell off last year, and that probably isn’t due to the thumb injury. I’m willing to think of him as a four category monster in between the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, rather than a Mike Trout comparable or a souped-up Andrew McCutchen.

That’s still a first-rounder for me.

Beyond Braun’s personal greatness, there’s the fact that other potential first-rounders come with pretty serious questions. After the (mostly) consensus top four (Cabrera, Trout, McCutchen, and Paul Goldschmidt), plus Robinson Cano, I’m not sold on anyone else as a lock for the first round pick. What’s more, there is a big group of players towards the end of the first round that strongly resemble the players taken in the second round—Adrian Beltre just isn’t that different to Evan Longoria. Sure Carlos Gonzalez is better than Carlos Gomez—but much less healthy. Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion are both great. Clayton Kershaw is an awesome pitcher—but so are Yu Darvish and Adam Wainwright.

Braun is one of the few players who stand significantly taller than the rest. That makes him well worth a first round selection.

Mark: I don't have an issue with Braun as a quality fantasy player, since if I'm picking at the top of the second round and he's still there, I'll happily snatch him up.  If I'm picking between 8th-12th in the first round of a 12-team draft, however, I definitely have some doubts, and you should always be as doubt-free as possible with your first round choice.

Call it the Smilex theory of fantasy baseball, based on the Joker's secret weapon in the 1989 Batman movie.  The ingredients of Smilex were mixed into several household products but the drug only became lethal when certain products were used together.  "Hairspray alone won't do it, but hairspray mixed with lipstick and perfume will be toxic and untraceable," as Bruce Wayne put it.  Likewise, no one of my nagging doubts about Braun would be enough (on their own) to stop me from taking him in the first round, but all of them in combination make me look elsewhere.

Braun is entering his age-30 season, the PED spectre is unavoidable, his stolen bases dried up and even though he still had an .869 OPS last season, his big power drop (a .200 ISO and only nine homers) combined with a drop in his line drive rate and a large rise in his ground ball rate all stand out as red flags.  Braun's thumb problem could excuse some of his issues at the plate, but all of these factors in combination won't, unlike Smilex, put a big grin on your face.

I also may have a lot more faith than Alex does in the crop of first-round candidates.  Trout, Cabrera, McCutchen, Goldschmidt and Cano are no-brainers to go ahead of Braun.  Kershaw is a cut above baseball's other aces so he's the one pitcher I'd comfortably take in the first round.  I'd slot Votto and Encarnacion ahead of Braun, plus I've got confidence that Chris Davis can put up another big year.  In a vacuum, Braun is a better player than Adam Jones, but Jones carries far fewer question marks.  Gonzalez's injury history worries me and Beltre turns 35 in April, but CarGo is a better five-tool threat than Braun and Beltre is showing no signs of slowing down, plus he's at a shallower position.  That's 12 players right there, and I'm not even getting into other candidates like Evan Longoria or Hanley Ramirez, who are reasonable first-round picks given their positions.

The later rounds are the time for making leaps of faith, but when it comes to your first-rounder, you want a guy who's going to be anchor your roster for an entire season.  I wouldn't at all be surprised if Braun bounces back for another elite season, but there are enough hints that he won't--so I'll let someone else take that risk with their first pick.

Point/Counterpoint: Pay for Saves?

Fantasy baseball has changed so much over the past decade. When I started playing this game, I used to be adamantly against paying for saves. While others paid big bucks for Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner, I always seemed to end up with the likes of Joe Borowski and Todd Jones. More often than not, however, I could still compete in the pitching categories by getting better results from my starting pitchers. DIPS theory was not quite mainstream at the time, so it was easier to fill out a staff with sabermetric darlings back then.

Andrew: Premium Closers Are Worth the Price

For a variety of reasons, I'm of the mindset that paying for saves is now the optimal strategy. For one, today's game is far different from the one we watched at the turn of the millennium. Last year's leaguewide .714 OPS was the lowest since 1992. To be more specific, though, the most glaring difference about today's game is the dramatic rise in strikeout rate. Seemingly every pitching prospect is able to throw in the high 90s, and power has dipped substantially with rules now in place to severely penalize for use of PEDs.

With a strikeout now taking place roughly once every five plate appearances, there have been several key fantasy ramifications. Power is scarce. A .260 AVG is actually good, not bad. More and more pristine results are required to compete in the pitching categories. Above all else, though, perhaps no category has been more impacted than strikeouts. In particular, the strikeout rates of closers have gone through the roof. A quick glance at the leaders in SIERA among relievers from last year reveals that 10 of the top 13 are current closers, all of whom had a K/9 over 10. It sounds weird to say, but in today's Roto game a closer who fails to strike out a batter per inning is actually damaging to a fantasy roster in that category.

To illustrate, let's take a look at the following scenarios:

Option A: Draft Craig Kimbrel (ADP 55) in Round 5 and then Danny Salazar (ADP 146) in Round 13

Composite Steamer Projections: 18 Wins / 28 SV / 285 K / 2.99 ERA / 1.13 WHIP in 238 innings

Option B: Draft Felix Hernandez (ADP 51) in Round 5 and then Jim Johnson (ADP 146) in Round 13

Composite Steamer Projections: 18 Wins / 28 SV / 236 K / 3.26 ERA / 1.18 WHIP in 257 innings

So yeah, I'm cherry-picking, but I think there's a point here. Wins and saves are rather whimsical while ERA and WHIP may not be all that different if other names are selected. Having said that, I'm a firm believer that a fantasy owner gains a significant edge in the strikeout category by drafting an elite closer like Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, or Kenley Jansen. Particularly in leagues with innings caps, stellar innings from a lights-out closer are incredibly valuable.  

Luckey: Don't Pay for Saves

In theory, paying for saves can be a good bet when you know it will work. However, like most fantasy baseball projections, it’s hard to know when to draft a player for maximum value – and therein lies the rub. Before you draft your first closer this year, keep in mind three important things. First, closers have among the worst job security in baseball and can lose the ninth quickly. Second, the shelf life of a reliever is short and when they start to get worse – it happens in a hurry (see Trevor Hoffman in 2010 or Heath Bell in 2012). Third, closers become available throughout the season and are, therefore, much easier to find on the waiver wire than a top starting pitcher. So be sure to use that early draft pick on some consistent power or a sabermetric darling and minimize your risk.

1. Closers Have Poor Job Security – Sure drafting a Kimbrel or Chapman is sexy, but it probably isn’t the most efficient use of an early round pick. If you were to draft one of these closer studs, it’s going to cost you. Spend that pick on an ace or big-time offensive name and even with a week’s worth of poor games, you know they’ll still have their jobs. On the other hand, a closer that gives up a few blown saves in a week can easily be pulled for another reliever. If that new reliever pitches well, the job could soon be theirs and somebody else will certainly scoop them up at an amazing value. Last season, Mark Melancon stepped in for an injured Jason Grilli and pitched outstandingly (1.39 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 16 saves). This season, skip the big closer name and go with a position that’s a little safer.

2. Closers Do Not Last Forever – Like centers in basketball or running backs in football, closers have a fairly limited shelf life when they’re at their peak. Due to the physical demands of the position, many closers have a few amazing years before disappearing into oblivion and it’s often hard to predict when the wheels will fall off. A quick look at Kimbrel’s K/9 shows that it may be on a downward trend (having dropped from 16.7 in 2012 to 13.2 last season), while Chapman’s average velocity on his fastball has gone down in three consecutive seasons. Even though these two still have mightily impressive strikeout rates, taking them in the early rounds is a leap of faith. If you’re depending on a top starting pitcher, especially someone who relies on control rather than power, the fall from grace will not be so drastic.

3. Closers Can Be Found Later – It is important to note that players at the top of their position rarely fall to their expected draft day value and one of your fellow drafters may strike early. While it’s nice to think that all readers will have a chance to draft Kimbrel, Chapman, or Jansen at their ADP, you will probably have to overpay by a round or two to guarantee that he’ll be on your roster. Why do this when you can pluck a few closers from the waiver wire throughout the season that will be, cumulatively, just as strong? Keep an eye on the early competition battles in spring training and you’ll have an inside track in April. Once the injury bug hits, or a player loses his job after back-to-back blown saves, head to the waiver wire and take your pick…

Trust me on this, I used to pay for saves. If you do elect to wait on closers draft day, be sure to follow @CloserNews on Twitter this season and we’ll keep you up-to-date on any breaking news in the closer world.

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