The 2010 baseball season is just around the corner, and with regular season baseball comes the most underrated game of the decade – Fantasy Baseball. Fantasy Football has taken the United States by form, but not so much for baseball. Lifetime baseball fans have quickly attached themselves to this addicting game, and as the years go on and tracking capabilities grow stronger, more and more have joined.
There are all sorts of ways to play fantasy baseball. Auction or draft. NL-, AL-only, or mixed .league. Rotisserie or Head-to-Head. Keepers and prospects. No matter which way you play, you have to have a strategy. I’m not going to pretend that I am Matthew Berry, or anyone else in the ESPN fantasy department, but I do have quality advice for anyone and everyone for Fantasy Baseball. I won’t tell you who is the best at each position because you can just look that up on ESPN.com, but I will tell you who to buy low on, avoid, and take a flier on, in the least biased way possible.
There are three key notes for the start of the year, and they will apply to any way your league is set up, whether it be in a draft or auction.
- You can’t win the draft in the first three rounds, but you can lose it.
In the first round, you will be picking from the likes of Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, and Alex Rodriguez. There aren’t many mistakes you can make early, although I would be very cautious about drafting questionable player like David Wright and Matt Kemp. Some are sold on Kemp (I am not one), but you can’t go wrong with most players early. The problem arises if you draft players like Jose Reyes, Derek Jeter, Justin Upton, and Jacoby Ellsbury in the first three rounds. They will likely do well, but there is a very good chance that Reyes won’t stay healthy, Jeter will play like a 35-year old, and Upton and Ellsbury won’t continue hitting as well as they used to. Go safe early, and take more gambles late because a miss in the 9th and 10th round on Josh Hamilton and Brandon Webb won’t hurt as much as messing up by drafting Kemp and Reyes in rounds 1 and 2.
- Don’t draft players early for small categories like steals and saves.
This year especially, speed will be easy to get and hard to avoid. In the outfield, you don’t have to target speed-power combo players like Grady Sizemore, Carl Crawford, and Curtis Granderson when there are plenty of fast players across the board. Unless you are planning to have an outfield of Adam Lind, Manny Ramirez, Vernon Wells, and Adam Dunn, you will be able to find plenty of steals at the end of the draft. You can grab players like Nate McLouth, Rajai Davis, and Juan Pierre late if you desperately need steals. With that in mind, I would also suggest against drafting speed only players (like Ellsbury) early when you can grab those players later.
As for saves, there are 30 closers and probably 8-12 teams in your league. That adds up to about three closers per team, which is really all you need. Closers will start coming off the board in the 7th to 8th round, and you’ll have to pass up players like Chris Carpenter, Aaron Hill, Derrek Lee, and Ben Zobrist to get a top-of-the-line closer. Mariano Rivera is clearly the best closer with Joe Nathan out, but he is not eight rounds different then Trevor Hoffman and Jose Valverde. Closers won’t drastically affect your ERA, WHIP, wins, or strikeouts, so there is no point in getting the first closer who may only get you 5-10 more saves then another closer several rounds later. There will also be three to five closers who will lose their job and you’ll have the opportunity to pick up their replacement; last year Andrew Bailey, J.P. Howell, and Fernando Rodney did not go into the season as their team’s closer but ended up with a combined 80 saves.
- Wait on starting pitching, you can get a ton of quality late.
Roy Halladay will dominate the National League, and Tim Lincecum will be as dominant as he always is, but there is no use drafting the pair in the first and second rounds. Former Cy Young Award winners are scattered across the draft; Cole Hamels will be around the 10th round, Jake Peavy and John Lackey in the 11th, Roy Oswalt in the 13th, Carlos Zambrano in the 22nd, and Ben Sheets in the 24th. There is going to be quality pitching across the board, so I recommend drafting a very good pitcher somewhat early (even a Chris Carpenter-type) and then go for value with pitchers like Oswalt and Peavy.
Whether you have a drafts or auctions, the same strategies will apply, but in auction you will have more choice as to who you want. The main difference between the two is that an auction, you can bid on any player you want. There are two main strategies for auctions: Stars and Scrubs and value. In Stars and Scrubs, you go for a lot of top-3 round talent and then fill out the rest of your roster with $1 fill in players. The problem with this strategy is if one of your stars is injured, you are essentially done. With value, you wait to spend your money until what would be the fourth to fifth round, then splurge on six to seven solid players. Last year, I went the value route and ended up with Dan Haren, Matt Holliday, Carl Crawford, Brandon Phillips, Aramis Ramirez, and Derrek Lee. This way, you don’t get killed by injuries, and you have lots of potential.
Catcher is generally going to be a weak spot of your team, so unless you grab Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, or Brian McCann early, you can wait on a catcher, but not expect much production. Most teams do not have players worth owning, and picking between the rest of the catchers will be like a lottery. Russell Martin and Geovanny Soto were All-Stars just two years ago, and they will be going late in drafts – worth a late flyer. Assuming you don’t land one of the top-three, you probably won’t be comfortable with who you have and may be best served with catcher by committee.
Player I Absolutely Love: Joe Mauer
This pick is just too easy. Mr. MVP will play in a full year, unlike last year when he still lead the league in batting. Scouts used to call Matt Wieters “Mauer with power”, but now that phrase won’t worse, since Mauer hit 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. Open-aired Target Field likely won’t help his production as much as the Metrodome did, but he is hitting third in a very good lineup and is clearly the best catcher in the game, although Victor Martinez is an enticing pick.
Best Value: Bengie Molina
As long as you are hitting cleanup in your lineup, you are going to produce. Molina will be hitting 4th, behind Aaron Rowand, Freddy Sanchez, and Pablo Sandoval, so he may not have too many people on base before him, but he will easily end up with 80 RBIs. He has no speed, and certainly won’t help you in batting average, but for $1 he is certainly worth it.
Avoid: Jorge Posada
Posada won’t be playing every day because of his age and ailing knees, but he will get over-drafted because he plays for the Yankees and plays half his game in their stadium. He’ll likely hit about 20 home runs, but sooner or later he will miss a ton of time with injuries, and there isn’t a DH spot to give him a day off in the field, now that the Yanks have Nick Johnson.
Sleeper: Miguel Montero
While ESPN.com has Montero as their fifth best catcher, most people don’t know this young Diamondback and his potential. While playing in less then 80% of the season, Montero hit 16 home runs and held onto a .294 batting average. He is still progressing as a hitter, and Chase Field is one of the best ballparks to hit in.
The first and second rounds of the draft are going to be full of powerful first basemen, and it would be smart to grab one of them early, especially if you have a corner infield spot, too. First base generally has your player with the most power, and this is a position you can sacrifice average for other categories. There are six players who will hit high 30s or even into the 40s for home runs, but there is plenty of depth at first – there are 18 fantasy starters who are first base eligible.
Player I Absolutley Love: Ryan Howard
The Phillies’ slugger has perhaps the most power in the entire league. The knock on him has always been his batting average, but you can take a hit at first, especially considering the fact that he averages 50 homers and 143 RBIs in his four full seasons. In addition to that, his batting average is rising; he hit .278 for the year and .302 in the second half. He is coming cheaper then Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira, but is as productive, if not more productive the all of them.
Best Value: Justin Morneau
Morneau, the former MVP, is coming at half the price of Pujols ($17 to $35) and is almost as productive. Even when he missed 33 games (and he is NOT injury prone) he still hit 30 homers and 100 RBIs on the dot. His batting average is high when he is healthy, and he hits right behind Joe Mauer.
Avoid: Playing third base eligible players at first
You can’t go wrong with any of the first eighteen first basemen (although I don’t really like Billy Butler), but the biggest mistake you can make would be to play a third base eligible player at first. Pablo Sandoval, Kevin Youkilis, and Mark Reynolds are top-10 first base eligible players, but their value rockets up when you play them at third because of the scarcity of elite players at the hot corner.
Sleeper: Lance Berkman
Berkman has slid all the way down to 16th, although he is right in front of Derrek Lee and Carlos Peña who could also have great years. The Big Puma hits around 30 home runs for his career and has never hit under 24 home runs. He is well-rounded, too, he hits .300 every season and will steal a handful of bags, too. Berkman is going into his contract year and hits in a great hitters’ ballpark, so expect big things out of Berkman, even though he is on the decline.
Second base used to be the black hole of fantasy baseball – you either poured all of your money to get the best guy, or you took a low caliber player. Now, Chase Utley leads the way going in the top five generally, and there is plenty of quality everywhere you look.
Player I Absolutely Love: Brandon Phillips
I have always been a fan of Brandon Phillips; he hits for power, a solid average, and will steal you 25 bases. For a second baseman, 30 homers and 25 steals is just incredible, and throw in the fact that Phillips is only going in fourth round or for about $18, he is a straight up steal. Phillips hits fourth in a potent young lineup, and is hitting at the Great American Launching Pad.
Best Value: Aaron Hill
Hill was clearly the biggest surprise of last season, he didn’t have a starting job the year before and was coming off a concussion. Hill hit a whopping 36 homers, 108 RBI, and .286. No one outside of Toronto thinks Hill will have close to the season he did before, but there hardly no chance he won’t come close. Without another injury, he is next to guaranteed to get you 25 homers and 80 RBIs, fantastic for just a seventh round pick or $14 dollars.
Avoid: Ian Kinsler
Kinsler is going in the late second and early third round, but his collective stats are not that impressive. His average is very inconsistent, and he hit only .253 last year. That’s just .253, folks. Like I’ve said before, you can’t win your league in the first three rounds, but you can lose it. Kinsler is a big gamble; he never hit more then 20 home runs or 75 steals before last year. Kinsler will be a fine hitter, but not where you have to take him.
Sleeper: Jose Lopez
Lopez is in a small market, and plays a quiet game, so he rarely gets much coverage. But this man can hit. Lopez’ power has been progressing over the last few seasons, and he is now hitting in the middle of the Mariners’ lineup. With Ichiro and Chone Figgins hitting in front of him, he will have plenty of opportunities to knock in runs. Lopez will get third base eligibility a few weeks into the year, so he will add versatility to your rosters, and you can grab him very late in the draft.
Player I Absolutely Love: Evan Longoria
Longoria is just a natural hitter. In a year and three quarters, he has hit 60 home runs and 198 RBI. Longoria’s average is improving quickly as he catches onto opposing pitchers, and his power is still getting better. He won’t give you the steals that David Wright or Chone Figgins will, but he is going to blossom into a 40-120 hitter sooner or later, and I like my chances for this season.
Best Value: Aramis Ramirez
One of the most consistent hitters of the decade, Aramis Ramirez, is also one of the more overlooked ones. Going after unproven, but high upside players like Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds, and Pablo Sandoval, Ramirez hits .300, 30 homers, and 100+ RBI. Perhaps he is only going lower because he had a wrist injury last year, but he has never had a history on injuries.
Avoid: David Wright and Chone Figgins
Chone Figgins is essentially a speed only player, someone you take towards the end of the draft just for one category. This year, there is an excess amount of speed, especially in the outfield, so Figgins is one of the more undraftable players considering his position. You are better off going with Gordon Beckham or Miguel Tejada who will at least provide some power and average. As for Wright, his strikeout numbers are rising, he is on a terrible team, and his ballpark is a death trap for hitters. Wright only hit 10 home runs, and you have to pick him in the first round.
Sleeper: Adrian Beltre
Beltre is 30 years old, but he has never hit in a hitter’s ballpark until now that he has reached the batter’s paradise more commonly known as Fenway Park. Beltre consistently hits 25 home runs and should get at least a 5 homer boost now that he is hitting more often in Fenway. Beltre’s batting average won’t kill you and he’ll also give you ten or so steals. The best part about him, though, is that you can grab him for just $9 or in the 12th round.
Shortstop has become more of a speed position with the development of Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, and is now centered around young, high-upside talent. High draft picks and international free agents have turned into very good fantasy prospects; just take a look at Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus, and Alexei Ramirez. The former big three of Reyes, Ramirez, and Jimmy Rollins is now welcoming it’s latest member, Tulo, while Reyes may be leaving top-tier status.
Player I Absolutely Love: Hanley Ramirez
It is easy to say that the number two overall pick will the player I like most, but HanRam can really do it all. The man led the NL in batting, had a career high in RBIs (104) and had a down year with 24 homers and 27 steals! He is incredibly gifted and is only getting better. His strikeout rate is going down and there is nothing you can knock about this young man’s game.
Best Value: Stephen Drew
One year, Stephen Drew will hit 25 home runs and hit .300, and you will be wishing you were the smart guy who drafted him. Maybe this is his year, and you want to spend $10 on Drew and he will come through. He took a step back last year, but he has the potential to be a top-notch fantasy player, and he is in the right ballpark to do so.
Avoid: New York shortstops
Jose Reyes wasn’t fully recovered from his hamstring issue when news broke that he had a thyroid problem and he will miss even more time. Reyes is one of those risky early rounders who you don’t want to ruin your draft by selecting him. He is basically speed only and speed can be easily found in the outfield, so look else where. Derek Jeter could easily be the best shortstop in baseball, but his statistics are wildly uninspiring for the third-best at his position. He had a giant boost last year in power, average, and speed, and at his age of 35, you can’t expect him to continue that.
Sleeper: Orlando Cabrera
O-Cab is not going to be a player you want to depend on to start the whole year, but he will make a great backup, middle infielder, or blind jab pick. He gets you .280-10-75 with 15 steals and 80 runs, but he is also hitting in Cincinnati this year. If you really want to wait on a shortstop in a deep league, Cabrera could be your man.
The outfield is much shallower then usual, but there is plenty of speed. Manny Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano have fallen off the face of the fantasy baseball map, and the top three outfielders on many lists (Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, and Justin Upton) are all 26 or younger. Then next generation of outfielders is here.
Player I Absolutely Love: Grady Sizemore
Yes, Grady is going to be the man this year. He will be moved down from the leadoff spot, reducing his pressure and raising his RBI total. The man has power, speed, and just needs to be a better hitter for average to become one of the top outfielders in the game. Plenty of people are down on him and he will be a risk, but he is worth it all, to me.
Best Value: Carlos Lee and Adam Dunn
You won’t find an outfielder more consistent the Adam Dunn over the past seven season. He hit 46 bombs in 2004, then exactly 40 homers for the next five years, then 38 last season. His power isn’t quite dwindling, he is still going to carry your team’s power for a cheap price, and best of all, his average is improving. Carlos Lee is a surefire .300-30-100 every season, and has finally fallen in price to a measly 5th round pick. For that type of production, Lee is the must have of the draft.
Avoid: Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford
It’s hard for me to say this as they are two of my favorite players, but you need to avoid Ellsbury and Crawford. They are both top two round selections and are pure speed players. You will be passing up the Prince Fielders and Ryan Howards of the world to get these speed demons, but with Juan Pierre and Rajai Davis going late, there is no need to spend your early picks on those players.
Sleeper: Kyle Blanks and Dexter Fowler
As rookies, Blanks and Fowler were very impressive. Blanks only played in 54 games, but his a homer every 14.8 at-bats. He has elite power and will hit behind Adrian Gonzalez and Chase Headley in the Padres lineup. He has mammoth power potential and is going to get much better as the year goes on. Dexter Fowler reminds me a lot of a more powerful, slightly slower Willy Taveras. Folwer has the potential to become an elite speed player while still adding offensive production. Both hitters will be very late fliers, but will both be All-Stars at some point in their career.
There is an abnormally large amount of starting pitching available this year, especially late. Starting pitching affect four of the five pitching categories (Wins, ERA, WHIP, and Ks, but not Saves) so they are much more important then relief pitchers. My suggestion is to get one top-notch starter then go for value.
Player I Absolutely Love: Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez
Roy Halladay was already one of the top three starters in the league when he was pitching in the ultra-competitive AL East. Now, he is in the inferior National League and gets to play the Mets, Marlins, and Nationals very often. He will absolutely dominate, geting well over 20 wins, an ERA in the high 2s, and 200 strikeouts. This man is a workhorse and have his best year to date. King Felix is by no means a slouch, though. He strikes out more hitters and has a much nicer ballpark to pitch in and one of the best defense in the league. Hernandez will be the best pitcher in the AL, while Halladay will be tops in the NL.
Best Value: Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy
The pair of aces have been very consistent throughout the decade, and had slight slip-ups last year. Peavy was injured and then shipped off the Chicago while Oswalt had his worst ERA of his career and first season without double-digit wins. Even though he is in a much worse pitcher’s park, Peavy had great success in his three starts in Chicago: 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA. Its fairly safe to assume that both can bounce back, and both are top-5 talents when on top of their games.
Avoid: Javier Vazquez
Vazquez had a fantastic year last season in Atlanta, but that is in the past. Vazquez has been dominant in the NL, but as his former manager Ozzie Guillen points out, he is not an AL pitcher. His ERA hovered around the high 4s in the AL with a 52-56 record. With more pressure and the spotlight on him, I don’t see Vazquez reliving his career year now that he has returned to the Big Apple.
Sleeper: Ben Sheets
When healthy (and that is certainly going to be the key) Ben Sheets is as dominant of a pitcher as anyone. He missed the entire 2009 season but really wowed scouts in his throwing session, enough so that Oakland offered him a $10 million deal. His fastball is back in the mid-90s and his curveball leaves even the greatest hitters buckling. For a 22nd round pick, there is no way you can go wrong with Sheets, there is no risk.
Personally, I really don’t like closers because they are pretty much the same player who pitches one inning every other game. They will only help you in saves, so there’s not much point to picking Mariano Rivera first when you can get similar players later. That being said, don’t go with Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, and Jason Frasor as your closers.
Player I Absolutely Love: Mariano Rivera
Before his elbow injury, the most consistent fantasy closer was Joe Nathan. He is now going to miss most of, if not all of the season. Now, Rivera is easily the most dependable and best overall closer to have. Rivera will go high in the draft, and rightfully so. His ERA is going to be in the low 1s and he will be in the top five saves leaders.
Best Value: Brian Fuentes
Fuentes is one of the worst closers in the game. He exerts no confidence on the mound, he tosses the ball to the plate, and is in no way shape or form dominant. At the same time, he is the Angels’ closer and he will get 50 save opportunities. Francisco Rodriguez saved a major league record 62 games, then went to the Mets and saved only 35. Whoever the Angels’ closer is (and it may be Fernando Rodney by the end of the year) is a must have, especially since his shortcomings won’t highly affect your totals.
Avoid: Heath Bell
A career set-up man, Heath Bell was surprisingly dominant in his first year at closer, but he has many questions for this season. Can he continue his dominance to that level? Doubtful. Will he be a closer at the end of the year? There’s a great chance he will be dealt to a team with a proven closer. Will the Padres give him enough save opportunities to be worth his price tag? Nope.
Sleeper: Neftali Feliz
Frank Francisco and C.J. Wilson don’t form the most formidable closer duo in Texas, and if one is to struggle, Feliz would be the next in line for the ninth inning. He has an electric fastball that reaches 100 and great breaking pitches. Feliz could go forward as a starter, but his success in the ‘pen should convince Texas to keep him in place as the closer-in-waiting.
My last hint for this upcoming fantasy baseball season is to be very active. You can win your leagues by who you pick up, not just if you draft right. Plenty of rookies will get the call, and don’t feel discouraged to drop an aging player for potential, even if it doesn’t pan out. If you have a hunch, go for a trade or pickup because just waiting won’t cut it. When Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, Buster Posey, Carlos Santana, and Desmond Jennings hit the majors, pick them up as soon as possible.
I am no professional at fantasy baseball, but I know what I’m doing and can manage a team to the top three. You may have gotten to the end and asked why you ever read all the way down, so I congratulate you and wish you well. If you have any questions, I highly recommend listening to and reading Matthew Berry, ESPN fantasy expert, and also feel free to ask a question or comment.