The best of the rest (RBs)

In part 1 of my running back preview, I presented information on my top 15 running backs – Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, Nick Chubb, Najee Harris, Jonathan Taylor, Joe Mixon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and David Montgomery. In part 2, I will provide insights on the best of the rest. This will include sleepers like Michael Carter of the Jets that may return huge value but are more risky in terms of steady production.

If you decide to use the controversial Zero-RB strategy, you will be especially interested in some of these names. The Zero RB strategy is where you draft only one running back in the first five runs and focus on rostering three wide receivers and an elite tight end like Travis Kelce. The advantage of this approach is that you can draft elite wide receivers like Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Devante Adams (if Aaron Rodgers is back in Green Bay) and DeAndre Hopkins. You might also select Patrick Mahomes in an early round.

J.K. DOBBINS

Some people are expecting Dobbins to have an increased role in the Baltimore offense this year, including the passing game. He had an efficient rookie season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, but he barely reached 800 total yards. He played less than 43 percent of his team’s snaps and never saw double-digit carries until the seventh game. His lack of involvement in the passing game was the real drag on his fantasy value. If that all changes, there’s a path for him to be a top-10 running back.

MYLES GASKIN

I’m higher than most on Gaskins, ranking him as my RB17. Like Dobbins, he has a path to be a top 10 back. In 2020, Gaskin was among the best waiver wire additions in all formats. He had eight games with at least 12 PPR points. In the 10 games he appeared in, and he had six games with at least 19 total touches. Keep an eye on what happens with the Dolphins backfield prior to training camp, but Gaskin could return real value as your RB2 if you draft him late in the fourth or early in the fifth round. 

DEANDRE SWIFT

There were flashes of what could be a great three-down back with Swift last year, but the Lions added Jamaal Williams in free agency. Then, they drafted Jermar Jefferson. Then, they brought in Todd Gurley on a free agent visit. While they didn’t sign him, it’s not promising for Swift’s outlook, as this smells like a timeshare. Without a lot of scoring opportunities in Detroit, there is a risk of Swift being a bust. Swift is a talented football player, however, and should get enough work to be a low-end RB2.

CHRIS CARSON

Throughout Carson’s career, he’s produced RB2 or better numbers in 60 percent of his games and has been consistently underrated. Although he figures to remain the primary rusher for the Seahawks, his carries per game sunk from 18.5 in 2019 to 11.8 in 2020. As such, Carson had just four games out of 12 with 15-plus carries and seven with 15-plus touches last year. Injuries have also been a problem, but when he’s on the field, he’s a reliable RB2 who will provide a decent floor if not a high ceiling each week.  

MILES SANDERS

Fantasy managers were drafting Sanders as early as the first round last year, in spite of my warnings against such foolishness. He’s delivered RB2 or better numbers in just 14-of-28 of games (50 percent). To be fair, he hasn’t been used in a workhorse role, totaling more than 15 touches just 11 times over that span. Will the departure of Doug Pederson allow him to shine, or will Nick Sirianni implement a timeshare as well? I’m expecting a timeshare, and the Eagles quarterback “hurts” his fantasy value.

JOSH JACOBS

Jacobs was being drafted in the second round last year and failed to meet fantasy expectations. Now, the Raiders have decided to pay Kenyan Drake a lot of money to come in and share the workload with Jacobs. Understandably, this has caused Jacobs’ stock to plummet. But the question is whether it has fallen too far. Running backs being drafted in the middle rounds are usually in timeshares. With lower expectations, taking Jacobs in the fifth round as your third back could prove to be a shrewd move. 

DARRELL HENDERSON

The fantasy world was a buzz about Henderson a week ago with the year-ending injury to Cam Akers. While the injury opens a door of opportunity for Henderson, I want to sound a note of caution. Over the whole of 2020, Henderson averaged slightly more than 10 carries per contest, and I don’t think that will change. I expect the Rams to bring in someone to compete with Henderson for the starting job. There were rumors of someone flying around LA with a cape that looked like former superhero Le’Veon Bell.

MIKE DAVIS

At first glance, Davis should be ranked higher than RB23 since he has a clear path to 15-plus touches per game. There have been 144 running backs who’ve hit that mark over the past 10 years, and none have finished worse than RB28. The vast majority have finished higher than RB23. There are two things that are working against Davis in becoming a solid RB2 on a fantasy team. First, the Falcons aren’t very good and will be playing from behind a lot. Second, there’s a chance a free agent could be added in Atlanta.

RAHEEM MOSTERT

Like Gaskin, I’m higher on Mostert than most because I know what he’s capable of. When he’s healthy and on the field, he’s a beast. He’s turned 282 career carries into 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 49ers traded up to draft Trey Sermon in the third round, but I believe that’s because they want a quality backup for Mostert. If you want a shot at upside, draft Mostert in the 6th round. He tallied at least 14 carries in 5-of-8 starts last year, which is more than enough to get into RB2 territory – if he stays healthy.

KAREEM HUNT

All of the running backs you’re reading about now are in time-sharing arrangements, but some are better than others and Hunt is one of the best. He finished as a top-10 running back last season when Chubb missed four games. He’s a handcuff plus RB. He has a secure role as a pass-catching back, but he’s capable of being a top-five back if Chubb gets injured again. The worst-case scenario is that Hunt will be a strong RB3/flex option, and the best case is a back with 20-touch upside in a run-first offense.  

CHASE EDMONDS

With Kenyan Drake gone, Edmonds is the lead running back for the Cardinals. The team added James Conner, but we know he can’t stay healthy. Edmonds will line up for passing situations (he averaged 3.3 receptions per game last year) but should see a lot of early-downs work as well. So why is he only RB26? Edmonds only has four career starts and nine career games with 10-plus touches (six in 2020). The wild card is Kyler Murray. If he runs a lot – especially in the red zone – that will hurt Edmonds’ productivity.

MICHAEL CARTER

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m higher on Carter than most. One of my top sleepers, the Jets quietly took him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, and he has the chance to be their starter. Though he’s undersized, he does everything well including catching passes. The only player standing in the way of him securing 15-plus touches each week is Tevin Coleman, who’s always injured. Carter is being taken around No. 80 overall in mock drafts, and he is one of the best late-round values in fantasy football.

JAMES ROBINSON

Robinson was one of the biggest surprises last year, coming out of nowhere to become a top 10 back in fantasy. He was a bell cow back, averaging 4.46 yards per carry, 5.73 yards per target, and scoring 10 touchdowns. Enter Urban Meyer, who said they wanted to add depth/competition at the running back position. After adding Carlos Hyde, the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne in the first round. Go figure. A timeshare knocks Robinson’s value way down, but it’s still possible he surprises everyone again.

JAVONTE WILLIAMS

There are some who want to make Williams the lead back in the Broncos backfield, but Melvin Gordon is still there for another year. So, the Denver backfield is likely to be a time share. If you draft the 21-year-old rookie, you’re hoping Gordon fades away early in the season, leaving Williams as the last man standing. Don’t reach for Williams, but take him if he falls to you around the 75th pick overall. Williams is likely to fill the Phillip Lindsay role initially, but if anything happens to Gordon, Williams has big upside.

TRAVIS ETIENNE

If Robinson wasn’t in Jacksonville, Etienne would be higher than my RB30. Etienne is a big-time playmaker in all facets of the game, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and 11.3 per reception at Clemson. He’ll be lining up next to his college QB, Trevor Lawrence, and that combination could be especially fruitful in the passing game, which is likely where Etienne will have to make his impact, at least at first. If Robinson were to get traded (think LA Rams), or sustain an injury, Etienne’s value would skyrocket.

RONALD JONES II

Leonard Fournette had a strong finish to the 2020 season while Jones was hurt, but don’t forget Jones averaged 5.14 yards per carry and nearly hit 1,000 rushing yards despite finishing with just 192 carries. There are just eight running backs in the post-merger era who’ve finished with as many yards as Jones did with 192 or less carries. He’s not going to be heavily utilized in the passing game, which caps his upside, but Jones is the Bucs best ball carrier and could be a boon to managers if Fournette is injured.

MELVIN GORDON

When the Broncos signed Gordon to a two-year, $16 million contract, I assumed he would have a big role. That didn’t happen as he found himself in a timesharing arrangement with Phillip Lindsay. Gordon’s pedigree will cause some to draft him too early in 2021. The Broncos favor a multi-back approach, so Gordon will now be sharing time with Williams, instead of Lindsay. Gordon has hit 15-plus PPR in just 11 of 29 games over the past two seasons, so you certainly don’t want to overpay for him in the draft.

TREY SERMON

As previously stated, I’m a big Raheem Mostert fan. He’s the 49ers’ starting running back if he stays healthy. But he’s injured too often to ignore the fact. Why do you think Kyle Shanahan traded up into the third round to get Sermon? The skeptic in me says it’s not a question of if Mostert gets hurt but when. The 49ers have one of the softest schedules in the league among running backs, which is a plus for all of their backs. Sermon should be viewed as one of the best bench stashes in fantasy football.

LEONARD FOURNETTE

I’m one of the few analysts that ranks Fournette behind Jones. Yes, Fournette had a good run in the playoffs last year, but don’t let a couple of games cloud the picture. He had a mediocre season, finishing with more than 52 rushing yards just once all year. His primary source of fantasy points in 2020 was via the passing game, as he saw 47 targets in 13 games. But the Bucs added Gio Bernard, who’s a much better receiver out of the backfield. There’s just too many question marks surrounding Fournette.

JAMES CONNOR

It wasn’t long ago, that the fantasy community saw Connor as a borderline elite running back. He looked like it after he took over from Le’Veon Bell in 2018. But Connor’s body just couldn’t stand up to a workhorse role in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s in Arizona in a timeshare with Edmonds. He’s my RB35 because I assume he is the No. 2 back for the Cardinals, There’s a reason the Cardinals signed him in free agency, so he will have a role. The question is “how big?” He’s only worth a late-round pick in drafts.

KENYAN DRAKE

Like Connor, it seems Drake’s best days are behind him as he leaves Arizona and heads for the desert. The Cardinals experiment proved that Drake was no bell cow. His new role with the Raiders is uncertain – playing second fiddle to Josh Jacobs. Drake was considered a solid third-down back early in his career with the Dolphins and had two seasons with 50-plus catches. It’s tough to see him eating into Jacobs’ carry totals a whole lot, but he should offer low-upside flex value due to his work in the passing game.

THE REST

David Johnson, RB 37; Damien Harris, RB 38; Zack Moss, RB 39; A.J. Dillon, RB 40; Nyheim Hines, RB 41; Devin Singletary, RB 42; Tony Pollard, RB 43; Gus Edwards, RB 44; Jamaal Williams, RB 45; J.D. McKissic, RB 46; Alexander Mattison, RB47; Latavius Murray, RB48; James White, RB49; Phillip Lindsay, RB50. These last 14 players are not expected to have much fantasy impact, but this list includes Pollard and Mattison. Both are talented athletes who are a key injury away from being top 10- or even top-5 backs.  

You can follow Thomas L. Seltzer on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.

Top 15: RBs, part 1

It seems appropriate to start this 2021 fantasy football preview series with running backs because most analysts would agree that selecting the right backs is critical to your draft success. It’s been frequently said that you can’t win the league with your first two draft picks, but you can lose it. Many people select running backs in the first two rounds, and it’s likely that your RB1 and RB2 will anchor your team – if they stay healthy. But you have no control over injuries, so cross your fingers and gird up your loins.  

There is simply too much to cover in one installment on running backs, so I’m going to break this into two parts. This week, I’ll cover 15 players you should target in the first three rounds. Everyone on this list could help you to a championship. Next week, I’ll cover the rest of the backs. This will include sleepers and breakouts that might return huge value if taken in the later rounds. You will want to roster four or five running backs, but they will be in high demand in the early rounds of your draft.  

A daring alternative would be to employ the Zero-RB strategy. This is where you draft only one running back in the first five runs and focus on rostering three or four wide receivers, an elite tight end and/or Patrick Mahomes. This is a something to consider if are drafting later in the first round. For instance, let’s say you have the No. 11 pick and the first 10 players taken are running backs. You could select Travis Kelce and might still be able to get Devante Adams or Tyreek Hill with your next pick.

If you are fortunate enough to draft early in the first round, you should take an elite running back. In my opinion, there are only three that are elite. And Christian McCaffrey is in a class by himself. He’s scored 25-plus points in 10 of his last 19 games, and he has scored fewer than 19 fantasy points in just two of them. He’s basically posting quarterback numbers as a running back. The problem last year was that he appeared in only three games. Regardless of the injury risk, however, he’s the No. 1 pick.

After McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley round out the top six running backs expected to come off the board. But I put only two of these five in my elite tier. I may be the only analyst sounding the alarm on Zeke, but you should listen. Kamara should be discounted with the departure of Drew Brees and Barkley is a significant risk because of his injury history. If McCaffrey, Cook and Henry are gone, you may want to draft Travis Kelce.

I also want to point out that Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb are not far behind, and either of them could outperform Kamara, Elliott and Barkley. Jones, who re-signed with the Packers in the offseason, could easily be a top-five fantasy back if Aaron Rodgers returns to Green Bay. It’s possible Jones will be even more involved in the passing game now that he’s sharing with A.J. Dillon and not Jamaal Williams. Over the past two seasons, the Packers have been in the top third of the league with 268 passes thrown to running backs. Dillion will not absorb Williams’ share of targets.

CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY

The injury-plagued 2020 season may deflate his value somewhat, but it’s not enough to keep him from being the No. 1 overall pick. In 2019, McCaffrey posted record-breaking stats and was the second-highest scoring fantasy player — including quarterbacks — to only Lamar Jackson. McCaffrey averaged 26.3 fantasy points per game in half PPR (Weeks 1 through 16). His 393.9 fantasy points was 99.5 fantasy points more than the second-highest scoring non-quarterback that season, Michael Thomas.

DALVIN COOK

Cook is as talented as any running back in the league, and would have surpassed 2,000 yards from scrimmage last year had he not missed two games due to injury. He still set career bests in rushing yards (1,557), touchdowns (17), and touches (356). In my opinion, he’s the most explosive running back in the NFL, having broken a run of at least 70 yards in each of the past three seasons. The mitigating factor is that he hasn’t yet stayed healthy enough to play 16 games in a season, but he’s still my No. 2 RB.

DERRICK HENRY

If I’m lower than most on Elliott and Barkley, I’m probably higher than most on Henry. He’s my No. 1 back in standard league and No. 3 in PPR scoring because of his lack of usage in the passing game. He’s also the most durable of the elite backs, having missed only two games in five years. Henry rushed for 2,027 yards and led the league in 2020, after leading the league with 1,540 yards in 2019. Keep in mind that the regular season has been expanded to 17 games in 2021, so he may break his own record.

SAQUON BARKLEY

After a breakout rookie season with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns, Barkley has produced 1,535 total yards and eight touchdowns over 15 games the last two seasons. He tore his ACL early in 2020, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same player when he returns. He’ll may carry the ball less since the Giants have more weapons in the passing game, so Barkley is unlikely to come close to the 121 targets he saw in 2018s. Still, he should be a productive fantasy back.   

ALVIN KAMARA

Kamara has been PPR gold during the Brees era, but that era is over. Brees targeted his running backs at least 28 percent of the time in each of the last four years. But projected starter Jameis Winston hasn’t targeted running backs more than 18 percent of the time during that same period. Kamara is less likely to have the backfield to himself than Ekeler, with Latavius Murray sharing time.  The Saints are also going to score less points. My prediction is Kamara will still be productive but not elite in 2021. 

AUSTIN EKELER

I’m higher than most on Ekeler, who’s currently being drafted RB9, with an overall ADP of 11. Ekeler could be a top-five back and finish ahead of Kamara, Barkley and Elliott, who are consistently being drafted ahead of him. In eight full games with Justin Herbert calling signals last year, Ekeler saw 63 targets. It’s not much of a stretch to project 100-plus targets for him in 2021. That would make him the new PPR darling. With little competition in this backfield, Ekeler’s bell-cow running back role is safe.

EZEKIEL ELLIOTT

Analysts wants to give Elliott a pass, writing off most of the 2021 season after Dak Prescott was injured. He will be drafted as early as No. 3 overall but not by me. Consider that after the Prescott injury, Elliott tanked to RB11. With Prescott back, he may be more productive. But there are a lot of mouths to feed in Dallas, with a trio of talented receivers on the field. That means Elliott will carry the ball less often than he has in the past, and he’s simply not running with the same intensity as he did in his early years.   

AARON JONES

Jones is another back I’m higher on than most analysts. A dynamic runner, Jones has finished 7th, 4th, 4th and 16th in fantasy points in spite of sharing time with other backs over the past four seasons. This year, expect Jones to be even more involved in the passing game now that he’s sharing time with A.J. Dillon and not Jamaal Williams. Over the past two seasons, the Packers have been in the top third of the league with 268 passes thrown to running backs. He’s my RB8 and worth a late first-round pick.  

NICK CHUBB

Chubb finished as the RB9 last year despite playing in just 12 games. Chubb was 6th in the league in total rushing yards, with 1,067 in only 190 carries. With a solid offensive line and a preference to run the ball in Cleveland, there no reason to think he’ll do worse in 2021. Kareem Hunt’s presence as the primary pass-catching back is the only thing that keeps Chubb from being a top-five back. He will never get a lot of passing volume, but he doesn’t it to deliver value if you select him at the end of the first round.   

JONATHAN TAYLOR

Taylor’s current ADP is RB6, but he’s my RB10, and I’m fading him in the first round. Did everyone forget about what happened the first 10 weeks of the 2020 season? At that point, Taylor was the RB19 and David Montgomery was the RB20. Taylor finished the year as the RB6 while Montgomery was the RB4. But Montgomery is being drafted in the fourth or fifth round. I don’t understand all of the love for Taylor, although he did finish strong last year – third in rushing yards behind only Henry and Cook.  

NAJEE HARRIS

I’m higher on Harris than most. His current ADP is RB17, but he’s my RB11. Although he hasn’t played a down in the NFL, Harris takes over as Pittsburgh’s lead back. The Steelers haven’t been shy about giving backs 18-plus touches per game in the Mike Tomlin era. Harris was a three-down back at Alabama, and the Steelers took him in the first round for a reason. The caveat here is that like Dallas, there are a trio of talented receivers. The assumption that Ben Roethlisberger will throw less is just as assumption.

JOE MIXON

Last year, I warned you about taking Mixon in the first round. But this year, he’s RB14. I have him at RB13, and I would certainly take him if he slips the end of the second or beginning of the third round. When Giovani Bernard missed time last year, Mixon averaged 27.0 touches per game over those next three weeks before getting hurt. Now with Bernard gone, are we finally going to get a full season’s worth of 20-plus touch games for Mixon? With that kind of volume, top-five production is possible.

CLYDE EDWARDS-HELAIRE

Edwards-Helaire was the No. 11 running back through six weeks of the 2020 season before the arrival of Le’Veon Bell. He was No. 11 while scoring just once during that time. With Bell gone and no one significant brought in this offseason, CEH could return to his 18-plus touch role in the best offense in the NFL. If so, CEH, would be a great value. The Chiefs have rebuilt their offensive line this year, which should help make life easier on CEH, who did average a solid 4.44 yards per carry his rookie season.

ANTONIO GIBSON

Last season, Gibson scored at least 12 PPR points in eight of his first 11 games. A toe injury in Week 13 slowed him down over the final five games of the season, but he should be healthy coming into training camp. He will share passing-downs work with J.D. McKissic, but Gibson is a converted receiver from Memphis and had 36 receptions on 44 targets as a rookie. If Gibson gets a larger target share in 2021, he could emerge as a top-10 Fantasy running back this year and return draft value. He’s my RB15. 

DAVID MONTGOMERY

Montgomery came into the NFL with a lot of buzz in 2019, with a potential workhorse role under head coach Matt Nagy. He ended up flopping, finishing as RB30 in fantasy points per game (PPR). He became known as a plodding back with limited upside heading into his sophomore season. Then, he broke out in 2020, finishing as RB4 after a late-season surge where he posted 24 receptions, 824 total yards, and eight touchdowns in his final six games. He can be drafted with confidence in the fourth round.

Survival of the fittest

Managing a fantasy baseball team(s) in 2021 has been like managing a military battlefield as casualty reports keep coming in. Consider yesterday (Monday). First came the announcements that outfielders Gincarlo Stanton and Michael Conforto were being put on the injured list (IL) by their respective teams. This was a blow to two different teams I managed. Later in the evening, the same fantasy team with Conforto lost the services of two starting pitchers, Max Fried and Madison Bumgarner. Both left games they stared early with injuries. On a third team, starting pitcher Taijuan Walker was removed with an injury after only three innings.

I know I’m not alone in dealing with a rash of injuries. I don’t have proof of this, but I believe this is the most injuries (IL and day-to-day status) in the first six weeks history. I don’t own Mike Trout on any team, but I would have shuddered when news came that he had been removed in the first inning of last night’s game.  After walking in his first plate appearance of the night and advancing to second base on a wild pitch, Trout appeared to injure his lower leg while running out an inning-ending popup off the bat of Jared Walsh. At this time, the Angels are viewing Trout as day-to-day, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him land on the 10-day IL.

Kevin Pillar is no Trout, but you also had to shudder if you saw the outfielder struck in the face by a pitch last night. I watched the play on Youtube and it was brutal. Pillar understandably went down in a heap and was bleeding from his nose, but he was fortunately able to walk off the field under his own power. Pillar was taken to the hospital after sustaining multiple nasal fractures. It’s not just fantasy managers affected by all of this mayhem. The Mets, the team who lost Pillar, were just hours removed from losing Conforto. They were already shorthanded in the outfield with Brandon Nimmo (finger) and Albert Almora (shoulder) on the IL.

Here is a summary of players hitting the IL or sustaining injuries in the past 24 hours:

LUKE WEAVER, SP, ARIZONA

The Diamondbacks placed starting pitcher Luke Weaver (shoulder) on the 10-day injured list Tuesday. After exiting his start Sunday against the Nationals with right shoulder discomfort, Weaver was optimistic that he would avoid a stint on the IL, but the Diamondbacks apparently didn’t agree with the 27-year-old’s assessment of his health.

MAX FRIED, SP, ATLANTA

Fried was pulled from Monday’s game against the Mets due to cramping in his left hand. Fried, who came off the IL earlier this month, has had three good starts, including last night’s game. He went six innings, allowing five hits, one earned run, striking out eight and walking two. I had picked up Fried off waivers last April and hope he’s okay.

MADISON BUMGARNER, SP, ARIZONA

Bumgarner was on his way to his sixth straight quality start when he left last night’s game with the Dodgers after suffering a spasm in his left adductor – a muscle in the groin/thigh area. That sounds painful. The Diamondbacks are saying the issue is minor, and I hope they’re right. After a terrible start to the season, MadBum had turned things around.

TAIJUAN WALKER, SP, NY METS

Walker was removed from Monday’s start against Atlanta after three innings due to left side tightness. Walker was experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort. The severity of the injury is not known at this point. Walker has apparently has been dealing with the side issue for the last few weeks, and he was scheduled to get an MRI today.

MITCH GARVER, C, MINNESOTA

Garver, the starting catcher on one of my fantasy teams, left Monday’s game against the White Sox due to a right knee contusion. Garver took a foul ball off his right knee early in the contest, and he was ultimately pulled after three innings. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him hit the IL in the next day, or two. He is being considered day-to-day.

Keep in mind that this happened in one day. If you’re managing a fantasy team in 2021, you are going to be tested. Having depth on your roster is crucial. You will need to be an astute judge of talent as you work the waiver wire each day. Also, pulling off a few good trades will help your fortunes. How you respond to these challenges will determine your fate.  

Buy Low, Sell High, Hope

In my favorite scene from the movie “City Slickers,” Curly, the hard-core cowboy, and Mitch, the greenhorn city slicker (played respectively by actors Jack Palance and Billy Crystal), are riding on a trail and discussing love, life and other existential issues. At on point Curly turns to Mitch and says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Mitch replies, “No, what?” Curly holds up his index finger and says, “One thing.” “That’s great,” Mitch says. “But what’s the one thing?” Curly responds, “That’s what you gotta figure out.”

I love Billy Crystal movies, and I recommend this philosophical cowboy comedy. But how does this relate to fantasy baseball? I thought of the scene with Curly and Mitch and how it applies to playing this game. The secret of winning your fantasy baseball league is one thing. Or, maybe two, of three, or five. What those things are is up to you to figure out. With that said, I will share one thing with you that I have found works. I call this strategy, “Buy low, sell high and hope for the best.” In this case, I’m talking about trades.

Novice fantasy players overreact to early-season developments. This is why I found Kyle Tucker on the waiver wire in my Yahoo League last week and claimed him with a $6 FAAB bid. Tucker was hitting below the Mendoza Line at that point. But since May 9th, he’s gone 9 for 17 (.529), with eight runs scored, three home runs and seven RBI. Tucker was one of many players off to a slow start in the early weeks of the 2021 season. But there was a reason why he was being drafted in the third or fourth round in most fantasy leagues.

The moral of this story is to not give up on a player too soon. This is where the “buy low” comes into the equation. One of my strategies in playing fantasy baseball is to attempt to buy low on good players off to a slow start. Before I go any further, let me add that this strategy (like any strategy) is not foolproof. I have just recently retired after more than 30 years as a financial advisor. I’ve applied the “buy low, sell high” strategy in buying and selling stocks for years. Unfortunately, sometimes you buy low and your stock goes lower.

This is true in buying low on a baseball player. A few years ago, Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop was dropped early by a manager in my league. Schoop was coming off a great season, having clubbed 35 home runs, with 105 RBI. He also hit .293. He had been a fourth-round draft pick, and I picked him up. I hung on (and hung on) to him through most of that year. He finished the season with 22 home runs, 61 RBI and a batting average of .233. Schoop has never been ranked higher than a top 200 player since then.

This year, I’m buying low and selling high on a lot of players. Let me cite some of the trades I have made in the last few weeks. I have listed the player I am receiving in the trade first. Eugenio Suarez for Sandy Alcantara (April 12), Marcell Ozuna for Cedric Mullins and Tyler Naquin (April 13), Charlie Morton for Aaron Civale (April 21), Lance Lynn for Josh Hader and Wander Franco (April 27), Kyle Hendricks for Tommy Edman (April 29), Blake Snell for Trevor Rogers (May 13) and Jose Ramirez for Matt Chapman and Ryan Pressly (May 13).

There was one trade where I violated my own rule and am living to regret it. On April 30th, I traded Zach Plesac for Max Muncy. Plesac was coming off a stretch of three games where he had allowed 15 earned runs in 13.1 innings. His velocity was down, and opposing hitters were hitting the ball hard. I didn’t like what I was seeing from Plesac, and I panicked. Since that time, Plesac has allowed 2 earned runs in 21 innings. If you take away his two bad starts against the White Sox, he’s allowed only seven runs in six starts.

Will all of the buy low, sell high trades pan out? No way. At this point, the Morton-Civale trades doesn’t look very good. I have concerns about the Snell-Rogers trade. I also have concerns about the Alcantara-Suarez trade and the Hendricks-Edman trade. Heck, I could lay awake at night worrying about all of them, but I’m not going to. I believe I will win more of these buy low, sell high deals than I lose. I’m counting on that. You must understand that fantasy baseball is a game of inches. There are 162 games to be played.

We’re about 22.8 percent of the way through the season, and there’s a lot of baseball to be played. I am currently first in my Yahoo public league, and second and third in my two ESPN leagues. Each league is 12-team Roto. My focus is on improving with each team in each league each day. There are some things that I control and some things that I don’t control. The rash of injuries, the slow starts by players, the flight of the new baseball are things I don’t control. The players I trade for, add and drop and under my control.

Doubting Thomas Dairies

I’m starting a new feature today, where I will share thoughts from the baseball season in real time. This will be relevant to anyone playing fantasy baseball because you will have my insights on players and situations as they develop. I have three fantasy teams that I manage on a daily basis – one Yahoo team and two ESPN teams. In referring to the ESPN teams, I will use their names (Alpha Dog and Team Revenant). The other team will be called the Yahoo team.

All three of my team are public league teams, which means I don’t know any of the other managers personally. When we move into football season, this will change because I have a private league that I have been playing in for four years. You’re going to experience my emotions with each entry, as I endure the agony and exalt in the ecstasy (the emotion, not the drug). I suspect you will be able to sympathize and empathize with much of what I share along the way.

I have a few rules for myself when I play fantasy baseball. First, I won’t have any player on more than one team. I don’t care how good the player is. For example, today I was offered Jose Ramirez in a trade. I accepted the offer (actually the other manager accepted mine). If the trade is approved by the league, I must then attempt to trade Ramirez from one of my other teams. This rule was adopted because I mitigate risk by not owning too many shares of a player.

So, let’s get started. We’re six weeks into the baseball season. My Yahoo team is in first place, with 87 points in a 12-team league. Overnight, I added highly-touted pitching prospect Logan Gilbert to my roster, paying only $1 of FAAB money. The timing was good because Zac Gallen went on the IL yesterday. I now have three starting pitchers on the IL – Jacob deGrom, Gallen and Stephen Strasburg. All were taken in the early rounds of the draft.

Back to Gilbert. He will be overlooked today because it’s Jarred Kelenic day in Seattle, and Gilbert is getting second billing. Kelenic is quite the rage, and I selected him in the draft last February but got tired of waiting for his callup. Of course, it seemed like he was called up by the Mariners right after I dropped him. Gilbert won’t be an afterthought in tonight’s game if he performs well. He towers on the mound, 6-foot-6, with good command of all four pitches.

My second team, Alpha Dog, is in second place in its league. This team has 90 points (also a 12-team league). This is previously mentioned team that has Jose Ramirez, my first-round pick. Like any fantasy team, I have players that are overperforming expectations and underperforming, I picked up Yermin Mercedes. The Yerminator, who is having a breakout campaign, is eligible at catcher at ESPN. He’s hitting .367, with five home runs, 21 RBI, and 13 runs scored in 108 at bats.

Alpha Dog trails the first-place team by nine points. This is a balanced team. The lowest category number is 6, which means 7th place in that Roto category. I’m first in RBI and steals, second in wins, third in runs, fourth in home runs and WHIP, fifth in ERA, sixth in strikeouts and seventh in batting average and saves. Saves is the most difficult category for me because I don’t chase closers. In other words, I generally won’t pay up for a relief pitcher that is a closer.

My third team, Team Revenant, is third place. This team has 82.5 points. This is the team I have had the most challenges with and have done the most work on. I drafted a team, experimenting with a strategy called the Bullpen Method. This is an idea originating with a fantasy analyst named J.B. Branson, where you build your team around seven or eight relief pitchers, focus on low ratios (ERA and WHIP) and pick up the best starters and position players you can find.

I’m not saying the Bullpen Method doesn’t work. But it wasn’t working for me, so I tore the team apart a few weeks ago and started rebuilding. I traded for Marcell Ozuna, Eugenio Suarez and Max Muncy, buying low on their slow starts. I traded Francisco Lindor for Brandon Woodruff, and I traded Josh Hader and Wander Franco for Lance Lynn. Since I made these moves, the team has improved almost 30 points in the standings. It’s early, and we’ll see how it goes.

So, that’s what Doubting Thomas Dairies is going to be like. It’s all about fantasy baseball as it is played in the trenches. There will be days when I’ll be riding high on the waives of good fortune and days when I’ll be so far down that I’ll have to reach up to touch bottom. If you’re in the trenches with me, trying to win your fantasy league, you’re going to enjoy these blogs. If you’re not, you will find other things of interest to read (assuming you’re not illiterate).

Don’t pay for saves

It’s been an eventful 24 hours in the whacky world of relief pitchers. First, came the announcement that Kirby Yates of the Toronto Blue Jays will be shut down as he prepares for his second Tommy John surgery. I have Yates on one of my teams, so I checked the waiver wire to see if Jordan Romano was available. He wasn’t. I then checked my other league and found him. Within hours, I had a trade offer from another manager.

As the Yates story continued to develop during the day, there was more relief pitcher news. The San Diego Union-Tribune was reporting that Emilio Pagan is “the name mentioned most by those in the organization as the pitcher expected to assume the closer role.” Multiple pitchers had been in the mix for the Padres’ closer job, including Drew Pomeranz, Mark Melancon and Pierce Johnson, but it appears Pagan is the frontrunner.

While the fantasy baseball world was buzzing about the news out of Toronto and San Diego, more news broke. In Cleveland, Indian manager Tony Francona had high praise for Nick Wittgren in an interview with the Associated Press and said he was a top option for the closer job. This news will certainly drive the James Karinchak stock value down, since he was the presumptive favorite to have the ninth-inning gig in Cleveland.

There is a morale to this story, and the morale is don’t pay for saves. Drafting closers in the early rounds of your fantasy draft is foolish because the situation is fluid. The best advice I can give is never pay for saves. I wish I had taken my own advice and hadn’t used a 14th round pick on Yates. I was able to trade him yesterday at a discount, which was fortunate since he will have no value when the season-ending surgery is announced.

In my opinion, top relievers go far too early in drafts. Consider the Yahoo league I’m in where Brad Hand went in the fourth round, Josh Hader in the fifth, Aroldis Chapman and Devin Williams in the sixth, Edwin Diaz in the seventh and Karinchak in the eighth. These are the rounds where you should be loading up on starting pitchers and position players. In my humble opinion, even thirty saves isn’t worth an early draft pick.

Its true that MLB managers are leaning more on their bullpens, changing the statistical landscape for pitchers. Managers are quicker with the hook and more starters are limited to five innings a start. This means once you get past the top few elite starters, the gap in strikeouts and wins is shrinking. As relievers grab an increasing percentage of innings, their strikeout totals and ratios will mean more to their fantasy managers.

Let me suggest a reasonable approach to acquiring relief pitchers. Wait. The first relief pitcher I took in my ESPN league was Matt Barnes in the 16th round. He was my 183rd pick. I took Daniel Bard with my 298th pick. Barnes, Bard and Romano are my three rostered relief pitchers on this team, and all are expected to get a lot of saves for their respective teams. But if they don’t, I haven’t wasted an early-round pick on them.

What follows is a list of relief pitchers that I have compiled. All of these relievers are expected to perform well in 2021. Some will strike out enough batters to be relevant in that category. Some will get saves and some will vulture a few wins. All of them should help you ERA and WHIP ratios. And all of them will be available in the final rounds of your draft. Again, don’t waste those valuable early picks chasing closers and saves.

AARON BUMMER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

He is by far the second-best reliever on the White Sox right now and should be for a while. Bummer had some injury trouble in 2020 but when he was out there, he was filthy. In 9.1 innings (over nine appearances), he had an ERA of 0.96 and a WHIP of 1.071 with 14 strikeouts.

MATT BUSH, TEXAS

The 35-year-old former No. 1 overall pick, a non-roster invitee who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2018, could grab a share of the closer role as the season starts, with Jose Leclerc, Jonathan Hernandez and Joely Rodriguez sidelined. Ian Kennedy is his main competition.

TYLER DUFFEY, MINNESOTA

The Twins signing Alex Colome ruined hopes of Duffey getting a good share of saves in Minnesota. Regardless, he’s been one of the most skilled relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. With low ERA and WHIP projections, he should help in ratios as a middle reliever.

PETE FAIRBANKS, TAMPA BAY

Fairbanks was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2019 in exchange for Nick Solak and paid it paid off. He recorded six wins and seven holds. Although his WHIP left something to be desired, that could improve with some regression to the .350 BABIP Fairbanks posted last season.

GIOVANNY GALLEGOS, ST. LOUIS

With Jordan Hicks expected to be the team’s primary closer, Gallegos can still help a fantasy team with ratios and strikeouts. His slider-heavy pitch selection results in him striking out at least a third of the hitters he’s faces. His fastball was inconsistent in the shortened 2020 season.

BRYAN GARCIA, DETROIT

A.J. Hinch has yet to name a closer, so Bryan Garcia is sort of penciled in here as he ended the 2020 season with the job. Garcia doesn’t have prototypical closer stuff, striking out only 12 batters in 21.2 innings. But he did have a stellar 1.66 ERA, along with a decent 1.29 WHIP.

YIMI GARCIA, MIAMI

Since his Tommy John surgery in 2019, Garcia has a faster fastball and greater spin on his slider. Garcia is in the mix to close, although Anthony Bass appears to have the inside track on the job so far. In 2020, Garcia pitched to a 0.60 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, with an 11.40 K/9 and 23.3 K-BB%.

CHAD GREEN, NY YANKEES

Green has become one of the most reliable relievers in baseball over the last four seasons. Green found his footing in the Yankees bullpen and is ninth among MLB relievers in WAR since 2017, in a variety of roles. With Zach Britton, out, is he the No. 2 guy behind Aroldis Chapman.

CODI HEUER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Another promising young reliever in the White Sox system, Codi Heuer, had an outstanding debut season. With a high-velocity fastball and whiff-inducing slider, Heuer is primed for a long future in a high-leverage role, although it’s unlikely that he has any road to the closing job. 

PIERCE JOHNSON, SAN DIEGO

After a disaster 2018 season, Johnson pitched in Japan for a year. Ditching his cutter for a curveball helped him. In 2020, he was 3-1, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He is recovering from a groin strain and does not appear to have a road to the closing job in San Diego.

IAN KENNEDY, TEXAS

Even older than Matt Bush, Kennedy may have the inside track on the closer job in Texas after getting 30 saves in 2019. He was ineffective, mostly due to an injury, in 2020. He’s been perfect so far during his Cactus League appearances, striking out four over three scoreless innings.

SETH LUGO, NY METS

The Mets are planning to use Lugo out of the bullpen in 2021 since he has been far more effective in that role than as a starter. Currently recovering from February elbow surgery, which was expected to shut him down for six weeks. Lugo is expected to miss a few weeks in April.  

EVAN MARSHALL, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Since the start of 2019, Marshall has a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings for the White Sox. Marshall has been dropping his fastball usage over the last three seasons. The results have led to more strikeouts. Marshall should continue to see high-leverage work behind Liam Hendriks.

TYLER MATZEK, ATLANTA

Matzek returned to the game after four seasons, and his 97mph fastball from the left side induced a 14.3% swinging-strike rate. Now, with Mark Melancon, Shane Green, and Darren O’Day out, Matzek should see work. But Will Smith and Chris Martin are ahead of him for saves.

TREVOR MAY, NY METS

Trevor May had been consistently good for Minnesota over the last few seasons. In 2020, he raised his game even further with an improved swinging-strike rate after dropping his fastball usage. Now with the Mets, May is currently the primary setup man behind Edwin Diaz.

MIKE MAYERS, LA ANGELS

Mike Mayers enjoyed a breakout season for the Angels in 2020. By adding a cutter, Mayers saw a 4% jump in his swinging-strike rate. While he’s no longer in line to close with Raisel Iglesias in town, Mayers could be a middle reliever worth adding. He’s off to a slow start in spring training.   

TANNER RAINEY, WASHINGTON

Recovering from a minor injury to his collarbone, Rainey will be in a setup role behind Brad Hand. His 21.7% swinging-strike rate was second in the majors among relievers, behind only Devin Williams. When healthy, Rainey should be valuable for holds, ratios, and strikeouts.

ALEX REYES, ST. LOUIS

Once a top pitching prospect, Reyes’ career has been derailed by injuries. The Cardinals’ goal is to get Reyes 100 innings of work in middle relief in 2021. When healthy, he is electric and misses bats.  He has a career 2.48 ERA over five years and parts of four Major League seasons.

JOELY RODRIGUEZ, TEXAS

Still recovering from an ankle sprain, Rodriguez is expected to start the season on the IL but should be ready in a few weeks. He impressed last year with his return from Japan. He is a dark horse to close. Regardless, he should be in the mix for high-leverage work out of the bullpen.

TANNER SCOTT, BALTIMORE

He was Baltimore’s best reliever in 2020, and now he’s the leading candidate to replace Hunter Harvey as the closer after the latter went on the 60-day IL. Scott posted a 1.31 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP with 23 strikeouts in 20.21 innings and recorded one save for the Orioles last season.

GREGORY SOTO, DETROIT

Soto is in the mix with Bryan Garcia for the closing job. He has better stuff but more control issues. The lefty throws a 97mph sinker and has spent the offseason working on refining a slider he plans on using often. He had 29 strikeouts, a 4.30 ERA in 2020 and a 1.22 WHIP in 2020.

NICK WITTGREN, CLEVELAND

Wittgren has impressed manager Terry Francona and could be used as a closer in Cleveland.  Wittgren posted a 3.42 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, with 28 strikeouts in2020. He’s not as dominant as James Karinchak but his walk ratio is less than half which means he’s not as volatile an option.   

Nine back-end starters

As your fantasy baseball draft unfolds, you may find other managers loading up on starting pitchers in the early rounds. Of course, you can’t afford to reach the 20th round without some aces. But what if you still need to add two or three starters? Here are nine sleepers to consider. All of them have ADPs above 200, and two (Dylan Cease and Yusei Kikuchi) are above 300. That means they’ll likely be there in the final round.

DYLAN CEASE, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Cease, who’s had a history of struggles with his control, had some wildness in his last Cactus League start, but he hasn’t allowed a run in 6.2 innings. He throws 99 MPH, with high spin, his curveball drops 8.4 inches more than an average curve and his slider in nasty. But his ADP is 359.  

CRISTIN JAVIER, HOUSTON

Javier has a superb rookie season, throwing 54.1 innings, with an ERA of 3.48 and a 0.99 WHIP. He struck out 25.2% of hitters and walking 8.4%, and he was effective in minimizing hard contact. His hard hit rate, xwOBA, and xERA were all in the 90th percentile, while his xBA was in the 92nd percentile.

YUSEI KIKUCHI, SEATTLE

Kikuchi’s transition from Japan to the MLB has been rough. He had a 5.46 ERA as a 28-year-old rookie and a 5.17 mark last year. But he added velocity and a new cutter that have led to improvements to his ERA indicators, and he looks like a new pitcher with four effective offerings. His ADP is 310.

JOHN MEANS, BALTIMORE

Means finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2019. Then a spike in velocity in 2020 led to a dramatic increase in his swinging-strike rate, as it jumped from 8.7 percent to a Gerrit Cole-like 15.7 percent for his final four starts. Unfortunately, he still suits up for the Orioles.

JORDAN MONTGOMERY, NY YANKEES

Fantrax calls Montgomery a top sleeper. According to NFC, other pitchers drafted around him include Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Zach Davies. He’s already secured a spot in the Yankees starting rotation for 2021, which means he will have run support and will post wins.

MICHAEL PINEDA, MINNESOTA

Pineda only made five starts in 2020, but he posted a 3.38 ERA. His strikeout rate was over 22 percent for the fifth straight season and his walk rate continues to sit below seven percent. Pineda’s 86 mph exit velocity and 32.1 percent hard-hit rate were both the lowest he’s posted in the Statcast era.

EDUARDO RODRIGUEZ, BOSTON

Complications from COVID caused Rodriguez to miss 2020. He has always been able to generate strikeouts, and in 2019 he took a big step forward in preventing hard contact, with a career-high 48.5% ground-ball rate. He struggles with his command but has looked good this spring.

MARCUS STROMAN, NY METS

In 32 starts between Toronto and New York in 2019, Stroman posted 159 strikeouts in 184 1/3 innings pitched to go with a 3.22 ERA, a 1.31 WHIP and 10 wins. He opted out in 2020 but should be a solid back-end fantasy starter who can give you an ERA and WHIP that won’t ruin ratios.

JAMESON TAILLON, NY YANKEES

Taillon’s issue has been his ability to stay on the mound. He’s proven to be a reliable starter with excellent control who has limited damage against him. From 2016-2018, Taillon posted elite walk, overall barrel, and curveball spin rates, to go with a fastball velocity well above league averages. 

Don’t sleep on these

Whether you’ve drafted your fantasy team(s), or not, you will find this list helpful. I’m calling it my Fantasy Baseball Draft Sleepers and Waiver Wire Pickups List.  If you haven’t drafted, use this as a cheat sheet to find late round values. If you have drafted, consider these for waiver wire additions to your roster. Look at your roster and see what you need. These players are listed in alphabetical order and not priority order.

JON BERTI, 2B, 3B, SS, OF, MIAMI

His speed and eligibility at positions keep drawing me back to Berti. All he needs is playing time with the Marlins to be worth rostering for stolen bases alone. Berti played in 39 games last season, posting a .258/.388/.350 slash line with 21 runs scored, 14 RBI, and nine stolen bases.

MARK CANHA, OF, OAKLAND

Canha posted a .246/.387/.408 slash line to go with five home runs and an impressive 33 RBI in 243 plate appearances last year. With an ADP of 255, he has a value. A player being taken at this ADP should produce a .229 average, 28 HR, 62 runs, and 69 RBI. Canha should be able to clear that bar.

WILLIE CASTRO, 3B, SS, DETROIT

Last year, Castro managed to put together the best offensive season of any Tiger by just about any measure. And there’s plenty of reason to believe that the best is yet to come for him. He’s been hot in the spring, going 6 for 13, with three homers. Where he bats in the order will matter.   

C.J. CRON, 1B COLORADO

A barrel monster and heading to Coors field, Cron should hit in the range of 25-plus home runs and 140-150 runs+RBI, with a solid batting average. He won’t steal any bases, but the potential for a mega return on a waiver-wire investment is there – especially in the power numbers. 

J.D. DAVIS, 3B, OF, NEW YORK METS

Based on his other 2020 hitting metrics, Davis should also see positive regression in batting average, and he can provide boring but solid production Managers can reasonably expect around 20-22 HR, 60-70 RBI, and an average close to .270. He is eligible at 3B and OF at Yahoo.

PAUL DEJONG, SS, ST. LOUIS

I dropped DeJong before the season started for someone better, but he still has upside. He hit an average of nearly 25 homers and had 70 RBI over his first three MLB seasons. His exit velocity (89.2) and hard-hit rate (38.0%) during the 2020 season were both above his career averages.

2020 was the second season now for Dickerson in which he impressed, albeit in limited opportunities. His .298/.371/576 triple slash last year was the product of hitting the ball harder. He set new career-highs in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate, all three of which stand out compared to the rest of the league, as Dickerson is well above-average in all three metrics.

JARREN DURAN, OF, BOSTON

Outfielder speedster will get called up this spring, according to Red Sox manager Alex Cora. He was 5 for 10 with two homers and two doubles in the early going.  Fantasy Pros says he the 24-year-old could be a difference-maker in the stolen base category if he gets the playing time.   

WANDER FRANCO, SS, TAMPA BAY

The No. 1 prospect in baseball is turning heads in Florida, and it’s just a matter of times before the 20-year-old gets called up. He’s a plus-plus hitter, who is demonstrating more power this spring, and he has an amazing eye. He also has enough speed to steal 15-20 bases a year.

YULI GURRIEL, 1B, 3B, HOUSTON

Despite a poor 2020 showing, there’s reason to believe a rebound is possible for Gurriel. His .232 average is primarily the result of hard luck, as Gurriel’s .235 BABIP is by far the lowest of his career. His strikeout rate remains superb at 11.7%, and the Astros signed him to a one-year deal.

AUSTIN HAYS, OF, BALTIMORE

Hays continues to show flashes of upside, with an appealing mix of power and speed. He had stolen 11 bases as recently as 2019 when combining his three stops. There is a path to 10-12 steals in 2021 and 20-plus home runs, and that comes with a career .272 batting average.

CESAR HERNANDEZ, 2B, CLEVELAND

Hernandez is one of the most consistent players in the league. Last year, in his first year in Cleveland, he posted a career-best average exit velocity, but he’s not a power hitter with an OPS under .800. He slashed .283/.355/.408 with three home runs and 20 RBI over 233 at-bats.

DALLAS KEUCHEL, SP, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Keuchel had a great first year with the White Sox, going 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA over 63 1/3 IP. But no pitcher is due for more negative regression based on advanced metrics. With my superior pitching roster, I dropped Keuchel and wouldn’t add him back unless he starts strong in 2021.

ALEX KIRILOFF, OF, MINNESOTA

The Twins had a proven and productive left fielder Eddie Rosario but failed to offer him a contract in 2021, which was a vote of confidence for Kiriloff. It’s rare to see a prospect so talented being so underhyped in fantasy baseball. He’s off to a slow start this spring, but he’ll get better.

ANDREW MCCUTCHEN, OF, PHILADELPHIA

With a 195 ADP at NFC, he offers consistent production and would benefit if he is the leadoff hitter for the Phillies. McCutchen played in 57 games in 2020, hitting 10 homers – equating to 27 in a full season – with four steals chipped in. McCutchen’s batting average last year was .253.

RYAN MCMAHON, 1B, 2B, 3B, COLORADO

McMahon should be in the lineup almost every day, and he has the potential to hit 25-30 home runs in Colorado. He had a career-high 11.2 percent barrel rate in 2020. And that rate has been climbing every year, which is reason for optimism. His multi-positional eligibility is a plus.

JORDAN MONTGOMERY, SP, NY YANKEES. 

Fantrax calls Montgomery a top sleeper. According to NFC, other pitchers drafted around him include Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Zach Davies. Fantrax considers him a fair value given the overall ADP. He’s already secured a spot in the Yankees starting rotation for 2021.

JOC PEDERSON, 1B, OF, CHICAGO CUBS

Pederson is a cheap source of power but comes with a batting average liability that would be a drag on my Yahoo’s team already low average. However, if he were to achieve a projected 95 runs, 32 home runs and 80 RBI, he might still be worth adding. He also has dual eligibility. 

YASIEL PUIG, OF, FREE AGENT

Puig didn’t play in 2020 after contracting COVID after signing with the Braves. His 2019 stat line was 24 home runs, 19 stolen bases and a triple slash of .267/.327/.458. This was his third straight season hitting 23 or more home runs with at least 15 steals. However, he hasn’t signed. 

BRYAN REYNOLDS, OF, PITTSBURGH

The Pirates thought they had found a lineup piece for the next half-decade before he took a big step back in 2020. With a weak lineup surrounding him, he’s only worth adding if he returns to his pre-2020 form. He hit .314/.377/.503 as a rookie, but he hit only .189/.275/.357 last year.

CARLOS SANTANA, 1B, KANSAS CITY

Due to a disappointing shortened season, Santana now has an ADP of 281, which seems insanely low since he was going around 136 overall last season. The Royals lineup is more impactful than people give it credit for, so there is an opportunity for RBI production hitting in the middle of it.

JONATHAN SCHOOP, 2B, DETROIT

Four years removed from his best year, Schoop managed to slashed .278/.324/.475 with eight home runs, 23 RBI and 26 runs over 44 games in 2020. There is talk of him moving around to different positions, which would be a plus. He has the ability to hit 30 home runs in a full season.

KYLE SCHWARBER, OF, WASHINGTON

Schwarber has the power to strike fear into opposing pitchers, but he’ll need to rebound after posting a .188 BA, .701 OPS, 29.5% K rate in 2020. His 92.8 MPH average exit velocity and 40.8% hard hit rate indicate a rebound is possible hitting in the heart of the Nationals lineup.

MYLES STRAW, SS, OF, HOUSTON

Straw has been used as a leadoff hitter by manager Dusty Baker in spring training games, Manager Dusty Baker said on March 10 he and Carlos Correa are the leading candidates to bat leadoff. His speed would mean stolen bases – if he can keep hitting and bats lead off.  

LEODY TAVERAS, OF TEXAS

Taveras was a surprise call-up for the Rangers last year and finished his debut season with a 227/.308/.395 slash line in 33 games. He converted all eight stolen base attempts while also hitting four homers. A rare stolen bases asset with power available late in the draft.  

A new draft approach

I read a lot of fantasy baseball articles, and it’s not often that I come across anything really new. But that changed this week when I read an article by J.B. Branson of Rotoballer. In the article, Branson broke down his favorite baseball strategy called the Bullpen Method. It’s a unique approach to roster construction that flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

Here’s how the Bullpen Method works. In a standard league, you will roster 10-13 pitchers. Five or six of these are starting pitchers, and the rest are relief pitchers. The relief pitchers rostered may be closers, but Branson doesn’t pay up for either starters or relievers. Therefore, he will wind up with a number of setup guys who might become closers later.

In his article, Branson points out the need for balance in your pitching staff, and maintains this is not possible with a lot of starting pitchers on your roster. Starting pitchers will help you in wins and strikeouts, but they will blow up your ERA and WHIP. If you want the small number of starters you can trust to not blow up your ERA and WHIP, you have to pay up.

With the Bullpen Method, you can pay up for one or two aces and focus the rest of your early picks on position players you want on your team. When you get to the end of your draft, use your last few picks to complete your roster of pitchers with relief pitchers that will be available because no one else will touch them. If one is gone, move on to the next.

Branson contends that starting pitchers are heavily overrated in fantasy and subsequently relief pitchers (especially setup men) are heavily underrated. He encourages fantasy managers to take advantage of the common industry mistake and instantly witness improvement on their teams. I won’t guarantee you this works, but I’m going to try it out on a team.

While the Bullpen Approach was new to me, I had actually had some experience with it by accident. It seems like each year, I would blow through my 200 allowable starts and have to drop all of my starting pitchers in August or September and roster only relief pitchers. If you play fantasy baseball, you know that starters won’t get credit for wins after you’ve had 200 starts.

I can tell you, based on my experience, that utilizing relief pitchers didn’t cost me a league championship. If I was ahead in the standings at that point, I still won. Keep in mind that most of these relievers that I added late in the season were not closers. These were middle relievers and setup guys who had low ratios. They would pick up an occasional win, or save, too.

I would encourage you to try out the Bullpen Method in your home, or public league. You will get a lot of strange looks from other managers when they see you passing on the big-name pitchers and loading up on position players. They will wonder about the relief pitchers you roster that they’ve never heard of. Let them wonder, and maybe you’ll have the last laugh.

Disclaimer – Branson makes it clear in his article that you shouldn’t use the Bullpen Method in Points Leagues. Points leagues are made for heavy-volume starters and the elite closers. The Bullpen Method works best in Roto leagues but also works in H2H leagues where you can easily beat your opponent in 3 of 5 pitching categories (5 of 5 if you are a talented SP streamer). 

I have compiled a list of relief pitchers that you should consider in the last rounds of your draft (or adding from the waiver wire if you’ve already drafted your team). I recently completed a 12-team ESPN Roto league. In 26 rounds, there were 312 players drafted. And all of the players on my list are available today on the waive wire, so they should be easy to acquire.

AARON BUMMER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

He is by far the second-best reliever on the White Sox right now and should be for a while. Bummer had some injury trouble in 2020 but when he was out there, he was filthy. In 9.1 innings (over nine appearances), he had an ERA of 0.96 and a WHIP of 1.071 with 14 strikeouts.

JAKE DIEKMAN, OAKLAND

He was the favorite to be the A’s closer before Trevor Rosenthal signed. He’s been a key left-hander out of the bullpen for the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s over the last two years. He took his game to a new level in Oakland and made a pretty drastic change to his slider grip.

TYLER DUFFEY, MINNESOTA

The Twins signing Alex Colome ruined my hopes of Duffey getting a good share of saves in Minnesota. Regardless, he’s been one of the most skilled relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. With low ERA and WHIP projections, he should help in ratios as a middle reliever.

PETE FAIRBANKS, TAMPA BAY

Fairbanks was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2019 in exchange for Nick Solak and paid it paid off. He recorded six wins and seven holds. Although his WHIP left something to be desired, that could improve with some regression to the .350 BABIP Fairbanks posted last season.

YIMI GARCIA, MIAMI

Since his Tommy John surgery in 2019, Garcia has a faster fastball and greater spin on his slider. There should be a good number of save opportunities in Miami, and Garcia is in the mix to close. In 2020, he pitched to a 0.60 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, with an 11.40 K/9 and 23.3 K-BB%.

CODI HEUER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Another promising young reliever in the White Sox system, Codi Heuer, had an outstanding debut season. With a high-velocity fastball and whiff-inducing slider, Heuer is primed for a long future in a high-leverage role, although it’s unlikely that he has any road to the closing job.  

PIERCE JOHNSON, SAN DIEGO

After a disaster 2018 season, Johnson pitched in Japan for a year, where he earned All-Star honors. Ditching his cutter for a curveball worked well for Johnson. In 2020, he was 3-1, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. However, he does not appear to have a road to the closing job.

SETH LUGO, NY METS

The Mets are planning to use Lugo out of the bullpen in 2021 after he recovers from February elbow surgery. Lugo served as both a starter and reliever in 2021, making nine appearances out of the bullpen. As a starter, his ERA was 6.15.  Lugo’s ERA as a reliever in 2020 was 2.61.

EVAN MARSHALL, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Since the start of 2019, Marshall has a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings for the White Sox. Marshall has been dropping his fastball usage over the last three seasons. The results have led to more strikeouts. Marshall should continue to see high-leverage work behind Liam Hendriks.F

TYLER MATZEK, ATLANTA

Matzek returned to the game after four seasons, and his 97 mph fastball from the left side induced a 14.3% swinging-strike rate. Now, with Mark Melancon, Shane Green, and Darren O’Day out, Matzek should see work. But Will Smith and Chris Martin are ahead of him for saves.

TREVOR MAY, NY METS

Trevor May had been consistently good for Minnesota over the last few seasons. In 2020, he raised his game even further with an improved swinging-strike rate after dropping his fastball usage. Now with the Mets, May should be the primary setup man behind Edwin Diaz.

MIKE MAYERS, LA ANGELS

Mike Mayers enjoyed a breakout season for the Angels in 2020. By adding a cutter, Mayers saw a 4% jump in his swinging-strike rate. While he’s no longer in line to close with Raisel Iglesias in town, Mayers could be a middle reliever worth rostering, and he’s second in line to close.  

EMILIO PAGAN, SAN DIEGO

The Padres acquired Pagan acquired last winter. Pagan started the season rough, but from August 1 on, he had a 2.95 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. He should continue to see work behind Drew Pomeranz and new Padre, Mark Melancon. He is in the mix to close games.  

TANNER RAINEY, WASHINGTON

Rainey will start the season in a setup role behind newly signed Brad Hand. His 21.7% swinging-strike rate was second in the majors among relievers, behind only Devin Williams. If healthy,   Rainey should be among the more valuable middle relievers for holds, ratios, and strikeouts.

ALEX REYES, ST. LOUIS

The Cardinals’ goal is to get Reyes 100 innings of work in middle relief. When healthy, he can be electric. He has a career 2.48 ERA over five years and parts of four Major League seasons. He has a 97.5 mph fastball and two lethal breaking pitches in his arsenal and can really miss bats.  

JOELY RODRIGUEZ, TEXAS

Still recovering from an ankle sprain, Rodriguez is expected to be ready for opening day. He impressed last year with his return from Japan. He is a dark horse to close if Jose Leclerc stumbles. Regardless, he should be in the mix for high-leverage work out of the bullpen.

JORDAN ROMANO, TORONTO

Another talented young reliever blocked from the closing job by the signing of Kirby Yates.  Romano broke out in a big way before suffering an injured finger in 2020. He had a 19.4% swinging-strike rate combined with a 58.1% groundball rate. He could close if Yates is injured.  

It’s that time of the year

It’s that time of the year again. There’s a hint of warmer days ahead, and spring training is underway. If you love baseball, you know that. If you love fantasy baseball, you are already thinking about who you will draft in your public, or private league. You reading reports from spring training camps on the progress of different players. You’re keeping up with breaking news. You know that Framber Valdez fractured his left ring finger, which happens to be his throwing hand. The best case is that he has a delayed start to his season, and worst case is he’s lost for all of 2021.   

I have already drafted two teams – one in a Yahoo league and one in an ESPN league. Both are in Rotisserie (Roto) leagues. I like Roto is better than H2H because you are playing against every member of your league the entire year. There’s more skill involved because you’re competing in 10 categories. There are no weekly matchups. You earn points by the stats that your players accumulate. For example, if you are in a 12-team league, you get 12 points if your team has the most home runs, 11 points if you are in second and so on for every statistical category.

How you build you team is up to you. In Yahoo leagues, you have 23 roster spots to fill. In ESPN leagues, you must fill 26 spots. In Roto, you are looking for as much balance as possible. You need runs, home runs, RBI, stolen bases and a relatively high batting average from your position players. You need wins, strikeouts, saves and relatively low ERA and WHIP from your pitchers. While your goal is balance, no team is truly balanced. You’re going to be better in some areas and worse in others. The key is to not be terrible in any category. If you are, it had better be only one.

I drafted from the fifth spot in the Yahoo draft and took Jacob deGrom in the first round. It’s worth noting that I passed on drafting Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole. DeGrom followed up his second consecutive National League Cy Young award season by posting another gem in 2020. Despite the truncated season, deGrom remained a consistent fantasy asset who provided elite strikeout totals and ratios. He finished the shortened season with a 4-2 record, a 2.38 ERA, a 0.956 WHIP, and a 104:18 K:BB in 68 innings pitched. DeGrom remains a lockdown, matchup proof fantasy ace.

The decision to take DeGrom instead of Cole was not an easy one. It was like trying to pick between LeBron James and Michael Jordan in their prime. Both of them have a track record to look at, which is important when you are drafting in the first round. Cole has been a starter for eight MLB seasons, while DeGrom has been around for seven. Cole has more wins because he’s been on better teams, but DeGrom has a lower ERA and WHIP. He also averages slightly more strikeouts per nine innings and less walks, hits and home run. But it was a close call because Cole has more run support.

DeGrom has another advantage that was the tiebreaker for me in deciding between him and Cole. The advantage is Citi Field. This is the best pitching park in the major league. While Citi Field is only average in home runs allowed, no park has decreased run-scoring and batting average more. Given that the Mets also play in the NL, with no DH, and now have Francisco Lindor at shortstop, advantage DeGrom. The Mets also have a better lineup than they’ve had in recent memory, which might mean more wins for DeGrom. I predict he’ll top the 15 games he won in 2017.    

NEXT: Starting pitchers to consider in the later rounds.