What’s your draft strategy?

I know that it’s only January, but if you’re reading this column, you are serious about fantasy baseball. You’re not the person that’s waiting until after the Super Bowl to discover that you are bored and need another diversion. You’re the person who is already looking through the player pool and thinking about who you want on your team in a season-long redraft or dynasty league.

Anyone that has played the game knows that the first and arguably most important step in winning your league is emerging from the draft with a strong, balanced team. You can add players from the waiver wire to patch holes in your roster, but you will have to be either really good, or lucky, to fix a team that is short on power, speed, or lacks an ace and an elite closer.  

Drafting a strong, balanced team that can dominate right out the gate isn’t easy. However, with a solid plan, a good base of knowledge and hours of preparation, you can accomplish your goal. I realize that everyone doesn’t build their team the same way, but here are some strategies that I use to draft competitive teams. Consider these as guideposts to your draft success.

There is one caveat that I want you to be aware of with this, and it pertains to most of what I write. I’m assuming that you are playing the rotisserie format of fantasy baseball. In this format, teams are ranked from first to last in each of ten statistical categories. Points are then awarded according to the order in each category and totaled to determine overall score and league rank.

FOCUS ON HITTERS EARLY

I’m going to be controversial from the start with this one because there are great fantasy players that draft pitchers in the early rounds. The pocket aces approach is well known. But acquiring a strong base of elite hitters gives your team a solid foundation. You typically can’t find 30/30 players late in the draft, or on the waiver wire. If you want them, you’d better get them early.

The need for acquiring position players early was a lesson learned last year in The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational. After drafting Rafael Devers late in the first round, I took Max Scherzer, Sandy Alcantara and Ryan Pressly with my next three picks. I finished with a superb pitching staff and mediocre hitters. My team was good enough to win many leagues, but not TGFBI.

This year, I plan to have no more than three pitchers on my team when the ninth round starts. And one of those pitchers will likely be an elite closer. I will do everything in my power to have hitters who can club at least 30 homers, drive in 100 runs, score at least 100 runs, steal some bases, and hit close to .300. If they can do all five of these things, I will be very happy.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that it’s possible to build a successful team with pitching first, but it’s more difficult. Pitchers are more erratic than hitters. They get hurt at a higher rate and their win totals can fluctuate wildly depending on run support, bullpen, and luck.  The difference between a fourth-round pitcher and a seventh or 10th rounder is often marginal.

This year, I think that’s this is even more true because the starting pitcher depth is greater than in some years. When you get past Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole, there are still a dozen guys that could finish as the No. 1 fantasy pitcher. A pitcher may not contribute in four pitching categories while a good hitter will generally contribute in four, if not all five of the hitting categories.

PLAY IT SAFE FIRST AND THEN TAKE RISKS

Whoever said you must take risks to win didn’t mean drafting injury-prone or unproven players in the early rounds of your draft. I know it’s boring to play it safe, and nobody will make any comments about how brilliant you were to draft Freddie Freeman in the first round if he slashes .298/.386/.509, with 26 home runs, 113 runs and 95 RBI. But no one has a higher floor.

No one loves to receive compliments more than me, but I’d rather look like a genius in October than in March. My advice it to skip over the trendy hitter getting all the buzz. Bobby Witt is a good example. A late surge earned Witt 30 steals, and his 20 home runs in his rookie season has convinced a lot of people to draft him in the first round. But what if he hits .220 this year?

Julio Rodriguez is an even better example of a player I won’t draft at his current ADP. While Witt is currently No. 7 overall at NFBC, Rodriguez is currently No. 4. Rodriguez had an awesome rookie year. The outfielder had 28 home runs, 25 steals and slashed .284/.345/.509. He could be the No. 1 overall fantasy player, but he’s more likely to regress in his sophomore year. 

I will probably lay awake at night worrying about anyone I draft in the first round of TGFBI. But I’ll worry less about taking Trea Turner, Jose Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, or Freeman. The same goes for the second round, where I’m fading Fernando Tatis, Jr. Tatis, who could return from suspension to be the No. 1 player, but I’d rather take Rafael Devers, or Pete Alonso.  

Before you write me off, please know that I would be willing to swing for the fences with a player like Byron Buxton. If you look up injury risk in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Buxton, but the injury risk is baked into his ADP of 109. I’m happy to use an 8th round pick on Buxton, who has 40/30 upside if he stays on the field. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t sink my season.

PROTECT YOUR RATIOS

In a standard 5 x 5 roto league, there are 7 counting categories (R, HR, RBI, SB, W, K, Sv) and 3 ratio categories (Avg, ERA, WHIP). On many occasions, I have fallen behind in one, or more counting stat categories and made up the ground fairly easily. For instance, if I’m behind in runs, home runs and RBI, I can usually find a couple of power hitters on the waiver wire to help me.  

However, a couple of pitchers with good ERA and WHIP are not going to fix my team if I’m trailing in those categories. In other words, I’d rather have a team in last place in HRs and RBI in July than I would a team that’s in last place in ERA and WHIP. It’s the same thing with batting average, which is a category that I struggled with last season in TGFBI. Protect your ratios.

I realize that home runs are not as easy to come by now as they were in 2019 (unless you play for the Yankees). But I still prioritize batting average over slugging in a draft. With hitters selling out for power, those few with the eye and contact skills to hit for a high average are now at a premium. Last year, only 11 players with enough plate appearances to qualify hit .300 or more.

In 2000, the MLB league batting average was .270. Ten years later, it was .257. In 2020, it was .245, and it has dropped a point each year since then. My advice is to not draft any hitters with career averages below .250. Even if your team comes out of the draft apparently weak in a counting stat, you can battle back to at least the middle of the pack in that category.

Hitters with high batting averages aren’t the only scarce commodity in baseball. Just 19 pitchers with at least 28 starts had an ERA under 3.00, and only 10 had a WHIP under 1.00 in 2022. When you draft your pitchers, find solid anchors for your ratio categories. Burnes and Cole will cost you a second-round pick, but the other 17 are available later in the draft – some much later.

DON’T OVERPAY FOR POSITION SCARCITY

The key word here is “overpay.” Taking Jose Ramirez early isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s taking a guy with unproven ability in the early rounds just because he plays third base. My example here will be polarizing but consider Gunner Henderson. The rookie had a .259/.348/.440 slash across 132 plate appearances in 2022, but his ADP is 92. At that price, I’ll find another corner infielder.   

I’m not saying that you ignore scarcity at a position like third base. If I’m at the end of the 10th round and don’t have anyone, I might consider Eugenio Suarez. At this point, you might be thinking about the batting average risk, but his career .250 BA is only nine points lower than Henderson’s 2022 mark. And he has hit more than 30 home runs in each full season since 2017.

Fifty picks after Suarez, consider Brandon Drury. You don’t want Drury as your starting third baseman, but he’s eligible at three infield positions, with third base being one of them. Drury has enjoyed something of a renaissance in his late 20’s, and he signed a two-year deal with the Angels after slashing .263/.320/.492, with 28 home runs, 87 runs and 87 RBI last season.    

My point is that you can usually find a player at the same position later in the draft with comparable production. One disclaimer is that if you’re playing in a league with two catcher slots to fill, it’s risky to wait. If the first 12 catchers are off the board, I will be in a panic when I draft my TGFBI team. A thin position is much thinner when you have two lineup spots to fill.

DRAFT YOUNG PLAYERS WITH UPSIDE LATE

I’ve been dissing a few young, up-and-coming players in this column, but it’s only because of their relative ADP. The potential upside with some young players late in the draft is absolutely massive, and the risk is minimal. Let me give you an example of two players from a team that I follow closely – the St. Louis Cardinals. Both rookies were called up in 2022.

A year ago, Cardinal nation was excited about the possibility of top prospect Nolan Gorman being called up. Based on his minor-league career, we knew he was going to have an issue with strikeouts. And he did. Gorman struck out 32.9 percent of the time, and his .226/.300/.420 slash failed to impress. But he did hit 14 home runs in 313 plate appearances, and his ADP is 373.

Another Cardinal player, Lars Nootbar, had a 228/.340/.457 slash, and he’s going almost 200 picks earlier in the draft. Nootbar also had 14 home runs with 34 more plate appearances. Nootbar had more success last year than Gorman, and the analysts love him because his Statcast page has a lot of red. But is he really worth taking 13 rounds earlier in a 15-team league?

I love having players like Gorman and Donovan on my bench, hoping they’ll break out. If it doesn’t work out for one of these young players, I can always drop them for a productive player that I claim off waivers. I would suggest that you draft young players with a high ceiling who have proved themselves to some degree. Don’t draft players who haven’t been called up.

DON’T OVERPAY FOR CLOSERS

This one is tricky because elite closers are few and far between these days. We can debate the number, but it’s a single digit – especially with Liam Hendricks being sidelined. Some managers simply refuse to spend a third- or fourth-found draft pick on a relief pitcher. My approach can be called “The Hero RP.” I want one hero (elite closer) early to build a solid saves foundation.

My plan in TGFBI is to take my Hero RP in the third of fourth round of TGFBI. I will almost certainly miss out on Edwin Diaz and Emmanuel Clase, but I can get Jordan Romano, Devin Williams, or Pressly again. Pressly’s looks like a real value at ADP 53. I drafted him 10 picks earlier last year, and he had 33 saves for the Astros in spite of being limited to 50 appearances.

After taking a closer in an early round, I won’t consider anyone else until at least the 11th round. Andres Munoz has wicked stuff, and I’d love to get him. In the second half of 2022, Munoz led Seattle in K/BB percentage (30.9), WHIP (0.73) and swinging-strike rate (21.4 percent). The problem is that Paul Sewald remains in the mix for saves, so I don’t want to overpay for Munoz.

It’s also possible that I repeat what I did last year in TGFBI – chasing saves. I picked up Sewald a reasonable FAAB outlay early in the season, and he paid off with 20 saves. I also got Rafael Montero cheap when Pressly went down with an injury, and he would up delivering 14 saves. Sprinkle in a little Lou Trivino with 11 saves, and I finished middle of the pack in my league. 

Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, writes about football and baseball for CreativeSports. Be sure to follow Thomas on Twitter@ThomasLSeltzer1.

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