As the baseball season draws to a close, I would like to thank all of those that have frequented this space the past eight months with a special thanks to those that have submitted questions. While I will be happy to continue to address your queries, my plan is to write through the playoffs, with an eye towards 2012. I will let everyone else review this season and instead give you a head start at defending your 2011 championship.
There is a saying that I promise you are going to hear and read ad nauseum next spring: you can't win a league in the first round, but you can lose it. While I understand the intent, I actually take issue with the sentiment. The thinking is the talent picked early in a draft is all solid and it is hard to mess it up. Additionally, it is hard to earn a profit on early picks, the best you can anticipate is your star players perform as expected. My philosophy is making the right picks early sets you up so that you can draft the players later that most perceive win you the league. The early picks build a foundation both in terms of positions and categories. If you choose wisely, those picks are every bit as important with respect to winning as the later picks.
Can Grandy man deliver again?
What I am going to do is present my top 15 picks if I were drafting in a 2012 league right now. I suspect that if I repeat this exercise in the spring, there may be a few tweaks, but by and large, it will be quite representative of my first round next spring. Actually, today I am going to present the players that missed the cut. Sorry, but you will have to wait until next week until I reveal my top-15.
By means of an introduction, my list is not going to be based on projected value, nor is it a prediction of how I feel the first round will flow. The best way to look at it is if I am on the clock, I am going to select the highest name left on the list. Obviously, expected performance is a factor, but even more important is the likelihood the player performs somewhat close to what is anticipated. At this point, most skilled fantasy players are educated enough not to treat a projection as a static entity but rather a range. I would prefer a player more likely to attain the midpoint of their range than with someone with a higher ceiling, but more risky. This risk can be either performance or health related.
Something else to keep in mind is I am going to change my recent approach as quite honestly, I feel I have tried to be too cute lately, and I don't mean by getting my hair cut like Justin Bieber. No, I mean that I have tried to address both positional and categorical concerns. My strategy has been that after Albert Pujols, the rest of the field is tightly bunched, so I would attempt to secure two out of three from a third baseman, shortstop and second baseman. Now, my focus is going to be, as suggested, the reliability and consistency of the player.
The final point I want to make before getting into the analysis is while this is not set in stone, I much prefer a power hitter early on, but the player must also either hit about .300 or steal in the neighborhood of 15 bases. This is a real rough guideline, but I would be hard pressed to take a player that is not anticipated to total 50 homers plus steals.
Here are the players that did not make my top-15, but I can envision being chosen as first-rounders by others.
Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw: I do not have many hard and fast rules when it comes to drafting; in fact I loathe the words always and never. That said, one rule I will follow is to select hitters with at least my first two picks, and only in special circumstances will I take a hurler in the third. I am not going to ridicule anyone who does decide to choose one of the top arms early. In terms of pure value in a vacuum, top pitchers actually return more value than top hitters. I am just more comfortable in terms of strategy by drafting hitters early.
Evan Longoria: Do you know how many years Longoria has ended the season returning first-round value? I'll give you a hint: He is tied with me. Longoria always gets a bump based on position and potential but he has only finished in the top-20 hitters once, and that was exactly at 20 in 2010. I understand his potential and how weak the pool at the hot corner remains, but the main lesson I have learned from 2011 is take your chances later, build a foundation early, regardless of position.
Hmm ... on second thought....
Curtis Granderson: Granderson is going to be a very polarizing selection next spring. His power and speed combo is extremely enticing and sufficient enough to compensate for his low batting average. My issue is I do not trust that he repeats the power spike he displayed this season. This is not the space to elaborate, but there are a number of red flags that suggest that Granderson is not the 2011 version of Jose Bautista.
Mark Teixeira: Teixeira is reliable enough to make my first and definitely supplies ample power, but I am concerned about the trend his batting average has displayed the past two campaigns. Before this season, I was willing to consider last year the outlier and expected Teixeira to return to the .300 level. In fact, I considered Teixeira to be one of the few hitters capable of the Triple Crown. But after this season, I find his declining BABIP alarming and feel it is risky to bank on a rebound.
Carl Crawford: What an enigma. With Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis all healthy, Crawford is not likely to regain a spot in the top-third of Boston's order and unless he does, he is not likely to return first-round value. Between injuries, getting bounced around in the lineup and not knowing how the move to 81 games in Fenway Park will ultimately impact his numbers, we really do not know what to expect. I will say this: If others share my opinion and Crawford falls to the end of the second, I may be tempted to incur the risk.
Justin Upton: Upton is going to be a hot commodity next season and rightfully so. Not only does he have the potential to end with first-round value, with a little luck in the batting average department, he could be top five or even top three overall. The problem is, his pedigree aside, Upton has only put it all together for one season and I need more of a track record to invest my valuable first-round pick. Specifically, I need to see Upton sustain his improved contact rate before he can be deemed reliable.
Alex Rodriguez: The skills are showing signs of erosion, specifically the walk rate and power. But more importantly, A-Rod is a health risk and cannot be counted on to play sufficient games to first-round status.
Josh Hamilton: The talent is undeniable and Hamilton has in fact been a top-10 overall player two of the past four seasons and will be top-30 this year. This should be enough to earn a spot in the first, but I just cannot pull the trigger. As with Upton, I recognize the upside but prefer the more reliable foundation early and will chance finding upside elsewhere later.
Jose Reyes: This one is pretty self-explanatory; I prefer not to get hamstrung into missing time from my first-rounder, irrespective of the upside.
Dustin Pedroia: Position scarcity proponents may take the plunge at the end of the first and there is nothing wrong with that. Pedroia's value in a vacuum is likely going to be in that territory. His track record is fine, with two top-15 finishes in the last four seasons. My reticence is his stat distribution. I don't care that he is a second baseman and his power from the position is exceptional, I want more power and I don't care where it comes from.
Ryan Howard: Speaking of power, Howard is capable of winning the home run title in any given season. However, he does not run and fans too much to sustain a high average. Depending on who I get late in the first, I may take a shot at Howard's prolific power coming back early in the second, I just cannot make him my cornerstone.
Ian Kinsler: It is killing me not to include Kinsler in my top-15 and he is the most likely to sneak in next spring when I do this again. In fact, if the rumors prove false and the fences at Citi Field are not moved in, I know exactly who Kinsler will displace. Actually, I may change my mind before then. Obviously, the only factor keeping Kinsler from being a no-brainer first rounder is his low batting average. From a numeric point of view, a strong argument can be made that he has been quite unlucky this season with respect to his hit rate. Kinsler's contact rate is superb and he hits an adequate number of line drives but his BABIP is low. In other words, he is a great candidate for a bounceback season in terms of average. Hmm, I have actually convinced myself that Kinsler is indeed first-round material except for one little thing - can he stay healthy two years in a row?
When Todd is not trying to justify his man-crush for Ian Kinsler, you can find him you can find him hanging out at the forum at Mastersball.
Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.
Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.