The regular season begins March 31, and most fantasy baseball leagues don't draft until a week or two before Opening Day. Those two weeks prior to the season's first pitch, often referred to as Draft Season, are the most important time of the fantasy baseball year. Yes, the entire season is important, and the moves you make throughout the year ultimately will determine where you finish in the standings. However, if you screw up royally on draft day, you could find yourself in a very deep hole when the season starts.
To prevent that from happening, it's important to take advantage of the weeks leading up to Draft Season. That's where we find ourselves now. Folks, welcome to Mock Draft Season. Whether you've been digesting every crumb of baseball news since last season ended or you're just now starting your draft prep, participating in mock drafts is a crucial component in your toolbox as you prepare for draft day. And hey, it's a lot of fun, too.
Wanting to take full advantage of Mock Draft Season, the ESPN staff came together Monday for an AL-only mock draft. In first-round order, the participants were: Brian Gramling, AJ Mass, Shawn Cwalinski, Nate Ravitz, Dave Hunter, Keith Lipscomb, Jason Grey, Matthew Berry, Pierre Becquey and me.
As usual, we used ESPN standard settings, meaning this is a 10-team league with 25-man rosters. This breaks down to one spot for every infield position, one corner infielder, one middle infielder, five outfielders, one utility hitter, nine pitchers and three bench spots.
With the ground rules out of the way, we're ready to begin. Team 1 is on the clock. ...
My pick: Alex Rodriguez. There was a time when landing A-Rod with the 10th pick in a mixed league would have been a steal, much less in an AL-only one. That's no longer the case, as he turns 36 this season and hasn't played 140 games since 2007. I would have been more comfortable had Josh Hamilton or Mark Teixeira fallen to me, but I have no qualms with this selection. Thirty home runs and 100-plus RBIs still seem like a lock. At the very least, it means I won't have to scrounge for scraps at the third-base position later in the draft. Once the top names are off the board, the talent level falls off quickly.
There are multiple deserving candidates when it comes to the No. 1 overall pick in an AL-only league. Gramling gave the honor to Carl Crawford, the AL's top fantasy player last year, according to the ESPN Player Rater. "I thought Crawford was the clear No. 1, and I was very glad I wasn't picking fourth or fifth," Gramling says. "I had Adrian Gonzalez No. 2 and Longoria No. 3, but I have concerns over the next tier of guys -- Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, etc. -- for different reasons." Felix Hernandez, the first pitcher off the board, went to Becquey. Based on pure talent, the right-hander is the top hurler in the AL, but hopefully the Mariners' offense will help him top the 13 victories he posted in 2010. When compared to the other first-rounders, Berry's selection of Nelson Cruz with the eighth overall pick carries arguably the most risk. Cruz's power/speed combination gives him as much upside as any player taken in the first round, but he's battled injuries the past two years and doesn't have a 500 at-bat season on his big league résumé.
My pick: Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia missed significant time last season with a foot injury, but that doesn't mean he's a risky option in 2011. In fact, few players in baseball consistently deliver the type of bankable production Pedroia offers. His skill set is rock-solid. The first few rounds on draft day are about finding top-tier production, but they're also about limiting risk. Pedroia delivers on both accounts. The only other player I seriously considered at this spot is Kevin Youkilis, who falls into the same "rock-solid" category.
Becquey turned a few heads when he followed his first-round Felix Hernandez pick with Jon Lester in Round 2. "While pitching is very deep in the majors as a whole, there's an imbalance between the AL and the NL," he says. "I wanted to see if I could build a competitive offense while anchoring my pitching with two guys whom I believe are the clear-cut best pitchers in the AL. I thought about leaving Lester and trying for [Justin] Verlander in Round 3, and would have snatched up Youkilis instead, but as I suspected, Verlander didn't last that long anyway. Besides, I think Lester is the best bet in the AL for a 20-game winner." After hitting 54 home runs last season -- a 41-homer jump from his 2009 total -- Jose Bautista is one of this season's most polarizing players. Count Grey as one of his supporters, as he jumped on the slugger with the 14th overall pick. "Yes, I believe in Bautista as a second-rounder," Grey says. "The shallow third-base pool was a very tiny consideration, but it was more about the value of the player." Lipscomb snagged Joe Mauer with the next pick. Mauer is in a league of his own as the AL's top catcher and gives Lipscomb a clear advantage at the position. That said, picking Mauer that high had Lipscomb second-guessing himself after the draft. "I feel the turning point came early when Youkilis and Bautista went just before I picked, and I took Mauer. I rarely take a catcher early in a one-catcher league, so I wouldn't do that if I had to do it all over again. I should've addressed first or outfield (Adam Dunn or Alex Rios, for example) and taken a catcher later."
My pick: Dan Haren. With Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia going off the board before my pick -- and having to wait 18 picks between turns -- I didn't feel comfortable waiting any longer to grab my ace. Last year's 3.91 ERA and 12 wins weren't exactly ace-like, but Haren still whiffed 200-plus batters for the third straight season, and his indicators stayed in line with what we've seen from him in the past. Last season was pretty much a worst-case scenario for Haren, and things should only get better for the Angels right-hander in 2011.
Jeter went to Mass with the second pick of the third round. Fellow shortstops Elvis Andrus and Alexei Ramirez are younger and offer more upside, but Jeter is still arguably the safest shortstop in the AL. It doesn't hurt that "The Captain" now has something to prove following a down 2010 season. Lipscomb landed Michael Young, the fifth third baseman drafted, in the middle of Round 3. There's talk of Young losing at-bats in Texas this season with Adrian Beltre now manning the hot corner full time and Mike Napoli around to steal time at DH. Still, considering the steep drop-off at the position after Young, he's one of the AL's safer options. "I'm not necessarily that concerned about Young losing at-bats, and I was worried I'd get stuck with a bad batting average from a guy like Mark Reynolds or Edwin Encarnacion instead," Lipscomb says.
My picks: Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter. Concussions are scary business, but I couldn't bring myself to pass up the potential value of Morneau in the fourth round. He was on pace for a career-best season in 2010 before he got hurt -- .345-18-56 (batting average-home runs-RBIs) in 296 at-bats -- and if he's healthy, there's no reason he can't produce first-round value in 2011. The risk here is substantial, but in my mind, the potential reward justifies it. I drafted Hunter as my first outfielder. He is 35, but he is showing few signs of slowing down and offers solid production across the board, even if his 20-steal days are behind him.
Round 4 saw the first closer get drafted, as Ravitz scooped up Mariano Rivera, arguably the safest closer in baseball. Mass grabbed Joakim Soria two picks later, but no other ninth-inning man would be taken until the middle of Round 7. Knowing quality closers still would have been available a few rounds later, Ravitz stands by his decision to grab the Yankees' closer when he did. "I wouldn't have waited," he says. "Frankly, Rivera should go three-four rounds ahead of the other American League closers (with the exception of Soria and Neftali Feliz, but we know why he slipped). Compare Rivera to Jonathan Papelbon. Saves are hard to predict, but based on last year's stats and this year's projections, Rivera has a major edge in ERA/WHIP, not to mention job security. I think a common mistake people make is comparing closers based on expected saves and thinking, 'The ERA/WHIP doesn't matter because it's only over 60-70 innings.' But that's just flat-out wrong." ... With Mauer and Victor Martinez already off the board, Grey snared Carlos Santana. In a one-catcher league, quality backstops can be found later (for example, Kurt Suzuki and Jorge Posada went in Rounds 12 and 14, respectively), but Grey couldn't pass on the value he saw with the Indians catcher. "Santana was best value on the board at that point in my estimation, so, yes, it was worth it. And the upside justifies it," he says.
My picks: Adam Jones and Chris Perez. I grabbed the aging Torii Hunter in Round 5, so I took the youthful Jones in Round 6 to create some balance. I considered going with Bobby Abreu or Vernon Wells, but I liked Jones as the upside play. His 2009 and 2010 numbers were nearly identical, even with roughly 100 more at-bats in 2010, but he still is only 25 and has untapped potential. I considered waiting until Round 8 or 9 to grab my first closer, but I didn't think I'd like the remaining options if I waited. Thus, I pulled the trigger on Perez, who has plenty of job security in Cleveland and isn't coming off shoulder surgery like Andrew Bailey.
DH-only players limit your roster flexibility, but the production they offer can be worth it. In Rounds 6 and 7, Adam Lind, David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero all were scooped up. One year removed from a .305-35-114 season, Lind could be a great value pick here even if he just partially bounces back from last year's disappointing campaign. Many people have been trying to write off Ortiz for years, but the production is there season after season. While his batting average has fluctuated, he's hit at least 23 home runs with 89 RBIs for the past nine seasons. Let's see "Big Papi" fail to produce those numbers before we just assume he can't. Grey has been singing Howie Kendrick's praises for years, and he's not giving up his seat on the bandwagon or his "I heart Howie" T-shirt, for that matter. Kendrick hasn't fulfilled the "future batting-crown contender" prognostications heaped on him by scouts, but he's settled in as a solid across-the-board contributor, and there's still plenty of value in that. "Even if he is what he is at this point, it's still a solid pick," Grey says. "But yes, I think there's still more there."
My picks: C.J. Wilson, Travis Snider and Manny Ramirez. In hindsight, there are other starting pitchers I should have chosen over Wilson (Colby Lewis is the first name that comes to mind). That said, I'll be more than happy with Wilson if he produces something similar to last season, when he posted 15 wins with a 3.35 ERA and 170 strikeouts. Snider and Manny were both drafted for the power. Snider had some growing pains in 2010, but he hit .304 with six dingers in September and should take another step forward this season. As for Manny, I'm still a believer. Getting him three rounds later than Vladimir Guerrero is good value in my mind. At the very least, he'll hit close to .300 with around 20 homers, and there's potential for much more.
It took some prodding from Ravitz, but Feliz finally went off the board when Cwalinski took him with the third pick in the ninth round. It's clear owners aren't quite sure how to handle Feliz's situation. Will he start, or will he close? We know he's a top-tier closer if the Rangers leave him in the bullpen, but he's a question mark in the rotation. Either way, this seems like a fair spot for the hard-throwing right-hander, but drafting him makes it difficult to build the rest of your team since you're not quite sure what role to project him in. "Feliz fell way too far," Cwalinski says. "Even if he doesn't close, he's worth a ninth-round pick as a starter in an AL-only league. I would rather have him close, given my team, though." It's fitting that Josh Beckett and John Lackey were drafted in back-to-back rounds. Both were widely considered top-25 starting pitchers heading into last season. Now? Not so much. Beckett made just 21 starts in 2010 because of back issues, and held a 5.78 ERA and 1.54 WHIP when he did take the mound. Lackey managed to stay healthy in his first season in Boston, but his 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP were his worst marks in the past six seasons. At this point in the draft, though, the upside for both hurlers was well worth the risk.
I used my wraparound picks in Rounds 11 and 12 to land Ervin Santana and Jake Peavy, and I'm happy with the value of both. Peavy undoubtedly carries more risk of the two, as he is recovering from back surgery and hasn't topped 17 starts in either of the past two seasons. Still, this is a low price to pay for a hurler who was considered elite just a few seasons ago and is currently on track to be ready for the start of the season. Some owners prefer to grab elite catchers in the first handful of rounds, but I was more than happy to get Jorge Posada in Round 14. Sure, he's a health risk, but he hit 18 home runs last season. Only Mike Napoli, John Buck (now with the Marlins) and Victor Martinez hit more in the AL. In Round 15, I snagged the 36-year-old Hideki Matsui. There's no upside here, but another .275-20-80 line from Matsui this season would be good enough for me.
At this point, it's clear the closer well is running dry. In Round 11, Ravitz grabbed Kevin Gregg, Lipscomb took Frank Francisco and Berry got Fernando Rodney, whom he apparently had been pining for since the beginning of Round 1. Hey, you can't always help who you're attracted to. If last year's 1.54 WHIP and falling K/9 rate give Berry warm fuzzies, who are we to argue? Unfortunately, all of this closer love left Becquey without one. He would go on to grab a number of quality relievers in the later rounds, but his roster is left without an established saves man. "Every time I looked at closers, there seemed to be plenty of them left, so I went a different way," he says. "I probably should have snatched up Feliz when he kept dropping, but that just kept me thinking that a closer would be there next time around. Eventually that caught up to me; it's a risk you take when you're near the turns. However, my reliever hoarding has more to do with getting high-K, low-WHIP relievers, who, mixed in with my four starters, keep me competitive in K's while maximizing my ERA and WHIP. The more 160-IP ERA and WHP risks you roster, the less value your aces have, and since I invested so heavily in them, I want to avoid that."
I already had Peavy, so why not add Brandon Webb to the mix? I won't pretend to know what I'm going to get from the right-hander in 2011 as he works his way back from shoulder issues that have derailed his past two seasons. Still, this is a low-risk investment. And let's remember, Webb is only 31 years old, so it's not like he's some over-the-hill hurler trying to make a last-ditch effort at a comeback. I expect Kevin Gregg to receive most of the save opportunities in Baltimore, but I figured I would toss a bone to Koji Uehara, who notched 13 saves in 2010. Prior to experiencing some elbow discomfort last week, Uehara reportedly was in line to get the first crack at the closer gig in Baltimore.
Much to Berry's disdain, Hunter grabbed Erik Bedard in the 16th round. There surely will be cold shoulders and even colder stares between the two as they pass in the hallway in the coming weeks, but we're confident they'll work things out eventually. Matthew and Dave, we're all rooting for you guys. In Round 17, Ravitz selected Juan Rivera, proclaiming that the "famous weightlifting program in Toronto" will help propel the outfielder to a 35-home run season. Crazy or not, you gotta love that kind of cockeyed optimism from the "Say Nay Kid." Having already rostered Peavy and Webb, I didn't feel comfortable taking a chance on Justin Duchscherer, but Mass got potentially great value when he grabbed the right-hander at the end of Round 20. Duchscherer is a big-time injury risk, but he also holds a 2.60 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in his past 27 starts, dating back to 2008. Definitely a gamble worth taking.
h4> ROUND 25
Rookie Jake McGee is the trendy pick to hold down the closer job in Tampa Bay, but that's far from a certainty. If the season started today, Kyle Farnsworth could very well get the first crack at the job. For a 22nd-round pick, why not take a shot here? In the best-case scenario, I get 20-plus saves out of him. In the worst case, I drop him later on to fill another need. I waited and waited and waited to grab a starting shortstop, and my punishment is being stuck with Brendan Ryan. Let this be a lesson to all you kids out there not to wait too long to fill your middle infield spots. Ryan should net me double-digit steals, but nothing else of value. My final two selections -- Chris Carter and Chris Tillman -- are simply upside plays to stash on my bench. Hopefully one of the two will pan out later this season.
With pretty much all of the "sure things" off the board at this point, targeting upside is the name of the game. Mass snagged Jesus Montero with the second pick in Round 23. The young backstop might start the season in the minors, but he'll be with the Yankees at some point this season, and there's a good chance he'll contribute right away. We could very well look back at this mock when the season ends and wonder how we all let Montero fall this far. Ivan Nova looks like a strong bet to win a starting job in the back of the Yankees' rotation, and Grey did well to get him here. Nova isn't a high-upside type like many of the players drafted in the final rounds, but there's plenty of potential value here if he secures a starting job. If anything, he could be a cheap source of wins with the Yankees' lineup providing support behind him.
With that, our first AL-only mock of the 2011 season is in the books. Which teams do you like best? Which make you feel slightly ill? Check out the rosters and feel free to sound off in the comments below. And hopefully you'll feel inclined to get in on the fun yourself. Whether you're in a mixed- or single-league format, snake draft or auction, 10- or 12-team league, our Mock Draft Lobby can suit your needs.
Mike Sheets is a contributing fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com