Opening Day is just around the corner, but before teams start packing up shop in Florida and Arizona and the games begin to count, there's still plenty of time for one final ESPN Fantasy staff mock draft. This time around, we've decided to experiment a bit with our strategies while engaging in a format that is growing in popularity among fantasy baseball players: the head-to-head "each category" league.
Using a player universe that covers the entire major leagues, we drafted 10 teams that will compete each week against one other opponent. However, unlike leagues in which the squad that wins the most categories gets credit for a single W while the loser takes a similar solitary hit in the loss column, in an each category battle, you can completely demolish your foe and win 10-0 or you can narrowly squeak by with a 5.5-4.5 victory.
In other words, building a balanced team that has a chance to compete across the board in every category might not be as good a strategy as attempting to lock down 4-5 categories that you can count on winning each week, all season long in order to guarantee you never drop to the lower half of the standings. But it's a risk. After all, if you've decided to hoard saves and three other owners had the same goal headed into the proceedings, not a one of you is likely to be as successful as any of you had hoped.
The drafters for our foray into this format, in first-round order, were as follows: me, Eric Karabell, James Quintong, Brian Gramling, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Pierre Becquey, Matthew Berry, Shawn Cwalinski, Dave Hunter and Todd Zola taking the turn into the reverse snake.
As we roll out the results of the draft, we'll give owners a chance to explain what their plans were before the players started flying off the board and whether they felt their plans ultimately bore fruit -- or simply led to a boring team that might be unable to win without a major overhaul.
Let the games begin!
Strategy Snapshot: Team Cockcroft
Cockcroft selects Clayton Kershaw at No. 5, and even through the computer screen you can hear the rest of the league murmuring, "What does he have up his sleeve?" He was attempting to pull off his Modified Labadini strategy. Instead of tanking pitching altogether, as is typical with the Labadini Plan, Cockcroft feels that in a rotisserie league you can succeed by grabbing one ace within your first two picks and then not selecting any other arms until you've filled your entire starting lineup of bats.
"I wanted Kershaw, and I knew that by the time the 16th overall pick came around, he would likely be gone, so I couldn't risk it," he said. "The goal of this strategy is to win every hitting category and protect the ratios on the pitching side. Ignoring batting average, to some degree, is OK because this is weekly head-to-head."
The biggest risk with this gambit is if you end up getting shut out on closers, which would leave you dead in the water in saves and giving your opponent, in essence, a free point each week. But Cockcroft was fortunate to end up with three of them, all selected from Round 15 on. All in all, Cockcroft executed the plan as well as one can. Whether he ends up winning is something that only time will tell.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Cwalinski
Although Cwalinski, one of our Answer Guys, is rarely at a loss when it comes to making decisions, he nevertheless decided to seek out a helping hand for this particular draft. Cwalinski turned to the ESPN Insider Recommends tab in the draft room and made his picks based on its suggestions.
But he didn't blindly follow the top choice all the time, "I did factor ADP into the equation," he said. "After all, there's no need to take a player three rounds ahead of where any other owner would be likely to take him off the board." But with this process, with few starting pitchers getting selected by other owners, Cwalinski loaded his rotation with aces like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee with his first four picks.
Waiting on hitters still allowed the creation of a team that Cwalinski believes to be strong in runs and RBIs, and while it seemed a little light in terms of stolen bases, there are a dozen or so waiver-wire options he can grab with the capacity to swipe 20 or more bases throughout the season if he discovers he's always falling short in that category. Overall, it wouldn't be shocking to see a lot of 7-3 wins for this team, as long as the starters live up to their projections.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Hunter
Hunter came into this draft with a similar idea to Cockcroft, but when he drew the No. 9 slot in the draft order and saw Kershaw and Verlander gone, he decided to alter his plan to dominate the pitching categories. He started things off by getting great value in Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto in the first two rounds and proceeded to implement his new "get as many saves as possible" agenda.
That meant nabbing Craig Kimbrel in Round 3 and collecting the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, Fernando Rodney and Rafael Soriano in the first 75 picks of the draft. Implementing this strategy meant passing on a lot of hitters who can contribute across multiple categories, but Hunter was still able to grab specialists later on to give him home runs (Jason Kubel, Adam Dunn) and stolen bases (Everth Cabrera, Ben Revere).
"I should win every week in everything but batting average in terms of hitters and dominate in saves, ERA and WHIP," he said.
If he's right, a 7-3 win every week would put him in great stead toward finishing in playoff position. After all, last season in leagues of this format, the average fourth-place team finished with 107 wins over 20 weeks: an average of just 5.35 per matchup.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Becquey
Becquey was one of the owners who entered the draft without a pre-existing mode of attack. "I figured everyone else would have one, so I'd see where the value laid in the first couple of rounds and then adapt," he said. Because of Cwalinski's starter hoarding early on, Becquey was more easily able to load up on offense at first, but by shunning closers completely and tanking saves, he's the first owner to aim for winning by brute force.
"There are no wasted stats in the counting categories as long as you win them, and the downside of players gets limited in the ratios," he said. "If one or two of my starters has a blow-up outing [say by allowing nine runs in one inning], it's wiped out the following week."
With Becquey loading up on innings pitched, he could win strikeouts and wins every week, with a 50-50 shot at ERA and WHIP, especially if he's facing a team like Hunter's that went bullpen-heavy.
So why did he decide that closers were the most dispensable position? It comes down to consistency. Closers can go weeks without even an opportunity to record a save, while starting pitchers -- and with bench depth, he can cycle a dozen arms through his rotation every week -- have a chance to earn a win every time they step on the mound. He happily points to Cockcroft's consistency ratings. Only six relievers managed to finish last year above 50 percent, while 47 starters surpassed that level of success.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Mass
For this draft, I decided to see how far autopick could take me before I had to step in to intercede in the name of sanity. I'm always taking part in drafts where somebody ends up not showing up and the autopick takes over. I was curious to see what my team would look like if I took thought out of the equation for as long as possible, especially because, due to my own personal bias, many of my fantasy teams each year end up looking an awful lot alike.
To my surprise, I didn't feel the urge to step in until Round 14, and I think I could have held out a lot longer if not for the fact that I was at the bookend spot, where a good 18 players end up falling by the wayside before I get a chance to go again. At that point, having not selected any middle infielders and being aware that both Cwalinski and Hunter were also still in the market, I was hoping to get Danny Espinosa and Chase Utley but ended up settling for Alcides Escobar and J.J. Hardy.
I did end up with some players I typically tend to avoid, either due to injury history (Josh Hamilton, Yoenis Cespedes) or the shadow of scandal (Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera), but I do think the process -- should you be forced to adapt it as your own by not being available when your league schedules its draft -- can result in a competitive team. After all, I got Buster Posey, Billy Butler and my personal sleeper Cy Young candidate Madison Bumgarner, so I can't complain.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Karabell
Karabell could have complained, since he was directly affected by my "sticking to chalk" strategy. But knowing in advance who I was going to pick could easily have helped him as much as it hurt. For example, he knew I would be taking Posey and Adrian Beltre off the board after he made his Round 2 pick, so if he wanted either of them, he had to act now. But he also knew I absolutely wasn't taking Jose Bautista. By knowing which one to wait on, he was able to get Beltre and Joey Bats.
Other than that, though, Karabell said he didn't draft any differently than he would in a standard rotisserie format. He got a solid hitting core early and still ended up with a solid trio in CC Sabathia, Matt Moore and Kris Medlen in Rounds 7-9. He also was able to grab Hanley Ramirez in Round 11. Sure, his thumb injury makes him a non-factor for several weeks, but as soon as he's ready to go, in a weekly format, he can jump right into the fray on the same level playing field as any other player. "Ramirez was in my top 20 before the injury. I'll gladly take his four months of production at middle infield with the No. 102 pick," he said.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Zola
Cornering the market on cornermen with Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Aramis Ramirez and Allen Craig in the first six rounds, Zola's approach to this draft was one focused on sheer domination. "I am a greedy SOB, and I want to win every week 10-0. I went into the draft planning to stock up on power early, knowing I could piece together speed late," he said.
The late selections of Juan Pierre, Coco Crisp and Ichiro Suzuki prove that the task is indeed possible to achieve, and in the meantime, Zola was also able to cobble together a pitching staff that could easily have as many as five 15-game winners, perhaps each contributing 200 strikeouts over the course of the season.
Zola points out that you can use the waiver wire as your "fourth reserve spot" if you end up needing some late-in-the-week spot starts in order to put you over the top in any individual category, so as long as he's close in ERA and WHIP, he expects to be able to make enough weekly tweaks to his team to get as many 7-3 wins as he can.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Gramling
Gramling also claims to be shooting for a 10-0 win each week, though he sounds a lot more pragmatic and far less cocky about it than Zola does. "The most well-rounded team is the one that has the best chance to sweep all 10 categories each week," he said.
That's what he aimed for in this draft, targeting high-K pitchers and batters who aren't going to cause his batting average to bottom out. Gramling put it this way: "I feel that from week to week you can't predict wins or saves, but strikeout pitchers will consistently get the six-plus K's to help win that category, while the lack of a .220 Dan Uggla-type will keep me more competitive than most in that department."
Strategy Snapshot: Team Quintong
Quintong's draft wasn't much different from one you'd see in any other format, but he did want to keep an eye on ensuring he could be competitive in stolen bases. That was his focus immediately after "fattening up" on power and average guys right away. He should be just fine in that department in most weeks thanks to a speedy roster that includes Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins and Norichika Aoki.
As for end of draft tactics, you'll notice Quintong went for Derek Jeter and Wil Myers to round out his bench. Those picks are the alpha and omega in terms of major league experience, but again, even if neither man ends up getting an official at-bat until May, it's not about performance over the course of the entire year. It's just how the players do during the weeks you decide to activate them. It's the same reason Berry took Brandon Beachy in Round 24; missing a few months to Tommy John recovery doesn't mean you can't end up winning a week for your fantasy owner in August.
Strategy Snapshot: Team Berry
Berry also is a fan of the "one ace to rule them all" method of building a pitching staff. As he puts it, "In a small sample size of one week, having a rock solid stud will help to offset a poor streaming decision or any other mistakes." That's why he said hello to Stephen Strasburg in Round 3.
The fact this is a weekly format means you can afford to take a risk on high reward players like Carl Crawford or perennial DL resident Jacoby Ellsbury. "Even if they miss some time, it doesn't matter, especially with the player pool being fairly deep," he said.
So there you have it, a peek behind the curtain into what these guys were thinking when they made the picks they did. Who do you think did the best job of constructing a team that can not only win the majority of categories each week but the most categories overall for the course of the regular season? Feel free to let us know in the conversation below, and don't forget that there's still plenty of time left before Texas and Houston square off and things stop being polite and start getting real. Don't just sit there mocking our mock, get a group of friends together and start a league of your own!