If you played in a league-specific roto format last season, especially if it's a keeper league, you probably noticed something during the offseason that means nothing to those in mixed roto leagues: Many of the top stolen base threats from 2012 switched leagues.
In keeper leagues, it's significant because you lose the rights to those players, but as long as the number of steals options switching between the American and National leagues is relatively even, you know you'll have the ability to make up for the loss of those players with a winning bid in your auction or by simply drafting them, depending on how your league operates.
For NL-only owners this season, though, that's where the problem lies. It was anything but an even swap in terms of the offseason movement of speedsters. For starters, the Houston Astros moved from the NL Central to the AL West, finally evening out the number of teams in each league at 15. Secondly, of the 23 players who stole 30 or more bases in 2012, more than one-third of them -- eight, to be exact -- changed leagues. Of those eight players, six are going from the NL to the AL, an extremely notable occurrence in terms of draft strategy in both AL- and NL-only formats.
Players with 30-plus SBs in 2012 switching leagues for 2013
(2012 stolen bases and MLB rank in parentheses)
Simply put, it will be easier to find steals in your AL drafts than in NL drafts this year. Bourn, Reyes and Victorino represent three of the top four base stealers in the NL from 2012, while Revere finished third in the AL last season. And while that alone marks quite a shift in the department from league to league, it's also important to note that only one other player with at least 20 steals in 2012 is switching from the AL to NL (Shin-Soo Choo, who had 21 in 2012).
So how does this impact league-specific drafts in 2013?
Supply and demand
Last year, there were just 1,501 steals in the AL, the fewest in the league since 2008. By contrast, there were 1,728 stolen bases in the NL, the most in either league since 1999. The biggest difference came at the top, as 14 of the 23 players to steal 30-plus bases in 2012 were in the National League. However, as mentioned above, six of those 14 are now in the AL and if you simply look at 2012 steal totals, the American League now has 13 of the 23 players to swipe 30 or more last season. If you take the six 30-steal players coming over to the AL, they would account for more than 14 percent of last year's total.
It only gets worse for NL owners if you look at the past two seasons. Of the 25 players who have more than 50 stolen bases in that span, 18 of them now reside in the American League, including seven of the top eight. This means that despite the fact the highest projected steals options in the NL don't offer much else in other fantasy categories (Everth Cabrera, Ben Revere and Juan Pierre, to name a few), you'll see them come off the board sooner than they would have last season or go for a higher price in auctions out of sheer need in the category.
Needless to say, the NL owners who draft the likes of Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, for example, will be hoping for a return to past glory in the department. Meanwhile, those in new keeper leagues will be targeting the biggest potential difference maker from down on the farm, blazing-fast Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton. After his 155 steals in the minors last season, he has the ability to carry a fantasy team to the top of the standings in the category all by himself in roto leagues, or win the category every week in head-to-head play. However, it's unknown if or when he'll make it to The Show this season.
While it may not be as difficult to find elite steals options in AL roto play, that doesn't mean you can wait forever, either. Remember, with more quality options in the category and no one dominant stolen base source according to our projections, you're going to need two or three significant contributors to keep you afloat.
Beware of projections
In our projections, there are 52 players expected to steal at least 20 bases this season, and while 27 of them reside in the National League, remember that projections are essentially educated guesses based on past performance and potential. It's important to have your own opinion of how confident you are in players to achieve those projected figures, as well as taking into account the other statistics those players provide.
While there's no question Dee Gordon (34), Carlos Gomez (33), Andrelton Simmons (21) and Eric Young Jr. (20) have the ability to reach, or even exceed in some cases, their projected totals, I have numerous (and different) concerns about each of them that may preclude me from wanting them on my fantasy team this season. Some of the concerns are related to playing time, while others are performance-based with regard to other categories. That's why I'm not all that high on the National League steals candidates as a whole, and why I think it's a significant concern on draft day when addressing the category. I'd rather not hurt my team in batting average, home runs and RBIs -- and maybe even runs -- just so I can get some stolen base potential. If you are on the same page, that means it's even more imperative that you land the Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, B.J. Upton and Carlos Gonzalez types, who can offer multicategorical value elsewhere while still giving you a nice base in steals.
• It's not a surprise that the players expected to steal the most bases are outfielders and middle infielders, but of those 52 players projected to reach 20 stolen bases, not one of them is an NL second baseman. In all, there are only five second basemen as it is. The only two NL second basemen projected to steal more than 15 bases are Danny Espinosa and Cliff Pennington.
• Hanley Ramirez has seen his batting average fall off considerably the past two seasons, but he is eligible at third base, still hits for power and has stolen at least 20 bases in each of the past seven seasons. What's more important for this particular column, though, is that he's the only player eligible at a position other than 2B, SS or OF among those 52 projected to swipe 20 bases this season. It's awfully hard to ignore the value of that in any league, let alone the steals-starved National League.
All of this is to say that in the AL you'll need more steals on your roster this season than in recent years if you want to compete in the category. And in the NL, the "sure things" in steals seem to have thinned out considerably, so make sure to get an elite option early and chip away from there, keeping in mind that second base is devoid of any big-time contributors.