The NFL season is over, and the NBA is preparing for its All-Star festivities, which means it's time for fantasy owners to start thinking about their baseball drafts. ESPN's team of fantasy experts got together to conduct the first mock draft of the season using ESPN's standard 10-team rotisserie league rules as a guideline.
Those participating in the draft included ESPN.com's fantasy baseball editorial staff of Eric Karabell, Tristan H. Cockcroft, AJ Mass, Joe Kaiser, Pierre Becquey, Tim Kavanagh, Keith Lipscomb, Andrew Feldman and Leo Howell, as well as MLB senior editor Dan Mullen.
There were no big surprises at the top of the draft, as the only player taken here who fell out of the top 10 in our summit rankings was Andrew McCutchen; he was replaced by Carlos Correa. Position scarcity obviously comes into play when comparing two such players, as McCutchen's track record and well-rounded statistical profile are better in a vacuum than Correa's. But the "SS" next to Carlos' name makes him a hotter commodity.
Feldman and I agreed that the lack of middle infield depth made securing one of Houston's dynamic double-play duo a priority in the first round. The same thought process went into Becquey's selection of Nolan Arenado, as there isn't a lot of depth on the corners in the infield, and in ESPN standard leagues, you must start both a first baseman and a third baseman in addition to a corner infielder.
ESPN leagues also require nine pitchers, and Mass started with the best one available. He said after the draft that it was "criminal" to see Clayton Kershaw fall to sixth, as there are arguments to be made to take him anywhere from first to fifth.
There were once again no real surprises in the second round, as the assembled crew of drafters stuck mainly to the ESPN rankings. We did see our first real "run" of the draft, as five first basemen flew off the board in the course of seven picks, which left those picking early in the second round on the wrong side of the tiers at the position.
Feldman benefited from McCutchen's small slide and scooped him up in the second round to pair with his Houston middle infielder. I employed a similar strategy by pairing the Astros star with an outfielder and opting instead for the proven power of Jose Bautista.
For Mass, the opportunity to take Max Scherzer at No. 15 and dominate pitching crossed his mind, but he opted for the upside of A.J. Pollock, who was a somewhat controversial figure at the rankings summit. The Arizona outfielder has 20/30 potential, and Mass sees a .300 batting average as a possibility.
We saw another run in the third round, this time with starting pitching. None of the picks were particularly shocking, but it was clear the floodgates had opened and the drafters were done waiting for their aces.
Karabell noted that he wound up with more top-flight pitchers than he normally would, starting with Chris Sale. Feldman pointed out that he was targeting three high-strikeout arms and put his faith in Jake Arrieta to continue his excellent pitching following last year's Cy Young performance.
Again, with position scarcity on the mind, Lipscomb was happy to get a corner infielder with his second and third picks, as there isn't a lot of depth at first and third base. Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion are two of the best at first base, and Lipscomb won't have any issue filling his first base or corner infield spots for the rest of the year, barring injury.
Round four saw the DH and catcher positions selected for the first time, as Miguel Sano and Buster Posey came off the board. For Becquey, Sano is a risk, with strikeouts, BABIP luck and a limited sample size representing red flags for the Twins slugger. But Sano's power potential is off the charts, and Pierre is confident that his DH-only designation will be quickly rectified as Sano spends his time manning right field for Minnesota.
As for Posey, Mullen points out that because he doesn't particularly believe in Kyle Schwarber, the Giants catcher represents a ridiculous advantage on the field at the position. Schwarber has playing time and batting average concerns, while Posey's ability to play first when not behind the plate gives him extra opportunities to contribute to a fantasy lineup.
Karabell was happy to snag a couple undervalued bounce-back candidates in the outfield, led by Carlos Gomez. He noted that this is a somewhat risky team he has assembled, but the former 20/30 producer could return to form with a full season in his relatively new digs.
The fifth round saw the introduction of yet another position when I picked the first relief pitcher. Picking at the turn, I didn't want to wait another two full rounds, so picking up Davis and his elite ratios and strikeout potential made sense. Because this draft took place in February, the closer pool is shallow and murky. Locking up an elite closer makes sense, even for drafters who normally abide by the "don't pay for saves" philosophy.
It turned out that I was somewhat correct that I couldn't wait until my next pick to get a closer, but I still had to wait almost two full rounds to see someone follow my lead. Drafting at the beginning or end of the first round will lead to situations in which, in order to fill important roles on the roster, a drafter has to reach and hope for the best.
This round also represented the fifth pick for Joe Kaiser, who picked up his third starting pitcher to go with two outfielders. Kaiser noted that despite the depth at the positions, ESPN fantasy leagues require nine arms and five players in the outfield. Locking up stars at the top of these positions meant he didn't have to worry about missing out completely on parts of the roster that require both quality and quantity.
The first pick of Round 6, Adam Jones, drew praise from Mass, who thought it was good value to pick up the Baltimore outfielder at this point. I noted the reliable production of the veteran Oriole, who has 25 or more home runs, 80 or more RBIs and 68 or more runs in each of the past five seasons, with upside for more in every category. He is unlikely to see career highs as he passes his peak and heads downhill as he gets older, but 20 homers, 60 runs, 80 RBIs, a respectable batting average and a chance at 10 steals are great building blocks in a 5x5 roto league.
Even so, the pick that drew the most envy was Jose Fernandez, whom Lipscomb selected to secure a solid top portion of his pitching rotation. At the end of the draft, Lipscomb wasn't pleased with his full staff of arms, but his first picks were on point, and the Miami ace was arguably the best. Several drafters wished they had pulled the trigger on Fernandez and were sad to see him go elsewhere.
Kyle Seager is one player who slipped a bit from his rankings summit position. He fell to Kaiser in the early seventh round. Seager represents one of the last third basemen with upside to be a top-50 player, as he and Adrian Beltre are the last two third basemen worthy of consideration for a few rounds, based on the way this draft unfolded. That's why Feldman said he felt "forced" into the Beltre pick (he had Seager, Sonny Gray, Corey Seager and Xander Bogaerts lined up in his queue before this pick): The position falls off a cliff after the veteran slugger.
Round 8 is where Cockcroft settled on Aroldis Chapman, the undisputed top talent at closer who is facing legal issues and a possible suspension from MLB. In an early February draft, these are the sort of picks that can make or break a roster. If Chapman misses 10 games via suspension, this is a steal. If he misses 50 or 100, his value takes a big hit.
Meanwhile, Becquey selected two closers in decidedly safer situations by pairing Craig Kimbrel with Kenley Jansen. He entered this section of the draft wanting to solidify his pitching staff, but after the run on starters that took place a couple rounds earlier, he decided to take the safe route to saves and strong ratios with two elite closers instead. After the draft, he said his outlook for this team would be to "work the waiver wire for starters and emerging closers, knowing I have my saves covered."
The selection of Freddie Freeman was a source of envy for Mass, who settled for Albert Pujols, whose age and health leave him as a clear runner-up to the Braves' first baseman. Feldman liked the safety of Freeman, especially after a risk on another corner infielder, Beltre, just a few picks earlier.
Here is where Cockcroft's go-dirt-cheap-at-starting-pitcher strategy starts to take shape, as his first picks were all on offense, and he waited 94 selections to take any sort of pitcher and then another 13 to take a starter. He would have taken a value starter earlier, but the top-20 SP options he projected to last in the draft simply didn't hang around as long as he thought. Once he started taking pitching, he saw a lot of his preferred targets snagged just ahead of his turn in the draft, and his staff didn't turn out the way he wanted.
In his words: "Call it an 'awful' pitching staff if you wish, but in a 10-team league, if there's anyplace I'd like to be 'awful,' it's at starting pitcher, which is the easiest for me to fill a) on the cheap, b) via free agency and/or trades or c) merely by streaming my matchups off the wire each week."
This was a "mixed emotions" portion of the draft for Karabell, who was happy to snag another undervalued, bounce-back candidate in Yasiel Puig. However, his selection of Jose Reyes, who is also dealing with legal issues, left him disappointed when he realized Jhonny Peralta would be available 80 picks later.
Mullen was happy to select Christian Yelich, whom he views as a post-hype sleeper candidate, while Mass admits Brian McCann might be considered a reach in Round 11. He values the peace of mind at the catcher spot that comes from a consistent, productive player such as the New York slugger.
Korean import Byung Ho Park is a name that will stand out among the picks in these middle rounds, and Kavanagh said the pick came with risk. Park's range of outcomes is very wide, as he is a somewhat unknown quantity, but with all his corner infield spots already filled, the potential for 30-plus home runs was worth a midround pick.
Cockcroft passed on an opportunity for another Yankee and took Michael Wacha, which he later deemed one of his least favorite picks. Although having more New York arms might not have been the wisest plan, the upside of Michael Pineda was more appealing in hindsight than the projected potential for Wacha. With a boom-or-bust staff of bargain pitchers such as the one assembled by Cockcroft, extra upside is never a bad thing.
Mullen snatched Justin Verlander at the end of the 14th round and sees him as a candidate to exceed his value if his injury issues are behind him. He might never return to Cy Young form, but his performances to close 2015 provide hope for a bounce-back year.
These 30 picks included multiple instances of "catcher regret." Both Feldman and I took a player at the position at the end of the 15th round, and neither of us was happy with the result. The fifth and sixth catchers off the board, respectively, Russell Martin and Salvador Perez are fine options but not good enough to justify selections this high when other roster spots are unfilled.
In my case, taking Perez meant missing out on Brad Boxberger, Dellin Betances, Jake McGee, Shawn Tolleson and Brad Ziegler, relievers I was targeting to pair with Davis. However, my confidence in Davis left me a bit too slow to grab a second RP, and I was forced to pick Carter Capps, who doesn't have a job locked down.
Becquey was pleased with his selection of Brett Lawrie at the tail end of the 17th round, as his dual eligibility at second and third combined with a better park and lineup on his new team make him a candidate to exceed expectations. That selection was just one of many that prove that waiting on middle infield makes sense, as several quality players who are very closely bunched in projections were selected in these rounds.
Mullen's selection of Alex Gordon was one he pointed out as a favorite moment in the draft, as he feels the Kansas City outfielder is being downgraded for time missed due to injury. Mullen sees Gordon as a safe bet for a .270 average with 20 homers and a few steals, which is a great way to fill one of the last few spots in a five-man fantasy outfield.
Byron Buxton represents one of a handful of high-upside picks late in the draft by Lipscomb, who mentioned afterward that at this point in the proceedings, he takes into account the vast pool of replacement options on the waiver wire and decides to take chances on potential. Buxton was a highly touted prospect with tons of upside, and he would be a steal if he puts it all together in 2016.
Similarly, if Gio Gonzalez can sort things out and return to his 2012 and 2013 production, Becquey got a steal this late in the draft. Becquey noted that he doesn't usually use second-half splits as an indicator of future success, but because Gonzalez showed signs of the player he once was to end the past season, he could provide huge value compared to his draft position. If not, he'll have to find a way to make up for the ERA and WHIP damage that could come from a rough start for Gio.
The final five rounds included quite a few interesting selections. For instance, Karabell, Cockcroft and Mass all waited to take a catcher until this phase of the draft, with Karabell snagging Stephen Vogt with his final pick. This appears to be the right approach for drafters who miss out on Posey and Schwarber, as the difference from catcher No. 3 to catcher No. 10 doesn't seem to justify an investment of early draft capital. In an ESPN standard league, which requires only one player at the position, just wait and take the "best of the rest."
Cockroft was especially happy to pick up a veteran such as Dustin Pedroia in the 22nd round. "Need I say more?" was his comment following the draft regarding the value in the Boston second baseman.
One pick that drew attention during the draft and in the review after was Yu Darvish, whom Kavanagh selected as the 55th starting pitcher off the board. We can't be sure when Darvish will be back on the mound and, subsequently, when he'll be back to the form we saw prior to his injury. But with a bench or DL spot available, he can be kept on the sideline until his return to the roster and given a chance in the rotation if he looks to be even close to the player we saw a few years ago.
As for Mr. Irrelevant, Anthony DeSclafani might not wind up being irrelevant at all, as the young Reds pitcher was one of Cockcroft's "Kings of Command." He might not get wins, but if he can post a great ERA while continuing to show an increased strikeout rate and a decreased walk rate, he's going to provide more than the replacement-level value implied by his selection at the end of the draft.