For players who seek an additional challenge in fantasy baseball, league-only formats add an extra layer on top of an already in-depth pastime. Chopping the list of available players in half, AL and NL-only leagues require owners to use different strategies and approaches in order to be successful.
That is especially true in NL-only leagues, as the Senior Circuit features a very thin talent pool in 2016, thanks to a few tanking teams at the bottom of the charts. Building a winning team in an NL-only league requires finding the right stars and backing them up with players in later rounds who have paths to playing time and upside to exceed expectations.
This draft was held earlier in the month of March, when news of Jhonny Peralta's injury had not yet struck and rumors of Tommy John surgery for Carter Capps were swirling but unconfirmed. Both pieces of news serve as reminders that the best rankings, cheat sheets and strategies can be undone by not being caught up on the latest injury and roster updates.
This 10-team roto NL-only mock featured the following drafters, in order: Tom Carpenter, David Schoenfield, Derek Carty, Tim Kavanagh, Eric Karabell, me, Joe Kaiser, Todd Zola, Dan Mullen and Dan Szymborski.
The first pick of the draft was a bit of a surprise to me at the time, as selecting the best pitcher in the world in a league-only format made more sense. However, Carpenter's decision to go with Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt might be the better option. Four of the top five pitchers in our staff rankings are National League players, while only two of the top six first basemen play in the NL. If you're looking to grab an impact player compared to the rest of the field with your first pick, I don't think there's any doubt that Goldy is your guy.
That is, of course, unless you believe there is more in store from Bryce Harper this season. Last year's NL MVP doesn't turn 24 until October, and hit he 42 home runs with a .330 average last season. Regressing toward average would still represent a huge fantasy season for the Washington outfielder, and staying on that pace or even finding ways to improve his production would make him a bona fide fantasy legend. Our current projections, which were a starting point for our staff rankings, see Harper taking a step back in every major category and still ranking among the five best players in the league for fantasy purposes.
Unlike in AL-only leagues, where a catcher might not come off the board until the sixth round, Buster Posey becomes the first player taken at his position very early in the proceedings. During our rankings summit, I was among those highest on Posey, and I backed up my talk by taking him 15th overall in this mock. I understand his limitations (no speed, somewhat limited power and run-scoring potential, virtually no upside as a consistent veteran), but no other catcher offers his consistent numbers, and his playing time is as safe as can be.
Jason Heyward's selection as the fourth Cub in the first 18 picks highlights just how unbalanced the NL will be this season. Chicago has a ton of talent, as do the Mets (who saw four of their own taken in the 10 picks after Heyward), but some teams simply don't have clear-cut starters and producers at every spot on the diamond. Finding out how to set your roster up early to be ready for the search for depth in the later rounds will be key to success in NL-only formats this season.
Joe Kaiser told me his common approach to ESPN standard drafts is to load up on pitchers and outfielders because those positions require so many starters in the format. Given that a team needs nine arms and five outfielders to set a lineup in this theoretical league, Kaiser's decision to start outfielder-pitcher will prevent him from being too thin at these demanding positions.
Kaiser followed his second-round selection of a pitcher with yet another arm, pairing Jake Arrieta with Noah Syndergaard. With Todd Zola selecting a pitcher one spot later, 11 starters were off the board in the first 28 picks. There is plenty of good pitching in the National League, but that doesn't mean you can wait for it.
Szymborski selected Kyle Schwarber to end the round, and he's going to be a difficult player to handle from a fantasy perspective this season. His catcher eligibility helps ease concerns about a lack of playing time on such a loaded roster, and in an NL-only league, catcher drops off in a hurry. Schwarber is just outside the top 60 in our overall mixed league rankings, and only two other catchers find themselves in the top 130 (one of those is Brian McCann, who plays in the wrong league for this draft). If you buy into Schwarber as an elite power prospect who can deliver on that power in 2016, he's well worth an early investment to lock up your catcher spot.
The starting pitcher run came to an end in the fourth, as Carlos Martinez marked the 14th starter taken in 35 selections. Was it a bit early for the Cardinals' starter? Maybe, but after leaving the AL-only mock we held just two days earlier without enough starting pitching, I wasn't going to risk it again. When every other team is loading up on pitching early, reaching for one means fitting in with draft flow and not necessarily taking a bad value pick.
However, because I was forced into taking a pitcher, I missed on two of my favorite breakout OF picks, Yasiel Puig and Christian Yelich. Both have a ton of upside this season, as Puig continues to adjust to life in Major League Baseball, get healthy and mature as a professional, while Yelich needs some adjustments to his approach at the plate to turn into a bona fide slugger. Because league-only formats put a unique premium on outfielders (with 15 National League teams only "starting" 45 outfielders and 50 outfield spots needing to be filled in the draft), getting high-upside players in your first or second OF spot sets you up to be ahead of the pack who put the position off until it's too late.
Kaiser's selection of Billy Hamilton in the fifth round Kaiser's his first non-pitcher since the first round and gave him plenty of speed. But it also meant his batting average was lacking, and he decided at that point to punt the category and focus on loading up at the other offensive attributes. In league-only formats, punting can become a more viable strategy, as building a balanced team from such a thin pool can be incredibly challenging and can lead to a team that nets three to five points in every category and hangs out near the middle of the pack all season.
The run of closers started in Round 4 but really kicked into gear in these two rounds, as the fifth closer came off the board by the end of the sixth round. Closer is a dangerous position to wait on in the NL, especially this early in the spring with so few battles settled for ninth-inning jobs. The top of the position is strong, however, with reliable arms such as Mark Melancon and Trevor Rosenthal backing up the undoubted star of NL closers Kenley Jansen.
Position flexibility is always a plus in NL and AL-only formats, and Dan Szymborski loaded up on that trait at the turn between Rounds 7 and 8. Jung Ho Kang and Addison Russell provide eligibility at three of the four infield spots and a nice bit of upside to boot (Russell as a developing player some drafters don't trust and Kang as a player returning from injury and seemingly undervalued as a result). When the middle of the season rolls around and teams are struggling to find ways to put together healthy, competent rosters, having flexibility to move players to different positions can be key to unlocking the best potential lineup.
Steals might seem easy to come by in the NL, with players such as Hamilton and Dee Gordon in the pool, but according to our current projections, nine of the top 15 speedsters play in the AL. That means picks such as Ender Inciarte and Denard Span are vital to locking up the stolen base category. I probably took Span earlier than he should have been taken (we rank him 218th overall in mixed formats, and I selected him 75th in this NL-only format), but with little speed available after him, I had to make sure I wasn't punting a valuable category.
Round 9 is the first of a two-part exhibit on why paying attention to the news matters. Eric Karabell, who was a fan of Carter Capps prior to injury news surfacing about the young Miami reliever, selected A.J. Ramos earlier than most would have had him ranked prior to adjusting for Capps' likely absence. But even if this pick was slightly early for Ramos, based on his ADP at the time, it was the right time to grab him, as he was one of the last reliable ninth-inning guys left on the board. Once Jake McGee went at the end of the round, the position dropped off a cliff.
It's tough to know what to expect from Kenta Maeda, Karabell's other pick in these two rounds, but projecting players who are difficult to project is where leagues can be won and lost. The nine-year veteran of Japanese baseball was 15-8 with a 2.09 ERA last year, and the team is not worried about his potential health issues. Karabell and David Schoenfield discussed his debut on a recent episode of the Fantasy Focus podcast, and Eric and Dave concluded that he could be comparable to another Japanese import, Hiroki Kuroda. That's not a player worth drafting early, but as the 28th starter off the board, he's a nice value.
Round 11 provides the second part of our two-part exhibit on knowing the news before the draft. Carter Capps would normally not last until the 110th pick if everything were going as planned, but Szymborski (sorry, Dan!) was unaware of the injury rumors and selected him at what appeared to be a huge discount. Now that we know the fate for Capps (he's slated to undergo Tommy John surgery), this pick is obviously one Dan would like to have back.
Dan was able to follow that pick with one that could pay off, as young Domingo Santana has stepped into a bigger role for the Brewers with the departure of Khris Davis via trade. The 23-year-old outfielder now has a full-time job he could keep with any sort of decent performance, which would include taking a step forward as a contact-maker at the plate. He has struck out far too often during his time in professional baseball, but if he can cut back on the swings and misses and put bat to ball on just a few more pitches, he could become a solid everyday player for the Brew Crew.
Kaiser continued his batting average punting here in the 15th round by selecting Chris Carter, who should hit plenty of home runs in a favorable hitter's park in Milwaukee. If you're willing to tolerate or compensate for his lack of batting average, his 25-plus homer potential is virtually unmatched this late in a draft.
Jake Lamb is a player many thought would turn into a 25-plus home run guy in the majors, but his first two appearances in the big leagues have netted only 10 homers over 476 at-bats. However, he's still a fairly young player (he turns 26 in October) and showed an ability to get on base against MLB pitching regularly last season. If he can add some pop to that on-base ability, he'll be a steal at the hot corner for Karabell.
If you needed any incentive to wait for a catcher in ESPN standard leagues that require only one starter at the position, look at this draft as an example. In the midst of picks featuring players who are injured, suspended or not guaranteed an MLB job this summer, J.T. Realmuto, Derek Norris and Yadier Molina were taken. Kaiser told me he wished he could take back his pick of Devin Mesoraco in round 12, knowing what he knows now about how late the position lasts into even NL-only drafts. With 15 NL teams providing 15 starting catchers, 10 teams can wait as long as they'd like to pick their players at that spot.
Sometimes your picks are like a fine wine, and they just get better with age. That was definitely the case for Dan Mullen, who snagged Jedd Gyorko with the penultimate pick of the draft. The middle infielder will now likely start for St. Louis with Jhonny Peralta injured, and a starting shortstop for a top team in the NL with a 25th-round pick is a lottery ticket for a fantasy baseball drafter.
There were plenty of other lottery tickets bought during these rounds, as drafters looked to the minor leagues and top prospect lists to try to find the next big thing in the NL. Pitchers such as Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow and batters such as Jesse Winker, J.P. Crawford and Manuel Margot could be difference-makers once they make a big league roster.
Looking for a young gun to target for your fantasy draft this spring? Check out Tommy Rancel's top fantasy prospects for the year ahead.