The four most beautiful words in the English language, to me, used to be "pitchers and catchers report." However, since having the privilege of joining the ESPN.com Fantasy staff, that has changed. Now, the baseball season doesn't begin when the players start to gather in Florida and Arizona, but rather when all of us gather in beautiful Bristol, Conn., for our annual rankings meetings. The multiday affair ends with what I now consider to be the four most beautiful words in the English language, "It's time to draft."
For more on this first mock draft, check out
Eric Karabell's analysis and observations.
Here are the ground rules for this mock draft. We're using rosters from a standard ESPN league, meaning a 10-team mixed league with a 25-man roster featuring the following positional breakdown: one of each infield position, five outfielders, one 1B/3B, one 2B/SS, one utility player, nine pitchers and three bench spots.
Keep in mind that this draft took place on Jan. 21, after nearly two full days of debate over which players should be ranked where, so by the time this draft came around, we had a pretty good idea of which players we could wait a few rounds on, and which ones we needed to grab earlier than normal in order to get them on our rosters. That's something a bit unique to our mock draft, as in most leagues you haven't honestly voiced your true opinions on players to all the other owners in your league for much of the 48 hours leading up to draft day.
The drafters, in first-round order, determined by the sequential order of the last four digits of our cell phone numbers -- a fine way to randomize your draft -- Brendan Roberts, me, Jason Grey, Matthew Berry, Tristan H. Cockcroft, James Quintong, Nate Ravitz, Christopher Harris, Pierre Becquey and Eric Karabell.
(And for those wondering, you will be able to sign up to play ESPN Fantasy Baseball in February.)
Best value: Chase Utley (Quintong). It's not that there's anything wrong with the players taken ahead of Utley, but as we'll see later on in this draft, the second base well gets dry mighty quickly. I can't see Utley falling even this low in too many drafts once folks realize exactly how scarce the studs at this position truly are for 2010.
Biggest gamble: Carl Crawford (Ravitz). Paying for steals this early would feel a whole lot safer if Crawford's splits weren't 44-16 in the category before and after the All-Star break. However, if you're not going first base at this point, at least you're getting the "speed guy" with the most power upside.
Sound bites: Berry uses Twitter to let folks know who is in the mock draft, and within seconds, the notifications of new followers for many of us reaches double digits. Fear his power! Cockcroft says he would also have selected Kemp over Braun, if he had that option at No. 4. Becquey says he was very tempted to take Tim Lincecum at No. 9, but felt the drop off at first base after the first five was too steep to risk missing out.
Best value: Ryan Howard (Grey). Following up on Becquey's assessment, having Howard (a first-round value) fall to him at No. 18 was huge and way too good to pass up. After all, to get one of the likeliest candidates to lead the league in home runs and RBIs this close to the third round? Hard to beat that price.
Biggest gamble: Justin Upton (Becquey). Upton was one of the most coveted players, judging from our conversations during the ranking meeting, so Becquey knew if he didn't grab him at No. 12, he wasn't getting him at all. If the 22-year-old continues his growth curve, 40 home runs and 25 steals might not be out of the question. If he regresses at all, this may be the pick that sinks Becquey's season.
Sound bites: Roberts trots out his poker skills, pondering out loud about the merits of taking Ian Kinsler or Derek Jeter at the end of the round, hoping to read the rest of the room before deciding. He then "check-raises" by selecting Jacoby Ellsbury to buy himself a little more time to make the call, eventually settling on Kinsler with his wraparound pick at the start of Round 3. Ravitz says he has never taken a catcher in the second round before, but obviously Joe Mauer is a special case.
Best value: Jimmy Rollins (Ravitz). A lot of people might be scared off by Rollins' sub-.300 on-base percentage in 2009, but even so, he still stole 30 bases and he's one of a handful of shortstops with 25-home run potential. There's a huge drop off in value after Rollins goes off the board, so Ravitz was wise to grab Rollins here.
Biggest gamble: Derek Jeter (Cockcroft). The thing with Jeter is simply that he's turning 36 in June, and he's got a lot of mileage on his odometer. We're not saying this is a bad pick by any means, but we can't help but wonder if Cockcroft's pinstriped heart helped make this selection perhaps a round too soon.
Sound bites: Jose Reyes goes to Grey, which elicits the first huge reaction from the room. If he doesn't suffer any setbacks this spring and the Mets don't suddenly get gun shy about giving him the green light, he could well be the first-round talent we remember from years past. Berry selects CC Sabathia, offering up the aside that his fantasy team's budget has already factored in the necessary size of the clubhouse buffet.
Best value: Mark Reynolds (Mass). Even if the .260 batting average was a mirage, Reynolds isn't likely to strike out any more than he did last season, meaning the number of fly balls he hits should stay the same. Even if fewer leave the park than in 2009, 40 home runs is not a ridiculous projection. Add to that his added first base eligibility, and you've got yourself a bargain at No. 39.
Biggest gamble: Pablo Sandoval (Cockcroft). It's not that we don't think the Kung Fu Panda can hit. We do. We just wish he had a better lineup around him to boost those runs scored and RBI totals. Aaron Rowand, Aubrey Huff, Mark DeRosa and Nate Schierholtz? If intentional walks is a category in your league, maybe we like Sandoval here. Otherwise ...
Sound bites: In a move that surprises nobody, Canadian Joey Votto joins the roster of fellow countryman Becquey. After being scooped by Quintong on Adrian Gonzalez, Berry selects Brian Roberts. With that pick and Grey's early selection of Ryan Zimmerman for his corner spot, we all start to realize just how thin both second and third base truly are this season.
Best value: Jason Bay (Roberts). Citi Field is not going to be an issue for Bay, who shouldn't see his power numbers take that big a hit, if at all. For Roberts to be able to grab what could arguably be three of the top 10 outfielders in his first five picks to go along with Albert Pujols? Drafts don't generally start as impressive as this one has.
Biggest gamble: Carlos Lee (Ravitz). This isn't so much an indictment of the Lee pick, though I do think he could have been available one round later. It's just that the drop off in talent in the outfield at this point of the draft is not nearly as huge as the others, which was readily apparent just a few picks after the exclamation below.
Sound bites: Harris proclaims that "if the next guy I want is taken, I'm walking out." Kevin Youkilis is then taken by Berry, and Red Sox fan Harris starts packing up. Yankees fan Cockcroft then adds insult to injury by selecting "2010 AL Cy Young winner" Jon Lester. Harris is lured back to the table by the promise of a prize for winning the league, but Keith Lipscomb, who drew the short straw and had to act as "league secretary" rather than draft his own team chimed in and said he deserves a prize for having to listen to all of us sniping at each other. Touché, Mr. Lipscomb!
Best value: Johan Santana (Roberts). If the Citi Field cavern repeats as an offensive sinkhole, then a healthy Santana could easily post an ERA under 2.50 and a 1.10 WHIP. Sure, the wins might not fly fast and furious, but if Santana's elbow is at full strength, there's no reason he can't contribute mightily in three pitching categories.
Biggest gamble: Nelson Cruz (Berry). Cruz crushes the ball when he hits it ... but how often can you count on that happening? He strikes out one of every four at-bats, and as pitchers threw him fewer fastballs, his contact rate dropped last season to 68 percent. He could well hit 40 home runs, which would make this a gold medal selection, but then again, he could also bat .230 with only 25 round trippers, at which point he hurts you far more than he helps. Berry thought long and hard about this pick, but eventually "went with his gut." Why not? After all, as he said earlier, he's already paid for the buffet.
Sound bites: Berry continues the Harris-antagonizing by pretending to be his internal monologue, screaming "Draft Dice-K" in an annoyingly high-pitched voice. Harris however silences Berry as well as the rest of the room by selecting Aramis Ramirez, the last remaining third baseman with legit 30-100 potential. It's a long way down to Chone Figgins territory from here.
Best value: Lance Berkman (Berry). Berry believes Berkman isn't done quite yet, and we tend to agree with him. After all, there wasn't anything disappointing in his power numbers that won't be fixed by simply not having a repeat of that calf injury, and the fact that he started slow (a .162 batting average in April) is a lot less troubling, given his age, than if he had ended the season with such a horrible month -- again, that is.
Biggest gamble: Derrek Lee (Karabell). We're a bit more concerned with Lee's durability. After all, here's a guy who got injured last season (neck spasms) when a teammate slapped the top of his batting helmet. Plus, he's never hit as many fly balls as he did last season. That percentage is bound to come down a bit, and with it, a little bit of the power goes away as well.
Sound bites: As a group, we're usually slow to draft our closers -- remember the mantra, "don't pay for saves" -- and because we all know this, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ravitz breaks the save silence here, taking Joe Nathan, "The best closer, and it's not even close." That sparks a debate that continues for several rounds, inspiring the creation of the "Mo Robot" -- a character who simply drafts Mariano Rivera year after year, mechanically, without even considering any alternatives.
Best values: Aaron Hill (Becquey). Sure, Becquey taking a Blue Jay isn't surprising, but considering that after Hill, you're looking at the likes of Howie Kendrick, Jose Lopez or Dan Uggla as your starter, it's a wonder he's still on the board here. He's the last man standing at this position who can give you the combination of both power and a high average.
Jonathan Papelbon (Quintong). After I selected Jonathan Broxton in Round 8 -- leaving Roberts the Robot to draft Mariano Rivera, "Beep, beep!" -- and then Cockcroft drafted Joakim Soria in Round 9, Quintong jumped in to grab Papelbon in Round 10. There are only five closers who you can somewhat safely project for 40 saves and an ERA under 3.00, and if you can wait as long as possible and still grab the last of this quintet, you're way ahead of the curve.
Biggest gambles: Carlos Beltran (Ravitz). With arthroscopic surgery, we know Beltran will be out for some of the season, but knees are tricky -- and missing one month of play can easily turn into two months in the blink of an eye. Beltran, once he's back, is sure to be a bargain wherever he's drafted this season, but considering the risk, this pick might be a tad early.
Andrew McCutchen (Grey). He's only 23 and yet to play a full season in the majors ... that in and of itself makes him a risk. Certainly, the upside here is huge and a 20-home run/35-stolen base season is a legitimate possibility, but on the downside, Grey could be wasting a top-100 pick on the second coming of Alex Rios.
Sound bites: Berry's selection of Gordon Beckham infuriates Roberts, who was all set to claim the young third baseman as his very own -- the position is completely dry by now. "I didn't think you even knew who he was," Roberts jokes. Come on, Brendan. As if we don't all know he's married to Posh Spice. Grey is throwing caution to the wind going "all in" in the risk department. After Round 10, he now is the proud owner of Brandon Webb, Jose Reyes and Chris Carpenter to go along with 207-year-old Bobby Abreu.
Rounds 11 -15
Highlights and Sound Bites: Michael Bourn and Nyjer Morgan start a mini-run of 2-homer/50-steal guys. I guess Juan Pierre would be a reach here to make that power plateau. ... Rizzzzzzzz! The Buzzsaw (Chad Billingsley) goes to Ravitz. ... My pronunciation of Jair Jurrjens draws derision from the room, thinking I was doing a bad Harry Caray impersonation, so I oblige by actually doing a bad Harry Caray impersonation, "Jair Jurrjens backwards is Snejrruj Riaj!" ... Grey's selection of Matt Garza at No. 143 is hugely unpopular in the room. Clearly he had immense value this late in the going and sent many an owner scrambling. ... Harris "shake and bakes" us all by selecting Trevor Hoffman with pick No. 148. "That just happened!" You clearly can afford to be very patient with your bullpen.
Highlights and Sound Bites: Karabell selects David Aaaaaar-dsma. Seriously, how much would you give for him to get traded to the Pirates? ... Becquey takes James Shields with pick No. 152, and many lament that Shields is off the board. The room takes no consolation that "Yarnell" is still available. ... Cockcroft picks Franklin Gutierrez which angers Grey and Grey alone, but a few rounds later he gets his revenge when he selects Edwin Jackson. Many in the room applaud Grey's selection. ... Roberts can barely get the name Rafael Furcal out of his throat, without choking a bit.
Highlights and Sound Bites: Berry's "what the hey" selection of Russell Martin in Round 21 shows how long you can wait on your catcher if you miss out on the top two or three guys. In retrospect, Berry says he would wait even longer. ... James Loney, one of the players who was the subject of much scorn and ridicule in our rankings meetings, finally goes in Round 22, as does Miguel Tejada (pre-Orioles signing). Grey had been on record that he thought Tejada fit best in Baltimore. My impression was that Grey would rather draft Mrs. Garrett from "The Facts of Life" than Garrett Atkins. ... We start to get punchy as we draft at super-speed since we have just a few minutes to yield the conference room to another event. Becquey gets upset and starts to yell at whoever is up to make his pick already before realizing it's his turn. Nice job, Tyler Durden. ... Vernon Wells gets compared unfavorably to a bag of pooch poo, Grey tries to slip his pick of Delmon Young past us all, hoping we don't notice and mock him for it (we do) and Berry throws it out there that there's always a chance Carlos Delgado could sign "somewhere." Karabell wonders aloud when we started counting stats from the Mexican League. ... Corey Hart goes undrafted, and Ravitz won't let Berry forget it. "J'accuse!"
Remember, in a 10-team mixed league, there's always going to be plenty of talent left over when your draft is done, and the waiver wire is right there to help you correct any mistakes you've made. To demonstrate this point, before we leave the draft room, Ravitz asks us all to list who we think is the most talented player still left on the board. In no particular order, the names listed were: Matt LaPorta, Chris Tillman, J.D. Drew, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Brett Gardner, Mike Napoli, Brett Wallace, Placido Polanco, Conor Jackson and Cody Ross. Maybe that's not an All-Star squad in and of itself, but a few of those guys are sure to end up in the top 100 of the ESPN Player Rater when 2010 is all said and done.
But which ones will they be? Nobody knows for sure ... and that's why we love this game!
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.