Fantasy baseball: Hitters with sneaky value in daily leagues

Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire

The key to assembling a winning fantasy baseball team is earning a positive return on investment for as many roster spots as possible. There is a plethora of avenues to achieve this. Properly identifying players for whom you're more bullish than the market is perhaps the one most discussed. Reading the room and knowing whom to pick when is also paramount.

This discussion will detail how to take advantage of the conventional manner most people rank hitters. Pitchers will be covered in a follow-up piece.

Even though serpentine drafts don't utilize prices like auctions, most cheat sheets are derived from projected bid values. In short, the total budget available to all the teams is distributed to the draft-worthy pool in proportion to their expected contribution. The draft-worthy pool is defined as exactly enough players to field a legal lineup. For example, standard ESPN leagues have 10 teams with 13 batters and nine pitchers. The draft-worthy pool is composed of 130 hitters with ample inventory at each position and 90 pitchers. Cheat sheets or rankings customarily are the hitting and pitching pools combined into one, sorted by projected value.

There's a major bug in conventional valuation as it relates to the framing of the draft-worthy pool. It's not a flaw, since the process correctly estimates what needs to be spent so every team buys a legal team without having any leftover budget. However, 22 players are not being drafted -- rather, 22 roster spots are, with the drafted player the first to occupy each spot. It's rare the same player is active the entire season, especially in daily leagues. Even Mike Trout can't generate stats when he's not in the lineup. Depending on league rules, activating a reserve in his roster spot when the Angels have a day off can help amass more stats.

Every draft pick or auction purchase has an associated production expectation. Most cheat sheets are aligned accordingly. Players anticipated to lose playing time are penalized relative to their per-game production. However, when you add the numbers of a player on that roster spot when the original player isn't active, the overall production of that roster spot increases.

The manner to account for the discrepancy is to "overpay" for the initial player. Keep in mind, this isn't a true overpay since you're not paying for the player but the roster spot.

By means of example, let's say John Smith is projected to play only 135 games and is ranked 65th. After adding the production of a substitute when Smith isn't in the lineup, the new rank is 50th. Drafting Smith somewhere between 50 and 65 avails a positive return on the investment for that spot. While every situation is different, taking the round in which the player is projected to be picked and doubling it yields a good estimate of the number of picks the player can be accelerated. Using the above example, 65th is Round 7 in a standard ESPN league, so jumping up 14 picks is a fair assessment.

With that as a backdrop, here are some top-100 batters who are dinged a bit in most rankings but are worth moving up. Not all are punished due to health concerns, but keep in mind, if the player happens to avoid injury, the substitute is the player himself, almost assuredly better than a different replacement.

J.D. Martinez, OF, Boston Red Sox

Martinez isn't the first player expected to spend a good chunk of the season as a designated hitter on this list, but unlike the others, he's likely to play some outfield in road inter-league affairs. The reason Martinez is included is an injury hedge. Since becoming a regular in 2015, the slugger has two seasons with at least 150 games and two with 119 and 120. It's only a few spots, but moving Martinez up in the first round could pay dividends.

Giancarlo Stanton, OF, New York Yankees

Remember when Ian Kinsler and Evan Longoria were injury-prone? Both were saddled with that label early in their respective careers, only to embark on an extended stretch when they were among the most durable players in the league. Stanton has missed just seven games over the past two seasons, but he's being ranked with the first several years of his career in mind. If you believe more in the past two campaigns, there's serious profit to be had since this is the perfect example of the substitute player being the player himself.

Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees

Injuries have plagued Judge in two of his three seasons in the bigs. In his debut 2016 campaign, Judge's season was cut short in mid-September with an oblique injury that likely would have kept him out longer had it occurred earlier. Last season, Judge missed two months with a chip fracture in a wrist after being hit by a pitch. In 2017, Judge played in 155 contests. Neither injury is chronic, but until Judge demonstrates 2017 is the norm and not the exception, his playing time will include an injury hedge.

Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians

Knowing a player will be out to begin the season means the quality of replacement is likely better than someone expected to miss time at some point. Of course, with Lindor there's concern surrounding the length of his absence and quality of play, especially with respect to running, when he returns. If reports out of Goodyear, Arizona, are favorable, drafting Lindor a little ahead of the market and then drafting another shortstop from a surprisingly deep pool later as middle infielder or utility sets up a nice source of extra stats on Lindor's roster spot.

Khris Davis, DH, Oakland Athletics

It's only a handful of games, and you need to be willing to occupy your utility spot, but the good thing is there's little guessing if Davis will be in the lineup except for inter-league road games. He did play 11 games in the outfield last season, so Davis won't sit out all the no-designated hitter games, but still, there's an edge to be had, over and above the discount usually afforded to utility-only hitters.

Nelson Cruz, DH, Minnesota Twins

Cruz is in a similar boat as Davis with even more certainty when a substitute will be needed. The veteran did play four games in right field for the Mariners last season. However, with the Twins' focus on outfield defense, Cruz likely won't match that this season.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Toronto Blue Jays

While nothing is definite, the expectation is Guerrero will need two to three weeks to develop his glove work at Triple-A Buffalo. Like Lindor, the good news is the replacement should be a good player. However, there's risk that the Blue Jays opt to keep Guerrero on the farm longer. Not to mention the second-generation phenom is getting the "shiny new toy" bump so many like to attach to hyped prospects, fueled by the "fear of missing out" bias.

Daniel Murphy, 2B, Colorado Rockies

From 2014 to 2017, Murphy averaged 140 games a season. He's coming off a 2018 campaign in which he appeared in just 91 contests. Though, to be fair, after debuting on June 12, Murphy missed only 10 games the rest of the season. Still, most feel a visit to the disabled list is a matter of when, not if. It appears Murphy is ticketed for first base duty, perhaps keeping him away from some of the possible health risks incurred at the keystone. Plus, replacing a hitter with dual eligibility helps maximize the added production, opening the pool of substitutes.

Tommy Pham, OF, Tampa Bay Rays

Pham has played 128 and 137 games the past two seasons, so he's another example of a player expected to miss a significant portion of the season. Playing a full season on turf can't be a good thing, either. Something to consider when replacing an outfielder is it could be an opportunity to address a team deficiency, since the free-agent outfield pool in standard ESPN leagues should contain a wide array of specialization players, be it power or speed. Their lack of an all-around game prohibits occupying a permanent roster spot, but in a pinch, they can help in areas of need.

Travis Shaw, 2B/3B, Milwaukee Brewers

As alluded to with Murphy, multiple-position eligibility unto itself is a reason to elevate a player's draft stock. Add in the ability to backfill the roster spots with more stats, and this is a player you want on your team. With the Brewers bringing Mike Moustakas back, Shaw is likely to miss a few more games than the normal starter. However, when he's in the lineup, especially at home, Shaw provides sneaky production.

Other top-100 players expected to miss time:

Yasiel Puig, OF, Cincinnati Reds

A.J. Pollock, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

David Dahl, OF, Colorado Rockies

Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B/3B/SS, Texas Rangers

Justin Turner, 3B, Los Angeles Dodgers

Joey Gallo, 1B/OF, Texas Rangers

Jake Lamb, 3B, Texas Rangers