Originally written for Big Leagues Magazine Before the start of the 2013 season.
The worst thing you can do going into a fantasy draft or auction you plan to dominate is to go in without a plan. A plan gives your draft day efforts a structure. Your plan should build towards the goal of bringing you a fantasy baseball championship. Without a plan you will make more mistakes on Draft Day. You will choose the wrong players and miss your statistical goals. You can know the player pool as well as anyone but in a competitive league you will lose without a plan. If you have no idea how to put together an effective plan, this is your lucky day.
Build Around Your League RulesEvery draft advice column seems to remind owners to check their league rules. You see it so often because it is of vital importance to winning a league. Slight variations in league rules can cause drastic changes to the value of a given player. Adam Dunn may be just a later round’s consideration in a typical league but in a league that replaces AVG with OBP he becomes a much more important player. In a Head 2 Head league, drafting a balanced team is much less important than in a standard Rotisserie League. In other leagues starting pitchers may be the most important players available. In a 10-team mixed league that drafts just three outfielders per team, outfielders are plentiful. In an AL-only league with 13 teams, that is not the case. Study your league rules and measure the impact those rules will have on your play. Imputing your data into draft day software like RotoLab can make the job much simpler.
Establish and Build Toward Your GoalsMy goal is always to win and it never changes. Not every owner likes to play that way, particularly in keeper leagues. Some owners like to rebuild with cheap keepers and minor leaguers until they have a team they feel can win several seasons in a row. In re-draft leagues, I have known owners to build rosters with quirky handicaps such as all lefty pitchers, an All-Visa Team, and no player over 27-years old. Your goal for the draft should match your goals for the season. If you just want to have fun, a quirky draft goal is just fine, but if the goal is to win, save the quirky ideas for a different league.
Whatever your goal, it is important that you commit to that goal for as long as possible. If your goal changes more often than necessary, it will worsen your chances of achieving anything. But there are times during the season when you may have to re-work your season goals. You may decide that you cannot finish first at some point. At that point depending on your position in the standings and the composition of your roster, you might decide that finishing in the money while setting up for 2014 is a more attainable goal. Others may decide to dump their present assets and enter a re-building mode. I am on record saying that re-building is for wussies but there comes a time during a season where setting up for the following season becomes the best option.
Choose Your Keepers CarefullyYour keepers should always fit your overall plans. If they do not fit your plan, you may want to come up with a new plan (or at least trade for players that do fit). You should always rank your potential keepers in the order in which they can help your winning strategy. If you plan to focus on high-average, power hitters to complement your cheap (but great) starting pitching, an “at-value” Prince Fielder is probably a better keeper than your slightly underpriced Garrett Jones. You want your keepers to work with your strengths not against them. Your great starting pitching is less effective if you also keep your one dollar Carlos Zambrano because he used to be your favorite Cubs starter.
Now, just because your primary strategy is built on high-average, power hitters and great starting pitchers, that does not mean that you should toss back your $10 Jean Segura. Segura may not hit for power or much of a batting average, but his indicators suggest his average will not be a negative and his steals potential may make it much easier for you to concentrate on the power hitters during the draft. The same cannot be said about your $15 Everth Cabrera who may steal a ton of bases, but has the potential to pull down your team batting average. It may be possible to account for this drag but a better idea is to trade for a player or players that better fit your strategy. Andrelton Simmons may cost you five extra bucks but also saves you the hassle of trying to balance a bad BA player before the draft even starts.
You also need to study the rosters of your competitors. You should have your best guess at the keepers on the other teams before deciding on yours. This is important because keepers can take a huge chunk out of the potential player pool on several levels. You could find that certain positions are going to be extremely scarce on Draft Day. If ten of the 15 potential closers in your 12-team league are held by the owners of just six teams buying a closer at the draft could get expensive. That might make your $18 Rafael Betancourt a better keeper than you originally supposed. The players you should target should be the players that will help you win. Values and profits are very important but the way they fit into your draft strategy is just as important.
Study the Player PoolAfter your league’s keepers have been calculated to the best of your ability, it is time to study the player pool in depth. You need to know what positions remain to be filled on every team’s roster. How many catchers, first basemen, second basemen and so forth will be needed to fill each open spot? In deeper leagues there could be more spots than acceptable players. Understanding the depth available (or not available) at each position will help you prepare a strategy that accounts for positions that may be short on talent. In addition to finding where the talent shortages are, you also want to find where (if anywhere) there might be abundance.
You should be able to find some bargains within the talent abundant positions that make nice targets for your draft plan. Bargains are important because with a limited budget you need to acquire as much talent as possible. The bargains also give you the extra budget to afford expensive superstars. Where there is scarce talent, you will have to prepare to pay a premium. Draft inflation can cause even the bottom tier of talent at scarce positions to cost much more than the value of their stats. Because of this, you are sometimes better off paying for the better talents available at thin positions.
Use League History to Establish Category GoalsThe typical strategy here is to plan on finishing third in each category. That is nice. If you meet those goals you will probably field a competitive team with a decent shot at winning. Personally, I advise a more aggressive strategy. Plan to finish first in each category. You probably will not, but that is not the point. The point is to force you to draft not just solid performers, but also more players with upside. Marco Scutaro is a fine player who will help a lot of fantasy teams this year. However, if for the same draft day cost you could draft Jedd Gyorko you may want to consider going with the talented rookie with upside. It does not need to be just rookies either. Assume you have had a fine draft and are entering the dollars days’ portion of the auction. You could be considering names like Delmon Young and Chris Heisey, solid players who should get some playing time. But also available is Jordany Valdespin who is not as established but has a full-time starting opportunity and a minor league record that indicates he has the potential for 15 homers and 20-plus stolen bases with a decent batting average.
The Heart of Your Plan is in the Roster DesignYou should choose some player targets at their projected costs whether in auction dollars or draft rounds. Experimenting with various team compositions can help you shape your draft strategy. There are the standard draft plans such as Stars and Scrubs, Spread the Risk, The LIMA Plan, Portfolio 3 and the Mayberry Plan (a web search will provide all the details you need on all of these ideas) and hundreds of plans devised by experienced owners that have no names. But no matter what plan you use to design your eventual roster, you are essentially deciding how many of the following player types you need to roster.
- Star Players – The studs. These are the best players available. They either contribute to five categories (in standard 5×5 leagues) or are exceptional in three or four categories. Every winning team needs to have their fair share of star players. In a 12 team league if there are 15 star players available you should own two of them. This is where the bulk of a team’s value rests. Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes and Miguel Cabrera are good examples of Star Players in standard leagues.
- Potential Breakouts – These players have a solid track record and an established value in fantasy leagues but skills that suggest greater upside–perhaps even the ability to become star players. Every team should own as many of this type of player as possible. Austin Jackson, Giancarlo Stanton, Jason Heyward, Carlos Gomez, Starlin Castro, Stephen Strasburg and Kris Medlin are good examples of potential breakout players.
- Category Target Players – These players are not stars and usually only excel in one or two categories. Most closers and many speedsters fit into this category. These players are usually used as complements to well-rounded players to meet category goals. You do not need to own players in this category but they are often helpful. Juan Pierre, Everth Cabrera, Brandon League, Huston Street, Adam Dunn and Ben Revere are good examples of category target players.
- Sleepers – These are players not highly regarded but have skills or a new opportunity or circumstance that suggests their values could rise sharply. Every team should have one or two sleepers as this is the best way to build a team with a value much higher than its cost. That sort of profit is what turns contenders into champions. Jordany Valdespin, Cliff Pennington, Justin Ruggiano, Adam Lind and Logan Morrison are some decent sleepers.
- Rookies – These players have very little experience in the major leagues if any at all. Most analysts will suggest you avoid rookies as they often underperform their skills. But rookies, like sleepers, can be hugely valuable to a team. When they do perform, their value often far exceeds their draft day cost. Rostering the right rookie at a minimal cost is like purchasing a lottery pick. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are examples of winning lottery tickets. This season, Jedd Gyorko, Jean Segura, Dylan Bundy and Gerrit Cole are examples of rookies that could pay off big for fantasy owners.