In a perfect world, my fantasy team would have stars at every position, sure things that I could just plug into my lineup, sit back, and watch the stats and wins accumulate. In that same perfect world, Jay Cutler wouldn't have broken his thumb while the Bears were the hottest team in the NFL, and James Loney never hits that grand slam against the Cubs in Game 1 of the 2008 National League Division Series. Of course, the world is not perfect, even for someone who isn't a fan of the Cubs and Bears.
The point is you're going to have to hunt for bargains at certain positions. Eventually, you will have missed all the stars at first base or third base or shortstop, and you'll just have to bide your time and pounce on a good deal. While there are bargains to be had at every position, there are a handful, most notably catcher and second base, where it makes sense to be one of the last people to fill the position if you miss out on the top-tier options. There can be so little difference from the fifth or sixth catcher down through the 14th or 15th, making it advisable to pay the lowest price possible at the position.
We're still a few weeks away from the real draft season, but some trends are already developing that you can take advantage of come your draft or auction. Let's take a look at the 2012 All-Bargain Team, position by position
Catcher: Geovany Soto, Cubs -- According to Mock Draft Central, Soto is the 12th catcher coming off the board in an average draft. He has yet to match his huge rookie year of '08, and there's a chance he never will, but for all his struggles he has hit 17 homers in each of the last two years. In Soto's two down seasons, he simply didn't hit enough line drives, posting rates around 18 percent each year. In his two good seasons, that rate was 21 percent and 24.4 percent. Part of buying into Soto is a matter of faith that he can find that stroke again, and part is where he fits into the Cubs lineup. Without a ton of mashers on the North Side, Soto should be in a run-producing spot, a luxury among catchers, especially ones going this late. Don't forget, Soto is 29 years old, so he's theoretically in his prime years.
First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks -- In 156 at-bats last year, Goldschmidt hit eight homers and nine doubles, drove in 26 runs, and posted an impressive .224 ISO (slugging minus batting average). In 1,178 minor league at-bats from ages 21 through 23, he blasted 83 homers and slugged .620 with a 1.026 OPS. First base is deceptively shallow this year, with the top six first basemen likely to be gone by the 25th or 30th overall pick. If you miss out on those guys, let me offer you Goldschmidt, who is coming off the board about 120 picks later, a full 10 rounds in a 12-team league. He plays in a very hitter-friendly park, especially for right-handed hitters, making him a bargain play among first basemen.
Second base: Neil Walker, Pirates -- In his first full season in the majors, Walker hit .273/.334/.408 with 12 homers, 36 doubles and 83 RBI. He came on strong in the second half, posting a .284/.340/.419 slash. If I miss out on Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, I'm happy to wait it out for Walker. This will be his age 26 season, so he's right at the beginning of his prime years. He's the 11th second baseman coming off the board with an average draft position of 143.69. If you have to dive in the dumpster, I'd rather have him than a strikeout artist like Danny Espinosa or an unproven youngster like Jemile Weeks.
Third base: David Freese, Cardinals -- Freese isn't going to sneak up on anyone after winning the World Series MVP, but if you didn't know who he was before the playoffs, you missed an awfully strong regular-season performance, albeit in part-time duty. The postseason hero hit .297/.350/.441 with 10 homers in 333 at-bats. Now he'll be the Cardinals' everyday third baseman, and he'll be asked to help fill the enormous void left by Albert Pujols. That means a middle-of-the-order spot in the lineup, something rare of a third baseman going after the 160th pick in an average draft. He's currently the 13th ranked third baseman by ADP, including Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez. That makes him a superior late option at the hot corner.
Shortstop: Dee Gordon, Dodgers -- Once you start to dig deep at a position, often it can be a winning strategy to identify one statistic and chase that. This brings us to Gordon, a stolen-base artist at a shallow position. If you miss out on the elite shortstops or if you find yourself lacking speed, Gordon can be the perfect late-draft antidote. In just 233 plate appearances last year, Gordon swiped 24 bags while getting caught seven times. He could stand to take a walk more often than seven times in those 233 trips to the batter's box, but let's not forget that he was 23 years old last season. Even without taking a step forward, he can provide Elvis Andrus numbers while coming off the board 100 picks later.
Outfielders: Logan Morrison, Marlins -- It was an eventful year for the outspoken Morrison that included a bizarre, though short-lived, demotion to Triple-A, but the main takeaway is this: Despite a year in which he disappointed everyone, he still hit 23 homers, 25 doubles and posted a 116 OPS+. We'll have to see how Marlins Ballpark plays, but it can't be worse than Dolphins Stadium. He also hits in one of the league's best young lineups, with Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton and Gaby Sanchez joining him in Miami's order. He also won't turn 25 until August. Despite all that, he's the 38th outfielder off the board according to ADP. That makes Morrison one of my favorite targets in every league I'll be in this season.
Peter Bourjos, Angels -- Bourjos isn't spectacular at anything, but he's a steady contributor across all the typical fantasy categories. Last year he hit .271/.327/.438 with 12 homers, 11 triples, 26 doubles and 22 steals. His .338 BABIP suggests he was a bit lucky, but his speed helped him to 23 infield hits. He'll turn 25 right before the season starts, so it's safe to project some growth, as well. Yeah, it's not going to lead you to a championship, but useful production from a third outfielder at a pretty late stage of the draft.
Starting pitchers: Scott Baker, Twins -- Full disclosure: I'm pretty sure I've drafted Baker each of the last four years. I can't quit the guy. Luckily, he finally rewarded my loyalty last season, posting a career high in K/9 with 8.22, his lowest BB/9 since 2007 (2.14), a 1.17 WHIP and 3.14 ERA. After allowing far too many homers in 2009 and 2010, Baker surrendered just one home run per nine innings last season, his best rate since 2007. He has always been able to miss bats, and he's only had a WHIP above 1.2 once in his career, but the long ball has been his Achilles' heel. His 2011 campaign has me bullish that he has turned the corner in that respect. Jump on board with me in 2012.
John Danks, White Sox -- Looking at Danks' glamour stats, it appears he was a disappointment last year. He went 8-12 with a 4.33 ERA, his worst numbers since his rookie year in '07. However, you're a fantasy baseball player. You know a pitcher can't completely control his win-loss record or his ERA. And those numbers belie how well Danks pitched last season. He posted a 7.13 K/9, the second-best rate of his career, and a career-low 2.43 BB/9. Hitters had a .313 BABIP against him, and his LOB percentage was 70.1, a little below average. Not surprisingly, his 3.82 FIP and 3.79 xFIP outperformed his ERA by a wide margin. This is a guy who was the 100th player off the board in an average draft last year. This year, he's being selected nearly 100 picks later. Don't be fooled by the same stats pulling a ruse on many early drafters. Danks remains a reliable option.
Relief pitcher: Joe Nathan, Rangers -- After missing the entire 2010 season, Nathan came back in a setup role in 2011, but he still didn't look like himself. According to FanGraphs, he had the lowest average fastball velocity in his career, and relied more on his curveball than he had in the past. At 37 years old, he may not regain that lost velocity. Still, he remains a proven closer, he pitches for one of the best teams in the majors, and 19 closers are having their names called (or clicked on or placed on a draft board or whatever) before Nathan. For a guy with his track record, you have to love that price.
Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.