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Three keys to your MLB fantasy draft
2:59 | MLB
Three keys to your MLB fantasy draft
Tuesday March 22nd, 2016

Fantasy baseball draft and auction season has finally arrived. Got a list of undervalued players you plan to target? Good. Have a cheat sheet filled with busts you want to avoid? Wonderful. Know the players you expect to jump to a new level of production in 2016? That’s another prep box you can check. All of those tactics will serve you well, but they’re nothing without overarching strategies to focus you on draft day.

Tactics are the individual moves you make to carry out your strategies. It’s those strategies, however, that form your underlying plan to craft a winning fantasy roster. Tactics are the decisions you make, but strategies guide the decision-making process. Let the following guide you when you sit down at the draft table.

• SI.com’s 2016 fantasy baseball top 250 player rankings

Win at first base

I strongly think that you cannot win a fantasy baseball league in 2016 without drafting an elite first basemen—it’s simply too important a position to neglect. Two first basemen will be off the board in the first round. Seven will be gone by the middle of the third. You cannot afford to scrounge at first base. Sure, you might compete by being stronger elsewhere, but you will not win your league if you don’t win at first. Now what, exactly, does that mean?

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For my money, there are eight first basemen you can win with this season. Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo are worthy top-five selections, while Miguel Cabrera is rightfully on the border of the first and second rounds. Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu and Chris Davis typically hear their names called in the second round, while Joey Votto is just behind them. I’m doing everything I can to end up with one of those seven players. If, for whatever reason, I miss out on them, I will be incredibly aggressive on Eric Hosmer, whose average draft position is about 30 picks later than Votto’s, placing him in the middle of the sixth round of a 12-team draft.

The position starts to thin out once Hosmer is off the board. You could talk me into Adrian Gonzalez if necessary, but I’m not holding my breath expecting him to repeat his strong 2015 campaign. Same goes for Prince Fielder, who’s just not going to give you more than 22 or 23 homers. He’s really just a glorified Hosmer who doesn’t have the growth potential that the 26-year-old Royal still boasts. After that it really gets ugly. Freddie Freeman? Albert Pujols? Hanley Ramirez? Lucas Duda? No thank you.

So how do you make sure you win at first base? Well, in an auction, if you go in with this mindset, it should be impossible for you to not end up with one of the desired targets. Whether it’s $50 on Goldschmidt, $42-45 on Rizzo, $32-35 on Encarnacion, or an appropriate price on one of the other winning options at the position, you hold the power in your hands to make it happen (which is why everyone should be auctioning, but that’s another story for another day). It can be trickier in drafts, where your slot is going to force your hand in some form or fashion. This is where you need to have the conviction to go off script if necessary, passing on, say, Dee Gordon in favor of Abreu, or Jake Arrieta for Davis. You’ll be able to find a second basemen, and starting pitchers are as plentiful as ever. If you pass on one of the elite first basemen, though, you will undoubtedly regret it.

POSITION PRIMERS: FIRST BASE | SECOND BASE | SHORTSTOP | THIRD BASE | OUTFIELD | CATCHER | RELIEF PITCHER | STARTING PITCHER

Wait on starting pitching

Everyone loves Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta. Same goes for Jose Fernandez, Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke and Matt Harvey. They’re ace pitchers in every sense of the word, perennial Cy Young candidates, and have earned their lofty ADPs. They also come with an associated opportunity cost makes them untouchable in my estimation.

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We may be in another golden age of pitching, and while that has changed the way the game is played in real life, the effects aren’t felt the same way in the fantasy world. You still want to focus your early-round energies in a draft, or direct most of your resources in an auction, to your offense. The obvious drawback of grabbing a tier-one starting pitcher is that you miss out an at least one round of MVP-caliber hitters. The unseen drawback is just as important, and should convince you to wait on starting pitcher, if you’re not already on board.

Here’s just a sampling of pitchers with average draft positions in the fifth round or later of a standard draft: Carlos Carrasco, Chris Archer, Felix Hernandez, Sonny Gray, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Danny Salazar, Tyson Ross, Marcus Stroman, Francisco Liriano. You’ll find players like Raisel Iglesias, Lance McCullers, Carlos Rodon, Hisashi Iwakuma, Jose Quintana, Taijuan Walker and Drew Smyly outside the first 140 picks. You’re always going to be able to find starting pitchers in the middle and late rounds. The same cannot be said for hitters. If you dive into the starting pitcher position early, not only will you be selecting from a diluted pool of hitters in the middle and late rounds, you’ll be forced to pass on all the value at starting pitcher between picks 50 and 150 in a typical draft.

Be aggressive

This applies specifically to auctions, which, again, you should all be doing. There are plenty of different ways to build your team in an auction, but you should always desire to come out of it with a team that would, at the very least, look similar to one you would assemble in a draft, especially as it pertains to the early rounds. Maybe that means you have someone who would slot as a first-round pick, a second-round pick, and so on. Maybe you have two players coming off the board in a normal first round, and three more who are generally third round picks. The point is that you want to use your auction budget to lock in elite players.

With that said, too many owners are married to their pre-auction values, failing to realize that those averages have little merit once a real auction starts. Those are guidelines, not gospel. They work in theory, but in practice you need to be willing to spend up for the players you want. That means you need to be aggressive.

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2016 Fantasy Baseball Mock Draft

Want Mike Trout or Bryce Harper? Be prepared, and willing, to pay $55 for them. Same goes for Goldschmidt, who is every bit as good a fantasy player as the two outfielders. Don’t be afraid to pay up for multiple first-round types, even knowing that two such players could run you nearly $100. Value matters, but the last thing you want to do is to be so tight-fisted that you leave an auction with a team that doesn’t have a player who would be selected in the first 15 or 20 picks of a draft. That typically does not lead you down a successful path.

Here’s something else to keep in mind that should lead you to being an aggressive bidder. There are always values to be found late in auctions. Excess dollars are typically allocated to players at the top of the rankings, but the overall pot of auction dollars is finite. Every dollar that is spent over here cannot be spent over there. That generally means that plenty of guys who might project to provide $8 worth of value end up going for $3 or $4.

For example, in my Tout Wars league auctioned back on March 18, I spent early to acquire Nolan Arenado, Edwin Encarnacion and George Springer. Later on in the auction, I was able to acquire Adam Eaton, who could be looking at a .300/.360/.430 season with 15 homers, 20 steals, and 100 runs, for $7. Collin McHugh, who has proven himself a strong fantasy No. 4/5 over the last two seasons, cost me $3. Also in that draft, Delino DeShields went for $6, Francisco Liriano went for $5, and Corey Dickerson went for $3.

At some point, every auction gets to its reined-in period, but there are too many good players for the overall budget to be allocated evenly across the entire spectrum. That means players will going below their expected price point late, which should only further convince you to be aggressive on the game’s best.

Nominate your high-priced avoid list early

This is one of the most basic auction strategies. If you’re down on Carlos Correa compared to the rest of your league, or you don’t want to pay the going rate for Giancarlo Stanton due to injury history, get your league-mates to spend on those guys early.

As aggressive as you might want to be, your budget can only afford so many high-priced players, and having others spend on guys you don’t want potentially takes one person out of the running for Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado or another elite player. That doesn’t guarantee you’ll get one of them—you still need to be aggressive in your bidding—but removing just one person from the equation increases your odds of landing one of your desired targets.

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