Fantasy football is wildly popular because it's a) easy to manage, taking only a half hour of your time each week to get up to speed on the previous week; and b) totally inclusive, inviting players of all levels; and c) transient and completely matchup-based. Far less popular, fantasy baseball is a much more intimate undertaking. With games played nearly every day for six months, you develop a "relationship" with the players on your team, making it even more important to be comfortable with those you draft. To ensure you'll enjoy your team all summer while finding fantasy peace of mind, I've cobbled together a list of Eight Do's and Don'ts that can be applied to all types of leagues, whether they're one league or mixed, head-to-head or rotisserie style. Get familiar with them going into your draft and you should come out in great shape for 2010.
1. Do ... Draft only blue chip players early. You can't afford to make a bad pick in the first five rounds when the game's best players are flying off the board. Too many fantasy owners want to show off what they know by over-reaching for what I like to call "boutique" players. A prime example last year was Josh Hamilton. Coming off a magical first season in Texas, he shot to the top of draft boards and was a very popular selection in the first or second round. While wildly talented, he's a proven injury risk, and with new off-field questions that arose during the season, he remains a bit of a question this year. You're much better off taking someone who has consistently produced year-in and year out, such as Prince Fielder or Mark Teixeira, in the first few rounds than someone who has questions surrounding them. The word "hope" should never be contained in the rationale for picking someone this early. Top picks and biggest investments have to be slam dunks, sure things.
2. Don't ... Pick starting pitchers who either too young or two old. Drafting youngsters is fine in keeper leagues, but in redraft leagues it's great practice to identify and then draft pitchers who are in their mid to late 20s. In the post-PED era you're not going to see as many players, regardless of position, stick around into their late 30s. Only one major league pitcher, Derek Lowe, won 15 games at 35 or older last season. But 14 pitchers aged 25 to 29 won at least 15 games, including previously unlikely candidate Scott Feldman, while another six were aged 30 to 34. Only one 15-game winner, Felix Hernandez, was under 25, and even he was in his fifth big league season. Some candidates who are entering their prime and come highly recommended include Chad Billingsley, Matt Cain, Jair Jurrjens, and Jeff Niemann.
3. Do ... Make sure you get a quality closer, and by quality I mean one of the best. Even if you have to draft them a little early, it's worth it to get closers who you can count on. Every year over half of the late-inning stoppers are replaced at some time,mainly due to ineffectiveness. A few, however, are iron-clad sure things. Last year 14 pitchers earned at least 35 saves. But over the last two years only 10 have averaged at least 35 saves per year. Over three years that drops to seven and over the last four years it's six. These six are the sure things. And two of them are 40-year old freak of nature Mariano Rivera and the declining all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. So that leaves Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Jenks as the industry standards. Make sure you come away with at least one of them.
4. Don't ... Leave gaping holes in your lineup. As important as it is to draft good players, it's just as crucial to avoid spots in your lineup from which you get no production. Make sure you get something from most spots. It's common practice to punt positions like catcher and shortstop, but you can't do that without suffering the consequences. Check out the winning teams in your league the last few years and who they have behind the plate. I bet it wasn't Jose Molina.
5. Do ... Prepare for your draft by using multiple sources. SI.com is a great place to start but even we have contributions from outside sources for fantasy information. The more disparate the sources, the clearer picture you get of a player's role. Be wary of printed previews because more often than not they hit the newsstands far before major decisions are made for each team. One publication that you should invest in every year is Baseball America's Prospect Handbook. It's a bit expensive (around $30) but gives in depth information on the Top 30 prospects in each organization, a.k.a. the fantasy baseball stars of tomorrow. Remember, unless you're drafting with a bunch of dolts, most fantasy owners have a good grasp of who to draft and not. The information available these days on every medium is so copious it would be hard not to know the most up-to-date information, let alone so-called sleepers.
6. Don't ... Kill yourself by trying to draft a perfect team. Chances are you're going to be making moves every week so it's OK to take a chance on a few players late, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. You never know. Always try to take a hitter with lots of upside who may or may not be ready (Austin Jackson, Lastings Milledge), a middle relief pitcher with closer's stuff (Luke Gregerson) and one who is a quality player but appears squeezed out of a job (see Nick Swisher last season). If they pan out, great. If not, they're the perfect players to throw back to the waiver wire to pick up the hot free agent of the moment.
7. Do ... Pay attention to spring training action but Don't ... worry about stats. With MLB network and team-owned cable channels readily available over the Internet, on satellite and cable television, it's easy to watch spring training games so you can get a good sense of who appears recovered from injury, who looks out of shape and who looks overmatched. Stats, however, mean very little since the level of competition and situations they're accrued in vary so greatly.
8. Don't ... Spread yourself out too thin. It's less of a problem in baseball than it is in football, but many people take on too many teams and can't give the required attention to each. My limit is three teams. One NL-only, one AL-only and once mixed league. Any more than three and you're constantly rooting for and against the same players. It's just not very fun that way and in the end; remember this is supposed to be an entertaining distraction.