March 26, 2009

Fantasy baseball is a lot more accessible than it was in years past. Every fantasy site has player rankings that a novice can use to get started. Back in the "old days," over a decade ago, we had to rank our own fantasy players. It was not as difficult as it sounds though, when you got to round 18, you could have used the help of a computer ranking.

Each player's draft value has a lot to do with the position he plays. Any newbie can intuitively grasp that concept. Many major league teams start catchers or shortstops that couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat. However, none of those teams would tolerate poor production at a less important defensive position, such as first base. As you would expect, the deepest fantasy positions are first base and the outfield. It explains why Hanley Ramirez will be the first player taken in most drafts, ahead of Albert Pujols. When the talent pool is shallow at a position, you need to move these players up on your draft board to avoid getting shut out.

Some positions are top-heavy. They have a small number of elite performers, and then the talent pool thins appreciably. On Sports Grumblings we advocate establishing tiers before a draft. For each position, there should be several players that you would be happy to acquire in the draft. Print your draft list for the position then take out a red pen and draw a line between the last guy in that top tier and the first guy in the next tier. You should also establish a second tier since you will have to make some compromises and a third tier for bench players. Tier 4? That's the "do not draft" list.

I define the talent pool of a position as shallow if my top tier can be counted on the fingers of one hand. By my criteria there are three deep fantasy positions and five shallow ones though one of those positions may surprise you. Your top tier may be longer or shorter than mine and it may have different names on it. Differences aside, tiering is part of any sophisticated draft strategy. The message here is to prepare your tiers before the draft. It's a matter of setting priorities when you have time, without the pressure of a ticking draft clock.

First Base: It's the deepest fantasy position. Missed out on Pujols? Then you have a dozen other playable options.

Outfield: Plenty of power hitters, speedsters and average.

Starting Pitcher: You could nitpick on this one and argue that there is a top tier of five starters. The things to keep in mind about starters is that you will have to draft several, there are plenty of second-tier options and missing out on one of the top guys is not going to break your fantasy season.

Catcher (five top-tier options): The top tier of fantasy catchers swelled last season with the arrival of Geovany Soto and the emergence of Ryan Doumit. I would be very happy with Doumit as a fantasy catcher if I can't get Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Joe Mauer or Soto. After those top five, there isn't much difference between the next ten unless Victor Martinez and Jorge Posada have comeback seasons. They are risky plays and should be drafted with that in mind.

Relief Pitchers (four): Technically, closers meet our shallow criteria. There is a limited top tier of Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera. This is one position that you should wait to draft on, however, since closers are an inconsistent group. There are rumors about sore shoulders for both Papelbon and Nathan and Rivera, as great as he is, is 39.

Second Base (three):Chase Utley's off-season hip surgery knocked him down a peg to parity with Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia. Fortunately, Utley's recovery is ahead of schedule and you should see him opening day for the Phillies. How the hip will impact his swing is anybody's guess, though. Utley did take B.J. Ryan deep in a spring game, so that's encouraging. After the big three, there is a precipitous drop off. There are still plenty of serviceable second basemen, that can get you speed (Brian Roberts), power (Dan Uggla) or a little of both (Brandon Phillips).

Shortstop (three): Very similar to second base, shortstop features three fantasy studs and then drops off. Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, give the National League East the three best shortstops in fantasy (and real) baseball. The quality of the second tier of shortstops is better and deeper than the second tier of second basemen, but it's still falling off a fantasy cliff after Rollins.

Third base (two): The hot corner was a deep position last season, and appeared to be again as spring training started. Injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones have thinned the ranks considerably. Arguably the top tier of third basemen begins and ends with David Wright. Miguel Cabrera's 14 games at third last season give him a 1B/3B rating in most leagues, which means there are two elite options at third base when the season begins. A-Rod's injury and missed time drops him back to no better than fourth on the hot corner list after Evan Longoria. If he builds on last year's strong rookie performance, Longoria could join the first tier on next spring's draft board.

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