Michael Beller: Baseball draft elite filled with risks, rewards - Sports Illustrated

Top of fantasy baseball drafts filled with risks, potential rewards

Publish date:

It's freezing most everywhere in the country. The Midwest and Northeast are blanketed with snow. That can only mean one thing. Time to talk baseball.

The early rounds of a baseball draft set the stage for what you do in the middle rounds more so than in football. Going with the best available player is far more viable in football, since, other than quarterbacks, every other position ostensibly contributes in the same way. You're just trying to pile up as many yards and touchdowns as you can, no matte where the stats come from.

In baseball, you need to compete in at least 10 categories in most cases, and in some leagues even more. Baseball is about balance. You can't load up on power and ignore speed. You can sometimes get away with punting a category, but that often comes back to bite you in the end. In football, so many players end up coming from out of nowhere, that you can miss on one or two of your first picks and still succeed thanks to the waiver wire and the luck involved in playing such a small sample of games. The same cannot be said in baseball, where such a large pool of players is drafted, and a 22-week regular season usually results in the cream rising to the top.

With that said, hitting on your early-round choices in baseball is paramount. We know guys like Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera can't miss, but every year new players shoot toward the top of the draft board. Conversely, players we once believed to be in the Pujols-Ramirez-Cabrera class slip due to poor performance, injuries, change of venue, whatever. Invariably, you will be faced with drafting a player who falls into one of those two classes. The best way to handle those situations is to know what you think of each player heading in, and the best way to do that is to rationally value each player as you prepare. There's no better place to start than the top, and there's no better time to start than now.

Josh Hamilton: The American League MVP delighted owners who took a chance on him after his injury-plagued 2009 campaign, posting an insane .359/.411/.633 line with 32 homers, 100 RBI and 95 runs. He even threw in eight steals. And he did this all in 133 games. On a per-game basis, he was the best player in the league last year.

There's no doubt about what he can do when he avoids injury. In his two primarily healthy seasons, he has combined for 64 homers and 230 RBI. But health will always be a question. He's not old, and he doesn't have a ton of miles on the baseball odometer, but he'll turn 30 in May. In "you-couldn't-make-it-up-if-you-tried" fashion, as I was writing this section, my Twitter feed filled up with reports that Hamilton was in the hospital being treated for pneumonia. It was the perfect reminder that the unforeseen malady can strike this guy at any time.

I rank Hamilton as the sixth outfielder, behind Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Justin Upton. Overall, I put him in the early- to mid-20s, behind Ryan Zimmerman and Jose Reyes, but ahead of Dustin Pedroia and any pitcher not named Roy Halladay.

Carlos Gonzalez: How both the A's and Diamondbacks let this guy get away, I'll never know. He showed signs of breaking out as a 23-year-old in Colorado in '09 before exploding last season as the No. 1-ranked fantasy player. CarGo does it all from a fantasy perspective, he had a top-prospect pedigree, plays in one of the league's most hitter-friendly parks and doesn't turn 26 until October. His home/road splits are alarming, as he belted 26 of his 34 homers at Coors, and hit nearly 100 points better and slugged 280 points higher at home. Still, it's not like he won't get another 81 games there this season. He may not duplicate last year's numbers, as he had a .384 BABIP, but he should come close.

I have him lower than most, but still a first-rounder, behind Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto and Ryan Braun. By draft day, I may have Matt Kemp ahead of him, as well.

Clayton Kershaw: First of all, I almost never draft a pitcher that high on principle alone. Pitching, on the whole, is volatile. Offense, more so than pitching, is reliable. Year after year, stud pitchers can be found in the late-middle rounds, like Ubaldo Jimenez and Jered Weaver last year. But just because my personal draft strategy would never allow me to pay the necessary price for Kershaw doesn't mean I won't rank him among the game's elite players. He posted a sub-3.00 ERA and 185-plus strikeouts in each of the last two seasons. His K/9 innings in those seasons was 9.7 and 9.3, and his K/BB ratio was 2.03 and 2.62. And pitching in Chavez Ravine is only a bonus. He can't miss.

If you are inclined to go with a pitcher this early, the only pitchers on my board ahead of Kershaw are Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright.

Jose Reyes: I'm not going to waste any time here. Count me among the believers that Reyes will bounce back in a big way this season. Injuries limited his running, but he still put up usual batting average (.282) and home run (11) totals. His OBP was down to .321, but his .301 BABIP, his lowest since '05, played a part. A return to health means he should get back into the 700-plus plate appearance stratosphere he's used to (just 603 last year). If he can do that, he should be back in the 50-steal range, and shortstop remains as thin as ever.

Reyes is the slam-dunk No. 3 shortstop behind Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki, and I wouldn't let him slip past the 20th overall pick.

Joe Mauer: At this time a year ago, Mauer was a lock for the first round. You could pretty much etch .330 in stone, and while it may have been presumptuous to expect another 28 jacks, it looked like he may have developed consistent 20-homer power. Unfortunately for those who used a first-round pick on the catcher, he reverted to pre-2009 home run levels, hitting just nine while dropping down to 75 RBI. Unless you hit about .450, that lack of production in the power categories just does not get it done as a first-rounder. The loss of Justin Morneau hurt, but it was clear long before Morneau was injured that the '09 season was an anomaly from a power standpoint. Mauer remains an elite catcher, but you can't draft him under the assumption that you'll get even 18 homers.

I wouldn't consider Mauer until about 50th overall, and he's not the top catcher on my board. That distinction belongs to Buster Posey, who put up 18 homers and 67 RBI in 100 fewer plate appearances, to go along with a .305/.357/.505 slash.

Jimmy Rollins: I cannot stress how strongly I urge you to stay away from Rollins. Right now, I'd still rank him as the fourth-best shortstop, but there's no way he's worth the price you have to pay to get him. First of all, he's coming off an injury-riddled season and is now 31 years old. Even in a healthy '09. when he racked up 725 plate appearances, he hit a measly .250 and got on base at a .296 clip. He did hit 21 homers, but that's a pretty hefty price to pay for 20 or so homers out of a shortstop, considering middle infielders such as Rickie Weeks and Brandon Phillips could be at a slightly lesser rate. The one thing you can count on is steals, but remember it was a calf that cost him so much time last season. If the steals go, so goes his greatest asset.

You're going to have to use a top 50 pick on Rollins, and I just can't advise that. Let someone else take the bait.

Follow Michael on Twitter, @MBeller.