January 26, 2011

My baseball draft strategy calls for ignoring top-of-the-line pitchers and selecting hitters in the first five or six rounds. At that point, two of my next four, maybe three, picks will be starting pitchers. I then stock up on high-upside pitchers late, knowing I can also grab a few waiver wire guys early in the season. The most important part of carrying out this strategy successfully is hitting on those first two starters.

When it comes to starting pitchers, the volume approach works great. As long as you cast a wide enough a net in those late rounds, a few of the fish you catch are going to be productive. But those guys you get in rounds seven through nine, while not Roy Halladay or Felix Hernandez, can anchor your staff. Last year, it was Ubaldo Jimenez territory. The year before, Tim Lincecum generally went around 80th or 90th overall. This draft strategy allows you to load up on expensive hitting that you can't find in the middle rounds, while building your staff with pitchers who, if you pick the right ones, routinely wind up toward the top of any roto rankings for that season, and the top of the next season's draft boards.

So let's handicap those pitchers you'll be looking at, starting in Round 6 (61st overall) and going all the way through Round 10 (120th overall).

The "Too-Good-to-be-True" guys

If you've waited this long to grab your first starter and can manage to get your hands on someone in the following group, make sure to step up your trash talk at this stage of the draft.

Jon LesterTommy Hanson

The Safe Bets

Now we've arrived at the group of starters we're targeting. Most of these guys should be on the board, and all are capable of leading a staff, especially one that will have a very strong offense attached.

Jered WeaverZack GreinkeFrancisco LirianoYovani GallardoDan HarenMatt CainCole HamelsMat LatosMatt Garza

The Ideal No. 2s

Hopefully, you've snatched one of the pitchers listed above. Now we're moving on to a group of pitchers that will still be available, any of which make a great second starter. You don't want these guys leading your staff, but over the course of the entire season, they'll all make the contributions you'll need out of one of your top-of-the-line guys.

Max ScherzerRoy OswaltJohn DanksClay BuchholzChad BillingsleyShaun Marcum

The Not So Ideal No. 2s

Like most draft strategies, this one doesn't always go to perfection, and it's not for the faint at heart. You're going to have to ignore a few good arms early. You're going to have to hold your breath for a couple rounds and hope the guy you've got your eye on slips to you. When things don't go as planned, these are the guys you end up with as your No. 2. It could be worse, but it could be better, as well. If this happens, you'll need to adjust your strategy in the later rounds, and start casting that net earlier than planned.

Brett AndersonWandy RodriguezPhil HughesBrandon MorrowJonathan Sanchez

When this strategy works, and my own personal empirical studies tell me it works about 90 percent of the time, I think it leads to the most dangerous, well-balanced fantasy teams. You'll end up with a dominant offense and a staff that really doesn't trail too far behind your league's best. The linchpin is that first starter. You have to know when to say when and call a pitcher's name. The flow of your draft will dictate that, but it's better to get in too early than too late. If you end up with any two pitchers from the first three groups, it's going to be a great season.

Once possessed of a dearth of fantasy options, second base has become one of the deepest positions around. Five years ago, not many people playing the game would have believed that second would eventually be a more stable position than third, but the 4s have easily surpassed the 5s in almost any way imaginable, at least as it relates to depth.

That doesn't mean you can just bide your time and be the last guy in your league to take a second baseman. The top tier at the position gives us everything we'd want in a fantasy player; speed, power and opportunity. Getting in on this group could put you well ahead of the competition. But even if you do miss out, the scraps at second base are far superior to what they've been in the past. The downside of this is that the positional scarcity that once made Chase Utley a slam-dunk first-round pick is no longer there. When thinking about a second baseman early, you have to take that into consideration.

The elite

Robinson CanóChase Utley

For the first time that I can remember, we have two legitimate first rounders at the position. Canó gets the nod because we can be a lot surer of his health than we can of Utley's. Both of them should hit 30 homers and drive in more than 100 runs. Utley will steal upwards of 15 bags if his legs are healthy all year. They both play in a hitter's paradise. Canó is surrounded by quite possibly the league's best offense. You're eschewing the huge power numbers of some of the guys that will go in this area (Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira), and the positional scarcity gain is not what it once was. To me, Canó is a late first rounder, Utley a mid-second.

Really, really good

Dustin PedroiaRickie WeeksDan Uggla

For the price, my favorite guy in this group is Weeks. You're going to get him the cheapest of the three, he runs the most, and he's a threat for 30 homers. Pedroia has the best;offense around him thanks to the additions of Carl Crawford and Ádrian Gonzalez, but the Brewers aren't exactly lacking punch in their order. You'll be able to get Weeks in the range of 60th overall. That's criminal, especially when Pedroia and Uggla will end up going in the 20s or 30s. That's not to downplay what the two of them can do. This is the group of players that second base has been lacking over the years. There have always been elite second sackers and good cogs in the machine, but never really those guys who you can pick in the third or fourth round and feel good about plugging them in there. The ascension of Weeks and Uggla and the return of a healthy Pedroia makes second base what it is in 2011.

The injury case

Ian Kinsler

Just a few years ago, Kinsler looked like he was going to develop into a first-round mainstay. A few injury-riddled seasons later, the Rangers second baseman has fallen into seventh round territory. There's obviously still plenty to like. He belted 31 homers even when his batting average dipped to .253 in '09, and he posted a .286/.382/.412 slash last year in just 460 plate appearances. Ankle woes kept Kinsler tethered to the bag more often than usual last year, as he attempted just 20 steals. He provides one of the highest potentials for return on investment this season, as you should be able to get him in the middle rounds. If he stays healthy, there's no reason he won't perform like the star he is, especially playing half his games in Arlington.

Solid if not spectacular

Brandon PhillipsMartin PradoKelly JohnsonBen Zobrist

The one guy I'd really avoid in this group is Zobrist. I'm not buying his '09 breakout as legit. We talked about it last week, but he posted a .326 BABIP to go along with a 20.8 percent strikeout rate that season. A comically high 17.5 percent of his fly balls left the yard, something he's certainly not to repeat.

Johnson has the highest ceiling in the group, as his 26 homers a year ago were no fluke.

The bounceback candidates

Gordon BeckhamAaron Hill

Two guys I really like heading into the season. We talked about both in last week's "Last year's busts" column, but it bears repeating here that Beckham and Hill both had legitimate reasons behind their down campaigns in '10. Here's what I said about Hill:

While Hill isn't going to duplicate his '09 numbers, I actually like him heading into '11. The main reasons? That BABIP (.196) and line-drive percentage (10.6) we just talked about were career-lows by far. Before the '10 season, his career-low BABIP was that .288 in '09, and his worst line-drive percentage was 17.3 in '08.

And this was my take on Beckham:

Probably my favorite bounce back candidate for '11. Look, pretty much everyone in the baseball world expected Beckham to become Chase Utley 2.0, at least from a fantasy standpoint, last year. We all heaped some unrealistic expectations on the guy. For that, Gordon, I'd like to apologize on the behalf of all fantasy writers. We understand it was your first full year in the majors and you were just 23-years old. We shouldn't have expected you to become the second coming of Ryne Sandberg in Chicago just like that. Sorry Gordon. Now don't disappoint us again. Beckham settled down in the season's second half, posting a .310/.380/.497 line with six homers after the All-Star break.

If I miss out on Canó through Kinsler, I'm waiting on Beckham. I love his potential in that lineup and that ballpark, and with the unrealistic expectations of '10 behind him.

Really? These guys aren't starters in 12-team leagues

Brian RobertsChone FigginsOmar InfanteNeil Walker

The fact that Roberts finds himself down here shows just how strong second base has become. Long gone are the days of, "Well, if I don't get Jeff Kent, I'll just wait until the end of the draft to get a second baseman." Ryne Sandberg must be proud.

Feel free to tell me I'm a genius or, more likely, an idiot, on Twitter @MBeller.

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