You don't get many early round picks. Maybe five or six. Depends where you draw the line, really.
But no matter how you define it, within that small window, you form the foundation of your team. Its identity rests with those few players and whatever misfortunes come their way.
What about the fortunes? Hey, those are implied. What makes an early-rounder an early-rounder is the expectation he'll perform like one of the top players in the game.
If you accept that premise, then you should also accept this one: Early-rounders will more often lose it for you than win it for you. It's the reason I was down on Matt Kemp entering last season. I saw some things I didn't like about him -- the high strikeout rate, the low batting average, the diminished playing time, the diminished steals -- and, therefore, stayed away. Dumb move? Well, I obviously missed out on a great player. But the players I drafted instead still gave me competitive teams -- and in some leagues, championships.
Granted, that's an extreme example, but you get the idea: I like to play it safe with my early-round picks. If they're all supposed to be good anyway, I want the ones least likely to sucker punch me into last place.
In the past, I could sum up the approach this way: Avoid the pitchers. Considering the amount of torque needed to throw a ball 90 miles per hour, they're all just ticking time bombs counting down to their next injury -- or perhaps even surgery. Hitters are inherently safer and, thus, more deserving of early-round picks.
But then came this year.
Perplexing would be the best way to describe my first few mock drafts. Since I adopted the tier approach however many years ago, the draft process, while still challenging, was never too much of a head-scratcher. But when I first start drafting for the 2012 season, I came across so many hitters I just plain didn't want that I found myself drafting pitchers instead. And in the end, I wasn't satisfied with my teams.
Had I lost the touch? No good explanation for that. Had my philosophy changed? Obviously not if I wasn't happy with my teams. Had I gotten too picky? Shoot, if anything, the Kemps of the world had made me more open-minded.
So if the problem wasn't me, it had to be the draft pool. What about this one distinguished it from all the others in recent memory?
Was 2011 simply a bad year for injuries? Have we hit some kind of lull between the last wave of talent and the next one? Are we at a point in the post-steroids era when we no longer expect players on the wrong side of 30 to continue doing what they've been doing all along? I'm guessing all of the above. But whatever the reason, so many of the early-round hitters are either past their prime or at less than full strength that, between them and the pitchers, the part of the draft when you can least afford a misstep has become a virtual minefield.
Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Alex Rodriguez, Michael Young and Ichiro Suzuki are all on the wrong side of 35, which means they could fall off a cliff at moment's notice. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins aren't quite as old, but they're showing clear signs of decline. Josh Hamilton, Matt Holliday, Shane Victorino, Adrian Beltre, Kevin Youkilis and Aramis Ramirez are all on the wrong side of 30 and have shown enough propensity for injury that a DL stint or two is the expectation for each. They'll probably join Nelson Cruz there. It's his home away from home during the season. Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, Carl Crawford and Buster Posey are all coming back -- or attempting to come back -- from specific injuries that could impact their numbers in the short term, and Jose Reyes, Ryan Zimmerman, Rickie Weeks, Joe Mauer and Shin-Soo Choo just can't seem to stay on the field.
|Wait on||Reach for (same position)||Reach for (different position)|
|Joe Mauer||Alex Avila||Alex Gordon|
|Buster Posey||Matt Wieters||Alex Gordon|
|Paul Konerko||Eric Hosmer||Brett Lawrie|
|Lance Berkman||Eric Hosmer||Desmond Jennings|
|Rickie Weeks||N/A||Alex Gordon|
|Chase Utley||Dan Uggla||Billy Butler|
|Adrian Beltre||N/A||Ben Zobrist|
|David Wright||Brett Lawrie||Ben Zobrist|
|Ryan Zimmerman||Brett Lawrie||Eric Hosmer|
|Kevin Youkilis||Brett Lawrie||Eric Hosmer|
|Michael Young||Pablo Sandoval||Michael Morse|
|Alex Rodriguez||Pablo Sandoval||Michael Morse|
|Aramis Ramirez||Emilio Bonifacio||Jesus Montero|
|Hanley Ramirez||N/A||Ian Kinsler|
|Jose Reyes||N/A||Carlos Santana|
|Jimmy Rollins||Emilio Bonifacio||Billy Butler|
|Josh Hamilton||Giancarlo Stanton||N/A|
|Matt Holliday||Giancarlo Stanton||N/A|
|Shane Victorino||N/A||Ben Zobrist|
|Nelson Cruz||Desmond Jennings||Eric Hosmer|
|Shin-Soo Choo||Desmond Jennings||N/A|
|Carl Crawford||Alex Gordon||Emilio Bonifacio|
|Ichiro Suzuki||Andre Ethier||Jesus Montero|
Basically, of the 66 hitters drafted among the top 100 players in Rotisserie leagues, 23 of them -- or more than one-third -- I absolutely do not want.
OK, that's an overstatement. Some -- such as Konerko, Hamilton, Holliday, Victorino, Beltre, Weeks and Choo -- are less risky than others, given their track records, and if the draft unfolded in such a way that I felt like I had to draft one of them, I would. But I wouldn't do it with a smile on my face.
Perhaps that sounds self-defeating to you. If I really can't get excited about those hitters, why not just give in and take a stud pitcher instead? In years past, I might have defaulted to that Plan B. But since the Year of the Pitcher in 2010, starting pitcher has become such an amazingly deep position, with just about any of the top 30 options capable of putting up top-10 numbers, that drafting an ace seems like a misuse of resources. On the one hand, yeah, the shortage of enticing early-round hitters is an excuse to reel in a Jered Weaver in Round 3, but on the other hand, if I can have a Madison Bumgarner or Mat Latos four, five or even six rounds later, what's the point?
Besides, I tried going that route in those early drafts, and in the end, my hitting just wasn't up to snuff. The truth is, in this pitching-heavy era, the need for elite hitting is greater than ever.
But if that's true and the idea that early-rounders are more likely to lose it than win it for you is true, what do you do when your pick comes up and one of those treacherous 23 is the highest-rated hitter on the board?
After a few more mock drafts and a few more disappointing rosters, I finally arrived at what I consider to be the best solution: Skip him. If you don't like the next-best hitter but feel like you should take a hitter, go ahead and take the next one you do like even if, objectively speaking, it's something of a reach.
Like Eric Hosmer better than Youkilis? Hey, me too. No need to shy away from him in Round 5. Want an outfielder but can't bring yourself to draft Cruz? No one says you can't take Desmond Jennings or Michael Morse instead. Need a shortstop and trying to talk yourself into Jimmy Rollins in Round 7? Man, just take Billy Butler instead. You can always fall back on an Emilio Bonifacio or Erick Aybar later.
Obviously, how much you like a guy can't be the determining factor for each and every one of your draft picks. You still have to pay attention to your tiers, after all. You wouldn't want to deprive yourself at a position for a player you could have potentially had two rounds later. But at the same time, if you've been reading any draft prep content this spring, you know how hot names like Brett Lawrie, Hosmer and Jennings are right now. If you like them more than Zimmerman, Berkman and Choo, you're not alone, which means the only way you can ensure you get to them first is by drafting them ahead of Zimmerman, Berkman and Choo.
And that's OK. Sometimes we -- and by "we" I legitimately mean both you and me -- get so caught up in the analyst role, assessing how "good" and "bad" every pick is, that we forget to build a team we actually like. Granted, if you reach on every pick, you forfeit the advantage of having players fall to you and defeat the purpose of tiers altogether. But then again, if you end up with a roster full of players you don't like, the approach didn't do you much good, did it?
In our most recent Head-to-Head mock draft, I made a decision that would qualify a healthy marriage between the tier approach and this little sidebar. I could have selected Josh Hamilton or Matt Holliday in the third round, but aiming for what I consider to be a safer pick and realizing I needed a second baseman anyway, I went with Ben Zobrist instead. It wasn't the textbook pick by any means, and the naysayers are sure to say nay over it. But whatever. Ultimately, I'm the one who has to live with my team, and I think the pieces fit together better with Zobrist in there.
The downside is I'm forgoing a potential MVP candidate in Hamilton, who at his best is far better than Zobrist, but at that point in a draft where I have only three outfield spots to fill, the risk of the Rangers slugger playing only 120 games again -- if not fewer -- wasn't worth the reward to me.
Risk-reward picks have their time and place. In the late rounds, I'll take Alejandro De Aza over Alfonso Soriano any day of the week. But if I'm handing over my Fantasy life to a player, as is the case with every early-round pick, I want to make sure he's the kind I can trust with it.
In a year like this one, those types are well worth the reach.
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