We might call the game "Fantasy," but at least when it comes to drafts, it resembles real life in an important way. No matter how much you prepare, strategize and try to control your destiny, your best-laid plans are likely to become obsolete in short order.
That's because drafts take on a life of their own. An unexpected catcher run or a flurry of prospect picks can wreak havoc with your master plan, and you'll have to adjust on the fly. That's where tiers come in handy. While you may generally prefer to draft a third baseman before a shortstop, if the current highest tier of available shortstops is growing thin while the corresponding tier of third basemen is well populated, it may be time to switch things up and grab a shortstop. Every pick is about tradeoffs, and tiers cluster players together with similar value while marking the spots where there is a relative dropoff. They give Fantasy owners a shortcut for weighing the tradeoff involved with each potential drafting dilemma.
Below are the tiers for position players I will be using in drafts this year. I have included projected starters who will have relevance outside of the deepest of leagues (except for outfield, which excludes even more deeper-league options) as well as any others whom I have given an auction value for standard mixed leagues. If a player does not appear in these tiers, it means that he is strictly an option for your deeper mixed, AL-only and NL-only drafts.
While the composition of the tiers is based on players' overall projected performance for Rotisserie and Head-to-Head leagues, I will highlight certain statistical trends for some players, with an emphasis on strikeout rates. These rates, more than indicators of power or batted ball tendencies, tend to be very stable from year to year, so getting hitters who excel in making contact and getting on base may have a leg up on their tier cohorts.
Of course, pitcher tiers need to be considered alongside those of the hitters, and those will be addressed separately in an upcoming column. Now, though, I'm stepping up to the plate with tiers for catchers, infielders and outfielders.
Note about players with multiple position eligibility: Players are listed at each position at which they are eligible to play in standard formats, but their ranking and tier is based on their value at the listed position. For example, Buster Posey is a first-tier catcher, but if you intend to use him as a first baseman, he has fourth-tier value, in part because he is likely to get fewer at-bats than many regular first basemen.
Overview: The dropoff from the top three catchers to the rest of the field could be substantial, but Matt Wieters could be a nice consolation prize if you miss out on the first tier. He may have already reached his peak in terms of power, but there is room for batting average improvement, assuming he can rebound from last season's strikeout spike. Wilin Rosario's power makes him an enticing option in the third tier, at least for Rotisserie formats, but his low walk rate makes him a low-end option in standard Head-to-Head leagues. In two-catcher leagues, consider holding out for John Jaso. He should be available in the late rounds, despite the fact that he has posted consistently excellent BB/K rates and has been increasing his power.
First tier: Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer
Second tier: Matt Wieters, Yadier Molina
Viable first catchers: Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, Jesus Montero, Ryan Doumit, Jonathan Lucroy, Wilin Rosario, Alex Avila, Salvador Perez, Brian McCann
Second catchers: A.J. Pierzynski, Russell Martin, John Jaso, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Ellis, Chris Iannetta, Carlos Ruiz, Kurt Suzuki, J.P. Arencibia, Tyler Flowers
For deeper leagues only: Rob Brantly, Jason Castro, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Hanigan, Travis d'Arnaud, Welington Castillo, John Buck, Nick Hundley, Chris Stewart
Overview: Prince Fielder's flyball rate has been gradually sagging over the last three years, so he's a poor bet to equal the production of Albert Pujols or Joey Votto. However, with favorable walk and strikeout rates, he will be closer to keeping pace with them in Head-to-Head leagues. Is Billy Butler someone to hold out for in the second tier, or someone to avoid by targeting Allen Craig? It all depends on whether you buy the more-than-doubling of his home run-to-flyball ratio on the road last year. My skepticism has landed him in the third tier. If you do miss the first two tiers, set your sights on Freddie Freeman. His minor league numbers suggest that he can improve his contact skills, and a likely BABIP rebound (from .302) will add even more points to his batting average.
First tier: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder
Second tier: Adrian Gonzalez, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Teixeira, Allen Craig
Third tier: Billy Butler, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt
Fourth tier: Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Santana, Buster Posey, Justin Morneau, Nick Swisher, Ike Davis, Mark Trumbo, Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso, Joe Mauer, Corey Hart
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Michael Cuddyer, Adam LaRoche, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Ryan Howard, Michael Young, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis, Kendrys Morales, Todd Frazier, Mike Napoli
For deeper leagues only: Logan Morrison, Brandon Moss, Brandon Belt, Chris Carter, Adam Lind, Brett Wallace, Chris Parmelee, Mitch Moreland, Lance Berkman, Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, James Loney, Justin Smoak, Garrett Jones, Matt Carpenter, Todd Helton
Overview: The gap between the first tier and the rest of the field is huge at second base, simply because nearly every member of the second tier is riddled with risk. Will Jason Kipnis and Jose Altuve develop power? Will Rickie Weeks avoid a repeat of last season's extended strikeout binge? Can Aaron Hill keep his batting average above .270, given that neither his contact nor batted ball rates saw much change last year, when he hit .302? If each of these questions were to be answered in the affirmative, then there would be less need to chase after a first-tier option, but the track record of the top four players at the position is much more convincing. Should you pass over the first two tiers entirely, Marco Scutaro offers a surprisingly safe alternative. He has lowered an already-tidy strikeout rate the last two seasons, and he is due for only a slight BABIP regression. He should be good for about 90 runs and a .300 average.
First tier: Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist
Second tier: Jason Kipnis, Rickie Weeks, Jose Altuve, Brandon Phillips, Aaron Hill
Third tier: Dustin Ackley, Marco Scutaro, Neil Walker, Dan Uggla, Daniel Murphy, Chase Utley, Danny Espinosa
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Howard Kendrick, Gordon Beckham, Kelly Johnson
For deeper leagues only: Omar Infante, Jeff Keppinger, Darwin Barney, Jamey Carroll, Logan Forsythe, Mark Ellis, Cliff Pennington, Brian Roberts, Daniel Descalso, Donovan Solano, Chris Nelson, Tyler Greene, Maicer Izturis, Chris Getz
Overview: As a likely top three overall pick, Miguel Cabrera has distanced himself from his hot corner colleagues, but there are still plenty of good options deep into the rankings. The emergence of Chase Headley, the second-half resurgence of Ryan Zimmerman, and the addition of Hanley Ramirez have beefed up the second tier, while emerging stars Mike Moustakas, Brett Lawrie, Pedro Alvarez, Kyle Seager and Will Middlebrooks provide some incentive for owners to wait into the third tier to fill their third base needs. Moustakas in particular has some sleeper appeal, as he has already proven to be a capable power hitter who could still hit with even more home run clout. He also has better contact skills than what he showed last season, so he could get his batting average into respectable territory.
In a class by himself: Miguel Cabrera
Second tier: Evan Longoria, David Wright, Chase Headley, Adrian Beltre, Ryan Zimmerman, Aramis Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez
Third tier: Martin Prado, Pablo Sandoval, Mike Moustakas, Brett Lawrie, Pedro Alvarez, Kyle Seager, David Freese, Will Middlebrooks
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Michael Young, Kevin Youkilis, Trevor Plouffe, Todd Frazier
For deeper leagues only: Jeff Keppinger, Manny Machado, Lonnie Chisenhall, Placido Polanco, Josh Donaldson, Jamey Carroll, Alberto Callaspo, Adeiny Hechavarria, Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, Luis Cruz, Matt Dominguez, Chris Nelson, Alex Rodriguez, Scott Sizemore, Jedd Gyorko, Wilson Betemit, Ian Stewart, Juan Francisco, Maicer Izturis, Chris Johnson
Overview: As a group, shortstops are good contact hitters, but they're not especially prone to getting hits on balls in play at a high rate. Starlin Castro and Derek Jeter are rare in their ability among shortstops to post consistently favorable strikeout and BABIP rates. The dropoff from the first tier to the second tier is not that great, so it's worth your while to consider passing on Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes and target Castro for his emerging power and potential to hit .300. In early drafts, owners are typically taking Hanley Ramirez just ahead of Castro, but Ramirez's advantage in home run power pales in comparison to the disadvantage he will have in the batting average category. Because of last year's ankle injury and his age, Jeter is clearly riskier than Castro or Ramirez, but he should still have far more value than any of the "last call" options, should you still be looking for a shortstop in the middle rounds.
First tier: Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes
Second tier: Ben Zobrist, Starlin Castro, Jimmy Rollins, Elvis Andrus, Ian Desmond, Hanley Ramirez
Third tier: Asdrubal Cabrera, Marco Scutaro, Derek Jeter, Josh Rutledge, Erick Aybar, Danny Espinosa
Last call for standard mixed leagues: J.J. Hardy, Stephen Drew, Alexei Ramirez, Jean Segura, Andrelton Simmons, Everth Cabrera, Alcides Escobar, Hiroyuki Nakajima
For deeper leagues only: Yunel Escobar, Zack Cozart, Jhonny Peralta, Cliff Pennington, Jamey Carroll, Rafael Furcal, Jed Lowrie, Luis Cruz, Ruben Tejada, Tyler Greene, Brendan Ryan, Maicer Izturis, Clint Barmes, Brandon Crawford, Pedro Florimon
Overview: Outfield is normally considered to be deep with offensive talent, but because of steep dropoffs between several of the tiers, owners should feel a sense of urgency to get at least their first two outfield slots filled. There is also not much safety in the position. The top tiers have their share of players with health and durability concerns (Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista), relative inexperience (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper) and inconsistency (Curtis Granderson, Justin Upton). If you haven't grabbed your second outfielder from one of the first four tiers, it's time to load Desmond Jennings, Austin Jackson and Josh Reddick into your queue. Jennings may not last long, but coming off a down season, he could slide in some leagues, and he still has power/speed potential. Owners may not buy into Jackson's or Reddick's progress in 2012, but both put up minor league numbers that support their respective breakouts.
First tier: Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Matt Kemp
Second tier: Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez
Third tier: Curtis Granderson, Matt Holliday, Justin Upton, Jose Bautista, Alex Gordon, Bryce Harper, Jay Bruce, Jason Heyward
Fourth tier: Allen Craig, Nick Markakis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adam Jones, Yoenis Cespedes, Melky Cabrera, Ben Zobrist, Shane Victorino, Shin-Soo Choo
Fifth tier: Alex Rios, Josh Reddick, Desmond Jennings, Michael Bourn, Carl Crawford, Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Angel Pagan, Alejandro De Aza, B.J. Upton, Austin Jackson, Martin Prado
Sixth tier: Hunter Pence, Nick Swisher, Carlos Gomez, Mark Trumbo, Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran, Corey Hart, Denard Span, Nelson Cruz, Ben Revere, Dexter Fowler, Andre Ethier, Lorenzo Cain
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Michael Morse, Torii Hunter, Adam Eaton, Chris Davis, Michael Saunders, Brett Gardner, Cameron Maybin, Jayson Werth, Coco Crisp, Leonys Martin, Starling Marte, Jon Jay, Juan Pierre, Wil Myers, Michael Cuddyer, Dayan Viciedo, Logan Morrison, Peter Bourjos, Jason Kubel, Rajai Davis, Justin Ruggiano, Emilio Bonifacio
Noteworthy deeper league options: Colby Rasmus, Domonic Brown, Michael Brantley, Ryan Ludwick, Carlos Quentin, Alfonso Soriano, Delmon Young, Jeff Francoeur, Raul Ibanez, David Murphy, Lucas Duda, Brandon Moss, Matt Joyce, Ryan Doumit, Cody Ross, Travis Snider
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