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2011 Draft Prep: Tiers by position

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It's not even that much of a secret anymore.

Over the last few years, more and more Fantasy owners have subscribed to the tier approach as the most reliable way to maximize each and every pick.

When you bundle together the similarly-regarded players at each position instead of assessing them one by one, you give yourself a round-by-round guide for drafting the deepest, most well-rounded team possible.

But it takes discipline. You have to be honest about your expectations for each player. Don't know who'll finish with the better numbers between Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Heyward? No one does. If you can look beyond your preference for Choo's consistency or Heyward's upside, you'll realize each is equally likely to help your team. They belong in the same tier.

Knowing you'd be equally happy with any of the players in that same tier, you can afford to wait until only one or two remain, concentrating on the positions closer to depleting their highest-available tier. If you have your heart set on an elite third baseman, for instance, but midway through the second round, four -- Jose Bautista, David Wright, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Zimmerman -- remain, you can wait the extra round and go after the last remaining elite outfielder -- Matt Holliday, let's say -- instead.

If you play favorites and draft Zimmerman anyway because he's the one you like the most, someone else will take Holliday before your next pick and you'll have to settle for a lesser outfielder later in the draft. If you had just followed the tier approach, you could have had a third baseman as good as Zimmerman and an outfielder on the level of Holliday.

And that's the better overall team.

You can map out a plan for your entire draft using this approach. Maybe your first priority is one of the two elite shortstops because you know how big the drop-off is at the position. If neither falls to you, maybe your next target is Robinson Cano since he's in a class of his own atop the second base rankings. Can't get him either? Well, maybe that's when you look into Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto since they're in the same tier as projected first overall pick Albert Pujols.

Come the second round, you might want to go after one of the elite third baseman to avoid the big drop-off at that position ... unless too many remain, of course. If that's the case, you might want to see if you can still snag an elite outfielder. If they're all gone, maybe that's when you consider dipping into the elite catcher trio of Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and Buster Posey or settling for a near-elite second baseman like Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia or Ian Kinsler (assuming you didn't draft Cano in Round 1, of course). And on and on and on.

The idea is to give yourself a blueprint for your draft -- a guide to knowing which position to target at what time in order to leave yourself without a hole anywhere and as well-fortified across the diamond as possible. If you establish rigid tiers and closely monitor them throughout the draft, your picks, with a little bit of luck, should become obvious.

If you haven't caught on to tiers yet, don't cry about it. Now is the perfect time to get started, and I have the goods to help.

I give you my tiers for 2011, which include every player I'd even remotely consider drafting in a standard mixed league. Be forewarned that my personal tiers reflect my personal level of comfort. For example, I list Nelson Cruz in the third tier of outfielders when most people would probably include him in the second. I recognize his potential but believe he's so likely to lose 150 at-bats to injury that I wouldn't feel nearly as comfortable with him as I would with Andrew McCutchen or Shane Victorino. I can't in all honesty place him in the same tier.

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Don't agree with me? Fine, move him up. Mix up the tiers as much as you'd like to match your own level of comfort. Or print these out and draft straight off them. It doesn't matter to me, really.

But if you want to ensure you maximize every roster spot and don't end up with a dud anywhere, you should use a tier approach of some sort.

You don't want to get left behind, do you?

Catcher

Buster Posey joins the familiar duo of Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez atop the catcher rankings. He along with a legitimate second tier of Brian McCann, Carlos Santana and Geovany Soto give the position rare high-end depth and explain why it no longer requires the urgency it once did.

And it's not like Kurt Suzuki is so bad as the Next-Best Thing.

After that, the position breaks down to its usual collection of unproven hopefuls and injury risks. It may no longer deserve an early-round-or-bust approach, but it's still shallow enough to force its share of middle-round reaches as Fantasy owners scramble for the few remaining players with upside, such as Miguel Montero and Matt Wieters and, later on, J.P. Arencibia and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

The Elite: Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Buster Posey
The Near-Elite: Brian McCann, Carlos Santana, Geovany Soto
The Next-Best Thing: Kurt Suzuki
The Fallback Options: Miguel Montero, Mike Napoli, Matt Wieters, Jorge Posada
The Last Resorts: Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, J.P. Arencibia, Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Pierzynski, Chris Iannetta, John Jaso, John Buck, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Doumit, Miguel Olivo, Alex Avila, Rod Barajas, Chris Snyder, Ramon Hernandez, Josh Thole, Yorvit Torrealba

First base

Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto closed the gap on Albert Pujols last year, making all three potential top-five picks. As usual, first base stands out as the deepest position in Fantasy, with even some of the second-tier players likely to go off the board in the first round of standard drafts.

Each of the 18 players listed in the first four tiers figures to start somewhere for someone in your league. Unfortunately, two of them -- Kevin Youkilis and Buster Posey -- will get drafted to play positions other than first base, meaning at least one owner in a 12-team league will have to settle for one of The Fallback Options as his primary first baseman.

You'll notice some players have asterisks (*) next to their names, which means they only qualify at DH. Yeah, I had to put those DH-only players somewhere. Can't really divide six players into tiers, so I decided to throw them in with the first basemen. Most people look to first base to fill their DH slots anyway.

The Elite: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto
The Near-Elite: Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, Kevin Youkilis
The Next-Best Things: Justin Morneau, Kendry Morales, Buster Posey, Adam Dunn, Billy Butler
The Fallback Options: Paul Konerko, Adam Lind*, David Ortiz*, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Pena, Ike Davis
The Last Resorts: Vladimir Guerrero*, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Lee, Gaby Sanchez, Luke Scott*, Lance Berkman, Mike Napoli, James Loney, Derrek Lee, Adam LaRoche, Daric Barton, Hideki Matsui*, Garrett Jones, Justin Smoak, Mitch Moreland, Freddie Freeman, Jim Thome*

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Second base

Second base has been a surprising source of high-end talent in recent years, but this year, it's shaky at the top and deep at the bottom.

True, Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler have as much upside as anyone, but their injury concerns set Robinson Cano apart as the only elite option and clear-cut first-rounder at the position.

Fortunately, if you don't want to take the chance on them, you'll still get excellent production from any of the six Next-Best Things, and even the five Fallback Options offer high-end potential.

Given its topsy-turvy breakdown, with so many of the early-round options presenting as much risk as the middle- and late-round options, second base is probably a position to wait on this year.

The Elite: Robinson Cano
The Near-Elite: Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler
The Next-Best Things: Dan Uggla, Rickie Weeks, Brandon Phillips, Martin Prado, Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson
The Fallback Options: Brian Roberts, Aaron Hill, Gordon Beckham, Neil Walker, Chone Figgins
The Last Resorts: Howard Kendrick, Jed Lowrie, Juan Uribe, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Sean Rodriguez, Danny Espinosa, Eric Young, Ty Wigginton, Ryan Theriot, Omar Infante, Dustin Ackley, Mike Aviles, Orlando Hudson, Reid Brignac, Bill Hall, Freddy Sanchez

Shortstop

What once was weak has only gotten weaker this year.

Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter no longer qualify as high-end shortstops, making Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki even more valuable at the top of the position. Jose Reyes is still viable in the early rounds, but even he comes with enough risk that you might just want to wait until the end of the draft to fill the position if you don't get Ramirez or Tulowitzki in the first round.

You'll find some upside later in the draft in players like Elvis Andrus, Stephen Drew and, to a lesser extent, Starlin Castro and Ian Desmond, but most Fantasy owners are so desperate to fill the position that anyone with any measure of upside is at risk of going too early.

The Elite: Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki
The Near-Elite: Jose Reyes
The Next-Best Things: Jimmy Rollins, Derek Jeter, Elvis Andrus, Stephen Drew
The Fallback Options: Rafael Furcal, Alexei Ramirez, Starlin Castro
The Last Resorts: Ian Desmond, Jed Lowrie, Cliff Pennington, Yunel Escobar, Juan Uribe, Marco Scutaro, Miguel Tejada, Alex Gonzalez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ryan Theriot, Jhonny Peralta, Reid Brignac, Jason Bartlett, J.J. Hardy

Third base

With the regression of players like Mark Reynolds, Pablo Sandoval, Aramis Ramirez and Chipper Jones last year, third base has become surprisingly short on high-end talent. Even Alex Rodriguez, a first-round mainstay, barely qualifies as elite anymore after another injury-plagued career-worst season.

It's gotten so bad that nobody fits in the usual second tier -- The Near-Elite -- and only two players, Adrian Beltre and Martin Prado, qualify as surefire starters after the five elite options have gone off the board.

The good news is both Kevin Youkilis and Chone Figgins will gain eligibility at the position within the first week, adding one player to each of The Elite and The Fallback Options, but even if you include them at the position on Draft Day, third base should clearly be a high priority in the early rounds of this year's draft.

The Elite: Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, Jose Bautista, David Wright, Alex Rodriguez
The Next-Best Things: Adrian Beltre, Martin Prado
The Fallback Options: Mark Reynolds, Aramis Ramirez, Michael Young, Casey McGehee, Pablo Sandoval, Pedro Alvarez
The Last Resorts: Chris Johnson, Chipper Jones, Ian Stewart, Placido Polanco, Chase Headley, Juan Uribe, Scott Rolen, Miguel Tejada, Danny Valencia, Jose Lopez, David Freese, Edwin Encarnacion, Ty Wigginton, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta, Brent Morel, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Wilson Betemit, Alberto Callaspo

Outfield

Because Fantasy owners start more than one outfielder -- and in some leagues, as many as five -- the position requires a different approach from any of the infield positions. You shouldn't necessarily wait until the end of a tier to draft a player because, in many cases, you'll want to draft more than one player from the same tier.

If you hope to have one of the top outfields in your league, you'll want to make sure you have your top three outfielders in place by the end of the third tier. You don't necessarily have to draft one of The Elite, who should all be off the board by the end of the second round, but if you don't, you'll want to make sure you double up on The Near-Elite or The Next-Best Things.

The Fallback Options contain many of the position's sleepers -- the kind you'll see going off the board in the middle rounds in some leagues -- but some sleepers -- the ones with more risk attached to them like Ryan Raburn, Travis Snider and Nate McLouth -- will last into the late rounds and, thus, belong with The Last Resorts.

The Elite: Carlos Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Matt Holliday, Jose Bautista
The Near-Elite: Shin-Soo Choo, Andrew McCutchen, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Andre Ethier
The Next-Best Things: Nelson Cruz, Matt Kemp, Ichiro Suzuki, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rios, Chris Young, Hunter Pence, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Corey Hart, Jay Bruce, Nick Markakis, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher
The Fallback Options: Drew Stubbs, Delmon Young, Mike Stanton, Aubrey Huff, Curtis Granderson, Juan Pierre, Vernon Wells, Michael Bourn, Bobby Abreu, Angel Pagan, Carlos Quentin, Colby Rasmus, Torii Hunter, Logan Morrison, Jose Tabata, Jason Bay, Denard Span, Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp
The Last Resorts: Carlos Beltran, Adam Jones, Rajai Davis, Andres Torres, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Lee, Ryan Raburn, Travis Snider, Austin Jackson, Alfonso Soriano, Dexter Fowler, Domonic Brown, Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, Chris Coghlan, Manny Ramirez, Raul Ibanez, Nyjer Morgan, Magglio Ordonez, Nate McLouth, Sean Rodriguez, Pat Burrell, Marlon Byrd, David DeJesus, Garrett Jones, Omar Infante, Matt Joyce, Tyler Colvin, Will Venable, Bill Hall, Michael Morse

Starting pitcher

Pitchers, like outfielders, get drafted in bunches, with most Fantasy leagues requiring you to start at least five. And so, like with outfielders, you'll find yourself wanting to draft more than one pitcher from the same tier.

But unlike with outfielders, the distinctions between the tiers aren't so clear. Really, any of The Next-Best Things could end up performing like The Near-Elite, if not The Elite. Also, coming off a year in which pitching stats improved across the league, the position is overrun with high-end talent, with 21 pitchers fitting into the first two tiers compared to only 11 last year.

Even if you don't buy into the argument that starting pitchers come with too much risk to draft in the early rounds, you still shouldn't be aiming to fill the position early this year. It's become one of the deepest in Fantasy.

Due to the surplus of Fantasy-relevant options, I've included an additional tier -- Strictly Late-Rounders -- after The Last Resorts. Even at that point in the draft, you'll find some attractive sleepers like Jonathon Niese, Jordan Zimmermann, Homer Bailey and Kyle Drabek.

The Elite: Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Josh Johnson, Jered Weaver, Ubaldo Jimenez, David Price, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw
The Near-Elite: Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, Francisco Liriano, Roy Oswalt, Mat Latos, Tommy Hanson, Matt Cain
The Next-Best Things: Clay Buchholz, Yovani Gallardo, Max Scherzer, Josh Beckett, Daniel Hudson, Brett Anderson, Colby Lewis, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Chad Billingsley, Trevor Cahill, Phil Hughes, Shaun Marcum
The Fallback Options: Tim Hudson, Ted Lilly, John Danks, Matt Garza, Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Gio Gonzalez, Jonathan Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, Edinson Volquez, John Lackey, Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson, Ricky Nolasco, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto
The Last Resorts: Ervin Santana, Ian Kennedy, Carlos Zambrano, Brian Matusz, Jaime Garcia, Jeff Niemann, Jair Jurrjens, Bronson Arroyo, Hiroki Kuroda, Jhoulys Chacin, Anibal Sanchez, Gavin Floyd, James Shields, Travis Wood, Wade Davis, Mike Pelfrey
Strictly Late-Rounders: J.A. Happ, Scott Baker, Jorge De La Rosa, R.A. Dickey, Javier Vazquez, Fausto Carmona, Carl Pavano, Jake Peavy, Jonathon Niese, Jordan Zimmermann, Homer Bailey, Dallas Braden, Brian Duensing, Brett Cecil, Daisuke Matsuzaka, A.J. Burnett, Kevin Slowey, Michael Pineda, Kyle Drabek, Jeremy Guthrie, Mark Buehrle, Johan Santana, James McDonald, Tim Stauffer, Derek Lowe, Joel Pineiro, Jason Hammel, Carlos Carrasco, Jake Westbrook, Brandon Webb, Clayton Richard, Bud Norris, Mike Minor, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson, Chris Young, Tommy Hunter, Rick Porcello, Ross Ohlendorf, Derek Holland, Erik Bedard, Barry Enright, Brad Penny

Relief pitcher

This section obviously focuses on closers, where again the top three tiers aren't nearly as exclusive as they are with hitters. Based on factors beyond a pitcher's control -- such as supporting cast, manager decision and just pure luck -- The Elite, The Near-Elite and The Next-Best Things should be a well-blended mess by the end of the season.

With that in mind, you shouldn't feel like you have to draft one of the top options to have a good forecast at the position. True, Brian Wilson, Heath Bell and Joakim Soria are each in position to accumulate a high number of saves this year, but who's to say Andrew Bailey can't do the same behind an improving Oakland pitching staff? Or Brad Lidge, for that matter?

Given the volatile nature of the position, you might want to wait and draft two of The Next-Best Things rather than reaching for any of the earlier options. Hey, that's what Wilson and Bell were this time a year ago.

An additional tier -- Worth Monitoring, But Not Drafting -- lists the relievers in legitimate contention for saves, but not considered the favorites for them. If they beat out their competition, they'll obviously move up the rankings.

The Elite: Brian Wilson, Heath Bell, Joakim Soria
The Near-Elite: Neftali Feliz, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Carlos Marmol
The Next-Best Things: John Axford, Andrew Bailey, Francisco Cordero, Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez, Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Perez, J.J. Putz, Brad Lidge, Huston Street, Jonathan Broxton
The Fallback Options: Craig Kimbrel, Joe Nathan, Ryan Franklin, Matt Thornton, Leo Nunez, Joel Hanrahan
The Last Resorts: Koji Uehara, Brandon Lyon, David Aardsma, Drew Storen, Jake McGee, Octavio Dotel, Fernando Rodney
Worth Monitoring, But Not Drafting: Chris Sale, Matt Capps, Kevin Gregg, Frank Francisco, Brandon League, Scott Downs, Jordan Walden, Jon Rauch, Jonny Venters, Kevin Jepsen, Alexi Ogando

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can e-mail us your Fantasy Baseball questions to DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com . Be sure to put Tiers in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state.

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