There’s no one way to build a championship-caliber fantasy baseball team; if there were, the game wouldn’t be much fun. You can win with a number of different strategies guiding your tactics, but the one trait you cannot have is aimlessness. There’s no way to succeed in a draft or auction if you go into the proceedings without a plan. Below, I present the tactics that comprise my strategy for building a winning fantasy team this season.
1. Prioritize first base
The first base position in stocked with high-priced talent and MVP contenders. Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto can all be the best players on championship teams. Freddie Freeman is coming off a career year and is 27 years old. Edwin Encarnacion is a lock for 35 homers and 100 RBIs with strong rates. Jose Abreu had a monster second half and looks ready to resume the trajectory he set for himself across his first two seasons of his career. There’s a lot to like at this position through the first four rounds of a typical 12-team draft.
After that, however, the position drops off sharply. You likely don’t want someone like Kris Bryant or Daniel Murphy, both of whom are eligible at first base, manning that spot for your fantasy team because of what that necessarily means about the players you have at third (in the former’s case) or second (in the latter’s). Eric Hosmer and Matt Carpenter are fine players, but they don’t give you the production you want in a first baseman. Wil Myers and Hanley Ramirez were excellent last season, but both have question marks this year. Chris Davis has immense power but a scarily low floor, especially with the odometer at 31 years. Carlos Santana is no sure thing to repeat last year’s 30-homer season. If you miss out on the first two tiers at first base, you could be left rationalizing to yourself whoever you end up with at the position.
That’s why I’m prioritizing first base this year. That doesn’t mean I know who I’ll for sure get among the seven players listed in the first paragraph, and it doesn’t mean I’ll pass on Bryant or Nolan Arenado to make sure I get Goldschmidt. It simply means that I will take care of the position in the first four rounds of all my drafts and allocate at least $30 for the position in my auctions. Fantasy baseball championships are hard enough to win as it is; there’s no reason to add a degree of difficulty by being at a deficit at first base.
2. Study the mid- and late-round pitchers, know which ones you want and target them aggressively
I laid out in my starting pitcher primer just how deep the position is this season. There’s no need to repeat all that here, but the abridged version is that the last two AL Cy Young award winners are ranked 27th and 32nd on FantasyPros, and that more than 30 pitchers are taken ahead of Felix Hernandez, justifiably, in a typical draft. The position is as deep as it has ever been.
This means a few things for fantasy owners. First, outside of Clayton Kershaw, there’s less reason than ever to grab pitchers in the first few rounds of a draft. Second, the middle rounds of a draft—think the fourth through the 10th—are the most fertile ground for building a successful pitching staff. Third, the abundance of options in those rounds almost guarantees that you will not be shut out, assuming you have an actionable plan.
Add all those facts together, and you get a formula for building a pitching staff before your draft or auction has even begun. You may not know the exact identities of the pitchers, but you can craft a plan that allows you to roster, say, three pitchers you have ranked between 15th and 25th at the position. Or your plan might chart a course that nets two pitchers in the early-to-middle-round tier and one more in the late-middle rounds.
As an example, let’s start with my well-documented love for Carlos Carrasco. He’s in a tier with Justin Verlander, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Archer. I’m willing to be aggressive with him, so let’s assume I can get him. Remember, too, that ADP is just a number, and if you believe a player is worth more than the rest of the room does, there’s nothing wrong with jumping in on him at a time others would deem early. From there, I can divide the next 18 pitchers into four distinct tiers, with each tier spanning about a round-and-a-half of a 12-team draft. With that many pitchers available, the only person who can stop me from getting two more is me.
3. In drafts, have multiple, pre-drawn paths for what your first few rounds will look like
Congratulations, you have the first pick. Mike Trout is yours. Now you have to sit around as 22 of the best players in baseball come flying off the board before you get to make another pick.
This is an issue no matter where you’re sitting in a draft; a lot of desirable players are going to get taken between your picks. Later on in drafts, this isn’t a huge deal. The picks you’ve made in the first third or so of the draft have set you on your path and will help guide what you do the rest of the way. You might get sniped every now and again, but most owners are out of each other’s way when the draft gets into the late-middle rounds. Laying those first few bricks in the path, however, can be tricky. You can’t be sure exactly who will be available, and the trickle-down effect of taking Noah Syndergaard instead of Starling Marte could be massive. That’s why you need to have a few paths in mind for how your first few rounds could unfold.
Let’s use the No. 1 pick as our example here. You start with Trout. When your pick at the 2–3 turn comes around, ADP data suggests you’ll be looking at a pool that potentially includes Encarnacion, Freeman, Corey Kluber, Robinson Cano and Francisco Lindor at the top. Maybe someone snatches up Lindor earlier, leaving Marte still there for the taking. Maybe another owner loves Encarnacion’s power track record, and another one is buying another jump from Freeman. The possibilities of what can happen leading up to every pick you make force you to be nimble, and the best way to do that is to plan in advance.
You have no way of knowing who will be available when you pick in the second, third and fourth rounds, but using overall rankings, ADP and your own cheat sheet, you can zero in on a pool of players who will likely be available. Using those pools, create plans A, B, C and D for how your team will look after four rounds. Even though you’ll be discarding three of those, you’ll be happy for the planning when you don’t have to scramble to make the picks that will define your draft.
4. In auctions, patience is a virtue at deep positions
If you’ve ever participated in a fantasy auction, you know that bargains invariably present themselves at the end of the process. Even though there’s no set order to when players are nominated, most of the highest-priced players emerge early on in the festivities. Owners naturally feel pressure to get a star or handful of stars, and some, drunk on the idea of having Trout and Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, spend huge sums of money on the big-name players, forcing them to fill their rosters with $1 players. Some get stuck at the end of a tier and end up paying the same amount for Abreu as someone else did for Votto simply because he or she got in a bidding war with another owner.
All of these auction realities lead to players who would be taken in the middle or late-middle rounds of a typical draft to go overlooked. Not every player of this persuasion will come at a bargain, but many of them will. That will create buying opportunities, especially at fantasy’s deepest positions, starting pitcher and outfielder.
This is not an endorsement for going cheap across the board at either position. If you can get Kershaw or Trout or Syndergaard or Charlie Blackmon at an attractive price, you should do it. With the star power at those positions, especially in the outfield, you don’t want to fill the position entirely on the cheap. What it is an endorsement for is patience. Don’t feel like you have to get Kershaw and Syndergaard, or Syndergaard and Jake Arrieta, or Arrieta and Carrasco. The group of outfielders ranked between 18th and 30th on FantasyPros includes Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Kyle Schwarber, Mark Trumbo, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Lorenzo Cain. There will be bargains among that group, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to blow your budget on two top-10 outfielders.
Patience is always an asset in auctions; have that in mind when the dollars start flying around.
5. Don’t worry about steals
Two years ago, there were 2,505 stolen bases in the majors, the lowest total since the league expanded to 30 teams. The number wasn’t quite as low last season, but no one is expecting a return to the halcyon days of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. With teams putting a premium on walks and on-base percentage, and with power diffused across the league in abundance, there’s no reason to risk an out simply to move up 90 feet.
That strategic shift in real life has translated to the fantasy game, tempting some owners to value speed more than they previously did. The logic is simple enough: If there is less of something, I should do what I can to make sure I have enough of it. That’s true for something that is a necessity, but are we sure speed is that valuable in fantasy? And even if it is, how much of it do we need?
Jonathan Villar’s owners were undoubtedly and understandably thrilled with his league-leading 62 steals last season, but how many of those were pure excess? In both roto and head-to-head scoring, you only need as many steals as are necessary to win. If one team has 100 steals in a roto format, you only need 101 to beat them. If you’re in a head-to-head league and Villar stole six bases in a given week, but your opponent only had two, those three extra swipes didn’t do anything for you. Chances are most of Villar’s owners could have had Jean Segura and his 33 steals instead and not seen their bottom-line records affected.
I’d argue that the dearth of steals across the league makes them even less of a priority. Last year, 14 players stole at least 30 bases—including one-trick ponies like Travis Jankowski, Jarrod Dyson and Rajai Davis—and accounted for 20.97% of all stolen bases in the majors. Conversely, the top 14 home run hitters (which includes 15 players because of a tie for 14th between Manny Machado and Evan Longoria) slugged 10.77% of the total dingers.
If you don’t prioritize steals, you will not be the only owner in your league who is affected by the league-wide steals deficit. It’s easier than ever to compete in the category with a handful of 20-steal players, and those guys are not hard to find. You may not stay with the person who owns Villar or Billy Hamilton, but you will be strong enough to turn a profit in the category.