Every league is different, with varying numbers of teams, position requirements, and roster sizes. One of the basic tenets of fantasy baseball is to know your league’s setup. Drafting generically can hurt you if you’re not careful. One year I took over a team in a league that started 5 SP and 5 RP weekly, for a more “realistic” pitching roster to emphasize RP value; the league also gave points for holds as well as saves. However, I didn’t think it’d be much of a factor, and that first year I used my usual strategy of dismissing RP as keepers (we got 12 keepers per team), as well as not targeting them early in the draft. I kept one closer and ignored them in the first several rounds, and I didn’t pay attention to the fact that so many closers were going off the board in the first and second rounds. By the time I was looking for RP, the best I could get were the lowest of closers and only mid-tier setup men. My pitching points were in the bottom third of the league despite a pretty strong SP core. Lesson learned the hard way.
The problem with OF is that every league requires at least three starting players, and you’re bound to have at least one more than the minimum on your bench, to cover yourself in case of injury or slumps. Heck, ESPN’s standard format calls for five starting OF, so in a 12-team league you’re looking at a bare minimum of 60 OF, and realistically that number is going to be above 70. In that case, you could be lazy and simply take Jim’s Top 74 OF list to your draft. But almost more important than a simple ranking is knowing when to take your OF in the draft. How many rounds will it take you to get your first two, or to fill your active OF requirements? What if you wait too long and end up picking waiver-quality names for the last active slot? I plan to give you some basic guidelines for timing the drafting of your outfielders. Bear in mind that these are basic strategies — like I already said, know your own league’s setup and adjust accordingly.
For a working example, I’m going to use the mock draft the Assembly team just wrapped up at Couch Managers; you can read more about it in Tommy’s analysis. Our mock draft was 12 teams with 4 OF spots, 1 DH, and 5 bench spots. Teams’ final rosters ranged from four to eight players listed as OF for their primary position; that doesn’t include players who were primarily a different position but qualify at OF, like Mark Trumbo. With that fact in mind, there were 63 OF taken by 12 teams, for an average of 5.25 per team. I liked the number of outfielders required in this setup: 4 starting OF and 12 teams means that I want to get four solid outfielders — I don’t want to wait too long to fill my minimum requirements and end up with a below-average #4 guy. In the ESPN leagues that require 5 starting outfielders, I may let that #5 OF spot slide if I feel there are other priorities for my team, but I make sure to have 4 solid OF before that point, to make up for that weakness.
The First Outfielder
It goes without saying that you want to take a top outfielder in the first few rounds. In our mock draft, 20 of the 63 OF were taken in the first 5 rounds. The latest round for a team to take his first OF was round 4, which three teams did. However, seven teams had at least two OF after round 4 — and one team already had three. Most rankings will put about 5-6 OF in the uppermost tier, and in our draft there were four elites that went in the first round: Trout, McCutchen, Jones, and CarGo, with Braun being the first pick of the second round. Nabbing a truly elite OF lets you wait on your second one, if you want to focus on filling your infield. However, it’s clear from our mock draft that to establish a strong hitting core, you should have no worse than a second-tier name for your first OF. Personally, I want a top-10 OF on my team, and if they start to go, then I definitely jump in. When I look at the teams who waited the longest to take their first, I get worried: Jason Heyward, Matt Holliday, and Justin Upton. All three of those players have at least some risk going into 2014. If your big gun in the outfield ends up being a mid-30s guy or someone who’s been inconsistent (injury or performance), you’re putting more pressure to succeed on your later OF selections. Get that first outfielder early on and rest assured — at least until those injury reports start coming in during spring training.
The Middle Outfielders
As I said before, many teams in the mock draft had no trouble taking two outfielders early. I’m okay with waiting a bit, but how long is too long? I took Jones in the round 1 and grabbed my next outfielder in round 6. By round 8 half the teams had at least 3 of their 4 starting OF. What about the teams who waited? The latest that a team took his second OF was round 12, and the next latest was round 11. Both of those teams were also among the last to select their first outfielder, and they also took a lot of pitching in the first 10 rounds before taking a second OF. Obviously it’s a strategy they’re going for, and many strategies say you can wait on OF because it’s a large pool. But when your first OF is risky, you can’t afford to follow up with a risky #2 OF. One of those teams has Holliday and Granderson — aging sluggers who have a history of missing time. The other team has Heyward and Yelich — younger players who have potential but are no guarantee to reach it. Again, different strategies call for different end results, and when you go pitching heavy something has to take a hit. In this draft, so many of the second-tier OF went early that we ate up most of the third tier in rounds 7-8. By rounds 9-10 for the two OF-weak teams, it wouldn’t make sense to reach on an OF simply to fill roster spots. However, I’d feel more comfortable having my second outfielder by round 8.
By the end of round 10, 35 of the 63 OF have been taken. The third tier of outfielders is very thin at this point. During these middle rounds I’m looking to take the best players based on positional tier value. I may wait until rounds 10-12 to take my third OF, but I’d prefer to take him earlier because at that point there’s a clear gap in OF talent. Rounds 10 and 11 had only one OF taken each, and rounds 9 and 12 had only two taken each. Everyone is focusing on other positions, because what’s left at OF isn’t better than filling roster requirements elsewhere. As a general rule, if you’ve waited past round 12 to fill your middle OF (#3 in this mock, but #3 and #4 in ESPN leagues), you will find yourself either reaching too early for one or else waiting even longer and having weak OF slots.
The Endgame Outfielders
As I mentioned earlier, many strategies advocate waiting on later outfielders until the end of the draft, and that held up in our mock: 17 of the 63 OF were taken in the last 5 rounds. However, most of those were bench players that could fill in or be played during hot streaks. There are also a lot of potentially good SB sources in these OF choices. It seems speed and outfielders are always available in the FA pool.
When it comes to completing the active roster, the latest that a team took its fourth OF was round 18; another nabbed his fourth in round 17. These were not the teams I discussed before (the ones who waited the longest to take their first and second outfielders). One team took both Trout and Harper, so waiting until round 17 to take Venable is a reasonable choice — and Venable is capable of a 20/20 year, to boot! The other team has more risk in the outfield: Kemp, Billy Hamilton, Jennings, Ruf — although a healthy Kemp and a full-time Hamilton does make him an OF contender. What worries me on that team is that he is one of the teams with only four OF-first players; the only other OF-eligible player is Zobrist, who takes up his MI slot. Three of his OF were selected early, but if I’m going to go with no backup on the bench, then I’d take my last active OF earlier than round 18. For my own team, I took my fourth OF in round 16 and a fifth OF in round 19. Then I took Rajai Davis for his SB totals in round 23.
Summary for Four Active OF
Obviously different draft strategies will focus on different aspects of your team, but my personal preference is to establish a strong and relatively stable outfield. I want a top-10 OF on my team; I’d settle for a top-15 if I had to (e.g., I pick at one end of a snake draft, and there’s a run of OF before it gets back to me). I also prefer to follow up with a strong #2 OF no later than round 8, and I will probably take my third OF by rounds 8-10 if the value is still good. At that point I can wait on taking my #4 OF until the outfield options are on the level of other positions in terms of draft value. In this format I definitely want a fifth OF on my roster.
Deeper Leagues – A Quick Guide
If you’re in a league with 15-20 teams, and you have four or more active outfielders, you’re looking at 90+ outfielders taken in the draft. In these cases your #4 and #5 OF are going to be weak, but so will everybody’s, and the gap between tier five OF and tier six OF are much smaller than the gaps between higher tiers. There was a lot of decent OF picks in the endgame of our mock draft, and all of them would make serviceable #4 or #5 OF in a deeper format. I’m much more likely to fall back to the “wait on outfield” approach in deep leagues. I’ll still want two strong OF from the top three tiers, but the rest can wait based on value relative to position. If I was in a 20-team league with 5 starting OF, then I’d probably want 3 good OF before waiting on the rest for SB providers or some risk/reward players.
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