As we gear up for our fantasy baseball drafts, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the growth that we’ve seen in the fantasy sports business and what the impact is on drafts from year to year. More specifically, I’m talking about the immense coverage and the disappearance of sleepers, an annual favorite of nearly every fantasy owner. In the past, the fantasy baseball magazines and the few web sites that were out there would have their lists of players who were considered far from mainstream but expected to perform at a much higher level. It was fine back then as the circulation wasn’t what it is today and those of us who actually did the research on our own and unearthed these hidden gems actually saw it as a chance to gain an alternate opinion on these lesser known players. But with the crazy amount of coverage there is today, these sleeper lists have turned the unknown commodities into the trendiest picks of your draft and the players are losing their overall return value because every Neanderthal who can point and click is now taking them far too early in drafts. And because of that, those of us who go that extra mile in the research and draft prep need to start fighting back. We’re not going to be able to stop the hordes of writers from outing our sleepers, but what we can do is change our strategy and use our competition’s herd mentality against them.
I know there’s nothing more exciting than drafting some hot, young up-and-comer and watching him have a breakout season that becomes the envy of every owner in your league. Please, I made the sneaky grab of Mike Trout last year late in my draft and ate the bench spot for a month while I waited. It’s such a great feeling. And with the abundance of young talent, more and more coverage is going their way and now suddenly everyone is onto them. This year we’re looking at youngsters like Jurickson Profar, Dylan Bundy, Billy Hamilton, and Wil Myers, all primed to make an impact this season and all of them getting serious press. You probably can’t pick up a magazine without reading about Hamilton’s stolen base potential or Myers’ power stroke. And because of that, without having spent even one day at the major league level, all of them are going for more in auctions or higher in snake drafts than some pretty solid veteran talent.
If you track their current ADP trends either on Mock Draft Central or over with the National Fantasy Baseball Championships (NFBC), you’ll see that the three hitters are all trending upwards and have been for some time. They’ve gone from afterthoughts to last round picks to now as high as the 17th or 18th round in leagues of 12 teams or less. In 15-team leagues such as the NFBC, you’re looking as high as the 14th round. And what’s even crazier is that none of these guys has a major league job right now and are being selected ahead of established players like Cameron Maybin, Stephen Drew, Derek Jeter and Drew Stubbs, all of whom have been decent fantasy contributors.
And it’s not just the rookies either. There are plenty of guys who have been around for a few seasons, are being tabbed as breakout players and are going way higher in drafts than they should. Players like Allen Craig, Marco Estrada, Josh Rutledge, Jason Grilli and Todd Frazier have all had some limited success in the majors, but for the most part, don’t have strong track records. Yet because a variety of pundits are predicting breakout seasons and there’s so much coverage, the bandwagons have filled up so quickly that you couldn’t dream of sneaking any of them through.
Where Craig is going in drafts right now, as early as the third round in some leagues, is actually what ignited this whole tirade. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have talent, because he does. But the problem is that he’s 29-years old (ok, he turns 29 mid-season), has a history of injuries (four trips to the DL in the last two seasons), and while he may be an outstanding hitter, there’s obviously some reason the Cardinals have opted to sign a bunch of past-their-prime free agents rather than give him a full-time job. The fact that Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman performed well is irrelevant. If Craig were that good a player, the club could have taken a less expensive route and brought him up earlier. But they didn’t. And now after a great partial season and massive hype, he’s going way too early in drafts and being taken over guys like Adam LaRoche, Mark Teixeira and Paul Konerko.
So now the question that sits before you come draft day is this? Are these players worth it? Should you make such large investments in them? I say no. Be smarter than that. We all wish we could draft the next Mike Trout, but let’s face it, not every hyped-up rookie pans out to fantasy studliness. Many of them go through growing pains and while some can start of real hot and get you all excited, the law of averages rears its ugly yet sensible head and they level off. They exceed their draft value for about two weeks and then you’re left sitting there knowing you overpaid for mediocrity. They may go on to have great careers, but unless you’re looking at a keeper league, their one-season value just isn’t worth what you paid.
What you need to do is buck the trend and go for many of these overlooked veterans. It sure ain’t sexy, having an infield made up of guys like LaRoche, Drew, Chase Utley and Kevin Youkilis, but none of them will cost you an arm and a leg and each of them has as much potential to put up numbers as good as, if not better than, some of these overhyped sleepers. If Rutledge is going for $12 in your auction, then wait for Jeter and pay $3. If someone is reaching for Craig in the third round, then take Konerko in the sixth. Obviously drafting some of these older players comes with a bit of a risk, as the injury bug is never kind to the elderly, but you’re taking about as much risk as your competition is really, and at less than half the cost. On top of that, you’ll be able to use those extra bid dollars or higher draft picks on the true-elite talent that they can no longer afford and then watch as your team vaults to the top of the standings.
And what makes this strategy even more fun is that you get to toy with the obviously malleable minds of these sheep you are playing against. If you’re in an auction draft, then start bidding these supposed sleepers up. Your opponents won’t nominate them until the end, so you do it after the first few rounds and when they act all nonchalant and chime in with their bid after the “going twice,” then add a buck of your own. Don’t go so high as to get stuck with the player, but a few nudges up won’t hurt. If it’s a snake-draft, then start talking these guys up now. Casual conversation can be a killer for the paranoid owner who desperately covets an uncovered sleeper. If he knows you like him, then he’s going to panic and make a move too soon. Let him. You’ll be right behind him making the much more sensible pick.
Again, your team won’t be the sexiest looking roster out there, but if done properly, you’ll certainly be the strongest.
Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For questions, thoughts or comments you can find him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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