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Friday, March 7, 2014
H2H by category mock draft

By Tim Kavanagh
ESPN.com

In an effort to serve all of our fantasy baseball owners in a variety of league formats, we're running a series of mock drafts so that you can see how our experts alter their approach. Our most recent mock was a head-to-head by each category format, which is the more popular of the two head-to-head category options, based on ESPN.com participation rates.

In this format, teams are matched up week by week in a number of categories for pitchers and batters (standard settings include the typical 5x5 categories of runs, home runs, steals, RBI, average, wins, strikeouts, saves, ERA and WHIP). Whichever team has the better value in each respective stat for the week gets a win in the standings.

The general line of thinking in this format is that single-category studs aren't of as much value as they would be in a straight rotisserie or points configuration, a notion that will be reinforced when you see how far certain players dropped in our mock. When drafting, it's important to have an idea of how you value players (and certain categories), but your strategy might change based upon the types of players you land within the first few rounds. If you find yourself becoming deficient in a certain category -- saves or stolen bases, for instance -- you'll have to decide whether you're going to just punt that one or look to address it with lower-tier players.

In rotisserie leagues, a team can build up a pretty large buffer in a category, then deal from a position of strength to bolster another, knowing they have that space to spare. In this format, that doesn't apply, as the scoreboard is wiped clean after each week; that's another reason a player such as Billy Hamilton falls further here compared to rotisserie leagues.

Our esteemed mock drafters here included: Brendan Roberts, Matthew Berry, AJ Mass, Pierre Becquey, Joe Kaiser, Keith Lipscomb, Brian Gramling, Jason Collette, Eric Karabell and yours truly.

The results here are presented round by round, with each player's ranking, and a comparison of where he was drafted versus his ranking. As always, there were some notable differences between where a player was taken and where he was ranked, and some owners changed their appetite for risk as the draft proceeded.

The first round was carried out fairly close to the cuff, with no one going more than three slots different from where players have been ranked. In comparison to some of our other mocks -- where owners took players upward of 35 slots ahead of their ranking -- this was a very risk-averse bunch in Round 1. The biggest "risk" of the bunch was Jason Collette taking Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones; then again, Jones isn't really a risk -- he has a very high floor, so his lack of much upside isn't much of an issue. As the cliché goes, you won't win your fantasy draft in Round 1, but you can lose it. Meaning: There will be plenty of time to take risks later.

In a development that shouldn't shock anyone that follows the ESPN.com experts' mock drafts closely, there were precisely zero pitchers selected in Round 1, though that wouldn't be the case for much longer ...

Clayton Kershaw comes off the board at No. 12 overall. In this type of league, it's important to have one consistently strong pitcher, especially in leagues that use weekly lineups. Kershaw fits the bill. I was responsible for ending Jacoby Ellsbury's slide, and I would have taken him a few picks earlier; as long as he's healthy, he has the coveted power-speed combo to fill up multiple batting categories, and I'm all about the well-rounded guys who can help out across the board when drafting in the early rounds.

Joey Votto was the big "risk" of this round, but, as with Jones in Round 1, you're investing here knowing that Votto's floor is pretty high. Moreover, Joe Kaiser took him a mere four slots above ranking; that's hardly a major jump.

Here's where our mock drafters were willing to stick their necks out a bit. Yasiel Puig was our first slight reach, but if you think he can stay healthy and out of trouble away from the field, he's got the upside of a first-round fantasy pick. Given what else was on the board at this point, No. 23 overall is a good time to go Puig.

The other two bold moves of the round are risks for different reasons. Giancarlo Stanton, taken seven slots ahead of ranking by Brian Gramling, would seem to have a cap on his potential for runs (who's going to knock him in?) and RBIs (who's he going to knock in?), so that's part of the reason no one else was willing to snag him. Meanwhile, Jose Bautista appears to be deteriorating, and fast. After his 54-homer campaign of 2010, he knocked out 43 in 2011 en route to a 1.055 OPS campaign. Then, 2012 brought a drop to a mere 27 homers (and a dismal .241 average), and in 2013, he hit one more homer in 130 additional plate appearances. On the other hand, Bautista possesses one of the best power strokes in the majors, so it wouldn't be too much of a surprise to see him back on the right side of 30 homers again.

Collette followed up the Bautista pick with another above-slot selection in Eric Hosmer; unlike Bautista, however, Hosmer still has some room to grow and has 20-20 potential, a rare commodity for a first baseman. Moreover, the Miami native got better as the 2013 season went on, so this is a gamble that his ascent continues.

Another notable selection in this round was Justin Upton. Many of our mock drafters were snatching a pitcher here -- Pierre Becquey was taking his second -- but Keith Lipscomb opted to go with the Atlanta Braves outfielder in the hopes that he can recapture what he had going in the first part of 2013. And, hey, he's entering his age-26 season, so we might not have seen his best yet.

Players whose value is tied too much into one particular category tend to fall in these leagues, as mentioned above. To wit, Jose Reyes was taken at the tail end of the fourth round (eight slots below his ranking), and Elvis Andrus' slip was nearly as far (seven slots below his). There will be more speedsters in this cohort later on.

One player whose fall was a little more surprising was Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. Well, he didn't give the alliteratively named slugger a $135 million contract, but Joe Kaiser liked the upside of the California native enough to add him as his corner infielder; and, make no mistake, there's considerable upside here, as Freeman's walk and strikeout rates both improved in 2013. While he might not be a 40-homer guy, it appears that he'll more than make up for that with a helpful batting average.

While the rest of the mock drafters were chasing their stud pitchers earlier in the proceedings, Eric Karabell bided his time; in the wraparound picks of Rounds 5 and 6, he struck, nabbing two young aces in Madison Bumgarner and Jose Fernandez. Joe Kaiser continued to load up on corner infielders, taking Mark Trumbo well ahead of slot, but, hey, the new Diamondback does have 95 homers over his past three seasons combined. He's no slouch.

It might be difficult for some folks to go with Kenley Jansen over Aroldis Chapman, but Collette is not in that group. Despite all the hype that Kimbrel and Chapman get for their strikeout prowess, Jansen is right there with them, his 111 K's in 76.2 IP in 2013 another example of why that is. Despite the presence of some other relievers with closing experience on the Los Angeles Dodgers' staff, Jansen is as safe as any of the top-tier relief pitchers in fantasy.

Matt Kemp sighting! Yes, our Matthew Berry has been keeping his ear to the ground on all the talk regarding the Dodgers outfielder, and, though it's a risky pick, this is a player who was No. 1 on our Player Rater in 2011. Getting a player with that kind of a production history in Round 7 isn't too shabby.

Two nice value picks in this round: Brandon Phillips going nine slots below ranking to Brendan Roberts, and Yoenis Cespedes going seven below slot to Keith Lipscomb. Phillips isn't necessarily declining too much, although there's some thought that he'll have fewer RBI opportunities this season. As for Cespedes, it's a buy-low opportunity on the import after he regressed badly in 2013 and could swing back the other direction in 2014.

A pair of players saw their precipitous fall ended in Round 8, with Becquey snatching catcher-eligible Joe Mauer No. 77 overall and Chapman falling into AJ Mass' lap one pick later. Mauer is done playing catcher following last season's concussion but will remain eligible there for this season. Though his numbers as a first baseman aren't as gaudy, he's still quite valuable with that C next to his name. As for Chapman, he might well end up as the No. 1 RP this season in fantasy, so getting him this far after Kimbrel and Jansen is a steal.

By this point of the draft, owners became much less averse to risks despite some players who continued to plummet. The biggest risk of the round was Berry's selection of Pedro Alvarez, although Berry knows this group well. "I know this is a reach, but I need power, and I don't think he'll be there next round," he noted in the chat.

Starling Marte -- another player whose value is derived in large part from the SB column -- was finally taken at No. 88 overall. With the SB tally resetting each week, a player like Marte loses a lot of appeal.

A trio of players went well above their rankings slot in this round, the most captivating of which is Baltimore Orioles 3B Manny Machado. Machado, as you're well aware, is injured, but once he's back on the field, he'll be producing at his full value, and a healthy Machado appears to have a very high upside. If you're going to venture down the Machado pathway, be aware that you might not have him for a while and draft someone to handle 3B duties in the interim. Note: If your league is drafting after Opening Day, you will need to draft him into a bench spot, otherwise you'll lose the position until the next roster change date.

The other notable player going ahead of his rankings slot in this round was Josh Hamilton. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. But at this point -- he was Brian Gramling's fifth outfielder -- it's not a terrible risk to see if he has anything left.

One of MLB's big mystery men went in Round 11, well ahead of his ranking, and he landed on Tim Kavanagh's team. Since I know the owner of that team quite well, I can shed additional light on the decision. It came down to reaching (a bit) for Jose Abreu or adding another arm to my pitching staff. At this point, we know what guys like Jered Weaver, Kris Medlen and their ilk are going to bring to a fantasy team. We don't really know what Abreu is going to do, but some project him to be one of the elite power hitters. At the No. 107 pick, I'm willing to take that risk.

Sure enough, Medlen and Weaver were taken in this round, while I went slightly above slot for Hyun-Jin Ryu. But the big name taken here was Billy Hamilton. Hamilton electrified the baseball world in 2013, and if he can stay up in the majors all season, 70-plus steals seems like a possibility. In a head-to-head league, he can single-handedly win you the SB category for the weeks when he's playing.

This is the round in which Becquey found the player who will be manning his 3B slot while Machado recovers: Boston Red Sox youngster Xander Bogaerts. In fact, the timing might well work out that Bogaerts will have his SS eligibility by the time Machado is ready to make his return; if he does, then Becquey can simply slide Bogaerts over to short at that time.

My strategy in taking Robertson here is that I wanted one (and only one) closer so that my opponent won't be able to punt saves entirely when setting the lineup; meanwhile, as the other teams draft multiple closers, I can solidify other positions. Robertson won't be Mariano Rivera, but he'll have plenty of save opportunities, so he's a fit.

Three more closers off the board in this round. However, the name to which your attention might be drawn first is Nelson Cruz. We don't know how much of Cruz's power in the past was PED-aided, but we do know that he's landed in another hitter-friendly park, with players who will get on base ahead of him. The upside outweighs the risk at this point.

Roberts grabbed two New York Yankees with the wraparound picks here, and, considering where CC Sabathia has been taken in drafts past, he's a huge value here. No, he likely won't equal the production from when he was an elite fantasy option, but, as Roberts' No. 3 SP, he's a strong pick.

Collette continued his riverboat gambler ways, snagging the Milwaukee Brewers' Khris Davis well above his ranking position. Davis has some sleeper potential, although some believe he's the latest in the line of Three True Outcome (HR-K-BB) sluggers, and there's some inconsistency risk there. But if he was consistently smacking home runs, he wouldn't be available in Round 15 and beyond.

I've made a habit in drafts of waiting on middle infielders unless I snag one of the top-tier guys, and that came to pass again here. As I've done in other mocks, I targeted San Diego Padres 2B Jedd Gyorko and Braves SS Andrelton Simmons, both of whom have more upside than elders at the position. If you're going to take a certain position, that's the logical play; if it doesn't work out, there will always be a decent option on the waiver wire.

Will Venable, another guy who derives value from his SB totals, saw his name finally reach our draft board in this round, and, given that he's rounded out his hitting to be able to play against righties and lefties, there's still some upside left here.

Every player in this round went higher than his rankings slot, which is not really a major surprise. At this point of the draft, rosters are pretty well stocked, so this is when owners feel much safer taking that sleeper they've been hyping for weeks. In my case, that's Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira. Sure, he's been banged up as of late -- and might not be 100 percent until midsummer, if at all this season -- but the potential for 30 homers is still there as long as he plays his home games at Yankee Stadium, and that's worth shooting for in Round 17.

Much like Teixeira, Philadelphia Phillies 1B Ryan Howard is a shell of his former fantasy-stud self after a string of injuries, but Mass' roster was already well stocked with corner infielders, so Howard is an interesting source of potential production off the bench. He's going undrafted in some leagues, which is insane, given what he might be able to do this season.

Closer run! Three closers went off the board with the first three picks of this round, and Rex Brothers -- who many assume will be granted those duties at some point in 2014 -- was nabbed in the middle of the round. Meanwhile, I was feeling charitable here and ended Alexei Ramirez's slide. At this price, I'll take the potential for 20-plus steals that I can slot in when necessary.

As is the case when the draft's end is closing in, there were some tremendous values to be had -- with all the risks of previous rounds, many quality players were obviously dropping -- such as Salvador Perez and Matt Garza, and there were also more sleepers being taken well ahead of slot. The name with which you might be least familiar is Alexander Guerrero, the Dodgers 2B prospect. Things haven't gotten off to a great start for the Cuban import, but Mass has already solidified his middle infield, so if Guerrero can deliver on his potential, this is a huge find. And it's not like the Dodgers have a definitive answer at second who's blocking Guerrero, either.

Torii Hunter has been sliding in a lot of drafts and did so here; at this point of his career, he is what we thought he was, and that's simply not an exciting player to land on draft day. On the other hand, players like that can plug roster holes, so he's a worthy selection this late. The same can be said for Matt Wieters, who went 70 slots after his ranking position\ but will serve as Karabell's starter behind the dish.

If some of the recent rounds had been all about snagging sleepers, the theme of this one was grabbing some of the players who had been sliding well beyond their rankings slot, the most notable of which is Houston Astros backstop Jason Castro, who improved his splits against lefties enough that he can be an every-day starter, with upside north of 20 homers.

The name to which your eyes are undoubtedly drawn here is Tim Lincecum. The two-time Cy Young winner is no long the fantasy ace (and borderline first-rounder) of seasons past, but he's still useful as a player who can help you if you play the matchups. There's not a huge upside hidden here, but there's not a huge downside, either.

Perhaps inspired by Lincecum's selection in Round 23, four more "good a few seasons back" pitchers were snagged here in the penultimate stanza: Mark Buehrle, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and John Lackey. There's no upside left here, as with Lincecum, but these guys are useful when the matchup is right (or they have a two-start week in weekly lineup leagues). Jonathan Villar -- he of the enticing SB and BB rates -- is the notable nonhurler here.

Nearly everyone took themselves a deep sleeper here in the final round, with a pair of pitchers that were formerly highly hyped Yankee youngsters -- Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, now with the Padres and Minnesota Twins, respectively -- leading the way. Again, the player you take here might well be replaced with someone off the waiver wire in the early weeks of the season, so don't be too concerned with taking a risk on a guy here; the cost is very low.

Closing thoughts

In this format, single-category studs are not nearly as useful as they are in other configurations, which is why we saw some of the steals-only guys fall so far down the board; a three-steal game can certainly help greatly when you're trying to win a week, but those get wiped off the slate when the next week begins.

It's a similar situation with saves, which can be harder to project on a week-by-week basis. It's important to have one closer to keep your opponent honest, but there will be weeks when even some of the top closers simply don't get that many opportunities, so taking too many of them is a waste, especially given the depth of starting pitching this season.

Remember, if you want to practice drafting in this or any other format we offer, be sure to head over to our Mock Draft Lobby, where you can get in as many reps as you'd like ahead of your own draft.