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Friday, March 13, 2009
NL-only mock draft: It's all about cause and effect

By Brendan Roberts
ESPN.com

Full NL-only mock draft results

"Cause and effect, chain of events. All of the chaos makes perfect sense."

I'm not a fan of country music, really, but I love that line from the Joe Diffie song "Third Rock from the Sun." In fact, I think about it all the time. Things happen that change the path and flow of our days and activities. If I were to walk up to a stranger and talk to him, I would elicit a response (usually) and correspondence he normally wouldn't have made.

And hey, this happens all the time in baseball, right? If a key batter gets hit with a pitch and leaves the game, the outcome can be different. If a manager decides to leave in a pitcher too long or puts in the wrong pitcher, the outcome can be different. That's why we love baseball: The path of the game takes many turns during its course, and the final result can be anything from a wild extra-inning game to a blowout.

Well, fantasy baseball drafts are the same way. That's why you can't etch a game plan into stone and expect to follow it. Sure, you can have a basic game plan or strategy, but you have to be willing to stray from it, at least a bit. You want to react to picks made and the flow of the draft. If you see the last guy in a tier and there's a big dropoff to come, you might take him a round earlier.

And on the flip side, when you're not reacting, you want to attack and make your opponents react. This would be about 65 percent of the time, I estimate. You have full freedom to pick whomever, and you not only want to make the best pick for your team, your cause, but maybe you can start an effect that helps set up a better next couple of picks for you.

Our NL-only mock draft Wednesday was a lesson in cause and effect. Three of the league's owners -- most of the opposing drafters didn't know which three or what their strategies were -- went with unique strategies they felt would build a good team early on yet force their fellow owners into reactions that could help make for better picks in the middle or late rounds. Easier said than done. It's tough to force effects with savvy owners who have done many of these drafts, have pretty standard game plans and know not to participate in the infamous "runs" that are so common in drafts.

So while nine of the drafters played things pretty much straight up, or at least consistent with their usual strategies, three of us tried game plans we felt you also might try in your drafts, just to give you an idea of how things might play out.

Were the strategies successful in building strong teams? Well, you'll have to see the cause below, but I can tell you the overall effect: It worked relatively well for two of them and was a disaster for another. Read on.

To view the full NL-only mock draft results, click here.

The Strategists

Pierre Becquey (First pick overall, of 12 owners)

My strategy: Cornering the catcher market.

Geovany Soto
Geovany Soto
How it works: With the first overall pick in a 12-team league, you get your choice of Hanley Ramirez or Albert Pujols and then two more players in the 24-32 range. Of the players in that range in ESPN's NL rankings, three are catchers: McCann at 25, Martin at 28 and Soto at 32. So you grab two of them, then spend the next few sets of picks on reliable pitchers and the best available infielders. The endgame involves picking upside pitchers and filling out the outfield.

Why I thought it would work in an NL draft: There is plenty of depth, relatively speaking, in a mixed, single-catcher league, but in a 12-team NL-only league with two catcher slots, it gets uglier a lot faster than any other position. There's your top eight, which spans from McCann to Ramon Hernandez and Chris Snyder, but after that, there's a precipitous fall to the likes of John Baker, J.R. Towles, Nick Hundley … need I go on? In fact, once you get past those eight, you could argue that no other catcher belongs in the top 300 in the NL rankings. Avoiding those last 16 toxic catchers -- and sticking my opponents with them -- should provide a leg up without having to miss out on valuable first- and second-round producers.

How I put it into action: The bookend pick and the availability of three elite catchers in the neighborhood of picks 24 and 25 provide the perfect opportunity to ensure you don't have to roster anyone whose offense doesn't warrant them being in the top 300 and insures against having to reach for one of the other top eight catchers at any point in the draft. The presence of the third catcher in the top 32 creates a backup in case someone does reach for a catcher in the second round, as happened here when Stephania Bell took Russell Martin with the 16th overall pick. I still got the two catchers I wanted -- with Hanley Ramirez on my roster, I was leaning toward Soto's power over Martin's speed -- and just like that, everyone else was looking at Ryan Doumit and Chris Iannetta as their best options.

In the fourth and fifth rounds, I locked in my second baseman (Uggla) and grabbed my rotation anchor (Billingsley), respectively. At this point, I had two catchers, a shortstop, a second baseman and a pitcher rostered. I continued picking infielders and pitchers wherever practical, adapting to the flow of the draft (including picking two pitchers in Rounds 10 and 11, where I felt I'd be reaching for relatively inferior hitters), and then filled my outfield spots in Rounds 14 and then 18 through 22. And finally, I was free to fill my utility spot with whatever sleeper tickled my fancy in the endgame.

The pick that put a dent in my plans: I wanted Yovani Gallardo to be my staff anchor at pick No. 49 but had to settle for Billingsley instead. One of the reasons I had no problem going with offense in my first three picks was that I think there's some seriously undervalued pitching in both leagues this season, and Gallardo is my poster boy for it in the NL. Trust me, he won't come so cheap next season.

The player I was surprised I got: There really wasn't one. Picking with the bookends, you just grab what you need when you need it, and this savvy bunch wasn't leaving bargains on the table for very long. I kind of like Helton as my corner infielder with the 144th pick overall, though.

The pick I'd like to take back: Volstad with the 121st pick. I like Volstad, but I must have had my blinders on. Chris Carpenter was just sitting there, and I'd have been thrilled to have him as my No. 3/4 starter along with Cueto, who was my other pick that turn.

The overall best pick in the draft: Maybe it wasn't the best pick, or maybe it was. Either way, Christopher Harris snagged a great lottery ticket in Dexter Fowler in Round 20, exactly one pick before he'd have been mine. (Fowler, not Chris).

Final analysis: How my strategy worked, suggestions, etc. Nobody can touch my infield, and my starting pitching is very competitive. (Even if you don't like my pitchers, I had many choices to choose from each round, so you could have just as easily built a staff to your liking). The outfield looks weak, but while Rowand, Diaz, Mather, Hinske, Johnson and Schafer (my utility player and last pick of the draft) aren't going to blow anyone away, if you compare them to other teams' catchers and middle infielders, they're practically All-Stars. It's a team that's strong where others are weak and weak where others are stronger, but when you look at the total, it's greater than the sum of the parts. It's what the kids call "sneaky good," and it's an easy team to improve upon during the season, with highly tradable commodities and plenty of room for the most readily available free-agent resource: the outfielder.

Brendan Roberts (Fourth pick overall)

My strategy: The "two-closers-early" strategy

How it works: Take two of the league's elite closers in the first five rounds of the draft, and then focus on all the other positions the rest of the draft.

Why I thought it would work in an NL-only draft: Because saves are always at a premium in mono-league drafts; the pool of closers basically is cut in half, yet you have the same number of owners (12) as many mixed leagues. Sixteen teams (a handful of which haven't determined their closer yet), 12 owners ... you do the math. Getting two of the top options allows an owner to basically disregard one of the 10 fantasy categories for the rest of the draft and hopefully fare very well in saves for the season. Plus, the top closers also tend to help in K's, ERA and WHIP. It's also worth noting that the NL is weak in terms of reliable closers, at least when compared to the AL. The Junior Circuit has the top four closers and seven of the top 11 in our current relief pitchers rankings. Ouch. So my goal was to get two of those top four NL closers (Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez, Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Broxton) early, which would give me a good base for my pitching staff, and then be done with 'em. Not a strategy I usually use, but I've seen it done, and done well, so I tried my hand at it.

How I put it into action: I took Lidge in the third round and Rodriguez in the fifth round.

The pick that put a dent in my plans: None of 'em. I mean, all of 'em. I mean ... I was able to get my two stud closers early, so that plan went off without a hitch. It was the "focus on the other positions" part that didn't go so well. By the time I emerged from my little closer party, the talent pool, especially the hitters, had thinned. I tried to bail myself out, but it was too late. I'd make my one pick toward the center of every round, then watch a ton more hitters I would have loved to have get taken. More on that below.

Francisco Rodriguez
Francisco Rodriguez
The player I was surprised I got: Rodriguez. I know this group doesn't value the saves, but I'm sorry, getting a guy who just set the single-season record in saves, has better than 10.0 K/9 rate and will close for a team I think will win a lot of games (and a lot of close games) with the 52nd pick in an NL-only draft is a bargain. I had intended to take two closers in my first four picks, a common practice for NL-only owners. But because Broxton, Rodriguez and Marmol all were still available with my fourth pick, I stretched it one more round and still got the guy I wanted. That pleased me.

The pick I'd like to take back: Jackson in Round 6. Nothing against him, but when my pick came up in Round 6, I was looking at an offense that consisted of Wright and Ibanez, and that was it. I needed a guy who could give me consistent, all-around offensive production, preferably with a decent average to make up for the low-average guys NL leagues offer in the late rounds. Jackson does fit that bill in an NL-only league. But it was an immediate smack in the face that my strategy had backfired. When Jackson is your third-best offensive player, your team is hurtin'.

The overall best pick(s) in the draft: Brian Wilson, Round 9; Chad Qualls, Round 10. Both were by Jason Grey. I busted my tail to get two of the top closers in my first 52 picks, and we have those two projected to net 78 saves in 2009. Well, Grey used his 106th pick and 111th pick to net two indisputable closers who are projected for 65 saves. He did nearly as well projections-wise as I did in back-to-back picks, and he did it several rounds later. Don't get me wrong; I felt good about taking my two studs. But I had no idea such closer talent would still be available that late. Sigh.

Final analysis: How my strategy worked, suggestions, etc. I blame Matthew Berry and the ESPN mantra, "Don't pay for saves." Apparently it applies to NL-only leagues, too. I thought that by gobbling up closers early I could start a run on them that would urge owners to take the next level of closers earlier than they should, thus leaving me enough talent to fill in the holes I had. These guys didn't bite. In fact, they didn't even nibble. I had major holes to fill, and I was forced to watch hitter after hitter I wanted get picked. Even worse, the tiers of those hitters seemed to run out right before me, so I didn't reach for one and instead just took starting pitching. I figured I would at least try to bulk that up, going with the "best available" strategy. The bottom line here is that I picked outside the box and hoped to influence my fellow drafters to follow along, but they were too smart for it. Of course, it didn't help that the other two strategies noted in this column involved taking hitters early, and that did influence the drafters. One owner, Eric Karabell, quickly picked up on it, in fact, went with the flow and put together a hell of a team. So in essence, my plan to influence was trumped by two others, although I still doubt this non-paying-for-saves group would have followed me.

It was a total disaster. Not only did I watch while the top tier or two of hitters went in the first five rounds, but I had to watch as reliable closers went like hotcakes several rounds after I took them. Need a closer? Stand in line. In the middle rounds, there are plenty to go around.

I've seen this "two closers" strategy work, and it could well be that I just didn't do it right. I have a specific system and strategy I use, and I don't do well outside my comfort zone. And I don't deal with it well, either. I'd have players I liked queued up to take, and they'd get taken right in front of me. I just about flipped when one of my sleeper favorites, Michael Bourn, was taken in the 12th round by Tristan Cockcroft, literally right in front of me.

So what have I learned? Well, that I wouldn't recommend this strategy, unless: (1) You are experienced at using it and know how to execute it; and (2) Your fellow owners similarly value closers highly and would react to closers being taken early. Without those two things, you're looking at a miserable set of middle rounds, and your fellow owners will be the ones in control of the draft.

Tristan Cockcroft (Fifth pick overall)

My strategy: Modified Labadini

How it works: The Labadini Plan, named after LABR participant Larry Labadini in 1996, dictates that a team spend the bare minimum to field a pitching staff, typically $9 for nine pitchers out of a $260 auction budget. It typically works differently in a draft; you pick nothing but hitters until those spots are full, then use your remaining picks to fill out your pitching staff. My strategy, though, was Modified Labadini. Dominate the five hitting categories by selecting nothing but hitters in Rounds 2 through 15 , and save pitching until the end, focusing on ERA/WHIP specialists, particularly relievers. Round 1 is saved for one ace starting pitcher, used as an anchor for the staff. That anchor provides a solid base in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, putting the team at reduced risk of being in desperate need of pitching help on the trade market.

Why I thought it would work in an NL-only draft: Picking a monster offense would provide a good chance at the maximum 60 rotisserie points, and with the right $1 starters or high-upside, ratio-dominating relievers, I'd stand a good chance at earning the maximum 12 in ERA and WHIP, too. This isn't the kind of strategy I think would flesh out in an AL-only league; I'm more impressed by the depth of the NL pool. With a chance at 84 points right off the bat, all I would need to do was peddle a hitter or two for a lower-level pitching reinforcement to steal a handful of points in wins, saves or K's.

Tim Lincecum
Tim Lincecum
How I put it into action: Lincecum in the first round was a must. In fact, I don't know that this is the kind of strategy that would work with anyone but him or Johan Santana. Lincecum is the type of pitcher who on his own can eat up a quarter of a team's needs in ERA, WHIP and K's. From there, my aim with hitters was at least one of three things: power/speed combos (examples: Kemp, McLouth), address scarce positions (Hardy, Molina, Johnson) and draft categorical dominators (Bourn and Guzman, who, amazingly, dominates batting average).

The pick that put a dent in my plans: My intention was to leave open the possibility of taking a closer who might have slipped into the middle rounds -- think 10th -- but alas, the one I had my eye on went to Jason Grey five picks before me in that very round. I should have known Grey was a Chad Qualls fan, as I had gathered he was in our past discussions. I'd have been golden with Lincecum, Qualls and nothing but sleepers.

The player I was surprised I got: I don't think there's any way a 40-steal candidate like Bourn should have still been out there in the 12th round. He's a batting-average drain, but the strategy allows for picking specialists in that category early and often enough to take such chances. Getting Bourn there probably clinched first place for me in steals. By the way, I don't think Villanueva should've lasted as long as he did, either.

The pick I'd like to take back: The fourth round, and 44th overall, probably was too early for Ryan Zimmerman, but the last thing I wanted to do was have to reach for a lesser third baseman only two or three rounds after that. To put the pick into perspective, it was 50 picks before the next third baseman, and that was Edwin Encarnacion. Ugh.

The overall best pick in the draft: If it wasn't Qualls, it had to be either Sean Marshall, one of those $1 types I was targeting in Round 17, or Eugenio Velez, a steal of a stolen-base sleeper (pun intended). Velez went after I had already filled my offense.

Final analysis: How my strategy worked, suggestions, etc. While I feel like Modified Labadini was an overall success, I'm a little troubled I might not have home runs locked up -- Delgado legitimately might lead my team in the category -- and I was a little disappointed that I missed out timing-wise on cheap starters such as Marshall and Paul Maholm. Make no mistake, this is a high-risk strategy, and you must have confidence in your trading skills (and the willingness of your league mates to trade) to make it work. I've got a sneaking suspicion my offense is strong enough to register 10-plus points across the board and 12 apiece in ERA and WHIP, and with guys like Villanueva, Soriano, Kinney and Grabow, I wouldn't be surprised if I could vulture three or four points in saves without having to trade anyone. In other words, I'm pleased enough to say it's something I'd try again … just not in an AL-only format.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.