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It's that time again, folks. Pitchers and catchers have reported to camp, and the rest of the rosters have followed suit. As new teammates get introduced to each other and start getting set for their first Grapefruit and Cactus League action, it's time for the ESPN.com fantasy staff to once again peer into our collective crystal ball and stage our first mock draft for the 2012 season.
Here are the ground rules we operated under for this particular mock draft. We used ESPN standard settings, meaning a 10-team mixed league with a 25-man roster featuring the following positional breakdown: one of each infield position, five outfielders, one 1B/3B, one 2B/SS, one utility player, nine pitchers and three bench spots.
The drafters, in first-round order, were as follows: fantasy editor Pierre Becquey, fantasy analysts Matthew Berry and Tristan H. Cockcroft, baseball editor Matt Meyers, fantasy editors Brendan Roberts and Keith Lipscomb, fantasy Insider Eric Karabell, fantasy contributors Todd Zola and Brian Gramling, and yours truly bringing up the caboose and taking the turn into the reverse snake.
This particular draft took place on Monday, Feb. 27, so while Ryan Braun's successful appeal of his 50-game suspension is reflected in this exercise, any late-breaking news since then -- notably Brett Myers being anointed closer for the Houston Astros, would not be. For each round, I'll outline my own personal reasoning behind my selections, as well as provide a bit of insight into some of the more eye-opening picks of my esteemed colleagues.
With that in mind, here are the results of Mock Draft 1.0. You can click here to view team-by-team final rosters.
Not a lot of surprises at the start of the proceedings, with Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols going off the board with the first two picks. Fresh off his suspension being overturned, Ryan Braun went at No. 3 overall with Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista following soon after. Those six names are the likeliest candidates to be taken at the onset of most mixed league drafts, and while the order might be juggled a bit depending on owner preference, a clear tier certainly seems to be in place.
Gramling went with Roy Halladay at No. 9, so I asked him why he felt the urge to go with a pitcher in the first round. This topic was the subject of much debate during our rankings summit and subsequent roundtable, held earlier in the year. Gramling felt that, due to his position at the tail end of the odd-numbered rounds, it was now or never. "I knew I wouldn't get any of the top five stud starting pitchers if I waited until the third round [No. 29 overall]. Halladay was No. 6 on my overall rankings, so I took him here." Whether or not you agree with the strategy, it turns out Gramling was pretty much dead on in his prediction. By the time it was his turn to pick in Round 3, four other pitchers had been taken off the board.
My picks: Jacoby Ellsbury, Joey Votto. Similarly, many of my picks in this draft were dictated by my position in the snake. I had two players left on the board in my top 10, so I simply took them now. Ellsbury should give me a solid building block in both power and speed, and given the gap between my picks, I was leaning toward outfielders (of which I have to select five for a starting lineup) here anyway. Knowing that the depth at first base was top-heavy, I also wanted to make sure I grabbed Votto and his .300-30-100 now so I wasn't stuck playing catchup at the position later on.
There's definitely a tier of three at the top in both middle infield positions, so it's no surprise that the four remaining players in those tiers went off the board in Round 2. With Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes taken, the next shortstop wouldn't be grabbed until Round 5. Second base would also see a mini-vacation until Round 5 after Becquey selected Ian Kinsler at No. 20.
He explained his quick selection, "Cano, Pedroia and Kinsler are all worthy of being top-20 selections. That Kinsler was still there for my pick was too good to pass up considering the talent level available in the middle rounds. Plus with Cabrera and Prince Fielder [pick No. 21] on my roster, I needed to make sure I wasn't ignoring stolen bases. Kinsler's upside in a healthy season is 30-30."
Cockcroft's selection of Curtis Granderson elicited a few accusations of "homer-ism" given his penchant for pinstripes, but surprised nobody. It's a lesson for all players. If you know that one of the owners in your league might be leaning toward a particular set of players, and you really want them, you have to be prepared to reach before the other owner does in order to end up with them in a snake draft.
After Fielder went off the board in this round, it left what appeared to be a "tier of one" in Mark Teixeira at first base. After that, the pickings seemed to get slim quickly. That's a fact that occurred to Meyers only after he went with his gut and selected Mike Stanton with pick No. 24. He explained, "I really think Mike Stanton is in the first stage of a 500-home run career. To me, he's the player with the best shot of hitting 50 homers. With Reyes now in the fold in Miami and a bounce-back season expected from Hanley, Stanton's RBI numbers should go way up as well. I had considered him in Round 2, so I was obviously thrilled when he was still there seven picks later."
Roberts ended up with Teixeira at No. 25, and Meyers opted to wait all the way until Round 19 and Lucas Duda before he'd eventually grab a first baseman. As he put it, "Once I realized I had missed out on those first tiers of first basemen it just seemed to me that there was no difference between No. 11 and 25 or so, and I decided to look elsewhere for upside."
My picks: Dan Haren, CC Sabathia. I saw the same thing as Meyers in terms of not needing to worry too much about the corner spot at this point of the draft. I figured I would grab one of the four third basemen I was considering at the end of Round 5. Since I missed out on the top starting pitchers and had a tier of only three arms in my next group, I opted to grab two of them here, with Jered Weaver being the odd man out, primarily because of my own bias against taking too many teammates.
I have a feeling that my picks might have instigated a bit of a run on pitching, by shrinking other owners' tiers as well. Round 4 saw Weaver, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke go off the board. Almost all of the other picks in this round were top-15 outfielders. That makes a lot of sense, given the fact that most owners wouldn't want to be filling their first lineup spot on this position after others have already started working on their third.
Even though the position is actually quite deep in terms of numbers, outfield paranoia is a common draft malady. One person who was immune to this latest outbreak was Justin Upton owner Karabell. He opted for Adrian Beltre here, a bit of a surprise, since he already had David Wright in the fold. What gives, EK?
"I was basically looking for as much offense as possible, and after locking up three players I have ranked among my top 20 in the first three rounds, all of them contributing in power and speed, I just wanted the best hitter. I have Beltre ranked more than 20 spots better than Jay Bruce [whom Lipscomb selected one pick later] so it was an easy decision. Who says a corner infield spot must be a first baseman? Offense, offense, offense."
Berry, who had gone with Clayton Kershaw in Round 3 after being denied a chance at Prince Fielder by Becquey, decided to fill his corner spot with Paul Konerko here despite both Pablo Sandoval and Ryan Zimmerman being available; Berry prefers Konerko and isn't afraid of waiting on a third baseman. "The third base position is deeper overall than first base. So even with Albert Pujols already in the fold, I went with Konerko, whom I like a lot and gives me nice depth at a position that is more scarce than folks think." This of course is something you already know if you've read Berry's Draft Day Manifesto.
My picks: Shane Victorino, David Ortiz. Much to my chagrin, the rest of Round 5 included a run on that deep third base position. Brett Lawrie, Sandoval and Zimmerman all went before my pick No. 50. That was especially frustrating, as my finger hovered over Zimmerman's name, ready to click away just seconds before he was snatched away by Gramling.
However, it's always important to have a backup plan in place so you don't simply panic. Rather than grabbing a third baseman immediately, I figured the run had likely passed. I opted to wait again at the hot corner, and instead went with Ortiz and his 30-home run potential. He's the type of guy I would actually consider drafting in Round 3 if he had outfield eligibility rather than needing to be placed in the UT spot. Carl Crawford might have been my selection here, but again, I don't like back-to-back teammates, so I instead grabbed Victorino. Similar expectations from me, with a little more power potential and a little less speed.
The seal on catchers was finally broken as Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana went off the board. Roberts also took our first closer, Craig Kimbrel. Roberts was very much in the Braves reliever's corner during our summit and that enormous strikeout total was something we knew he wasn't going to be able to pass up for long, even in this group, notorious for waiting on saves. In fact, it wouldn't be until Round 10 before the next closer was selected, but you're not likely to hear Roberts complaining.
After he took Ben Zobrist in Round 5, I found Lipscomb's pick of Brandon Phillips interesting, but with middle infield being so unattractive at this point of the draft, I can understand grabbing a borderline top-50 player here. Lipscomb felt a bit underwhelmed by the alternatives here, "I didn't love the depth at middle infield, but I liked Phillips as a safer option than the Utleys and Weekses of the world. Plus, I knew that Zobrist has outfield eligibility, so it gave me some flexibility just in case I needed it later on."
The second tier of shortstops, who continued to come off the board in Round 6 (Jimmy Rollins and Starlin Castro), finished here with Meyers' selection of Asdrubal Cabrera. The next group of starting pitchers started to go as well, with Jon Lester, Matt Cain and Stephen Strasburg all joining rosters in Round 7. Perhaps some of these guys fell a bit further in this draft than most, but that was a function of an unconscious collective decision to wait. Once the ball got rolling again here, the next few rounds saw more and more starters being selected.
Alex Gordon might well be a huge steal for Roberts at No. 65. Roberts was quick to point out that Gordon finished No. 24 on the ESPN Player Rater last season, and while there's no guarantee he'll repeat those 2011 numbers, we might also be giving far too much weight to his previous disappointing seasons over his most recent and most promising one.
My picks: Aramis Ramirez, James Shields. Gambling that I could wait on Shields, who is my personal No. 8 starter, paid off. However, given the recent run on starters, I didn't want to wait any longer. As for Ramirez, it was between him, Alex Rodriguez and Michael Young at this point, and I thought that the change of scenery would be good for the new Milwaukee third baseman. Besides, if I was fortunate, maybe one of the other two guys would last until my next pair of picks and I could finish off my corner spot then.
With only one catcher required to field a legal roster, after the top two guys are gone, it becomes a bit of a game of cat and mouse as to who will bite on guy No. 3. In most leagues, that will be either Brian McCann or Matt Wieters, and both ended up being selected here.
I asked Zola what made him take the plunge: "Even in an ESPN standard league, I think you can get an edge at the catcher position by taking one of the top three or four guys. My intention going in was to wait until Round 9 or 10 for Wieters, but he has been a hot commodity in other drafts I have done, so I took the sure thing with McCann."
Zola said he felt good about this pick at the time, but less so after seeing how late Miguel Montero went (Round 12). That's essentially the same production taken around 40 picks later.
Ours is not your typical league, since we sometimes have the advantage of actually seeing our rivals' draft lists in advance of the proceedings. Judging from Cockcroft's rankings, we had a feeling he'd be the one to end up with Desmond Jennings, whom he has at No. 63 in his Top 250. What surprised us is that it took him so long to bite. Here's what Cockcroft has to say about his "wait" on Jennings, "I knew I'd get him at least two rounds later than personal pricing because of our summit evaluation. I think he's chock full o' batting average risk but his knowledge of the strike zone, pop and speed make him a heck of a lot lower-risk investment than even his projection indicates. The worst-case scenario is .250 with 12 homers and 35 steals."
My picks: Michael Young, Chris Young. A-Rod was taken with pick No. 85, but as I had hoped, Michael Young was still around, so I quickly snatched him up. I was eyeballing Ichiro Suzuki, but he went two picks before me, so I went from coveting a batting average boost to settling for a guy who might bring me down a few points in that category on his own. Still, Chris Young's 20-20 potential is not something I wanted to pass up at this stage of the draft.
At this point, the selection of pitching really picks up with both starters and (finally) closers beginning to sail off the board. Once Joe Mauer was taken, I decided to fill my catcher spot with Buster Posey before I got stuck with a Kurt Suzuki-type. I grabbed 20-20 potential in Ryan Roberts to fill my second base spot and decided to continue to wait on shortstop. I also took Heath Bell as my first closer, gambled that the move to the National League helps Gio Gonzalez more than leaving Oakland's stadium hurts, and then grabbed another potential 20 home runs for my outfield with Carlos Lee.
Karabell selected his first pitcher in Round 9 (C.J. Wilson) and then followed up with Ian Kennedy (Round 10), Mat Latos (Round 11) and Tommy Hanson (Round 13). That's a possible 60 wins from four guys taken after pick No. 87, so waiting on pitching can be done.
However, there are risks involved. Case in point, Meyers' selection of Josh Johnson at No. 117. Johnson could well be a top-10 pitcher or he could struggle mightily and barely reach .500. As Johnson is Meyers' No. 5 starter, this is a no-brainer pick with little risk involved. That would not be the case if Karabell had made the same selection, given how late he waited to compile his staff.
Gramling, with Michael Cuddyer as his first baseman, went for the brass ring with Ryan Howard in Round 14. Assuming he's healthy by June 1, he's a steal. Of course, if not, then Gramling will have to hope Cuddyer really takes to Coors.
Most people agreed that playing "catcher chicken," while stressful, paid off greatly in Round 12 for Karabell (Montero) and Lipscomb (Avila). But playing "closer chicken" gave Becquey (Rivera at No. 100) a better sense of satisfaction than it did for others. Jose Valverde, coming off a perfect 49-for-49 save season, went to Roberts in Round 15, and yet his new owner still feels he probably pulled the trigger too soon on him.
My plan at this point was to grab my shortstop and a few extra middle infielders and hope that at least one of them exceeds expectations. Between Daniel Murphy, Jason Kipnis and Emilio Bonifacio, if I can get 30 homers and 55 steals from the trio combined, I'll take it. I also grabbed erratic-but-overpowering Carlos Marmol to add a few more saves and strikeouts to my staff.
I also took Nick Swisher and his power numbers in Round 16, which prompted Karabell to throw a tantrum: "I wanted Swisher instead of Jeff Francoeur in Round 16, but some guy that just wrote a book about fantasy sports, Wookiees and Wall Street stole him from me. I'm not a big Francoeur fan, but the possibility does exist he has another good year, I suppose."
Karabell was a bit happier with his pick of Jesus Montero in Round 19: "Yeah, Montero's a DH. But even in one-catcher leagues, he'll eventually be a catcher, and a steal here." Other happy customers included Lipscomb with his Round 17 selection of Mike Moustakas ("Don't forget he hit .352 in September with 11 extra-base hits") and Gramling, who took Kelly Johnson in Round 19 ("I think he'll hit 25 bombs in the AL East ballparks, including Rogers Centre").
The last few rounds are there to fill out your last remaining positional needs and to build a three-man bench. Normally, I like to take chances on youth here, which is why Mike Trout got my Round 23 love in the hopes he gets a call-up before the All-Star break. Bryce Harper went to Becquey in Round 23 as well, presumably with similar aspirations attached.
Also along the lines of taking chances with new blood are Meyers' selection of Brandon Belt and Cockcroft's Mat Gamel pick, both made in the hopes that those two promising prospects finally put it all together in 2012.
For me, I also needed to fill out my pitching staff, and when it comes to pitching, I prefer to go with veteran arms. So I rounded out my staff with Gavin Floyd and Mark Buehrle in the hopes that I can get an extra 25 wins from the combo.
If not, let the waiver wire action begin! After all, in fantasy baseball, draft day is only the beginning.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can email him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass