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While many men spent their Valentine's Day afternoon agonizing over what to get their significant others, the ESPN.com experts chose to use the holiday for a much greater purpose: Holding the 2013 baseball season's first mock draft!
Yes, Feb. 14 is a little premature with all the unknowns that will become common knowledge during spring training, such as position battles and remaining free-agent signings. However, for a 10-owner, mixed-league format, there are still plenty of known quantities for each of our experts to draft a team capable of winning it all.
It's always interesting drafting with the same experts that actually devise the rankings lists we are all using. And since all 10 men have been playing fantasy baseball for the past 15-plus years, it's a field that doesn't hesitate to withhold a certain strategy at the time or compliment a good pick and really mean it. Although even with the countless career mocks we have all partaken in over these years, many different scenarios can (and will) unfold during each mock. Even experts still second-guess themselves at times, and unlike the old dogs, can still learn new tricks, especially with this being the first mock for several of them. The lineup for the Valentine's Day version of the ESPN.com mock was Brendan Roberts, Keith Lipscomb, James Quintong, Matthew Berry, Eric Karabell, Tristan H. Cockcroft, David Hunter, Shawn Cwalinski, AJ Mass and myself.
Our rosters consist of 25 players, with 22 starters and three bench spots. ESPN standard 5 x 5 scoring is in effect. Below is how the draft unfolded. (You can click here for rosters by team.)
General notes: As expected the first two rounds were very hitter-heavy, with just three pitchers taken in the top 20. Eight outfielders were grabbed in these two rounds, including six among the first nine overall selections. Six corner infielders and the top catcher, second baseman and shortstop were what made up the remainder of the 17 hitters. The feeling early on is that you can't have too much hitting, and therefore pitching can wait.
Wild-card pick: Stephen Strasburg was the most intriguing pick of the top 20, as Roberts chose him ahead of Felix Hernandez, knowing that the ESPN.com rankings have King Felix projected for 46 more innings than Strasburg in 2013. "Strasburg's [projected 193] innings may be accurate, but I think he'll dominate," Roberts explained. "I think we're way low on his numbers." More on Hernandez below.
Bargain pick: I was pumped that I was able to get Albert Pujols with one of my swing picks at the 10/11 draft spots. The two owners I thought would take him were Hunter, who took Carlos Gonzalez ("Tough to pass on Pujols, but I want the SB production out of CarGo.") and Mass, who curiously went with Justin Upton. However, Mass drafting from the nine spot correctly figured I wouldn't take both Pujols and Fielder, so he was happy with getting a top-6 OF and top-3 1B with his first two picks.
Could be a reach: Buster Posey is clearly the best catcher, but No. 18 overall seemed a bit early for a 10-team, one-catcher league, since all teams wound up with solid catchers. Posey owner Quintong admitted that the pick was a gamble, saying: "Just wondering if he can repeat last season. I usually wouldn't take catchers this high." It's difficult to predict when Posey -- or any player, for that matter -- would have been drafted, but with the second catcher of the draft (Matt Wieters) taken 60th overall, it's tough to justify that taking Posey at No. 18 is better than choosing a run-producing stud there, and then waiting another four-plus rounds for a different catcher.
General notes: Round 3 was entirely comprised of batters -- seven infielders and three outfielders. Cwalinski ended the streak of 12 straight hitters by taking David Price. "I hate taking a pitcher this early, but that is where I think the value is right now," Cwalinski explained. Others agreed, as four more arms were chosen as part of the next seven picks. Berry's pick of Adrian Beltre over David Wright was a bit unexpected, but while Wright is ranked 17th in the ESPN.com rankings, Beltre is right behind him at No. 18. "I made my feelings on Beltre over Wright known at the rankings meeting," Berry said. "He's 30/100/.300 in the bank."
Wild-card pick: Felix Hernandez was definitely a player that the owners were shying away from. "Apparently we're nervous about that failed physical by Felix. I admit it worried me, though it probably shouldn't," Roberts said. "Just when it came time to pull the trigger [in Round 2], I switched to Strasburg." But Hunter was glad to get Hernandez 34th overall, believing that he had a clean bill of health. Cockcroft agreed with Hunter's pick, while lamenting about his own: "I'll say that I clearly should've taken David Wright at No. 15 [instead of Clayton Kershaw], in which case I'd have been more than happy to take Felix at 26."
Bargain pick: The experts agreed that several of the starting pitchers were bargains, but the one player who seemed to be a steal was Evan Longoria at 25, four spots lower than he's ranked in the Top 300. Said Karabell proudly, "I got three of my top 15 overall. Longoria is certainly capable of 150 games and MVP numbers to me." And considering seven straight hitters were picked after Longoria, the Tampa Bay Rays star would not have lasted much longer had Karabell chosen a different path.
Could be a reach: Maybe Karabell was getting a bit overconfident at this point, because he certainly reached for B.J. Upton at No. 36 overall, 12 spots higher than his ESPN.com rank. I personally like both Adam Jones (37th to Berry) and Jacoby Ellsbury (42nd to Lipscomb) better than Upton, who has posted four straight seasons of a sub-.250 BA. Other reaches, when comparing ESPN.com's rankings to the actual draft slot, included Brandon Phillips (11 spots higher than ESPN.com rank) and Jose Reyes (eight spots higher), but these were certainly justifiable picks with the middle-infield positions thinning out. That's exactly why I grabbed Starlin Castro at No. 31 overall to start Round 4. However, the next shortstop was taken 54th overall (Ian Desmond), showing that I chose Castro too early.
General notes: With most teams having nabbed their aces in Rounds 1-4, these next two rounds were very batter-heavy with 13 hitters in the 20 picks. Cockcroft ended a 20-pick drought of third basemen when he selected Chase Headley coming off his monster season (.286 BA, 31 HR, 115 RBIs). The first closer was chosen 41st overall by Roberts, who simply said, "I had to get my Craig Kimbrel." Nobody else took a closer until Cwalinski grabbed Jonathan Papelbon in Round 7.
Wild-card pick: When Kimbrel was taken, Roberts asked for some feedback, and he got some. "He'll definitely have the most saves," said Karabell with more than a hint of sarcasm. Cockcroft didn't mind the pick as much, saying "With this group, that historically pays low for saves, Why not?" Berry also thought the strategy of grabbing a closer this early isn't necessarily a bad thing for smaller leagues. "I have won 10-team leagues that don't pay for saves," he said. "Definitely. That's what the strategy is for."
Bargain pick(s): Matt Cain went to Karabell 15 picks lower than he should have, according to the ESPN.com rankings, and Karabell was understandably excited about this pick. "One can win a league without an ace, though it doesn't hurt to get one in Round 5." He then added, "Might be a while before my next pitcher, though." Karabell did wait until Round 8 before selecting his second pitcher. Also, Quintong took Curtis Granderson 18 picks lower than the ESPN.com rankings, saying: "If you can take the hit in batting average, the power is still there. I don't think he'll run as much, though." Berry also chimed in: "I've thought about Granderson the last three rounds. Just didn't want to risk BA with already having Hanley Ramirez."
Could be a reach: In terms of ESPN.com rank versus mock draft slot, Hunter had the two biggest "reaches" in Rounds 5-6 with Ben Zobrist (eight spots higher than ESPN.com rankings) and Ian Desmond (11 spots higher). Again it was a case of position scarcity with a lack of quality middle infielders left on the board. But Hunter commented that he really liked Zobrist's "20/20 potential and his position flexibility."
General notes: After seven straight batters to start Round 7, there was a run of three straight starting pitchers from Nos. 68-70. The second-best closer, Jonathan Papelbon, went off the board at No. 73, and three more starting pitchers went from 76-78. There were a lot of veteran players in this group, showing that it wasn't time yet to reach for youngsters, as key starting positions needed to be filled by proven performers.
Wild-card pick: Desmond Jennings sure got a lot of love at the No. 66 spot by Cockcroft. "Being Valentine's Day, afford me this opportunity to reiterate, I HEART Desmond Jennings," he said. Hunter wasn't surprised, "You said so vigorously at the summit on Jennings I'm still in tears." Jennings finished 31-of-33 in stolen base attempts last season and is just entering his prime years at age 26, so yes, there is a lot to love here.
Bargain pick: R.A. Dickey was the biggest statistical bargain, as Berry took the 60th-ranked, reigning Cy Young winner at No. 77 overall, just his second pitcher in eight picks. Although Dickey moves to a much more hitter-friendly home ballpark in Toronto this year, Dickey had no trouble facing American League hitting last year, posting a 0.50 WHIP in 24 innings, with 28 K's and just five walks in three starts.
Could be a reach: Although Asdrubal Cabrera to Lipscomb at No. 79 was the biggest statistical reach as ESPN.com's 100th-best fantasy player, I thought Freddie Freeman going 20 picks earlier than his ESPN.com ranking to Mass was a bigger gamble. Cabrera was clearly the best shortstop available, but Freeman was taken ahead of Mark Teixeira, Ike Davis and Eric Hosmer. You can certainly make the case that Freeman is the best of the four, but not by enough to warrant taking him this early with such similar players still available at the same position.
General notes: Finally, after a long drought following Matt Wieters' selection at 60 overall, owners went after the catcher position, grabbing four backstops among the 20 picks in Rounds 9 and 10. "I guess with one-catcher leagues, there isn't a need to grab one immediately," said Quintong, still not convinced that he took Buster Posey at the correct spot. "Meanwhile, doing a two-catcher, 15-team mixed league the other day, the catchers went off relatively quickly. Waiting hurt me in that instance."
Wild-card pick: Starting with Martin Prado at No. 88, five consecutive outfielders picked over a span of 22 selections were all of the left field variety -- Prado, Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Mark Trumbo and Josh Willingham. "I was debating Gordon and Melky," Cwalinski explained. "But thought I needed HRs more than steals, so I went with Gordon." The 29-year-old Gordon is a well-rounded player who really exploded after a subpar May/April last season, posting a slash of .319/.384/.493 from June 1 to the season's end.
Bargain pick: Joe Mauer was certainly a find, going 94th to Hunter, as opposed to 66th on the ESPN.com rankings. Hunter sure thought so: "Joe Mauer -- steal of the draft. Thanks." Mauer, who turns 30 in April, was underrated last season, posting a 1.014 OPS with runners in scoring position and posting an on-base percentage of at least .378 in all six months of the 2012 campaign.
Could be a reach: I took Howard Kendrick 43 spots higher (90th) than what he's ranked on ESPN.com, which is 133rd overall. But again, middle infield was completely thin and I felt I had good enough depth in the other positions to take a slight gamble here. I think Kendrick benefits greatly from Josh Hamilton and a more well-adjusted Albert Pujols hitting ahead of him, and I expect Kendrick to outperform our tame projections for him.
General notes: Starting pitchers were flying off the handle to start Round 11, with four of the first five picks having "SP" next to their names. And for the 11 hitters picked in this pair of rounds, seven were outfielders, as teams continued to fill important "need" positions.
Wild-card pick: James Shields went to Cwalinski at No. 108, 18 spots lower than his ESPN.com ranking. "Cockcroft's dome/outdoor stat on Shields scares me," admitted Berry. What he is referring to is this analysis of the Shields trade to Kansas City, when Cockcroft wrote: "He had a 3.33 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 112 career games at Tropicana Field, compared with 4.54/1.29 in 106 on the road, meaning he might be somewhat more comfortable pitching indoors than outdoors." Cwalinski was undaunted, saying, "Doesn't scare me. I almost took Shields last round. I love getting him here."
Bargain pick: Quintong grabbing Max Scherzer in the 11th round was a pretty strong selection, getting him nine picks later than the ESPN.com rankings say he should have gone. He's coming off a career-high 11.1 K/9 rate, which was even better in his three postseason starts (13.5 K/9) when he posted a 2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and .188 opponents' BA in 17 1/3 innings. At age 28, this should be his best year yet.
Could be a reach: Alcides Escobar is a player who doesn't give a whole lot other than SBs, which can be gotten later than the 11th round. But Mass saw the bone-dry group of shortstops left on the board and decided to bolster his speed, taking Escobar 33 picks sooner than the ESPN.com rankings had him. Escobar did hit .293 with 35 steals in 2012, but he also drew a meager 27 walks in 648 plate appearances.
General notes: As the draft passed the halfway point, I asked the group how helpful they thought the "Projected Standings" tab in the ESPN.com draft room was in determining what positions to attack. The consensus was that the tab was very helpful at this point in the draft:
Hunter: "I always look at the standings tab. I'm a freak-a-zoid regarding that tab. Helps me determine needs."
Berry: "I look at it. Good way to know what categories you need."
Quintong: "Exactly. I'm always interested in seeing if I need to target certain categories, especially on offense."
Wild-card pick: Ryan Howard. Berry razzed the resident Phillies fan: "Eric, you like Ryan Howard. Your 1B thoughts don't count." Karabell replied with, "Yeah, I like him so much I have him ranked like 150!" Berry finished the exchange by saying, "Ha ha ha 50 spots too high." Howard is certainly a polarizing fantasy leaguer, as he appears to be on the downside of his career, and doesn't have a lot of great on-base percentage hitters ahead of him in the order. The Philadelphia Phillies picked up three new offensive starters this year. CF Ben Revere had a .333 OBP last season, new 3B Michael Young tallied a .312 on-base and RF Delmon Young's OBP was an anemic .296 in 2012. However, the namesake of "The Office" temp, who worked in the utility closet between the two rest rooms, averaged 44 HRs and 133 RBIs from 2006 to 2011 before last year's injury-riddled campaign.
Bargain pick: Although statistically, Ian Kennedy (36 spots after ESPN.com rank) and Hiroki Kuroda (25 spots after ESPN.com rank) were the biggest finds on paper, I thought Karabell did a great job waiting for Adam LaRoche until Round 15. "I will say I got a pair of 30 HR/100 RBI first basemen (in my mind, at least, and our projections) in Rounds 14 and 15 with Howard and LaRoche. Good reason to wait on 1B/corner." Roberts concurred: "Agreed. Lot of sluggers left, especially the 25-homer, .260 types. That .260 average doesn't hurt as much as it did a few years ago."
Could be a reach: Miguel Montero was certainly a reach on paper, as I took him 44 spots higher than he resides in the ESPN.com rankings, but I didn't want to be stuck with the next crop of backstops as my starter (Mike Napoli, Salvador Perez and Jonathan Lucroy). There was no other player worth salivating over and I wasn't really weak at any other position other than my empty catcher spot. Montero is a consistent, four-category asset who had 86 RBIs in 2011, then knocked in 88 last season thanks to a crazy .345 BA/.463 OBP/.538 SLG in 119 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
General notes: As the draft hit the equivalent of its seventh-inning stretch, the strategy was simply filling in starting spots and adding depth to perceived weak positions. Lipscomb's team was at or near the bottom of the projected standings tab for most of these rounds, but that didn't change his thought process. "Since projections are extremely hard to perform, I'm not concerned," explained Lipscomb. "While I don't love my team, I'm just covering categories and filling positions the best way I can. Some of my pitchers have projections I disagree with, such as Jeremy Hellickson and Jon Lester."
Wild-card pick: Huston Street became Berry's first closer in Round 17 at pick No. 164, but he wound up taking three more relievers (Casey Janssen, Glen Perkins and Bobby Parnell) before his roster was finished. It will be interesting to see if the Petco Park fences coming in 10 feet in some parts will have an effect on Street, who carries a lifetime 1.32 ERA and 0.74 WHIP in 34 career innings in San Diego.
Bargain pick: Angel Pagan went five rounds later than where the ESPN.com rankings projected he should go, when Hunter grabbed the newly-signed outfielder. Pagan just inked a four-year, $40M deal to re-sign with the San Francisco Giants, and he's a run-scoring machine with 95 plate-crossings in 2012, aided by a hefty 29 steals. Pagan also hit above .280 for the fourth time in the past five seasons, and there's no real reason to expect him to fall off this season, save for a lack of motivation after such a successful season both on and off the field with his fat contract.
Could be a reach: Justin Ruggiano is ranked 299th on ESPN.com, but Mass took him 169th. This 13-round difference was actually 41 spots more than the next biggest reach in the entire draft. While the soon-to-be 31-year-old (on April 12) certainly has some value as the starting center fielder for the Miami Marlins coming off a .909 OPS and 14 steals in half a season with the Fish, I highly doubt he was in anybody's queue when Mass took the giant leap here.
General notes: As the draft wound down to the end, I asked the guys if they had any words of wisdom for what owners should be doing in the later rounds. Roberts replied with: "Advice for final rounds: Try to identify where you're weakest (usually with regard to injuries), and cover yourself." Karabell said, "The goal isn't to win on the standings projections tab today. Your team will be changing." As these were the final four rounds of starters, many owners used their turns to predictably pick up more pitching.
Wild-card pick: Cockcroft took a flier on uber-prospect Jurickson Profar at No. 206 overall, one spot ahead of where he sits in the ESPN.com rankings. There is really nothing Profar can't do on a baseball field, but the problem is where the Texas Rangers will put him in the lineup with Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre manning the infield positions, and doing it very well for the past several years. This is certainly a stowaway pick, and shows that Cockcroft thinks highly enough of his starting depth to take the young buck here.
Bargain pick: Several starting pitchers were selected much later than what the ESPN.com rankings display, but the one hurler who really stood out was Matt Garza (ranked 186th overall) going to Cockcroft at No. 169. His Wrigley Field numbers since coming to the Chicago Cubs before the 2011 season are just tremendous -- 9-6, 2.36 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.6 K/9 -- but his best value will be an increase in wins after whatever contender makes a late July deal to add him to their playoff-hopeful roster.
Could be a reach: Berry taking Chris Young in the 22nd round was certainly a surprise, as he will not likely be in the Oakland Athletics' starting lineup in 2013 unless a major injury occurs. Playing half of his games in an extremely pitcher-friendly ballpark will not likely stop the downward spiral of power over the past three years, but could make him a better contact hitter. Although Young can't get too much worse in the bat-on-ball department, as he's tallied one strikeout for every 3.9 at-bats in his career.
General notes: With this draft taking place so early in the year, I wondered (aloud) if teams took more risks in a mid-February draft than compared to late March/early April? "I think you have to, right?" Cockcroft said. "Draft skills over role earlier, role over skills later in the calendar year." I followed up my question by asking if long-term prospects are ever worth drafting in a 10-team league. "It's hard to justify when you have just three bench spots," Quintong replied. "The problem with drafting prospects with a small bench is you are likely going to end up dropping them before they get called up," Cwalinski said. Five players who are not a part of the ESPN.com Top 300 were drafted in these final rounds -- Johan Santana, Adam Eaton, Starling Marte, Brandon Beachy and Luke Gregerson.
Wild-card pick: This is a make-or-break season for Marco Estrada in the middle of the Milwaukee Brewers rotation, which is why Roberts pegged him for the final spot on his roster. Estrada was very impressive last season, especially at homer-friendly Miller Park (1st in HRs last year according ESPN.com MLB Park Factors) where he combated the homer rate by simply not letting opponents make contact. Estrada recorded 89 K's and just 11 walks in 78 2/3 innings in Milwaukee last year. And Hunter was a bit peeved that his final pick got stolen, jokingly saying, "I hate whoever took Marco Estrada."
Bargain pick: Mass picking Will Middlebrooks in the 23rd round was quite a steal, as the Boston Red Sox third baseman fell more than four rounds later than what the ESPN.com rankings showed. Middlebrooks is very consistent for a 24-year-old and his fractured wrist is fully healed. If the rest of his teammates can stay healthy this year, a 100-RBI season isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility within what should be a much-improved Sox lineup.
Could be a reach: Jean Segura went to Cwalinski at No. 233. "I figured I had better get my backup for Troy Tulowitzki now, since I will be needing one eventually," he said. While it's difficult to knock any owner for "reaching" in the second-to-last round, Segura is not yet a legitimate fantasy starter, especially in small, 10-owner leagues like this mock draft.
So what did we learn today, boys and girls?
1. There is plenty of top-end starting pitching to be had without spending too early of a pick. Jered Weaver and Matt Cain went in Round 5, Roy Halladay lasted until the end of the seventh, while CC Sabathia and R.A. Dickey didn't come off the board until Round 8.
2. Middle-infield depth is certainly lacking, so get ready to reach for the eighth-, ninth- and 10th-best second basemen and shortstops at their respective positions. "2B gets ugly fast, so do not wait too long to draft one," Cwalinski said.
3. Power hitters can be found in the later rounds, so don't panic and chase homers. "There's actually power late in 10-team drafts," Karabell said.
4. Most experienced leagues will wait pretty long before grabbing their closers, as the position is highly unpredictable for the one category it brings the most value to, saves.
5. Keep an eye on the projected standings tab, as it will show you what categories you are already strong in, and which ones you need help with.
Fantasy baseball is as much fun as ever with all types of strategies that can win. And considering practice makes perfect, stay on your toes when you're conducting some preliminary mock drafts before your league holds its draft or auction. We'll be mocking more throughout spring training, so make sure you check back to see the latest.