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Make your team your own.
These days, there is a mountain pile of data out there to help you craft your fantasy roster. Rankings, projections, sleepers and busts, ADP, scouting reports, advanced statistics it's a lot to take in. Throughout the offseason and preseason, you'll read scads of advice and hear many different angles on players.
Yet even with all that information, I'd argue that you need one last critical ingredient to emerge a fantasy champion:
You need to formulate your own strong opinions about players.
You need to inject some you into your roster.
For example, I spent $3 over "book value" -- I define that as my projected prices on my draft sheet for the given draft -- on Austin Jackson in this year's League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) auction. I saw his profit potential as potentially greater than $3, had banked a few dollars comparative to book in the earlier stages of the auction, and saw a decreasing number of attractive fallback candidates. Putting Jackson on the team made it "mine." Putting Alex Rios ($21 book, $24 sale price) on the squad would've made it feel like someone else's.
It is in this space where, just as I did a year ago, I share my most extreme opinions on players. It is opening my playbook, showing you my aforementioned "book values," revealing the players for whom I'll pay the extra bucks in drafts. These are the players I expect to draft to the majority of my teams come draft day, and they are players I call "Tristan's Twenty."
A caveat: Now that I've published them, there's an excellent chance I won't get a single one. After all, publishing the list affords my competition the opportunity to bid me up, and I stress that there is always a limit to a player's price, even the ones you like best. The danger for those of you who compile similar lists of your own is growing too attached to the individuals; the point is to go a little further for them, but not too far. Paying $3 more to secure your preferred target's services is one thing; paying $10 more is something else.
Let's set two ground rules, in the interest of balancing the picks:
• Ten players apiece from the American and National Leagues.
• At least one player from each position except designated hitter, being that so precious few players qualify only there.
Now, here are "Tristan's Twenty," in no particular order:
Jackson is first up to bat -- fitting considering his role atop the Tigers 2013 lineup -- as a follow-up to my LABR "overbid." The obvious defense: He was the No. 57 player overall on our 2012 Player Rater, but that was with 21 Tigers games missed due to an abdominal strain. Scale Jackson's stats to a full season and he'd have been a top-30 player. The stronger defense: He made huge strides in terms of his plate discipline, rate of hard contact and fly ball/line drive rate last season, an impressive trio of skills improvements. He's also 26, close to his physical prime.
Facts are facts: Lowrie has appeared in fewer than 100 games in each of his past four professional seasons, averaging 92 per year as a pro, meaning he's less deserving of an "injury-prone" label than having those words actually tattooed on. Still, between all the ailments, he has flashed an impressive track record of patience and power potential, walking more than 10 percent of the time and hitting a fly ball more than 50 percent of the time in his career, skills that hint at sneaky .350/.500 potential in the on-base/slugging percentage categories. There could be 25 homers in his bat, a plateau only three middle infielders reached in 2012, and that makes him well worth a look for what's scarcely even a draft consideration in a 10-team mixed league.
One of two repeats from last year's list, Belt's comment from a year ago remains valid: "The Giants need to give this kid a place to play every day. If they can't, they need to trade him." They haven't traded him, but this year they appear set to finally grant him every-day at-bats, after he posted .329/.390/.494 triple-slash rates in 55 games the final two months of last season. Though AT&T Park lacks the configuration to inspire a huge power boost for Belt, his 5.7 home run/fly ball percentage in 2012 is in dire need of correction. Double it and make him a regular and he's between a 15-20-homer hitter.
I'm going to steal only one pick from my "Kings of Command" column to avoid redundancy -- let's call that another rule -- and Sanchez is that pick. Consider it an effective way of saying "This is the one from that column that I see with the greatest return-on-investment potential." Sanchez's skills were touched upon in that column, but a fact that wasn't mentioned: He received the third-least run support of any qualified pitcher the past three seasons combined (3.80 runs on average per nine innings), and the second-least in 2012 alone (3.17), and now he pitches for a team with tremendous odds of reaching the five-runs-per-game plateau -- that's a minimum of 810 runs in a 162-game season.
I know, I know, I'm making a case for wins, which is thoroughly anti-Tristan. But wins remain one of the traditional five Rotisserie categories, therefore requiring a projection, and if you're to project the pitcher with the greatest increase in the category this season, Sanchez has to be near the top of the list. And if he wins, say, 16, his stats would look a lot like A.J. Burnett's 2012 -- worth the No. 27 starting pitcher spot on our Player Rater.
Tillman's ground-ball rate -- 35.2 percent in his 15 big league starts last season -- was the one category that caused him to miss "Kings of Command" inclusion, but he possesses comparable profit potential to those 10 picks nevertheless. Two skills improvements planted the seeds: One was a velocity bump, his fastball 92.3 mph on average; the other was more polish on his secondary pitches (curveball and changeup specifically). If you're looking for a prototypical example of the "post-hype sleeper," Tillman sure fits.
Morrow is the one guy on the list for whom I might not reach more than 10-15 spots sooner comparative to ADP (currently 111.6, ranked 106th overall), but there's no question that I'd look at him not a single spot later than that. Though he maintained his reputation as an injury-prone player by spending 73 days on the disabled list with a strained oblique last season, when he was healthy, he made massive strides with his control (career-best 2.96 walks per nine), his splitter (.585 OPS allowed) and his ability to work out of the set (.579 OPS allowed with men on). A little luck in the health department could elevate him into the top 20 fantasy starters; this is the pitcher you get outside the top 100 who has the best shot at that group.
The Cardinals need to find somewhere for Carpenter to play, and considering the substantial advantage he has over Daniel Descalso with the bat, chatter about him emerging as a regular second baseman has merit. Carpenter is the kind of guy you'll get for a buck in a mixed auction, or maybe $5-7 in NL-only leagues, who draws enough walks and makes consistent enough contact to stabilize any team from the back end in either batting average or on-base percentage (whichever your league uses). Frankly, a .300/.400 year with 450 PAs isn't out of the question.
I admit up front that this is more of an adhere-to-the-rules than flat-out-love pick, as Gyorko probably falls just beneath my desirable range for our standard, 10-team mixed format, while potentially being overrated in 12-team NL-only leagues like LABR (he sold for $10). Frankly, when it comes to bargains at second base, I see myself striving harder to acquire two non-eligibles who should earn eligibility there quickly: the aforementioned Carpenter, and Emilio Bonifacio.
But Gyorko is one of the lower-range second basemen I'd pick if I'm waiting that long, thanks to strong minor league statistics that hint at a somewhat low downside for a rookie. Between Double- and Triple-A combined in his pro career, he was a .303 hitter with a not-totally outrageous .332 BABIP, 9.4 percent walk and 17.6 percent strikeout rates, and line-drive rate over 20 percent. There's no reason that, at worst, Gyorko could give you a .260 batting average and 15 home runs. At best, he bats .280-.285 and approaches 20 homers.
How can you not like a pitcher riding a three-year upward pattern of both strikeout-to-walk ratios (his 3.85 number last year was a career best) and average fastball velocity (94.2 mph in 2012)? Scherzer has elevated himself to a top candidate to lead the majors in strikeouts but this pick is a lot more than that. Let's flash back to last spring, when he was working on polishing a cut fastball, a pitch he has experimented with since college; Scherzer might not yet have mastered it (nor ever will), but the attempt shows ingenuity. He's aware of one significant flaw in his game -- the lack of a truly dominant pitch against left-handers -- but he improved against them nevertheless the second half of last season (playoffs included), limiting that side to .253/.329/.403 rates. Scherzer is still learning, developing, and as a 28-year-old with 133 starts' big league experience, he might be ready to elevate himself into the top 50 overall players for the price of a mere ninth-rounder.
Managers might appear to have a bias toward right-handers as closers, but Ron Gardenhire is one of the few with a history of trust in lefties: He's the one who made Eddie Guardado a full-time closer, back in 2002, and he turned to Perkins as the leading man of his committee when the position became open last summer. In either example, Gardenhire picked the most deserving guy, and in Guardado's case, the decision spawned one of 2002's best bargain-bin closer seasons. Perkins has closer makeup: He limited right-handers to .249/.306/.396 rates the past two seasons combined to demonstrate little split concern, and he had a 4.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2012 that ranked 15th out of 136 qualified relievers. Who's to say he can't have a 45-save year like Guardado's 2002?
Let's be clear: There will not be a "Mike Trout of 2013." It's not happening, so don't ask. But if the question is posed more realistically -- "Who will be this year's most valuable midseason call-up?" -- then Taveras is my answer. He's highly unlikely to break camp with the team, but a call-up before the All-Star break is possible, considering how quickly he adapted to Double-A last year (.340/.374/.670 in April) as well as his plate coverage -- he's a bit of a free swinger but also more than capable of developing into one of the game's best bad-ball hitters, hence the Vladimir Guerrero comparisons. It might take only an injury to Carlos Beltran, who turns 36 in April, for Taveras to finally get his chance, and once he does, I think he'll be one of the quickest prospects to adapt that we've seen in some time.
Injuries ruined Cain's 2012 -- he missed three months with a groin strain in the first half, then was shut down for the year in mid-September due to a strained hamstring -- but between those DL stints he looked quite the part of the bargain power/speed pick. It's manipulating samples, yes, but scale those 56 games played (in 59 Royals contests) to 162 team games and Cain would've been a .275/.326/.440 hitter with 19 home runs and 27 stolen bases. Consider that a fair higher-end expectation; this is a pick where you're simply hoping for some luck in the health department.
Message to Dusty Baker: Jack Hannahan should be your late-inning defensive replacement at third base and occasional starter against the toughest right-handers. Anything that narrows the plate appearance gap between Frazier and Hannahan close to even is a mistake, because Frazier possesses the kind of tantalizing power potential that could vault the Reds into the upper echelon of offenses. He made substantial gains in terms of his contact and fly-ball rates, and is in a ballpark where a near-50 percent latter number could result in 30-plus home runs if he gets the at-bats. Talk up Hannahan's presence to your league mates as reason to doubt Frazier; if you're an owner who drafts skills before roles, then Frazier is an outstanding value beyond the 15th round.
When seeking cheap sources of saves, buy skills, not roles. OK, Parnell does have the role, at least initially for the Mets while Frank Francisco nurses an elbow injury, but that's not the reason he's the smarter investment; it's that he's the more skilled of the two full-year candidates. Thanks to the addition of a two-seam fastball -- it has been judged as worth three runs above average in each of the past two seasons, per PitchF/X -- he has vastly improved both his command (3.05 K's per walk in 2012) and ground-ball rates (62.4 percent). You might need patience with Parnell, if the Mets insist that Francisco get a chance to close once healthy, but there's an outstanding chance Parnell will save 20-plus, between the saves he gets in early April and the likely prospect of more once Francisco cedes the job back.
I went back and forth between whether to include Smyly in my "Twenty" or my deep sleepers column -- yes, there will be a deep sleepers column -- and decided that, in the end, Smyly seemed too likely to boost his draft stock this spring to the point he'd be an awkward fit as a sleeper. Currently the Tigers' No. 6 starter, Smyly posted a 3.79 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 3.38 K's per walk ratio in 18 starts in the bigs last season, numbers that were all easily better than Rick Porcello's. Smyly also seemed to work through the adjustments that all young pitchers face: His curveball was already major league quality, limiting opponents to a .143 batting average with 30 strikeouts; his fastball only improved in time, as foes batted .310/.388/.563 against it in his first nine starts, .255/.315/.461 with it in his final nine. There's a reason the Tigers were rumored to be shopping Porcello all winter; it's that they're more than confident in Smyly's skills as their No. 5 starter. You should be, too.
One statistic, and one statistic alone, offers hope for Maybin: He'll play this season at 26 years old, smack dab during his physical prime. I know that doesn't seem like enough, but to be fair, he costs the price of a mere 25th-rounder in 10-team mixed leagues that is a lower ADP than his 2012 Player Rater standing (221st). Maybin still possesses immense power -- his 427-foot average home run distance last season was tops among batting average qualifiers -- but merely needs to get more lift on the ball to exploit it; he hit grounders 56 percent of the time in 2012. Remember: Petco Park has somewhat smaller dimensions this season, and it's possible that the result will be a slightly more aggressive approach at the plate by their hitters.
B.J. Upton's 2012: That is the ceiling you're shooting for with Gomez this season. Like Upton, Gomez has his flaws, most notably massive risk in both batting average and on-base percentage -- the latter a result of his free-swinging nature -- but Gomez does possess the greater contact ability of the two (76.4 percent contact rate in 2012, compared to Upton's 70.5). What made the difference for Gomez last season was a more aggressive approach at the plate, evidenced by a 5 percent rise in his swing rate on pitches in the strike zone, and a 5 percent increase in hard contact on those pitches. It is a skills improvement, and coupled with his defensive ability, should be more than enough to push his playing time closer to the 600 plate appearances, rather than 2012's 452 range. And a potential 150-PA bump might be all it takes to put Gomez in Upton 2012 territory: top 50 on the Player Rater.
Much of the reason for my Lucroy love is laid out in our Staff Sleepers and Busts, but as I like not to repeat facts even if I repeat picks: He enjoyed a 120-point OPS bump against right-handers last season to address what was previously his greatest weakness. In a season when Salvador Perez is absorbing all the hype at the catcher spot, I call Lucroy this: He's the National League's Perez, except that, shockingly, he's generating nowhere near that level of hype.
The other 2012 repeat, Davis did provide a healthy return on investment last season -- as long as you were patient enough with him during his .166/.230/.284 first third of the year -- but he's on the list again because he should get even better in 2013. This is a burgeoning home run champion, having hit 27 home runs the final two-thirds of the season and boosting his fly-ball rate to 47 percent in the final third, perhaps the greatest remaining obstacle he faces is the Mets' still-pitching-friendly home ballpark. If you've noticed how deep the first-base position is this season, waiting for Davis in the 10th round is a smart strategy.
Ogando's 2011 as a baseline for 2013 is more than fair, as he possesses the skills to be a good -- albeit not elite -- starter. In 30 career starts, he has 17 quality starts, a 3.49 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 2.93 K's-per-walk ratio, and his skills back it up: He possesses a mid-90s fastball and biting slider, which make him difficult to hit in any role even if they leave him susceptible to the occasional, untimely homer. Ogando is going in the 21th round on average, but the Ogando of 2011 was the No. 53 pitcher, and No. 136 player overall. There's considerable value to be had here.