The games have started to count -- two of them, anyway -- and the 2012 season is just about to get into full swing. With that in mind, and with many leagues staging their drafts as close to Opening Day as possible, it seemed only appropriate for one more foray into the mock draft world to give those owners one last glimpse as to the possibilities that await them.
As such, 10 intrepid drafters gathered together on Wednesday as we, the ESPN.com Fantasy team, held our final mock draft of the 2012 season. In first-round order, the participants were as follows: fantasy editor Brendan Roberts, analysts Tristan H. Cockcroft and Matthew Berry, contributor Brian Gramling, the Answer Guys' Shawn Cwalinski and Dave Hunter, Insider contributor Todd Zola, me, fantasy Insider Eric Karabell and fantasy editor James Quintong.
Because by this time of the year we've already done several of these exercises in allocating the available player pool onto rosters, it's easy to fall into similar patterns of selecting the same names in the same places. So for this last go-round, I thought I'd critique the general trends of ESPN live drafters with a personal strategy of using the most recent average draft position list to choose my players, at least until the very late stages of the draft, when I might need to stray a bit from that restriction to grab particular positional needs.
With that in mind, let's take a look how this draft shook out. ESPN standard rules and roster sizes apply. For a look at the final rosters, click here.
In previous drafts, there was some question as to Ryan Braun's status. However, aside from a nagging groin injury, there's no longer anything to worry about in terms of his playing time for 2012. Without having to factor a 50-game gap in his statistics, Brendan Roberts snagged him with the No. 1 overall pick this time around. Roberts would question those who would question the pick: "Why not? He's durable, in his prime and a five-category stud."
When my turn came around, Jacoby Ellsbury was the highest position player on my personal list as well as the clear ADP choice at this point of the draft. If you were looking to go with a starting pitcher early, drafting one in the neighborhood of picks 8-13 wouldn't be the craziest idea in the world, but with elite hitters flying off the board early, it would seem "smarter" to wait until the "pitcher's seal" is cracked by somebody else before diving in.
With a clear tier of three players at the top of second base and shortstop, it's not shocking that the remaining members of these groups went off the board in Round 2. However, Berry was not looking up the middle when his pick came along at No. 18, passing on Ian Kinsler to grab Adrian Beltre.
"I have Beltre at No. 17 in my top 250 ranks, so getting him at No. 18 made total sense to me. I felt anyone past him would be a reach, and because I'd already gotten Pujols, the ability to get my corner spots done with my first two picks -- especially as I am down on guys like David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman and Aramis Ramirez this year -- was a no-brainer to me," Berry explained.
My pick at No. 13 was Adrian Gonzalez, which is not a move I would have made on my own. It's not that I don't think Gonzalez is a good value there, but it meant I picked two Red Sox hitters with my first two picks. While I'm not opposed to getting several hitters on one major league team's lineup over the course of a draft, I'd probably have gone with Prince Fielder instead had I been left to my own devices, simply to spread the risk out a bit.
Six starters went off the board in Round 3, which didn't surprise me. In my personal rankings, I have seven starters in the top 25. As such, once you get into this part of the draft, the value of grabbing your staff anchor here gets to the point where you simply can't pass it up regardless of how deep you may feel starting pitching is this year.
When my pick came along, Cliff Lee was at the top of the board, and I had no issues with that choice here. The run on pitchers continued after my pick, with Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum being selected next. I asked Quintong whether he was influenced by the "run" or his pick was planned all along. Even in retrospect, he's not quite sure. "I was already looking at a starting pitcher in the third round since it seemed like it was a good time to get a top-notch ace," he said. "But I also kind of got caught in the run, though I have no qualms about making that pick."
In other words, although he was already considering a starting pitcher at the time, once the run started, it was difficult for him to even consider another option. It's a common thing that happens to owners in drafts, especially with a ticking clock forcing you to make decisions quickly.
In Round 4, Karabell might have reached a bit for Eric Hosmer, but he wanted to be sure he nabbed a player he thinks much higher of today than he did at the start of the spring. "I've basically decided that Hosmer is going to do a lot better than what we have projected him for, so why wait two or three rounds to get him? I've moved Hosmer ahead of Paul Konerko and expect 25 homers, 90 RBIs."
There's no point in playing chicken if you have that kind of faith in a player. Fearing he wouldn't have gotten Hosmer if he waited, Karabell pounced and was quite happy with the result, a feeling that repeated itself when he grabbed Brett Lawrie with his next pick. The moral of the story is to grab whom you want when your turn comes to avoid getting stuck with a roster of guys you can't stand.
After the ADP told me to grab Jered Weaver in Round 4, CC Sabathia was the Round 5 pick assigned to me "by the masses." That's a pretty good trio at the top of my rotation, and a quick scan of the remaining list as it stood at the time indicated it was likely to be quite a few rounds before another SP rose to the top, especially given the likelihood that other owners were about to start grabbing the remaining few members of the top 20 before too long.
Cockcroft went with Elvis Andrus here, showing a lot of support for the shortstop. "He is 23, he fills the tough shortstop spot with 35-steal speed, and he's hitting .370 and drawing walks this spring. I think there's more room for growth. I've come to think that we, as a group, were too low on Andrus at the summit."
Given the number of middle infielders who went off the board between Cockcroft's Round 5 and 6 picks -- Ben Zobrist, Brandon Phillips, Jimmy Rollins, Starlin Castro and Asdrubal Cabrera -- it's pretty safe to assume that Andrus would not have been around for the taking at No. 59.
The collective wisdom tells me to grab the first catcher of the draft, Mike Napoli, in Round 6. I think in most leagues, you might have to grab him, Carlos Santana and maybe even Brian McCann a round earlier than this. In our mock drafts with only one catcher required to have a legal roster, we all tend to wait a bit longer to fill that slot.
Another tendency in our mocks is to wait on closers and "not pay for saves," so it's always interesting when a reliever goes in the first eight rounds. Knowing full well the ESPN.com mock draft trend, Hunter still grabbed Craig Kimbrel at pick No. 55. Why? Hunter had a plan: "With the strategy I was running, it was important for me to get the best closer in the game even if it meant taking him earlier than normal. My goal heading into this draft was to draft three or four closers, and the rest top middle relievers. The idea being that I would win ERA, WHIP and saves, while forgoing wins and strikeouts."
Hunter's final pitching staff will end up consisting of nine relievers, and the post-draft projections have him winning the league by nine points. Sure, projections are just that, and the end result may not bear such sweet fruit, but by having a plan going in and executing it perfectly, were we to play this league out, Hunter would be starting out in a very strong position.
My picks in the next two rounds were Alex Rodriguez and Alex Gordon. Apart from having the same first name, the two could not be more different. In A-Rod, we're hoping for one more season before the injuries take a permanent toll on the once-great hitter. With Gordon, we're hoping that the promise of a onetime can't-miss prospect wasn't limited to 2011's long-awaited breakout campaign. Given events of the spring, with Rodriguez visiting doctors and Gordon crushing the ball, we'll hope for a 1-for-2 here.
I was not expecting Adam Jones to be taken so soon, but Zola grabbed the Orioles outfielder at No. 67. As he explained, "I was looking to piece-meal enough steals together so I wouldn't have to get a steals specialist, and I like the upside potential of Jones in terms of both power and speed. I was going to go with Crawford had he slipped."
However, Crawford went four picks earlier, and in the end, Zola went for the "safety" of Jones over Shin-Soo Choo, who went to Karabell at No. 69. Karabell also selected David Ortiz, a value pick in terms of stats, to be sure. The problem with Ortiz is his DH-only status, which makes you have to slot him in at the utility spot and probably is responsible for adding a good two to three rounds to his ADP.
Sometimes you end up taking players you don't like, simply because you're out of alternatives. Gramling, having passed on a third baseman until now, found himself with only Aramis Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis to choose from in the "upper tiers." To illustrate this truth, consider that Martin Prado in Round 14 was the next third baseman selected after those two went off the board. (Youkilis went to Cockcroft early in Round 9.)
Here's how Gramling decided between the lesser of two evils. "I'm not a huge fan of Ramirez, but Youkilis is too much of an injury risk. Ramirez always hits well against NL Central teams, and his lineup in Milwaukee will be better than his Cubs lineups of the past few seasons, which should make up for his slight downgrade in ballparks from a power standpoint."
"In for a penny, in for a pound." My team's offense is starting to worry me a bit, but at this point of the proceedings, I'm actually quite happy to see that the ADP is pushing me to continue to bolster my pitching staff. After all, if I'm already playing catch-up on offense, I'd better make darn sure my mound team is able to finish at or near the top in all five pitching categories. So I'm more than happy to use these rounds to grab Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon to secure what should be 70-80 saves. Adam Wainwright, who has been putting up nothing but goose eggs all spring, also joins my already-strong starting rotation. J.J. Hardy might not hit 30 home runs again, but since we're already behind in power, we'd be more than happy to get 20 from our shortstop with a 12th-round pick.
I wasn't the only owner who was waiting on offense. Cwalinski had done enough mocks this year to recognize that he was typically waiting too long to grab starting pitching. Learning from his past mistakes, he made it a point to grab David Price, C.J. Wilson and Madison Bumgarner in Rounds 6-8. However, that put him behind the eight ball in terms of outfielders.
The result? Jayson Werth and Corey Hart in Rounds 9 and 10. "The worst case with Werth would be that I get last season's numbers from him," Cwalinski said. "However, he is a career .265 hitter and a good bet for 20-plus home runs and 15-plus steals."
Hart likely will miss the first series of the season with a bad knee, and that's likely the reason that his draft stock has been steadily falling of late. He's got top-20 outfielder potential and might miss three to six games in April. That's no reason to run away from him in the same way owners are jumping ship on players with more serious injuries, like Chase Utley. When enough owners in your draft get scared by those red letters "DTD," you can find some bargains.
Quality catchers continue to exist and finally start to come off the board again. Alex Avila and Buster Posey go in Rounds 13 and 14, around my pick of Joe Mauer. I particularly like the idea of grabbing a second top-10 catcher in ESPN standard leagues before most people have grabbed their first to gain a little trade leverage for later in the season.
Perhaps because he already has a home run under his belt, Dustin Ackley gets picked in Round 16, a good round ahead of where his ADP has seen him go in drafts. Jesus Montero, at No. 159, also went off the board earlier than expected, and with two games down, he's still no closer to gaining catcher eligibility. Just an FYI.
Karabell grabbed Yu Darvish in Round 13. He'll be the No. 4 starter for Texas, and it looks like the buzz has finally died down enough where he's now being selected perhaps later than he should be going. Rumors of Michael Pineda (No. 131) being sent to the minors to start the season make him a potential later-round bargain, on the assumption that such a demotion would simply be due to roster size issues and the simple fact that Pineda still has options left.
h4> ROUND 25
We're finally forced to steer clear of our self-imposed ADP rule to fill out our starting lineups, and it's not too upsetting to see that we're able to grab Jemile Weeks, Marco Scutaro, Mat Gamel, Ryan Raburn and Mark Trumbo in the final portion of the draft. To be able to wait this long and still get guys with 25-homer or 25-stolen-base potential is nothing to sneeze at.
Plenty of injury risks with huge upside are also still around for those willing to roll the dice, such as Kendrys Morales (No. 176), Utley (No. 177), Ryan Howard (No. 195) and Justin Morneau (No. 247) just to name a few.
All in all, this draft can give you a basic idea of where certain players are being selected and let you know which players you might be able to wait that extra round on before reaching for, or to pounce on quicker than you had planned to ensure you reap the benefits of ownership instead of watching one of your rivals laugh his way to a fantasy title.
Of course, every draft is different, and it's always important to have a Plan B in place for when things don't seem to be going your way. But that's all part of the fun, is it not?
Whether you believe that leagues can be won or lost on draft day is up to you, but I can guarantee you that if you don't draft at all, you've got no shot. So grab a group of friends, get in the game and have some fun. You'll be glad you did.