2014 Mock Draft No. 1

Updated: February 19, 2014, 12:30 PM ET
By Brian Gramling | Special to ESPN.com

I don't consider the start of each baseball season to be when "America's" Pastime has its Opening Day in another country -- Australia, in this case -- and I don't even circle the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training on my calendar. No, for me, my baseball season begins when I take part in my first mock draft of the season.

Ten ESPN.com fantasy baseball gurus jumped in a chat room on the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 11 to conduct our first of many experts' mock drafts before April rolls around. Our random draft order spit out a lineup of James Quintong leading off, Brendan Roberts in the 2-hole, Eric Karabell batting third, Tristan "Sultan of Stat" Cockcroft hitting cleanup, Stephania Bell batting fifth, Tim Kavanagh sixth, AJ Mass seventh, myself eighth, Keith Lipscomb ninth and Todd Zola as the capable extra hitter in the 10th and final swing spot. This was a standard 5 x 5 mixed-league snake draft with 22 starters (13 hitters, 9 pitchers) and three bench slots.

I asked this lineup of heavy hitters to explain their thoughts during the draft process, what their strategy was going in, and what turned out both good and bad. And even though I've been playing some form of fantasy baseball for roughly a quarter century, beginning with home run derby (picking one player at each position with most total homers winning) in high school with Shawn, Len, Ox and some also-rans, I always learn something new in every mock draft, especially when I pick the enlarged brains of my fellow expert drafters while doing so.

Although it is nearly impossible to determine a mock draft "winner," the ESPN.com draft room keeps a tally of standings based on projected statistics of each pick. Not only does this allow for bragging rights of the projected winner, but it really helps during a draft to see which particular categories you are weakest in. I have included an evaluation of these projected standings below each expert's breakdown of how his or her draft turned out.

As for the team charts for each of the experts, the "Mock" column is where the player was drafted on Feb. 11, the "Rank" column shows where the player ranked in the ESPN.com Top 300 when we conducted the draft, and Mock-Rank is the difference in the two columns. The higher the number, the more of a steal the owner got, while the lowest negative numbers represent the biggest reaches of the draft.

Below is what shook out after 91 minutes (approximately one pick every 22 seconds) of fast-paced drafting.

Draft strategy:
Getting Mike Trout at No. 1 overall gave me a lot of flexibility to build out my offense in a number of ways, which is very nice. There were plenty of topflight starting pitchers this year, so I thought it would be nice to get at least a couple of them to anchor the staff and not worry a lot about tweaking the lineup throughout the season (unless injuries strike, of course).

What I liked:
I like the all-around games of Joey Votto and David Wright, and definitely enjoyed getting them both on the turnaround between Rounds 2 and 3. I was also pleased to secure two young strong starting arms in Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner to anchor the staff, plus Mat Latos and James Shields behind them. In a shallow league like this, there still is room to take calculated gambles, like I did with the Brewers' duo of Marco Estrada and Khris Davis.

What I disliked:
By taking Votto and Wright, and all the pitchers, the middle infield may not be as strong as I might like. Having Chase Utley, J.J. Hardy and Andrelton Simmons in those slots isn't bad, but it isn't great. I also avoided a lot of outfielders after Trout and Jay Bruce, so this position beyond those two isn't all that special.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Quintong's team would finish seventh in this league with 51.5 points. His team's strengths are BA (10 points), WHIP (8 points) and runs (7 points), with the weaknesses being steals (1 point) and K's (2 points). The points are pretty balanced between hitting (27) and pitching (24.5), which was actually a tad surprising considering Quintong drafted five pitchers among his first 11 selections. He was not feeling the West Coast players though, picking just two guys (Trout and Bumgarner) who play in either the AL West or NL West divisions.

Draft strategy:
Instead of "sell, sell, sell," or "location, location, location" (or even "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia"), my mantra going into these shallow drafts is "upside, upside, upside." And by upside, I'm talking proven veteran upside (not young, unproven high-ceiling guys), the kind of guy you know has the capability to do big things. If that high-upside guy suffers an injury (Clay Buchholz, Mark Teixeira) or doesn't appear to have any magic left (Brian McCann, Jake Peavy, Tim Lincecum), I cut bait and take advantage of a free-agent wire that still has plenty of talent and depth.

What I liked:
Well, I think I accomplished my objective, for one. It's one of those "sum of its parts" draft. I don't remember "pumping my fist" on any one pick, but I also felt at least reasonably happy with all my selections. They at least made sense. And I stayed true to myself by selecting several of "my" players, those guys I tend to like more than others (and often end up with during in-house drafts), including Yu Darvish, Shin-Soo Choo, Craig Kimbrel, Matt Holliday, Josh Hamilton, Jake Peavy and Mark Teixeira. As such, I'm proud to call this team my own.

What I disliked:
I'm comfortable with my catcher Jonathan Lucroy (plus his backup or a DH option, Brian McCann), but it's almost an unwritten rule in our in-house drafts that the B-Rob gets Buster Posey. OK, not really, but since I like him more than my league mates, I usually get him. In this draft, I found the one person who likes him as much as me: Stephania Bell, who grabbed him a few picks before me. Nice pick, Stephania! I also love Joe Mauer, but didn't get him either. I'm also one of those who likes to have three fairly reliable closers so I don't have to worry about saves, and Mr. Jose Veras as my third closer is far from a reliable option. Looks like I could have some work to do there.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Roberts' team would be the runaway winner of this league with 68.5 points, 9.5 points ahead of second place. His team's strengths are runs and RBIs (10 points each) and steals (7.5 points), with the weaknesses being ERA (3 points) and saves (4.5 points). He is projected to compile 41.5 hitter points (9.5 ahead of all others) with a serviceable 26.5 pitcher points. This lack of balance wasn't a big shocker, as Roberts drafted as many Hamiltons (Josh and Billy) as starting pitchers (Darvish and Gio Gonzalez) among his first dozen picks. Because of his affinity for the veteran players, Roberts had the best value picks in the draft, choosing players who were an average of 7.1 slots below their rankings.

Draft strategy:
My draft strategy rarely changes. Get as much top offense as possible regardless of position -- position scarcity is a myth! -- along with a top-10 rotation option, and then worry about filling the starting pitchers and closers. I did that. I felt like the offense was in good shape when I chose Tanaka. Saves always get undervalued -- and properly so -- with this crew, and I wasn't too concerned with quality by Round 16, just saves. It's not the youngest team, but we're playing for only this season.

What I liked:
I thought several steals slipped long enough for me to grab them, including Bryce Harper, Jose Bautista, Billy Butler, Jedd Gyorko, Alfonso Soriano and Austin Jackson. I know why Butler was avoided as long as he was, in part for his lack of power and also for losing first-base eligibility, but I think both reasons are overblown. I also love that I was able to take my catcher in the final round; having two teams (Roberts and Mass) select multiple catchers was not an obstacle. Wait on the position.

What I disliked:
Picking one spot after Cockcroft half the time, when we tend to think alike, is rarely fun because he ends up selecting players I wanted. That happened later in the draft with several closers. But there's always saves! While I don't view Robinson Cano as a top-10 guy, it looked like he'd slip to me at No. 17 and then ... Tristan took him. No matter, I view Jason Kipnis as just as valuable. I didn't really dislike anything, though I would never target the closers I ended up taking, but I was able to carry out my plan.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Karabell's team would finish fourth in this league with 56.5 points. His team's strengths are BA and saves (9 points each) and ERA (7 points), with the weaknesses being WHIP (1 point) and RBIs (3.5 points). Despite grabbing eight hitters among his first nine picks, Karabell has a great projected balance with 29.5 hitter points and 27 pitcher points. He went 14 rounds between picking his third outfielder (Jose Bautista in the fifth round) and fourth outfielder (Alfonso Soriano in the 19th round) and amazingly did not pick any Philadelphia Phillies! A.J. Burnett signed with his beloved team one day after our draft.

Draft strategy:
If there is any smarter year to utilize my "Modified Labadini" strategy (and since this is a draft, not auction, shall I call it "Labadrafti"?) than 2014? Think about it: In a mixed league with 10 teams and daily transactions, as with ESPN's standard game, there is a wealth of starting pitching depth this season, but one clear, money-in-the-bank starting pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) who will last longer in every draft than he should simply because fantasy owners have this erroneous belief that pitchers don't belong in the first round. So it's simple: You pick Kershaw with your first pick, regardless of where that pick rests, then draft your entire hitting lineup in succession beginning in Round 2, then pick nothing but pitchers from Round 15 on, including spending all three bench spots on pitchers for depth. It is a play to maximize your offense as well as your staff's pitching matchups potential, while ensuring you have that one "anchor" ace to stabilize your ratios.

What I liked:
Despite the low standings projection -- these are rarely accurate judges of in-season performance anyway, but especially so for teams leaning more on matchups than ride-it-through strategies -- I'm pleased with the offense. The Stanton, Upton and Machado picks in particular build in a good amount of profit potential. And as the "Labadrafti" strategy relies more upon saves than starts exiting the draft, I'm thrilled with the closers I got: Reed, Grilli, Feliz and Jones represent as good a crop as I think anyone got.

What I disliked:
Well, I don't like the standings projection, but again, that's to be expected. I'm "behind" in hitting because I didn't spend bench spots to fuel my offense, but I also probably have the lowest-risk offense in the league. But what I truly didn't like was that I know this group, and it's generally conservative with drafting pitching, increasing the level of difficulty successfully navigating the strategy. What I'd advise readers interested in trying it: Check your league's historical draft trends and determine whether your ownership typically follows our conservative approach, or the site's ADP data, which tends to take a more aggressive approach to pitching. The more yours leans toward the latter, the smarter this plan is for you.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Cockcroft's team would finish last in this league with 46.5 points. His team's strengths are saves (10 points) and wins (9 points), with the weaknesses being runs, homers, steals and WHIP (2 points each). While his pitching ranks tied for second in the league with 31 projected points, his 15.5 hitting points are the lowest among the 10 experts. This occurred despite Cockcroft making 13 consecutive hitter selections from Round 2 to Round 14. Once Round 15 hit and he had no more starting spots for his batters, Cockcroft finished the draft with 11 pitchers in a row (seven starters, four relievers).

Draft strategy:
Depth. When reasonable, I opted for some players who had multiple-position eligibility. In the past I have sometimes had trouble replacing players who are slumping or injured and decided to try to staff my squad with players who could offer me more flexibility, either for my team or future trade options. I also tried to get some solid pitching early. I had a few pitchers I had my eye on who were swiped either in the pick just before or a couple picks before me. I also avoided players who I thought were in line for a potential decline based on cumulative injuries recently (shocking, I know). For hitters, I looked at guys who could get on base and then have steal potential. Sure, I took a couple Giants because I like to root for my teams -- fantasy and real -- in unison. Heck, I almost drafted Tim Lincecum, just for moral support.

What I liked:
I like the strength of my pitchers, especially in K's, one of my usual draft weaknesses. I also like the potential in the steal category. When I look back at my draft, while it's easy to see where I could make adjustments, I think it overall reflects where my teams have failed me in past seasons (i.e. steals, strikeouts) and how I consciously tried to make adjustments.

What I disliked:
Lack of sluggers. In retrospect I could have improved in that area. In the past, I have overpaid for saves, and looking at my draft, think I perhaps overcompensated in the other direction. All in all, I don't live by the rankings but use them as a general guide, knowing I will often draft outside of them based on personal preference and my significant risk aversion. Not unhappy with first mock draft of the year. I always look at it as very instructive as to how others whose opinion I respect are drafting. Helps me prep for the real thing.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Bell's team would finish eighth in this league with 51 points. Her team's strengths are steals, K's and WHIP (10 points each), and the weaknesses are homers, RBIs and saves (1 point each). She is extremely balanced in her projected points with 26 from pitchers and 25 from hitters. Bell made the second-biggest average reach in the draft, picking players who were an average of 9.5 slots ahead of their rankings. Bell's team has a definite West Coast flair to it, with 11 of her first 17 picks residing in the AL West or NL West divisions.

Draft strategy:
Like anyone else, I like to target the multicategory studs early on. As the saying goes, you won't win your draft in the first three rounds, but you can lose it if you get too fancy. There is a ton of talent in the outfield this season -- which some might misinterpret as meaning you can wait on filling those slots -- but the high-end guys are real standouts; I wanted to get two outfielders in the top four rounds, and did so, with CarGo and Puig. I had a two-pronged plan for the middle infield: Grab one of the top guys if available with one of my other picks in the top four rounds, but if not, I'd wait to snatch them much later. There are a lot of nonexciting players in the middle infield this season, and I didn't want to waste a pick there just to fill a hole when I could grab a more productive corner infielder or outfielder.

What I liked:
Knowing that this group likes to wait on pitching, I'm happy I was able to scoop up two high-strikeout aces in David Price and Justin Verlander. Verlander was a slight "reach," based on his rating, but I'm on the "he should be ranked higher" side of argument; I'm not troubled by the health concerns, and think he should deliver this season. I'm also ecstatic that I was able to land Nick Castellanos so late, as he has massive upside and a clear path to a regular gig in Detroit.

What I disliked:
I didn't deviate from my strategy, but I did miss out on grabbing my preferred 2B (Jedd Gyorko, who I think is poised for a breakout) and SS (Andrelton Simmons, same). I'm not overly dismayed with Jed Lowrie and Brian Dozier, though. As noted above, once the top guys are off the board, I'm not going to fret over missing out on a midtier guy.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Kavanagh's team would finish sixth in this league with 55 points. His team's strengths are homers (10 points), runs, K's and wins (8 points each), with the weaknesses being ERA (1 point), BA and saves (2 points each). Kavanagh's squad is in much better shape hittingwise (32 projected points) than pitchingwise (23 projected points), which is to be expected with 11 of his first 13 picks, and all three of his bench players, being batters. Kavanagh had the second-best value picks in the draft, selecting players who were an average of 1.6 slots below their rankings.

Draft strategy:
I always say that the best strategy, especially in a start-from-scratch draft, is to take the time to rank the top 50-100 players regardless of position, along with making sure you've figured out where the tiers are at each individual position. For the first five rounds, I'm simply going to take the best player regardless of position when my turn comes around. After that, I'm going to spend the next 5-10 rounds trying to alternate as best as I can between pitchers and hitters, with an emphasis on grabbing picks from whatever tier is looking ready to run out by the time my subsequent pick is due to arrive. For the remaining rounds, I'm going to look to grab picks that either fill what looks to be a glaring need (like saves or home runs) or those guys I think have great sleeper value. Especially in a 10-team league, I'd rather take a chance like that because if I swing and miss miserably, there's still a deep enough waiver wire pool to correct the mistake.

What I liked:
The least important category to focus on for hitters is batting average. For pitchers, it's wins. So even though my team's projected numbers for those two categories fall incredibly short when comparing them to the rest of the league, they're also the most likely to be wrong. I'll take my chances with a team that's otherwise quite competitive. I probably could have waited a bit longer to get my catcher, because I think there's a good five or six guys whom I'd be happy with at the position, but in my opinion, Yadier Molina is more valuable in relation to the "average option" behind the plate than any of the top-rated players at any other position -- even Mike Trout. You heard me! I'm really high on Kyle Seager this season, and Doug Fister could well end up with the most fantasy value in the Washington rotation, Strasburg included. If Nelson Cruz were already signed at the time of this draft, he might well have been selected five rounds sooner. In Round 18, he could be the steal of the draft.

What I disliked:
I gambled and lost by taking Ryan Braun instead of Yasiel Puig in Round 2, even though I had the two outfielders in a virtual dead heat in my personal ranks. That's a move I made in the hopes that I might end up with both, which I didn't think would happen in reverse. Unfortunately, I fell one pick short of success. I also didn't like missing out on both Ben Zobrist and Jean Segura, each of whom I thought would fall to me with "my next pick." Once that happened, I knew I was going to draft Jimmy Rollins -- and I probably picked him one round sooner than I had to. Roberts also stunned me by grabbing Tim Lincecum with his final pick, as I was all set to claim him as my own in Round 25 -- proving once again, you should never take anything for granted. I had to scramble at that point, and went with Russell Martin, if only to indicate my belief that he could potentially be a top-10 catcher if he stays healthy the entire season.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Mass' team would finish ninth in this league with 50 points. His team's strengths are RBIs and steals (9 points), with the weaknesses being BA, K's and wins (1 point each). Mass made the biggest average reach in the draft, picking players who were an average of 12.3 slots ahead of their rankings. He's projected to have the worst pitching staff in the league with just 20 points from his arms and 30 points from his bats. This lack of pitching points isn't a big surprise considering he chose just one hurler (Cole Hamels) among his first eight selections.

Draft strategy:
Knowing that most of these experts wait on pitching in a 10-team league, I decided to load up on power early and then shift the focus to speed/average, starting pitching and finally closers. Home run hitters are usually three-category studs (HRs, RBIs, runs), and I've found that it's harder to find power late in a draft than it is for the other categories. I also think starting pitching is a deeper position than usual and there were enough strong middle infielders and catchers (with just one starting catcher spot to draft), to not have to reach for a great one early. I'm also not thrilled about corner infield depth as I see about 20 players I really like, and I knew that at least 35 corner infielders would be drafted here with 10 first basemen, 10 third basemen, 10 corner infielders and at least five utility spots.

What I liked:
I was very pleased with all of my top-10 picks, with the biggest rankings reach being Albert Pujols, whom I chose four spots ahead of his ranking. I "cornered" the market on slugging corner infielders with Davis, Longoria, Pujols, Craig and Trumbo among my first nine picks, supplying my team with ample power. Although I didn't plan on having three starters among my top 10 selections, I couldn't pass up either Felix Hernandez in the fourth round or Max Scherzer in the sixth (19 spots after his ranking), giving me two of what I consider to be the truly elite six-pack of starters along with Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. I was also pleased with the three closers I drafted and where I took them, but I'm admittedly higher on Henderson than most of the experts. I was able to hold out until Round 22 to get my catcher, happy that I wasn't among the seven owners who drafted their catcher in the first dozen rounds. Clippard is my favorite middle reliever whom I will keep active for the entire year, and with such a small bench, I figured I might as well reach for prospect Archie Bradley in hopes that he makes the Opening Day rotation.

What I disliked:
I didn't realize how quickly the outfield position would thin out, which is why I took three straight outfielders in Rounds 7-9. I'm not thrilled about having Curtis Granderson as my fourth outfielder, but I made sure to pick seven outfielders so I could mix and match throughout the season. I'm also not jumping for joy about my middle infield situation, having to make my biggest offensive reaches for 2B Daniel Murphy (14 spots ahead of ranking) and SS Jhonny Peralta (26 spots ahead of ranking). But spending an early pick on Troy Tulowitzki makes me more confident about my MI trio as compared to the rest of the league. I will struggle in the speed department and my batting average is also lower than I would like.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, my team would finish fifth in this league with 56 points .My team's strengths are WHIP (10 points), homers (9 points) and ERA (8 points), and the weaknesses are steals, BA and wins (3 points each). I was surprised that my pitching (31 points) is projected to outscore my hitters (25 points), and I wasn't making a conscious effort to pick four St. Louis Cardinals, but there are certainly much worse teams to stack up on.

Draft strategy:
My strategy was to get as many multicategorical helpers as possible early on, but to make sure not to miss out on a couple aces to bolster my pitching staff. Because saves come into the league throughout the season, I wanted to pick spots to get a few helpers but not panic in doing so. I was hoping to get decent corner men as well, since I don't love the overall depth there. In terms of my staff, I like to put an emphasis on ERA and WHIP, since it's difficult to predict wins. And since this is a one-catcher league, I'm inclined to wait and take the 10th-best backstop, if need be.

What I liked:
I was happy with the starting pitching I was able to assemble across the board. Beyond Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke, it's not a flashy staff, but I like the potential if it can remain healthy. Johnny Cueto, in particular, was a nice value. He may not help in K's, but to get a pitcher with a 2.61 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over the past three years in Round 17 works for me. There's definitely injury risk, but if he goes down, there will be worthy replacements available to fill the void. I was happy to get a solid middle infield and to have waited at catcher to land a player with Wilson Ramos' potential. I wasn't ecstatic with the squad, but I think it's a competitive crew.

What I disliked:
I didn't get enough pop, and that's going to be hard to make up for. That's the beauty of mocks, to correct your mistakes and to experience how quickly certain positions dry up. I was disappointed to miss out on Evan Longoria in Round 3, since that was the end of a tier for me at that position. Because of that, I don't like my corners very much.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Lipscomb's team would finish second in this league with 58.5 points. His team's strengths are ERA (10 points), WHIP (9 points), homers and RBIs (8 points each), with the weaknesses being wins (2 points), runs, K's and saves (3 points each). Lipscomb has a balanced squad with 31.5 hitter points and 27 pitcher points despite choosing only two pitchers in his first 10 selections. However he did not take his second corner infielder until Round 15, taking Jose Abreu after a run of four straight pitcher picks in Rounds 11-14. The die-hard Cleveland Indians fan didn't pick any Tribe members the entire draft, but loaded up with four Los Angeles Dodgers in his first eight selections.

Draft strategy:
My usual approach is to play it safe early and take chances later. I don't worry about perceived scarcity and my goal is to win the league, not win the draft, so my teams often lag in the projected standings since they can't capture the nuances of how I plan to manage the team or account for the speculative picks that are likely projected conservatively. Having the end pick has both advantages and disadvantages. If you time it right, you can instigate a run. On the other hand, you can get caught short if there's an extended run between your picks. The key is not to reach. It's a long season and there will be ample opportunity to address any deficiencies with sage in-season management. Something I am going to do that is a little different this year is getting in on the closer action earlier than normal. The reason is there is a much larger group than normal that can punch out upward of 90 and even 100 or more hitters. The focus is saves but if you don't get one from this group, you could be in a 30-K hole from the beginning.

What I liked:
Maybe it was overkill, but getting two closers early with 100-whiff potential and a third later meant I didn't have to chase starting pitching, especially since I was also able to pick up Chris Sale, my third-ranked starting pitcher. I really like the chances I was able to take, specifically Matt Adams, Leonys Martin, Drew Smyly, Tony Cingrani, Danny Salazar, Kole Calhoun and Alex Wood, all of whom can pay huge dividends.

What I disliked:
In the middle, I felt low on power, which forced me to take Wilin Rosario. I didn't want to take a catcher until my last pick since there are 11 I would be happy to bring into battle. But I decided I needed the extra pop Rosario has the potential to provide. This likely cost me a better middle infielder than Kelly Johnson. If forced, I can get by with Johnson but would prefer if he were a reserve with 3B-position eligibility whom I could use on an as-needed basis.

Overall evaluation:
Based on projected standings, Zola's team would finish third in this league with 57 points. His team's strengths are K's and ERA (9 points each) and BA and steals (8 points each), with the weaknesses being runs (1 point), RBIs (2 points) and homers (3 points). Zola selected five pitchers among his first 10 picks, which is a big reason why he's projected with a league-high 39 pitcher points, but only 18 hitter points (second lowest among 10 teams). He chose just three offensive players from the National League (Hunter Pence, Matt Adams and Wilin Rosario), the same number of offensive players he picked from the Texas Rangers (Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios and Leonys Martin).

So there you have it. Be sure to check back throughout spring training for more mocks, and I encourage you all to get into the ESPN.com Mock Draft Lobby as much as possible to test out your strategies in both snake drafts and auctions, AL-only, NL-only or mixed leagues.

Brian Gramling is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.

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