- AJ Mass, Rumor Central
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"Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me.
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell." -- William Shakespeare's "Anthony and Cleopatra"
As the sun sets on the fantasy football season, so it again rises on the national pastime. With just a few weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report, the ESPN Fantasy staff once again convened in beautiful Bristol, Conn., for our annual rankings meetings. Fingers were wagged, voices were raised, and Fernando Rodney's battle for respect ended before it began. Still, at the end of the week, a consensus had been achieved, leaving but one piece of business left to conduct: the first of our mock drafts for the 2011 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: Eric Karabell, Jason Grey, the tag-team duo of James Quintong and Keith Lipscomb (hereafter referred to as "Quinscomb"), Matthew Berry, Shawn "C-Dub" Cwalinski, Dave Hunter, me, Christopher Harris, Nate Ravitz and Brendan Roberts.
Keep in mind that this draft took place on Jan. 20, so moves like the Vernon Wells-Mike Napoli trade (and then the subsequent Napoli trade to the Texas Rangers) and the Tampa Bay Rays signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez had not yet factored into the mix. Also remember that we drafted after having spent two days in a conference room arguing for and against certain players, and knowing for sure that you're the only guy who is interested in drafting a certain player makes it really easy to wait until the final rounds to grab him.
For each round, I'll outline my own personal reasoning behind my selection, as well as provide a bit of insight into some of the more eye-opening picks of my esteemed colleagues. So without much further ado about nothing, here are the results of our love's labors -- both lost and won:
My pick: Roy Halladay. With 20 wins, 200 strikeouts and a WHIP approaching 1.00, there's no questioning that Doc is atop the pitching pyramid. I'd actually consider taking him as early as third overall, so this was a no-brainer to me at No. 7. There is a lot of pitching depth this season, but few are as "sure a thing" as Halladay.
Berry took Troy Tulowitzki at four, which left Evan Longoria on the board to be snatched up with the fifth pick. C-Dub was hoping for the third baseman to fall into his lap, "I did not want to take Crawford that early, nor did I want to take a starter in the first round. I would have passed on Tulowitzki given he has averaged 125 games played the last three years." Berry, on the other hand, was more than happy with his pick, declaring after Round 2 was over that he'd rather have his combo of Tulo and Ryan Zimmerman than Longoria and any remaining shortstop. Harris was also lucky late in the round, with Adrian Gonzalez lasting until No. 8. He was concerned about the overall lack of depth at the corner positions, so he passed on Ryan Braun here. "I have fewer worries about Gonzalez's offensive numbers than Wright's, and Braun, of course, is OF-only. I would've taken Wright in the second round, but obviously he didn't last."
My pick: Joey Votto. Seconding the notion that corner spots are at a premium, I went with the reigning NL MVP here. Thanks to the perceived need to grab the premium middle infielders early (like Roberts' pick of Robinson Cano), I was able to claim a likely .315 batting average and 30 home runs in Round 2.
Ravitz's selection of Carlos Gonzalez in Round 2 could turn out to be a huge bargain. "I do think he'll regress a bit -- especially in batting average -- but there's no reason to expect a disaster. Someone had to be the one, and 12 seems like too good a value to pass up," the not-so Negative Nate explains. Indeed, even if the Colorado Rockies outfielder slides to 30-100-20 and hits "only" .300, this selection is a steal. Jason Grey was faced with the dilemma of whether or not to tell Kevin James about his cheating wife. Wait, wrong dilemma. No, Grey had to pick between Texas Rangers teammates Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton. Ultimately, he went with the more brittle of the pair, Hamilton, figuring he might well get better stats from him even if he only stays healthy for 75 percent of the season.
My Pick: Jose Bautista. I was stunned to see the reigning home run champion fall to me in the third round. Even if he loses 25 percent of his power numbers, that will still be good enough for 40 home runs and he has third base eligibility to boot. In my mind, there's a huge drop-off from Bautista to waiting a round and settling for Adrian Beltre instead.
Karabell had been the lone voice in support of Matt Kemp during our meetings, and he put his money where his mouth was by selecting the outfielder with one of his bookend selections. "Hey, I believe that's a good spot to get him. Offense isn't deep, including in the outfield. I nearly took Justin Upton right with him, but took Tim Lincecum instead. Pitching is deep, but it never hurts to have an ace." Perhaps surprisingly, Upton nearly lasted long enough to find Karabell in Round 4. Joe Mauer was the first catcher off the board, going to Harris. We'll discuss this position a bit more later on, but it will become pretty clear that Mauer is by himself in a "tier of one" behind the plate. Also this round, Kevin Youkilis went to C-Dub. Youk only has first-base eligibility for now, though he will be manning the hot corner in 2011, and should be a bit more flexible in lineups come April.
My picks: Derek Jeter, Justin Verlander. The way I look at it, either Jeter is Jeter, or he falls off the face of the Earth completely. There's no middle ground here, and given the offseason angst in his contract negotiations, I'm expecting him to play with a chip of sorts on his shoulder. Besides, I'm not now nor have I ever been a Jimmy Rollins believer. As for Verlander, he's my choice for the AL Cy Young this season, and another near-lock for 200 innings pitched and 200 strikeouts. Five rounds into the draft, and I already feel secure that my rotation will match up favorably with any other team.
Hunter follows my pick with Ryan Howard, who could easily end up with 40 home runs this season, another nod to how deep first base truly is in 2011. Compare that selection with the one made at the end of the round by Karabell, Dan Uggla. Uggla is our fourth-ranked second baseman and doesn't quite measure up to Howard, our No. 8 man at the first base bag. That sets off a second base run in Round 5 with Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks all getting scooped up.
My picks: B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino. Grey thought it was too soon for Upton to be taken off the board, but I had yet to claim my first outfielder, and didn't want to miss out on the entire top 20. I passed on Jacoby Ellsbury because I wanted to take a chance on Upton's 20-homer upside. But certainly, I do love those stolen bases and kept the speed going with the Flying Hawaiian, who might also score 100 runs in the Philadelphia Phillies lineup.
All throughout Round 6, Roberts said he was hoping to land a "mystery player" and promised to perform the Shipoopi Dance if fate smiled on him. Alas, it did, and we were forced to endure his bizarre gyrations of joy in landing Buster Posey. Roberts' strategy for this draft was simple. "I wanted 'my guys.' I mean, we all do, but it seems sometimes I'm swayed into taking guys I'm not really a big fan of because I feel they've fallen too far to ignore, or because the general consensus suggests he would be what I need in a given draft spot. That's how I ended up with guys like Jason Bay and Jimmy Rollins last year, not because I really wanted them, but because the general consensus suggested I should want them at a specific draft slot." There's a lesson to be learned here: If you've done your homework, peer pressure should not affect your draft day decisions. Though in the future, Brendan, you might want to spend a little more time taking dance lessons. The men of Quinscomb gamble on Kendry Morales' leg and Ravitz joins the prayer session, hoping that concussions don't haunt Justin Morneau. Meanwhile, Karabell takes Michael Young, hoping his potential for multipositional eligibility will end up justifying the pick. "Third base is lame after Round 5 or so," he adds. As if to hammer home this point, Grey then selects Aramis Ramirez, hoping the 76-point drop in batting average last season was a fluke.
My picks: Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson, Jered Weaver. I decide to use these rounds to finish my infield with two players who could combine to net me 40 home runs and 40 steals. Zobrist not only has second-base eligibility, but could well add a few other positions to his repertoire again this season, given his track record of defensive flexibility. In Weaver, I get yet another potential 200 strikeouts and now have three top-20 arms under my belt.
After having taken the first closer off the board in Round 7 (Mariano Rivera), Ravitz comes right back with Heath Bell in Round 8. This raises more than a few eyebrows, and other facial features follow suit when he eventually takes Joakim Soria in Round 12. Clearly, this tactic requires some explaining, Lucy! "Usually people wait on RPs in 'our' leagues, but this time everyone was waiting on SPs, as well, which meant the hitting pool had been diluted fast. Look at the hitters taken immediately before I took Rivera/Bell, it was a group of hitters with either serious flaws, low upside or lack of 4-5 category contributions. Looking at all that, I decided to take two closers who were elite in ERA/WHIP and carried virtually no known risk for injury -- emphasis on 'known' as the same could have been said about Joe Nathan last year. Hey, stuff happens. I was not 'paying for saves.' Rather I was paying for vastly better ERA/WHIP production than anyone else in the league would get from their closers, at a time where I saw no discernable tiers in the hitter or SP pool." To Nate's credit, it's not like he missed out on compiling a starting rotation with the tactic. Ubaldo Jimenez in the ninth round and Dan Haren in the 10th are not, as they say, chopped liver. ... However, sometimes waiting too long to fill a need can come back and bite you. Just ask Hunter about what he thinks about Ian Desmond -- who he'll eventually settle for in Round 16 -- as his shortstop: "I was hoping to have a shot at Stephen Drew or Alexei Ramirez after I snagged Clayton Kershaw [Round 7] but with this group I should've known better. Waiting really hurt me and left only Desmond as a logical choice many rounds later. My biggest mistake of the draft."
My picks include Juan Pierre and Rajai Davis, which should all but lock up stolen bases for me. Having a guy like Bautista certainly helps select a guy like Juan Pierre. Sure, Pierre isn't going to hit any homers or drive in any runs, but if they both match last season's numbers, combined it will be like having two players with 25 home runs and 30 stolen bases on my roster. Sign me up. I also took Carlos Marmol and Francisco Cordero in this stretch to avoid them being squirreled away by Nate "Senor Save" Ravitz.
During the meetings, nobody was higher on Jeremy Hellickson than Roberts and he let out an audible groan when Karabell selected the young Tampa Bay Rays pitcher in Round 15. ... To hammer home the point of just how deep starting pitching is this year, look at some of the names still available during this portion of the draft: Jonathan Sanchez (projected for over 200 strikeouts), Shawn Marcum (moving to Milwaukee and a realistic 15-game winner with a 1.15 WHIP) and Clay Buchholz (should win 15 and have an ERA around 3.00 even with some regression).
My plan at this point is to take hitters with power upside to balance out all my speed. I opt for Derrek Lee -- who I am hoping finds his home run stroke in Baltimore -- and Justin Smoak, another possible 20-home run candidate who shouldn't have much competition for playing time in Seattle. I also add another closer in Octavio Dotel, one of the last "safe" options of my board in terms of keeping the job by the time spring training is over. Rounding out my rotation with Ricky Romero and Bronson Arroyo gives me a legitimate chance at 85 wins from my starting quintet.
When Geovany Soto -- our sixth-ranked catcher -- goes off the board in Round 19, it becomes painfully obvious just how long you should wait on this position in a one-catcher league like ESPN's standard format. Miguel Montero and last year's golden boy Matt Wieters are also taken within the next dozen picks, and Jorge Posada (projected for 17 homers, 62 RBIs, 3 SB, .256 average) won't be grabbed until Round 22. Compared to Carlos Santana's projection (21-81-3-.276) -- it doesn't really speak to taking your catcher in Round 6, now does it? ... Also of note during this five-round slice of the draft, the New York Mets' outfield reclamation projects finally find a home. Jason Bay goes to Ravitz in Round 19 and Carlos Beltran to C-Dub in Round 20. One of them is likely to pay dividends, but which one? Aye, there's the rub. ... Another intriguing name, going to Harris in Round 19 is Tsuyoshi Nishioka. It's still not clear whether he'll play second base or shortstop for the Minnesota Twins, but wherever he ends up defensively, he'll frequently end up on second base when running the bases, with 30 stolen bases not entirely out of the question.
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 I chose Austin Jackson -- who actually out-valued Jason Heyward in 2010 -- and Domonic Brown, who has a chance to win the Phillies' right-field job, left vacant by Jayson Werth's move to the Washington Nationals. Ryan Theriot gives me some versatility, and Carl Pavano (as good a bet as any of the Twins pitchers to finish over .500) rounds out my nine-man pitching staff.
The Talented Mr. Roto remains true to the podcast by selecting Logan Morrison, though we all were a bit surprised when, with his last pick, he selected potential Rays closer Jake McGee over all three of the Jonas Brothers. ... Harris opted to gamble on old-timer Vladimir Guerrero from parts yet unknown, while Team Quinscomb went home with the ubiquitous Ty Wigginton, who by virtue of being eligible at 1B, 2B and 3B, maintained a constant presence in our positional debates from start to finish. ... Last and perhaps least -- only time will tell -- Roberts dubbed Chris Sale, who could fill in for Jake Peavy in the Chicago White Sox rotation or possibly step in as closer at some point down the line (or both), as our ESPN Fantasy Meeting's 2011 Mr. Irrelevant.
So, that's how our mocking went. Remember, in a 10-team mixed league, there's always going to be plenty of talent left over when the draft is done, and if we were to play this season out, the waiver wire would be right there to help us correct any mistakes we might have made. If you want to mock our mock, feel free to do so in the ESPN Conversations thread below.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
AJ Mass recaps the first fantasy baseball mock draft for the 2011 season.