Cockcroft: The perfect fantasy draft
I'm a recovering perfectionist.
I underscore the word "recovering" because, let's face it: There's no such thing as perfection. Just ask David Wells and David Cone, who, when they pitched their respective perfect games more than a decade ago, were graced by comments from those bellyaching about the weakness of their opponents' lineups instead of receiving kudos for performances destined for the history books. It doesn't matter how flawless the effort is, there always will be someone dead set on finding a defect.
It's a tough life for the perfectionist; we must eventually deal with our inability to reach an impossibly high set of standards or succumb to the disappointment of never having been quite good enough. That's why, throughout the years, I've come to accept that, for me, striving for perfection means putting forth maximum effort but not sweating the things that go awry outside my control.
But sometimes, just sometimes, even I dream of that one situation that goes perfect, absolutely perfect. And when it comes to fantasy baseball, that's the dream: to be perfect, as Cone and Wells were, for just one day.
Draft day is the time you want that day. It's when you draw that exact draft slot you wanted, the team picking directly in front of you doesn't steal a single player from your clutches, that breakout mid-rounder you were targeting all winter sticks around until exactly as late as you wanted. It's when you get that exact seat you wanted at the draft table -- you know, the one that's not next to the obnoxious blabbermouth -- you're prepared with snazzy comebacks to every ball-busting comment and you instantly know what to do every time your pick comes up.
I'll say up front that such a perfect draft doesn't exist. Heck, simply by talking about the perfect draft, I've ensured I'll never have one, not this season. Just ask Cone, Wells and any other pitcher who has stepped foot on a mound: Talk about perfection, and the jinx is on; it's over, it's never happening.
That's why this column is a true fantasy, a squad that assumes everything falls into place so perfectly: It's my dream draft. It's where wishes come true, every pick is sheer perfection and I even get the cushy, leather-couch seat. To use a favorite phrase of mine, it's like everything is coming up chicken parm.
To ground this fantasy in some measure of reality, I took a look at two measures: our ESPN live draft results, which are based upon our standard game -- a 10-team, rotisserie 5x5 mixed league -- and our preseason rankings. Then I set some ground rules: No players can be picked more than three spots later than their average draft position (ADP) through the first 15 rounds, and no one more than two rounds later than ADP in the final 10 rounds, both of those exceptions made under the assumption that this is a dream draft in which the occasional gem might slip a couple of spots.
I then gave myself the No. 8 draft slot. Let's make it a challenge.
Listed below are my picks, in order, round by round. The listed positions are the ones they fill on my roster sheet. I also provide explanations for each pick, especially those with which I went against my own top 250 rankings. Remember, sometimes team/category needs can force your hand to go against your own draft sheet.
Round 1, Pick 8: SS Troy Tulowitzki (ADP: 9.5, Rank: 11). This has to start off with a controversial pick, right? By "controversial," I mean this: I've seen Tulowitzki picked as high as third overall, I ranked him 12th overall in my own top 250, and there's probably a 50-50 chance he'd be gone before the 8-seed even gets to make a pick. But this is a dream draft, right? Our own ADP has him going a pick and a half later than this, those responsible for it perhaps influenced by Tulowitzki's history of slow (comparatively speaking) starts but hot finishes. Well, I'm a patient man, at least with my studs. I can wait for the .320-15-60 (batting average-homers-RBIs) second half, especially if it's preceded by a .290-12-40 first half.
Round 2, Pick 13: 1B Miguel Cabrera (ADP: 11.0, Rank: 13). Are we all really this scared? Cabrera might have battled some off-the-field problems the past 18 months, but there's no indication they'll cost him actual game time. I understand the skepticism if you're talking about him as a No. 2 pick overall. But there's no way that a .328-38-126 slugger who turns 28 in April should be slipping into the second round. And if he doesn't slip in my dream draft, I can count on one of two things: Either Adrian Gonzalez (ADP: 10.5, Rank: 12) or David Wright (ADP: 14.3, Rank: 10) almost assuredly will, and either one is fine by me.
Round 3, Pick 28: OF Matt Kemp (ADP: 28.3, Rank: 21). We just witnessed his worst-case scenario, and it still earned him the No. 83 spot on our Player Rater. He's still 26 years old and could be a 30-20 player, so he's definitely top-25 to me.
Round 4, Pick 33: OF Justin Upton (ADP: 37.0, Rank: 32). I ranked him lower than this in my top 250, but I'd like to have had him in my top 25, because his ceiling is well within that group. Sometimes, such "reaches" are worth taking. Shoulder problems appear to be in Upton's past, and he's as much a 30-20 man as the pick before him. Plus, he's only 23. There's so much goodness ahead.
Round 5, Pick 48: OF Jason Heyward (ADP: 45.5, Rank: 44). Another "reach," but when I'm talking about a dream draft, it's going to have both Justin Upton and Heyward on it. Here's the way I see it: I already know I'm going to have a well-rounded roster, and a championship team is going to have a few from-the-gut, personal-preference picks who go for explosive upside. It's like engaging in a draft in which you were confident up front that you're smarter than the competition; you're going to enter the room thinking, "I'm going to take a few risks, because I'm pretty sure I'm going to clean up in the later rounds anyway." Heyward is that kind of risk, a player with whom my only gripe is that he hits a lot of ground balls, capping his power upside. But that's the kind of thing a player can improve quickly, vaulting him into the upper echelon, and I want to be ahead of the curve.
Round 6, Pick 53: SP Tommy Hanson (ADP: 50.7, Rank: 45). I've said his adjustment period is behind him, and although this is another gut call, Hanson belongs in this round, no later. He's a bona fide fantasy ace.
Round 7, Pick 68: SP Jered Weaver (ADP: 71.1, Rank: 67). The pitcher who should be my "ace" but isn't only because people are drafting him too late. Case in point: I ranked him 12 spots higher than this draft slot. What is it that people have against Weaver? Heck, he was the 28th-best player overall on last year's Player Rater, and he's 28 years old. Don't let him slip further than this.
Round 8, Pick 73: CI Kendry Morales (ADP: 75.5, Rank: 70). Given my choice between recovering-from-major-injury first basemen, I'll take Morales over Justin Morneau, thank you very much. But concussions scare me.
Now that you've read all about the dream draft, might you be curious about what constitutes a nightmare draft? Sticking again to those ADPs -- remaining within one round of those this time -- this is the kind of team I'd be terrified to have drafted. That's not to say that none of these players have value, or that I'd never draft any of them. Rather, these are players I think are being overdrafted when selected at their current ADPs. I'd much rather wait at least another round before selecting them.
Round 1, Pick 8: OF Ryan Braun
Round 2, Pick 13: 3B Alex Rodriguez
Round 3, Pick 28: SP CC Sabathia
Round 4, Pick 33: OF Jose Bautista
Round 5, Pick 48: OF Jayson Werth. I'm not going with the obvious pick of Adam Wainwright (ADP: 45.7); he's going to plummet in the ADP with each passing week. And I don't dislike Werth; I just see more risk than most.
Round 6, Pick 53: 1B Justin Morneau. I'm reaching for him, but I've seen people do it. Heck, I wouldn't take him even with my next pick.
Round 7, Pick 68: SS Jimmy Rollins. Probably about right for him, but his injury history and advancing age are troublesome.
Round 8, Pick 73: SP Mat Latos. How's he going to win games? Reaching double digits in shutouts?
Round 9, Pick 88: OF Corey Hart
Round 10, Pick 93: RP Jonathan Papelbon
Round 11, Pick 108: RP Francisco Rodriguez
Round 12, Pick 113: OF Brett Gardner
Round 13, Pick 128: SP Jonathan Sanchez
Round 14, Pick 133: UT Carlos Lee
Round 15, Pick 148: OF Angel Pagan
Round 16, Pick 153: RP Francisco Cordero
Round 17, Pick 168: MI Starlin Castro
Round 18, Pick 173: OF Manny Ramirez
Round 19, Pick 188: CI Placido Polanco
Round 20, Pick 193: 2B Sean Rodriguez
Round 21, Pick 208: SP John Lackey
Round 22, Pick 213: C John Buck
Round 23, Pick 228: SP Javier Vazquez
Round 24, Pick 233: RP Fernando Rodney
Round 25, Pick 248: SP Joel Pineiro
Round 9, Pick 88: SP Francisco Liriano (ADP: 89.6, Rank: 89). There are the whispers of shoulder problems and of him not engaging in team-advised offseason workouts. But there are also whispers of a trade to the New York Yankees, which could boost his win potential, and even if he remains in Minnesota, he has that pitching-friendly ballpark helping him, so there are pluses as well as minuses. Liriano was one of the poster boys from my "Kings of Command" column, so I'd be amiss if I didn't put my money where my mouth is.
Round 10, Pick 93: MI Alexei Ramirez (ADP: 90.5, Rank: 93). I'm not a huge fan, and I ranked him a round later than this in my top 250, but two things stand out: One, he's a valuable homer/steal dual threat from my middle infield spot, and he'd be valuable trade bait considering the dearth of quality shortstops out there.
Round 11, Pick 108: OF Colby Rasmus (ADP: 105.6, Rank: 95). Carlos Gonzalez was picked around here a year ago, and if you're going to pick a player whose ADP is in this range who "might pull off a CarGo," Rasmus is your man. Who else do you think it's going to be, Pablo Sandoval?
Round 12, Pick 113: 3B Pedro Alvarez (ADP: 121.4, Rank: 126). I've seen drafts in which he has gone as many as four rounds earlier than this, and I'm a fan. If you're a believer in Alvarez's power potential -- as I am -- there's no need to risk waiting one more round and winding up disappointed.
Round 13, Pick 128: 2B Gordon Beckham (ADP: 127.8, Rank: 118). This is a bit of batting-average speculation, as the real Beckham is the one who batted .310 after the All-Star break last season. And I just picked a potential batting-average killer in Alvarez, so this helps bring that number up.
Round 14, Pick 133: UT Chone Figgins (ADP: 130.9, Rank: 127). Beckham insurance, in case the real Beckham is the one who batted .216 the first half of last season, and within two weeks he'll qualify at third base and be Alvarez insurance as well. But picking Figgins fills the stolen-base category, first and foremost. Most of the other contributors in that department are about half as productive.
Round 15, Pick 148: SP Phil Hughes (ADP: 152.2, Rank: 172). Wins, wins, wins. (Yes, I feel ill writing that.) Hughes also performed like an All-Star the first half of last season, and I'm wondering whether he'll be more prepared for the six-month marathon in his second full season in the New York Yankees' rotation. Certainly his upside is greater than that of a 15th-rounder.
Round 16, Pick 153: RP Chris Perez (ADP: 156.1, Rank: 148). No one with 25 or more innings had lower than his 0.63 second-half ERA in 2010, and his 16 saves during that span were 13th-most. The dream draft spends precious little on saves at the draft yet fills the category admirably with mid-to-late-round picks and in-season pickups. So I'm assuming exactly what I believe: that Perez has top-10 closer potential and realizes it this season.
Round 17, Pick 168: SP Brandon Morrow (ADP: 165.9, Rank: 157). It's all about the upside, and in many cases, Morrow is going a few rounds sooner than this. WHIP might be a problem, but his might be the cheapest 200 K's in the draft.
Round 18, Pick 173: RP Joe Nathan (ADP: 164.8, Rank: 178). I'm going back to the well for the past-35, fresh-off-Tommy John surgery closer, because, hey, Billy Wagner paid off brilliantly last year. Nathan's upside is no less than Wagner's was, and if not for the surgery, he might have gone nine rounds sooner.
Round 19, Pick 188: C Matt Wieters (ADP: 171.7, Rank: 188). It's a dream draft, right? We ranked Wieters this low, and I'll figure that either he or Mike Napoli should slip this deep in the draft. There's substantial upside with either, and those who know me know I prefer to wait on my catcher.
Round 20, Pick 193: SP Brian Matusz (ADP: 196.9, Rank: 197). I'm playing a hunch. It's a 20th-round pick, and at that price, I'll take nothing but high-upside arms and mix and match until I find something that works.
Round 21, Pick 208: SP Jordan Zimmermann (ADP: 221.2, Rank: 211). Ditto Matusz, except that I'll steal a previous example: Wagner 2010 is to Nathan 2011 as Tim Hudson 2010 is to Zimmermann 2011. That's right, Zimmermann's statistical ceiling is as a top-15 fantasy starter; if there's any reason to doubt him this season, it's concerns that the Washington Nationals won't afford him full-time innings.
Round 22, Pick 213: RP Aroldis Chapman (ADP: 209.4, Rank: 330). One of the smartest uses of a bench spot in a standard ESPN mixed league. Chapman has the skills to either: (1) close for the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day or (2) strike out 200-plus hitters out of the Reds' rotation. At worst, he's a fill-in to help bolster a team's ERA/WHIP/K's even in his projected setup-relief role.
Round 23, Pick 228: OF Dexter Fowler (ADP: 227.5, Rank: 226). Perhaps the cheapest 25 stolen bases you can buy, and this team needs more quickness.
Round 24, Pick 233: RP Joel Hanrahan (ADP: 225.1, Rank: 240). He's closer depth, as Hanrahan could reel in 25-plus saves at a dirt-cheap price. And if he doesn't, who's going to sweat cutting a 24th-rounder?
Round 25, Pick 248: SP Gavin Floyd (ADP: 232.7, Rank: 241). I still believe. Even if Floyd isn't capable of more than what he offered in 2009 and '10, there were stretches in either year when he was one of the most effective starters in the game. It's a bench-spot pick, and I'll just shed him as soon as he cools off.
So here's how the team would shape up, the active 22-man roster listed below subbing Hanrahan in for Zimmermann, as I'd always keep three closers active while picking and choosing from my lesser starters' matchups. Statistics below are our 2011 projections to give you a sense of the team's expected performance.
This assumes, of course, that every player performs at his projected level and that I agree with every projection. For the most part, I think we're close; I think we're shortchanging the closers in terms of saves -- Nathan, especially -- and the starters somewhat as well, although that's understandable because I specifically targeted high-upside arms. But for the purposes of evaluating the team, let's go with them.
The following two charts show the average statistics a fantasy team accrued in 2010 based on rotisserie points earned. For example, a team that earned 10 rotisserie points in batting average averaged a .2841 mark in the category, while a team that earned one rotisserie point in saves averaged 32.0 saves.
But on paper, that's a 74-rotisserie-point team in a format where a winning team averaged 81.6 in 2010, with the upside for at least 77 (and probably more), and that's without accounting for a single in-season transaction.
That's an extremely good start, because any fantasy analyst would be quick to remind you that a league is never won at the draft table. Yes, it's true that the draft is the most important part of a winning season, but there's no way you can draft a team, sit back, never make a move and expect to have won in March. A team like this will need some finagling, and if I can't massage a 74-point team into something more like 80-plus, I should be ashamed of myself.
I'll admit it, though: At 74 points, the squad is hardly perfect. But as a recovering perfectionist, I can live with that, and -- if I somehow landed such a squad -- I'd just refocus my efforts into bolstering the team during the season.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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