The last pitch of Major League Baseball's 2011 regular season was barely in the books when the 2012 season officially began in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC). It's a tradition in the NFBC for 15 die-hard owners to start the next season with an email draft the day the off-season begins.
So on Sept. 29, these 15 owners were the first ones to decide who has the most value for 2012. Forget about 2011's statistics and forget about projections that are sure to come in waves pretty soon. These 15 owners were setting the table and raising the bar for all of us while doing it without a set of ADPs or even with the knowledge of where every free agent will play this season.
Over the next couple of weeks, I'll use some of the data from this pay NFBC league and other NFBC leagues we'll be hosting to analyze the top picks, the surprise picks, the sleeper picks and the potential dud picks. We'll look at the latest trends, the weakest positions and the hottest rookies. We'll do this all with data that is being formed by some of the most ardent fantasy players in the country.
The NFBC is now in its 9th season and since 2004 our baseball and football high-stakes contests have awarded more than $11 million in prizes. The NFBC remains the industry's only multi-city, high-stakes live event and this year we will have two Main Events: our signature 15-team event and a debut 12-team format. We'll generate ADPs and trends from both formats and bring all of this to RotoWire.com readers throughout the off-season. Enjoy the info and if you feel compelled to compete against the best of the best in a 5x5 Rotisserie format, check us out at nfbc.stats.com.
Now let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Let's analyze the first round for 2012 and find out who could be your foundation for a winning fantasy team. I'll analyze 15 top names, all of whom could be there for you in the early going:
GOING NO. 1
Albert Pujols was the consensus No. 1 fantasy pick last year and he's been a first round fantasy pick every year since 2002, an amazing run indeed. He will again be a Top 5 fantasy pick this year, but it's unlikely that he will go No. 1 in many drafts.
That honor belongs to a younger group of five-category stars. At the top of the list is the Dodgers' Matt Kemp, who went No. 1 in our first NFBC draft of the season. Kemp missed the 40-40 club by one home run, finishing with career bests across the board: .324 average, 39 homers, 126 RBIs, 115 runs and 40 stolen bases. One year after having his entire focus on impressing his then-girlfriend Rihanna, Kemp turned his full attention to baseball and got every ounce of ability out of his 6'3”, 215-pound body. He finished with a .399 OBP, walked a career-high 74 times and stole 40-of-51 bases one year after converting just 19-of-34 SB attempts. As a six-year pro, he just turned 27, the perfect scenario for an even better season. Yes, it could get better than this, which is why many fantasy owners will take him first overall on Draft Day 2012.
Also generating interest at the top of the draft order will be Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, Pujols and Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki. Like Kemp, Braun joined the 30-30 Club in 2011. He finished second in the NL with a .332 average, while hitting 33 home runs with 111 RBIs, 109 runs and 33 stolen bases. He finished with a career-best .397 OBP, while posting a career-low 93 strikeouts. The biggest concern with Braun in 2012 will be finding protection in that lineup once Prince Fielder leaves via free agency because teams may just choose to pitch around him. But he definitely has the talent and the desire to duplicate or even improve on those 2011 numbers.
One year after his injury-riddled 2010 campaign, Ellsbury put together a season for the ages and is now a Top 5 fantasy pick. He finished the season with a .321 average, 32 homers, 105 RBIs, 119 runs and 39 stolen bases. Nobody hit more homers after the All-Star break than Ellsbury (21) as he hit .328-21-56-11-57 during the second half. Staying healthy is the key, but this 28-year-old has the skills to be a 30-30 player for years to come.
Pujols is starting to show his age (whatever it really is) a bit, but he's still the most consistent slugger in baseball. Sure, he failed to hit .300 or drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career, but he missed both marks by 1 as he landed on the DL for the first time in his career. Still, he hit .299-37-99-9-105 with a .366 OBP. He should be back in St. Louis in 2012 protected in the league's best offense and near the top of fantasy drafts once again.
Tulowitzki can never stay healthy for a full season, but it's that potential that makes him so desired in 2012. He hit .302-30-105-9-81 in just 143 games last year and is the perfect Age 27 breakout candidate for 2012, turning 27 during the off-season and entering his sixth full MLB season. If you have the stomach to handle his aches and pains, he could produce big numbers from the shortstop spot.
There's no doubt that stars like Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson and Miguel Cabrera could emerge in the Top 5, but those 30-30 guys are going to be tough to pass up. Here's a look at how the First Round went in the first NFBC draft:
1. Matt Kemp
2. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Jacoby Ellsbury
4. Albert Pujols
5. Adrian Gonzalez
6. Ryan Braun
7. Curtis Granderson
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Justin Upton
10. Jose Bautista
11. Prince Fielder
12. Joey Votto
13. Robinson Cano
14. Evan Longoria
15. Clayton Kershaw
Gonzalez hit .338-27-117 with 108 runs, but it was surprising that he hit only 10 homers at Fenway Park. That should improve in 2012. Granderson hit .262-41-119-25 with 136 runs and was just as productive on the road as he was at Yankee Stadium. Those 169 strikeouts are a concern, but wow, what a season. Cabrera won an AL batting title with a .344 average while adding 30 homers, 105 RBIs and 111 RBIs, but I'd like to see him really get in top physical shape and become even more dominant. Upton could easily join the 30-30 Club in 2012 as the 24-year-old hit .289-31-88-21-105 last year, a prelude of what is going to come for the next decade-plus.
Interestingly, only 8 of these 15 players were First Round ADP picks in the NFBC last year. They included Tulowitzki (3), Pujols (1), Cabrera (4), Votto (5), Braun (8), Longoria (9), Cano (10) and Gonzalez (11). Ellsbury and Kershaw had ADPs of 40 and 41, respectively, last year and now are first-rounders. Carl Crawford appears to have taken the biggest nose-dive in the last year, with his ADP being 7 in 2011 and going 33rd in our first NFBC draft.
Some of these first-round picks are sure to disappoint in 2012 - just like they always do - but they do appear to be solid foundations for your fantasy teams. Only time will tell if other players should have been picked ahead of them.
(Greg Ambrosius is the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame and the FSTA's Hall of Fame. For more information on the NFBC, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to nfbc.stats.com).