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Rounding Third: Reflections From NFBC Weekend

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

Reflections From NFBC Weekend

Sixteen of my 17 drafts are in the books - just my home league remains, all the way on April 9. Saturday was the NFBC Main Event live in Las Vegas, and as always I got a good insight into what the drafting trends are heading into the season. My specific league was tough - really tough - but I'm reasonably happy with the results notwithstanding. I'll have more about that team in a bit, but first I wanted to talk about some of the other trends I'm seeing.

The general consensus is that Hanley Ramirez is back - all the way back. I came into the draft resolving to take him in the first round at 13 overall, but I didn't come anywhere close to getting him. In five of the six drafts held in Vegas, he went well before that, including fifth overall in my league. The only Vegas league where he slipped was where defending champion Lindy Hinkelman drafted 14th and got him (and then still got Justin Upton 17th!). Sometimes life is good. And yes, I'm obligated to mention Lindy anytime I talk about the NFBC. Apparently he went first overall in one New York league.

Eric Hosmer continues to rise in drafts, too. In many leagues he's going around 25-30 overall, as those that get locked out of the top 20 hitters and the top three starting pitchers (Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander) have looked to find someone to elevate into that next tier of hitters. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's had roughly eleventy-billion hits this spring. While he's going well above my ranks, it's a defensible choice to go with him there. As we've discussed ad infinitum on the show and the site, the perception of the drop-off after 20 is pretty strong, to the point where the next 20 hitters or so could go up in a lot of different orders. If there's a player you like there, take him - chances are he's not coming back to you in 10 picks anyhow. Adrian Beltre is the other player I frequently saw getting boosted up to that spot.

Conversely, a number of injured players are dropping precipitously. Among those not out for the season that are dropping include Logan Morrison (who at this writing isn't even slated for the DL to start the season, but missed most of spring training with his knee injury), who dropped some 100 spots to number 247 overall in my league, Chase Utley (#360) and Michael Pineda (#233). Obviously I passed on these players on multiple occasions, but even at the time, I wondered whether I was too conservative in my approach on these injured players. We're afraid of taking the zero, or we've been burned by hoping by a return to former glory by the likes of the Grady Sizemores of the world, so we pass on the potential upside. The cost on Utley seemed especially cheap.

When you participate in the NFBC, the closer runs are breathtaking. The concept of waiting on the closers works in our other leagues, where we can trade for saves later in the season, works pretty well in those leagues, but doesn't apply here. The NFBC doesn't allow for trades, and you're also not just participating in your 15-team league, but in the overall national contest. It's theoretically possible to take the one point in your league in saves and still win your league and the overall contest, but it's not an easy task. To do so, you have to use the extra two-to-four picks optimally. Typically we try to shoot for being in the top 3-to-4 spots in each category to do well in this contest. If you give up saves here, you have to go for the top 2-to-3 spots.

The result in these NFBC drafts is eye-opening. In my particular league, we had 19 closers drafted in by the first break, after the end of the tenth round (150 picks). Ten more closers went in the next two rounds. The only team that didn't have a reliever selected in the first 12 rounds was the Royals, who haven't yet named their closer in the wake of Joakim Soria's season-ending elbow injury. Given that we typically see at least a third of the teams change their closers during the course of the season, it's frustrating to have to chase one category like this for the cost, but that's the nature of the beast of this format. It demonstrates the value in the strategy of those who opt to invest in the safer elite closers early on in the draft, rather than having to overspend on the more marginal closers just slightly later.

My specific league was tough. Of the 15 teams, two players have won the overall contest before in David DiDonato and Bobby Jurney. Writer/director/actor Nick Cassavetes was two spots away from me in the 15-spot; he has played in high stakes leagues for years. The two players on each side of me, Dave Potts and Bill Macey, are NFBC veterans too, and both sniped me on picks on multiple occasions. I'm sure I'm slighting many of the other members of the league by their omission. In short, I didn't see many, if any, soft spots in the league, and none sitting all that close to me. I've put the time into researching the player pool obviously, and I did a lot of draft-specific prep, so while I like my squad, there were very few windfall opportunities. Drafting out of the 13-slot, here's my squad:

1.13 - Justin Upton
2.3 - Dustin Pedroia
3.13 - Desmond Jennings
4.3 - Paul Konerko
5.13 - Matt Cain
6.3 - Madison Bumgarner
7.13 - Alex Avila
8.3 - Derek Jeter
9.13 - Nick Swisher
10.3 - Brandon League
11.13 - Chris Perez
12.3 - David Freese
13.13 - Vernon Wells
14.3 - Kenley Jansen
15.13 - Austin Jackson
16.3 - Bud Norris
17.13 - Mat Gamel
18.3 - Edwin Jackson
19.13 - Phil Hughes
20.3 - Ramon Hernandez
21.13 - Jed Lowrie
22.3 - Bryan LaHair
23.13 - Mike Leake
24.3 - James McDonald
25.13 - Felipe Paulino
26.3 - Ty Wigginton
27.13 - Dillon Gee
28.3 - Ian Stewart
29.13 - Jonny Venters
30.3 - Wilin Rosario

Broken down by position, it looks like this:

C - Avila, Hernandez, Rosario (R)
1B/3B/CR - Konerko, Freese, Gamel, Wigginton (R), Stewart (R)
2B/SS/MI - Pedroia, Jeter, Lowrie
OF - Upton, Jennings, Swisher, Wells, A. Jackson, LaHair (UT), Wigginton (R)
SP - Cain, Bumgarner, Norris, E. Jackson, Hughes, Leake, McDonald (R), Paulino (R), Gee (R)
RP - League, C. Perez, Jansen, Venters (R)

Chasing the third possible closer in Jansen might end up being the critical decision. If he ends up spending half the year as the closer, or alternately throws 80+ innings with his extremely high strikeout rate, he'll earn a big profit. But taking him there cost me a better starting pitcher, and given that I waited that long to take a third starter, it's a risky strategy. I tried to make up for some of that by grabbing three starting pitchers in the reserve rounds, giving me more chances to stream starters against weaker opponents and use them in two-start weeks. Moreover, viable starting pitchers typically emerge on the waiver wire, perhaps more so than for any other position. Granted, I have to compete with 14 other owners for those pitchers, but the other side of that equation is that those owners also have to make tough decisions on their drops. There are no DL slots, so every pick up comes with a consequence, and when the player is healthy, that's potentially another option to pick up later.

I think that the offense should be competitive - of course, I invested enough early picks that if it's not, I have bigger problems. But it begins with three five-category contributors in Upton/Pedroia/Jennings, and I worked hard to make sure I got enough power in the middle rounds of the draft. Everywhere I've read, players have had a hard time reaching their power targets, so I made the conscious decision to target power when all else fails. That explains my selections of Konerko, Swisher and Vernon Wells when I took them. I would have preferred a safer alternative at my corner slot than Mat Gamel, but he'll have dual eligibility this season at first and third base, and the ceiling is worth the risk given what he cost.

All in all, this team should compete, but it will need a few breaks fall my way and a few key in-season additions.