Anyone that has played fantasy sports before knows that the first, and usually most important, step in building a successful team is emerging from the draft with a solid and balanced team. You can patch holes in your roster here and there, but you will have to be either really good or really lucky to fix a team that is short on power or doesn't have a single 15-game winner on the roster.
Drafting a balanced team that is ready to dominate right out the gate isn't always easy. However, with a solid plan and a good base of knowledge, you can accomplish that with pretty good consistency. I realize that everyone doesn't build their team the same way, but here are some strategies that I use to consistently stay near the top of the standings.
1) Focus on hitting early in the draft
Acquiring a strong base of elite hitters gives your team a solid foundation. Outside of a few exceptions every year, you typically can't get 30/30 guys or sluggers with 40-homer pop late in the draft or in free agency.
I try to have no more than three pitchers on my team when the ninth round starts. Instead, I make sure I have at least a few balanced hitters who can club at least 30 homers, drive in at least 100 men, score at least 100 runs, and hit at least .300 (steals are more of a crap-shoot based on who is available).
You can build a successful team with pitching first, but it's a riskier and less dependable approach because pitchers are more erratic than hitters. They get hurt at a higher rate and their win totals can fluctuate wildly depending on run support, bullpen quality and dumb luck. Plus, the difference between a third round pitcher and a seventh or 10th round pitcher is often based largely on the previous year's performance.
Outside of the few elite starters, you're generally better off going with a solid hitter. A pitcher may not contribute in four pitching categories while a good hitter will generally contribute in four, if not all five, of the hitting categories.
2) When you do draft a pitcher, select one that can get strikeouts.
Since you're already limiting yourself to only four categories of production when you select a pitcher, there's no reason to limit the potential reward even further. Guys like Mark Buehrle and Chien-Ming Wang are far more valuable in real life than in fantasy baseball.
Strikeout pitchers are also generally the pitchers with the most potential, improving your chances for a big year that may propel your team to a title. Remember, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, and Cole Hamels were available in the middle rounds not that long ago. There is usually a treasure trove of talented pitchers available between rounds eight and 12. That's where I typically start to load up on starters.
3) Don't overpay for position scarcity
The key word in that phrase is "overpay". Taking Hanley Ramirez or Chase Utley early isn't the issue. Rather, it's taking guys with less than elite abilities in the middle rounds because they play 2B, SS or C that can be truly painful.
Rickie Weeks and Howie Kendrick have blown quite a hole in the middle of numerous fantasy teams over the past two years. Many experts will preach position scarcity, and tell you being strong up the middle is important, but I'm not one of them.
I'll even take this a step further with a little comparison.
Player A: 87 R, 13 HR, 69 RBI, 18 SB, .280 BA
Player B: 85 R, 21 HR, 78 RBI, 19 SB, .278 BA
Player C: 71 R, 15 HR, 69 RBI, 2 SB, .318 BA
Player A is Russell Martin, a player that will go in the first five rounds of your draft because he is a catcher. Player B is Torii Hunter, a player that may not go in the top-100 because he is an outfielder. Player C is Ryan Doumit, another catcher who will probably be available much later in the draft than Martin.
My point is not to take nothing but first basemen and outfielders early. That won't work either. My point is to make sure that you're taking a guy that has relatively comparable production to the other players available instead of just taking him because he has a "C" or "2B" next to his name.
Once the truly elite players at those positions are gone, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the players. Therefore, you can afford to wait a few rounds and not lose much instead of overpaying. You don't get extra points for getting your stats from 2B or C instead of OF.
One important thing to remember here: this strategy is FAR riskier in leagues that use two catcher slots or a middle infield slot in addition to the standard positions. In those leagues, you'll have to keep a VERY close eye on the players available at those positions or risk ending up with a highly suspect player.
4) Load up on young players with upside late in the draft
The potential upside with these moves is absolutely massive, and the risk is minimal. Selecting Jon Garland or Garrett Anderson in the last few rounds isn't going to play a major role in helping you win your league. However, if you're one of the people that picked Carlos Quentin (lead picture, since I'm a Sox fan), Evan Longoria, Edinson Volquez or Jon Danks, you probably more than held your own.
Try to focus on guys that were elite prospects and have at least some major league experience under their belt, as generally all but the most elite players struggle as rookies. Guys like Philip Hughes and Alex Gordon come to mind. This can work especially well if combined with the previous tip.
I love having my backups be high-upside youngsters. If things don't work out and your team is struggling, you can always drop them for the moderately productive veterans that you ignored late in the draft. Those guys are a dime a dozen.
5) Have a list ready of sleepers and where they typically are selected
This is really crucial as it will help you prevent making panic picks. If you know there are still a handful outfielders that you like that will be available a bit later in the draft, you're less likely to reach. This is especially true at the shallower positions. I usually have a list of at least 20 guys that I try to target in the later rounds.
6) Keep an eye on guys that got hurt or underachieved last year
You can often get good values on elite players that didn't live up to expectations the previous year. For instance, Jason Bay was available in the middle rounds after hitting .247 last year. Now he's a top-50 player again after a rebound season.
Brian McCann was another player that went pretty low after an off-year but rebounded well. In the past, guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Lance Berkman, Randy Johnson, and Curt Schilling have been great values coming off of injuries.
There is a reason I said "keep an eye" on these guys instead of "loading up" on them. Sometimes, it really is the sign of a decline, like with Andruw Jones. Or, they may have had one fluke year to pad their stats to start with. It's merely something to consider going into a draft.
7) Try not to be the guy that starts or ends the closer run
In both scenarios, you're probably reaching a bit to fill a need. Barring an extremely unusual draft, I don't even think about grabbing a closer until late in the fouth round. Sure, they're the only guys that get saves, but their contributions in strikeouts, ERA and WHIP are also a lot lower than starters because they throw fewer innings.
I'll generally try to grab one "dependable" closer somewhere in the middle of the run (hopefully in the late fifth or sixth, but it rarely falls that way), one decent but not great closer like Bobby Jenks or Francisco Cordero, and then one more younger, unproven or non-guaranteed closer.
I'll also take a talented "closer in waiting" like Jonathan Broxton or Carlos Marmol if the timing is right. This is especially useful in head-to-head leagues, where you can get away with one or two closers a bit more easily. Electric set-up men can still help your ERA/WHIP and chip in some strikeouts. Then, if the closer gets hurt or underperforms, you may have an absolute steal on your hands.
Figuring out the closers isn't pretty, but it also doesn't kill your team if you blow it (though it is more important in roto leagues). Don't panic if your closer situation is a bit unsettled after the draft. There's a lot of turnover at the position, and quick fixes can be found in free agency, especially in the short-term.
I'm not trying to tell anyone how to run their team. These strategies are merely what I use to be a pretty successful fantasy player. Stay tuned for a more detailed list of sleepers once Spring Training starts.