There is plenty of talent across baseball to give fantasy baseball players a variety of leagues to choose from. Whether you're looking at NL or AL-only formats, leagues that are mixed but shallow, or ultra-deep 14-team leagues, knowing the tiers of a draft allows you to evaluate talent and draft players in appropriate slots.
We can't always look at specific rounds, because they vary widely across the types of leagues. It is possible, though, to define the tiers based on the type of players that are available within a certain range of rounds.
The approach itself isn't scientific, but we can average out the player grouping that will be made available to owners. There are natural breaks in talent or numbers that should be keys to owners: top-50, top-100, top-250, etc. These are lists available on various websites.
In defining the draft, we’ve worked to use five separate tiers that will allow owners to get a decent idea as to what should be expected of the players taken in that band. It breaks down to the studs, the starters, the roster fillers, the sleepers, and the reaches.
Why this way? When you think about a draft, and the names coming off the board, it’s almost exactly these types of players. Names are well-known early on and become progressively less recognized.
Think about how you probably laughed when someone grabbed Geovany Soto at the end of your draft last year. The other end is how you probably didn’t bat an eye when David Ortiz or Chase Utley went off the board before your pick in round two. It’s just an overall theme to fantasy baseball.
As with any set of rankings or tiers, everything is always subject to how your league drafts. Keeper leagues are dramatically different than yearly leagues. Values for those players fluctuate more greatly because of age or perceived upside in talent. Auction leagues likely don’t deal with this as much, if at all.
With all that in mind, we'll look at these areas as being determined by a standard 5x5 league.
Rounds 1-5 - The Studs
This is the most basic of all breakdowns.
Not one fantasy writer will tell you that you should take a risk in this part of the draft. Here, the key is grabbing players that will be the foundation to your team and provide a decent majority of your weekly output.
If the average league has 10 or 12 teams, that means these first rounds account for the top-50 to 60 players being chosen. The players that fall into this category produce every year. When they fail, they fail because of injuries, not because of a true fall off in ability.
In these early rounds, you don't necessarily win your league. That said, you certainly can lose it by reaching for a player that doesn't necessarily fall within this band of success.
I've started to see one major example of this early on in drafts. Matt Kemp was a fantastic player last year, and at his young age is only going to get better. He has the potential to be a five-tool player for the Dodgers. In what amounted to his first full season, Kemp went .290/18/76.
Looking at the splits, there is some tremendous disparity. Kemp hit 79 points lower against right-handed pitching. His best month was July, with most months hovering around a .280 mark against all pitchers. He needs to improve against righties in order to challenge the elite numbers.
Is he a solid player? Certainly. Is he a sure thing? Look at the regression Chris Young took in his second full-season. If the Dodgers don't sign Manny Ramirez, Kemp becomes a strong focal point of the lineup. Is he ready for that? There are a lot of questions. Are we basing where he's drafted on potential? Largely.
When you can ask as many questions as this on a player's ability to perform at truly an elite level, I feel it's time to move them out of the first tier of players. Kemp is a starter, but if he were to falter, picking him here means you lost out on a player that likely didn't experience the same decline.
You could be a draft genius taking him in this band. But do you want to have to prove it with an early selection? Taking the chance just outside of this isn't bad, but there are too many variables at play.
There are ways to tell you're right on taking a player or wrong. In a live draft, when people agree, most leagues just get ready to move on to the next pick. No one bats an eye at these guys. If you hesitate or question yourself, don't make the pick. If the room stops and says, "You sure?," say you were joking and try again. It's best for everyone.
The names that do fall into this category roll off the tongue. In no particular order, some include: Brandon Webb, Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, Chase Utley, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and most anyone you saw playing in last year's All-Star game. Remember, that's MOST, not all.
Rounds 6-8 - The Starters
Once you've navigated the early rounds successfully, you turn your attention to making sure that you round out some key positions. The players here aren't going to be the elite, and you likely won't find top-five talent in some of them.
Still, those that are taken in these rounds are starters in every sense. The question as to if they will produce at All-Star levels may be there, but you won't be disappointed with the production you receive.
Certainly, you're going to see studs still fall into this category, but they aren't as abundant, obviously, as in the early rounds of a draft.
Those of you who have been playing along at home with us know that I don't advocate pitching coming off the board too early. It's these rounds, though, that looking at some starters or a truly elite closer makes perfect sense. You've built some offense, now you can look at addressing the top of the starting rotation.
Already grabbed your Jake Peavy or Johan Santana early on? You can address your outfield with a player like Matt Kemp in these rounds. Maybe look at the thinner middle-infield and grab an elite player in one of those positions (think Dan Uggla-style). Regardless, you're looking to add to your starting lineup and make your team stronger overall.
We still aren't at the point where youth should be looked at. Upside picks in this round should be low-risk upside picks. In conversing with fellow fantasy fanatics, I've started to hear about players like Matt Wieters or Nelson Cruz being pegged as early as the back part to this range. Not the time, nor the place.
These two players in particular continue to rise based on speculation that they're going to be outstanding. The risk taking them here is just enormous. Why? Being wrong on a player early in the draft diminishes your ability to have made up for it later. The same talent level isn’t there.
Drafting Wieters or any other young player later in the draft creates the possibility for upside as opposed to necessity for early success.
In general, we’re still talking about players inside the top-100 rankings. Most leagues are right around 96 players drafted by the end of round eight.
When you look at the top-50 and the top-100 players available, there should still be a high degree of confidence in the success of those players. These rounds are similar to the first five, but the issue is many owners start to take chances here and it’s simply too early.
Some argue you don’t win your league by playing it safe. That could very well be true. In these rounds, you can lose it by reaching too soon to grab a player. I’d rather be safe.
Coming tomorrow, we'll examine the other three tiers of fantasy drafts.