Just days from the official start of the 2019 Major League Baseball regular season, it's time to make final preparations for your fantasy draft.
After a slow offseason of free-agent activity, the big concern in fantasy right now is making sure everyone expected to play a key role for their team is healthy for the beginning of the year.
Before diving into what strategies will yield best results, let's look at a first-round mock draft for a standard 12-team format.
Fantasy Mock Draft
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
2. Mookie Betts, OF, Boston Red Sox
3. Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland Indians
4. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals
5. J.D. Martinez, DH, Boston Red Sox
6. Alex Bregman, 3B, Houston Astros
7. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
8. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
9. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros
10. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
11. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
12. Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals
Keep an eye on player trends
Just as MLB teams have become more cautious when it comes to investing a lot of years and money in players over the age of 30, fantasy players need to keep a close eye on superstars of a certain age.
The best example to cite this year is Clayton Kershaw. The Los Angeles Dodgers are still paying the three-time National League Cy Young winner like he's one of the best pitchers in the sport.
Most pitchers coming off a season with a 2.73 ERA would be thrilled, but Kershaw has been trending in the wrong direction recently. He hasn't exceeded 175 innings in a season since 2015, and his 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings last year were his fewest since he was a rookie in 2008.
He has also seen a precipitous drop in his fastball velocity during this current three-year stretch:
The southpaw opened spring training unable to finish a bullpen session until March 15 with an unspecified arm issue.
Take away the luster of Kershaw's name value, fantasy owners are looking at an injury-prone 31-year-old with a steep decline in velocity. He proved last year it's possible for him to succeed at a certain level with diminished stuff, but the days of him as an elite player are a thing of the past.
This leads to the main point: Player trends and projection systems are your friend.
Rather than sit back and hope a once-elite player, like Kershaw, is suddenly going to find his old talent, keep an eye on what projections say to expect.
FanGraphs keeps a handy guide of multiple projection systems on every player's profile page, including ZiPS and Steamer. They determine stats using recent trends in player performance, age and comparable players at the same stage of their career.
If you have questions or concerns about which player to draft in any given round, you can quickly search both of them to see what they are expected to do in 2019. It's not a guarantee things will work out in your favor, but it gives you a better chance to win instead of making an impulse decision.
Patience is a virtue
One of the most dangerous things to happen in fantasy sports is overdrafting a player, which causes a ripple effect at that position.
I most often associate this with fantasy football, when someone determines in the 11th round they need a kicker.
What are you doing? You don't need a kicker. Stop it!
Closers are the nearest equivalent in fantasy baseball, but let's take a bigger-picture view of what to wait on in your draft.
Positional depth is critical as you fill out your draft board. If there are 10 star-level players at one position, compared to four at another position, which one should you try to fill first?
Using Yahoo's rankings, Tommy Pham of the Tampa Bay Rays is the 20th-ranked outfielder after hitting .275/.367/.464 with 21 homers, 63 RBI, 102 runs scored and 15 stolen bases in 2018.
Let's shift to second base as a point of comparison. Jonathan Villar of the Baltimore Orioles is ranked 10th at the position. The 27-year-old's best asset is speed, as evidenced by his 35 stolen bases, but he hit .260/.325/.384 with 14 homers in 141 games.
It's not an entirely fair contrast because there are three outfielders on every team, but it also serves to emphasize you can find quality second-tier outfielders later in the draft after getting an elite second baseman (Jose Altuve, Javier Baez, Whit Merrifield).
You need a true ace
Last year, I shared my skepticism about drafting starting pitchers too early. The argument was largely built on first-rounders when a number of workhorse arms were still available in rounds two and three.
While that is still likely to be true again in 2019, the way starters are being used now makes the best ones more valuable than ever.
Of those 13 pitchers who threw at least 200 innings in 2018, eight had an ERA under 3.00. Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin were the only ones who hit those benchmarks and averaged at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
This list doesn't include legitimate aces such as Chris Sale and Blake Snell, who fell short of 200 innings last season.
With an increased emphasis on relievers across the board in MLB, finding a stud pitcher who can take the ball every fifth day and will go deep into games is a great luxury in fantasy.
Innings pitched still counts for a lot in standard fantasy circles, so getting someone who is going to be among the league leaders will go a long way toward putting you on top of the mountain at the end of 2019.