There are just over two weeks remaining until the start of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, making this the perfect opportunity to plan for your fantasy draft.
This year looks to be incredibly deep in fantasy star power, both for position players and pitchers. The position players, especially, could be as strong as they have been in a number of years. There's an argument to be made for a 12-team draft going entirely with position players in the first round.
Before you go into your draft room, here is a handy guide to plan your fantasy strategy and increase your chances of winning your league in 2021.
2021 Fantasy Mock Draft First Round (Standard Head-to-Head Scoring)
1. Mookie Betts, OF (Los Angeles Dodgers)
2. Ronald Acuna Jr., OF (Atlanta Braves)
3. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS (San Diego Padres)
4. Mike Trout, OF (Los Angeles Angels)
5. Juan Soto, OF (Washington Nationals)
6. Trea Turner, SS (Washington Nationals)
7. Trevor Story, SS (Colorado Rockies)
8. Gerrit Cole, SP (New York Yankees)
9. Jose Ramirez, 3B (Cleveland)
10. Jacob deGrom, SP (New York Mets)
11. Freddie Freeman, 1B (Atlanta Braves)
12. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Early-Round Strategy and Cheat-Sheet Information
Don't Overrate Players Based on 2020 Stats
One potential trap that can be easy to fall into is overrating players based on how they performed in the 60-game 2020 season.
A perfect example of this is Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez. He's been one of the best catchers in MLB throughout his career with six All-Star selections and five Gold Glove awards.
Last season was the 30-year-old's best as a hitter, by far. He posted a .333/.353/.633 slash line with 11 homers and 32 RBI.
On the surface, those numbers look great given the length of the season and make him worthy of being an early-round selection.
A deeper dive into the stats shows Perez was incredibly lucky in 2020. He's never been one to take walks anyway, but his 1.9 walk percentage last year was the lowest of his career. He also set career highs with a 23.1 strikeout percentage and .375 batting average on balls in play.
Per Fantasy Pros, Perez is currently being drafted as the No. 2 catcher behind J.T. Realmuto with an average draft position of 87.
By comparison, Gary Sanchez of the New York Yankees is going an average 59 picks after Perez. Even coming off a down year with a .618 OPS, he hit nearly as many homers (11) as Perez, albeit in 49 games.
Sanchez did post a career-high strikeout rate (36 percent), but his .159 BABIP was nearly 100 points worse than his career average (.256).
Bryan Hoch of MLB.com noted the Yankees intend to start this season with Sanchez as their primary catcher. The 28-year-old averaged 28 homers, 73 RBI and posted a .238/.320/.495 slash line in three seasons from 2017-19.
There's just far more value in waiting for Sanchez in round 10-11 instead of reaching for Perez in round four and hoping that he repeats last year's success, which is based on a small sample size.
Trevor Bauer is another player to avoid based on the small-sample success from 2020. He's always been an effective starter in the big leagues, but 2018 and 2020 are the only years he's ever looked like an ace.
His success last year was predicated on a career-low .215 batting average on balls in play and career-high strand rate of 90.9 percent.
Steamer projects the reigning NL Cy Young winner to have a solid season with a 3.69 ERA and 10.73 strikeouts per nine innings in 2021, but that doesn't make him worth an average draft position of No. 14 overall when Aaron Nola, Walker Buehler and Lucas Giolito are likely to be available.
First Base and Catcher Can Wait
First base and catcher are two difficult positions to figure out this season, for very different reasons. Catching has been incredibly thin, in reality and fantasy for years. First base has almost too many potential options that the bargains should be plentiful.
Realmuto is the only superstar catcher you should be targeting in the first five rounds of the draft. His offensive value since the start of 2016 is 57.3; Sanchez is a distant second at 32.4, per FanGraphs.
There have only been three catchers with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title over the past two seasons combined.
Realmuto and Perez are the only catchers currently being drafted on average among the top 100 picks. There are seven being drafted between picks 101-200, including Sanchez, Will Smith, Willson Contreras, Yasmani Grandal and Travis d'Arnaud.
Reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman and Cody Bellinger are borderline first-round options, but there are better value picks starting with Jose Abreu.
The Chicago White Sox star is currently the No. 3 first baseman coming off the board around pick No. 37. DJ LeMahieu has first-base eligibility, but among traditional first basemen, Pete Alonso is fourth on the board.
Alonso does have sleeper potential, even as a potential fifth-round pick. His stock appears to be down a bit after posting a .231/.326/.490 slash line last season, but again it's important to not get hung up on numbers in a small-sample-size year.
You can find bargains at the position in the middle of the draft. Paul Goldschmidt is still a quality offensive player who is available in Round 6 or 7. Anthony Rizzo, another strong rebound candidate, is going on average No. 98 overall.
Eric Hosmer could be hitting in the middle of the best lineup in MLB this season. The San Diego Padres first baseman drove in 99 runs two years ago and 36 in 38 games last year. He's currently the 16th-ranked player at the position with an ADP of 148.
Don't Fall Into the Closer Trap
There's no more dangerous position to bet on than relief pitching, both in the real world and the fantasy realm. It's an often volatile group because one bad outing can sink a player's stats for the entire year.
Relief pitching is also unstable because the sample sizes are so small from year to year that anything can change in the blink of an eye, with rare exceptions.
Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers is a perfect example. The two-time All-Star still has the reputation as an elite-level closer because he led the NL with 13 saves last year and still strikes out hitters at a high rate.
But opponents have gotten much better at timing his fastball since the start of 2019. He only allowed 41 hits in 75.2 innings pitched two years ago, but 15 of those hits went over the fence.
Here's what Robert Murray of The Athletic wrote about Hader's fastball in August 2019:
"The velocity on his fastball has increased from 94.5 mph to 95.4. The spin has jumped from 2043 rpm (revolutions per minute) to 2122. He is throwing it 82.9 percent of the time, the highest of his career, and opponents are hitting just .157 against it. But when Hader misses his location—something that has happened frequently recently—hitters have pummeled the fastball."
Last year continued the downward trend for the 26-year-old, despite the save total. He had the highest ERA of his career (3.79) with 10 walks in 19 innings.
Since I've railed against judging positive performance last year because of the small sample size, it's only fair I do the same thing for Hader given his limited playing time.
There are some other warning signs that he could continue to struggle in 2021. His average fastball velocity dipped one mile per hour from 2019 (95.6) to 2020 (94.6), and he threw it a career-low 67.7 percent of the time.
Hader uses his fastball to get ahead in the count, setting up his wipeout slider when he gets to two strikes. If he doesn't have the same velocity and control of the pitch that he did in 2017-18, the odds of him being an elite closer decrease dramatically.
Brad Hand is another perennial All-Star closer who seems likely to disappoint. The left-hander led MLB with 16 saves pitching for Cleveland last year, but there was a lot of luck involved in that performance.
Per FanGraphs, the 30-year-old didn't allow a home run in 22 innings pitched despite having the worst groundball rate (26.5 percent) of his career. His velocity has been trending down for two seasons, with his fastball averaging 91.4 mph in 2020.
The Washington Nationals signed Hand to become their closer in 2021. The three-time All-Star is around the strike zone often enough to make diminished velocity work for him, but he's still being drafted like a top-10 reliever when it seems unlikely he can stay at that level based on his underlying stats.