2009 Straight Draft Guide

There's an old saying that rotisserie baseball isn't a game about baseball as much as a game about economics. And in matters of economics, agreement on a unit of measure is critical. In the rotisserie economy, that unit is the dollar.

Well, that's true for auction leagues, at least. For the stepchild of rotisserie baseball, the straight draft league, it's less true. Sure, you can pound dollar valuations into a straight draft environment, as you might hammer a square peg into a slightly-less-square hole. But there is a better solution, and that's what we seek to present each March in this annual effort.

By taking a phased approach to the straight draft, and incorporated a variety of implements from the HQ toolbox along the way, we can assemble a straight draft plan that offers a blueprint for success outside of the auction economy, all without ever referencing a dollar value.

Sticking to core principles from past years and mixing in some new twists, let's construct a winning approach to the straight draft. For newcomers or those who want a refresher course in our approach, we suggest reviewing last year's guide. (From there, you can follow the cookie crumbs through our last several editions if you wish.)

Phase 1: Reliability

No new insights here: the key to your first 5-8 draft picks is Reliability. You must make these picks count; they will form the foundation of your offensive counting stats. Chasing profit here is not as important as chasing value. While the theory isn't new, the tools we have to judge Reliability are new. We have our new Reliability Grades to help in these decisions.

The best part of the new grading system is its transparency and flexibility. Worried about the spring health questions of Brandon Webb or Johan Santana? Both come with AAA Reliability, including (obviously) an 'A' rating for Health. But if you are drafting this weekend and think the risk is too much for your taste, just knock that Health rating down to a 'C'. That rating is much more easily adjusted to match your own perceptions, as opposed to the composite numerical grading system of past years.

The beauty of the Reliability Grades are that it lets you better decide what types of risk you are willing to roster. Albert Pujols carries an AAC Rel Grade, the 'C' coming on the 'Consistency' portion of the grade, due to varying RC/G levels over the last three years. But while fluctuating, those RC/G levels have always been at elite levels. So, you can make a better informed judgment about that risk as weighed against, say, a Josh Hamilton (Rel Grade: BDA).

Reliability Grades are, of course, a key component of the Portfolio3 Plan. P3 dovetails very nicely into the straight draft realm, particularly here in Phase 1. We advocate chasing reliable players for 5-8 rounds; P3 calls for the rostering of 5-8 Tier 1 players. With reasonable adjustments (as with the Pujols example above), a focus on opening your draft with as many Tier 1 players as you can find is a reasonable strategy.

But Phase 1 isn't all about reliability. Again, you're building the foundation of your roster here, and you want some balance in that foundation. Scarcity, both categorical and positional, matters in Phase 1. You don't want your first five picks to net you 150 HR and only 10 SB, nor do you want to take on any BA risk this early. Similarly, you don't want to roster four OF and a 1B with those first five picks. You don't necessarily need to emphasize scarcity in the early stages, but it should have an influence.

Phase 2: targeted acquisition

Speaking of scarcity: In prior years, we referred to Phase 2 as the "Scarcity" phase. And scarcity is still a consideration here, just not the only consideration. In a sense, our thinking has evolved to where we now characterize scarcity as more of an overarching influence in both Phase 1 and 2, rather than a foundation principle.

Why the change? Scarcity concerns have been decreasing in the player pool, especially in mixed leagues. We identified this shift in December's SDG postmortem. To be clear, scarcity isn't gone, it's just somewhat minimized. And its effect can still vary a lot based on league context. So, the theme of the middle rounds of your draft is, simply enough, to get guys that you want. That's a broad concept, admittedly, and it can mean any of several things. Let's cover some issues on a position-by-position basis:

Catchers: there is one position where scarcity remains very, very real, and that is behind the plate. In virtually no league universe are there enough positive-value catchers to justify rostering a sufficient number of C's within the unadjusted rankings of the top X players in the league. Negative value catchers are a reality in all league universes that require two catchers, and many league universes that require only one. Don't get caught fishing in the negatively-valued-catcher waters.

As Ron Shandler recently noted, you don't necessarily need (or want) to reach for the top guys at the position. The best plan is to look at the catcher pool and identify your preferred options, and then research your ADP data and make sure to get those targets on your roster with an appropriate pick.

Middle Infielders: scarcity still matters here, only due to replacement issues. If the MI you select gets hurt, you're going into a weak part of your free agent pool to replace him. So again, when the time comes to select your middle infielders, this is a good time to focus in on Reliability again. Keep your picks within Tiers 1 and 2 of the P3 plan.

Closers: the closer market tends to vary widely in individual leagues. ADP data may be least useful in this segment of the player pool. There's no universal answer to the question about whether to try to start a closer run, or how you react when one starts in front of you. The best advice is to become intimately versed in the closer pool, know where you think the cliffs are in that pool, and be prepared to react.

Rather than pencil "closer" into a particular round of your draft roadmap, just pre-plan that you're going to pick X closers in the first Y rounds, and let the ebb and flow of the closer runs, along with your knowledge of the saves pool, decide where those picks will fall. Preparation in this area is the key to draft-day success. Don't end up surprised by how quickly the closer pool deteriorates.

category scarcity: if your league format promotes drafting a balanced team across all categories, rather than just collecting whatever value the draft gives you with the intent of trading for balance later, the middle rounds of your draft will require you to balance whatever strengths and weaknesses you accumulate in Phase 1. (This is particularly true of no-trading environments like the NFBC). If you picked up a strong SB basis early, for instance, you might be zeroing in on power production in the middle rounds. That can mean knowing where to find power at traditionally non-power positions.

For instance, Jose Lopez and his 15-20 HR upside at 2B may become more valuable to you than, say, Placido Polanco's .300+ BA and lesser pop. Conversely, if you picked up Troy Tulowitzki and Chase Utley as your MI combo, you have created a power surplus and SB shortfall with your MI selections. You might need to balance that by finding SBs at an atypical position in the middle rounds, for instance putting Chone Figgins at 3B.

Another valid approach to chasing this balance is to seek balance in each individual roster spot. Targeting power+speed players for all of your starting positions can be an effective way to reach your needed SB base without ever investing in a Reyes, Taveras, Figgins type of player. But that approach requires discipline with each pick, to make sure you get at least 10-15 bags from every selection. Again, that can limit your target list, and to some extent dictate the order in which you approach filling your open lineup slots in the middle rounds. Luckily for you, our Buyers Guide columnists have already done the heavy lifting for you, with position-by-position assessments of category scarcity for power , speed, and batting average.

Starting pitching: similar to closers, there's no one right answer when it comes to the question of how many early picks to spend on SP. The general rule of thumb to follow is that the more comfortable you are managing your staff in-season, the later you can wait to invest in that staff. There is a vocal minority who firmly believes in the importance of nabbing an ace up in the Phase 1 area, we're not here to dissuade you from that plan if you are part of that group of believers. Our only cautionary advice goes back to our general philosophy about Phase 1: you need to get those picks right. The longer you wait into Phase 2 to build that rotation, the more risk you can take on in your selections.

Again, the key here is to have a plan, know the areas of the SP ranking lists where you want to shop, and recognize when that time comes in your draft's flow. And again, by all means leverage the rest of HQ's analysis in making these decisions. The SP Buyers Guide is a superior resource, for instance the link here brings you to Stephen Nickrand's list of "20 SP under the radar". It is worthwhile to monitor Stephen's work each week.

Phase 3: chase upside

More accurately, your charge in the final phase of your draft is to relentlessly chase upside. Once you are through the first 15-18 rounds of your draft, everything with guaranteed value is long since gone. You can throw your ADP list out the window at this point. It's unlikely more than a handful of these picks will stick on your roster through April, so you're "throwing things at the wall" here.

That's not to say you're working without a plan. You're drafting skills, not roles. A year ago, you could have gotten CLE's 6th starter in the end-game (Cliff Lee), or a newcomer vying for a rotation spot in CIN (Edinson Volquez). An eventual 33 HR hitter was competing for a roster spot in STL (Ryan Ludwick). All had skills in their past that at least hinted at their upside.

Who are the candidates this year? Ron Shandler provided a framework for hunting them down in another recent column. It might be a rookie like Elvis Andrus or Mat Gamel, a post-hype prospect like Clay Buchholz, a rehabbing veteran like Jason Schmidt, or a third-in-line closer like Mike Wuertz.

The point is, we don't know exactly who, but there will be "out of left field" breakouts. So, your goal in the draft end-game is to give yourself as many lottery tickets as possible. If, in your last 10-12 picks, you find 2-3 players who become surprising contributors, even for a partial season, and the rest end thrown back on the waiver wire for a new set of lottery tickets, that's an acceptable outcome.

Using the charts

The link at the top of the page brings you to our 2009 draft rankings list, based on our March 5 projections. Those will be updated at least once before Opening Day. Those rankings are based on values produced from the Custom Draft Guide tool, which are then adjusted for some of the positional and categorical scarcity considerations mentioned above.

Beyond that, a few standard disclaimers apply:

  • these lists don't reflect the marketplace. We make no effort here in the Straight Draft Guide to account for market tendencies. We leave that to Matt Beagle and his fine Market Pulse column, where each week he assesses how HQ's projected valuations compare to the rest of the marketplace. And with Matt's column each week you get Mock Draft Central's Average Draft Position report, which will allow you to do your own research into where various players of interest are falling in public drafts over at MDC.
  • players in same round on our chart are roughly equivalent in value. There isn't enough of a delta in the rankings to obsess over who ranks a couple of spots ahead of someone else. Look at the chart in blocks, consider players listed near each other to be interchangeable, and select the one that makes the most sense based on your needs at the time.

Happy drafting!

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.