2019 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Drafting in AL-only leagues — what you need to know
Cutting the player pool in half creates a number of scarcities. Scott White highlights some for the AL-only format.
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Most Fantasy Baseball advice is geared toward mixed leagues, and it's no secret why. Most Fantasy Baseball owners play in mixed leagues — an overwhelming majority, in fact.
But let's say you don't. You're such a traditionalist that you like to split the player pool in two to ensure no one has a team full of All-Stars.
I dig. No judgment here.
In fact, it's high time we threw you a bone, giving you a little primer on how things deviate from all that mixed-league advice you've been reading. Because of course, it's not quite as simple as cutting the player pool in two. Scarcities are created unevenly across positions and across categories.
This column is intended to highlight those scarcities, in this case for an AL-only league.
Which positions become scarcer in an AL-only league?
Catcher. My No. 3 option here is Danny Jansen, who's No. 9 for me in mixed leagues. Two Twins are in my top 10, and neither is even No. 1 depth chart. It's ugly, and if you play in a two-catcher league, it's turn-you-to-stone ugly. Even in a one-catcher league, it's possible you'll be drafting a backup like Kevin Plawecki or Isiah Kiner-Falefa as your starter.
First base. Of the consensus top seven at the position, only one, Jose Abreu, is in the AL. While Miguel Cabrera is no more than a late-round roll of the dice in a mixed league, he's one of the most bankable first basemen in this format, getting drafted seventh at the position on average, which speaks to just how risky everyone else is. If you draft Luke Voit or Tyler White as your starter -- and somebody will -- you better hope things break right for them this spring.
Starting pitcher. It's always a little weaker in the AL because AL pitchers have to face an extra hitter every time through the batting order, but the problem is less at the top this year than at the bottom. Beyond the top 40 or so, it's a struggle to find pitchers with assured rotation spots, not to mention ones who offer worthwhile numbers. If it's a Rotisserie league, maybe you can survive with only four and some quality middle relievers, but if it's a Head-to-Head points league where every team has five starting pitcher spots to fill, this is a position you want to fill faster than the competition.
Relief pitcher. Of the 15 teams in the AL, only seven have confirmed closers (unless you count the Tigers' Shane Greene, who may be a week to week proposition).
The AL is a little stronger than the NL at shortstop, but probably a little weaker at third base. Second base might be a push, but it's such a weak position to begin with that you're not going to like what's available to you if you're one of the last in your league to fill the spot. You'll basically just be chasing at-bats, going after someone like Jason Kipnis, Joey Wendle or Dustin Pedroia.
Which statistics become scarcer in an AL-only league?
Stolen bases and saves are the two with clear limitations on where you can find them, so it stands to reason that anytime you divide the player pool, you add to the level of desperation.
The stolen base scarcity isn't so acute in the AL, though. Of the nine players SportsLine projects for 30 or more steals, seven are on this side of the ledger. A big reason why is the Royals play in the AL, and no team has emphasized speed as they have. Plus, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, who have been the two most prolific base stealers in recent years, have recently migrated to the AL. And it just so happens that nearly all of the players you might target for steals in the first round of a mixed league draft -- the one exception being Trea Turner -- play in the AL. It's a list that includes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve and, to a lesser extent, Francisco Lindor.
Saves, on the other hand, are a real problem. Again, only seven of the 15 teams so far have confirmed their closer for 2019, so while it's always a battle to come away with two saves sources in this format, there isn't enough for every owner to have even one. Sure, you could speculate who'll end up with the job in Boston, Minnesota, Chicago or Kansas City, but if you're wrong, you've made an investment that will net you nothing in the saves category — which is one-fifth of your pitcher production in a standard 5x5 league, it's worth pointing out.
Though the AL favors hitting, it has a higher count of the dwindling number of pitchers who combine big innings with big strikeout rates, which makes grabbing a true ace all the more critical just to keep pace in the strikeouts category. Besides, given how quickly starting pitcher thins out, it's not a bad idea to have one in the bank from the outset.
What's an advisable strategy for an AL-only league?
First base needs to be one of your top priorities. If you have a chance to grab Jose Abreu at the Round 2-3 turn, take it, because that's one of the clearest advantages you can gain over your competition in this particular player pool (provided you have the faith in a bounce-back season for him that I do). If it doesn't work out, then don't be afraid to pay up a little for Joey Gallo, Edwin Encarnacion, Matt Olson or Jurickson Profar, even recognizing that they're imperfect players themselves. Carlos Santana also makes for a fine option in a points league. You don't want to be the owner forced to rely on part-time Steve Pearce at-bats because that risky first baseman you thought would come through didn't.
As for catcher, you may be better off punting. Gary Sanchez and Salvador Perez present too much risk for the premium you'll have to pay for them. If Danny Jansen slides far enough because he's a relative unknown, then he's worth the gamble, and there's no harm in taking a Robinson Chirinos, Welington Castillo or Omar Narvaez if the right opportunity presents itself. But the rewards aren't great enough for you to pay for the scarcity, like at first base. Just know if you end up with some total scrub at catcher, you'll be in good company.
Don't panic about stolen bases in a 5x5 league, be it Rotisserie or Head-to-Head. Just aim to get two of the known contributors in the category, and you'll probably be competitive. There are enough to go around on the AL side. If you happen to land Trout, Betts, Ramirez or Altuve in the first round, you're halfway there. Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi are possibilities in Rounds 2 and 3. Dee Gordon, Mallex Smith, Jonathan Villar and Billy Hamilton will all be available later, after you've already put together the nucleus of your team, and Greg Allen presents a great fallback option later.
You need an ace, and to get one, you'll have to commit to using one of your first three picks, maybe first two, on a pitcher. It's imperative given how bad things are going to look later. In fact, if you play in a points leagues and have five starting pitcher spots to fill, you might want to fill them all within the first 10 rounds. Wait until the top 40 are off the board, and you have no clue what you'll be getting at that spot.
As for saves, when you consider how many owners aren't going to be competitive in the category just by virtue of being boxed out, you owe it to yourself to grab one of the seven who are assured the role, meaning Blake Treinen, Aroldis Chapman, Roberto Osuna, Brad Hand, Jose Leclerc, Cody Allen or Ken Giles. If it works out that you can grab another probable closer for a reasonable price, like a Matt Barnes, Mychal Givens or Hunter Strickland, great, but at least you'll know you're in a position to compete with just one.
So which Fantasy Baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued pitchers can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Scooter Gennett's huge breakout last season, and find out.
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