Anatomy of a 5x5 draft
January 27, 2003
Brendan Roberts
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Pro football coaches live and die by their play charts. For baseball managers, it's those marked-up lineup cards. Basketball coaches wear out those handy dry-erase boards. Whatever the method of organization, all coaches have some sort of mapped-out game plan. Well, fantasy baseball owners are no different.

The importance of drafting well can't be understated. Many owners will say you can solidify a spot in the upper half (or bottom half) of your league's standings by the draft alone. In very deep leagues, or ones in which transactions are minimized, the draft is everything. If you plan well and make wise decisions, you can come away from draft day with a smile that lasts the entire season.

Fantasy owners don't need a game plan quite as detailed as Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's 15-play script, but they must have an idea of what to expect round by round. All baseball knowledge or scouting preparation can be thrown out the window otherwise. Owners not only need to know which players to draft, but when to draft them.

With that, here is a battle-tested game plan of what you should expect in a standard mixed-league, 5x5 draft. Granted, every draft takes a different path from the moment the first name is called, but this should provide a basic guideline of what you should expect to see and try to accomplish.

Rounds 1 and 2: Always draft the best player available vs. the average at his position, regardless of what position that might be. In other words, don't be afraid to take players at deep positions such as outfielders Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Ichiro Suzuki, Lance Berkman or Barry Bonds, first basemen such as Jason Giambi or Todd Helton, or starting pitchers such as Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez. Though these guys are in deep positions, their numbers vs. the average at their positions are still superior to those of an elite second baseman or catcher. Most owners follow this strategy, so the rush for the same players will be intense. However, each draft has one or two renegades who reach for a catcher, shortstop or closer just because they're a good player at a weak position. Don't be that guy.

Rounds 3 and 4: You're still thinking best player available but being a little more selective. Taking four starting pitchers puts your offense in a bit of a hole, and vice versa if you select four outfielders. But don't be afraid to take three outfielders if your trusty Top 100 calls for it. What's going right now? Your elite closers will start going, your top second basemen and third basemen hit the draft boards, but most smart owners will be loading up on upper-tier outfielders such as Gary Sheffield or Brian Giles.

Rounds 5 and 6: Don't panic! There still is plenty of depth left here; in a 12-owner league, only 48 players have been taken. However, now is when you start thinking about what categories you're lacking. For instance, if steals were all but forgotten in your first four picks, you start looking at available basestealers over available sluggers. If you need to work on pitching categories, you do so. You'll see many owners addressing the same needs, which is what leads to the infamous “closer runs” or “stolen-base runs.”

Rounds 7 through 10: Once owners feel they have a good category balance, they'll start filling in their starting positions. That means plenty of mid-range middle infielders and solid starting pitchers are called. While that's a sound strategy, you don't necessarily have to follow it. A wise pre-draft plan is to target a deep sleeper at each position that you wouldn't mind starting if you had to--perhaps players such as Michael Young at second base or Juan Uribe at shortstop. That leaves you free to take depth at other positions, such as a fourth or fifth outfielder or fifth starting pitcher, if there's someone you really like.

Rounds 11 through 15: We call these the sleeper rounds. For the most part, you can't afford to pick a bad ballplayer in the first several rounds, and the later rounds usually are filled with major risks or proven weak offensive players. But the middle rounds are often where a league is won or lost. Owners have enough depth in categories or at each position that they can start making riskier sleeper picks. This is when the aforementioned Youngs and Uribes, or another youngster ready to break out, such as Sean Burroughs, are taken. Or if you feel your team has enough risks already, there still are plenty of safe veterans left, such as Hideo Nomo or Ellis Burks.

Rounds 16 and 23: Fill those holes, because the splurging is over. Now it's time to fill in the extra starting positions or bench spots with the best player available at each position. Keep in mind it's wise to draft versatile players such as Jose Valentin, Jose Vizcaino or Placido Polanco who can start in a pinch at a number of positions.

Rounds 24 and beyond: Depending on how many spots you have, there are a few goals to achieve here. Have enough guys to plug in during a favorable week, but also grab a promising rookie or prospect to throw on your bench. That's your wild card, your diamond in the rough. As deep in the player pool as the majors go, there's always a rookie -- a Mark Prior, an Austin Kearns -- who can pick up a fantasy squad at midseason.

DOs AND DON'Ts

Just like the list mom used to leave on the kitchen table on chore day, here's yours for draft day.

DO:

·  Make adjustments. If your sleeper second baseman was taken right in front of you, don't compound the problem by dropping down and taking the next available second baseman a round or two early. Take your time and be reflective about where the draft is heading, and roll with the punches accordingly.

·  Be observant. You can learn a lot about the tendencies of fellow owners by their reactions, words and picks. For instance, there's usually a local franchise “homer” in every crew. Don't get caught up in the excitement or paranoia. Stick to your game plan, even it draws puzzled looks.

·  Know when to say when. There's nothing wrong with soaking down a frosty beverage at your favorite draft establishment, but draft day is no time to be joining the Century Club. As we've mentioned, fantasy baseball leagues can be won during the middle and late rounds of a draft. Whether it's beverages or boredom, you must stay focused.

DON'T:

·  Downplay the importance of saves and steals. It's all about supply and demand. Saves and steals have their own categories, yet they're hard to come by. A 30-homer hitter is a dime a dozen these days, but 30-steal guys are harder to find. Try to get at least one closer and one elite basestealer without reaching for one.

·  Take part in the runs. Avoid those runs on closers, basestealers, shortstops or catchers. Don't panic when the elite in these areas begin to go and take a fringe player a round or two early to compensate.

·  Overrate any one source. As much as we'd be honored to have your full confidence, don't take our rankings and projections as gospel. Go with what feels right for you, even if it means ignoring the so-called experts. That's the fun of fantasy baseball.

 

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