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Friday 26th May 2017

How do I know when it's time to raise the intensity of my fantasy baseball draft preparation from relaxed to serious? Of course, it's when the annual MLB.com Fantasy 411 mock draft, a 12-team, 23-round exercise, gets underway. I've been running this mock, conducted via e-mail, for quite some time now, and even more helpful than the pick-by-pick results is the pick-by-pick commentary from each of the owners.

Well, five rounds are complete, and these five rounds had a much different feel than the early rounds last year. But why? Just out of curiosity, I decided to peruse the results from the 2016 MLB.com mock (yes, I did have this page bookmarked in my browser). Not to sound cliché or anything, but what a difference a year makes. Let's take a look at a handful of players who were selected within the first three rounds in the 2016 mock but have yet to find a mock team home in the 2017 version.

Jose Bautista (Round 2, Pick 11 in '16) - Forget five rounds. There's a real possibility that Bautista will still be on the board in Round 10. The veteran slugger's contract year didn't exactly go as planned, as he posted his lowest home run total since 2009 and was limited to 116 games due to injury. So, Joey Bats was forced to settle for a one-year deal to remain with the Blue Jays. Despite his advanced age and shaky health history, the 36-year-old actually offers some appeal as a discounted power source if drafted at the right spot, let's say #100 overall. Just be careful not to chase his past.

Chris Davis (Round 3, Pick 8 in '16) - Speaking of power, this guy has plenty of it, and it shouldn't be much longer before his name is called (or in this case typed and sent). He was probably a bit overvalued in 2016 drafts, and his batting average has fluctuated wildly from year to year. But Davis is also one of the only safe bets for 35-plus homers. His fantasy value is boosted significantly in OBP leagues thanks to his consistently high walk rate. In those formats, he will be squarely on my radar.

Todd Frazier (Round 3, Pick 10 in '16) - Frazier is coming off a season in which he set career bests in homers, RBIs and runs scored, yet his fantasy stock has dropped. Ah, the batting average. His .225 mark was a career worst. Do note, however, that his BABIP was an unusually low .236, so with a little better luck, a return to the .250 level is well within the realm of possibility. Considering the reduced price tag, I'm very interested in rostering Frazier this year.

Carlos Gomez (Round 3, Pick 11 in '16) - Gomez, on the other hand, is someone I'm not too interested in rostering. Yeah, his 33-game stretch with the Rangers last year was impressive, but how can one overlook the first four and a half months of his 2016 season? And he was already showing signs of decline in 2015. Back with the Rangers on a one-year deal, the former All-Star will try to prove that his finish to 2016 was no fluke. There will be someone in every fantasy league who will reach for Gomez. Don't be that someone. 

Gerrit Cole (Round 3, Pick 12 in '16) - What a letdown. Cole's exceptional 2015 season (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) convinced many owners (including yours truly) that he was a legitimate fantasy ace and would remain a legitimate fantasy ace for years to come. So much for that. Multiple injuries marred his 2016 campaign, and even when he was able to take the mound, the consistency just wasn't there. The elbow issues are a little scary, but the good news is that he's expected to be fine for spring training. There's some risk here, but Cole's expected mixed league SP3 price factors in that risk. Ultimately, this is a risk I'll be willing to take. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

Mock draft results are fine resource tools. But there's nothing like the real thing. Many owners, especially industry owners, use mocks to try out different strategies, assembling rosters that they wouldn't even think of assembling under normal circumstances. While this approach works well if the goal is to promote discussion, it might not be helpful for those studying these results in hopes of getting an idea as to how their actual drafts will play out. 

This is why the FSTA draft results can be quite useful, as the annual FSTA draft is usually the first prominent non-keeper industry league draft of the industry league draft season. On Monday night, representatives from 13 fantasy baseball media outlets (Todd and Lawr took the reigns of Team Mastersball) gathered in Nashville to fill their 2017 FSTA league rosters. You can check out the complete draft grid here and be sure to read Todd's analysis in the Platinum section as well as Lawr's recap

Here are some of the picks from the first five rounds that really got me thinking:

A.J. Pollock (Round 3, Pick 3 to Mastersball) - To be honest, I wasn't all that surprised by this one considering Todd's affinity for Pollock. The Diamondbacks outfielder was limited to just 41 at-bats last year as a fractured elbow delayed his 2016 debut until late-August before a groin injury ended his season a couple weeks later. Pollock was a legitimate first-rounder heading into 2016 drafts, so although he does carry some injury risk, as an elite five-category contributor, he offers plenty of profit potential as a third-round pick, though I expected the discount to be steeper. 

Trevor Story (Round 3, Pick 12 to Scout Fantasy) - Clearly, the kid can hit. But is a 97-game big league sample size enough to warrant a top-40 pick, even if that sample size included 27 homers and 72 RBI? Maybe, and he does have Coors Field in his favor. Still, the strikeout rate is a little scary. I need to see more before I can comfortably invest in Story at this level.

Billy Hamilton (Round 4, Pick 1 to Baseball HQ) - The improved OBP is encouraging, so the logical reaction is that his stolen base total is still on the rise. But as I've mentioned many times before, I'm not a believer in a top-heavy strategy when it comes to addressing steals. I'm sure Hamilton owners weren't too happy last year when he missed nearly the entire month of September due to injury. Kyle Seager, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Matt Kemp were all available at this point in the draft. Give me one of those guys instead. I'll deal with steals a little later.

Jean Segura (Round 4, Pick 6 to Fantasy Sports Network) - Can Segura steal 33 bases again? Sure. Can he bat .319 again? Probably not. Can he hit 20 homers again? Not a chance. I can confidently say that the new Mariners shortstop will not be a member of any of my fantasy squads this year. Considering his expected price tag, there's simply too much to lose.

Andrew McCutchen (Round 5, Pick 10 to Fantasy Alarm) - Wow. I'm usually risk averse in the early rounds, but McCutchen at #62 overall would have been too tempting to pass up. Maybe the 20-plus stolen base campaigns are a thing of the past, but after struggling mightily for the vast majority of last year, the Pirates centerfielder finished the season strong, launching a combined nine home runs to go along with 34 RBI in August and September. I'm not ready to give up on a 30-year-old who carries such an elite track record, especially at this price.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB 

Some players will remember their 2016 season with fondness. But for others, the end of the calendar year could not have come soon enough. Whether it was due to injury, subpar performance or a combination of the two, these guys failed to live up to the expectations of both their real teams and their fantasy owners. The good news is that the new year really does mean a clean slate. While a major bounceback in 2017 is no guarantee, underachievers from the previous season, especially underachievers who sport a solid big league track record, is the first group I focus on when beginning my annual draft prep. Whether or not I will aggressively target all of the below players has yet to be determined, but let's just say that I'm intrigued.

Miguel Sano - Sano appeared in only 116 games last season thanks to a variety of ailments, but the Twins slugger still tallied 25 home runs and 66 RBI. With 43 homers over his first 196 big league games, the power is clearly legit, and Sano doesn't even turn 24 until May. Grab him at a discount now before it's too late.

Lorenzo Cain - Health, not production level, was the problem for Cain last year, though duplicating his 2015 stat line of .307-16-72-101-28 was going to be a tall order anyway. He's always been injury-prone, but Lorenzo's expected 2017 draft price takes that risk into account, and then some. I've seen him fall outside the top-30 among outfielders in many mocks, and if his market value remains roughly the same come draft day, I'll be all over this five-category contributor.

Lucas Duda - Limited to just 47 games due to injury last season, Duda might slip more than he should in 2017 drafts. Keep in mind that he launched a combined 57 homers from 2014-2015, and he managed to swat an impressive seven home runs in only 153 at-bats last year. He's a batting average liability, but there's plenty of profit potential here, and bump him up your rankings in OBP leagues (career .343 OBP).

Jason Heyward - What happened last season? I don't have the answer, but I've never been much of a Heyward supporter from a fantasy perspective. How many times has he recorded at least 20 homers in a season? Once. How about 80-plus RBI? Once. Or 90-plus runs? Once. Yet he's routinely drafted as a "high upside" top-30 OF. Well, that won't be the case this time around, which is why I'm at least thinking about him. But ultimately, I'll likely pass.

Dallas Keuchel - Keuchel was on my Do Not Draft list heading into 2016, despite the two straight stellar campaigns and the Cy Young season in 2015. The cost to draft him would be substantial, and I needed to see more before I could value him as a legitimate fantasy ace. As it turned out, I made the right call. The Astros southpaw would enter the All-Star break with a 4.80 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. Keuchel posted better, though far from ace-caliber, results in the second half, registering a 3.94 ERA and 1.08 WHIP before shoulder inflammation ended his season in late-August. Word is that Keuchel pitched through the injury for much of the season, which is actually good news when it comes to his 2017 outlook, as this could at least partly explain his struggles. Although it's probably a mistake to expect a return to ace form, as a third or fourth starter in a 12-team mixed league, he's well worth the investment.

Felix Hernandez - I might be placing too much weight on the past, but I find it hard to believe that after one injury-marred season, the days of Felix being a valuable fantasy commodity are over. Perhaps his days as a fantasy ace are over, but I can't even say that for sure. I could be wrong, and I really don't have any statistical evidence to support my hunch. Then again, don't underestimate the value of a hunch.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

It arrived in the mail this past Thursday and was immediately placed in a prominent spot on my desk, to be studied meticulously over the course of the next two-plus months. If you're looking for the fantasy baseball preview magazine that will best prepare you for the upcoming season, The Fantasy Baseball Guide Professional Edition, put together by Rotoman Peter Kreutzer, is the one to get. And trust me, I'm not just saying this because I contribute to the 160-page publication. 

The strategy essays and expert mock draft results provide invaluable information, but my favorite part of the magazine are the player profile Picks and Pans, where a cast of fantasy pundits offer their thoughts on players who they consider to be either undervalued (picks) or overvalued (pans) heading into draft day. My favorite part of my favorite part of the magazine is finding out if the players I chose were popular pick/pan selections, which is often the case. More interesting than the agreements are the disagreements, that is players who were deemed Picks by some experts and Pans by others. So, just to give you a taste of the magazine content, let's take a look at some of the guys who fit this description. 

Gary Sanchez (1 Pick, 5 Pans): Arguably the most controversial player of them all, some owners view Sanchez as a no doubt top-40 player while others are wary of overpaying based on a 20-home run, two-month stretch that was aided by an unusually high HR/FB ratio. Count me in the latter group, and clearly I wasn't alone.

Jose Abreu (6 Picks, 1 Pan): Well, so much for the idea of drafting Abreu at a steep discount. Apparently, I'm not the only one who wasn't taken aback by a "disappointing" .293-25-100 stat line. The White Sox first baseman is a safe bet for another strong batting average in 2017, and the fact that 14 of his 25 home runs last season came in the final two months suggests that a return to the 30-homer level is well within reach. The profit potential might not be as great as I originally thought, but Abreu remains an appealing lower-priced 1B alternative to Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman. 

Miguel Sano (2 Picks, 1 Pan): The batting average might be ugly and the strikeout total will be ugly, but through 196 big league games, Sano has already racked up 43 homers and 118 RBI. Pretty good. If you happen to play in an OBP league, he's even more valuable (career .346 OBP). Then there's the dual-position eligibility at third base and outfield. Sano's injury-marred 2016 season opens up a nice buying opportunity for 2017. Take advantage.

Jonathan Villar (1 Pick, 2 Pans): Stolen base totals are down throughout baseball, which is why you might be tempted to invest heavily in Villar and enjoy not having to worry too much about steals for the rest of the draft. I don't like to build my roster that way. What happens if Villar gets injured and you don't have enough 20-SB type fallback options because you were counting on at least 50 swipes from the Brewers speedster? What happens if he doesn't bat .285 again? (This is quite possible considering his .373 BABIP last season.) And what happens if he doesn't hit 19 homers again? There's simply too much that could go wrong here.

Jonathan Schoop (2 Picks, 2 Pans): A true split decision. I'm not sure if Schoop can improve upon his 2016 stat line, but for some strange reason, he's ranked outside of the top-15 second basemen on many sites, which is why I labeled him a Pick. Can we please show this guy a little more respect?

Adam Jones (1 Pick, 3 Pans): Ah, to be in the minority. Jones has now registered at least 25 homers and 82 RBI in each of the last six seasons. Yeah, maybe he's no longer an elite fantasy option, but there seems to be this idea that you will need to pay top dollar to draft him, which just isn't the case. I don't see his production all of a sudden plummeting. In fact, I consider Jones to be an intriguing contrarian pick, in that so many owners will view him as overvalued that he might end up being undervalued. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

After devoting last week's column to the mixed-league worthy hitters who officially changed teams since the start of the Winter Meetings, it's only fair that we give equal attention to the pitchers. Since the performance level of pitchers from year to year tends to be tougher to predict, any edge that these guys can get from a more favorable home ballpark, a stronger supporting lineup or a more prominent role can be vital when it comes to a pitcher's fantasy outlook. Let's get started.

Chris Sale - I don't need to tell you that Sale is a fantasy ace. You knew that already. I don't need to tell you that Sale is a top-5 fantasy SP. You knew that already. As far as his value is concerned, I don't see it changing much. The move to a better team with a better lineup comes at the cost of a tougher division. Sale is a lock to be drafted among the top 30 players in 2017, and since I don't like to draft starting pitchers very early, it's unlikely that he will be a part of any of my teams. That said, barring injury, it's unlikely that he will disappoint.

Aroldis Chapman - I do worry about how the final year or two of Chapman's five-year contract will play out, as a 93 mph Aroldis Chapman is far less intimidating than the current 103 mph version. But really, who could criticize the Yankees for signing the Cuban southpaw, who boasts a career 2.08 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 15.2 K/9 rate? The bottom line is that Chapman deserves to be the first closer off the board in 2017 drafts.

Mark Melancon - Melancon is no Chapman, but he's pretty good. Over the past three seasons, the 31-year-old sports a combined 1.93 ERA and 0.90 WHIP to go along with 131 saves in 141 chances. He certainly adds stability to what was a messy late-inning situation for the Giants last season, and he will add stability to your fantasy bullpen as well.

Wade Davis - Davis entered the 2016 campaign as the consensus top fantasy closer, but he has now lost that title following a season in which forearm issues limited him to just 45 appearances. But the other numbers were once again stellar. For those willing to take on the injury risk, there's upside appeal in drafting the new Cubs stopper towards the back-end of the top-10 closers. Would anyone be surprised if he reclaims the #1 spot?

Lucas Giolito/Reynaldo Lopez - Quite a return package for the White Sox, who acquired these two hurlers (along with Dane Dunning) from the Nationals in exchange for Adam Eaton. Both Giolito and Lopez struggled in their first taste of the big leagues last season, but both are still very young and sport impressive minor league stat lines. Lopez could earn a rotation spot out of spring training while Giolito is likely to open the season in the Minors, though he has the higher ceiling. Expect both to make a mixed league impact by year's end.

Derek Holland - The White Sox weren't done adding arms to their roster, and there's little downside in signing Holland to a one-year contract. But after enjoying a solid 2013 campaign (3.42 ERA, 189 K's), health woes have limited the 30-year-old lefty to a combined 38 games over the past three seasons, and the results have been far from impressive. Holland is strictly an AL-only option for now, though owners in deeper mixed leagues would be wise to track his progress throughout spring training and into April.

Fernando Rodney - By now, we know the deal with Rodney. He will open the 2017 season as the Diamondbacks closer. He might even finish the 2017 season as the Diamondbacks closer. But he will drive his fantasy owners nuts from start to finish, so nuts that the saves will not be worth it. Stay away. 

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