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Thursday 23rd Nov 2017

They said that stolen base totals were down throughout the game, and they were right. In 2015, only seven players reached the 30-SB plateau. That number rose to 14 in 2016, but this was nowhere near the 23 players who swiped at least 30 bags back in 2012. But a large group of fantasy pundits also said that since stolen base totals were down throughout the game, shelling out the extra dollar for one of the elite speedsters would pay off. Grab Billy Hamilton and as long as you don't ignore steals entirely the rest of the way, you would be guaranteed to finish among the top few teams in the category with a very good chance to lead the pack. I've never been much of a fan of this strategy, as an injury to your designated elite speedster could be too devastating to overcome. I'd rather spread the risk, drafting perhaps one 30-plus SB guy but several other players in the 15-20 SB range. Maybe I wouldn't win the category, but I'd be competitive.

Still, my allegiance to the "spread the risk" approach to steals was tested this year, as the numbers were convincing. I wasn't about to draft Billy Hamilton, but I'd be more open to spending a mid-round or late-round pick or $5-10 in an auction on a speed specialist.

Anyway, with the 2017 season reaching the one-month mark, I figured that now was a good time to check in on some of the stolen base building blocks that were said to be well worth the investment.

Rajai Davis (1 SB in 15 games) - My newfound openness to drafting stolen base specialists led me to roster Davis in three of my five leagues, including Mixed Auction Tout Wars, where I purchased him for a reasonable $5. Well, things haven't gone as planned, and that was before Rajai landed on the DL earlier this week with a hamstring strain. It's tough to swipe a significant number of bags when you're getting on base at a .262 clip. But Davis isn't expected to be sidelined for long, so hopefully he can get into a groove upon his return and provide his owners with the 30-plus steals that were once thought to be a lock. 

Travis Jankowski (2 SB in 17 games) - Despite his 30-SB 2016 campaign, Jankowski carried risk heading into this season, but the risk was mostly related to playing time. We knew the AVG wouldn't be helpful, but he showed enough on-base ability last season (.332 OBP) to suggest that he would again serve as a reliable speed source. The problem is that although Jankowski is walking at around the same rate as last year, he's managed only eight hits through 50 at-bats (.160 AVG). And it gets worse, as he's now on the DL and out indefinitely with a foot injury that might be a hairline fracture. Although the draft day cost wasn't too steep, Jankowski owners who penciled him in for another 30 steals are surely hurting.

Manuel Margot (2 SB in 25 games) - Margot was all the rage in drafts this spring, a 22-year-old top prospect who posted a .350 OBP in the Minors with 162 steals in 466 games. He would be the everyday centerfielder for the Padres in 2017 and was a legitimate candidate to swipe 40 bags. The funny thing is that he has more homers (3) than stolen bases. There's still plenty of time for Margot to pick up the pace, but he's currently projected for 13 steals, so there's work to be done.  

Jonathan Villar (4 SB in 24 games) - I'm not too concerned about Villar, as his surprisingly low .259 OBP (career .330 OBP) is the biggest reason for his lack of stolen base attempts (4-for-5). That should change soon enough, and the three homers have been a pleasant surprise. Maybe last season's 19-HR outburst wasn't a fluke after all. The issue here is that Villar was a top-30 pick in the vast majority of leagues this year, so he will need to approach his 2016 stat line in order to earn his draft day price, and that's a tall order.

Starling Marte (2 SB in 13 games) - Not to make Marte owners feel any worse or anything (I happen to own him in my NFBC Draft Champions league, where no trades or free agent pickups are allowed), but two steals is all you will be getting from him until mid-July thanks to his decision to use a banned substance. Forget about those guaranteed 40 steals. Come to think of it, Marte is actually an interesting trade target if you can acquire him for 50 cents on the dollar, as unlike an injury situation, we know exactly when he will come back. But that probably wouldn't be a smart move for the Marte owner, selling low on an elite talent.

What a mess.

Yeah, it's only April 30th, but the early verdict is that even in 2017, investing in stolen base specialists may not be such a wise investment.  

Fantasy owners of Madison Bumgarner are understandably depressed with their ace sidelined for at least two months following his dirt bike accident. Cheer up. What, cheer up? That's easy for me to say, not owning Bumgarner in any of my fantasy leagues.

These sorts of "extra-curricular" injuries are the worst, as most are avoidable. I mean, why exactly did San Francisco's star lefty choose to ride a dirt bike in-season, a decision that led to a Grade 1-2 strain of his left shoulder AC joint in addition to bruised ribs? The January 2004 Aaron Boone pickup basketball injury immediately comes to mind, but at least that was during the off-season. I don't quite recall what Boone's fantasy ownership percentage was at the end of the 2003 season, but at least that injury didn't leave his owners in a bind.

As for my advice to cheer up, let's just say that it could have been worse. Even worse than an extra-curricular injury sustained due to a poor decision is an extra-curricular injury sustained for no reason at all, other than poor luck. It could have been worse. You could have owned these players.    

Jonathan Lucroy (2012): It was late-May of 2012 and Lucroy was enjoying a strong season, batting .345 with five homers and 30 RBI. But everything changed when he lost his sock in his hotel room and proceeded to reach under the bed to look for it. At that same instant, his wife moved a suitcase, which fell on his hand, fracturing it and causing Lucroy to miss two months. He would finish the season with an impressive .320-12-58 line over 96 games, but it could have been so much better. The true breakout would come the following year, and Lucroy is now firmly entrenched in the elite backstop class, in both real life and fantasy, so it all worked out fine.

Mariano Rivera (2012): In what some believed would be his final big league season, Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee while doing something he had done throughout his career, shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice. He would miss the remainder of the 2012 season, nearly five months in all. But the rehab went well, and perhaps motivated by a refusal to end his career on such a sour note, Rivera returned for one more year in 2013. And he put together another typical Rivera season (44 saves, 2.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP).

Kendrys Morales (2010): Who can forget this one? Morales was coming off a breakout year in 2009 in which he slugged 34 homers while knocking in 108, and he was well on his way towards duplicating and even surpassing those totals in 2010. Then came May 29, the afternoon when he became the victim of his own success, breaking his leg during a walk-off grand slam celebration and missing the remainder of the season. Sure, one could argue that Morales was partly to blame for this, as he could have calmly rounded the bases and not jumped on home plate, but come on, what fun is that?

Clint Barmes (2005): Boasting a .329 batting average to go along with eight homers, 34 RBI and 40 runs scored through 54 games, Barmes was making a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year honors. That was before he suffered a broken left clavicle when he tripped going up the stairs to his apartment carrying a package of deer meat given to him by teammate Todd Helton. Barmes missed three months in total and would end his career a decade later, sporting an underwhelming career slash line of .245/.294/.379. No word on whether or not he actually got a chance to eat the tasty fare. I truly hope he did. If not, this whole episode would have been a real waste.

Sammy Sosa (2004): Call it "The Sneeze Heard Round Chicago", Sosa sprained a ligament in his lower back after a pair of violent sneezes, sidelining him for a month. As it turned out, 2004 would be his final All-Star season, so think of the sneezes as a sort of symbolic ending to his controversial career.

So, Bumgarner owners, take solace in knowing that over the years, there have been others who have felt your pain.

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

Last Saturday afternoon, I, along with 14 other fantasy industry gurus, gathered at Rock 'N' Reilly's pub in midtown Manhattan (home of the FNTSY Sports Network) for the annual Tout Wars Mixed Auction. This would be my sixth year competing, but as the defending league champion, this year had a different feel. I needed to make a special effort to stay focused, accept all of the personal congratulations but then move on. Last year was last year.

I prepared for the auction the same way I've always prepared, assigning dollar values to each roster slot with certain players in mind and several cheaper backup options, ranked in order of preference. If the price of my top target rose to a buck or two higher than my allotted value, I'd go with my second choice, then my third choice, and use the saved money to upgrade at another position. Simple enough, right? Not quite. The unpredictable nature of an auction can easily throw you off your game. While it can pay off to be aggressive in the early going, especially in mixed leagues where a stars and scrubs approach is quite popular, being restricted to $1 or $2 bids too early in the proceedings limits your ability to purchase the desired supporting cast. To be honest, I have yet to truly master the art of the fantasy baseball auction, but maybe this is an art that can never be truly mastered.

OK, enough of this philosophical stuff. Here's my roster, in order of purchase:  

Jose Altuve ($42) - As the defending champ, I had the honor of making the first nomination, and since I had already decided on Altuve as my most expensive target, I'd call out his name immediately, before the other elite options went off the board. And I got him, for the exact amount I budgeted. Good plan, good execution.  

Aroldis Chapman ($25) - I overpaid a bit, and sort of regretted this purchase when Zach Britton went for $19. But I wanted one elite closer, and if you're going to overpay for a closer, you might as well get the best. My original target for this spot was Mark Melancon at around $18, but when it comes to closers, it is important not to underrate strikeouts, and Chapman will whiff 35-40 more batters than Melancon.

Jose Abreu ($28) - My top choice here was Edwin Encarnacion, and I figured I could get him for $30, maybe $31. Not a chance. When the bidding reached $35, I pulled out. Abreu was the last acceptable starting 1B on my list, so I wasn't thrilled having to settle for him. But $28 was a fair price, and few hitters have been as consistent as Abreu over the past three years. Figure 25-30 homers with 90-100 RBI and a strong OBP.

Chris Archer ($26) - I like Archer, and I'm fine with him as my ace being that he's pretty much a lock for 230-plus strikeouts, was outstanding in the second half last year and is still young enough to improve across the board. But if I could go back in time, I probably would have stayed in the bidding on Corey Kluber ($26), Jon Lester ($25), Justin Verlander ($24) and Johnny Cueto ($24), all of whom were bought before Archer and are safer.

Justin Upton ($25) - I just can't seem to tear myself away from Upton, who I owned in Tout last year and swore I would never own again before his bat finally caught fire in September. He's certainly streaky, but at the end of every season, the numbers are always there. Maybe he can get off to a better start in his second season with the Tigers. If not, I might never own him again.

Cole Hamels ($17) - A lot of people are down on Hamels this year, citing the increasing walk rate and the mileage on his arm. Fair enough, but don't discount his overall consistency, including seven straight 200-plus inning seasons with roughly a strikeout per inning. But like with Archer, this is one of those "if I knew then..." situations where shortly after my Hamels buy at market price, Jose Quintana, who I had valued similarly to Hamels, went for $11. 

Adam Jones ($17) - I'm not ecstatic about this one, as despite Jones' reliable counting stats production, his career OBP stands at an underwhelming .318, and Tout is an OBP league. Looking back, Adam Eaton, who was purchased shortly before Jones for $15, would have been a better fit for my roster, which is strong in the power department but projected to finish last in OBP.

Francisco Rodriguez ($10) - Job security is my main focus when looking for a second closer, and Rodriguez certainly has that. The former K-Rod is no longer a high-end strikeout source, but I'll take the 35-40 saves. Plus, Chapman complements Rodriguez well with his likely triple-digit strikeout total.

Marcell Ozuna ($10) - Ozuna bounced back from a disappointing 2015 campaign and just turned 26 years old. He did slump badly in the second half last season but note that he was bothered by some nagging injuries. I think a 30-HR season is in his future, and it will come sooner rather than later.

Tim Anderson ($7) - Another upside pick. Anderson needs to work on his plate discipline but the speed is legit. I consider 25-30 steals and a dozen homers to be a reasonable expectation, and I love the $7 price.

Kevin Gausman ($9) - This could be quite a steal if Gausman can build off his impressive finish to 2016. I do worry a little about the division and home ballpark, but the strikeouts will be there and unlike many young hurlers, command has not been an issue for the 26-year-old righty.

Matt Wieters ($8) - Wieters stayed healthy last year and produced 17 homers to go along with 66 RBI. If he can do that again this season, he will be well worth the eight bucks.

Mike Moustakas ($8) - Moose has been a prime target of mine in all of my drafts this year, and I've managed to grab him in four of my five leagues. He showed improved power in an injury-shortened 2016 campaign after a solid 2015, so maybe we will finally see the breakout in 2017. I was willing to go as high as $13 so was pleased to save some cash.

Justin Bour ($5) - Cheap power out of my CI slot. Hopefully, Bour will be able to hit lefties well enough to remain in the lineup on an everyday basis.

Matt Moore ($5) - Moore fits the "post-hype sleeper" definition to a T. Cutting down his walk rate will be key, but I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do in his first full season with the Giants, in a more pitcher-friendly league and pitcher-friendly home ballpark.

Nomar Mazara ($3) - I didn't expect to own Mazara but I also didn't expect the bidding to stop at $2. He won't need to do much to earn this price. A repeat of last season's 20 homers would be enough, and there's obviously potential for more.

Rajai Davis ($5) - I usually avoid the one-trick ponies, but I needed more speed. Davis is slated to be Oakland's everyday centerfielder, which means that if healthy, he's a lock for 35 swipes. For five bucks? Sign me up.

Jonathan Schoop ($3) - Schoop wasn't a target, but a 25-homer middle infielder for three bucks was too good of a deal to pass up. The problem is that his OBP is poor, and I didn't pay enough attention to the OBP category. More on this later.

Gio Gonzalez ($2) - A longtime fantasy favorite of mine, Gio is coming off a rough year from an ERA standpoint, as his 4.57 ERA was his highest since becoming a full-time starter. But his hit rate actually improved compared to his 2015 mark and his walk rate was the lowest of his career. Gonzalez is clearly no longer a high-end fantasy SP, but I do think that he's being written off too soon. I'm expecting roughly a strikeout per inning and hopefully a sub-4.00 ERA.

Austin Hedges ($2) - The No. 2 catcher pool can get ugly, even in a mixed league. But Hedges at least offers some upside as a 24-year-old highly regarded prospect whose stellar defense should afford him regular at-bats on a rebuilding Padres squad. Although the PCL is known for inflated offensive numbers, Hedges did slug 21 homers in 82 Triple-A games last year, so I figure a dozen home runs is doable for 2017.

Brandon Moss ($1) - Cheap power. Figure 20-25 homers, even if Moss does sit often versus lefties.

Lance Lynn ($1) - Lynn is well over a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Can he get back to his old form? It's worth a buck to find out. Also keep in mind that he's set to become a free agent next winter, so there will be some extra motivation to turn in a solid season.

Ervin Santana ($1) - Continually underrated, Santana is coming off one of his most productive seasons. He's a quality back-end of the rotation SP, more than strictly a matchup-based option.

RESERVES: Alcides Escobar, Denard Span, Bartolo Colon, Trevor Plouffe, CC Sabathia, Clint Frazier

Nothing too exciting here. Mostly depth pieces, with the one exception being Frazier, who could make a meaningful impact if called up sometime mid-season. I made a key error in using my #1 overall reserve pick on Escobar instead of Yoan Moncada, who for some reason I thought had been purchased during the fast-paced $1 auction endgame stage. This could come back to haunt me if Moncada turns out to be the 2017 version of Trea Turner.

So, how do I feel about this squad? I like the starting rotation and the mix of youth/upside and experience. Strikeouts are a definite strength, as are home runs. OBP, on the other hand, could be an issue. Since Tout switched from AVG to OBP a few years ago, my teams have consistently ranked in the bottom half of the league in the category. I made a point to bring to the draft room a list of players with mediocre batting averages but a helpful OBP, but will need to go a step further next year by also listing players with decent batting averages but an especially poor OBP and try to avoid drafting too many of those guys. Also, the fact that two of my three main speed sources (Tim Anderson and Rajai Davis) might not even get on base at a .320 clip isn't ideal.

The natural tendency to second-guess decisions is the toughest part of managing a fantasy team, which makes the period between the conclusion of the draft and the beginning of the season the toughest period of the year.

The good news? Shortly after 1:10 PM ET today, that period will be over. 

Don't get too giddy but don't get too depressed. This is the most important advice I can give to fantasy baseball owners right now. But it's also important to pay attention to box scores. Although your league standings mean very little at this point, dismissing one-week-old player stats as meaningless would be a mistake. Even if they seem meaningless to you, some of your league mates might view them more seriously. Now is the time when the buy low/sell high approach can be most beneficial. So, forming opinions about players who are off to either very hot or very cold starts is well worth your time. Making panic trades in April can lead to disaster, but that's only if you are the panicked owner. If a panicked league mate approaches you in an attempt to unload an established star who is off to an ice cold start in exchange for a less proven fast starter, there's nothing wrong with taking advantage of the situation. If you're the owner of the fast starter, don't feel like you have to get rid of him simply because you will net a profit. Maybe this fast starter is on the verge of a career year. We won't know for sure until October.

On that note, let's take a look at some of the hot hitters who have caught my attention so far.

Brandon Belt - Belt has always been a quality hitter, and he's especially valuable in OBP leagues (career .359 OBP), but power has never been a big part of his game. Well, through five games, Belt already has three homers to go along with seven RBI and five runs scored. Belt's single-season high in home runs is 18, so will he easily surpass that mark in 2017? Possibly, but I have my doubts. Note that all of San Francisco's games have been on the road, where Belt slugged 34 of his 47 homers from 2014-2016. Will this early-season power breakout carry over to spacious AT&T Park? I'm going to say no, and those still waiting for Belt's first 30-HR campaign will need to wait longer, perhaps until he joins another team, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Yasiel Puig - He's back! Maybe. At one point last year, it seemed like the Dodgers were ready to cut ties with Puig. But the Cuban import is once again showing the baseball world what he's capable of accomplishing on the field, with three home runs, five RBIs and one steal through five games. Whereas he might have been overvalued in drafts over the past few years, Puig could prove to be one of the better value picks of 2017.

Nomar Mazara - I'm not so sure what to make of Mazara's two homers and nine RBIs through four games considering that he faded a bit down the stretch last season. Still, he hasn't even turned 22 yet and is thriving while hitting in the No. 3 spot in the Texas lineup. I'm really starting to believe in this guy, and while he won't continue to produce at this level, is .275-25-90 unreasonable? I think Mazara owners are better off hanging onto him unless they get blown away by a trade offer.

Adam Eaton - More than any other stat, Eaton's two steals through four games stand out, and Dusty Baker has always been known as an aggressive manager when it comes to stolen base attempts. Despite excellent speed, Eaton has never swiped more than 18 bags in a season. If the new Nationals centerfielder can reach the 30-SB plateau this year, in addition to being a major contributor in runs and AVG, he will be deserving of top-20 fantasy outfielder status. If you own Eaton, hold onto him. If you don't own Eaton, try to acquire him.

Eduardo Nunez - Speaking of steals, Nunez is coming off a breakout season in which he stole 40 bases while batting .288 and showing decent power with 16 home runs. I think it's now safe to say that 2016 wasn't an aberration, as Nunez has already collected three steals through five games and is batting .400 (8-for-20). Being that many of the dominant speedsters these days are merely one-category specialists, the Giants third baseman offers plenty of fantasy appeal as a high-end stolen base source who will not hurt you in any other category. Just a few weeks ago, I was a Nunez doubter. I'm a Nunez believer now.

That didn't take long. 

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

Maybe spring training stats don't matter, at least for players assured a spot on their club's 25-man roster. But as fantasy baseball owners, we love looking at those box scores, especially after a five-month withdrawal. Although overvaluing spring stats is a mistake, glancing at the various leaderboards is a useful exercise. First, it can reassure an owner that a certain player who they are planning to target is indeed worth targeting. But even more importantly, it's a way to think about several players who you might not have normally thought about.

So, which top performers from Spring Training 2017 have caught my attention?

Maikel Franco - To be honest, Franco caught my attention well before his red-hot spring that has included an MLB leading nine home runs and 23 RBI across 22 games. Ever since November, when I began perusing the 2017 positional rankings on various sites, I couldn't quite understand why a 24-year-old third baseman who clubbed 25 home runs while collecting 88 RBI was getting such little respect. For some reason, Franco is largely ranked outside the top-15 at his position. And that's fine, because I'll be drafting this 30-100 candidate every chance I get. Unfortunately, his stellar spring performance might raise his price to the point where he will be only a small bargain. 

Brandon Belt - Six seasons into his big league career, Belt has yet to demonstrate the kind of power that was widely expected upon his debut. But his spacious home ballpark in San Francisco probably has a lot to do with the underwhelming home run numbers. Note that 24 of his 35 home runs over the past two seasons have come on the road. So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that through 19 games this spring, away from AT&T Park, the Giants first baseman has tallied five home runs to go along with 19 RBI and a .469 OBP. Actually, the OBP isn't much of a surprise, as Belt is coming off a 2016 campaign in which he posted a .394 OBP. From a fantasy standpoint, the 28-year-old would be a lot more appealing if he played for a different team. Outside of OBP leagues, I'm not too excited about him.

Yan Gomes - Things can't get much worse for Gomes, right? To call last season a disaster would be an understatement, as the Indians backstop was limited to just 74 games due to a separated shoulder, in the process registering a .167/.201/.327 slash line. On the bright side, he did slug nine home runs in those 74 games, proving that a return to the 20-homer level is within reach with better luck in the health department. And he's off to a strong start this year with six home runs, 11 RBI and a 1.077 OPS through 19 spring training contests. Available at a steep discount, Gomes could reward his risk-taking owners with a significant return on investment.

Chris Owings - Expected to serve as the everyday shortstop for the Diamondbacks in 2017, Owings carries plenty of speed potential, though he will need to get on base at a higher rate than last season's .315 clip to fully utilize his wheels. Cheap speed is even more valuable these days, with stolen base totals down throughout baseball. With eight swipes through 22 games this spring, Owings trails only Danny Santana in thefts. The 25-year-old is well worth a late-round pick in mixed leagues. His eligibility at both shortstop and the outfield is an added bonus.

Brandon Drury - Staying in Arizona and sticking with the theme of multi-position eligibility, Drury quietly put together a solid rookie season in 2016, batting .282 with 16 homers and 31 doubles across 134 games. Especially encouraging is that he finished the year in grand fashion, hitting .357 with six homers, 19 RBI and 22 runs scored from the start of September through the end of the season. And he's carried over this hot streak into 2017, batting .389 with four home runs, 13 RBI, ten doubles and 18 runs scored through 27 spring games. If Drury doesn't already have second base eligibility in your league, he will by mid-April, and it is at the 2B position where he offers the most fantasy value. The 24-year-old is a fine choice to fill your starting MI slot in any format. 

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

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