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Friday 23rd Feb 2018

At precisely 1:00 PM ET on Monday, February 20, I began to draft my first "real" team of the 2017 fantasy baseball season. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning on Monday, March 13, it was all over. The NFBC Draft Champions league format consists of a 50-round slow draft with no in-season pickups allowed. The team you draft is the team you will manage for the entire season, though managing involves only setting full lineups on Mondays with the option of making hitter lineup substitutions on Fridays. So, coming out of the draft with enough bench options at every position, especially starting pitching, is vital, as you need to protect yourself in the event of injuries to your regulars.

Since participating in my first Draft Champions league back in 2013, I've become a big fan of this setup. Not only does it require less of a time commitment during the season for someone playing in a large number of leagues, but it has become an excellent preparation tool for my other drafts. There is ample time to do research in between picks, research that is much needed when faced with real decision dilemmas. But even more helpful is that thanks to the depth of this draft, you will become so familiar with the player pool that your other drafts will seem like a breeze. Sort of.

With my Tout Wars auction draft less than a week away, I have just about finished preparing for the auction portion of the proceedings. But the reserve rounds, which follow a classic snake draft format, cannot be overlooked. Yes, it was in the reserve rounds that I drafted Trea Turner last year. 

Anyway, I tend to use my Draft Champions league results to help me prepare for the Tout Wars reserve rounds, and this season is no different. Let's take a look at a group of players, drafted in rounds 24-29 (there are six reserve slots in Tout), who could deliver a strong return on investment.

Wei-Yin Chen - Chen was supposed to enjoy a career-best season pitching for the Marlins in 2016, his first year in the NL. And this optimism was justified considering that he had registered a 3.72 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over his first four big league seasons with the Orioles in the heavy-hitting AL East. Instead, the 31-year-old southpaw posted a career-worst 4.96 ERA, though elbow issues almost certainly contributed to his inconsistency. All reports indicate that he's fully healthy now, so I'll side with the track record and give Chen another chance. The good news is that his fantasy stock has dropped to the point where he can be drafted as a fifth or sixth starter, even in a deep mixed league. There's plenty of profit potential here.

Mike Leake - Always boring but usually effective, Leake was both boring and ineffective last season. After a rough April (5.83 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), he rebounded in May to the tune of a 2.31 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. But it was all downhill from there, as the Cardinals righty failed to post a sub-4.00 ERA in any other month. Somewhat encouraging is that Leake's FIP (3.83) was almost a full run lower than his ERA (4.69), which suggests that poor defense contributed to his disappointing ERA. Considering his big league body of work, expect Leake's 2017 ERA to be closer to his 2016 FIP. He's a viable back-end of the rotation option in deeper mixed formats.

Lucas Duda - Seriously, can this guy ever stay on the field? A back injury limited Duda to just 47 games last year and the Mets first baseman has managed to suit up for only 182 games combined over the last two seasons. He's missed time this spring due to back spasms and hip soreness but is healthy at the moment, however long this moment will last. Duda launched a total of 57 home runs from 2014-2015, so the power is legit. Also legit is his ability to get on base, as he sports a career .343 OBP, this compared to his career .246 batting average. In OBP leagues, he's well worth a late-round flier, and even in standard 5x5 formats, owners in deep mixed leagues should not forget about Duda if they choose to go cheap at the CI spot.

Trevor Plouffe - Let's see, 22 homers and 86 RBIs in 2015 followed by 12 home runs and 47 RBIs across 84 games during an injury-shortened 2016 campaign. That's pretty solid production from a player who is garnering little interest in drafts. Yeah, Oakland isn't exactly an ideal landing spot for a power hitter, and Target Field is quietly a plus for righty power, but we're talking about a reserve round pick here. I'll think long and hard about grabbing Plouffe in the Tout Mixed Auction on Saturday,

Jose Berrios - Look up the term "post-hype sleeper" and you'll see a picture of Berrios. For some reason, this 22-year-old righty has disappeared from the fantasy radar just one year after everyone couldn't stop talking about him. Berrios, who boasts a minor league record of 46-25 to go along with a 2.89 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 rate, had a rough time adjusting to the Majors last season, going 3-7 with a 8.02 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in 14 starts for the Twins. But the fact that erratic command contributed heavily to his big league struggles is actually a positive note. Wait, what? Berrios walked more than five batters per nine innings while with Minnesota yet his minor league walk rate is 2.5 BB/9, hinting that nerves could be largely to blame.

I guess this case falls under the 90 percent of the game that's half-mental. 

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

When preparing for my fantasy baseball drafts, I begin with a process of elimination approach. Go ahead and try it sometime, it can be effective. Rather than deciding players to target, make a list of players you have no interest in, due to performance, draft price inflation concerns, or a combination of both. Often, this list will be a long one, but that's good. The less players to consider on draft day, the better. 

A common mantra among industry pundits is to be prepared to draft anyone if the price is right, which makes sense, though it is not entirely realistic. If you have negative feelings about a certain player, chances are you will not draft him, even at a discount. So, using the Mixed LABR results and the results of my NFBC Draft Champions draft still in progress, here are some early-round players who I'll be staying away from. Note that both of these leagues are 15-team mixed leagues.

Trea Turner

LABR: Round 1, Pick 10

NFBC: Round 1, Pick 8

Drafting Turner in the first round seems crazy to me. But if you want him this year, it's looking like he will not fall past the opening round. This is a guy with three months of big league experience. It was a remarkable three months, but it was three months. The speed is unquestioned, but a .342 batting average and 13 homers in just 73 games? Turner's career .316 AVG in the Minors suggests that a .300 AVG is certainly attainable, but he slugged a combined 19 home runs in 268 minor league contests, so matching last year's 13 home runs, even in a full season, is far from a lock. If you own Turner in a keeper league, congratulations. But in a redraft league, let someone else make the first-round investment. For reference, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera and Anthony Rizzo were all taken after Turner in both of these drafts.

Giancarlo Stanton

LABR: Round 2, Pick 14

NFBC: Round 2, Pick 13

The issue here is health, and when it comes to health, it's tough to have much confidence in Giancarlo. Detailing each and every one of Stanton's injuries over the years is equivalent to a thorough lesson in human anatomy, and at some point, it is fair to wonder if staying healthy is as much a skill as it is luck. Rather than banking on that "imminent" 50-home run season, I'll be looking elsewhere in the second round, and so should you. Wait another round or two and draft Nelson Cruz or Yoenis Cespedes instead.

Jean Segura

LABR: Round 4, Pick 10

NFBC: Round 3, Pick 6

Can Segura steal 33 bases again? Sure. Can he score 102 runs again? Probably not. Can he hit .319 again? Highly unlikely. Can he launch 20 homers again? No way. Prior to last season, Segura had amassed 23 career home runs in 479 games, and he will now be moving from hitter-friendly Chase Field to spacious Safeco Field. In order to earn third or fourth round value, he will need to at minimum bat .300 with 15 homers, 30 steals and 90 runs. I'll pass.

Kyle Schwarber

LABR: Round 5, Pick 13

NFBC: Round 6, Pick 9

Impressive hitter, but a hitter with only 236 big league at-bats under his belt. The fact that Schwarber made a sooner-than-expected return from major knee surgery is encouraging. The fact that he is slated to bat leadoff this season is encouraging for his runs total but discouraging for his RBI upside. He will not be catcher-eligible in most leagues, to open the year at least, which is discouraging. Also discouraging is his likely draft cost, which equates to that of a proven .290-30-100 slugger. Although I'm not strictly opposed to owning Schwarber this season, he will surely be gone by the time I'd seriously consider drafting him. And I'm fine with that.  

Eric Hosmer

LABR: Round 6, Pick 1

NFBC: Round 7, Pick 7

Let's see, 19, 14, 17, 9, 18, 25. Which of these numbers doesn't belong? Hosmer recorded a single-season high 25 home runs last year, but there's reason to be skeptical regarding his ability to sustain the increased power. The Royals first baseman has always been more of a ground ball hitter, and his GB/FB rate last season was actually a career-high. But his HR/FB rate was also a career-high. Strange indeed. Drafting him with the 76th overall pick is assuming that he will duplicate the 25 homers. Pick #97 is reasonable, but I still want more proven power from my starting 1B. 

When Hosmer's name is called at the Tout Wars Mixed Auction in three weeks, you won't hear a peep from me. 

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

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

Analyzing the FSTA draft results is fun. But the real fun begins upon the conclusion of the Mixed LABR draft, when we actually have two non-mock industry drafts to compare and contrast. When it comes to preparing for our own drafts, the more data the better, and the first thing I look for are the draft position discrepancies. These are often the controversial players, the players who carry varying degrees of value depending on which pundit you ask. These are the players who you will need to think about the most, the goal being to form your own educated opinion. Well, it's now time to start thinking about these guys.

Joc Pederson

FSTA: Pick #106 

Mixed LABR: Pick #190

Pederson's inability to hit lefties will continue to take away at-bats, but the 24-year-old has now posted back-to-back 25-plus HR seasons. Despite the high strikeout totals, the power is legit, and Pederson is still young enough to improve and maybe even earn some more at-bats against lefties. The way I see it, Pederson's .246-25-68 line from last season is his floor for 2017, and he's especially appealing in OBP leagues (career .349 OBP). His FSTA price is reasonable. His Mixed LABR price is a huge bargain.

Yasmany Tomas 

FSTA: Pick #115

Mixed LABR: Pick #184

I just don't get the pessimism surrounding Tomas among the Mixed LABR owners. To repeat a nugget I shared in The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2017 Professional Edition, Mookie Betts, Yoenis Cespedes and Ryan Braun were the only other outfielders to bat at least .270 with at least 30 home runs last season. Yeah, this surprised me too. While many of your league mates focus on Tomas' poor plate discipline and defense (which doesn't count in fantasy, by the way), go ahead and spend a mid-round pick on this underrated power source.

Hunter Pence

FSTA: Pick #122

Mixed LABR: Pick #175

The model of durability throughout most of his career, Pence has been limited to just 158 games combined over the last two seasons. His on-field performance hasn't really suffered, which suggests a return to health could result in a return to All-Star form. Pence has been a member of many of my fantasy squads over the years, so maybe I'm biased in my optimism, but I'm certainly intrigued by the idea of drafting him as a third or fourth outfielder in mixed leagues and possibly getting back OF2 production. The fact that Pence recently had to slow down his workouts after receiving treatment on his side probably contributed to his cheaper price in Mixed LABR, but this issue is not considered to be serious.

Felix Hernandez

FSTA: Pick #127

Mixed LABR: Pick #186

Was Felix's inconsistent and injury-marred 2016 campaign an aberration or a case of a 30-year-old former elite hurler who is simply worn down from a massive number of innings (2415 2/3 to be exact) at a relatively young age? While his ace days might be over, it seems like the market has completely given up on him, which is a little unfair. I'd be happy to draft Hernandez as my second or third starter in a mixed league, and he's a steal at #186 in Mixed LABR. His FSTA draft position sounds about right. 

Vince Velasquez

FSTA: Pick #155

Mixed LABR: Pick #214

After going 8-2 with a 3.32 ERA across 15 starts in the first half last season, Velasquez stumbled in the second half (0-4, 5.33 ERA in nine starts) before being shut down in early-September due to an innings limit. Still, it was an impressive first full season in the big leagues for the 24-year-old righty, who registered a gaudy 10.4 K/9 rate. Perhaps he was a bit overvalued as a 12th rounder in the 13-team FSTA draft, but a 15th rounder in the 15-team LABR draft? There's a lot to like about that. 

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 

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