When drafting fantasy baseball squads, I pay a lot of attention to age. Maybe too much, but whether it is due to health issues or concerns over a potential decline in production, older players tend to be riskier investments. The problem is every year at least a handful of the guys purposely avoided prove me wrong and force me to question core draft day strategies. This season is no exception. So, who fits this description for 2016? Note that all of these players are at least 35-years old. Also note that I do not own any of these players.
David Ortiz - Retire? Really? Big Papi headlines this group, and for good reason. As of Saturday, Ortiz leads the Majors in both RBI (45) and OPS (1.126). And then there's the 12 homers through 43 games. In the Tout Wars Mixed Auction league, the 40-year-old was purchased for the modest price of $17. Not surprisingly, his owner, Bret Sayre, currently resides in first place.
Ben Zobrist - The Cubs signed Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million contract over the winter and has been well worth the price tag so far, boasting a .350/.454/.525 slash line with six homers, 31 RBI and 35 runs scored through 44 games. Zobrist's power days were thought to be long gone, but the 35-year-old is currently on pace to post his first 20-plus home run campaign since 2012. Oh, and Bret Sayre owns him too.
Rich Hill - I honestly thought little of Hill's impressive four starts to close out the 2015 season. Perhaps that was a mistake. I'm still skeptical as this is a pitcher who has not enjoyed an extended period of success in a starting role since 2007. On the other hand, there comes a time in every season when a hot start is no longer just a hot start. We're approaching that time, as the 36-year-old southpaw holds a 7-3 record to go along with a 2.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.1 K/9 rate through ten starts.
John Lackey - Five bucks was all it took to win Lackey's services in Mixed Auction Tout Wars this spring, and I found this a bit strange considering that the 37-year-old righty was coming off an exceptional 2015 campaign. But I guess my league mates were not too eager to own him, and he was nowhere near my target list. Well, all Lackey has done through nine starts is register a 3.38 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, good for fourth-best in the NL.
Santiago Casilla - Can this guy ever get any respect? Heading into this season, Casilla was largely viewed as a low-end #2/high-end #3 closer in mixed leagues despite notching 38 saves in 2015 while recording a sub-3.00 ERA. Crazy, right? And the worst part is for some reason, I bought into the consensus opinion, believing that the 35-year-old was bound to crash sooner or later. Apparently not, as we're at the one-third mark of the season and Casilla sports career-best numbers in almost every category. Go figure.
Carlos Beltran - OK, I lied about not owning any of these players, because I own Beltran in one league. OK, I own him in two leagues, including Tout Wars, where I shelled out two whole dollars to draft the former All-Star. As it turns out, Beltran leads my team in both home runs and RBI. I'm not naive, there's a good chance that I have already benefited from the best part of Beltran's season, and maybe a DL stint is right around the corner.
Or maybe not.
Three seasons, three middle of the pack finishes. No, I haven't had much success since I began competing in NFBC Draft Champions leagues, a 15-team mixed format with a 50-round slow draft and no free agent pickups allowed. Since I consider the draft to be my strength as a fantasy owner, these consistently mediocre finishes are puzzling. There have been a few early-round busts over the years, but I always seem to make several strong late-round picks, and one would think that the late rounds are the most important rounds in this format.
But my fortunes might be changing this year, as I've resided in either first, second, or third place for almost the entire season. There weren't any major early-round busts this time, and I haven't lost my knack for finding late-round value. OK, enough about me. Well, sort of. This got me thinking about the best late-round picks from the standpoint of performance relative to round value. Here are my choices for the top five late-round hitters selected in NFBC Draft Champions League #3719, all drafted after Round 30.
Melvin Upton Jr. (Round 34, Pick 5) - When I took a chance on Upton as my eighth outfielder, I never really expected to start him barring multiple injuries to my other fly-chasers. But through 43 games, the player formerly known as B.J. has already tallied six homers and seven steals to go along with a respectable .266 batting average. A career .245 hitter, Upton is due for regression in that department, but the power and speed have always been a part of his game, and he seems to be revitalized in his first full season as a Padre. Upton made his first appearance in my starting lineup last week, and I wouldn't be surprised if he remains there for quite awhile, maybe even the rest of the season.
Travis Shaw (Round 35, Pick 15) - I devoted some space to Shaw in last week's column, so there isn't a lot more to say about this guy. A batting line of .310-6-29 through 42 games pretty much says it all.
Aledmys Diaz (Round 45, Pick 14) - Another player who I discussed last week, Diaz boasts a gaudy .373-6-23 stat line in 40 games this season. The 25-year-old shortstop might not see regular playing time once Jhonny Peralta returns from the DL next month, but logic says that the Cardinals will do their best to give Diaz as many at-bats as possible. Fantasy owners shouldn't be so quick to trade him now for a less than satisfactory return.
Jordy Mercer (Round 41, Pick 3) - Mercer has never quite lived up to expectations, but the 29-year-old is quietly putting together a quality season in 2016, highlighted by a career-best .298 batting average and .388 OBP. He will need to recapture the power stroke that produced 12 home runs back in 2014 to become a fantasy factor in standard 12-team mixed leagues. But as a starting MI in deeper formats, he's fine.
Brandon Drury (Round 42, Pick 5) - Drury's impressive offensive performance combined with his ability to play multiple positions has earned him everyday at-bats, and he's certainly making the most of the opportunity, hitting .309 with seven homers through 38 games. However, his 25-to-5 K/BB ratio suggests that a batting average correction could be on the horizon. Then again, the 23-year-old did post better plate discipline numbers in the Minors, so maybe the batting average correction will not be too drastic. The Diamondbacks are loaded with options at several positions, so Drury will always be under pressure to produce at the risk of losing at-bats.
And as the owner who drafted Drury in the 42nd round, this worries me. A lot.
Ever since I started playing fantasy baseball and spending way too many hours reading expert commentary, the terms "first half player" and "second half player" have been a constant part of the vernacular. Coincidence or not, there was always a group of players who repeatedly excelled at certain times of the season while repeatedly struggling at other times. Adam LaRoche and Mark Teixeira are two players that come to mind who routinely got off to slow starts before heating up during the summer months. Over the years, I began to buy into this theory. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence. Maybe there were some players who simply needed a certain number of at-bats to get into a groove.
I could have taken this one step further by putting stock into monthly splits, but I figured it would be taking things too far. Still, the temptation to at least glance at these splits is often too strong to ignore. So, as we begin the month of May, let's take a look at last season's May leaders in the five standard hitting categories. How did they fare the rest of the way? How are they faring so far this season? Could they possibly enjoy an equally successful month of May in 2016? Note that I'm using Hits instead of AVG.
Jason Kipnis (51) - After batting .429 with four homers and 17 RBI last May, Kipnis failed to hit more than two home runs or record more than eight RBI in any of the season's final four months. Although he finished the year with a stellar .303 batting average to go along with 86 runs scored, the power and speed production (9 HR, 12 SB) left a lot to be desired. This season could be a different story for the Indians second baseman, as his three homers and three steals through 20 games has him on pace for his first career 20/20 campaign.
Bryce Harper (13) - Who else but the NL MVP? The month of May turned out to be Harper's most productive month overall, as he batted .360 with 13 homers and 28 RBI. The rest of his season was pretty good too, and Bryce has been outstanding so far this year. Don't be surprised if he's the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick in drafts next spring.
Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder/Bryce Harper (28) - In addition to Harper, Braun and Fielder both made their fantasy owners smile last May, and both entered the season with legitimate injury concerns. By season's end, Braun was the only player in baseball with at least 25 homers and 24 steals. Despite his fine 2015 performance, the injury risk factor once again lowered Braun's draft day price this year, and owners who were willing to take a chance on him are so far feeling good about their decision. Through 21 games, Milwaukee's right fielder is batting .338 with five homers, 17 RBI and two swipes. As for Fielder, after going .305-23-98 last season, he's off to a so-so start this year, batting a meager .193 with a modest two home runs but a solid 16 RBI. Prince has been an ultra-consistent run producer when healthy, so fantasy owners should be pleased about their investment, especially since his DH-only status likely shaved a few bucks off his price tag.
Jason Kipnis (30) - See above, though I must add that Kipnis has never disappointed in the runs department, and I don't expect him to disappoint this year.
Dee Gordon (12) - Well, I guess Gordon won't be stealing 12 bases this May. In fact, he won't be stealing any bases. News of his 80-game suspension really came out of nowhere, and it's obviously a tough break for his fantasy owners. But this is the downside of building your squad around a dominant speedster. Those who spent a top-30 pick on Gordon penciled him in for 50-plus steals and likely did not draft enough 20-plus SB guys. I prefer to spread the risk. The good news is that Gordon will be back, and with two-plus months to make up ground, he could still finish the season with 25-30 steals.
But that's just an estimate. I'll need to check his August, September and October splits from last year to give you an exact number.
Maybe it's because I didn't want to drop any of my current players. Maybe it's because of the Tout Wars rule requiring all players added via FAAB must be in active lineups for at least one week. But unlike in previous years, I really haven't been a frequent participant in FAAB bidding so far this season in the Mixed Auction Tout Wars league. In fact, through six FAAB periods, I've made only four purchases, tied for the fewest in the 15-team league. Am I letting opportunity after opportunity slip away? Honestly, when reviewing the players acquired through FAAB so far, I'm not overly impressed. For the most part, that is. Here are six exceptions. All of these guys could turn out to be among the most profitable buys of 2016. But just to be clear, I still do not regret passing on them.
Chris Tillman ($16 by Cory Schwartz on 4/4)
Through eight starts this season, Tillman sports a 2.58 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 rate, proving that his disappointing 2015 campaign was the outlier. The fact that the 28-year-old righty opened the season on the Tout Wars waiver wire goes to show that there were many doubters, and I was one of them. Being that starting pitching has turned out to be the strength of my team, Tillman's resurgence doesn't bother me too much. But the takeaway message here is that there is reward potential for fantasy owners willing to look beyond one poor season.
Drew Pomeranz ($24 by Joe Pisapia on 4/4)
Pomeranz's big league career got off to a shaky start, but maybe all he needed was a move away from Coors Field. Pitching mostly out of the bullpen for the A's from 2014-2015, the former top prospect posted a combined 3.08 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. And he's thriving as a starter for the Padres this season, boasting a 1.80 ERA and 1.08 WHIP through seven outings to go along with 51 strikeouts in 40 innings. There is little reason to doubt Pomeranz's ability to remain a viable mid-rotation mixed league starter from here on out.
Melvin Upton Jr. ($81 by Cory Schwartz on 4/18)
Remember him? Well, you might not recognize the first name, but I'm sure you can figure this out. The funny thing (or maybe not so funny for Justin Upton owners) is that the elder Upton, after disappearing from the fantasy radar for several years, is the more valuable fantasy commodity right now. Through 37 games, he's on pace to finish the season with 18 homers and 26 steals. Perhaps it is crazy to expect those totals, but even a 15/20 year would qualify as a pleasant surprise.
Aledmys Diaz ($94 by Al Melchior on 4/18)
Hitting .387 with six homers, 19 RBI and 25 runs scored through 33 games this season, Diaz has taken full advantage of the playing time opportunity created by the injury to Jhonny Peralta. The sample size is small, but Diaz figures to remain a mixed league asset at least until Peralta returns. And even after Peralta comes back, reports suggest that the Cardinals will look for ways to keep Diaz's bat in the lineup.
Jeanmar Gomez ($133 by Gene McCaffrey on 4/11)
Meet Jeanmar Gomez, your major league saves leader. What? The Phillies, at 21-15, have far exceeded expectations, and the contributions of Gomez, who has saved 14 games in 15 chances while registering a 2.49 ERA, cannot be overlooked. Philadelphia's closer situation was a complete mystery entering the season, but thanks to the 28-year-old righty, it is a mystery no more. Now listen, I'm not saying that Gomez is guaranteed to hold onto the job through the end of the year. Prior to this season, he had recorded only one save in his entire career, and his big league numbers, which include a 4.08 ERA and 1.40 WHIP through six-plus seasons, can best be described as mediocre. What I am saying, however, is that saves can be found on the waiver wire throughout the season, even in deeper leagues. You just have to be aggressive, and a little lucky.
Travis Shaw ($149 by Scott Pianowski on 4/4)
Pablo Sandoval who? As if Boston's decision to sign Sandoval to a lucrative five-year contract didn't look bad enough following his underwhelming first season in Beantown, Sandoval's 2016 campaign ended after only three games due to a torn labrum in his shoulder. And this ensures that Shaw will be Boston's starting third baseman through the end of the season, although we sort of knew that already after Shaw beat out Sandoval for the job this spring. Batting .328 with five home runs and 25 RBI through 36 games, the 26-year-old has picked up right where he left off last season, when he posted a .274-13-36 line in just 226 at-bats.
Considering the continued struggles of Pedro Alvarez, Shaw would surely look nice in my starting corner infield slot.
OK, maybe I do regret passing on him.
Some fantasy owners tend to focus on the elite players when judging the success of their drafts. For me, the middle and late rounds are the stage of an auction, when most players are being purchased for single-digit dollars, are much more important. Leagues are won by drafting players for $5 who end up delivering $15 in value. Leagues are not won by drafting a player for $40 who ends up delivering $40 in value. When preparing for the Tout Wars Mixed Auction draft each spring, I always make a long list of guys who could reward me with a decent profit, and if I walk out of the draft room with two or three of those players, I walk out of the draft room happy. And, I walked out of the draft room in a fairly good mood this year, as I had secured a number of my targets.
Three weeks into the season, however, I'm starting to question exactly what I saw in some of these players that led me to believe in their profit-earning ability. All of the following players are off to slow starts, and even more depressing is the fact that a number of players who were included in my original long list but did not land on my roster are outplaying the guys who did find a home on my team. And as it turned out, my underachievers were the more expensive players. So, who am I talking about?
Ketel Marte ($7) - Marte was the talk of the town towards the end of the draft season as more owners studied his 2015 stat line and stellar minor league numbers and became convinced that a .280 batting average with 25-plus steals was well within reach. By mid-March, the 22-year-old had moved up to the top-12 in most shortstop rankings. Eventually, I was swayed by this wave of optimism and was quite surprised to land Marte for only seven bucks. Right now, it's looking like I overpaid by seven bucks. Through 14 games, Marte is batting .212 with only two stolen bases and five runs scored. After opening the season hitting near the top of Seattle's lineup, he's hitting mostly in the No. 9 spot these days, a frustrating development for owners relying on him to contribute in the runs department. But Marte is still very young, and I think the Mariners will be patient with him, so I'm not in full panic mode yet. Check back with me in a few weeks.
Could have drafted: Neil Walker ($6)
Pedro Alvarez ($7) - Everything was set up so nicely for Alvarez heading into this season. He would get a fresh start with the Orioles and would greatly benefit from playing half of his games in home run-friendly Camden Yards. And it seemed like the fantasy world had completely forgotten about him, even after he slugged 27 home runs in what was widely viewed as a disappointing 2015 campaign. To be honest, I wish I had forgotten about him too. No homers and one RBI entering play on April 23rd? Really? The good news is that it can't get any worse for Pedro, so I'll just need to sit tight and hope for a hot streak.
Could have drafted: Chris Carter ($6)
Julio Teheran ($6) - Teheran as my SP5 in a 15-team mixed league? Sign me up! After struggling throughout the first half last season, the Braves righty posted a fine 3.42 ERA in the second half, and factoring in his stellar numbers from 2013-2014, he seemed like a no-brainer bounceback candidate. But the inconsistency that plagued him during the early portion of 2015 has returned, and my patience is being tested. On the other hand, Teheran's two poor outings so far have come against two upper-tier offenses in the Cardinals and Nationals, so perhaps he deserves some slack. I'm still a believer in him, as crazy as that might sound.
Could have drafted: Jaime Garcia ($5)
Nori Aoki ($3) - Being that Tout Wars is an OBP league, I was pleased to get Aoki (career .351 OBP) for three bucks. But OBP wasn't the only reason why I had targeted him. As the projected leadoff hitter atop an improving Mariners lineup, the 34-year-old could tally 80-plus runs and approach 20 steals. Well, through 16 games, Aoki sports a .265 OBP and is on pace for 61 runs. Oh, and he has yet to steal a base. Maybe he's simply too old to be a reliable source of steals. Maybe he's simply too old to be a reliable source of anything. Maybe I need to give Aoki some more time.
Could have drafted: Kevin Kiermaier ($1)