Draft day is a vital day for your fantasy baseball team. I am a firm believer that you do not win a league title on draft day; however, you certainly can lose a league title on draft day.
Being bit by the injury bug, inconsistency and unmet expectations are the quickest paths to fantasy futility. Although what rounds you should select specific players is a subjective matter, I believe the best chance to win a fantasy title is to pick as many productive “locks” as possible.
Who or what are the locks? The locks are the players whose projections are somewhat boring because you virtually know what they will do. The locks are healthy and productive players. If a player is healthy, he is or is not producing. If a player is injured, he is not producing anything. Here are some players I consider to be locks in fantasy baseball.
Joe Mauer – while Mauer will never match Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken Jr’s consecutive games streak, he is a lock to be a productive fantasy hitter each season. Since 2005, Mauer failed only once to play 131 or more games (109 games in 2007). Mauer will likely miss some games; however, you can pencil him in for anywhere from 130-145 games in a season.
Mauer sports a career .327 AVG and .407 OBP; Mauer’s OBP was .400 or higher the past three seasons and four out of the last five seasons. Although you cannot rely on Mauer to provide you with home runs or a high RBI total, his AVG and OBP will be excellent.
I believe a conservative projection for Mauer in 2011 would entail a .320 AVG, .390 OBP, 15 home runs and 80 RBIs.
Mike Napoli – Napoli is not a household name among fantasy catchers like Mauer, Victor Martinez or Brian McCann. Although Napoli will never be considered elite, he is consistent. Hitting .251 in his career, Napoli cannot be relied on for contact hitting; however, he has hit 20 or more home runs in three consecutive seasons (despite never appearing in more than 140 games).
In 2010 with the Angels, Napoli set new career highs with 140 games played, 453 at-bats, 26 home runs and 68 RBIs. The 2011 season could be more promising for Napoli, as he will have a great Texas Rangers lineup around him. I think it is conceivable to see Napoli hit around .260 while approaching 30 home runs and 80 RBIs. If you miss out on Mauer, Martinez, McCann, Buster Posey and Carlos Santana, take a chance on Napoli late in the draft. He will likely be overlooked and available in the later rounds.
Brian McCann – McCann is somewhat of a fantasy oddity when you view his year-by-year numbers. McCann is an excellent power hitter who apparently plays between 130-149 games while approaching 20+ home runs and 90+ RBIs on a regular basis; however, he has never scored 70 or more runs in any season (his career high is 68 runs in 2008).
In 2010, McCann scored only 63 runs, despite hitting 21 home runs and carrying a .375 OBP. In 2010, Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds (now a Baltimore Oriole) scored 79 runs, despite only hitting .198 with a .320 OBP.
With an improving Braves lineup, McCann owners would hope he finally scores 70+ runs. Although one cannot logically project 70+ runs for McCann (a feat he has yet to accomplish), he should hit 20+ home runs and 80-90 RBIs.
Albert Pujols – Pujols appears to be the biggest story in baseball heading into the 2011 season.
Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals might be living with the fear of Pujols not signing an extension by his February 16 deadline and testing free agency.
His fantasy owners, however, should have no fear. Players have a tendency to play better in the final year of their contracts. If the same holds true for Pujols, then one could probably expect monstrous numbers from him this season.
In his 10 seasons thus far, Pujols has a career .331 AVG and .426 OBP. He has never hit less than 32 home runs or less than 103 RBIs. In fact, his 103-RBI season in 2007 is the only season in which he failed to post at least 116 RBIs. The 2002 season is the only season in his career in which he failed to post at least a .400 OBP. Pujols is simply the best hitter in fantasy baseball.
If you have a chance to draft Pujols, then select him. You can then reap the rewards of his production. If you fear a Frank Thomas-like decline and injuries, then draft him anyway and hold him for a king’s ransom in trade talks. The allure of the numbers Pujols is capable of posting is too tempting for managers to resist. If you fear he may suffer injuries in 2011, then trade him to somebody who cannot resist his ability and get yourself the ultimate deal.
Although injuries can strike any player at any time, I do not bet against greatness. Do not be surprised to see Pujols post MVP numbers again in 2011. I project Pujols to hit .325 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs.
Adrian Gonzalez – Gonzalez could potentially win the American League MVP in 2011. Gonzalez played the majority of his career with the San Diego Padres at what is widely regarded as the most pitcher-friendly ballpark. Despite not having a great lineup around him in San Diego and despite the pitcher-friendly ballpark, Gonzalez averaged 32 home runs and 100 RBIs per season with the Padres.
In the past five seasons, Gonzalez played 160 or more games four times (156 games in 2006). Now surrounded by a great lineup in Boston and playing at hitter-friendly Fenway Park, Gonzalez could conceivably hit 40 home runs and 120-130 RBIs in 2011. Although Pujols is widely regarded as the best hitter in fantasy baseball, I believe that title will go to Gonzalez in 2011.
Dan Uggla – in my experience with fantasy baseball leagues, Uggla has appeared to be an overlooked player in fantasy drafts. I do not blame other managers for clamoring for the likes of Chase Utley and Robinson Cano; however, Uggla is possibly the safest bet (after Cano) for production at second base.
In his five MLB seasons, Uggla played 154 or more games four times (146 games in 2008). In those five seasons, Uggla averaged 30 home runs and 93 RBIs. Uggla set new career highs in 2010 with a .287 AVG, .369 OBP and 105 RBIs. Uggla’s career has been a model of consistency in home runs (27, 31, 32, 31 and 33) and RBIs (90, 88, 92, 90 and 105); however, his AVG swings more violently than a screen door in a tornado (.282, .245, .260, .243 and .287). Oprah Winfrey is more consistent with her weight than Uggla is with his AVG.
Despite how unpredictable Uggla may be with his AVG, he is consistently healthy and consistently hits for power. The .287 AVG he sported in 2010 could be a sign of improved hitting; however, his tendency to have a yo-yo effect with his AVG makes it questionable. Nevertheless, Uggla can be projected to stay healthy, hit 30 home runs and 90 RBIs.
Chone Figgins – thus far, I have mentioned players who can be counted on to hit for AVG and/or power. Do not overlook players who can swipe the bases! Although Figgins will never hit for power and his AVG can be unpredictable, he still holds fantasy value because very few second basemen can steal as many bases as he can.
Figgins has had a healthy career thus far, usually playing in 150 or more games (115 games in 2007 and 116 games in 2008). Figgins was a frustrating player for fantasy managers in 2010, as he had a miserable start (.235 AVG at the All-Star break); however, he had a strong second half to his season (.286 AVG after All-Star break). Despite only hitting .259 for the season in 2010, Figgins managed to steal 42 bases. In the past six seasons, Figgins swiped 40 or more bases five times (34 steals in 116 games in 2008).
I think it is reasonable to expect Figgins to avoid another disastrous start in 2011 and post a better AVG this time around. Look for Figgins to hit at least .280 and steal 40 bases again in 2011.
Robinson Cano – Cano and Utley are the biggest fantasy names at second base; however, Cano holds one advantage over Utley: durability. Like Uggla, Cano is consistently healthy in his career. Since 2007, Cano played in no less than 159 games.
Since the 2007 season, Cano hit .305 while averaging 92 runs, 41 doubles, 21 home runs and 90 RBIs. These numbers and his excellent durability make Cano the best second baseman in fantasy baseball. The star-studded New York Yankees lineup also provides Cano with ample opportunity to provide spectacular numbers. With all due respect to Utley, Cano should be the first second baseman selected in your fantasy draft. Cano can be reasonably projected to hit over .300 with about 25 home runs and 90+ RBIs.
Evan Longoria – although Longoria has only played in three MLB seasons thus far, he has been one of the most productive third basemen in fantasy baseball. He appeared in 122 games as a rookie in 2008, hitting .272 with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs. In the past two seasons, Longoria has played in no less than 151 games while averaging 27 home runs and 108 RBIs.
Despite the departure of former teammate Carl Crawford (now with the Boston Red Sox), Longoria should remain one of the elite fantasy third basemen. Veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez should keep the Rays lineup strong and give Longoria opportunities to drive in runs.
Longoria is young, is in the prime of his career and is in the final year of his contract with the Rays. Unlike the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, Longoria has had no known nagging injuries the past few seasons; therefore, I consider Longoria the best lock at third base in fantasy baseball. Look for Longoria to hit 25+ home runs and 100+ RBIs again in 2011.
Derek Jeter – you may find it strange for me to list Jeter as a lock after what could be considered an off year for him in 2010, but I consider him to be the third-best lock at shortstop (behind only Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki) in fantasy baseball.
Why gamble your draft pick on young rising stars that have not proven themselves yet? Sure, Ian Desmond and Starlin Castro are young and very promising; however, I would not want to be saddled with their struggles if they experience the dreaded sophomore slump.
Veterans Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes also come with risks in a fantasy draft. Both Rollins and Reyes have been injury-prone over the past few seasons.
Although Jeter is nearing the twilight of his career and can reasonably be expected to decline from this point forward, I believe he will rebound from his 2010 season and post stronger numbers in 2011. Jeter is a true leader with an incredible work ethic. He will have the desire to prove he can perform better than he did in 2010. Regardless of whether or not Jeter will ever hit .300 again, the fact remains that Jeter is a durable shortstop.
In the past six seasons, Jeter failed to hit .300 only once (.270 AVG in 2010). Despite hitting only .270 in 2010, Jeter still scored 111 runs. Since 1996, Jeter failed only once to play in at least 148 games (119 games in 2003). With Jeter’s track record of durability and consistency, and the Yankee lineup that helps him score many runs, there is no reason to believe Jeter will not rebound in 2011. I project Jeter to approach – if not surpass – 200 hits in 2011 while hitting .310 with 100+ runs. Do not take unnecessary risks with unproven young players or injury-prone veterans. If you miss out on Ramirez and Tulowitzki, draft Jeter for your shortstop needs.
Ichiro Suzuki – Ichiro is perhaps the most boring player in fantasy baseball (that is meant as a compliment). Ichiro is so consistent that I dub him as Mr. Baseball.
In his 10 MLB seasons, Ichiro has won 10 Gold Gloves, 10 seasons with 200+ hits and 10 seasons with an AVG of .300 or higher.
Ichiro is a career .331 hitter. For his career AVG to fall below .300 in 2011, Ichiro would have to start the 2011 season 0-for-714! Ichiro usually steals 35-45 bases (no less than 26 in any season) and scored 100+ runs in eight of his 10 MLB seasons. The past two seasons are the only seasons in his career in which he failed to score 100 runs (through no fault of his own, as the Seattle Mariners fielded an anemic offense in 2009 and 2010).
Those who project fantasy numbers get bored with Ichiro, as it is conservative to project a .300 AVG and 26+ steals for Ichiro. I will not project such boring numbers for Ichiro, as they are too conservative. Call me crazy, but I project Ichiro to hit .340 with 95+ runs in 2011! Sure, the Mariners will lose a bunch of games again; however, their offense should be improved this season and get Ichiro back to approaching 100+ runs.
Roy Halladay – I have regarded Halladay as the best pitcher in baseball for years. After the Philadelphia Phillies acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays, the rest of America began to notice Halladay’s dominance as well.
Like Ichiro and his 200+ hits and .300+ AVG, Halladay has two statistics he always dominates in.
You can project Halladay to lead the MLB in complete games and shutouts (and perhaps innings pitched) every year. Halladay won the NL Cy Young in 2010 and is the favorite to repeat in 2011. Halladay was 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, nine complete games and four shutouts in 2010. Against NL East rivals, Halladay was 14-1 with a 1.61 ERA. Look for Halladay to lead in innings pitched, complete games and shutouts again in 2011. An ERA below 3.00 and 20+ wins are also to be expected.
Mariano Rivera – Rivera is Mr. Automatic in baseball. Rivera had 33 saves in 2010 while blowing five saves. The 2010 season marked the first time Rivera blew five or more saves since 2003. In five of the past six seasons, Rivera had a WHIP below 1.00 (1.12 in 2007).
Although I like to wait until the middle rounds to select a closer, you should draft Rivera if you want the best. If Rivera fails to get 40 saves, it is not from a lack of performance. The Yankees lineup scoring many runs and winning blowouts is the only thing preventing Rivera from having 40+ saves in any given season.
Look for Rivera to have an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00 again in 2011 while posting 30+ saves.