Welcome to a very exclusive club. You’re reading the one fantasy baseball article I write each year. No velvet ropes, but I must admit it’s impossible to get a drink in here. Blame Justin Mason for that one, I guess. He runs the site.
The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational is pretty exclusive too. Only 435 managers have the opportunity to test their mettle in this contest, and in the end, we’ll all forget about everything that happened except for who won the overall. Sure it’s cool to win your league, but once you’re in fantasy baseball’s VIP room, don’t you want to be the one who ends up on the table hosing everyone else down with champagne or Yoohoo or whatever? (Seriously, no drinks in here, huh? We need to sort this out for next year…)
In TGFBI seasons past, I’ve been content to swing for solid contact, try to win my league, and hope the good kind of variance pushes me into contention for the overall. After three tries, it turns out I can’t even win my own damn leagues, so I had to reevaluate parts of my strategy for 2021. I say “parts” because a lot of what I want to do hasn’t changed. A balanced roster is still crucial, leaning into some amount of risk is still necessary, and seizing values relative to ADP when they present themselves remains important.
One thing I wanted to do differently this year was embrace differentiation with more authority. Thankfully, when you’re trying to pounce on players dipping below their ADPs, some amount of differentiation comes naturally. But I wanted to be mindful of other opportunities for differentiation as well, even if they didn’t jive with my baseline approach.
I also decided to invest more in pitching this time around. Fading pitchers has long been my M.O., but I’ve come to realize it won’t necessarily work in every format. It’s somewhat easy to find bargain hurlers in 12-team leagues, both in the draft and off the waiver wire. Assembling an elite enough staff to win the overall across 29 fifteen-team leagues is an entirely different story. It’s made even more difficult by the way MLB teams are using their pitchers nowadays, not to mention how fantasy drafters are pushing starters up draft boards higher than ever. Even if you don’t want to spend a first- or second-rounder on a starter, you have to have a plan for making up ground because the high-end pitching talent thins out quicker than it ever has.
With those goals in mind, here’s how my draft from TGFBI League 17 played out…
Round 1 — Ronald Acuna Jr., OF, ATL (3rd overall)
Yup, I’m one of the lucky bastards who saw Acuna slide to third pick, but you have to put yourself in position to get lucky, and I did just that with my KDS, slotting third pick as my top choice.
At No. 3, I was content to pick between Juan Soto, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Trea Turner (assuming the top went chalk with Acuna and Fernando Tatis Jr.). But I didn’t want to prioritize fifth or sixth draft position because I wanted my picks closer together, I wanted an earlier third-round pick, and I wanted to leave open the opportunity that Acuna or Tatis could fall to third. That’s exactly what happened, and I was delighted to add baseball’s preeminent power+speed producer to my squad.
Round 2 — Walker Buehler, SP, LAD (28th overall)
When I wrote I wanted to invest more in pitching, I didn’t think I would start as early as the second round. One of the next two rounds, sure, but the second round still felt too early for this longtime pitcher dimisser. Then Buehler, the No. 5 pitcher on my board, fell to SP10. Life moves pretty fast. After confirming Buehler was in attendance, healthy at Spring Training, and checking @smada_bb’s ADP page to make sure I was getting a bargain, I made the pick.
Round 3 — Jack Flaherty, SP, STL (33rd overall)
Flaherty is my SP7 and who I was originally targeting for this third round pick as part of my “pay for pitching” strategy. After taking Buehler the round prior, I could have pivoted to a hitter in this spot, but I instead steered my “borrowed” Corvette into the skid and stayed on target with my pre-draft plan.
Round 4 — J.T. Realmuto, C, PHI (58th overall)
Landing Acuna third overall naturally gave my roster some differentiation from my draft slot, but picking the top-ranked catcher here in the fourth round is my first instance of forcing differentiation. Rostering Realmuto is akin to having an elite tight end like Travis Kelce in fantasy football. Most of the other options at their respective positions aren’t great, and the safety you get with a top catcher or tight end allows flexibility to take on more risk at other positions.
With that said, I don’t care much about having an elite backstop in a standalone league because it only represents an advantage over a handful of teams. Multiply that handful by 29 leagues in the TGFBI overall, however, and it becomes a more meaningful advantage to have the top catcher. Some non-Realmuto teams out there will make up ground with later-round hits at catcher, but the majority of them will struggle all season trying to solve or patchwork the position. The leverage gained with Realmuto is worth the opportunity cost of a fourth-round pick with the overall in mind.
Round 5 — Randy Arozarena, OF, TB (63rd overall)
Locking up some stolen bases is another necessary evil of an overall competition. I didn’t love selecting Arozarena here because he projects for downside in runs, RBI, and batting average relative to other hitters available in this range. (For reference, the next three picks were Vlad Guerrero Jr., Gleyber Torres, and Eugenio Suarez.) But the limitations of Arozarena’s projections are offset by the benefits of having Realmuto, who should dramatically outperform most other catchers in runs, RBI, and batting average.
That sort of justification for making a pick has diminishing returns, though. Only a certain amount of frivolous downside can be added before Realmuto stops being an advantage, so I tried to be mindful of taking on unnecessary statistical deficits going forward.
Round 6 — Jose Altuve, 2B, HOU (88th overall)
Case in point, Altuve doesn’t have any glaring holes in his roto projections. His home run forecasts don’t jump off the page, but they’re good enough for a second baseman, and his contributions in other categories—particularly in SB and AVG—fit my team perfectly at a position of need.
Round 7 — Anthony Rizzo, 1B, CHC (93rd overall)
In the chase for steals and homers, it’s easy to overlook runs and RBI, and Rizzo stands out in those categories. Meanwhile, his stolen base numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re better than most others at his position.
Round 8 — Mike Moustakas, 1B/2B, CIN (118th overall)
Another differentiation pick here, as Moustakas projects as the clear home run leader among second basemen. I selected him right around his TGFBI ADP (119.2), so it wasn’t a screaming value, but Moustakas did represent the clear end to a tier at the position. The next second baseman drafted was Max Muncy, 24 picks later. There’s a case to tier him with Moustakas, and Muncy has three eligibilities (1B/2B/3B) compared to only two for Moustakas (1B/2B), but my guy felt safer for two reasons. First, Moustakas is a career .251 hitter, while Muncy sits at .236. Second, the game-to-game playing time for Moustakas is more locked in, which should present more opportunities for him to compile runs and RBI.
Round 9 — Julio Urias, SP, LAD (123rd overall)
Of course, right after I knock Max Muncy for playing time concerns, I draft a pitcher from the ridiculously crowded Dodgers rotation. Roast me. I deserve it. But I needed a pitcher in this spot, and I wanted one capable of making “the leap” in 2021. With above average statcast metrics across the board, Urias fits the bill. Even if his innings are limited, they should be quality innings, and the greatness of the team around him in L.A. should provide ample opportunities for wins.
Round 10 — Craig Kimbrel, RP, CHC (148th overall)
I almost picked Kimbrel over Urias in the previous round, so when he wheeled back to me, I had to pull the trigger to lock up some saves. I also needed a shortstop, so it would have been a tougher choice if Carlos Correa had also lapped back, but Correa was sniped just before this Kimbrel pick.
Round 11 — Didi Gregorius, SS, PHI (153rd overall)
Missing on Correa was a bummer, but it presented a chance to finish off another positional tier by taking Gregorius here in the 11th. After this pick, no one touched the position until Round 14.
Round 12 — Jose Urquidy, SP, HOU (178th overall)
After my Gregorius pick, there was a two-round run on starting pitchers that included Frankie Montas, Chris Bassit, Marcus Stroman, Zach Efflin, Triston McKenzie, Aaron Civale, and Andrew Heaney. I wanted to follow suit and maintain my “pay for pitching” goal while there were still upside arms available. My first instinct was to add Mike Soroka, but the health reports on him weren’t great at the time. Picking Urquidy felt like more of a reach, but the Framber Valdez injury makes it look better in hindsight.
Round 13 — Jorge Soler, OF, KC (183rd overall)
Leading up to this spot, I had talked myself into picking Gary Sanchez to pair with Realmuto at catcher. Yes, I’d be taking on a colossal batting average drain, but I’d mitigate that risk by having more projected homers from my catchers than virtually all other teams in the overall. Sanchez was picked at the turn, though, so I opted for a similar power option with more counting stats at a much deeper position in Soler. This was the second time I used Realmuto to justify taking on risk in a category (Soler projects for a sub-.250 average), and I intended to make it the last time.
Round 14 — Josh Donaldson, 3B, MIN (208th overall)
This is the latest I’ve waited to draft a third baseman in a number of years, but when Dong-aldson is available in the 14th round, why not? I knew I’d need to grab a backup within a few rounds for insurance against injury, but that was an easy pill to swallow because I like guys like Eduardo Escobar, Ryan McMahon, Brian Anderson, and Kyle Seager more than most.
Round 15 — James Paxton, SP, SEA (213th overall)
My pitching rotation felt stable at this point, so I took on more health risk here with Paxton, hoping to reap the strikeout rewards. Returning to the Mariners won’t help his potential for wins, but getting out of Yankee Stadium (and the other hitter-friendly parks in the AL East in favor of the AL West’s pitcher-friendly parks) should avail Paxton’s ratios.
Round 16 — Jose Leclerc, RP, TEX (238th overall)
Am I happy about my two two relievers being Kimbrel and Leclerc? Nope. Would I give up one of my previous hitter or starter picks for a better closer? Also nope.
Between starting pitchers getting pushed up and the mad rush to get steals and good batting average hitters in the early rounds, 2021 feels like as fine a year as any to stand behind SAGNOF (“Saves Ain’t Got No Face,” h/t @Razzball) and the “don’t pay for saves” mantra (popularized by @MatthewBerryTMR). Bullpen turnover is an ever present churn, and there are more closer committees than ever, so I’m content to save my bullets for closers until as late as possible, evidenced by the Kimbrel and Leclerc picks.
Round 17 — AJ Pollock, OF, LAD (243rd overall)
I swear I considered picking Pollock in every round starting with the 11th. The projection systems love him, so his value pops relative to cost in auction value calculators. Still, this particular draft room let him fall well past his TGFBI ADP of 207.2. He has to stay healthy, but sliding to pick 243, Pollock’s injury risk becomes much less of a gamble.
Round 18 — Eduardo Escobar, 3B, ARI (268th overall)
As noted above, I needed some insurance for Josh Donaldson. Outside of last year’s sprint season, Escobar has been a well-rounded compiler for the past four years.
Round 19 — Wander Franco, SS, TB (273rd overall)
It’s not typically my style to grab guys like Franco who figure to spend the early months of the season in the minors. Clogging up your roster can be death when you only have seven bench spots. Part of me wishes I had taken Myles Straw to cement my stolen base projections, but looking at which shortstops were still available to back up Didi Gregorius, I swung for the fences with Franco. Once he’s called up, he should provide quality per-game power and speed numbers with an elite batting average. I just have to hope the call-up happens sooner rather than later.
Round 20 — Peter Fairbanks, RP, TB (298th overall)
Nick Anderson only projects for a few more saves on the same team and he went in the 12th round. Enough said.
Round 21 — Cristian Pache, OF, ATL (303rd overall)
This pick assumes Pache will start over Ender Inciarte from opening day and that Pache’s otherworldly speed will allow him to far exceed his single-digit steals projections.
Round 22 — Joey Votto, 1B, CIN (328th overall)
Here we go again, drafting discounted veterans who have fallen out of favor. In Votto’s case, the fall from fantasy managers’ good graces makes sense considering his lackluster stretch from 2018 to 2019. But Votto brought back the power in 2020, and his poor average last season (.226) can be partially explained by a .235 BABIP. Early indications from Spring Training have been positive for Votto. If he can muster a bounce-back at 37 years old, not only will I reap the fantasy rewards, it’ll be a win for middle-aged dudes (like me) everywhere. Let’s go, Uncle Joe!
Round 23 — A.J. Puk, SP/RP, OAK (333rd overall)
Maybe Puk makes Oakland’s opening day roster, or maybe he’ll be the first player I cut. I probably shouldn’t have spent my 23rd selection on such boom-bust potential, but I wasn’t excited about the other starters available at this pick. Trying to lock up the Rangers’ closer situation with Jonathan Hernandez here might have been a better play.
Round 24 — Brandon Belt, 1B, SF (358th overall)
I don’t mind making homer picks when they’re available this late, and Belt is perennially underrated. Last year’s shortened season was one of his best campaigns to date, and I’m hoping he can get healthy in time for the season’s start. If Belt eventually gets traded out of San Francisco, cross your fingers that he lands in a hitters’ park to show off his quality bat (10.2% barrel rate from 2015-2020, same as Michael Conforto and Nick Castellanos in that span).
Round 25 — Yan Gomes, C, WAS (363rd overall)
I’m told that it’s necessary to draft a second catcher in a two-catcher league, so that’s what I did here. Exciting stuff, drafting catchers really is a thrill. Let’s move on before we all pass out with glee.
Round 26 — Miles Mikolas, SP, STL (388th overall)
Similar to the AJ Pollock pick above, I had been considering Mikolas for a number of rounds before finally drafting him here in the 26th. Finding a sub-1.25 WHIP from a starter is pretty rare this late in the game. Hopefully, Mikolas will be healthy enough to deliver that sort of WHIP over the 130-ish innings he’s projected for.
Round 27 — Alex Reyes, SP/RP, STL (393rd overall)
Rationally, I assume Reyes will be in the pen for the redbirds, where his bad WHIP will be mitigated by low innings. Irrationally, I see Reyes as a potential starter with big time strikeout upside, hedging against injury possibilities for Flaherty and Mikolas. Either way, he should be useful to me in fantasy.
Round 28 — Harrison Bader, OF, STL (418th overall)
Hey Siri, how many St. Louis players do I need to draft in a row to become a Cardinals fan by default? (This steals-chasing pick just as well could have been Kevin Kiermaier, but I opted for the guy with a better chance of compiling runs and RBI thanks to more playing time.)
Round 29 — Jo Adell, OF, LAA (423rd overall)
While Adell could be a huge steal down here in the 29th round, I’m confident this was my worst pick of the draft. With potential bench cloggers Wander Franco and A.J. Puk already rostered, I could have picked a player with an established full-season role in this spot. A locked in starting pitcher like Alec Mills, who went with the next pick, would have been sharp. Alternatively, if I wanted to chase some sort of late-round ceiling, I could have targeted a player whose “go or no-go” status was more likely to be known by opening day. A dark horse closer candidate like A.J. Minter, who went six picks later, could have been that type of pick.
But nah, turns out I’m a child who can’t resist the sirens’ call of top prospects, while the other drafters in this league are level-headed adults who make smart decisions, even in the final rounds. Will I hold Adell on my bench so long that it wrecks my team? Will I cut him loose early and later watch him lead some other team to glory? It’s a lose-lose scenario unless the Angels bring Adell up quickly enough to justify burning a bench spot. And even then, he’ll still need to shake the strikeout-prone tendencies he showed last year, which isn’t a given. I think I need a drink. Oh wait, we’ve established there are no drinks here. Cool. Maybe my last pick will cheer me up…
Round 30 — Keegan Akin, SP, BAL (448th overall)
An Orioles pitcher?! Screw this, I’ll be at the bar. Here’s my final squad for posterity:
C: J.T. Realmuto (C)
C: Yan Gomes (C)
1B: Anthony Rizzo (1B)
2B: Jose Altuve (2B)
3B: Josh Dondalson (3B)
SS: Didi Gregorius (SS)
CI: Eduardo Escobar (3B)
MI: Mike Moustakas (1B/2B)
OF: Ronald Acuna Jr. (OF)
OF: Randy Arozarena (OF)
OF: Jorge Soler (OF)
OF: AJ Pollock (OF)
OF: Cristian Pache (OF)
UT: Joey Votto (1B)
Bn: Wander Franco (SS)
Bn: Brandon Belt (1B)
Bn: Harrison Bader (OF)
Bn: Jo Adell (Oof… err, I mean OF.)
P: Walker Buehler (SP)
P: Jack Flaherty (SP)
P: Julio Urias (SP)
P: Jose Urquidy (SP)
P: James Paxton (SP)
P: Miles Mikolas (SP)
P: Craig Kimbrel (RP)
P: Jose Leclerc (RP)
P: Peter Fairbanks (RP)
Bn: A.J. Puk (SP/RP)
Bn: Alex Reyes (SP/RP)
Bn: Keegan Akin (SP)