Fantasy Baseball Preview Part 1

Feb 27, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) poses for a photo during media day at Peoria Sports Complex . Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) poses for a photo during media day at Peoria Sports Complex . Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Fantasy Baseball season is nearly upon us. With many leagues in all formats drafting this week, it’s time to start cramming. My preview includes tiers for each position, and a brief draft strategy guide.

Fantasy baseball is my favorite fantasy sport, mostly because I’m better at it than I am at fantasy football, but also because I feel it involves more skill and less luck to win head-to-head leagues. People who are consistently good at fantasy football have no less skill than those who win at fantasy baseball, but you can throw your life away staring at baseball stats more easily than at football stats—all I’m saying.

Before you read any further, know that my advice, tiers, etc. are all based on weekly head-to-head leagues that award one point per statistic. I’ve heard of some crazy scoring rules in fantasy baseball leagues out there, and I’ll try to keep my feelings about draft strategy and players as open for use in as many leagues as possible. Just know my biases, and know the fact that I’ve only played in one rotisserie league in life—and I didn’t win.

With all that said, let’s start with draft strategy.

The Draft

As you should know by now, you can’t win your league on draft day in fantasy baseball, but you can lose it. Generally speaking, I don’t worry about positions very much until viable options at a given position start to become scarce—usually several rounds in. My experience trying to grab premium options at perennially weak positions like second base and shortstop didn’t go well. If said premium options get hurt, you’re screwed.

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Instead of concentrating on positions from the get-go, I focus on either hitting or pitching. Do I want a good hitting team or a good pitching team? Everyone tries to pick the best hitters and pitchers, of course, but things always go wrong. When injuries hit you or a few of your high draft picks don’t perform, it’s better to have either to have a ton of pitchers or a ton of hitters to step into the void. And you’ll only have enough luck and draft capital to invest in one or the other.

I like to invest in hitting in my fantasy baseball draft because I value home runs higher than all other categories in the Yahoo! head-to-head game. With every home run, you’re getting a run scored, at least one RBI, and if your league tracks slugging percentage, a big boost in that category as well. You can dominate your league if you load up on strikeouts or K/9, or ERA, etc. The point is to commit to one or the other throughout your draft.

Of course, you’ll need at least some balance. If you go all-out for hitting, you’ll need to balance your team either by investing heavily in starting pitching late in the draft in the hopes that a few hidden gems will come forth as they always do, or get an elite starter early and rely on him all year to bring your ratios down. You have to build depth in a few key categories without punting on too many others. Build the strength you need in a few categories to balance out your weaknesses throughout the season.

So my advice to you is… commit to a few hitting or pitching stats, but don’t forget about the other side completely. Confusing, I know. On to player tiers!


Instead of shoving some fantasy baseball rankings at you, I’ve organized players into tiers. This lets me avoid the work of actually ranking 300 players and provide you with a more useful tool for making your own rankings prior to the draft (which you should be doing anyway). Tiers are levels of usefulness for your head-to-head team I consider similar. Players on the same tier would be ranked near each other on a big board.

So, here are the top fantasy baseball tiers for starting pitchers and first basemen. I’ll include more positions in Part 2:

Starting Pitcher:

Tier 1 (Studs): Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Fantasy baseball
Look for Scherzer to win more games this year and pitch like an ace. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports /

Kershaw is one of the Big Four of this year’s fantasy baseball rankings along with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Paul Goldschmidt. He struck out 301 batters in 232.2 innings last year and is a good bet to best his 16 wins from 2015 in 2016. Scherzer I included on his tier because he doesn’t quite fit in the next tier. You can likely find Scherzer in the middle of the second round and get ace-quality ratios from him. I also find it unlikely that he’ll post a worse win-loss record than his 14-12 mark last season in 2016.

Tier 2 (Value All-Stars): Jake Arrieta, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke, David Price

If you can’t score Scherzer or Kershaw, surely you can find a stud or two in this tier. The trouble is picking the so-so years from the Cy Young winners. Arrieta had a 1.77 ERA last year, Greinke pulled out a 1.66. The safe money is on the overs for both of them in 2016, for the simple fact that those are ridiculously low ERAs. Some of these players have injury histories (Fernandez), some have smaller sample sizes than others. Everyone here has had a few small issues, and they any one of them could break out. I find Arrieta, Sale, and Bumgarner the safest of this bunch, but they all have tremendous potential for 2016.

Tier 3 (Solid Starters): Noah Syndergaard, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Carrasco, Chris Archer

Fantasy Baseball
Chris Archer had an uneven season in 2015. I’m a believer in 2016. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Of this group, I like Syndergaard, Cole, and Archer the most. All three are young starters who could heap fantasy baseball value on owners this year. Archer started strong last year, posting a 2.74 ERA in the first half with a 1.02 WHIP. He slouched a bit in the second half, going 3-7 with 3.89 ERA. If he can even out his second half numbers in 2016, he’ll be a steal in the sixth round. Cole isn’t a strikeout master, but this is a guy who went 19-8 last year with a 2.60 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. Felix Hernandez could also be a steal in this tier. He won 18 games last year for our Mariners despite posting his worst ERA in years. His peripherals were almost all worse than his career standards in 2015, but with improved defense behind him, watch for his 3.53 ERA to drop, even if his strikeout ratios remain low.

Tier 4 (Solid starters with question marks): Johnny Cueto, Sonny Gray, Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Danny Salazar

Will Wainwright rebound after an injury wiped out his 2015? Will Cueto improve now that he’s back in the National League? Is this the year Salazar puts it all together? I would be very careful about Lester. He was wildly inconsistent last year and recently revealed he’s pitching with a bone chip in his throwing elbow. Gray and Salazar look like the starters with the highest ceilings out of this bunch.

Tier 5 (Possible diamonds in the ruff): Garrett Richards, Francisco Liriano, Michael Wacha, Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, Jordan Zimmerman, Marcus Stroman

You know you’re going to get decent ratios from Liriano at the cost of strikeouts. Wacha is a good young pitcher with upside, but he only struck out 153 batters in 181.1 innings. The possible stars of this group are Pineda and Tanaka, both of whom have extensive injury histories.

A few players to target beyond:

My five tiers didn’t take you to the end of the draft for starting pitchers, but here are a few starters I like in the later rounds:

-Raisel Iglasias-13th round. It’s worth it to take a flier on the youngster, who could end up being the best starter on the Reds’ roster.

Lance McCullers-15th round. McCullers was effective in 125.2 innings last year and struck out more than a batter per inning.

Shelby Miller-15th-16th round. No way he loses 17 games again this year. His move to Arizona isn’t ideal, but he’ll play for a better team and he had ratios you could live with last year.

First Base:

Tier 1: Paul Goldschmidt

Goldy gets a tier all by himself on the strength of his induction to the Big Four of this year’s fantasy baseball draft. Remember, if you have a top-4 pick this year, you need to select Trout, Harper, Goldschmidt, or Kershaw. Goldy is a premium power hitter in a hitter’s ballpark. He has also shown good stolen base ability in 2015, making him one of the very best fantasy baseball assets in 2016.

Tier 2: Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Joey Votto

Fantasy Baseball
Mar 9, 2016; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Texas Rangers second baseman Hanser Alberto (2) dives back to first base ahead of a throw to Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) during the second inning at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Don’t be scared off by Cabrera’s injury last season. He’s back and feeling great this year, and we all know what he can do when he’s healthy. He led the league in hitting while essentially playing on one leg in 2015. Rizzo is a solid all-around contributor with a .899 OPS last year, and while he’s still young, I wonder if we’ve seen his ceiling. Encarnacion is perennially underrated as a fantasy baseball asset. The guy mashed 39 home runs last year and didn’t kill owners with a low batting average. If he’s lingering at the end of the second round and no one is making you salivate, he’s your man. Votto was incredible after the All Star Break last season, and even though he’ll have no protection in a sad Reds lineup, he’s one of those hitters you can count on every year. Votto’s 1.000 OPS in 2015 was better than any first baseman I’ve mentioned so far other than Goldschmidt.

Tier 3: Chris Davis, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez

After this group, you’ll have live with possible liabilities at the first base position for the rest of your fantasy baseball draft. Davis, even though he strikes out many hundreds of times each season, is a reliable source of power. He led the AL with 47 home runs last year and posted an OPS over .900. After seeing what he did in 2015, it’s hard to imagine him returning to the terribleness of 2014. Fielder’s ridiculous power numbers appear to be behind him, but he hit over .300 last year and blasted 23 home runs. I don’t peg him to regress this year because of his renewed approach at the place. Gonzalez seems like the most likely to regress of this group. He hasn’t slugged over .500 in a season since 2011and hasn’t reached 30 home runs in a season since 2010. Still, he’s a good run producer in a good lineup.

Tier 4: Freddie Freeman, Eric Hosmer, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz

If there’s one player who can blast 35 to 40 home runs in his age-40 season, it’s Ortiz. Headed into his final year after nearly two decades in the big leagues, Papi has been remarkably consistent in recent seasons.

Fantasy Baseball
David Ortiz could be the steal of the draft in 2016. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

His line from 2013: 600 Plate Appearances, 30 HR, 103 RBIs, .309/.395/.564.

2014: 602 PAs, 35 HR, 104 RBIs, .263/.355/.517.

2015: 614 PAs, 37 HR, 108 RBIs, .273/.360/.553.

Sure, his batting average has dropped, but it’s settled in at an acceptable .260-.275 range and he’s been averaging over 30 home runs a season since 2013. Take him the eighth round and be sure to thank your opponents for letting you get away with robbery. Pujols has actually been useful in recent years, but it’s hard to ignore his regression. Freeman has proven he’s not a huge power guy and will hit with little protection in the Braves lineup. Still, he’ll deliver solid ratios without a big-name price tag.

Players to target:

Instead of going to a new tier, I thought it’d be easier to highlight a few potential sleepers at first base:

Brandon Belt. Belt delivers solid ratios and low counting categories. Still, he has shown 20/20 potential. At the very least you’ll get a guy who can hit .280 and get on base.

Lucas Duda. He knocked 27 home runs last year for the Mets. Duda could be a cheaper version of Chris Davis if you can live with his low average.

Mitch Moreland. Moreland enjoyed a coming out party of sorts in Texas last season with 23 HRs and 85 RBIs. His ADP of 226.4 in Yahoo! standard head-to-head leagues is criminal for a guy who posted an .812 OPS last season.

Wil Myers. It’s easy to write Myers off as an injury liability after only playing 235 games in three years with the Rays and Padres, but he’s still only 25 and is well worth a 25th round pick for his potential.

Next: Seahawks Free Agency Update Part 2

Stay tuned to ECS for more positions tiered for your fantasy baseball draft.