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Industry Draft Recap: Should You Target Injured Players?

I had two fantasy baseball drafts scheduled for this week. One was put up to vote and the vast majority decided to wait until we are closer to the season starting (who knows when that’ll be) to draft, and the other decided it was a needed distraction and everyone is at the same disadvantage drafting now. Whether or not you believe leagues should be drafting now is a separate argument. But the truth is many leagues still will be drafting. If you are in one of those leagues, you need to adjust your strategy. You should not be drafting the same way you were two weeks ago when we thought the season would be starting at the end of the month. Looking at a draft can help you see how different a draft can be today rather than a couple of weeks ago.

This draft I participated in is a 15-team league with a mix of fantasy analysts, high stakes players, and fantasy aficionados. Some participants include Adam Ronis of Fantasy Alarm, Joe Gallina of RotoBaller/Fantasy Alarm, high stakes guru and NFBC Hall of Famer Chris Vaccaro, among others. I share a team with my former radio co-hosts, Frank Stampfl and Gregg Sussman of FNTSY. The draft is called the GST League, named after the Greenwich Street Tavern, a Manhattan bar with awesome wings that always allows us to host the draft!

This year the draft took place online and with it being potentially months before the season may begin. While drafting in the unknown my biggest strategy was to take advantage of the unknown. ADP is still very skewed from what it was a couple of weeks ago. Players who were not expected to be ready in time for a late-March start are still going at a discount because of it. But the season will not be starting in late March. This change reared its head as early as the first round for my team.

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Early Rounds of the Draft  

Heading into the draft, my co-drafters and I had a lot of strategy discussions. Initially, we were planning on drafting either one of the first-round shortstops or Justin Verlander, while leaning towards JV. Then Verlander got injured, so did Max Scherzer, and we were suddenly debating between a bat and Walker Buehler. But then the season was pushed back at least eight weeks, and everything changed. We realized that suddenly arms such as Verlander, Scherzer, Mike Clevinger were back in play. And not only were they in play, but we would no longer have to pay a first-round pick to get what we believed was an elite arm.

At pick 11, four of our top six pitchers were still available. So, with the shortstops gone, we draft Juan Soto (although if it was just me Jose Ramirez was the guy) and then were able to have our choice of Verlander or Clevinger in round two. We ended up selected Clevinger over Verlander because he is not having surgery that is expected to take up to six weeks to recover. Others were not feeling the same, as Verlander fell to the fifth pick in the third round. That is value you should be on the lookout for in drafts going on right now.

Blake Snell went 26th overall, as the 11th pick in the second round. He is someone who was consistently falling into the third round of drafts, if not later, when his availability at the start of the season was in question. He was another early-round player that the layoff has increased his value, as he will have more time to rest that elbow. We also saw Aaron Judge go in the fourth round. Just last week I was able to land him in the sixth round of a Draft Champions draft. Perhaps this is just one draft, but Judge is a player who should get pulled up the board, especially since the latest reports indicate he could be ready to start the season now due to the delay. He was a second-round pick before the injury. Even if he misses a couple of weeks, the discount is more than enough to take that risk.

Giancarlo Stanton, another player dealing with injury, went with the final pick in the sixth round. Stanton has even said that he expects to be ready. I get that it is tough to trust his health, but early in draft season you would routinely see him go in the fourth round. If he is now going two rounds later and may not miss any time to start the season, he is well worth it. Especially since any time he may miss is already baked into his ADP.

Through the first six rounds our team looked like this: Juan Soto, Mike Clevinger, Javier Baez, Keston Hiura, Nelson Cruz, and Manny Machado. This team is unlike many of mine, because I for sure would have taken Yu Darvish in round three. We also debated Charlie Morton in round four. Not drafting a pitcher there was my biggest regret of the draft. But my co-owners really liked Baez and Machado, so there has to be some give and take. This base helps get us covered in all five offensive categories as Cruz provides elite power, while getting speed out of Baez and Hiura. All of these guys will give us a boost in the counting stats, and none will drag down our average. We only have one pitcher, but at least he has the skillset to be elite. Typically, I do not wait on starting pitching and will have at least two guys through the first four or five rounds, but for going in another direction, I did like the start of this team.


The Middle Rounds

While we waited on pitching, we decided that we have to load up the next few rounds. We took Sonny Gray in the seventh, Max Fried in the eighth, Carlos Carrasco in round nine and Craig Kimbrel in round 10. I think round nine and 10 will determine a great amount of our team. I am a fan of Carrasco and believe that he has the ability to once again finish as an ace. That is exactly how we valued him leading into 2019. He did not live up to expectations, but we should all give him a pass since it was a leukemia diagnosis that derailed his season. He fell in the draft due to the injury concerns, but I was already talking about grabbing him in round seven. When he was still there in round nine, even my teammates got on board drafting him. Since we waited on pitching, he seemed like a calculated risk as he has the upside to be the SP2 we missed out on.

Kimbrel was also valued as elite until a down 2019. His was for different reasons. Remember, Kimbrel did not have a team at the start of the 2019 season and we did not see him with the Cubs until the very end of June. There is a chance that Kimbrel is just declining, but we all felt he was the safest closer on the board at this point with the highest upside. If those two picks hit, this team will be very dangerous.

After that we turned our attention back to our offense, picking up some speed and a much-needed outfielder with Byron Buxton in round 11 and power in Willie Calhoun in round 12. We went back to the speed well in round 13 for Elvis Andrus and then got my teammate's favorite player in Bryan Reynolds in round 14.

As for injured players, you saw we drafted Calhoun in round 12. He is a player who was going higher a couple of weeks ago, before getting hit in the face by a pitch. The gruesome injury looked like it would keep him out of the start of the season, causing him to fall. Much of that risk is mitigated now due to the delay in the start of the season, but the price has yet to catch back up to him. I call that a value. Other injured players we saw go off the board in this range were James Paxton in round nine, Michael Conforto in round nine, Trey Mancini in round 11 and our pick of Calhoun in the 12th.

Chris Sale went in round eight, but it was announced on Thursday he would be undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was the one hurt pitcher I was not comfortable pulling up boards.

We also saw a lot of young pitchers with inning concerns go in this range. On top of the injured players, those are the guys that will gain the most from a shortened season. It is a lot easier to draft a pitcher who can go 120 innings when the season is shortened because that will almost be the norm. You are likely not going to see many pitchers go 200 innings this season. Jesus Luzardo went in round seven while Julio Urias went in round eight. They were going with the mid-round hype pitchers like Fried, Dinelson Lamet, Zac Gallen, and Frankie Montas. Lance McCullers Jr., a similar pitcher, went in round 11.


Second Half of the Draft

This is where I really wanted to start drafting a lot of injured players. I cannot tell you how many times I told my draft mates that our plan should be to capitalize on players who are still being pushed down the board due to injury. It can be a hard pill to swallow in the early rounds, leaving safer options on the board knowing you are taking risks that could backfire. But at this point, you already have the base of your team built. This is where you are looking to add complementary pieces and more importantly, find great value that could outproduce the draft day price you had to pay. That is exactly what these players provide: value at a decreased price.

Some of the players who fit that mold are: Andrew McCutchen in round 16, Cole Hamels in round 19, Miles Mikolas in round 21, Griffin Canning in round 27, Rich Hill in round 29, and Aaron Hicks in round 30.

Both Hamels and Hicks were on my team. If it was just me drafting, you best believe McCutchen would have been too. But I wanted to highlight Hicks and Hill. Those two guys are still going as complete afterthoughts in drafts, although reports indicate that both could return in June. It is easier to trust Hicks because he does not have a long injury history like Hill. It is especially valuable to draft those guys this late because the season very well may not begin until June. This was something I said when my draftmates were debating passing on Hicks in the final round: “If the season starts in June and we don’t draft Hicks, he will be the top FAAB player when the season begins.” Maybe I am wrong, but I think if we are talking about a round-30 flier, those are the types of shots that are easily worth taking right now.

As for some pitchers who are not as hurt by inning limit or injury concerns, because again, it’s a lot easier to invest in a pitcher that will give you 100-120 innings in this climate: Mitch Keller, A.J. Puk, and Garrett Richards all went in round 16, Dylan Cease went in round 17, Michael Kopech went in round 18, Michael Pineda and Matt Shoemaker in round 22, Nathan Eovaldi in round 23, Freddy Peralta in round 25 with his battery mate Corbin Burnes in round 27, Sean Newcomb and Taijuan Walker in round 29, among others.

There were a lot of lessons learned from this draft, but I will continue to bang the table that selecting players whose ADP has not yet caught up to their new value is the best way to set your team up right now. We are drafting in the unknown and there is so much up in the air, that if you are giving me a talented player at a steep discount, I will gladly take it.

Here is our final roster from the draft:

What Other Draftees Thought

I reached out to the other draft participants I listed above to get their thoughts on the draft. Here is a little peek inside some of the best fantasy minds and what they think of the draft.

NFBC Hall of Famer Chris Vaccaro said on his draft:

“So going into the draft with the No. 1 pick and knowing I was taking Acuna, I was focused on what I was going to do at pick 30 and 31 and was convinced I would take two starting pitchers there because of the position I didn't want to put myself in come round 4 and 5 where I felt if it turned into a pitcher-friendly draft which it did that I would miss the tiers I wanted for an SP2. The only way I told myself I would divert from that plan was if Starling Marte fell to me at 30 overall and that's exactly what happened. With Speed hard to find later in drafts this year to put a combo of Acuna/Marte together was a nice luxury to build off of especially that you can find power throughout the rest of your draft. I'm a big Lucas Giolito guy and after wrapping him up as my ace I had to play the waiting game 30 picks until I got to pick 60 and luckily got Tyler Glasnow as the last pitcher I loved to be my SP2. I paired him with more speed/power combo in Bo Bichette.”

He continued on about how the unknown start date of the season impacted the draft for him.

“As for strategy in this draft and the doubt of when the season would begin I was more inclined to take shots on players at discount and was thrilled to get Stanton at 90 overall and also Griff Canning late as a huge discount as someone who hopefully is healthy when the season starts and the layoff helps.”

Adam Ronis, a very successful fantasy player and an analyst for Fantasy Alarm, said the potentially shortened season changed his strategy as well.

“I pushed up injured players but not aggressively as everyone else. Young pitchers with innings limits moved up significantly. Loved my offense and have a good base of pitching. A lot of teams butchered the second half of their drafts.”

But, not everyone took the same approach when it came to injured players. Joe Gallina of RotoBaller decided to still play it safe in this draft.

“The fact that the start of the season could still be a couple of months away didn’t change my strategy too much when it came to drafting injured players in the GST league. Guys like Giancarlo Stanton and James Paxton may be healthy come opening day, but we’re talking about two players who are already injury-prone and were never going to be on my radar anyway,” he said.

“Some look at Justin Verlander being drafted in the third round of the GST draft as a bargain but he’s another guy I will be avoiding this draft season. He’s 37 years old and already suffered a lat strain injury and faces a six-week recovery from right groin surgery. I’m already avoiding Astros players due to all of the negative energy and hostile crowds they’ll be subjected to. This could be the season that Verlander takes a major step back and wonders why he isn’t spending more time with Kate Upton,” Gallina said.

The strategy of pulling players up the board is not for the risk-averse. But I truly believe that in this unknown we are in, now is the time to be taking some calculated risks.

It is blatantly obvious that fantasy baseball drafts are going to be greatly impacted by both the delay to start the season and a potential shortened one. Draft boards will look very different before the start of the season than they do now. But for those of you who are still drafting, there is plenty of value to be had in injured players and pitchers on an innings limit!

Make sure to follow me on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio.

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