Shallowest Positions for 2014 & Draft Strategy
I'll be covering the topic of position scarcity today, but more importantly I'll discussing at some length how to handle position scarcity with your draft day strategy. The concept of depth is easy to deal with: if there are five good players, then you don't need to be in a rush to take the first one. It's intuitive that depth allows a fantasy GM the luxury of waiting on a position. Scarcity, on the other hand, is more difficult to deal with conceptually. We all know that the market for starting catchers in fantasy baseball is scarce, but the relevant question is whether that scarcity justifies where the top catchers are going in drafts? Should you take Buster Posey in the fourth round because the market drops off so precipitously after the second or third catcher leaves the board? Should you take Robinson Cano in the back end of the first because of the position he plays? Those are the questions that I'll be addressing in this article, but first let's identify which positions I'd define as particularly weak this season.
I really doubt anyone's terribly surprised by this statement, but it has to be included: there's no position in Major League Baseball with fewer fantasy-relevant options than catcher. Part of this stems from the fact that catcher is one of the few positions in baseball where teams are willing to almost altogether punt offense in favor of defense. Some of the latest research on pitch framing and catcher defense suggests that two of the best defensive catchers in the game are Chris Stewart and Jose Molina. This partly explains how those two players got so many at bats last season, even in spite of their paltry offensive offerings. Since fantasy baseball doesn't reward defensive aptitude, these skills do owners little good.
By far the biggest factor that creates such a gulf between the two or three top catchers in the game and everyone else, though, is playing time. There's no defensive position in baseball more demanding on the body than catching, and so it's no surprise that major league catchers get more rest days than other position players. This has huge implications for standard leagues, in which four of the five relevant categories are counting stats. Buster Posey got almost 70 more at bats than Salvador Perez last season, and 129 more at-bats than Wilin Rosario. There's a lot of value in those plate appearances, and that value is what helps to widen the gulf between a healthy, reliable, everyday catcher like Posey and his contemporaries. For me, the top-tier of catchers is made up of Posey, Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer. After those three, there's a fairly significant drop-off to the next tier of players, which only widens as you get deeper in the draft and start giving a player like Matt Wieters or Jason Castro a serious look.
Another historically weak position, fantasy owners are accustomed by now to thinking of the 2B market in terms of scarcity. After Robinson Cano, Jason Kipnis and Dustin Pedroia, I love the upside of Matt Carpenter, but things start to look pretty grim quickly after him. Ian Kinsler is in the midst of a three-year decline, Brandon Phillips is probably the biggest regression candidate of the season in my opinion, Ben Zobrist looks to be on the downward arc of his career, and injury issues plague Chase Utley and Aaron Hill every season. That's serious concerns surrounding half of the 2B market for standard leagues right there. There are some young guys on the way, and I'm expecting fairly big things from the careers of Jedd Gyorko, Jurickson Profar and Anthony Rendon, not to mention that Brian Dozier is a big sleeper among many analysts. But for the 2014 draft, these players are much better suited to a middle infield or utility role rather than the starting 2B job on your fantasy team. There are good things coming, but this year the market is still weak.
Historically a deep position in fantasy circles, the 3B market is no longer what it used to be. Past the big four of Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria (who himself is surrounded by serious health questions every season) and David Wright, the market starts to drop off in talent immediately. I love Pedro Alvarez (as anyone who reads my work knows), but it's hard to argue that there isn't an enormous difference in expected production between guys the first tier and guys like Alvarez, Kyle Seager and Ryan Zimmerman. There's more upside in these guys than you'll find in the 2B market, but the floors are also lower, and you've got to account for that on draft day. I own Pedro Alvarez in a few different leagues, but if he decides to hit .215 the first two months of the season, that'll be a deep hole to dig out of.
The Big Question: How to Respond?
How should position scarcity affect your approach on draft day? More specifically: should you go after players at scarce positions earlier in your draft? My answer is yes and no. I do let position scarcity affect the kind of players I target in each round, at least in the sense that I'm much more likely to take Jason Kipnis than Yu Darvish in the second, because I know the pitcher that I'll be able to take later in the draft will be much closer to Darvish than a late-round 2B will be to Kipnis. Position scarcity is not, however, a justification for a fantasy owner overdrafting a player. The way to draft well to maximize value. That should be your overriding approach at the draft board, more than any other factor: find value players. For example, the fact that I think pitching is deep would never deter me from taking Clayton Kershaw in the mid-second round if by some miracle he fell to me there. Likewise, I wouldn't touch David Wright in the second round, because I don't expect him to deliver second-round value this season.
This is a big reason why, even though the position is very weak, I never touch the top three catchers in drafts. Posey in the fourth round just isn't a value. Instead, he's a burden on your team. If you look at the expected production of the players going around him in the fourth, you could have had Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman or Ian Kinsler instead. It's easy to get bogged down so much in the weakness of a single position that you forget that what wins your fantasy league is the strength of your overall team, not just your relative strength at one position.
Thus, I highly suggest following this kind of approach on draft day. Factor position scarcity into your rankings, by all means (as I said earlier, Robinson Cano wouldn't be going in the back of the first round without it). Just make sure that when you draft a player in the fourth round, you expect him to deliver similarly or better than what else is available to you at that pick. If you keep this rule in mind, you'll do well on draft day more often than not. It's certainly served me well.