As a Philadelphia Phillies fan, I'll spend far too much time, if there is such a thing, watching the Phils play baseball this season. But when it comes to selecting a few of their players in fantasy drafts, let's just say I'll be turning away from some of their signature names, led by middle infielders Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Of course, at some point in a typical draft, I would love to select these guys, and of course I'll be rooting for them, but based on where they are going in current drafts, I can't make that commitment.
We call this annual blog my "Do Not Draft" list, but that's not entirely accurate. For instance, as it stands now, I would take Utley in Round 5 or 6. Alas, that's unlikely to be presented as an option for me, as someone in every league will be either unaware Utley is dealing with a painful knee problem, think he'll be back in the lineup any minute or just want to tempt fate. Utley, like most of the Phillies hitters, is on the wrong side of 30 years old, and I can't tell you for sure when he will actually play next in a major league game. He hasn't played in a spring game yet, which certainly is not a good sign. There's no chance I'll make Utley a top-20 pick, which is where he is currently being selected in ESPN average live drafts, without knowing for sure how long he will be on the sidelines, and whether this knee problem could linger all season.
I strive to minimize risk in the early rounds of a fantasy baseball draft. Under normal circumstances, I would choose Utley over, for example, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, though both are similarly productive. But with so much risk involved with Utley, I'd go ahead and put my focus a round or three later on Phillips, who is relatively safe and productive, one of the most underrated fantasy options around. Utley, as well as double-play partner Rollins, certainly appears to be in decline, and it seems to me they are living off name recognition for fantasy owners desperate to relive the past. I'm getting close to adding Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard to this crew, but hey, at least he's healthy right now. There's ample hope he can return to his past monster numbers.
Rollins is playing this spring, but he wasn't a picture of health -- or production -- last season. And in 2009, he batted just .250. He's declining, and if his poor spring continues, he might find himself replaced in the leadoff spot by Shane Victorino and dropped to sixth or seventh in the order. Now 32 and likely to try a bit too hard in his contract year -- yes, contract years can be a disadvantage as well -- Rollins is not someone I'm buying as a safe seventh-round pick. I'll wait a few rounds later and snag Alexei Ramirez or Stephen Drew. As you might have guessed, I keep my affinity for strong fantasy options separate from personal rooting interests.
Anyway, don't view the guys I'm not likely to draft (below) as bad players. I just won't be drafting them anywhere near the spot they're likely to go.
Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers: Look at the volatility in his production over the past three seasons. I don't know if he'll be an MVP candidate or miss half the season and struggle to make contact, as was the case in 2009. Trust me, nobody knows, including Hamilton. Round 2 is way too early to take that risk.
Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins: A terrific catcher and a really nice guy -- I interviewed him for the Baseball Today podcast recently -- but I can't justify a third-round pick on a player who might not reach double digits in either home runs or stolen bases, even if he might win a batting title from a scarce position. And by the way, in standard one-active-catcher leagues, catcher is not weak. I snagged useful Kurt Suzuki with the last pick of Tuesday's mock draft. Instead, I'll use my third-rounder on someone like Matt Kemp or Dustin Pedroia.
Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox: I have nothing against players who steal a ton of bases, and Ellsbury could very well lead the big leagues in this category. But I still view the difference between Ellsbury and other one-trick steals ponies as slight, not enough to choose Ellsbury in the sixth round. Michael Bourn isn't as good, but I can get him five rounds later. If I miss him, there's Juan Pierre, Brett Gardner, Rajai Davis and plenty of others who perform similarly statistically. And none of them missed most of 2010, as Ellsbury did.
Mariano Rivera, RP, New York Yankees: Really, you can insert the names of Brian Wilson, Heath Bell and any other renowned top-10 closer in this spot. For years I would draft Todd Jones and compete just fine in saves and peripheral pitching categories. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever owned Rivera. I see owners choose their closers in the eighth round and still win leagues, but I'm content taking Francisco Cordero and Ryan Franklin types 10 rounds later and building a better offense.
Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Tampa Bay Rays: The versatility is nice, but if it comes with that anchor of a batting average (.238 last season) and only moderate power, it's not worth it in the top 100. I don't completely trust the health of Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, but I can justify waiting for him five rounds later.