By now, we're all aware of how awesome Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton was last season, winning the American League batting title and providing top-notch power for five months. Hamilton ended up as fantasy's No. 6 option on the Player Rater, and while he's not quite that coveted this time around, I can unequivocally say as terrific as he is, he's not safe. Some of you in the early rounds of any draft are looking squarely at safe. Hamilton isn't it.
Conservative drafters like myself will tell you players like Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman are safe because we have a better idea of the range of statistical possibilities, and there's little downside. Perhaps Zimmerman is a bit devoid of the major upside some seek out in early-round picks, but will he have a season like Hamilton delivered in 2009? I doubt it. Zimmerman hit 33 home runs and knocked in 106 runs in 2009, and was on pace for similar production last season before a late-season injury cost him games. He's 26 years old, still awaiting his power prime. I don't think he'll ever hit .359 or approach 40 home runs, but I feel pretty good about him as a safe starting third baseman, and third-round pick.
There's an old saying in fantasy sports that you cannot win your league in the early rounds, but you certainly can lose it. I like Hamilton. I enjoyed his numbers on more than one fantasy team. At the same time, I readily admit there's far too much risk there to use one of my first three or four draft picks on a player with such a checkered injury history and inconsistent production. One might think there's little comparison between him and, for example, Zimmerman, but look who is being drafted only four spots later in ESPN drafts. It's Zimmerman.
Here are five other players I'd call safe early picks. Pardon me for ignoring some of the obvious first-rounders like Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun, but I'll focus on players below in the range of Rounds 2 through 7. Being safe with early draft picks isn't such a negative thing at all, not if you know what you're getting.
Matt Holliday, OF, St. Louis Cardinals: Consistency matters in fantasy, and Holliday certainly delivers in that regard. Some fantasy owners will pass him by because he's no longer taking advantage of Coors Field as his home park, but Holliday is fitting in just fine as a Cardinal. He's durable and his two-year averages post-Colorado are a .313 batting average, 26 home runs, 106 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. I feel confident he'll deliver similar numbers in 2011 with little risk, which is why he's being selected two spots before Hamilton in ESPN leagues.
Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers: We all know about Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum, studs all, but Verlander and CC Sabathia are the only pitchers with 17 or more wins in four of the past five seasons. While Sabathia is the No. 6 starting pitcher in ESPN live drafts, Verlander is available two rounds later in many leagues, despite posting similar numbers in wins, ERA and WHIP the past two seasons, with considerably more strikeouts. Verlander might never win a Cy Young award -- the closest he's come is a third-place finish in 2009 -- but consider how similar his numbers are to those that do win, and how many rounds later he's available.
Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Seattle Mariners: Yes sir, this fellow is no spring chicken. Then again, of the 19 players who stole 32 or more bases in 2010, Ichiro and Carl Crawford were the only ones who hit .301 or better. Now 37, Suzuki might not hit .352 again -- though he did in 2009 -- and he's unlikely to steal as many bases as Crawford, but I seriously doubt he hits the proverbial wall all of a sudden. He's led the AL in hits five consecutive seasons. Frankly, for the safe Suzuki to fall to Round 5 this season is terrific value.
Brian McCann, C, Atlanta Braves: I admit to being concerned, in a general way, about the pool of top 10 catchers for this season, and it's why I'll likely wait on this position in most drafts. I mean, Joe Mauer has concerns with the loss of power and potential knee woes, Victor Martinez has missed significant time two of the past three seasons and I think people are getting a bit too excited about sophomore Buster Posey. What concern is there with McCann? He's never hit 25 home runs nor knocked in 100 runs, but no catcher has more of either statistic during the past five seasons. His career batting average is .289. He doesn't have to be a draft value to be safe, so if you're not confident about other big names, choose him.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Cincinnati Reds: Now here's a draft value. Phillips hasn't really gotten all that close to 30/30 since 2007, but he's averaged 21 home runs and 22 stolen bases in the three seasons since. Fantasy owners shouldn't compare him to his old self, but enjoy this safe version, still possessing ample power and speed to be a top-50 player. I'm surprised he's still out there in the sixth round of many drafts.