Even in a shortened season in which starting pitching workloads are in question during the opening weeks, it seems the position still warrants a draft-day premium. At least, that's what the results of our head-to-head "each category" mock draft, held on Thursday, indicated.
Consensus No. 1 starting pitcher Gerrit Cole went third overall, ahead of Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts. A pair of starters went in the first round, and six of the first 19 picks overall were starting pitchers. Furthermore, 11 of the first 35 selections were starters, including Shane Bieber (31st overall) and Patrick Corbin (35th), as well as 14 of the first 47, adding Zack Greinke (44th), Blake Snell (45th) and Charlie Morton (47th). And in an unusual strategy for the format, AJ Mass selected starting pitchers back-to-back to open his draft, following up Cole with second-rounder Walker Buehler.
Compare that to my own rankings for the format, in which Cole is fifth, five starting pitchers are in the top 20, eight are within the top 35 and 12 are within the top 50 overall. Starting pitchers have also gone later on average in the NFBC (National Fantasy Baseball Championship) drafts that have taken place since the league announced its 2020 plans on June 23 than they did in our mock draft -- and bear in mind that the NFBC is typically more aggressive at drafting the position than we advise for this particular ESPN format.
Perhaps this ties in with my own suggested strategy for approaching starting pitchers in head-to-head "each category" drafts, as well as in traditional rotisserie drafts. With teams more likely to piece together their pitching staffs at the back end, the aces might well warrant more of a premium than they might have had it been a typical season. It's the mid-tier starters, not the aces, who should be faded in fantasy, and our results supported that, as only six of the next 47 selections -- that's picks 48-94 overall -- were starting pitchers. Note that the top six ranked relief pitchers also were selected within that range.
My strategy for this mock specifically followed that path, as I selected Jacob deGrom ninth overall before waiting another 123 selections to dip back into the starting pitching pool. The Mets ace is a strong anchor for a fantasy staff, and the options available in the later rounds were plenty palatable. Frankie Montas, Kenta Maeda and Joe Musgrove, a trio of arms capable of top-25 seasons at the position, wound up as my Nos. 2, 3 and 4 starters in the mock. As long as you can find profitable pitchers in the middle rounds, it's well worth following that strategy of taking your ace and then waiting. Remember, you can always fill some of the gaps using the streaming strategy.
As we've seen in each of our mocks this past week, players with availability questions, whether due to COVID-19 or otherwise, wound up slipping in the draft in this format. Trout, who went third overall in the traditional roto and ninth in the head-to-head points mocks, lasted until sixth here, going behind both Betts (fourth) and Bellinger (fifth).
Chatter within the mock continued to support the group belief that Trout will miss a minimum of a week's time after his wife gives birth to their first child in the next month or so, but I maintain that I'd prefer any player who provides me the maximum per-game fantasy performance in a shortened season. That's still the reason for my Trout ranking of first overall. I want ceilings, and I'll fill the gaps around anyone's prospective absences off the free-agent list, at least in daily transaction leagues.
Freddie Freeman, on the 10-day injured list as he recovers from COVID-19, went 27th overall. Zack Wheeler, who, like Trout, has a child on the way and could miss some time (if he doesn't choose to sit out entirely) went 133rd overall. Teammate Hector Neris, who was placed on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons, slipped to 149th overall. Aaron Judge, who has spent most of 2020 recovering from a rib injury but is now expected to be ready around Opening Day, lasted until 59th overall after having been a top-50 pick overall in February/March.
Fading bad batting average
There was an apparent huge discount on middle-round batting average drains/all-or-nothing types. It's an understandable strategy in a roto-based league but one that seemed to be taken to the extreme in this mock. Kyle Schwarber (88th overall selection), Jorge Soler (91st), Rhys Hoskins (119th), Khris Davis (155th) and Joc Pederson (167th) were all players who went at least 10 spots later than the indicated rankings for this format. Those who built up a strong batting average base in the early rounds could have scooped up any of them at a discount and been better able to absorb a potential sub-.260 number in the category.
However, it was two youngsters who seemed to go awfully late. Eloy Jimenez (67th overall) went 22 spots behind his ranking number and more than 10 spots behind his NFBC ADP, while Cavan Biggio (197th) went 64 spots beneath his ranking -- and an even larger margin when compared to the NFBC. Both players ranked among the biggest bargains in the draft, although contrasting this draft to other mocks, these were probably just outliers.
Here come the kids
Rookies have had a greater impact in fantasy baseball in recent years than in the more distant past, and in this shortened season with limited available player pools, the temptation to chase prospects is ever greater. Teams might be more apt to promote their top prospects in a sprint to the 2020 playoffs, and in this particular mock, a few teams took the plunge on multiple such youngsters.
Eric Karabell spent the 190th overall pick (19th rounder) on flamethrowing Toronto Blue Jays prospect Nate Pearson, bookending him with San Diego Padres lefty MacKenzie Gore with pick No. 191. On the hitting side, he added Dylan Carlson in the 23rd round (pick 230).
AJ Mass spent three of his final six picks on prospects with no major league experience to date: Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays, the top prospect in baseball, with pick No. 198; power-hitting Los Angeles Angels outfielder Jo Adell with pick No. 238; and Detroit Tigers right-hander Casey Mize with pick No. 243.
Especially with 13 days remaining before Opening Day, meaning some roles have yet to crystallize, it makes quite a bit of sense to spend your final-round picks -- in any format -- on high-ceiling players, knowing that there might be a larger pool of free-agent pickups during the regular season's opening days. Taking a player who might not even be on the Opening Day roster gives you a chance at striking gold -- think of Fernando Tatis Jr. at the onset of 2019 -- but it also causes you to be less attached to the player if he doesn't make the cut. Remember, you'll need players to shed in order to make free-agent pickups in the early weeks, and the worst-case scenario with these examples is that you simply replace them come July 24 if they don't make the team