It's that time of year. The end of football season is, mercifully, approaching. Spring Training is just a few weeks away. And seamheads like me (and, by virtue of the fact you're reading a baseball blog in January, probably you) have a stack of mostly meaningless season previews accumulating in their bathroom. If you play in a deep, competitive league, your fantasy baseball preparations begin now. Don't go crazy. Don't burn yourself out on statistical analysis before pitchers and catchers even report. The projected lineups in those season previews mean nearly nothing (sadly, the same goes for the ones attached to my very own Offseason Prospectuses), because a lot can change between now and Opening Day.
That said, the previews, if nothing else, provide a survey of the field. When your draft or auction comes around six or eight weeks from now, a significant cross-section of your competition will probably be basing their strategies on what they've read in the magazines or on the mainstream websites. As a result, there's going to be active bidding on rookies Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward, just as there was last season on David Price and Matt Wieters. Many of the players the mags list as "sleepers" will no longer be sleepers come April (Everth Cabrera and Julio Borbon, for instance, seem to be getting a lot of early press, justifiably). Don't overvalue the opinions expressed therein. Keep in mind, nobody was talking about Chris Coghlan or Andrew Bailey last winter.
In the weeks ahead I will provide some "fantastic" analysis, provide insight, and answer questions regarding fantasy draft/auction strategy. But today, rather than talk too much about specific players, I'd like to propose a few general rules I keep in mind when I'm reading the ecstatic preseason commentaries.
Recycle, Recycle, Recycle
Last season many people paid more for David Price than for Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, or Zack Greinke. Oops. This year many of the same people will exacerbate that mistake by passing on Price in favor of Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, and Neftali Feliz.
The most common mistake that fantasy owners (and, for that matter, real owners) make is putting too much faith in one season. If you believed in Price, Wieters, and Travis Snider going into last year, you shouldn't err in the other direction just because they may not have lived up to your (probably unrealistic) expectations.
Love sophomores! Go back to last year's previews. Who were the hot prospects and the much-ballyhooed sleepers? If things didn't go down as predicted, is there any reason to believe that prediction may just have come a year or two early? Sometimes teams rush their top prospects. Very few players hit the ground running and the ones that do - Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, etc. - often arrive without much ado.
Defense matters, now more than ever.
Don't delude yourself. The trend towards defense that was among the most interesting stories of this offseason will have an effect on fantasy, even though we don't "count" defensive stats (it's only a matter of time before such a league exists, and I'll be one of the first to join). Positionless, lead-footed, iron-gloved players like Jack Cust, Adam Dunn, and Chris Duncan are becoming a thing of the past, at least in the National League. Obviously, that's a bit of an exaggeration. A guy like Dunn will continue to play, because he's a lock for 35-40 HR, but it's likely just a matter of time before he becomes a DH.
This rule is much more important for prospects. The Cardinals traded Brett Wallace to the AL last July and then Oakland traded him to Toronto, in part because he hasn't proven his ability to hold down third base. For much the same reason, the Cubs traded away Jake Fox for next to nothing this winter. Young sluggers from NL organizations may have a hard time breaking in if they can't contribute on both sides of the ball. Even in the AL, guys like Max Ramirez have had their careers put on hole because organizations are reluctant to insert a rookie at DH, a position generally reserved for household names. Jim Thome sells tickets. David Ortiz sells tickets. Vladimir Guerrero sells tickets. Max Ramirez does not.
Inversely, a guy who plays excellent defense is going to be given a long leash, even if he struggles at the plate. Elvis Andrus started 140 games last season, even though he had a tough time keeping his OPS above 700, because he was arguably the best shortstop in the American League. Tony LaRussa stuck with Colby Rasmus, despite his inconsistency at the plate, because he proved himself to be the Cardinal's best centerfielder. Jim Leyland is already talking about how impressed he is with Austin Jackson's range. He has a much better chance of surviving a slow start than Wallace or Chris Davis.
There are only twenty games in April.
Well, it's actually more like 22 or 23. My point is, no more than 15% of the fantasy season happens during the month that generally causes fantasy owners 90% of their anxiety. Many owners will give up on their teams before the end of May. Patience, as a rule, will pay off. If you dropped David Ortiz when he had only 1 HR in the first eight weeks, than you missed out on the 27 he hit over the next four months.
Another aspect of preaching patience is not putting too much stock in preseason injuries, especially to premier players, unless that injury is definitely going to cost them half the season or more. Last season, Joe Mauer dropped into the middle rounds of most drafts because he was scheduled to miss the first month rehabbing his back. Those of you who went with Ramon Hernandez or Geovany Soto rather than the 2009 MVP probably started feeling pretty foolish around the middle of May. Don't make the same mistake this season with Carlos Beltran. His controversial offseason surgery will scare away many owners, but four and a half months of Beltran is quite a bit better than six months of Marlon Byrd. If he's still on the board by the fifth or sixth round, grab him.
This rule goes double for keeper leagues. If you have the chance at a guy like Beltran, Jose Reyes, or Johan Santana, you take it, no matter the risk, because even if they miss the entire season, they can be part of the core of your team for years to come.
There's nothing boring about consistency.
Fantasy pundits are prone to endorsing the "high-risk, high-reward" strategy. And, to a certain extent, they are right. In order to win your league, you will likely need at least half a dozen players to perform above and beyond your baseline expectations. However, many people push this strategy too far. If you draft only "high-risk" players, there is a high likelihood you will get six to ten pleasant surprises, but you'll probably also have six to ten players on the DL, riding the pine, or back in the minor leagues.
Try to get excited about Ted Lilly, Mark Beuhrle, and Bronson Arroyo in March, especially in points-based leagues, because you will definitely be enjoying 200 innings and double-digit wins in September. Similarly, remember that in addition to that 30 HR, 100 RBI stud, you are going to need at least a couple outfielders who're good for 20 HR and 80 RBI. Jermaine Dye, J. D. Drew, and Hideki Matsui don't get a lot of love on Sportscenter, but they reach those plateaus year after year after year.