Roster Doctor: The Best Value Picks for the 2015 Fantasy Baseball Season

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Welcome to the fourth-annual Grantland Fantasy Baseball Preview! Once again, we’ll be focusing on the one and only factor that should matter in your draft or auction: value. Let everyone else in your league construct fancy schemes that punt on closers, ignore most starters to protect ratios, or treat power categories like they’re the only ones that matter. For you, value should be king.

To understand why, look no further than last season. It was supposed to be the year of Danny Salazar. His electric finish to 2013 launched a barrage of fawning columns, declaring him a monster breakout candidate and a potential linchpin for fantasy teams everywhere. That’s the problem with hype: The pre-draft talk around Salazar got so loud that he went for $15 or more in many expert auctions. While a twentysomething member of the Indians starting rotation armed with electric stuff, encouraging peripheral numbers, and a helping hand from skilled pitch-framer Yan Gomes did break out … it was surprise Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who cost just a few bucks or a late-round pick to draft, and not our man Mr. Salazar.

Last year was also supposed to be the year of Billy Hamilton. A force of nature after a late 2013 call-up, the Reds speedster swiped 13 bases in 13 games and sent expectations sky-high for his first full season as an everyday big league player. Hamilton did prove to be quite valuable, stealing 56 bases in 152 games, but he ended up going for nearly $30 (or required high draft picks to land) in multiple separate experts leagues. Meanwhile, Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon fared even better, scoring more runs, hitting for a much higher batting average, and stealing more bases than Hamilton, leading the majors with 64 swipes. Best of all, Gordon, who spent 2013 as a part-time player and didn’t secure a clear full-time job until right before Opening Day 2014, cost next to nothing.

Come this year’s draft, you shouldn’t get sucked into the bright and shiny Hamiltons and Salazars in the shop window. Ultimately, you’re just trying to score a little profit on every one of your picks … and hopefully land the kind of Kluber- and Gordon-level bargain that can win you a league. Already have three closers when another one falls to you $5 below your projected auction price or five rounds lower than expected in the draft? Grab him. Same goes for the exact scenario at any other position. If you end up overloaded in one category, you can always make trades.

For helpful hints on exactly how to snag value, check out our 20122013, and 2014 fantasy previews. In the meantime, here are five players I like a lot this year. Given the numbers they’re likely to produce, they all could be had for cheaper than they’re going to be worth over the course of the season.

The Burners

jose-peraza-slideStacy Revere/Getty Images

Anthony Gose, CF, Detroit Tigers
Jose Peraza, 2B, Atlanta Braves

During fantasy drafts every year, power gets overvalued and speed gets undervalued, the theory being that it’s easier to find cheap steals during the season than it is to find cheap power. To be fair, there’s a grain of truth to this: Other than the occasional Steve Pearce, who went from waiver wire pickup to 21-homer performer in 2014, finding 20-homer guys during the season generally doesn’t happen. But with more people likely to splurge for power during the draft, why not grab a Dee Gordon in the late rounds so you can focus your energy on scooping up the rare Pearce types during the season, knowing you’ve got the steals category more or less locked up? If you’re looking for the next Gordon, these are two of my favorite candidates for stolen-base breakouts this year.

The Tigers acquired Gose in an offseason trade and have him slated to be the bigger half of the center-field platoon, alongside fellow speed merchant Rajai Davis. Gose stole 70 bases in Double-A in 2011 and has swiped 34 more in 616 major league plate appearances, so the ability is certainly there. Along with his blazing speed, the 24-year-old also gives Detroit a pair of skills it’s been lacking: terrific defense (the Tigers ranked 28th in MLB last year in Defensive Runs Saved, per Baseball Info Solutions) and a left-handed bat (only two of the other eight projected starters either bat left or switch). It’s those secondary attributes that give Gose a good chance at earning the job full-time, despite a weak bat that’s netted a .234/.301/.332 career line in the majors. If Gose can pair the playable on-base rates he netted in the minors1 with a few more bunt and infield hits pegged to his speed, he could become a base-stealing terror.

Peraza is a bigger long shot for this season since he might have to wait a bit for a job. The Braves recently signed veteran Alberto Callaspo to fill the second-base job, and manager Fredi Gonzalez said in December that although the 20-year-old Peraza would be given a chance to make the club out of spring training, it still wasn’t likely. The upside, though, is immense: Peraza stole 64 bases in Single-A ball two years ago and a combined 60 bags (with a .339 batting average) across two levels last year. With Callaspo no more than a journeyman option, the Braves in full youth-movement mode, and Peraza possessing more skill than any other second baseman in the Atlanta system anywhere near the majors, a quick leap for a player with just 44 games at Double-A can’t be ruled out — whether it’s on Opening Day or soon afterward.

The Buy-Low Candidates

chris-davis-runningPatrick Smith/Getty Images

Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds
Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles

Even the most patient and disciplined fantasy players struggle with recency bias. When a player misses 100 games or hits a .196, a voice in the back of your head tells you to stay away, even if a longer track record of success suggests that last year was an aberration. Granted, sometimes that caution does pay off: Over the years, great sluggers like Dale Murphy, Tim Salmon, and others never recovered after experiencing sharp and sudden declines following extended runs of greatness. More often, though, star players can and do shake off those one-season setbacks, especially if they’re not too old.

For the 31-year-old Votto, last year’s knee and quad injuries have reportedly fully healed. While those who’ve argued that Votto can be too passive at the plate might have a point, let’s not ding the guy too much. If Votto plays in 150 or more games — as he did three times in four years from 2010 to 2013 — he’ll likely hit over .300, produce an OBP above .400, score a ton of runs, and drive in a bunch more. If you’re a bargain hunter, you should hope others in your league fixate on those injuries and the .255 batting average they caused last year. A major rebound could be coming.

Meanwhile, Davis is a bit of a trickier proposition since we can’t bank on him ever returning to the world-crushing, 53-homer pace he showed two years ago. Still, it’s not reasonable to expect another sub-Mendoza campaign, either. Before the roller-coaster ride that was the last two seasons, Davis could reasonably be expected to produce 30-plus homers with ungodly strikeout totals and a semi-respectable batting average. Given what players like Jhonny Peralta, Melky Cabrera, and former teammate Nelson Cruz did after PED suspensions, in addition to the fact that Davis will be just 29 on Opening Day, there’s no reason to discount him too heavily.

The Monster-in-Waiting

ken-giles-pitchRob Tringali/Getty Images

Ken Giles, RP, Philadelphia Phillies

In shallower leagues, there’s not much of a reason to roster relief pitchers who don’t rack up saves. But in deeper leagues, a pitcher with a strikeout rate pushing 40 percent, who allows less than a baserunner an inning, and who gives up one run a month can be immensely valuable — even without the siren’s song of 40 saves. Last year’s version of that pitcher was Dellin Betances, who punched out an incredible 135 batters in 90 innings, with a 1.40 ERA and nearly three times as many Ks as hits allowed. Even with just one save, he was a fantasy beast.

Ken Giles could be that player this year. In his debut season, he fired 45.2 innings, struck out 64 batters, issued just 10 unintentional walks, and allowed only 25 hits and one home run.2 The 24-year-old right-hander will open this year on the big league roster, giving him a chance to expand his innings count and threaten the kind of all-world numbers that Betances posted last year, with triple-digit strikeouts to complement his microscopic ratios.

What makes Giles even more enticing, though, is that the Phillies have basically been rumored to be shopping Jonathan Papelbon since the Truman administration.3 If they do move Papelbon, Giles becomes a potential fantasy superstar. His gaudy skill set would put him just below the unhittable duo of Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel in the closer power rankings.

The Rest of the High-Value Brigade

Beyond those five guys, there are a number of other strong bets to score you a profit. They include a combination of young guns poised for breakouts, more players like Votto and Davis who could have bounce-back years, and guys whose fantasy stats might finally start to catch up to their promising peripheral numbers. Go get these players and the value gods will smile upon you.

SP: Tampa Bay Rays — Alex Cobb (the year he finally tops 200 innings could also be the year he wins the Cy Young), Drew Smyly (I LOVE Smyly), Jake Odorizzi (basically, go get any Rays starter); Cleveland Indians — Danny Salazar (again!), Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer (basically, go get any Indians starter); Toronto Blue Jays — Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison; Milwaukee Brewers — Mike Fiers (pedestrian velocity, but big strikeouts); Chicago Cubs — Kyle Hendricks

C: Cincinnati Reds — Devin Mesoraco (broke out last year, but there’s more growth to come, especially hitting behind a hopefully healthy Votto)

1B: Los Angeles Angels — Albert Pujols (he’s not the Pujols of old, but he’s falling too far on draft boards), C.J. Cron (nice power threat, but given the possibility of more playing time due to Josh Hamilton’s potential suspension, others might get hip to Cron’s scent)

2B: San Diego Padres — Jedd Gyorko (big rebound coming); St. Louis Cardinals — Kolten Wong (your league-mates might already be on to him); Cleveland Indians — Jason Kipnis (buy low)

SS: Los Angeles Dodgers — Jimmy Rollins (nobody likes old guys, but he’s still productive and could score a ton of runs at the top of the Dodgers lineup); Boston Red Sox — Xander Bogaerts (post-hype sleeper)

3B: Colorado Rockies — Nolan Arenado; Oaklands A’s — Brett Lawrie (he’ll stay healthy one of these years); Houston Astros — Luis Valbuena (he’s always undervalued)

OF: Miami Marlins — Marcell Ozuna (read this), Christian Yelich; Chicago White Sox — Adam Eaton (160 games played could net 110 runs scored in an improved lineup); Boston Red Sox — Mookie Betts (potential OBP machine); Arizona Diamondbacks — Yasmany Tomas (check his position eligibility: He becomes more valuable once he qualifies at 3B); Baltimore Orioles — Travis Snider (a hunch bet on his age-27 season, especially given Dan Duquette’s track record of finding undervalued, younger players right before they pop)

RP: Houston Astros — Chad Qualls (the Astros are the kind of team that might save their best reliever — Luke Gregerson — for higher-leverage, non-save chances); San Diego Padres — Kevin Quackenbush

The Roster Doctor will be back throughout the season with tips, pickup suggestions, and more. Until then, good luck!


The League of Leagues

clayton-kershaw-stanceKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What’s the craziest fantasy league you’ve ever entered? Whatever your best example might be, I’ve got you beat. To prove it, I’m going to paste the results from the first round of our 14-team league below.

1. Mike Trout
2. Anthony Davis
3. Kevin Durant
4. Stephen Curry
5. Andrew McCutchen
6. Clayton Kershaw
7. Le’Veon Bell
8. LeBron James
9. James Harden
10. Russell Westbrook
11. Giancarlo Stanton
12. John Wall
13. DeMarcus Cousins
14. Antonio Brown

Welcome to the League of Leagues, the most exciting, vexing, nerve-wracking, outrageously fun fantasy league ever conceived.4 As you’ve probably guessed by eyeballing the names above, it’s a 14-team competition in which each owner must draft complete rosters for fantasy baseball, basketball, and football. The roster sizes are about the same as your standard league: 23-man starting lineup for MLB, 10-man starting lineup for NBA, nine-man starting lineup for NFL, plus some decently sized benches.

This is a two-season league, allowing mini-keeper opportunities within the same sport, but also all kinds of strategy between sports. The scoring is nearly identical to regular fantasy leagues: 5×5 roto for MLB (with OBP instead of batting average), eight-category roto for NBA, and head-to-head for NFL. So if you finish first in a given league, you get 14 points, 13 for second, 12 for third, all the way down to one for last. Add up the finishes in all six, and the highest cumulative point total wins.

Baseball players are your most secure commodities: Who the hell knows all the crazy things that might happen between now and opening kickoff of the 2015 NFL season in September, or opening tip for the NBA season a few weeks later? On the other hand, assets depreciate over time. So if you own Andrew McCutchen, it’s July 2016, and you’re sitting in seventh place in MLB without much room to rise or fall in the standings, you’re highly incentivized to try to flip him for Andrew Luck or Kyle Lowry.5

As you’ll notice above, Trout, the consensus best baseball player on the board and a blue-chip pick that even the biggest wise-asses in the room couldn’t really mock, went first, but then numbers two, three, and four were all NBA players — as were five of the six players taken between spots eight and 13. In fact, 14 of the first 25 players were NBA guys. With fewer basketball players than football, and less than half as many basketball as baseball, a dominant NBA pick will have a greater impact on overall scoring than will a lights-out MLB pick.

Some other trends:

• Of the top 20 combined running backs and wide receivers, 13 were wideouts. Chalk it up to a pass-happy NFL, rosters including three starting WRs, just two RBs, and one flex spot, and the appalling unreliability of even elite running backs from year to year.

• In this, the era of peak Bob Gibson impressions, most of us figured good pitching would be plentiful even later in the draft, and thus decided to wait for quality starters. Only one pitcher went in the first three rounds, and that was no. 6 overall Clayton Kershaw, who’s crafting one of the most historic runs by any pitcher ever. Just five starters went in the first seven rounds.

• My own strategy was the same one I deploy for any traditional fantasy baseball league: try not to give a crap. I did have a vague plan to take NBA guys high up and snagged two with my first two picks: Wall and Damian Lillard. I also planned to wait as long as possible on NFL players for two reasons: (1) They’re injury-prone and unpredictable, and (2) while we were allowed to draft MLB minor leaguers, we’re saving all football and basketball players who haven’t yet played in the pros for one August supplemental draft per year, meaning that Amari Cooper and Todd Gurley can be had a few months from now. Still, when relatively reliable running backs Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch — eight figures a year can buy lots of Skittles; I doubt he retires anytime soon — became available in rounds six and seven, I had to pull the trigger.

• I set an audio recorder on the table for much of the 12-hour draft and just let it record. We mocked multiple picks, most notably Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the eighth round, Red Sox wunderkind Mookie Betts in the 10th, and Kobe Bryant in the 27th. We pulled together a bunch of other audio highlights and interviews from the draft for a mini–League of Leagues podcast:

For more info, check out the League of Leagues website, which contains rules, a full list of the 55-round draft, and a place to sign up to beta-test a multi-sport fantasy game for yourself.6 You can also follow the league happenings — standings, trades, inevitable divorce proceedings — at the League of Leagues Twitter account: @LgofLeagues.

Until then, we wait. Cards-Cubs, Sunday, April 5. That’s when the madness begins.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Preview, MLB, Danny Salazar, Billy Hamilton, Anthony Gose, Detroit Tigers, Jose Peraza, Atlanta Braves, Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds, Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles, Ken Giles, Philadelphia Phillies, Fantasy Baseball, Cleveland Indians, Corey Kluber, Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers, Jonah Keri, MLB Preview, Fantasy Baseball Preview, Fantasy Sports

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri