In the fantasy baseball world, I’m pretty much an old dog. I think I started playing in the 1992 season and the game was pretty much the way it had started; 10-to-12 team NL or AL-only leagues. I think we had moved on to 5X5 as opposed to the original 4X4 categories. To be honest I still enjoy these formats most. As the internet came around things shifted more toward the masses and 12-team mixed leagues became the norm. I’ll play that format, but I do not enjoy it as much. What I have loved over the last five years or so is the growing trend toward 15-team leagues.
While 15-team leagues don’t go as deep as my AL and NL-Only leagues, they do start forcing tough decisions during drafts. For me, it’s those tough decisions that make the game of fantasy just as much about us as it is the MLB players we draft. You wouldn’t think the additional three teams over a 12-team league would make that much difference, but those three extra players every round really change things in a draft.
I’ve just finished three separate 15-team drafts and while they are fresh in my mind, I wanted to hit on what I believe to be the keys to a successful 15-team draft. Those three drafts were the Tout Wars Draft and Hold, the Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational (Team 13), and a private league that may or may not have some pretty big green on the line. You can see the teams I ended up with by clicking on any of those links. I only mention these leagues because they are very serious leagues with either money or reputation on the line. The findings ahead are based on real-life results without the flaky results of a mock draft.
The time is now! It’s time to start thinking fantasy baseball. Leagues are already forming at Fantrax.com, so head on over and start or join a league today.
7 Key Ingredients to a Winning 15-Team Draft
With those three drafts in the rearview, I can now share the keys to a successful draft. Many experts would be touting how great they and to do exactly as they have done. My message is more about learning from my mistakes. I built some very good teams and I certainly have a chance to win in each of these leagues. But in each league, I fell short in at least one of the areas I’m going to mention in the coming paragraphs. If you can succeed where I failed, you’re going to do very well in any 15-team league.
1. One and a half to two fresh ripe elite starting pitchers
My pitching strategy for 2019 hinges on being able to get a pair of elite or near-elite starting pitchers. This can be harder than you think in a 15-team league. There seems to be a pretty clear line where the truly elite starters end. Carlos Carrasco seems to be the pitcher many people agree on as the last in line, but I’m willing to put Noah Syndergaard in that same area. In my three recent drafts, Carrasco went with picks 35, 30, and 38, while Syndergaard went at 31, 35, 40.
If you’re doing the math, that means in a 15-team league, if you get slotted anywhere after No. 10, you will get locked out of the elite pitching if you don’t use one of your first two picks on it. And the way things are trending, you might not get Scherzer, Sale, or deGrom if you don’t use your first pick.
I’ve been relatively successful in this area. In Tout Wars I paired deGrom and David Price, who was better in 2018 than many people realize, but still toward the bottom of the second tier of starting pitchers. In the TGFBI, I was able to partner Verlander with James Paxton. This is probably my most volatile pairing. And in my big money league,
I had the fifth pick so I waited until round three to grab Syndergaard and then followed up with Jack Flaherty, who I believe is ready to take off in 2019.
A matchup I would love to try would be Verlander and Syndergaard. There’s definitely risk involved between age and injury, but the upside in that pair has me drooling.
Justin Verlander, 36, plans to pitch into his mid-40s https://t.co/HbY4lLNz9f
— MLive Sports (@MLiveSports) March 7, 2019
2. A solid base of equal parts power and speed
So I’m already using two of my first four or five picks on elite arms, now I’m supposed to find some multi-category studs to build my offense around? Again, easy to say, hard to do. Regardless, I am a firm believer that to have the best draft possible, you have to draft a good amount of stolen bases early, but you can’t completely sacrifice power. This early balance allows you the freedom to take the best values later in the draft without being forced to chase categories.
In the early rounds, I’ve been able to snag Trea Turner, Jose Altuve, Trevor Story, Whit Merrifield, and Starling Marte. They definitely lean more to the speed side, but all of them still have at least 20-HR potential.
Later on in drafts, I’ve been filling in with plenty of Tommy Pham, Wil Myers, A.J. Pollock, and Byron Buxton. I also seem to be higher on Chris Taylor than most. He didn’t run as much last year, but he’s still got easy 15/15 potential.
I did well in Tout Wars with Story, Merrifield, and Marte in rounds two, three, and four. My private league also went well as I grabbed Turner and Merrifield with my first two picks and then added Myers, Buxton, and Taylor later on. It’s in the GFBI where I failed here. I started off with Altuve, but was only able to add Pham, Pollock, and Taylor as additional SB threats. I did add Kevin Kiermaeir late in the draft. Maybe he can stay healthy and chip in 20-plus steals.
I believe in Whit Merrifield, and I think you should, too. Here's why: https://t.co/IXNGvFuIMw
— Scott White (@CBSScottWhite) February 16, 2018
3. Two and a half to three reliable closers
It is in this area that I have failed most. Every draft I tell myself to focus on it more closely and every draft I get caught off guard. The problem is in 15-team leagues, the runs are extreme and if you draw a slot toward the end as I did in both Tout and TGFBI, it’s very easy to get locked out.
The last two semi-reliable closers with seemingly established roles are Cody Allen and Ken Giles. Yeah, I’m not their biggest fans either, but it is what it is. In my drafts, Allen went with picks 166, 170, and 152, while Giles was at 113, 157, and 149. So to be sure to get two solid closers (yeah right) you’re gonna have to use two picks before round 15 is over. Then it’s not so hard to find guys like Alex Colome, Will Smith, and David Robertson later.
I utterly failed on the closer front in Tout Wars. I got nice value in Brad Hand early, but I’ll be relying on Mark Melancon to grab some saves if I want to avoid a lower third finish in the category. I did much better in TGFBI pairing Corey Knebel with Kirby Yates and then adding Hunter Strickland later on. I’m pretty happy with Felipe Vazquez and Archie Bradley in my private league, but I would have liked to add a lower level closer later, but got sniped several times.
Speaking of Bradley, I seem to be higher on him than most. I have no question about his ability to be a top-notch closer. Arizona could certainly change things up on me by going with Greg Holland, but his early struggles are making me more confident.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) June 28, 2018
4. One and a half to two solid catchers
We all know the catcher pool is a big pile of steaming garbage. So it goes without saying that getting two good players at this position gives you a pretty good boost over your competition. The problem is that the top tier is not really that great either. J.T. Realmuto is solid and there’s no doubting the power potential of Gary Sanchez. But how do you get two of the Top 7 catchers (Realmuto, Sanchez, Willson Contreras, Wilson Ramos, Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal, Yadier Molina) without reaching so far that you sacrifice bigger and better numbers at other positions? The quick answer is you don’t. You have to compromise.
I’m drafting one of those top seven and then pairing them with one of the few other options I consider semi-reliable. Molina and Posey are generally the final two of those top 7 going off the boards. In my three drafts, Molina went at 217, 156, and 159, while Posey went with picks 148, 159, and 153. If you want to get one of that top group of catchers then you better do it before the end of the 16th round or they run dry.
My favorite target in that group has been Yasmani Grandal. He’s a proven 20-plus home-run hitter and now moves to a great ballpark for left-handed power in a lineup that should be one of the best in baseball. I can’t promise a power leap like that of Christian Yelich, but something close to 30 homers is not out of the question.
Once I get that one solid catcher I’m trying to wait a bit but still grab one of Francisco Mejia, Francisco Cervelli, Welington Castillo, or maybe Danny Jansen. Castillo is my favorite of that group because of his proven ability to reach 20-plus bombs.
I did well in TGFBI with a duo of Contreras and Castillo. In the Tout Draft and Hold I paired Grandal and Mejia and also added Chance Sisco later on. Sisco was a dud last year, but he’s got the potential to be a fairly useful catcher in fantasy. In my private no-trade league, I partnered Contreras with Mejia. I’m pretty happy with my results at catcher in all three leagues. I think I did a nice job of rostering some of the best options available and adding a bit of upside without reaching too far.
5. Toss in a couple of safe reliable starting pitchers
I’m honestly not sure the words safe or reliable should be used in the sentence above. I consider the middle class of the 2019 pitching pool to be filled with land mines. You have to traverse it though if you want to stay with the pack in Ks and Wins.
I’m gonna be honest and tell you I waited too long on these SPs in a few of these leagues. I couldn’t pull the trigger early enough on obviously flawed starting pitchers in rounds 10 thru 23. So now I’m left hoping my slightly more flawed pitchers can come through.
The names I do like in the middle parts of drafts are Nathan Eovaldi, Zack Wheeler, Kyle Hendricks, Chris Archer, Shane Bieber, Cole Hamels, and Yusei Kikuchi. I ended up with several shares of Eovaldi, which I like, but I’m gonna be relying on some lesser names way too much. I’m getting Brandon Woodruff in almost every league. I’m confident he’ll do well if he gets the chance, but the Brewers may like him in the bullpen more and go with Corbin Burnes, who I also like.
Collin McHugh is another pitcher I’m heavily invested in. People forget he’s already had a 19-win season at the Major League level and is now armed with a greatly improved slider he used to great effect in the bullpen. I don’t expect him to repeat his elite numbers from the pen, but I think there’s a very good chance he could approach 15 wins and 180 strikeouts… I said a chance.
Another boring veteran I grabbed in the reserve rounds is Jeff Samardzija. Yeah, I know how bad he was last year, but he’s been a reasonably solid starter much of his career and has looked healthy (and good) this spring. I won’t have him active early in the year, but I’ve got hopes of him at least being a decent streamer.
6. Sprinkle in a few high upside starters
After going pretty thin at starting pitching I’m gonna need to strike gold on some late upside picks. I rostered Alex Reyes in two of the leagues. I obviously love his stuff, but innings limitations and health have to be a concern. Brent Honeywell is another upside arm I was able to add in two of the leagues. He won’t see the majors until midway through the season but could offer very nice numbers when he does get the call. A.J. Puk is a similar case.
Two high upside pitchers I’m disappointed in missing out on are Jesus Luzardo and Chris Paddack. They are probably the two young pitching prospects who stand the best chance of contributing most of the season.
7. Top it off with a healthy dash of elite middle reliever
I’ve been spouting off all year about the value of middle relievers. I damn well better follow through on it. In fact, I was surprised how many people bypassed some great numbers from the pen for ugly dangerous starting pitchers who could have negative value.
I rostered several shares of Chad Green and Ryan Pressly. Hector Neris is also on almost all of my teams so far. Pitchers like this are going to get close to 100 strikeouts along with potentially elite ratios. I’ll rely on them heavily early in the season while I wait and see how pitchers like Reyes, Woodruff, and Samardzija pan out.
Phillies need the real Hector Neris to please stand up https://t.co/rHQ23JzWYo
— Philadelphia Inquirer Sports (@phillysport) February 20, 2019
Team Picture for a Winning 15-Team Draft
So here’s a basic review of what you have to really put yourself in good position for taking the title in one of these 15-team leagues.
Within the first 15 rounds, you’ve got to draft two near elite starting pitchers, two reliable closers, and at least one of the top seven catchers. Also during those rounds, you have to build a nice base of power and speed, so you can take the best values later in the draft. Oh, don’t forget to add a couple of mid-level starters you feel decent about.
Then in the late rounds you’ve got to give your team some upside in saves and starting pitching, along with a couple of potential power bats.
Sounds easy right? Yeah, good luck with that. It’s a delicate dance and one that gets even more difficult if you’re drafting close to the turns. I’d say the two most important things are not getting locked out of saves and steals. You might be able to address saves on the waiver wire as the season progresses, but it’s hard to make up ground unless you add multiple sources.
Good luck in your coming drafts and I hope you’re enjoying these 15-team drafts as much as I am. It’s a comfortable mix between the depth I love in mono-leagues and the elite names and production of shallower leagues.
You buying in on Doug’s strategy for 15-team drafts? For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2019 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!
Doug Anderson is an 11-year veteran of the Fantasy Sports industry. His work has appeared on RotoExperts.com, Yahoo.com, SI.com, and NFL.com, as well as in the pages of USA Today’s Fantasy Baseball Weekly and various other magazines. Doug has participated in both LABR and Tout Wars, the two preeminent expert fantasy baseball leagues in existence. Doug was formerly the Executive Editor at RotoExperts and is now Managing Editor here at FantraxHQ. You can follow him on Twitter @RotoDaddy.
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