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The Perfect Draft (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

Mar 11, 2021

What a difference a year makes. I wrote this same column prior to the 2020 season, and my approach was entirely different. Of course, this is because of the pandemic-shortened season that forced our collective hands into considering how the following few months would unfold.

The reality, however, is that 2021 is also going to follow a different set of parameters.

Every single person about to enter a fantasy baseball draft will need to determine how to weigh the 2020 season against any player’s career. Therefore, even in a perfect world — the fictional draft I will soon lay out before you — I will have to compete against myself.

This is the purpose of such a column. If everything breaks my way — a near impossibility during a real draft — what would I do? How would I react?

It’s the ultimate mock draft because there is absolutely no outside influence that can derail my plan or force my hand.

I am selecting right in the middle of the draft – 6th out of 12 – and the lineup is as follows: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, 3 OF, UTIL, 5 SP, 3 RP, 5 BN. It was conducted using FantasyPros’ Average Draft Position as the framework. I am using each 12-pick “block” as a round and only selecting players available in that “round” or later.

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1.6 – Mike Trout (OF – LAA)
While I will certainly make some creative decisions later as to which players will “fall” to me, it’s not a stretch to see Mike Trout landing in the middle of the first round. This is partly because people are starting to slide him down their rankings — at least, out of the top slot — but also because of the numbers that typically involve at least one starting pitcher in this area. I’m never a fan of taking the last of the “top” hitters when a true top pitcher is available to me, but Mike Trout will always be the exception to every rule. His floor — barring injury — is right here — the sixth overall pick. His ceiling? Six picks higher.

2.7 – Walker Buehler (SP – LAD)
Last year, this would have been the absolute perfect start to any draft. It also would have been impossible. Walker Buehler was being selected as the final member of the top pitching class, but he is now sliding into the second round. There are concerns, but I won’t hesitate to add a true ace to my roster in the second round. I’d be drafting Buehler here even if I had used my first pick on a starting pitcher. The value is that good.

3.6 – Clayton Kershaw (SP – LAD)
I’m definitely cheating in terms of forming this roster because I originally slotted Kyle Tucker into this draft spot. What changed? Nothing with regards to Tucker — I still think he is an outstanding third-round pick — but outfield is absolutely loaded. Starting pitcher is great in its own regard, but we’ll quickly see how steep the cliff is. Once again, if I’m getting the high-floor, high-ceiling performances of Clayton Kershaw, I’m jumping at the opportunity. Even his worst seasons are among the best for the majority of starting pitchers.

4.7 – Zac Gallen (SP – ARI)
Zac Gallen was one of my absolute must-have targets of 2020, and he did not disappoint. He threw only eight fewer innings in 2020 compared to 2019 but lowered his ERA from 2.81 to 2.75. He’s a potential stud in the making, and only an innings cap would lower his ceiling. Therein lies the problem. It’s almost impossible to expect Gallen to surpass 180 innings, which will place him behind some of the top arms. The good news? That’s why he’s still available in the fourth round.

5.6 – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1B/3B – TOR)
I mentioned getting “creative” with how this draft unfolded, and I’m really taking the term “perfect” literally. It would be “perfect” if Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. lasted to the middle of the fifth round, so that’s what happened in this fantasy world. In doing so, I get a dual-eligible slugger who could emerge as one of the league’s top hitters overnight. There’s definitely hype pushing Guerrero up the draft board — which is why it is unlikely for him to last that long, even though his ADP was in my “fifth round” range — but it could easily be justified if he takes the metaphorical “next step.”

6.7 – Gleyber Torres (2B/SS – NYY)
Once again, it’s almost impossible for my targeted player to last to my pick, but Gleyber Torres in the “sixth round” range, and I would do a backflip if that happened in a real draft. After my subsequent trip to the hospital, I’d continue drafting my team, knowing that I selected a player who could lead either of two positions by season’s end. My fictional draftmates are kind. They’ll wait for me.

7.6 – Yordan Alvarez (OF – HOU)
I wrote about outfield being loaded, and the next two picks are going to prove exactly why. Yordan Alvarez could lead the league in home runs and be a first-round pick in next year’s drafts. His potential is that great. He could also continue to battle through injuries and disappoint. Hence his seventh-round value. I will always be a buyer in this range.

8.7 – Austin Meadows (OF – TB)
Think back to last year around this time when people were aggressively moving Austin Meadows up their draft boards. One year later, he can be added for a massive discount, yet he holds the same upside. Obviously, a pitiful .205 batting average is weighing down expectations but, even if he lands directly in between .205 and .291 — his average from 2019 — he is being undervalued.

9.6 – Jeff McNeil (2B/3B/OF – NYM)
In real drafts, I find that Jeff McNeil is often selected well before his ADP, and it’s likely because at least one member of each draft group sees the value in both his versatility and consistency. He hasn’t hit below .311 in any of these three seasons, has a nearly perfect on-base percentage range of .381 to .384, and he can slot into three different fantasy positions. He’s a mainstay in my “perfect draft” mindset, but he only ends up on my team because I’m forcing others not to snipe him. If you want McNeil on draft day, it’s probably worth targeting him a round or two before his ADP suggests.

10.7 –Kenley Jansen (RP – LAD)
Gone are the days of a reliable Kenley Jansen, but I’m not drafting for talent here. I need the role of closer, and that belongs to Jansen until we hear otherwise. It’s also important to note that, in last year’s iteration of this column, I made it a point to pay up for one of the top closers. Here, I didn’t even consider one until we hit the double-digit round territory. That shift is likely being mirrored by others, so there’s little reason to pay a premium.

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11.6 – Byron Buxton (OF – MIN)
I’m a glutton for punishment. Apparently, I’ll never quit Byron Buxton, even in an article where I could do anything I want. This is the allure of speed in a league where it is rapidly declining. The idea of Buxton landing in the upper echelon of base-stealers will continue to prevent his value from plummeting, and stubborn believers like myself will always be buying.

12.7 – Kirby Yates (RP – TOR)
Once again, I’m drafting role over quality, even though Kirby Yates has proven to be one of the better closers over the past few years. The reality is that “better” doesn’t always lead to save opportunities, and we need to be willing to add based on said opportunities, even if we can’t fully trust the arm. The Toronto Blue Jays obviously “trust the arm” enough to make Yates their closer, so why shouldn’t I with my fantasy team?

13.6 – Gary Sanchez (C – NYY)
When the 2021 draft season is officially over, we are likely going to see a massive standard deviation in the draft position of Gary Sanchez. People still believe in the power — how could you not? — but others also can’t stomach the low batting average — how could you? He currently lands in the thirteenth round simply because of the buyers and sellers struggling to set the right price. Ultimately, if you want Sanchez, you’ll likely have to pay a little higher of a price for him. I don’t mind, as the catcher position is generally so thin that any increase in batting average from Sanchez will make him a stud at the position.

14.7 – Devin Williams (RP – MIL)
I mentioned drafting “role” over “quality” with the picks of Jansen and Yates, but Devin Williams is the exact opposite case-study. He’s arguably one of the most talented relief pitchers in the game, even if he isn’t getting the save opportunities. I love the idea of drafting Williams — as do many — but I find it absolutely imperative to also have players like Jansen and Yates on the roster so that I am not completely punting saves.

15.6 – Shohei Ohtani (SP/UTIL – LAA)
Simply put, if Shohei Ohtani qualifies as one player eligible to slot in as either a pitcher or hitter based on the time period, then he’s an absurd bargain at this point in the draft — and, really, will be selected sooner. Not surprisingly, the benefit of Ohtani is that he offers two paths to success, where he can thrive as either a hitter or pitcher. Ideally, both.

16.7 – Nick Madrigal (2B – CWS)
I’m lower on Nick Madrigal than the industry average, but my team is sorely lacking speed, and he provides the potential of stolen bases. With the landscape of Major League Baseball forcing the stolen base into a rarity, nothing is guaranteed from Madrigal’s legs. Regardless, we’re also getting a high-floor batting average from Madrigal, even if the power is nonexistent.

17.6 – Aaron Civale (SP – CLE)
I could have gone in multiple directions at this point, but I am now building out the back-end of my pitching rotation, and I want to target every high-upside arm possible. Enter Aaron Civale. Most people were ready to sell his outstanding 2.34 ERA from 2019, and he appropriately regressed in a major way. Why should we buy now? Because said regression was also so extreme that he is now in a position to correct in the positive direction. In addition, his strikeout rate increased, while his walk rate decreased.

18.7 – Austin Riley (3B/OF – ATL)
It’s going to be quite a wild ride trying to project exactly where Austin Riley’s 2021 season numbers finish, but the key for any draft is the risk associated with such a projection. I’m aggressive in a draft, and I intentionally reach for players that I want. Riley is becoming one of these players. Until the market does the same, however, you usually don’t need to spend a mid-round pick on him. The key to Riley is his power and batting average combination. Essentially, can you stomach the home runs if his average plummets? In the opposite direction, if his batting average increases at all, he becomes an absolute steal in this range. His walk rate increased, strikeout rate decreased, and, most importantly, his soft-hit percentage dropped.

19.6 – Nate Pearson (SP – TOR)
I won’t call Nate Pearson the “perfect” addition to this “perfect” team, but he’s the right player in the right spot with the right elements. That is, I’m selecting him late enough that I won’t have reservations before cutting ties, but he also carries such a pedigree that I could have conceivably uncovered a gem. He’s a flier, and he makes sense in this round.

20.7 – Alex Kirilloff (OF – MIN)
Alex Kirilloff won’t be the only stash on this team, but he’s the one that is most likely to have an immediate impact. As of this writing, he doesn’t have an Opening Day spot secured — if he does, expect his stock to soar — but the Minnesota Twins already used Kirilloff in the playoffs and have not definitively filled his spot on the field. With his pedigree, it’s entirely possible that he becomes one of the rookie breakouts in fantasy baseball.

21.6 – Kwang Hyun Kim (SP – STL)
Kwang Hyun Kim’s ADP is a screaming indicator that almost no one is buying the sub-2.00 ERA. I get it. It’s the first we’ve seen of Kim in Major League Baseball, it was during a shortened season, and he battled an injury toward the end of the year. Still, if we want to make up ground on other fantasy managers, we need to find select places to be aggressive. Adding Kim toward the end of a draft allows for us to reap the rewards if he can approximate last season’s numbers, while the cost is so little that we can release him if he fails.

22.7 – Wander Franco (SS – TB)
As we’ve seen throughout this draft, players aren’t necessarily likely to fall to the exact rounds where I need them, but such is the purpose of identifying what I’d want. “What I’d want,” here, is to draft Wander Franco with my last pick. The problem? So will a handful of people in almost every league. Franco is the prospect, and he’s worth an add even if we have no definitive date as to when he will debut for the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s a stash, but one that will likely need to be taken multiple rounds higher if you want to avoid getting sniped.

Results

There is one common, undeniable theme to this draft: I love undervalued targets. Much of my team in 2021 is built upon players I loved in 2020, which is a nice bookend for writing this column over a two-year span.

It’s almost impossible to remove pre-2020 player analysis from our current efforts in 2021, mainly because we can always argue away what we saw in a 60-game sample size. This doesn’t mean we should, but it has also led to plenty of discounts.

Ultimately, here is how the team came together:

C – Gary Sanchez
1B – Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
2B – Nick Madrigal
3B – Jeff McNeil
SS – Gleyber Torres
OF – Mike Trout
OF – Yordan Alvarez
OF – Austin Meadows
UTIL – Byron Buxton
SP – Walker Buehler
SP – Clayton Kershaw
SP – Zac Gallen
SP – Shohei Ohtani
SP – Aaron Civale
RP – Kenley Jansen
RP – Kirby Yates
RB – Devin Williams
BN – Austin Riley
BN – Nate Pearson
BN – Alex Kirilloff
BN – Kwang Hyun Kim
BN – Wander Franco

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If you want to dive deeper into fantasy baseball, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you prepare for your draft this season. From our Cheat Sheet Creator – which allows you to combine rankings from 100+ experts into one cheat sheet – to our Draft Assistant – that optimizes your picks with expert advice – we’ve got you covered this fantasy baseball draft season.

Mario Mergola is a featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros, as well as the creator and content-editor of Sporfolio. For more from Mario, check out his archive and follow him @MarioMergola.

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