- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
The easiest way for me to determine who "my guys" are for the upcoming season is to simply compete in a bunch of drafts, real or mock. I don't usually have favorites because, to me, I look for value in drafts. But when certain players continually show up on my teams, it's usually a pretty good indication I like them more than my fellow fantasy counterparts. And there's a certain middle infielder who seems to end up on just about all my teams.
He might be last alphabetically, but Ben Zobrist appears to be first in the heart of many of my fantasy teams.
OK, so that's exaggerating a bit, but the fact is after trading for Zobrist in my longest-tenured league Sunday night -- it was more of a need deal that fell in my lap than anything else -- I was reminded again why I was so fond of the fellow who adeptly mans second base and occasionally right field for the Tampa Bay Rays. It's odd, in a way. I don't think Zobrist is going to hit 30 home runs or steal 30 bases. Certainly he doesn't appear destined for a batting title -- his low batting averages turn off some fantasy owners -- and the late bloomer is on the wrong side of 30 years old.
Still, Zobrist has hit a cumulative .267 over the past three seasons, with 57 home runs and 60 stolen bases. It turns out only five players have accumulated more than that many home runs and steals in that time period: Matt Kemp, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez and Chris Young. That's probably why I like Zobrist so much. I like to select hitters who can provide across-the-board numbers early in drafts, as opposed to, say, Matt Holliday and Michael Bourn, both of whom I discussed in Friday's blog entry on players I tend to avoid. Holliday no longer runs; Bourn has hit 13 home runs in his six-year career.
Plus, Zobrist plays second base, and I try to fill my middle-infield spots before Round 10. I can't make a case for selecting Zobrist over two-time 30-homer/30-steal achiever Kinsler, a fellow second baseman, but one of them is going in Round 2, and the other in Round 6. So apparently I'm sitting there in my drafts with four or five players locked up, I figure I need a middle infielder with pop and speed and I keep choosing Zobrist. Hey, that's fine with me. I expect Zobrist to flirt with another 20/20 season in 2012, nothing more, nothing less. Not every pick has to be brimming with upside. With Zobrist not starring but doing enough for my fantasy teams, the end certainly justifies the means.
Let's go position by position to find other players showing up on more than a few of my fantasy teams.
Catcher: I couldn't find a Carlos Santana or Mike Napoli anywhere. Even in multi-catcher leagues, I'm avoiding the top choices. As such, I found no real theme here. I retained Joe Mauer in a keeper league and chose him in one startup that favors on-base percentage. I secured Alex Avila late enough in one league, and Yadier Molina in another. The Salvador Perez pick in two leagues doesn't look prescient now that he has a knee injury. I'm not fond of Kurt Suzuki, but if he can be had in the last round, which has been the case more than once, I'm more than happy to take him then.
First base: I've discussed Lance Berkman plenty over the past year, but I think too many people think his 2011 was a fluke. Perhaps I do as well, but a .280-average, 25-homer, 90-RBI season remains worthy of where I've been picking him. Eric Hosmer also shows up on a few of my teams. Why can't he take that next stop to Joey Votto territory in 2012? In general, I've been avoiding the top first basemen to pick other positions. Late picks include Lucas Duda, Ike Davis and Brandon Belt.
Second base: I haven't been waiting here. It seems in nearly every league I have Dustin Pedroia, Kinsler, Zobrist or, unfortunately, Chase Utley starting for me. Pedroia and Kinsler seem to be my second-rounders. Utley slips in drafts because everyone seems scared of the worst-case scenario. I remain hopeful for 120 games, and remind people that he totaled 27 home runs and 27 stolen bases while averaging 109 games the past two years, so even if he does a middle-infield version of Josh Hamilton -- productive, but with disabled list stints costing him time -- I can deal with that.
Shortstop: I knew that once I ranked Hanley Ramirez in my top 10, I'd get him in a few leagues. I also have Jimmy Rollins and Starlin Castro in various places. Clearly, deep down I appear to be concerned I'll be stuck with the Omar Infante-Jason Bartlett combination in leagues, because I haven't been messing around at middle infield. I'm also securing speed with Emilio Bonifacio and Erick Aybar types, since they are going later in leagues I've been in than Dee Gordon, who is certainly less proven.
Outfield: I feel this is a deep fantasy position, so while I have secured my top overall pick Ryan Braun in a few leagues and been blessed with Justin Upton while picking last in the first round in a few others, I also have been fine reaching a bit for Shin-Soo Choo, Jayson Werth and Jason Heyward. Other players I apparently like more than other owners are Alex Gordon, Desmond Jennings, Ichiro Suzuki, Logan Morrison, Jeff Francoeur and Colby Rasmus, though it doesn't look like I've been drafting them too high. For example, I got Rasmus after Round 22 twice. There is upside there.
Starting pitcher: Even in leagues that weren't being played out, you won't find Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander on any of my teams. I did select CC Sabathia in the fifth round of a mock draft, but for the most part, it's Madison Bumgarner, Ricky Romero, Adam Wainwright and Jordan Zimmermann anchoring my staffs. Is that ideal? Well, what's wrong with filling a rotation with a bunch of No. 2 and No. 3 pitchers? Don't you get the same statistics as if you pair Clayton Kershaw with Jaime Garcia, but your offense is better prepared? Other pitchers showing up on many of my teams -- again, it's about value and trust more than anything else -- include Tim Hudson, Brandon Morrow, Brandon McCarthy, John Danks, Vance Worley and Jonathon Niese.
Relief pitcher: Well, I have Craig Kimbrel in a keeper league, but he was a free-agent pickup two years ago, not a fifth-rounder last season or in 2012. I see a bunch of Brandon League types. You know, League was pretty darned good in 2011. I like to point out that if League saves the same number of games as Mariano Rivera -- he was seven short last year -- I've made my point. J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan, Javy Guerra and Jim Johnson seem to be undervalued by others as well, but just fine for me.