- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
There are 26 rounds in a standard ESPN fantasy draft, and at 10 teams each, that's 260 players. However, as one can see from the ESPN average live draft results by position, that leaves plenty of interesting players for free agency (anything after No. 260). Of course, some people play in deeper leagues, such as 12-team leagues, or 16-teamers, AL- and NL-only formats ... you get the point.
Each league and each draft is different, and strategy often depends on league rules and other factors, but for those in standard leagues who are approaching the final rounds, there's no reason to avoid taking chances with upside picks. These are the potential wild-card choices that can make an owner look smart -- wow, who knew all three Kansas City Royals outfielders would be top-30 hitters! -- and hey, if they stink in mid-April, just move on to someone else!
We're talking last-round picks here, the ultimate risk/reward choices. The theory is if you think Cincinnati Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco is the pending NL Rookie of the Year, why not take the upside pick when safer veterans such as Kurt Suzuki and A.J. Pierzynski are likely sitting on the free-agent wire in April? It's why I spent $2 on real-life free agent Roy Oswalt late in the LABR NL-only auction Sunday. Sure, I could have had John Lannan (and I do, after drafting him in the reserve round), but which guy has more upside?
Let's go around the diamond with enticing wild-card picks, but in order to be considered, these players cannot be among the top 260 in ESPN average live drafts. That excludes the ultimate upside hitters, mega-prospects Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, in case you were wondering. We'll avoid catcher, since only 10 are necessary for standard formats in the first place (Mesoraco would be my choice, along with perhaps Wilin Rosario of the Colorado Rockies.)
First base: There are certainly young players here who will -- and should -- be selected in deeper leagues, such as Justin Smoak and Brandon Allen, and I remain intrigued by Jesus Guzman in San Diego. You know who else fits the description here? Aubrey Huff. In 2010, he hit 26 home runs, knocked in 86 runs and hit .290. It was clearly unexpected, since he wasn't drafted in most leagues that season. The same thing could happen this year. It seems owners aren't fans of him anymore after he continued his annoying trend of year-to-year inconsistency with a disappointing 2011 ... but it's an even-numbered year.
Second base: Unfortunately, it's looking like Brian Roberts of the Baltimore Orioles will never be the same fantasy contributor he once was; a concussion ruined his 2011 season, and he has played 98 games total over the past two seasons. In 2009, Roberts was outstanding, hitting 16 home runs, leading the league in doubles and stealing 30 bases. Justin Morneau, also being held back by concussion symptoms, is going in the 22nd round. So why is Roberts not being chosen at all?
Shortstop: Back to the young fellas, if you don't mind. I happen to think presumed Cincinnati Reds starter Zack Cozart isn't a great fit for the team's No. 2 lineup slot. We at ESPN Fantasy project a .290 on-base percentage for him. Yuck. However, he's also a threat to hit double digits in both home runs and stolen bases. Also, Tyler Pastornicky should start in Atlanta, and I could see more than 20 stolen bases from him. I like new Houston Astros starter Jed Lowrie the most, though. Durability has been a problem for him, but there is interesting power upside there. I'm a bit surprised none of these three young players are being widely drafted, knowing how scarce the middle infield choices are.
Third base: Well, in how many blog entries can I discuss Mat Gamel of the Milwaukee Brewers? He's starting at first base, and is eligible at third. I'd take him over a few of the first basemen being drafted, such as Mike Carp, James Loney and Mitch Moreland. Two other forgotten players are Pedro Alvarez in Pittsburgh and Chone Figgins of the Mariners. Alvarez had a miserable 2011 season; I can't spin it positively in any way. But he's also 25, and a year ago he was projected for 25 home runs. One would think the Pirates will play him. The home run Alvarez smacked in spring training Wednesday seemed like a nice start. Speaking of starting, Figgins might be doing so and hitting leadoff in the process. OK, so it's not a good lineup, but he did steal 42 bases in both 2009 and 2010. If healthy, perhaps the speed and some semblance of his on-base ability returns.
Outfield: I expected to find many relevant names at this deep position, but then again, there are 67 outfielders being chosen in standard leagues. I do think longtime minor leaguer Bryan LaHair, now penciled in to start for the Chicago Cubs at first base, is somewhat legitimate. Lorenzo Cain, Dayan Viciedo, Rajai Davis, Jerry Sands, Casper Wells and Kyle Blanks also seem like last-rounders worth a look, but in a 10-team league, there's really no need.
Starting pitcher: Anyone else at all surprised that Philip Humber and Josh Collmenter aren't being drafted in the top 260? Of course, I see some regression coming, and Ryan Vogelsong belongs in this conversation as well, but I'd at least take the chance late. A few young guys are candidates here as risk/reward types late, including Drew Pomeranz, Jacob Turner, Jarrod Parker, Jordan Lyles, Brian Matusz and Kyle Drabek. If they start slowly, dump 'em, but each has some degree of major upside. Also, I can't help but wonder, in an Aubrey Huff sort of way, what Edinson Volquez can do with Petco Park as his new home.
Relief pitcher: I don't see any lock closers going undrafted, but I'd keep an eye on how Cleveland Indians right-hander Chris Perez progresses from his oblique strain. Vinnie Pestano is worth a look in April, and stranger things have happened than him keeping the job. Also, Sean Marshall backs up a closer (Ryan Madson) currently dealing with a sore elbow. Sometimes sore elbows become major problems. Joaquin Benoit, Jonathan Broxton and Kris Medlen, as a potential starter in Atlanta, also jump out to me.
Eric Karabell takes a position-by-position look at players who make for good late-round picks thanks to their high upside, such as Brian Roberts and Mat Gamel.