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Riskiest early-round draft picks

2/28/2013

There are several risky picks in the early rounds of 2013 fantasy baseball drafts, but when it comes to Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, the true risky part is the health. The performance, I believe, is not. I mean, none of these guys will pass off as Cal Ripken Jr. in terms of durability, but each of these players has convinced fantasy owners they are consistent statistical providers who can be relied upon as fantasy stalwarts.

Then there's Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. While he's not a top-10 overall pick -- not like last year! -- he's still highly regarded enough to be a top-50 option, and thus someone I'd call a rather substantial risk in the early rounds. Not only can we hardly be assured he'll play most of the games -- he missed most of 2010 and half of last season -- but he delivered subpar stats in the 2012 games he did participate in. Oh sure, his 2011 season was extraordinary and surprising, certainly in terms of power output and perhaps for the 158 games played as well. Bottom line: If you want risk and even the proverbial risk-versus-reward option, this is it.

Each season I discuss the early-round draft gambles and surely Tulowitzki, Longoria and Bautista fit the mold, as do, to various degrees, Matt Kemp, Buster Posey, Justin Upton and Hanley Ramirez, I suppose. Heck, Mike Trout as a top-three overall pick is, in essence, a bit perilous, because he's all of 21 years old, and with the weight he added this offseason, he now doubles the size of Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon (OK, maybe not quite). Point is, there are hitter risks out there in the first five or six rounds, and to a lesser degree the pitchers, starting with Stephen Strasburg and a bit later in drafts with Roy Halladay, Chris Sale, CC Sabathia and others, and rarely is there a sure thing. However, in most cases, we cannot predict injury. With most top players we can, for the most part, predict statistical impact if they're healthy.

It's tough to remember someone as polarizing as Ellsbury in recent seasons, and not in a Josh Hamilton type of way in that either you love him or you don't. I like Ellsbury to bounce back, at least enough to rank him 44th overall. I enjoyed his monster 2011 campaign on several teams, confident that the 2010 injury he suffered, when he ran into then-teammate Adrian Beltre, was flukish. I seek out undervalued players from odd injuries with a track record of success. I thought Ellsbury would steal his 60-plus bases, score many runs and act like Michael Bourn. Nobody expected him to act like Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, who boasts these amazing numbers annually. Ellsbury still has hit double-digit home runs in only one season in his career.

Now our minds are a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives about what Ellsbury might do, and all the possibilities are reasonable, I suppose. He could steal a ton of bases. He could hit a ton of home runs. He could play in 40 games. He could play in 140 games and perform like Alejandro De Aza, which has value, but not in the fifth round. For the risk of finding out, Ellsbury is currently being selected No. 48 in ESPN average live drafts. That, my pals, is risky, because it's not solely about his health. I rank Tulo, Longo and Joey Bats among my top 15 overall players because they have created a baseline of offensive prowess. I believe they will not underachieve when healthy, and frankly I don't see why they can't be healthy. Tulo went .300-30-100 as recently as 2011. Longoria hit 17 home runs and knocked in 55 in less than half a season in 2012. Bautista is one of the two players ESPN Fantasy projects to swat 40-plus home runs.

With Ellsbury, not only do we not know what we're getting health-wise, we also don't know what we'd get if healthy. For the record, ESPN Fantasy projects 17 home runs, 27 stolen bases and a .294 batting average, so it assumes at least 130 games. Can it happen? It's a risk, but that could be the reward.

Here are some other risks in the Nos. 50-100 range of the top 100 in ESPN ADP, because while they're not first-rounders, these picks are valuable, too.

Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati Reds: It's a two-prong risk here for an eighth-rounder (in ESPN ADP). One, if you draft him as a starter and he closes, which I suspect will happen, will you be short a starter? Two, can he stay healthy in either role? I'm hoping for the best, but watch him throw and be prepared. I rank him No. 100, not 77th (his ADP).

Mark Trumbo, OF, Los Angeles Angels: If his first two weeks of the season look anything like his final eight weeks of 2012, when he hit .208 with a .552 OPS and only five home runs, he'll be instant free-agent fodder in April. Seems foolish to select him as early as a ninth-rounder; he's not close to my top 100.

Any closer not named Craig Kimbrel: Sorry, but there are just way too many valuable hitters and, for that matter, potential No. 2 fantasy starting pitchers, to grab the mere mortal closers in the top 100.

Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore Orioles: Sorry, but for those in standard, 10-team formats with one catcher, there are other catchers with power who didn't hit .249 last season going much later, such Miguel Montero. And it's not as though Wieters has Trumbo-like power, either.

Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants: OK, cheating a bit since he's going No. 104, but ESPN Fantasy ranks him 15 spots later. Remember, Trumbo can hurt you only in batting average. Lincecum can hurt you in ERA and WHIP.