Strategy: When to draft starting pitchers


We're still in February, but ESPN's live draft results page is up and running, and a few things jump out to me. Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera is going first overall, with Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, ESPN's pick for the top, falling to third. There's a catcher busting the top-15 party, and apparently owners are not too concerned about a certain Colorado Rockies shortstop staying healthy (he's being taken 13th, on average). Oh, and there's a pitcher in the first round. A pitcher!?

My take on when to draft starting pitchers is pretty consistent from year to year, and it usually doesn't include the likes of Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw ending up on my teams. I love those fellows; really, I do. Who wouldn't? Procuring awesome pitching early in drafts can make fantasy owners feel all warm and fuzzy ... until they check out what their offense looks like. This is ultimately why I avoid starting pitching early. I'd prefer to build up my offense, which isn't nearly as easy to do as in past seasons. Then I build it a bit more, and even more after that ... and I feel like I can fashion a nice pitching staff later or even "fake" it in April through free agency.

This isn't a decision I came across lightly, this approach that avoids the top starting pitchers and constructs offense-heavy standard-league teams, often with nine of my first 10 picks making their living hitting the baseball. Then again, I can't recall ever really wanting to build squads with pitching. Hey, this style isn't for everyone. Back in the day, there was so much offense -- when that Barry Bonds guy was all the rage -- a fantasy owner had to keep up and load up, so to speak. Now, since offense has dried up and pitching is king, it's supply versus demand, and still, you've gotta get the bats. I've tried it the other way in a mock draft or two, both this season and over the past several, stockpiling multiple aces -- or whatever an ace really is -- and by Round 15 I'm wondering why I'm seriously lacking offense and how to fix it.

I can't really say anything negative about Verlander or Kershaw, other than the fact that they don't hit for power, steal bases or help a fantasy team's batting average. Plus, this isn't to say that someone cannot build a successful team with them. There are, of course, myriad ways to build a successful fantasy roster, going pitching-heavy early or avoiding it until late -- or maybe just trying to find the next Mike Trout, R.A. Dickey and Fernando Rodney in the last round will take care of that. My preferred way is with offense. For those who claim a fantasy team cannot win without an ace, I disagree. This doesn't mean you want Tim Hudson or Jarrod Parker as your top pitchers, though.

As with anything in life or fantasy sports, a proper balance is recommended, but that hardly means half your first 10 players -- or 20 -- need to be pitchers, even though they supply, in theory, half the statistics. They don't. That's one factor for me. Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, a guy I'd consider in the third round, will contribute in five fantasy categories this season, some better than others; Verlander and Kershaw cannot do this. And as we saw in 2012 when each of these Cy Young-level fellows dropped a full seven wins off his 2011 pace, pitchers can be as erratic statistically as hitters. That doesn't mean I'd take Pedroia over Verlander or Kershaw, but given the live draft results, I likely won't need to make that choice. Others will make it for me. Of course, I'd grab Verlander in Round 3 or Stephen Strasburg in Round 4 or Cliff Lee in Round 6. But that's not realistic. What is realistic, to me, is that procuring several top-40 pitchers can have a similar and positive effect on a fantasy team.

The thinking goes -- and the strategy works for me -- that if a fantasy team is loaded with offense and has enough pitching to contend, some pitchers will emerge as stars, and in-season adjustments can take care of the rest. For one, we know pitchers are more likely to be injured than hitters, at least in terms of total days missed (most elbow injuries take a lot more than a 15-day disabled list trip to heal). I chose then-Cincinnati Reds closer Ryan Madson in an NL-only auction a year ago this week, days before he injured his elbow and was lost for the season. Sure, hitters get hurt as well, and occasionally an Evan Longoria or Jose Bautista really leaves a void. But I also think it's easier to replace hitters via trade or free agency. With pitchers, we play the "spot-start" game in some cases, hoping Jeff Samardzija will stay for real or relying on Jason Vargas for his home outings. Hitters are more reliable, safer. They can't hurt a fantasy team as much, not like Tim Lincecum can.

In a recent draft, I went hitters with 10 of my first 11 selections, with Zack Greinke thrown in there, and still found plenty of underrated arms starting in the 12th round, including Jon Lester, Hiroki Kuroda, Jonathon Niese, Hudson and Parker. The offense I constructed is strong, at least on paper. They do have to play the games, of course, but it's a team -- and strategy -- I'm comfortable with. I don't have to win every pitching statistic, but rather compete in them, and I can tweak the roster as needed. I think it's easier to find the sleeper pitchers later, so that's my story yet again, and I'm sticking to it!