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Players That Made (or Ruined) my NL Teams This Year

Looking at how big a difference the choice between two similarly-ranked players late in a draft can make.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Well, for everyone who has been counting the hours until the NFL/fantasy football season gets underway, the wait finally ended last night... but since we still have what seems like an excruciatingly long wait until Sunday, here's one more baseball article to pass the time.  Don't get me wrong, I'm starting to get a little more excited about football starting than I care to admit, even though I usually think of it as something that is mostly there to entertain me while I annually try to adjust to the first few months of not having baseball.  But I'm sure I'll spend an inordinate amount of time looking over my football rosters this weekend, wondering particularly about whether or not I made the right decisions when I had choice between two players that I knew could make or break my team.  This is also the time of year I like to look over my baseball drafts and analyze these same types of decisions -- I won't know for a while how the Alshon Jeffrey/Brandin Cooks decision I made on Monday should have gone down, but it's already crystal clear what the right choice was between Derek Norris and Wilson Ramos. Looking at a couple of my NL only leagues, I'm concentrating on four tough choices that I made back in March, and how much the outcome of those choices impacted my teams.

I've already mentioned my first difficult (at the time) decision:  Derek Norris vs. Wilson Ramos at catcher.  I had them ranked pretty evenly, at about #10 on the NL catcher list.  Norris actually tended to be ranked a bit higher in the pre-season:  he was the 14th best mixed league fantasy catcher according to Yahoo vs. Ramos at 16th, while CBS Sports predicted that Norris would be the 105th most valuable fantasy player in the National League, compared to Ramos at 125.  I thought they would both hit for a mediocre average but was tempted to give Norris the edge since I thought he'd show more power, plus there was the enticing notion of him possible getting traded to an offensively-gifted AL team playing in a hitter's ballpark early in the season.  The one thing that kept me interested in Ramos were the reports that he'd gotten LASIK surgery and could suddenly see the ball like he never had before.  While I try not to put too much stock in the "he's in the best shape of his life" type reports out of spring training, this intrigued me (and I wish it had intrigued me more!)  I ended up drafting Ramos ahead of Norris in the 15th round of one of my NL drafts (Norris went 4 picks later), and Norris ahead of Ramos (Ramos was the next pick that time) in the other.  The league I selected Norris in is a winner-take-all league where I have basically been trading first/second place on an almost daily basis with one other team... the team that owns Ramos.  Because of injury situations and the like, I feel that this other team has the momentum and unfortunately is likely to win the league.  Since two of the points we are fighting over are batting average and RBI, this is one case where making one wrong decision late in a deep draft looks like it will singlehandedly cost me a championship.

Showdown number two, middle infield:  Cesar Hernandez vs. Jonathan Villar.  Here is a situation where it was not so much about avoiding a bust, but about finding one of the best gold strikes in fantasy this year.  Hernandez has actually done pretty much what was expected of him:  he got off to a slow start, but is now hitting a fantasy-friendly .289 with 54 runs and 16 stolen bases.  I had him targeted as a guy I could get late in even a deep NL-only draft who would give me a plus batting average, score quite a few runs, and hopefully chip in 20 steals (he is on pace for 18, but since he's been playing better lately I think 20 is still quite realistic as the final weeks of the season winds down).  Since I had Villar projected for about 20 steals as well and didn't think there were really any other players that could give me that kind of value that late in a draft, particularly at middle infield, I decided I needed to have one of the two of them on every one of my NL-only fantasy teams.  I had Hernandez ranked a notch ahead of Villar, due to both batting average concerns and playing time concerns for Villar (ha!)  Luckily, others were on Hernandez as a sleeper as well, as I only got Hernandez on one of the four teams I was aiming for one of the two of them, and ended up "settling" for Villar on the other three.  (This included paying what at the time seemed like an absolutely astronomical $17 for Villar in one of my NL-only auction leagues... but I knew I couldn't walk away from that auction without my last chance at stolen bases from my middle infielder, so I am obviously very glad I stuck with my plan!)  In two of the leagues I own Villar, I have a predictable surplus of stolen bases that I don't need -- but in the third, I am still in the middle of the pack fighting for steals... which has really pointed out to me just how poorly I did estimating and drafting speed in that league, and has definitely given me something to think about for next year.

Moving to the bullpen:  J.J. Hoover vs. Fernando Rodney.  I rarely will draft or pay for a top closer even in a deep NL-only type league where there will be slim pickings on the waiver wire all year; I usually try to get one mid-range guy plus one questionable-pitcher-who-will-still-technically-be-entering-the-season-as-a-closer type guy.  The two players who I had ranked as the 14th and 15th NL closers going into the season were Hoover and Rodney.  Needless to say, the one league where I chose Rodney over Hoover is the one where I've had many fewer headaches in terms of managing my bullpen.  By the time Rodney was traded to the Marlins and lost his closer job (at least temporarily), I already had a half season's worth of saves with an absolutely stellar ERA and WHIP to go with them.  Meanwhile, Hoover "headlined" a Reds bullpen that was historically dreadful to open the season and only managed one save in several disastrous opportunities before being demoted.  Could I have seen this coming?  I didn't expect either pitcher to put up pretty stats, but since I wasn't counting on a solid ERA of WHIP from either of them I was willing to take the risk for some cheap saves.  But I think this is a situation that if I had thought it over a bit more and was still willing to take a flyer on one of two pitchers that I thought would be relatively horrible, I probably should have gone with Rodney, just based on experience.  I always think it's pretty silly when a real-life MLB manager ranks a bad pitcher over a decent one on his closer depth chart because "he's done it before," but every year we are reminded of how important the mental aspect of baseball is, and no position seems to reflect this more than closer.  In the Hoover vs. Rodney debate, perhaps the fact that Rodney came into 2016 with well over 200 career saves should have been the deciding factor.

Finally, the decision that probably hurt me the most the year:  Patrick Corbin vs. Kyle Hendricks.  First of all, I completely mis-remembered just how low Hendricks was drafted this year -- in one of my NL-only 10-team leagues, Corbin went in the 10th round and Hendricks in the 12th, in the other, Corbin in the 12th and Hendricks was the last pick of the 15th.  I loved Corbin coming in to the year; it was hard not to look at his shiny 2013 numbers and daydream about what might happen now that he would be another year removed from the Tommy John surgery that followed his great 2013. What made drafting him such a debacle was actually the fact that he stayed healthy and remained in the rotation for as long as he did; if you've had him in a lineup all year that's 142.7 innings of a disastrous 5.61 ERA and 1.64 WHIP.  He exemplified one of the most difficult things, in my opinion, about fantasy baseball:  when to cut bait on an underperforming player.  It's hard to dump a guy you had high hopes for in a deep league, especially when your mind inevitably thinks back and remembers all of the underperformers that you let go, only to see the players who treated you so horribly lead another team to fantasy greatness.

So how does all of this help me for next year?  For one thing, it reminds me that doing the research to get past the early rounds of a deep draft and head confidently with several late-round options is worth it.  It won't pay off every time, as all of us Derek Norris and J.J. Hoover drafters can tell you, but if I hadn't thought my drafts all the way through I wouldn't have ended up with Wilson Ramos or Jonathan Villar on a single team.  Also, it reminds me that whatever "expert" rankings any of us use to draft our players, those rankings will never, ever be exactly right (and many will look downright foolish) by September.  As bad a mistake as drafting Corbin proved to be, NOT drafting Hendricks was much, much worse. I certainly would not have predicted that Kyle Hendricks was going to be in the 2016 Cy Young conversation, but I was pretty sure he was being drafted much later than he should be.  What on earth was I waiting for in an NL-only league where Hendricks lasted until almost the 16th round??  If you have a strong feeling that next year's Kyle Hendricks is going to be more valuable than his ADP reflects, don't do what I did and get greedy.  If I had trusted my gut and drafted him where I thought he would have value rather than trying to outguess my fellow owners and see just how far I could wait on him, I would probably own him on all of my NL-only teams this year, instead of none of them.  If everything else had played out the same way on those teams, he alone could have made the difference between also-ran and first place for each and every one of them.