Fantasy baseball preview: A look at Round 1

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Fantasy baseball preview: A look at Round 1
March 3, 2014, 10:00 am
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Mike Trout has some signifigant advantages over Miguel Cabrera, but it will be hard to go wrong either way with the first two picks. The rest of your first round's potential order is a little less obvious. (USA Today Images)

Over the coming days we'll preview the fantasy baseball season by looking at ascending and descending players, guys to pluck late and to avoid, and unconventional strategies for building a winning team. Today, we start with a look at the first round.

Fantasy baseball, because of the sheer depth of rosters, doesn't punish an owner who whiffs on his first-round pick the way fantasy football does. But if you can solidify your team with a sure thing in the first round, you give yourself flexibility with the rest of your team.

For example, I've never been a huge fan of drafting Robinson Cano when other, more exciting players are available. But taking Cano a pick or two ahead of his projection means that you're set at second base, one of the weakest offensive positions. That always comes into play by the summer. There will be a few teams in your league that struggle offensively, and they'll always look to upgrade their worst position. Find a desperate owner and you can turn Cano into a first-round hitter plus a very good starting pitcher.

Positional eligibility is always something to consider in fantasy baseball, and not just in the first round. It's one of the only advantages Miguel Cabrera has over Mike Trout if you're selecting first overall. Cabrera will be eligible at third base and first base. Trout will be eligible in both left field and center field, but very few leagues separate outfield by position.

Trout > Cabrera
Trout is the No. 1 player on most big boards, but Cabrera isn't far behind. 

Trout has hit .324/.416/.560 the last two seasons, with 57 homers, 180 RBIs, 82 steals and 238 runs.

Cabrera over that same span has hit .338/.417/.620, with 88 homers, 276 RBIs, seven steals and 212 runs.

In regular 5x5 leagues, Cabrera holds significant advantages in three categories.

But still, there are several reasons we'd rank Trout ahead of Cabrera. For one, Cabrera is eight years older and is coming off major offseason groin surgery. By all accounts, he has entered spring training healthy and ready to go, but a major injury to a 31-year-old who weighs 240 pounds can't be dismissed.

Another reason Cabrera should go after Trout: He no longer has the lineup protection of Prince Fielder, who was traded to Texas for Ian Kinsler. That will mean more walks for Cabrera, which won't help you unless OBP is a category in your league.

Both are remarkably consistent offensive stars who will you take you far, so long as you draft wisely. But if given the opportunity, I'm taking Trout ahead of Cabrera because quality power is easier to find in later rounds than stolen bases. Sure, you can grab a Billy Hamilton or an Elvis Andrus to swipe a bunch of bags, but they're going to do little else offensively. Trout can single-handedly win you steals in any given week.

Who goes 3-4-5?
With Trout and Cabrera off the board, anything goes. There is no consensus No. 3 pick; it's the kind of year where I'd rather draft seventh than third.

The candidates to be selected third are: Cano, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun and Chris Davis.

McCutchen, Cano and Goldschmidt will likely be drafted 3-4-5 in most leagues, but don't be a prisoner of the moment. Remember that while McCutchen won NL MVP in 2013, he has very little offensively around him. Cano is going to be walked a ton in a mediocre Seattle lineup.

I'm not so sure McCutchen and Cano will be better fantasy players in 2014 than Votto and Braun. Folks are down on Votto because he plagued them last season in standard leagues, totaling only 24 homers and 73 RBIs. He walked 135 times, which was a great boost in my OBP league, but I had friends who owned him in standard leagues that cursed his name every time it came up.

Votto won't have the same season. Expect the power numbers to go back up and the walks to come down a bit. The Reds need him to be more of a run producer with Shin-Soo Choo gone and Brandon Phillips declining. Votto won't significantly change his approach at the plate, but the Reds will be a worse offensive team that needs his bat more than they did in 2013.

With Braun, don't let your personal feelings stand in the way of a top-three talent. Braun doesn't need PEDs nor the Biogenesis clinic to hit .300/.390/.590. He's a perennial MVP candidate because of his ability to cover all parts of the plate with power. He also has something to prove after an embarrassing 2013. And he'll give you 25-30 steals, another plus.

Pitcher in the first?
Only if it's Clayton Kershaw. 

There's just too much uncertainty with Felix Hernandez (wins?), Justin Verlander (offseason core surgery), Jose Fernandez (wins? regression?) and Yu Darvish to spend a first-round pick on a guy who will play twice a week for you at most.

Kershaw, though, is a safe pick in the 6-10 range. He led the league in 2013 in ERA (1.83), strikeouts (232) and WHIP (0.915), and he pitches for a team that will win 95 games, so the victories will be there.

First-round mock
1) Mike Trout, LF/CF (LAA)

2) Miguel Cabrera, 1B/3B (Det)

3) Robinson Cano, 2B (Sea)

4) Joey Votto, 1B (Cin)

5) Andrew McCutchen, CF (Pit)

6) Ryan Braun, LF (Mil)

7) Paul Goldschmidt, 1B (Arz)

8) Carlos Gonzalez, OF (Col)*

9) Clayton Kershaw, P (LAD)

10) Chris Davis, 1B (Bal)**

11) Troy Tulowitzki, SS (Col)

12) Adrian Beltre, 3B (Tex)***

*Gonzalez was on pace for 46 homers before injuring his finger. Hasn't played in more than 135 games since 2010

**Davis will hit 38-plus homers again, but don't expect the batting average to be as high as it was in 2013. He hit .357 in his first 59 games, and .245 over his final 101. He's a lifetime .266 hitter.

***Beltre is as steady as they come. You know you're getting about a .300 batting average every month, and you know you're getting at least 30 HR and 90 RBIs. And now Beltre has Fielder and Shin-Shoo Choo in the lineup.