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Thursday 30th Mar 2017

Maybe spring training stats don't matter, at least for players assured a spot on their club's 25-man roster. But as fantasy baseball owners, we love looking at those box scores, especially after a five-month withdrawal. Although overvaluing spring stats is a mistake, glancing at the various leaderboards is a useful exercise. First, it can reassure an owner that a certain player who they are planning to target is indeed worth targeting. But even more importantly, it's a way to think about several players who you might not have normally thought about.

So, which top performers from Spring Training 2017 have caught my attention?

Maikel Franco - To be honest, Franco caught my attention well before his red-hot spring that has included an MLB leading nine home runs and 23 RBI across 22 games. Ever since November, when I began perusing the 2017 positional rankings on various sites, I couldn't quite understand why a 24-year-old third baseman who clubbed 25 home runs while collecting 88 RBI was getting such little respect. For some reason, Franco is largely ranked outside the top-15 at his position. And that's fine, because I'll be drafting this 30-100 candidate every chance I get. Unfortunately, his stellar spring performance might raise his price to the point where he will be only a small bargain. 

Brandon Belt - Six seasons into his big league career, Belt has yet to demonstrate the kind of power that was widely expected upon his debut. But his spacious home ballpark in San Francisco probably has a lot to do with the underwhelming home run numbers. Note that 24 of his 35 home runs over the past two seasons have come on the road. So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that through 19 games this spring, away from AT&T Park, the Giants first baseman has tallied five home runs to go along with 19 RBI and a .469 OBP. Actually, the OBP isn't much of a surprise, as Belt is coming off a 2016 campaign in which he posted a .394 OBP. From a fantasy standpoint, the 28-year-old would be a lot more appealing if he played for a different team. Outside of OBP leagues, I'm not too excited about him.

Yan Gomes - Things can't get much worse for Gomes, right? To call last season a disaster would be an understatement, as the Indians backstop was limited to just 74 games due to a separated shoulder, in the process registering a .167/.201/.327 slash line. On the bright side, he did slug nine home runs in those 74 games, proving that a return to the 20-homer level is within reach with better luck in the health department. And he's off to a strong start this year with six home runs, 11 RBI and a 1.077 OPS through 19 spring training contests. Available at a steep discount, Gomes could reward his risk-taking owners with a significant return on investment.

Chris Owings - Expected to serve as the everyday shortstop for the Diamondbacks in 2017, Owings carries plenty of speed potential, though he will need to get on base at a higher rate than last season's .315 clip to fully utilize his wheels. Cheap speed is even more valuable these days, with stolen base totals down throughout baseball. With eight swipes through 22 games this spring, Owings trails only Danny Santana in thefts. The 25-year-old is well worth a late-round pick in mixed leagues. His eligibility at both shortstop and the outfield is an added bonus.

Brandon Drury - Staying in Arizona and sticking with the theme of multi-position eligibility, Drury quietly put together a solid rookie season in 2016, batting .282 with 16 homers and 31 doubles across 134 games. Especially encouraging is that he finished the year in grand fashion, hitting .357 with six homers, 19 RBI and 22 runs scored from the start of September through the end of the season. And he's carried over this hot streak into 2017, batting .389 with four home runs, 13 RBI, ten doubles and 18 runs scored through 27 spring games. If Drury doesn't already have second base eligibility in your league, he will by mid-April, and it is at the 2B position where he offers the most fantasy value. The 24-year-old is a fine choice to fill your starting MI slot in any format. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB 

At precisely 1:00 PM ET on Monday, February 20, I began to draft my first "real" team of the 2017 fantasy baseball season. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning on Monday, March 13, it was all over. The NFBC Draft Champions league format consists of a 50-round slow draft with no in-season pickups allowed. The team you draft is the team you will manage for the entire season, though managing involves only setting full lineups on Mondays with the option of making hitter lineup substitutions on Fridays. So, coming out of the draft with enough bench options at every position, especially starting pitching, is vital, as you need to protect yourself in the event of injuries to your regulars.

Since participating in my first Draft Champions league back in 2013, I've become a big fan of this setup. Not only does it require less of a time commitment during the season for someone playing in a large number of leagues, but it has become an excellent preparation tool for my other drafts. There is ample time to do research in between picks, research that is much needed when faced with real decision dilemmas. But even more helpful is that thanks to the depth of this draft, you will become so familiar with the player pool that your other drafts will seem like a breeze. Sort of.

With my Tout Wars auction draft less than a week away, I have just about finished preparing for the auction portion of the proceedings. But the reserve rounds, which follow a classic snake draft format, cannot be overlooked. Yes, it was in the reserve rounds that I drafted Trea Turner last year. 

Anyway, I tend to use my Draft Champions league results to help me prepare for the Tout Wars reserve rounds, and this season is no different. Let's take a look at a group of players, drafted in rounds 24-29 (there are six reserve slots in Tout), who could deliver a strong return on investment.

Wei-Yin Chen - Chen was supposed to enjoy a career-best season pitching for the Marlins in 2016, his first year in the NL. And this optimism was justified considering that he had registered a 3.72 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over his first four big league seasons with the Orioles in the heavy-hitting AL East. Instead, the 31-year-old southpaw posted a career-worst 4.96 ERA, though elbow issues almost certainly contributed to his inconsistency. All reports indicate that he's fully healthy now, so I'll side with the track record and give Chen another chance. The good news is that his fantasy stock has dropped to the point where he can be drafted as a fifth or sixth starter, even in a deep mixed league. There's plenty of profit potential here.

Mike Leake - Always boring but usually effective, Leake was both boring and ineffective last season. After a rough April (5.83 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), he rebounded in May to the tune of a 2.31 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. But it was all downhill from there, as the Cardinals righty failed to post a sub-4.00 ERA in any other month. Somewhat encouraging is that Leake's FIP (3.83) was almost a full run lower than his ERA (4.69), which suggests that poor defense contributed to his disappointing ERA. Considering his big league body of work, expect Leake's 2017 ERA to be closer to his 2016 FIP. He's a viable back-end of the rotation option in deeper mixed formats.

Lucas Duda - Seriously, can this guy ever stay on the field? A back injury limited Duda to just 47 games last year and the Mets first baseman has managed to suit up for only 182 games combined over the last two seasons. He's missed time this spring due to back spasms and hip soreness but is healthy at the moment, however long this moment will last. Duda launched a total of 57 home runs from 2014-2015, so the power is legit. Also legit is his ability to get on base, as he sports a career .343 OBP, this compared to his career .246 batting average. In OBP leagues, he's well worth a late-round flier, and even in standard 5x5 formats, owners in deep mixed leagues should not forget about Duda if they choose to go cheap at the CI spot.

Trevor Plouffe - Let's see, 22 homers and 86 RBIs in 2015 followed by 12 home runs and 47 RBIs across 84 games during an injury-shortened 2016 campaign. That's pretty solid production from a player who is garnering little interest in drafts. Yeah, Oakland isn't exactly an ideal landing spot for a power hitter, and Target Field is quietly a plus for righty power, but we're talking about a reserve round pick here. I'll think long and hard about grabbing Plouffe in the Tout Mixed Auction on Saturday,

Jose Berrios - Look up the term "post-hype sleeper" and you'll see a picture of Berrios. For some reason, this 22-year-old righty has disappeared from the fantasy radar just one year after everyone couldn't stop talking about him. Berrios, who boasts a minor league record of 46-25 to go along with a 2.89 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 rate, had a rough time adjusting to the Majors last season, going 3-7 with a 8.02 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in 14 starts for the Twins. But the fact that erratic command contributed heavily to his big league struggles is actually a positive note. Wait, what? Berrios walked more than five batters per nine innings while with Minnesota yet his minor league walk rate is 2.5 BB/9, hinting that nerves could be largely to blame.

I guess this case falls under the 90 percent of the game that's half-mental. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

Analyzing the FSTA draft results is fun. But the real fun begins upon the conclusion of the Mixed LABR draft, when we actually have two non-mock industry drafts to compare and contrast. When it comes to preparing for our own drafts, the more data the better, and the first thing I look for are the draft position discrepancies. These are often the controversial players, the players who carry varying degrees of value depending on which pundit you ask. These are the players who you will need to think about the most, the goal being to form your own educated opinion. Well, it's now time to start thinking about these guys.

Joc Pederson

FSTA: Pick #106 

Mixed LABR: Pick #190

Pederson's inability to hit lefties will continue to take away at-bats, but the 24-year-old has now posted back-to-back 25-plus HR seasons. Despite the high strikeout totals, the power is legit, and Pederson is still young enough to improve and maybe even earn some more at-bats against lefties. The way I see it, Pederson's .246-25-68 line from last season is his floor for 2017, and he's especially appealing in OBP leagues (career .349 OBP). His FSTA price is reasonable. His Mixed LABR price is a huge bargain.

Yasmany Tomas 

FSTA: Pick #115

Mixed LABR: Pick #184

I just don't get the pessimism surrounding Tomas among the Mixed LABR owners. To repeat a nugget I shared in The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2017 Professional Edition, Mookie Betts, Yoenis Cespedes and Ryan Braun were the only other outfielders to bat at least .270 with at least 30 home runs last season. Yeah, this surprised me too. While many of your league mates focus on Tomas' poor plate discipline and defense (which doesn't count in fantasy, by the way), go ahead and spend a mid-round pick on this underrated power source.

Hunter Pence

FSTA: Pick #122

Mixed LABR: Pick #175

The model of durability throughout most of his career, Pence has been limited to just 158 games combined over the last two seasons. His on-field performance hasn't really suffered, which suggests a return to health could result in a return to All-Star form. Pence has been a member of many of my fantasy squads over the years, so maybe I'm biased in my optimism, but I'm certainly intrigued by the idea of drafting him as a third or fourth outfielder in mixed leagues and possibly getting back OF2 production. The fact that Pence recently had to slow down his workouts after receiving treatment on his side probably contributed to his cheaper price in Mixed LABR, but this issue is not considered to be serious.

Felix Hernandez

FSTA: Pick #127

Mixed LABR: Pick #186

Was Felix's inconsistent and injury-marred 2016 campaign an aberration or a case of a 30-year-old former elite hurler who is simply worn down from a massive number of innings (2415 2/3 to be exact) at a relatively young age? While his ace days might be over, it seems like the market has completely given up on him, which is a little unfair. I'd be happy to draft Hernandez as my second or third starter in a mixed league, and he's a steal at #186 in Mixed LABR. His FSTA draft position sounds about right. 

Vince Velasquez

FSTA: Pick #155

Mixed LABR: Pick #214

After going 8-2 with a 3.32 ERA across 15 starts in the first half last season, Velasquez stumbled in the second half (0-4, 5.33 ERA in nine starts) before being shut down in early-September due to an innings limit. Still, it was an impressive first full season in the big leagues for the 24-year-old righty, who registered a gaudy 10.4 K/9 rate. Perhaps he was a bit overvalued as a 12th rounder in the 13-team FSTA draft, but a 15th rounder in the 15-team LABR draft? There's a lot to like about that. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

When preparing for my fantasy baseball drafts, I begin with a process of elimination approach. Go ahead and try it sometime, it can be effective. Rather than deciding players to target, make a list of players you have no interest in, due to performance, draft price inflation concerns, or a combination of both. Often, this list will be a long one, but that's good. The less players to consider on draft day, the better. 

A common mantra among industry pundits is to be prepared to draft anyone if the price is right, which makes sense, though it is not entirely realistic. If you have negative feelings about a certain player, chances are you will not draft him, even at a discount. So, using the Mixed LABR results and the results of my NFBC Draft Champions draft still in progress, here are some early-round players who I'll be staying away from. Note that both of these leagues are 15-team mixed leagues.

Trea Turner

LABR: Round 1, Pick 10

NFBC: Round 1, Pick 8

Drafting Turner in the first round seems crazy to me. But if you want him this year, it's looking like he will not fall past the opening round. This is a guy with three months of big league experience. It was a remarkable three months, but it was three months. The speed is unquestioned, but a .342 batting average and 13 homers in just 73 games? Turner's career .316 AVG in the Minors suggests that a .300 AVG is certainly attainable, but he slugged a combined 19 home runs in 268 minor league contests, so matching last year's 13 home runs, even in a full season, is far from a lock. If you own Turner in a keeper league, congratulations. But in a redraft league, let someone else make the first-round investment. For reference, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera and Anthony Rizzo were all taken after Turner in both of these drafts.

Giancarlo Stanton

LABR: Round 2, Pick 14

NFBC: Round 2, Pick 13

The issue here is health, and when it comes to health, it's tough to have much confidence in Giancarlo. Detailing each and every one of Stanton's injuries over the years is equivalent to a thorough lesson in human anatomy, and at some point, it is fair to wonder if staying healthy is as much a skill as it is luck. Rather than banking on that "imminent" 50-home run season, I'll be looking elsewhere in the second round, and so should you. Wait another round or two and draft Nelson Cruz or Yoenis Cespedes instead.

Jean Segura

LABR: Round 4, Pick 10

NFBC: Round 3, Pick 6

Can Segura steal 33 bases again? Sure. Can he score 102 runs again? Probably not. Can he hit .319 again? Highly unlikely. Can he launch 20 homers again? No way. Prior to last season, Segura had amassed 23 career home runs in 479 games, and he will now be moving from hitter-friendly Chase Field to spacious Safeco Field. In order to earn third or fourth round value, he will need to at minimum bat .300 with 15 homers, 30 steals and 90 runs. I'll pass.

Kyle Schwarber

LABR: Round 5, Pick 13

NFBC: Round 6, Pick 9

Impressive hitter, but a hitter with only 236 big league at-bats under his belt. The fact that Schwarber made a sooner-than-expected return from major knee surgery is encouraging. The fact that he is slated to bat leadoff this season is encouraging for his runs total but discouraging for his RBI upside. He will not be catcher-eligible in most leagues, to open the year at least, which is discouraging. Also discouraging is his likely draft cost, which equates to that of a proven .290-30-100 slugger. Although I'm not strictly opposed to owning Schwarber this season, he will surely be gone by the time I'd seriously consider drafting him. And I'm fine with that.  

Eric Hosmer

LABR: Round 6, Pick 1

NFBC: Round 7, Pick 7

Let's see, 19, 14, 17, 9, 18, 25. Which of these numbers doesn't belong? Hosmer recorded a single-season high 25 home runs last year, but there's reason to be skeptical regarding his ability to sustain the increased power. The Royals first baseman has always been more of a ground ball hitter, and his GB/FB rate last season was actually a career-high. But his HR/FB rate was also a career-high. Strange indeed. Drafting him with the 76th overall pick is assuming that he will duplicate the 25 homers. Pick #97 is reasonable, but I still want more proven power from my starting 1B. 

When Hosmer's name is called at the Tout Wars Mixed Auction in three weeks, you won't hear a peep from me. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

How do I know when it's time to raise the intensity of my fantasy baseball draft preparation from relaxed to serious? Of course, it's when the annual MLB.com Fantasy 411 mock draft, a 12-team, 23-round exercise, gets underway. I've been running this mock, conducted via e-mail, for quite some time now, and even more helpful than the pick-by-pick results is the pick-by-pick commentary from each of the owners.

Well, five rounds are complete, and these five rounds had a much different feel than the early rounds last year. But why? Just out of curiosity, I decided to peruse the results from the 2016 MLB.com mock (yes, I did have this page bookmarked in my browser). Not to sound cliché or anything, but what a difference a year makes. Let's take a look at a handful of players who were selected within the first three rounds in the 2016 mock but have yet to find a mock team home in the 2017 version.

Jose Bautista (Round 2, Pick 11 in '16) - Forget five rounds. There's a real possibility that Bautista will still be on the board in Round 10. The veteran slugger's contract year didn't exactly go as planned, as he posted his lowest home run total since 2009 and was limited to 116 games due to injury. So, Joey Bats was forced to settle for a one-year deal to remain with the Blue Jays. Despite his advanced age and shaky health history, the 36-year-old actually offers some appeal as a discounted power source if drafted at the right spot, let's say #100 overall. Just be careful not to chase his past.

Chris Davis (Round 3, Pick 8 in '16) - Speaking of power, this guy has plenty of it, and it shouldn't be much longer before his name is called (or in this case typed and sent). He was probably a bit overvalued in 2016 drafts, and his batting average has fluctuated wildly from year to year. But Davis is also one of the only safe bets for 35-plus homers. His fantasy value is boosted significantly in OBP leagues thanks to his consistently high walk rate. In those formats, he will be squarely on my radar.

Todd Frazier (Round 3, Pick 10 in '16) - Frazier is coming off a season in which he set career bests in homers, RBIs and runs scored, yet his fantasy stock has dropped. Ah, the batting average. His .225 mark was a career worst. Do note, however, that his BABIP was an unusually low .236, so with a little better luck, a return to the .250 level is well within the realm of possibility. Considering the reduced price tag, I'm very interested in rostering Frazier this year.

Carlos Gomez (Round 3, Pick 11 in '16) - Gomez, on the other hand, is someone I'm not too interested in rostering. Yeah, his 33-game stretch with the Rangers last year was impressive, but how can one overlook the first four and a half months of his 2016 season? And he was already showing signs of decline in 2015. Back with the Rangers on a one-year deal, the former All-Star will try to prove that his finish to 2016 was no fluke. There will be someone in every fantasy league who will reach for Gomez. Don't be that someone. 

Gerrit Cole (Round 3, Pick 12 in '16) - What a letdown. Cole's exceptional 2015 season (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) convinced many owners (including yours truly) that he was a legitimate fantasy ace and would remain a legitimate fantasy ace for years to come. So much for that. Multiple injuries marred his 2016 campaign, and even when he was able to take the mound, the consistency just wasn't there. The elbow issues are a little scary, but the good news is that he's expected to be fine for spring training. There's some risk here, but Cole's expected mixed league SP3 price factors in that risk. Ultimately, this is a risk I'll be willing to take. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

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