The Ultimate Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide For 2021 – Who To Draft & When

Nick Pollack details his plan for drafts in 2021, round by round.

It’s time for my yearly tradition – The Ultimate Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide for 2021 – My personal draft outline for who to draft and when.

In this guide, I’ll outline who I’m targeting in each round to which positions I’m focusing on getting early in the draft, and those on which to wait. All my favorite players are here in one place for each position, with a round-by-round outline at the end.

I’ve done this draft outline for years and for 2021 I wanted to add a bit more to this already bloated article, turning it into a proper guide instead of just an outline. We really need to talk about draft philosophy – specifically 12-teamer standard league draft philosophy, but much of this applies to other leagues as well. I’ve adapted many approaches and refined my strategy over the years and I wanted to take the time this year to discuss how you should be navigating your draft at a macro level before we determine who should be on our radar at the micro-level, round by round.

Before we begin, I want to direct everyone to our Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit For 2021. This is where you’ll get links to all our rankings, research articles, and individual player breakdowns for the 2021 season, for free. 

This written guide is to help with the draft process itself, while those rankings and links will help make the small decisions as you go.

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

 

Draft Strategies

 

There are many tenets of drafting I want to discuss, but if there is one that you take home with you it’s this:

 

You are not drafting a best ball team

 

I was tempted to write that multiple times because it’s just so dang important and easy to lose in the mix. As we prepare for drafts, we’re overwhelmed with different rankings and projections, from a site awarding “most accurate experts” that are determined from their pre-season rankings and how they played through the entire season (Spoiler alert: Those are best ball rankings, not draft rankings!) to a collection of projections that make you feel comfortable grabbing a pitcher because “he’ll give me a 3.80 ERA” or a hitter on your bench that gives you just enough RBI or Runs to make his spot worthwhile.

This is all a lie.

I’m willing to bet that you won’t be rostering at least 30% of the team you drafted by June 1st. Go back and look at your drafts from previous seasons and you’ll quickly see how few picks panned out in the back half of your draft. You should be drafting in a way that not only expects this, but plans around it.

Think of yourself, the astute, smart, dashing fantasy manager. In the 20th round, you drafted Brad Keller because the projections say he’s destined for a 3.85 ERA and 1.25 WHIP this year. What you’ll realize on May 15th is that Keller won’t perform at a 3.80 ERA across each start. Sure, the expected average at the end of the year is a 3.80 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, but on May 15th, that’s a 4.46 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. Do you have the faith to hold him? Has something changed?

The great news for you is that the waiver wire exists. You don’t have to keep rostering Keller. And even better than that, there will be so many available pitchers who will help you at that time, who you’ll be so happy to swap with Keller. This brings us to our next point:

 

Draft preparing to use the waiver wire

 

The waiver wire is a magical place. It’s where seasons are won, your next favorite player has a cozy abode, and feels like the most glorious mall in America where you can constantly go shopping. I can hear many of you right now “But Nick, it’s so hard to find someone good on the wire!” and to all of you, I want to show you an image:

 

All 12 of those pitchers had significant value in 2019 and were drafted after pick #300 – i.e. went undrafted in your 12-teamers.

Wait a second, I forgot a few pitchers in there. Let me repost that.

 

Ah, there we go. 24 pitchers with legit value through plenty of the 2019 season. But wait. Did you notice anyone missing from these images?

Mike Minor (200 Ks!)

Brandon Woodruff

Mike Soroka

 

All of those guys were pitchers draft past pick 300 – and I didn’t even include those who were dropped after a slow start and picked up later in the year!

Nick, how am I supposed to know which pitcher’s to pick up and when? Well, don’t worry about that one, just read my daily SP Roundup articles that will come out early in the AM every single day of the season. It’s why I do it and you will be able to get many of these arms – you’ll only need 2-3 to win your league!

Now that we’ve established that you want to pick up arms off the waiver wire, it’s important that you draft accordingly. What this means, is you have to set yourself up for a sturdy floor, then feel comfortable to take chances.

After going through the entire draft season, that SP plan has turned into drafting four starters who I’m confident I’m not dropping through the full season. Currently for me, that’s the Top 42 starters on my Top 100 Starters (updated every Monday through the season!). Get at least one rock in the first three rounds – maybe a second before the 7th – and then feast on the arms in my 30s who will go plenty later but will be on your “I’m not dropping” list.

Once you have those four, take all the fun picks you like, just make sure that we can collectively make a decision on them early in April – there’s nothing worse than taking a starter late in your draft and realizing he has poor matchups early that make him sit on your bench. You might as well take something that can give you value in those early weeks.

So take your AJ Puk, Jordan Montgomery, Matthew Boyd, Domingo German, etc. Don’t feel like you need a ratio “rock” with your fifth starter – you already have four others! – and you’ll be able to find one of them on the wire if you really want one during the season. Take those chances, make mistakes, and get messy.

 

This is for hitters, too

 

It also doesn’t apply just for pitchers. During the season, the two easiest positions to fill in your daily lineups are Outfield (especially in a standard 3 OF league!) and UTIL. That means as you traverse your draft, plan to leave at least one UTIL and one OF spot for the later rounds of the draft. Take a flier for each and plan to search the wire for that one guy who made the changes you like.

 

Other little things to consider

 

I’ll just bullet point now, and it mostly stems from that expectation that you’re going to be changing your team through the season.

  • Who cares which team is projected to win the season – that’s a best ball league and you’re not in one!
  • Drafting is about a floor you’re comfortable with early, then taking chances late – you can replace the week spots on the wire if you fall in the back half of the draft
  • Know yourself as a manager – are you better at finding hitting on the wire? Are you willing to make the changes each day for platoon bats? Will you have the time to make constant waiver wire swaps through the season? Draft to cover your weaknesses and open yourself up to take advantage of your strengths – for me, that’s a lot of hitting early (my weakness) and rely on the waiver wire for SP (my strength, shocking, I know).
  • When in doubt, draft a closer – Many people say “I’ll just get a closer on the wire” and I like to think I’m the same, but man, it’s annoying. When you’re going through your draft and don’t love any options, drafting a closer always helps. I’ve called closers “the currency of fantasy baseball” as every team can use one more guy for saves. You’ll always improve grabbing a closer.
  • Team construction is huge, especially for roto leagues. Look I don’t like punting categories as it puts too much pressure on winning the other categories. Go for “average” in saves and steals if you want, and reach on ADP if you need that one guy for steals at 2B. Who cares about ADP values, winning your league is way better.

 

Alright, I think that’s enough ranting before the draft outline. I needed to let all of that out as without the understanding of how I’m playing the regular season, this draft outline doesn’t make sense. You need to be doing both in tandem to win your leagues. You got this.

…fine. One more time

You are not drafting a best ball team.

Okay okay, let’s actually move on now.

 

Who I’m Drafting Round By Round

 

Draft Outline Primer

 

H’ok, the real meat of this article. Let’s go over the details of these picks and why I’m choosing who I am:

  • This outline is meant for a redraft, 12-teamer 5×5 Roto or H2H league with 23 rounds. It still applies to most variants, but obviously, it’s not a one-size-fits-all.
  • In general, the positional eligibility is Yahoo’s, which includes eligibility entering 2020. Know your league’s settings and adjust accordingly.
  • I have purposefully left some holes because drafts are fluid creatures that need affection and constant attention to nail down just right.
  • Don’t follow this so rigidly that when Brandon Lowe falls to the ninth round you ignore him.
  • Round targets are created based around Fantasy Pros’ ADP, which merges NFBC, Yahoo, and CBS data. They are a rough estimation and should give you a general idea of when you should be looking to grab them.
  • There are certain players who have round labels well before or after their ADP. Either I want to reach or I’ve seen them fall consistently and will watch their stock mid-draft.
  • These aren’t the only players I’m looking to draft, but they are the ones that I’m hoping fall to the right place.
  • I highlighted my favorite players for each position in yellow inside their tables, keep in mind this isn’t included in the master chart at the bottom as it would complicate things too much

I’ve done more mocks this offseason than any other year, testing strategies from different positions, and I’m going to bring in more bullet points to go over the general approach I have in drafts:

  • The trend you’ll see is that I elect to wait on grabbing starting pitchers. This isn’t for everyone and I understand if you want to be a little more aggressive than I am
    • I’m a huge believer that you should be drafting with the mindset of four to five SPs that you trust through the year, then your final four SPs are options that you’re okay dropping if they don’t pan out.
  • You need to have a 2B, SS, and 1B plan. C, 3B, OF all have later options that can work, while you can find yourself overpaying if you don’t lock in a 2B or 1B you like in the first 12 rounds.
  • Closers are dumb, and I hate them. You’re better off solidifying your offense than feeling OK with a stat that makes up only 10% of your week-to-week and isn’t even a guarantee. Check out Alex Fast’s We’ve Drafted Saves Wrong Again and you’ll understand.
  • The final eight rounds or so will be shooting for upside starters and bats. There are so many to choose from. I have specific guys I like. You probably have different ones, and that’s cool. Get your guys.

Alright, I think you understand the flow. Get tons of offense early, with at least one SP rock in the first 3-4 rounds, and trust in the starting pitching depth from rounds 7-14. Let’s focus on the specific players to target during your drafts by position and later round-by-round.

 

First Baseman / Utility

 

There are a lot of options at first base, but make sure you enter with a plan – there is a legit drop-off outside the first 10/11 rounds, starting with Josh Bell and Rhys HoskinsYou really don’t want to leave the draft with an 18th+ rounder as your first baseman.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s go through this in order. Freddie Freeman should be snatched around the turn as a secure bat that will help tremendously in the four major categories. DJ LeMahieu will likely be slotted at the thinner 2B position, but he’s still an option. I find myself gravitating toward one of Jose Abreu or Pete Alonso in the fourth or fifth rounds, but if I miss out, my eye is on Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo in the seventh. Max Muncy has plenty of flexibility and will produce in that Dodgers lineup, while Alec Bohm is sandwiched well at the top of the Phillies’ order. Mike Moustakas is primed for a bounceback after a tumultuous injured + COVID sick season, while Josh Bell and Rhys Hoskins should produce well above the waiver wire sitting in the top half of their offenses. For discount plays, Eric Hosmer is primed to scoop up RBIs in San Diego, while Trey Mancini could return to the excellent hitter of 2019.

CJ Cron is everyone’s favorite sleeper in Colorado, Christian Walker is hitting high in Arizona, Carlos Santana will get opportunities in Kanas City, and don’t forget about Andrew Vaughn’s likely early call up for the White Sox.

I’ve also put the two DHs I like – Nelson Cruz and Shohei Ohtani – in here as well and don’t overlook them in their respective rounds.

 

First Baseman Targets And Rounds

 


Second Basemen

 

You need to have a plan for second base. I generally find myself getting Whit Merrifield in the first five rounds or then pivoting to one of Gleyber Torres, Ketel Marteor Jose AltuveDon’t overlook Max Muncy or Mike Moustakas if you miss out on your favorites and need power, while Jeff McNeil is a solid average stabilizing bat if you need it.

It gets really bad after that. You’re better off just filling in other holes instead of jumping for a 2B in the middle rounds, as you should be expecting to scour the wire during year to fill the position. Ty France and Gavin Lux are both fun upside plays to take a chance on late, while Eduardo Escobar and Jean Segura are the safer plays to give you something in the opening weeks.

 

Second Baseman Targets And Rounds

 

Third Basemen

 

I wish they all could be third basemen. It’s hard to resist the power/speed of Jose Ramirezthe production floor of Manny Machado, Anthony RendonAlex Bregmanand Nolan Arenadoor the overwhelming power of Eugenio SuarezYou’ll see some of the familiar faces here after the 8th round with Muncy, McNeil, and Moustakas, but Matt Chapman, Alec Bohmand Kris Bryant each will fill in at third well.

If you’re somehow drawn elsewhere, Gio Urshela is a fantastic discount third basemen as he’ll tally up the RBI in a hefty Yankee lineup. Justin Turner, Hunter Dozier, JD Davis, and the aforementioned Eduardo Escobar all can be useful as well deep in the draft, probably more as your UTIL spot than as a starter.

 

Third Baseman Targets And Rounds

 

Shortstops

 

In roto leagues, I’m hoping to get one of the early shortstop to ensure I don’t have to overthink speed for the rest of the draft. That includes Fernando Tatis Jr. Trea Turner, Trevor Storyand Francisco LindorWe haven’t seen the full season yet, but Bo Bichette should be a backup if you want to go the speed early route, though you should be happy with Manny Machado, Xander Bogaertsand Alex Bregman as well.

If you miss out, you need to adjust. Heavily. Gleyber Torres is the next target and I may even jump to round 5 if I have a late sixth-round pick. Ketel Marte and Javier Baez both work as well and consider them as backups.

Let’s say the draft just isn’t going your way, well you essentially need to get one of Marcus Semien, Dansby Swanson, or Didi GregoriusSemien is my clear favorite of the lot, but you should be above water with any of those three. Lastly, there’s Andres Gimenez and Jean Segura as discount speed options if you’re in dire straits, but you’re not going to let that happen, right?

A quick note on two players. I’m not a huge fan of Corey Seager at his current draft price, which is why he’s not here. Meanwhile, Eugenio Suarez may very well be getting SS eligibility early in the year – keep him in mind in the fifth if you can wait it out.

 

Shortstop Targets And Rounds

 

Outfielders

 

In general, I believe that outfield is the easiest position to fill in-season, meaning that I’m not overly aggressive getting three I trust out of my draft. If I land an elite OF in the first round (Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout in pretty much any order), I’ll likely sit back, see if I can get George Springer in the fourth, snag JD Martinez or Nick Castellanos in the eighth, or grab one of the fun outfielders in the 11-16th, like Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Mike Yastrzemski, Eddie Rosario, Ramon Laureanoand so on.

Many of the popular 5th-10th round options (Teoscar Hernandez, Randy Arozarena, Trent Grishametc.) are a bit too risky for me to go after. I’d also see if I had room for some fun guys late, like Max Kepler, Anthony Santander, Trey Mancini, Aaron Hicksand a few others destined for great lineup spots.

Don’t focus too heavily on outfielders, there are more important spots to fill!

Update: With Eloy’s injury, I’ve replaced him with Marcel Ozuna. He was on the fence for me before and now I’d consider him with one fewer OF option.

 

Outfielder Targets And Rounds

 

Catchers

 

I’m stoked when I land JT Realmuto in the fifth or sixth rounds. He’s a massive jump above everyone else and in 12-teamers, you want to consolidate talent as much as possible. Yasmani Grandal and Salvador Perez are in great positions on their respective teams and if the league is waiting on catcher as a whole, they could be around to snatch past round 10. Travis d’Arnaud and Christian Vasquez are my two later options if I’m without a catcher past the midway point, otherwise, I’ll hope Mitch Garver is around in the later rounds.

It’s that simple, really. If you miss out, don’t worry, just follow Dave Cherman’s weekly Catcher streaming articlesThey are incredible.

 

Catcher Targets And Rounds

 

Starting Pitchers

 

This is the most aggressive I’ve been on Starting Pitcher since I started this site back in 2014…and I’m still a little under consensus. I think you’re wise to grab an SP in the first three rounds of the draft, but in most cases, just one. If I miss out on the top five draft picks, I’m targeting one of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Coleand Shane Bieber to kick off my draft. That allows me to ignore pitching for nearly all of the nine rounds to follow and feast on the middle crew.

However, if I miss them, I’d likely get one of my guys in the second round in Yu Darvish, Lucas Giolito, Aaron Nola, Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, and Trevor BauerI can also see myself content with Clayton Kershaw in the early part of the 3rd round if I expected the turn to avoid him. I may be inclined to go hitter-hitter from the 10/11/12 slots as well, priming myself for Kenta Maeda, or Brandon Woodruff at the end of the third or even entering the fourth, as well.

Once we hit the 5th+, I’m not in love with the SP options and likely turn to filling in my infield instead. Still, I’d consider Lance Lynn, Zack Wheeler, Max Fried, Kyle Hendricksand Zach Plesac if they fell (I don’t expect Corbin Burnes to!) and be prepared to take one if they are there around the 8th/9th. Definitely monitor your draft to see if pitching is getting pushed up plenty and you may need to reach a round for one of them.

Update: I’ve been incredibly impressed with Tyler Glasnow’s new slider and have added him as consideration after Lynn in the 5th and 6th rounds.

At the 10th, you should be shifting gears and focusing on getting at least two, if not three or even four starters up to the #43 spot on my Top 100 Starting Pitchers. Patrick Corbin, Chris Paddack, Sandy Alcantara, Lance McCullers Jr, Sixto Sanchez, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Pablo Lopez, and Aaron Civale should all be in your queue and ready to be snatched up, with a possible run of starters if you’ve elected to go just one or two across the early part of the draft.

Once I have my four/five starters I trust, I take a back seat and grab with the draft gives me. Yes, I like John Meansbut I won’t reach for him in the 15th with many excellent arms like James Paxton, Jordan MontgomeryDomingo Germanand Jose Urquidy routinely falling later. You only have so many spots to house pitchers and just be aware of the depth so you don’t find yourself unnecessarily reaching.

At some point, you should get one of Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaardor Luis SeverinoIt’s free real estate as they will help you when they return to the field. If you need to drop them before they return, sure! That’s fine. Give yourself that option in-season by drafting them now, then getting one of the final guys – Mike Minor, Zach Davies, Freddy Peralta, Drew Smyly, Mitch Keller, Logan Webb, Matthew Boyd – with their empty rotation spot.

In the end, want to know the real secret of starting pitchers? Just follow my daily morning SP Roundup and weekly The List through the season and you’re destined to land a staff you love by the middle of the season.

 

Starting Pitcher Targets And Rounds

 

Relief Pitchers

 

I’m not too keen on relievers, but I completely understand grabbing Josh Hader or Liam Hendriks in the seventh or eighth just to get it done with. Often I find myself seeing which of Raisel Iglesias, Ryan Pressly, Kenley Jansen, and Brad Hand falls during the draft and grab one of them when the time comes, often around the 11th round. After that, I’d take a flier on Rafael Montero, Will Smithor Amir Garrett as my second or third closer, and if you’re itching for one more, Anthony Bass, Jordan Hicks, Mark Melancon, Jake McGee, and Tanner Scott each could seize the closer role and hold it through the year.

In the end, listen to Rick Graham, our reliever expert who ranks The Top 40 closers every Tuesday through the season, and check out our daily morning Reliever Depth Charts piece to tell you who to snag.

 

Closer Targets And Rounds

 

All Targets Round By Round

 

I made this handy chart for you to reference through your draft:

 

Good luck! Here’s to a fun 2021 season ahead.

 

Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and Instagram)

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Creator of CSW, The List, and SP Roundup. Worked with MSG, FanGraphs, CBS Sports, and Washington Post. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum. Wants every pitcher to be dope.

  • Avatar Chris says:

    I think you missed Corey Seager, although I might have just missed him

  • Avatar Shawnuel says:

    The player I noticed missing is Corbin Burnes. Is he going too high for his price like Seager, for you?

  • Avatar Phelps says:

    What are your thoughts on Devers?

  • Avatar Will says:

    You’re missing Aldaberto Mondesi

  • Avatar Al says:

    I was waiting so long for this, and both of my drafts was yesterday :(. ¡Great work by the way!

  • Avatar Duke of Prunes says:

    I didn’t see Matt Olson. As an A’s fan, that hurts. :)

  • Avatar Rob says:

    Its like luis robert and keston hiura dont exist lol

  • Avatar Eric says:

    Thanks for putting this together! If you’re at pick #6 in a shallow H2H Categories league, would you go with deGrom or Trea Turner/Trevor Story? My league also includes OPS so I’ve been planning on taking a hitter first and waiting until the 4th/5th to draft Maeda or Lynn as my SP1. But top pitching already looks to be thinning out…

  • Avatar Jackie Moon says:

    Even if he’s only playing 130ish games if healthy, I think Donaldson is an insane value at his ADP rn. dissapointed to see him unlisted

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