2024 Fantasy Baseball Draft Blueprint: It's time to choose your own adventure!

Your blueprint to a successful fantasy baseball draft is here. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

The esteemed editors sent me this assignment in late January, as part of the spring baseball budget. I was on vacation at the time. I quickly glanced at the email, then headed for the driving range. My time in California was short. My first drive split the fairway.

The assignment: A Fantasy Baseball Draft Blueprint (similar to Matt Harmon’s 2023 blueprint for football, but much lighter).

(Inner monologue: seems reasonable. Fantasy baseball is my jam. The Football Blueprint was a 30-minute read. If I come in under that, I'm golden. Of course, baseball is a much longer season and most fantasy baseball leagues are more complicated than fantasy football leagues. There's a lot to unpack. Gulp.)

Since the assignment was passed on, I've done prep work on this article every day, sending myself text messages, scribbling notes on diner napkins, ranking and reranking stuff, trying to get a feel for the fresh draft season.

[Join or create a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball league for the 2024 MLB season]

Now it's like the late stages of "Almost Famous," when William Miller gets all his notes and photographs together and lets it rip. I only wish I could call Lester Bangs (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) for guidance.

Enough preamble: let's get down to business. Let's get you prepared for the big day. If you get even a small handful of things of value from this article, I'm thrilled.

And if you're in a hurry or want the filet of my spring fantasy advice, click here for my 24 best tips.

The rest of you, to begin: please consider three critical tenants of my overall fantasy ethos:

Fantasy sports are supposed to be fun

I know, I know: to most of us, it's more fun when you win. I won't deny that. But I'm never going to be the carnival barker who promises that following my advice will ensure that you dominate your league and crush your opponents. Sure, I want to help. And of course, I want to give you something interesting and thoughtful to consider. But I'm not marketing a wrestling network here. I'm not trying to outshout anyone.

When I first got into fantasy sports, the competition was a main reason why. But what snuck up on me was the social aspect. In about a week, I'll head back east and draft with old and dear friends in a legacy fantasy league that dates back to the grunge rock era. The next day, I'll draft in Tout Wars, with several familiar friends and colleagues I've known anywhere from 10-20 years. It's one of the best weekends of the year.

Later in the spring, I'll drive about 50 minutes north and participate in a live salary cap draft with some Michigan friends. To be blunt, the draft takes twice as long as it probably should, but I've learned to see that as a feature, not a bug. My competition in that room includes a baseball writer (and Hall of Fame voter) with several books published, an accomplished playwright, a musician or two, a variety of age groups represented. The banter is the thing. A longer hangout is actually preferred.

The draft is the best day of the season.

Scott Pianowski's tiered rankings: Catchers | Outfielders | Middle Infielders | Corner Infielders | Starting Pitchers | Relief Pitchers

I want you to have fun. And while building the strongest roster you can may lead to the purest form of fun, I don't mind if you deviate from that a bit. Pick some of your favorite players. Make sure your favorite team is represented somewhere. One of my former leaguemates would focus on West Coast players (despite living in the Eastern time zone) because their schedules lined up with his; it was easier for him to follow the late games. Coincidentally, his last name was West.

How you follow the games, that's up to you. Some will buy the baseball package and watch whatever they can. Others prefer to have something to follow along in highlights, or even with regular monitoring of the phone. I remember an old football-watching crony making an NBA bet once on an NFL Sunday. The bartender at the sports bar offered to put that Knicks-Pacers game on a side TV. "I don't want to watch it!" my adorable degen friend said. "I just want to follow it on the ticker!"

Fun is where you find it.

The best fantasy sports cheat code: Co-managing a team

Most fantasy baseball leagues will take up more of your time than a fantasy football league (although Yahoo's Start Active Players option is a nifty time-saver). While the fantasy sports world started primarily with baseball, the accessibility and modest time requirements of fantasy football zoomed it to the top of the food chain. There's less work to do, and fewer decisions to make. (If you'd like your baseball setup to be similar to football, we have some great ideas to consider.)

Nonetheless, the work required to smartly run a fantasy baseball team doesn't have to be overwhelming. And the best way to get that workload into a reasonable pocket is to sign on with a friend.

By co-managing a club, you have someone to share the work with, and someone to share the journey with. Just landed a freshly minted closer? You celebrate together. Does your ace starter have a balky elbow? You commiserate together. One of you can mind the store while the other is on vacation or tied up with a work project.

My most successful partnership works because my friend and I like and excel at different things. I'm pretty good with player evaluation and free-agent strategy, so I handle that. He's a master negotiator who is a wizard at imagining and closing trades; he's our pointman there. We also have a similar worldview on baseball and other things, which doesn't hurt.

But a partnership can also work even if the workload isn't a 50-50 split. I know some parents who run teams with their kids. A leaguemate of mine manages a team with his retirement-age dad because it gives his Pop something to look forward to every spring.

[2024 Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Start your fantasy prep at the end

I realize the first-round players in fantasy baseball are the signature guys, the magazine coverboys, the trending subjects on social media. But when I get around to crafting my fantasy strategy for any individual league, I start at the end. I ask myself a few basic questions:

  • What players, positions or stats can I probably acquire at reasonable mid-round prices?

  • What players, positions or stats can I probably acquire at the end of my draft?

  • What players, positions or stats can I probably add for free after my draft, or scoop up easily during the year?

The answers will vary from manager to manager, league to league. In some leagues, you have to aggressively pay up for saves. In some other leagues, you can find them cheaply during the year. It's going to largely depend on your league size, the free agency rules, the style of managers in your league, trends — multiple things. And a lot of that stuff might be unknowable to you, especially if you're the newest member of your league.

Still, I want you to at least think about it. Sketch out those middle and late rounds. Maybe you have a special affinity for finding a specific type of undervalued player. Play to your strengths.

A lot of words in the can, and we still have to get you more specific strategies and some player talk. Stay with me, here comes the steak. Just remember one cardinal rule: any strategy can work if you pick the right players, and any strategy can collapse if you land on the wrong guys.

Most of my early draft focus will be on acquiring offense

Most of my groups play in deeper-league mixed formats, where the everyday player pool will be dried up at the end. With that in mind, the primary focus of my early picks will be to acquire a strong foundation of offense.

That said, I don't want to ignore starting pitching. I just want to be careful with how I build my staff. It's been said many times by many voices: starting pitchers are the running backs of fantasy baseball. If you land on the healthy talents in the right years, you'll probably rule the world. But it's easy for a pitching-heavy strategy to fall apart quickly, as they carry so much constant injury risk. With hitters, you worry about a slump or an unlucky BABIP. With pitchers, James Andrews was your constant fear.

Although fantasy baseball requires more starting pitcher fills than you need backfield fills for fantasy football, I will nonetheless run a familiar strategy for my pitching mound — Anchors Aweigh.

I want one very good pitcher whom I can hang my hat on (and hopefully watch with a fairly relaxed stomach), and if I'm one of the last teams to draft that SP1, I will probably come back to my SP2 before other managers do. But I am not going to run a Pocket Aces strategy (two starters in the first 2-3 rounds), and the first 10 picks of my draft will probably include something like seven hitters.

With those early offense picks, I won't worry too much about positional fills. I just want the best stats I can get, the most stable assets I can invest in. I'll worry about shaping my roster and fitting positions later.

We all have our preferences regarding player types

One key factor I want you to be mindful of: player development isn't always linear, but player decline almost certainly is. This is overwhelmingly true in the aggregate for virtually every sport. I remind myself more and more every year: try to draft younger players, try to get players who are on the front nine, players who probably haven't had their best season yet.

This doesn't mean I won't target a few of the Ibañez All-Stars, the boring value vets. I love scooping up a profit simply because my opponents were sick of drafting a player who's been around the block, perhaps distracted by the shiny new toy. But the age target for that Ibañez group gets younger for me every year.

Some of the player types who catch my eye

Scott Pianowski reveals the top guys he's targeting this season. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
Scott Pianowski reveals the top guys he's targeting this season. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
  • I'm always going to target regulars on the juggernaut rosters. This is going to be near-universal, I get it. We all want to collect Dodgers — go here for more on LA's bountiful fantasy contributors — and Braves and Astros. The Rangers lineup looks loaded again, ditto for the Phillies. Tampa Bay sure seems to know how to build a pitching staff. Go where the runs are. Go where the ERAs are low. Follow the smart teams. Follow the likely wins.

  • Michael Harris II is one of my favorite targets because he's entering his third season, he's likely to get a better batting slot this year (increased volume coming) and the Atlanta offense is an unstoppable juggernaut.

  • Marcus Semien won't be an absurd value, but he's generally a round underpriced because of his age and because so much of his value comes from playing every game. Semien has proven durable for so many years in a row, I have to assume it's because he's taking care of himself and handling his business like a pro. Sure, it doesn't mean he can't take a fastball on the wrist tomorrow and see his season mucked up, but he's out-kicked his ADP so many years, I'm going to keep following him.

  • Trea Turner probably pressed in the first half of his Philly debut. He was back to star level in the second half. Turner can swipe a bag any time he wants it — 30-for-30 last year. It's still possible we haven't seen his best season yet, and his ADP is cheaper than it was last year.

  • Tarik Skubal was unhittable at the end of 2024, and now he's tied to a Detroit team that can push into AL Central contention. And the shape of that division is lovely, with so many soft landings. The Royals, White Sox and Guardians all have questionable offenses, and the Twins offense is built on several players who have considerable injury risk. The Tigers will offer some less-obvious value picks later, but Skubal is the type of player I want to go the extra buck on.

  • CJ Abrams is an easy pitch. Pedigree player, took off as the leadoff man last year, on the up escalator, has the athletic ability and more importantly the desire to steal a ridiculous amount of bases. An easy pluck in the fourth round.

  • This really is a placeholder for "Seattle Rotation." I want them all: Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo as well. But Kirby gets the note written for him because of his elite control, which makes him one of the easiest pitchers to watch on a per-start basis. The roomy ballpark is also a plus. Kirby is never going to be one of the K/9 leaders, but he misses enough bats (remember he led the majors in K/BB last year) and is excellent at inducing weak contact. Sign up for some Kirby enthusiasm.

Some of these big stars are just going way too high at ADP. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
Some of these big stars are just going way too high at ADP. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

Some of the player types who make me nervous

I'm a big believer in a concept popularized by industry veterans Glen Colton and Rick Wolf: be careful with any player who signs a big contract and changes teams. The adjustment period can be very stressful. Sometimes it results in a slow start that evaporates over three months or so; that's how Gene McCaffrey might frame it. Turner and Semien had those types of starts and rallies after they got paid and changed teams in 2023 and 2022, respectively. Other times, the player is headed for a full-on disappointing year.

I'm not sure Shohei Ohtani falls in this category, since he's not making a major geographic relocation and the Dodgers have so much star power, Ohtani isn't asked to be a team savior. The Dodgers are already loaded. But I'm worried about what Blake Snell might be in for when he eventually signs. (I also did a sigh of relief when Cody Bellinger re-signed with the Cubs. He's a proactive pick.)

You probably know how I feel about Injury Optimism — I think it's a pox, a way to torpedo your season. Let's be clear about what I mean; I'm not talking about players who could get hurt, although they often make me nervous, too. I'm talking about players who are already dealing with a significant injury. The moment the news got cloudy for Kodai Senga and Kyle Bradish — players I covered a month ago — I buried them in my rankings.

I am uncomfortable drafting a player at an ADP that assumes he will significantly improve or do something he's never done before. This applies directly to Tyler Glasnow, who is being selected in an early round that assumes he'll sail past his career-high of 120 innings. I am never going to draft with that much optimism, even when the player in question has the absurd stuff that Glasnow does. He's been one of my biggest fades all draft season. (Don't worry if you disagree, plenty of my esteemed colleagues agree with you.)

A word about saves and bullpens

Saves and the save chase are gigantic pains in the neck (though shifting to a saves-and-holds category is not an optimal solution for me, either). If my league is a saves-gobbling group, I'll target a Tier 2 closer who might slip into the top tier. Camilo Doval and Jordan Romano are my favorite possible leapers this year. I'm very unlikely to be the first manager to select a closer. (If you want a Tier 3 guy who could jump to Tier 2, Adbert Alzolay fits the suit.)

In shallow pools, you'll need 2-3 closers to compete. In deeper formats, 1.5 to 2.5 closers might work. Most managers will look to throw some darts and try to land some potential sleeper closers in the later stages, and you should, too.

I sign off on the idea that non-closing relievers can be godsends, fire-breathing dragons who smooth out your ratios, score a win here and there and maybe grab the ninth inning eventually. But because relief performance isn't the stickiest year over year, I prefer to grab this type of player after the season starts. Wait a few weeks, then sort through the free agents, focusing on K/BB ratio. Star relievers that you've never heard of will emerge every year.

Quickly auditing the other positions

Catcher is especially deep this year. If my format requires just one, I'll wait and wait and wait some more. If two are needed, I'll try to be late for the C1, and maybe earlier for the C2. I expect to be overweight on the Contrerases, and underweight on Cal Raleigh.

First base is a little top-heavy and I might break an early round tie by grabbing the infielder. I keep missing Freddie Freeman, but I'll fix that FOMO at some point. Bryce Harper was back to star level in the final quarter. The dots line up with Bellinger.

Second base has reasonable depth, though shortstop is even better. You know I'm a Semien guy. I try not to draft into bad offenses, but I think Zack Gelof can keep most of his impressive debut. Keep an eye on Colt Keith in Detroit, who already got paid and slashed .306/.380/.552 in the majors last year (27 homers in 126 games).

— Shortstop is a fun zone at the top, but the secondary depth is just so-so. The top four guys look like very safe plays. Dansby Swanson could rebound now that he's out of the adjustment-year vortex. I like J.P. Crawford late, but I want no part of Carlos Correa.

— José Ramírez still tops my third base board, but I want no part of him given the weakness of the overall Cleveland lineup. Your early picks should excite you! Austin Riley is a perfect second-round pick. Alex Bregman is an Ibañez All-Star, a boring veteran who's no longer an MVP contender but insulated by a very deep lineup.

The likes of Chris Bassitt and Alex Bregman aren't truly the graybeards pictured here, but their veteran status means they can sometimes get overlooked despite offering serious value. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
The likes of Chris Bassitt and Alex Bregman aren't truly the graybeards pictured here, but their veteran status means they can sometimes get overlooked despite offering serious value. (Photo by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

— One of your first three picks will probably be an outfielder, and I'm here for it. This is where so many superstars are. There have been past seasons with more second-half outfield depth, but with platoons making a sneaky comeback, I don't want to blow off the construction of the second half of my outfield. I'll be overweight on the aforementioned Harris, Lane Thomas, Riley Greene and it's a perfect post-hype setup for Jordan Walker. Can the Atlanta ecosystem get Jarred Kelenic going? Fred Zinkie thinks so.

— I'm out on Mike Trout, who doesn't run anymore, has a weak lineup around him, and can't be trusted for a full season. And yes, it's depressing to type all that.

— My Starting Pitcher attack zone probably runs from SP5-SP20, where I have to get at least one, and two is probably a good idea. Seattle's staff is overloaded with upside/floor combo specials, so take your pick. As I mentioned earlier, I love the Seattle rotation. Luis Castillo is a horse. George Kirby has immaculate control. Logan Gilbert is appointment television. Skubal is also someone to go after, and Framber Valdez checks so many boxes — plus control, ground-ball tilt, competitive in strikeouts, tied to a winning team.

On the downside, I can't pay the expectant price on Glasnow, I don't know how to handle Cole Ragans pitching out of his mind for two months (so I'll likely sit it out), Dylan Cease walks too many guys, and Snell feels dangerous with a late contract coming and a heap of pressure dumped on his shoulders.

I'll sign off on Kutter Crawford, a Dalton Del Don-approved sleeper. D3 also likes Hunter Brown in a post-hype pocket. Eury Pérez and Bobby Miller make the list of Andy Behrens' breakout leads. Fred Zinkie likes Griffin Canning, and I do, too.

A word about stat shapes

Modern MLB has been smothered by power for a while. Draft some power, and draft some power — and then go get some more.

The new rules led to an expected stolen-base spike, which means we need more than usual to be competitive. This is why so many of your early picks will be the rare few who offer power and speed. Here's Andy Behrens with more on the effects of those rule changes.

I love a team that dominates in runs scored, in part because that means I probably attacked high-slot hitters on plus offenses. Also beware the slugger who lags in runs scored, perhaps because of a lower lineup slot or maybe because of OBP or base-running issues.

When ERA and WHIP don't tell the same story, trust the WHIP. Did Todd Zola coin that? Gene McCaffrey? Michael Salfino? I don't think it was me, but I love it. I sure say it a lot.

I try to avoid slanted stat providers like Kyle Schwarber (lousy average) or Estuary Ruiz (one-trick steals pony). Once you draft one of those guys, a chunk of the pool now becomes unrosterable for you.

What a typical draft of mine might look like

  • Round 1: Best offensive player I can get, almost certainly in a fun offense

  • Round 2: Best offensive player I can get

  • Round 3: More offense, without duplicating positions if it makes sense

  • Round 4: Probably a starting pitcher. If Rounds 3 and 4 flips, that's fine.

  • Round 5: Another offensive foundation piece, with an eye toward the statistical shape of my earlier picks.

  • Rounds 6-10: At least one more starting pitcher, probably two. Maybe a closer, but that's very room-dependent. Offensive picks will start to be more sensitive to roster needs, though skills always come first.

  • Middle Rounds: Middle-of-staff building probably becomes an every-other-round thing for a while. Some bullpen hits. More open to good players on mediocre offenses; playing time is a currency.

  • Late Rounds: Upside is super important now. Do some save speculating.

Remember, this is always a general guide — it's in pencil! Stay flexible! Be ready to pounce on unexpected opportunities that present themselves. A rigid draft plan is never recommended.

Last-second swing thoughts

Thank your commissioner. And then wait an hour and thank them again.

The shallower the format, the more late-round picks have to be about upside. In deeper leagues, floor picks carry more weight. But you'll also want some ceiling picks in the late stages, too.

A chunk of in-season production with unknown players quickly supersedes what I thought about that player before the year started, especially if there's a logical reason to support what they're doing. But you can't wait for proof in most competitive leagues; by the time proof arrives, that player has been scooped up.

Get to your in-person draft early. Get a seat, a workspace, a vantage point you like.

Try to get a good night's sleep. Luck favors the prepared mind, but luck also favors the rested one.

Listen to everyone you respect, but make your own decisions. Measure a few times, cut once.

If you play in a head-to-head format (now the most popular Yahoo fantasy baseball format), statistical balance is less important than it is for traditional roto. I'm more likely to punt something in a head-to-head format, especially if there are more than 10 categories.

It's the age of baseball enlightenment, with so many smart writers and data-filled websites. Nick Pollack and Eno Sarris probably invented a new stat each before they had their breakfast today. I consider everything they say. That all said, the water of pitching stats will always be K/BB ratio.

Don't watch your closer pitch, it will age you at an accelerated rate.

I've never seen a Colorado roster this thin. It's depressing. You're too smart to draft Colorado pitchers, but the offense has only a few players worth considering.

I have great love and admiration for my Yahoo colleagues. Read Andy Behrens when you want some common sense or a prospect take, Dalton Del Don when you're ready to take a risk and Fred Zinkie when you need to figure out a trade. Jorge Martin is a wise soul who always offers me a sage piece of advice or a human story just when I need it.

I could give you a bottomless cup of industry experts I admire, but I specifically like Gene McCaffrey's writing style and playing approach, Adam Ronis' consistent flow of +EV advice, Patrick Davitt's wonderful long-form interviews on the Baseball HQ podcast and Sara Sanchez's sharp under-the-hood takes on stuff, especially the Cubs. I bug Jason Collette a few times a year for Tampa Bay tips; I'm grateful he always responds. Paul Sporer is always level-headed. Sarris and Pollack I mentioned earlier. The list goes on and on. Bless Justin Mason for standing for so many good things. Andrea Arcadipane is a rising star. Ryan Bloomfield makes you a better player.

I've been lucky to have relationships with Yahoo partners Rotowire and Rotoworld, and I've never worked with someone in those shops that I didn't like and respect. Jeff Erickson is as good a guy as there is. Clay Link and Scott Jenstad will make you smarter. D.J. Short and Eric Samulski are wonderful podcast partners and sharp guys. I feel bad for all the good people I don't have time to mention. So many managers and editors and producers are doing great work to make us look good and sound good.

Go find your people. Cultivate your cabinet. And let's have a fun season.