Few things are quite as jarring as shifting gears between deep and shallow leagues. The entire feel for what players should be available, who should be dropped or traded, and even who is considered a useful asset changes drastically based on the number of managers in your league. Every owner that’s added to your league is another hungry mouth to feed when it comes to each position, and the impact is multiplied by the number of players you need at each position on your roster.
To help you think about these issues, we’re going to look at three basic league sizes: 8-team, 12-team, and 15-team. Keep in mind that I’ll be thinking in broad terms here. There are some 10-team leagues that play like a 16-team league due to the number of roster spots, and other 12-teamers that play like an 8-teamer for the exact same reason. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume a basic league set up, like the ESPN or Y! standard. I realize that these are actually quite different formats and the strategic difference between the two could be an article on its own, but if you assume one of them for the whole piece, it’ll still work out just fine. (In case you’re curious, I’d say a 10-team default ESPN league is probably closer to a 12-team format, while a 10-team default Y! league is more like an 8-team format).
If you’ve played in standard 10- and 12-team leagues before, you probably have some sort of gut feeling on what a relevant replacement level pitcher looks like. Decent ERA, maybe less decent if they have more strikeout potential, maybe more decent if they are a command and control guy, etc. In a 12-team league where every manager owns an average of seven starters, 84 starters are on rosters at any given time. Using Nick’s current rankings, that means a replacement level starter is something like Cole Hamels, Adrian Houser, or Jordan Lyles. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, right? Well in an 8-teamer, that replacement-level shifts to something more like Eduardo Rodriguez, Griffin Canning, or Luke Weaver. That is a significant difference. Hamels and Houser go from replacement-level players worth watching (or possibly even drafting) to completely off the radar unless we see significant changes in their performance early in the season. It doesn’t take a math wizard to do this basic kind of comparison, but despite the simplicity it’s very important to keep this type of thing in mind, especially as we look at the other two topics.
It’s not always quite that simple, however. Each position is impacted differently. Starters and closers are probably the easiest to get a read on, but the hitter positions are a bit tougher.
To guide you, here’s a breakdown of each position with my view of how to attack it in each of the three categories of league size. This is by no means a replacement for mock drafting and research, but it should provide a decent primer on what to expect. Separate articles could arguably be written on each cell in the table below, but that would be a little ridiculous, you know?
|If you are the type who wants that elite guy in J.T. Realmuto, that’s fine, but otherwise I’d wait a REALLY long time before taking a backstop. You should be able to get a mostly full-time player, like Will Smith, Salvador Perez, Sean Murphy, or Carson Kelly, even if you wait until your very last pick. If the guy you take flames out, just stream. Keep in mind that due to the replacement level being higher, the necessity of Realmuto is lessened, so don’t pay full price for him. Gambling on a guy like Gary Sanchez is much more palatable, though, since you can replace him comfortably when he’s on the IL.
|It’s really the same as an 8-teamer, only there’s a bit more incentive to grab a guy like Yasmani Grandal, Willson Contreras, or Mitch Garver due to the lower replacement level. Still, waiting until after pick 200 is just fine, if not preferable.
|The tiers matter a little more now, as replacement level is essentially zero. I would ideally want a durable catcher who plays most days. Your personal catching philosophy will matter more, but I generally target the second and third tiers at the position. If it’s a two-catcher format, which is for some reason more common in 15-team leagues, you definitely want one of the top eight catchers. It’s worth noting that J.T. Realmuto is at his most valuable due to the miserable replacement level.
|Josh Bell, Max Muncy, Jose Abreu, Matt Olson, and DJ LeMahieu will all go within about 10 picks of each other in the 9th and 10th round. I’d try to target one of them unless you landed Cody Bellinger or Freddie Freeman in the first three rounds.
|There are about 13 first baseman I’d be comfortable with as my starting first baseman, and they’ll all be gone by the end of the 10th round or so (as several are also viable starters at other positions). If for some reason you cannot grab one of those guys, you might as well wait several more rounds for a guy like Luke Voit or Edwin Encarnacion, as the well will be basically dry by that point.
|Same as 12-team, only the situation is more dire. You really don’t want to be one of the folks who miss out and have to fall off the cliff.
|While deeper league players will feel the pinch at this position in deeper formats, you don’t need to prioritize this position at all in 8-teamers. Most of the desirable second baseman are multi-position eligible, so you’ll likely wind up with one whether you mean to or not. There are also a lot of high-floor, low-ceiling players that you won’t even need to draft, so feel free to gamble on Keston Hiura or Garrett Hampson knowing that Kolten Wong, Cesar Hernandez, and Kevin Newman will be there if it doesn’t work out.
|Roughly 14 second base-eligible players will be taken in the first ten rounds, and you want one of them as there’s a bit of a cliff after that. If for some reason you miss out or are very open to risk, you can take a shot on Cavan Biggio, Garrett Hampson, Kolten Wong, or Tommy Edman. The one thing I’d be trying to do is find the guy who seems to fall into your lap. The tiers at second base really blend together and lines are hard to draw, so stay open and flexible knowing that someone decent will fall to you by round 10.
|Similar to first base, really. There’s a cliff and you want to address the position before it, especially because competition for the few scraps that are out there later in the draft will be tougher. Nothing feels worse than reaching for a guy like Rougned Odor.
|Everyone will likely have their starter by pick 50, and because the starters are SO good, I’d probably advise against gambling at this position. The eighth shortstop off the board by ADP is Xander Bogaerts. The waiver wire will have good players for sure, but none at the level of the starters on your opponent’s roster. That tells me to shy away from Fernando Tatis Jr., Jonathan Villar, and Adalberto Mondesi and gravitate towards the rest of the top 10 at the position based on where I draft.
|It’s an interesting dynamic, but the position will actually “feel” deeper than it does in a 12-teamer because the “average” stats of a starter will be lower. Instead of half your league owning a top-10 caliber player at shortstop, only a third of your league will. If you don’t wind up with one of the top eight shortstops, it’s just fine to walk away from the draft with Tim Anderson or Marcus Semien as your starter, I just wouldn’t want to go any deeper than that. It’s a position to address in the first 10 rounds.
|This is the deepest position in fantasy, and you really can tell in a 15-team or deeper draft. Even guys like Elvis Andrus, who are unrosterable or mere bench depth in the other two formats, are serviceable starters in a 15-teamer due to the stolen bases, runs, and batting average. Andrus was the 23rd shortstop-eligible player off the board in our early Pitcher List mocks. I mean, I’d much rather have one of the top eight guys fall into my lap, but this position has the highest replacement level by far.
|You’re going to want to do one of two things: Take one of the top five third baseman (Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Jose Ramirez, or Rafael Devers) by the end of the third round, or wait until the 10th round or later and take Max Muncy, Matt Chapman, Josh Donaldson, or Mike Moustakas. The top five are just a class above, and because this is an 8-team league, you should get at least two opportunities to grab one of them (if not two, like a Bregman and Ramirez or Devers combo, which I’d also highly approve of).
|The position is nearly as deep as shortstop, and much like shortstop, the depth of the league makes more guys feel viable. Still, you don’t want to be the one stuck with Eduardo Escobar or the injury-prone Justin Turner when everyone else is rocking a bona fide top-100 player in that spot. Most of your league will land their guy in the first couple of rounds, so you might be able to find a value relatively late as managers ignore the position.
|There are really two tiers to target—the top tier, which has the top five guys, and the second tier, which has the sixth through 13th guys (ending with Matt Chapman or Josh Donaldson). The drop-off happens pretty quick after that, and there will still be several folks looking for a third baseman or UTIL guy who could scoop up the last of the viable starters.
|The available outfielders on the draft board will go from elite, to really good, to pretty good, to “meh” a lot faster than you’ll expect. I would want to make sure I secure three outfielder-eligible players by the end of the ninth round and four by the end of the 15th. You can safely stream the fifth spot as needed with a mix of upside guys or stable veterans depending on your specific needs, but you don’t want to do that with more than one outfielder due to the strength at the top of the position.
|In leagues with just three outfielders, it’s basically the same as the 8-team format except the replacement level is slightly worse. In leagues that use five outfielders, you’ll actually feel a bit of a pinch looking for that fourth and fifth outfielder. You’ll usually have to accept a few warts, like a poor batting average, so make sure you’re prepared. On the other hand, rabbits like Mallex Smith are easier to accept because you might be a bit more desperate for the steals.
|The replacement level in the outfield is better than it is at other positions in some respects, but it’s not as deep as third base or outfield. More than one team will be relying on a platoon player as a starter for their fourth and fifth outfield spots, and you probably don’t want it to be you. Doing that for a fifth spot might be OK, but it will make your margin of victory razor thin unless you can find a gem on the waiver wire at some point to add some depth.
|Streaming is just a way of life in 8-teamers. Try to secure three or four guys in the top three tiers of The List (first eight rounds). After that, it’s a crap shoot. I would recommend identifying which specific players you really feel strongly about at the position and doing mocks to get a feel of where they’ll fall. You’re going to be burning and churning starters all year due to the number of good pitchers that will be on the wire. You can actually play with a lot of strategies if you want—in shallow formats there are a huge number of viable strategies for pitching. The only one I’d say to stay away from is overloading early, like three in the first four or five rounds. The hole you’ll dig in hitting is just too deep to get out of.
|You’re still going to be streaming at least two starters per week, but you’ll need more in the way of reliable starters to keep your stats balanced. You’ll also be digging a bit deeper when streaming as there will be fewer “no-brainers” out there. A little research will go a long way, but you’ll need to do it. For the draft, there are still plenty of viable strategies. One thing that’s more viable in this format than the 8-team format is loading up on middle-tier pitching. Generally, as the leagues get deeper, the more valuable boring-but-dependable guys become.
|You need at least two anchors for your staff in the first couple of rounds, and you’ll need to address the position a little more intentionally due to the lack of replacement-level guys available, but it’s still not overly dire. You won’t want to use streaming to fill more than one or two spots in any given week, and the value of innings eaters jumps up a bit because there will be multiple weeks where you don’t actually add any streamers.
|The top-tier closers will be just as expensive as they are in deeper formats because of the volatility of the position, so be prepared to pay up if you want Josh Hader, Kirby Yates, Roberto Osuna, or Aroldis Chapman. If at all possible, I’d grab one of those top closers who will provide saves, strikeouts, and ratios. After that, you can essentially sit on the position until a value appears in the draft. There will be saves on the wire if you ever need them, which is a luxury that deeper league players don’t have, and it’s easier to catch up in the category as managers don’t really carry more closers on their roster than they do in deeper leagues. The one thing to avoid is bad ratios or a sub-9.0 K/9. You don’t need that kind of negativity.
|You can use generally the same strategy as the 8-team format, but you’ll have to be ready to speculate on saves more often as the waiver wire will only have part-time closers for the most part. Still, due to the way closers have rotated the last few years, I don’t suggest overvaluing them too early.
|A huge chunk of FAAB in these leagues is spent on closer speculation, as there are basically no saves on the wire at any given time. It’s important to make sure you have three guys who can get saves by the end of the draft. They need not be lock-down closers, but having all three guys at least be in the mix is important. The less you have to hunt on the wire for closers, the better.
|I tend to use my bench for risk/reward plays. There will be plenty of boring-but-safe options on the waiver wire at basically every position, so there’s no need to try and “cover” all of your positions on your bench unless you have VERY limited roster moves.
|I might keep one or two lottery tickets, but otherwise I’m using my bench to stash streamers and maybe one or two bench hitters. You can’t be quite as fast and loose due to the weaker quality of available players, and you have to be a bit quicker to act on up-and-comers. You still have quite a bit of freedom to get risky, but be aware of what’s on the wire at any given time so you know what positions you can actually replace out there if you needed to.
|You want to have coverage for most positions. The waiver wire will be pretty bare, and every time you go to the cupboard, the worse it will feel. It’s OK to hold on to one or two lottery tickets, but don’t be shocked if you have to trade or let one go.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)