An Early Look at 2017 Positional Depth

I’m in the process of getting ahead of myself. I’ve compiled a Way Too Early Ranking for every position, and those will be released soon. Before that, we need to finish reviewing what happened in 2016. But like I said, I’m ahead of myself so let’s put the 2016 review on hold for another day.

Most of the questions I’m getting from readers are about keepers. Positional scarcity and opportunity cost are important factors in choosing a keeper or deciding to execute a trade. First we need to know how many options we have at each position. Here’s a table. Behold.

Quality of Players by Position
Position Elite Quality Plays Acceptable Patches Total
C 3 7 6 6 22
1B 7 5 7 4 23
2B 2 11 8 6 27
3B 5 12 7 5 29
SS 7 3 8 6 24
OF 10 21 25 28 84
SP 9 18 21 41 89
RP 7 10 7 11 35
Total 50 87 89 107 333

One caveat about the numbers – some players are listed at multiple positions. For example, Jonathan Villar and Kris Bryant are elite at more than one spot. So the actual count is slightly lower than reported above.

Ideally, you want a roster of players from the left side of the table. That’s roughly 130 players. Even without publishing the specific rankings, you should have a pretty good idea of where your players fall on the spectrum. Now here’s a different table.

Players Rostered
Position Players Rostered
C 24
1B 24
2B 24
3B 24
SS 20
OF 72
SP 80
RP 36

In a typical 5×5 Roto league (i.e. 2 C, 5 OF, MI, CI) about 300 players are rostered with roughly the above breakdown. Comparing the two tables, some positions are in much better shape than others. At corner infield, 29 of the roughly 48 rostered players are high quality or better. Middle infield is comparably deep. Meanwhile, outfield, starting pitcher, and catcher are borderline disaster zones.

Lesson #1 – Perceived vs. Real Scarcity

Actual scarcity has important strategic implications to business as usual. Conventional thinking says that second and shortstop are the scarce positions. There are issues with the middle infield larder. Second base is short on elite talent and long on second tier players. Shortstop is the opposite. The table doesn’t show it, but second base stays deep after the first two columns. Their “acceptable” plays are relatively better than their shortstop counterparts.

Still, we have a situation where there’s a big supply of good middle infielders. Things are a little tighter elsewhere. I had a commenter ask me about an offer of Mookie Betts for his Carlos Correa. As far as I’m aware, the cost of keeping both players is identical. Under conventional thinking, Correa’s positional value could be enough to justify hanging onto him over the clearly superior statistical player. In reality, take Betts. A stable of top outfielders is harder to find than one great shortstop. As it turns out, the guy who asked for my advice also has Trevor Story.

Lesson #2 – Rankings Have Weaknesses

Let’s start with reliever. Any preseason list is going to look wildly different than the end of season values. Pitchers land on the disabled list (Wade Davis), others flop (Trevor Rosenthal), and still others emerge out of nowhere (Edwin Diaz) or finally get a chance to close (Dellin Betances). In most leagues, you shouldn’t fuss about owning the top closers in the offseason. They’re a luxury good, a final touch rather than a must-have.

At catcher, there’s less opportunity to find a surprise gem. Sure, sometimes a Gary Sanchez or Willson Contreras appear. Maybe Austin Hedges or Blake Swihart play that role next season. Probably not. There can be a big gap between the elite catchers and their workaday brethren. Valuing those few quality options depends on your league settings. It’s good to find a Sanchez or Contreras, but you need a serious surplus before you buy one on the trade market.

While the early offseason lists for outfield and starting pitcher are a tad ugly, things tend to turn out better by the end of the season. The challenge is grabbing Rick Porcello but not James Shields or Jordan Zimmermann. Or taking the right cuts of meat from Danny Duffy and Steven Wright. In retrospect, it’s easy to say Porcello over Zim. At the time, I know I would have shrugged when offered the choice of the two. There’s a lot of luck involved with picking the right pitchers.

Lesson #3 – This Isn’t Everybody

Had we gone through this exact exercise last winter, we wouldn’t have included Villar, Jose Ramirez, Jean Segura, or Adam Duvall. In fact, more than a dozen high quality hitters would have been categorized as roster patch or worse. Even more pitchers would have missed the bubble – that’s the nature of the position.

It’s often wise to use your bench to speculate on the next Hernan Perez or Eduardo Nunez. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a good season out of a nobody. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll catch a real, repeatable breakout like Villar (we think).

Most of these successful speculative players are utility fielders with either a middle infield or outfield skill set. As such, when deciding where to spend your resources on elite talent, you may want to focus on corner infield and catcher. There are fewer opportunities to find free game changing talents at those positions. Of course, I just got done calling catcher a luxury good. How you handle that particular position can and should be highly individualized.

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Interesting, especially perceived vs real scarcity. Certainly some statistical profiles trump scarcity, like your example. Do you think you/we will have to re-calibrate the tiers taking into account the maybe juiced ball but definite HR spike? This may have an effect on real scarcity, while perceived scarcity may remain somewhat sticky (like Yahoo O-ranks, ha).

Without knowing which players are included in each tier, it is difficult to dig too deeply into this analysis. I am excited to discuss it, but without all the information cannot do so fully! Can’t wait. In summation:

It’s the bulb of a Jerusalem tulip. It should bloom in about six months.

We look forward to that, Greg.