Tip Drill: Poison Mound in the Friends & Family League

Generally speaking, I don't walk into any fantasy draft with a gimmick in mind. The objective is to be strong in most areas, and weak in none. Football teams don't punt on first down; it's a last resort on your final down.

But every now and then you have to rip up the rules, throw a sneer at conventional wisdom. That's what I did (and some of my league mates did) in the eighth annual Friends and Family Draft on Tuesday. We only selected 67 starting pitchers, collectively, in 325 picks.

Starting pitching? We don't need no stinking starting pitching.

The key tweak in the F&F Rules is this: you're capped at 1250 innings for the season. The day after your team passes that plateau, you no longer collect any pitching stats. You're closed for the season.

It's a low number, but it's one we've always used in this league. Like Brad Hamilton used to say: Learn it, love it, live it.

The modest cap winds up shaping the 5x5 league in a few interesting ways:

-- The strikeout category really becomes K/9. No one can run away with the strikeout category with a volume strategy.

-- The middle tier of starting pitching loses most of its value.

-- Non-closing relievers who post exceptional ratio stats are worth rostering. This is a group that's often frozen out in a lot of more conventional 5x5 leagues.

-- Low-strikeout starting pitchers are just about worthless. They chew up your innings and hurt your strikeouts (again, we're focused on K/9 here).

-- Solid streaming options are constantly available.

-- It's not that easy to trade a star starting pitcher in the middle of the year. I shopped Tim Lincecum in the dog days of 2011 and had to settle for Mike Stanton in return. The other offers, as I recall, weren't very appealing.

Interestingly enough, I've actually been proactive with pitching in recent F&F Drafts. I took Roy Halladay in the second round in his Philly debut two years back, and I used a second-round pick on Lincecum last year (and a fourth-round pick on Cole Hamels). All of those players returned solid value, but I felt it was time to adjust to the unusual shape of this league. This year, I wasn't going to take any starting pitcher unless I felt the value was too good to pass up. If I wound up with a team of hitters and relievers, so be it. There's plenty of time to work on those 1250 innings.

Now it's time to meander through the draft from my perspective, with these specs in mind (13 teams, 5x5, 13 hitters including four outfielders, two utility bats and just one catcher; nine pitchers in any configuration. Three-man bench, two DL spots). I was on the end, the 13th pick, so I'll introduce the selections in tandem.

It's going to be a long slog from this point forward, so you're excused from the rest of the piece if you don't feel like looking at someone else's vacation pictures. Your call. I'll understand.

Curtis Granderson (1.13)
Dustin Pedroia (2.01)

I would have taken Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez or Jacoby Ellsbury in front of Granderson, but they fell 1-2-3 just in front of me. I'm with Grandy, though. It's easy to yell out "regression" and no one logically expects him to come close to his 2011 production, but the improvement against lefties dates back to the middle of 2010 — this looks like a player who's improved. And I love being tied to premium lineup slots in loaded offenses. Granderson hit second almost exclusively in 2011 after batting seventh and eighth for most of 2010. Assuming he stays productive enough to keep that spot in 2012, the Bronx undertow will keep the run-production stats in a lofty place.

It came down to Pedroia or Ian Kinsler for the second pick, the two best infielders I saw (I didn't want to pay a slightly expectant price on Evan Longoria). Kinsler is the better per-game producer, but Pedroia has proven to be more durable. Floor means a lot to me with the early picks.

Elvis Andrus (3.13)
B.J. Upton (4.01)

My hunch said Pablo Sandoval would be my first selection here, but Dalton Del Don nabbed the Panda four picks ahead of me. Brandon Phillips was the best offensive player I had on my board at the time, but the presence of Pedroia at second base pushed me away from Phillips. Maybe I should have just grabbed the stats anyway.

Andrus normally isn't my type of player, given what he can't do in the power categories. But he still found a way to drive in 60 runs last year, he's young enough that improvement is still likely, and it's nice to be invested in the Arlington carnival: the best offensive environment in the AL. Shortstop isn't the shallowest position in Roto 2012, but it's far from the deepest.

Upton is generally someone I try to avoid — his nonchalance on the field can be frustrating — but I wanted to make as many category-juice picks as I could in the early rounds, and Upton does have 41 homers and 78 steals over the last two years. Joe Maddon will let him run whenever he wants, and Upton, at 27, probably hasn't had his best season yet. Hunter Pence is probably a safer pick in this slot, but I'm leery of the Phillies this year — so many key players are hurt, and it's a very old team besides. Mark my words: I don't think they're winning the NL East.

There's one other thing that makes me curious about Upton: the way he finished last season. He was a force in September, sparking the Rays to the Wild Card spot: .333 average, 21 runs, five homers, 20 RBIs, nine steals. I can't remember where I saw this, and maybe it's not even true, but I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Upton was working with a new stance and/or swing during this hot streak. Perhaps that's post-facto noise and not worth any consideration — often times it's a mistake to try to attribute small sample success to something tangible — but it was enough to sway me here. You can talk yourself into some wacky things during your 90-second countdown.

One last thing before we move on: I was prepared to bite the bullet and take Cliff Lee if he got to me at Pick 39. He didn't. Otherwise, carry on with the hitters.

Michael Cuddyer (5.13)
Michael Young (6.01)

I'll openly admit it, I'm a sucker for position flexibility. I get a truckload of it with these guys, as they both qualify at three positions in the Yahoo game (Cuddy carries first, second and the outfield, while Young is ready for all the infield positions except shortstop). And obviously they're both in hitting havens, though I'm hoping the Rockies don't make Cuddyer bat sixth all season.

Pitchers, you ask? I would have snapped up a Jered Weaver or Dan Haren there, but they were selected earlier in the round. Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner also would have been tempting, but they also flew off the board. Matt Cain was available, though, and I considered him for a few moments before passing. Let's keep stocking the offense.

John Axford (7.13)
Jayson Werth (8.01)

When you're picking on the end, you have to be wary of thin positions that are prone to getting run. It's like trying to play a mediocre poker hand with bad position. I knew once the closer seal was broken elsewhere — I wasn't going to be the first one in if I could avoid it — I had to think strong and hard about landing some saves, too.

Now I know what many of you are thinking right now — don't pay for saves. It's tidy advice and it applies in a lot of leagues, but at the end of the day it comes down to how competitive and active your group is. In the F&F, every owner is constantly looking for any saves source, and we have first-come, first-served pickups available for anyone who wasn't recently dropped. You have to be very proactive to get a surprise closer, and sometimes it comes down to timing or simple luck. I'd never look to punt saves in this league, against these guys; it's too hard to climb back into the category if you're locked out at the start. (There's this urban myth circling around this league that says I'm the guy who always gets the sneaky closers, since I'm the regular Closing Time columnist. Maybe that was true in 2008 or 2009, but it hasn't been recently. Everyone's watching the situations like a hawk. They know what they're doing).

Anyway, it was time for a closer, with Craig Kimbrel going in the late sixth round and then Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen following in the seventh. Axford is an easy guy to sidle up to: he's got a zesty strikeout rate, he's Canadian, and he's secure in the ninth-inning gig. Welcome aboard.

I wasn't that keen on a third outfielder so soon, but I love Werth as a bounce-back player in 2012. Please, go get this guy. For all the bellyaching about his debut in Washington, he still posted 20 homers and 19 steals (in 22 chances), and his production saw a nice spike in the second half. For most of his career he's mashed left-handed pitching, but for some reason he couldn't solve them last year. Write that off as a fluke and get ready for an easy profit.

C.J. Wilson (9.13)
Jose Valverde (10.01)

I was dreaming of a possible Adam Wainwright pick in this spot, but that was dashed by Andy Behrens at the opposite turn. Wilson stuck out like a sore thumb nonetheless, the best pitcher by far that I had on my board. I got him 33 picks after his ADP, which is nice. I might keep him away from Arlington starts, but otherwise he's in a nice position to succeed.

A second closer was probably mandatory at this juncture if I wanted to end the day with the minimum of three that I want. Valverde is not someone I have a lot of faith in — his perfect 2011 season was filled with obvious flukes, his strikeout stuff is floating away, and he's not in the best of shape — but at the end of my 90 seconds, I just couldn't talk myself into Sergio Santos. The Valverde pick set me up to perhaps need Joaquin Benoit later — and I never like the handcuff game. But considering my focus on ratios and strikeout rates this year, Benoit could earn a roster spot on talent alone — he's good enough to use in this game even if he's not closing.

Freddie Freeman (11.13)
Huston Street (12.01)

The closer chase was in full effect by this time — seven of them went in a 20-pick span after my Valverde selection. I would have taken Brandon League as my No. 3 stopper, but Chris Liss opted for him at 11.08. With that in mind, it came down to a choice of Huston Street or Rafael Betancourt here. The San Diego park, and Street's track record, won the argument — but again, I feel a handcuff pick later might be necessary, and I hate painting myself into that corner.

I liked my chances at a possible Nick Swisher for this go, but he fell to Matt Buser at 10.12. Swisher is a sneaky value, a double-position grab who posts very consistent numbers in a safe offense. With Swisher gone (and Ike Davis too, someone else I'm high on), I looked for a different, intriguing power option. Freeman stood out: I liked his freshman showing, he hangs in against lefties, and I'm not being charged a bunch of sophomore buzz. With all due respect to the much-adored Eric Hosmer, what are Freeman's chances of being the better player in 2012? Maybe 30 percent? Would you go up to 40 percent, or higher? I like the value I'm getting here.

Should I have considered another strikeout source instead? Some were available. I figured it was now-or-never on Anibal Sanchez, but I passed: high ratios, and the 2010 strikeout rate wasn't special. Ricky Romero has all the skills you want, but the AL East factor is a constant concern.

Kelly Johnson (13.13)
Jeff Francoeur (14.01)

There's a lot to like about Johnson: his lost 2011 season wasn't really that bad (21 homers, 16 steals), he was terrific in 2010, and he's getting a shot to be Toronto's No. 2 batter this year. The Jays are the most underrated club/organization in the majors right now. Don't sleep on those guys. Of course I didn't need another second baseman at this point, but nothing wrong with grabbing the best offensive option available.

I've already given you Francoeur propaganda here, so I won't rehash most of it (make the click if you want to talk about Frenchy in depth). Once again, regression is not an answer on its own. The Royals will run this guy out there every day, and he'll give us a mix of power and speed. The lineup is pretty solid, with a lot of young players who appear to be on the escalator. I'd never want Francoeur on my roster as a foundation player, but I love him as a middle-tier support guy.

I also considered Neil Walker, Lucas Duda and Dexter Fowler during this segment. All three of them flew off the board later in the round.

Mat Gamel (15.13)
Greg Holland (16.01)

One of the best things about the F&F is the camaraderie in the draft room, the ragging on each other, the sidebars and sidebets, the banter. We had a couple of fun debates along the way this year; there was a 15-minute discussion about the cast of Boogie Nights (I was a major part of that one) and a 15-minute discussion of Illinois basketball (steered by the Big Noise). Hey, we have to do something while Derek Carty is taking 90 seconds per pick (we love you, DC).

Sometimes I think I'd draft sharper if I stopped having fun with the chats. It is what is is. The game is supposed to be fun, right?

Brennan Boesch was queued up to be my pick at 15.13 — another solid hitter tied to a strong lineup and a preferred batting slot — but Carty snapped him up at 15.12. Gamel felt like a decent consolation prize; he's looking strong in spring training and the Brewers apparently aren't going to jerk him in and out of the lineup this year. There's a shot at 25 homers and 80-plus RBIs here. But I can't blame you if you think I should have played it safer, maybe with a Gaby Sanchez type (Jeff Erickson, 18.08).

If saves were all I cared about, I might have selected Jonathan Broxton over Holland, but again, I'm chasing strikeouts and ratios as much as anything. If Holland winds up being the KC closer, wonderful. But mostly, I'm making this pick because of the skills in place, the ability to dominate. There's a likely chance that Broxton torches someone's ERA and WHIP before he steps to the sidelines forever. Give me the kid.

I came close to picking Francisco Liriano here — I could see him being one of the best sleepers of the year, a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He's looking healthy again, and the Twins defense has to be improved over last year's horror show. I decided to wait one more pass, and it turned into a mistake when Brad Evans jumped on Liriano at 17.5. I also missed some other targets of mine in the 17th round: Behrens went for Lorenzo Cain, Matt Buser snagged Jonny Venters, and Brandon Funston grabbed Tyler Clippard.

Chris Carpenter (17.13)
Joaquin Benoit (18.01)

The Cardinals released some positive Carpenter news shortly before our draft, but it was just a smoke-screen: the storm clouds came back shortly after the draft. I've since dropped Carpenter in favor of Justin Masterson. Fifty percent of my starting staff has been hurt this year!

Benoit is a simple pick: he'll provide dominant innings as I count to 1250, and he's the guy if Valverde loses his way. I would never handcuff a closer pick with someone who didn't have the skills to be used on his own. That's not a problem with Benoit.

Mark Melancon (19.13)
Andrew Cashner (20.01)

I liked the Melancon pick more when I made it; now there are rumblings that Dan Bard might return to the bullpen. I think we all view Andrew Bailey as a fragile closer, which means someone else on this roster is ticketed for 10 or more saves. Melancon's strikeout rate is good (not great) and he gets lots of ground balls, so he can succeed in this park and in this division. But is he going to be the second sheriff in the bullpen?

Cashner is another sleeper I absolutely love. Big arm, big park, gigantic strikeout potential, and he's behind the injury-prone Street. It's hard to know when you have to take these types of pitchers, but at this juncture, there's no need to be cute. Like a player, take that player.

Todd Helton (21.13)
Yadier Molina (22.01)

Eventually Helton is going to hobble away with that cranky back and call it a career, but maybe he has a few frozen ropes left. I can at least consider him as a thin-air play. Or maybe he'll be an early cut when I see shinier pieces of gold in the sand.

I considered picking Molina for several rounds, but kept concluding that I could wait for two simple reasons: most of the league already had a catcher (and would be reluctant to pick a second one), and I kept figuring that even if I waited until the end, there would still be a good option left. Here's how the league approached the position through the first 273 picks:

- Carlos Santana (Buser, 4.12)
- Mike Napoli (Singman, 5.11)
- Matt Wieters (Romig, 6.11)
- Buster Posey (Salfino/Steingall, 8.10)
- Joe Mauer (Del Don, 9.9, conversation fear)
- Brian McCann (Erickson, 10.8 — I did consider McCann at 10.1)
- Miguel Montero (Evans, 10.9)
- Alex Avila (Behrens, 12.13)

So just eight catchers went in the first 21 rounds, and we didn't see any backstop selected for a 117-pick spread (that's logical: even in ADP, there's a 65-pick cliff between Montero and Molina). There's no need to take a designer catcher in one-fill leagues, not that I can see.

What happened to the teams that waited on catcher? This is how they filled out:

- Yadier Molina (Pianow, 22.1)
- Geovany Soto (Funston, 22.4)
- Ryan Doumit (Carty, 23.12)
- Wilson Ramos (Pianow, 23.13)
- J.P. Arencibia (Liss, 24.6)
- Russell Martin (Razzball, 25.7)

Yeah, okay, you caught me, I actually took a second catcher. I like Ramos a lot, and while it's a mistake to pick spitefully, I just couldn't let one of the catcher slacker teams get that sort of player in the final round or two. With Pudge out of the picture, Ramos has a legitimate chance at 20 or more homers, along with an acceptable average.

Three picks to go.

Wilson Ramos (23.13)
Chone Figgins (24.01)
Brent Morel (25.13)

We're grasping at straws with these picks, of course. Morel is Mr. Irrelevant at pick 325. I'll have no problem dropping any of these guys when the waiver wire starts looking attractive. I don't believe in watching April baseball with a passive attitude — I think you constantly need to be aggressive, looking for surprises that emerge.

Surely a lot of you are jesting at Figgins, but it's important to keep an open mind with these late picks. There is an upside here. He's only 34. He did steal 42 bases in 2010. Last year's awful run was partly influenced by a hip problem (he's healthy now) and some off-the-field issues (his fiancee's father died in the summer). The Mariners will give him a shot to lead off in 2012, and Figgins will probably qualify at several positions by the middle of the year.

Figgins won't get a long leash with me, but I know that stories come out of nowhere every season. Jose Bautista happens. Ryan Vogelsong happens. I can't say the odds are in Figgins's favor, but if the guy is healthy, maybe something clicks. And as Jeffrey Gross of The Hardball Times pointed out a few months ago, Figgins was significantly unlucky in 2011: his expected BABIP was almost 100 points lower than it should have been. In the 24th round, sure, I'll toss the dice.

So that's that. It's not a team I love, it's not a team I hate. I don't think it's possible to draft in a league this sharp and absolutely love what you got out of the draft — if you do feel that way, you've probably got some inner biases at work.

The offense should be strong in all the counting categories, but I've also accepted a lot of batting-average risk.

The staff has three sure closers, some interesting bullpen lottery tickets, but just one starter I can feel good about. Will I wind up punting wins? Perhaps — but there were some other clubs who went thin with their starting options, so maybe I'll have a chance to sneak into the middle of the category, somehow. In the meantime, I'll have some fun with streaming, and I'll be open minded with temp-to-perm options as they show themselves. This is a format-dependent strategy: I know from past experience that it's not that difficult to find starting pitchers worth gambling on in the Friends & Family league. If I want a surer thing, I can explore a trade. Someone is always willing to move a starting pitcher in this group.

Now's the time in the exercise where you have your say; the comments board is open, have at it. Just one thing to keep in mind: before some of you start with the seasonal Mad Lib of "wow, this is a last-place team if I've ever seen one" and "you'd never win my league," remember that I've fared well in this format through the first seven seasons (4th, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 6th, 2nd). I know my way around the block. If you don't like my roster today, that's fine — the other guys in the room know what they're doing, too. But I fully expect to find a way to contend, somehow.

Maybe I'm delusional, maybe I don't have a contender. I'm sure you'll tell me. While you're at it, look over the full rosters, tell me what teams look strong and weak to you. Endorse your candidate, pick your champion. I've checked with the boys in the Roto Lab: we can't all finish in a tie for last.

Game on. Stream Police, here we come.

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