Baseball season is fast approaching. The crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the taste of mustard-covered hot dogs…and the drafting of fantasy team rosters. 

Each spring, tens of millions of fans choose real-world major league baseball players to populate their ­fantasy-league teams. The statistics those players accumulate during the actual season determine the success or failure of the fantasy teams. 

You can create a team on websites including ESPN.com, Yahoo.com and CBSSports.com…launch a league with a group of friends…or join a league on one of these sites and compete against strangers. Some leagues are free, while others have an entry fee and prize money for winners. (For more about fantasy baseball basics, see below.)

Of course, the key to success is getting a great team during the draft. Here are the best strategies to help you choose a winning team this year*…

Select a hitter, not a pitcher, with your top draft pick. Pitcher Gerrit Cole received a staggering $324 million nine-year contract from the New York Yankees this off-season, but for fantasy team owners, using a top pick to choose a pitcher is sometimes a mistake. When a pitcher gets hurt, he tends to be out for a longer period than a position player, and losing your top draft pick to an injury is likely to derail your season. Also, top starting pitchers have been throwing fewer innings in recent years as clubs try to reduce their risk for injury, potentially reducing their fantasy value.

A top-position player is more likely to produce significant fantasy-league points if only because he is more likely than a pitcher to remain on the field. Among the most appealing position players this year are outfielder Ronald Acuña of the Atlanta Braves, center fielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and outfielder Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Other position players potentially worthy of a first-round pick in 2020 include third baseman Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies, outfielder Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, right fielder Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox, third baseman Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros, first baseman Freddie Freeman of the Braves and shortstop Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals. These are players likely to contribute to fantasy teams in multiple categories—batting averages, home runs, runs batted in and runs scored. 

Choose a catcher and a second baseman relatively early in the draft. Fantasy teams need players at every position on the field, just like real teams—and this year, there aren’t many players at these positions who are likely to ­contribute much value to fantasy league teams in 2020. That boosts the value of those who can.

Catchers with significant fantasy value include Willson Contreras of the ­Chicago Cubs, Mitch Garver of the Minnesota Twins, Yasmani Grandal of the Chicago White Sox, Wilson Ramos of the New York Mets, J.T. Realmuto of the Philadelphia Phillies and Gary Sanchez of the Yankees. Defense doesn’t matter in most fantasy leagues—you want a catcher who can hit, not one best known for calling a good game or framing pitches well. If you miss out on those catchers, Víctor Caratini of the Cubs and Sean Murphy of the Oakland Athletics are solid choices who might get less attention from other fantasy-team owners. 

Second basemen who are likely to perform well at the offensive stats that matter in fantasy baseball include Ozzie Albies of the Braves, José Altuve of the Houston Astros, DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees, Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals and Jonathan Villar of the Miami Marlins. If you can’t draft the top choices, Gavin Lux of the Dodgers or Mike Moustakas of the Cincinnati Reds could be good values later in the draft. 

Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of big-hitting shortstops in 2020. Usually this is the most valuable position in fantasy drafts, but currently there are so many excellent shortstops that there’s no need to put a special emphasis on filling the position.

Only a few pitchers are reliable enough to be worth considering in rounds two and three. If you can snag Cole (the Yankees pitcher mentioned earlier), ­Jacob deGrom of the Mets, Max Scherzer of the Nationals or Justin Verlander of the Astros with a second- or third-round pick, it might be worth doing so—they’re really good and reliable by pitcher standards. If not, wait until the middle and late rounds to draft pitchers. If the big-name pitchers all have been snapped up by then, target pitchers who have low walk rates, low home run rates, excellent fastball velocity and/or very effective off-speed pitches—all signs of underlying talent—but who fly under many fantasy-league owners’ radar because they have not previously produced lots of wins or have low earned run averages (ERAs). Examples: Max Fried of the Braves…Spencer Howard of the Phillies…Brandon Woodruff of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Or use late-round picks to draft pitchers who follow “openers.” In ­recent years, some teams have begun using pitchers who throw only an inning or two per outing to start games. The pitcher who starts a game cannot earn the win unless he throws at least five innings under normal circumstances, which means that the relief pitchers who often follow these short-stint starters sometimes luck into wins, boosting their fantasy value. Examples: Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough, both of the Tampa Bay Rays. 

Try to steal a base ­stealer. Stolen bases have been ­deemphasized in today’s major league baseball, but they’re still important in fantasy baseball because steals are one of the five offense stats that produce fantasy points. Players who steal a lot of bases include likely top picks such as outfielder Ronald Acuña of the Braves and Trea Turner, the Nationals shortstop, plus players likely to be available deeper in the draft, such as outfielder Starling Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi of the Royals, outfielder Victor Robles of the Nationals and second baseman Jonathan Villar of the Marlins.

Don’t spend a high draft pick on a closer. Closers earn saves, one of the statistical categories that produce points for fantasy-league teams—but closers tend not to pitch sufficient innings to qualify in any of the other fantasy statistical categories, which greatly reduces their value. Even top closers such as pitchers ­Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees, Roberto Osuna of the Astros and Josh Hader of the Brewers are not worth more than a mid-to-late-round pick. (There’s also a chance that Hader could end up splitting the save opportunities with ­Corey Knebel of the Brewers, who is returning from an injury, which could further reduce Hader’s fantasy value.) 

If other team owners in your fantasy league have drafted the big-name closing pitchers before you get your chance, just choose any reliever who seems to have a firm hold on a good team’s closer role. Examples: Alex Colomé of the White Sox, Giovanny Gallegos of the St. Louis Cardinals, Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers and Kirby Yates of the San Diego Padres. 

Fantasy Baseball Basics 

The most common fantasy baseball format is the season-long 5×5 league. “Team owners” sign up on websites such as ESPN, Yahoo! or CBS. There, they form a league with a group of friends or join a public league with strangers. 

Teams earn points based on how well their players perform in specific statistical categories over the course of the major league season. In a 5×5 league, these categories are home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, batting averages and stolen bases for hitters…and wins, earned run average, strikeouts, saves and WHIP (add up walks and hits and divide the result by ­innings pitched) for pitchers. If there are 10 teams in a fantasy league, for example, a team owner might earn 10 points for finishing first in a category, nine for second and so forth. (Scoring rules can vary by league.) The league champion is the team with the highest point total. 

In most leagues, team owners can adjust their rosters during the season by making trades with other owners and/or adding players not currently on the roster of any team in their ­fantasy league. 

*This article assumes that the fantasy team will be in a league that uses the common “5×5” fantasy statistics (see page 14 for details). Some leagues use different stats.