If you’re in a redraft league the most important time of year without question is your draft. The majority of the players you pick will stay on your roster and carry you from March to September: the only question is will you limp across the finish line or sprint?
I know that you’ve already read the first part of the Drafting for Dummies series that details the importance of understanding your league settings, scoring, and the other things you need to have a foundational knowledge of before you step into your draft room. This week’s article will expand on that, specifically teaching you how to approach your draft, what to do when things go wrong (aka, the asshole before you picked the exact guy you were gonna grab, man!), and a detailed analysis of the expected top-15 players. Please note that my rankings and analysis are based on OBP leagues rather than AVG, so those of you still using the (archaic) stat of AVG consider yourselves warned.
General Draft Strategy: Don’t Panic (and how not to panic)
There are several universal laws that science has bestowed upon us: nothing can exceed the speed of light, objects in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by another force, and at some point in your fantasy draft you will be staring at a name on the board, silently begging for them to fall to you, only to have the manager in front of you snatch him up.
Now you have 30, 60, or 90 seconds to decide who to grab instead, and you are totally blanking. Shit. Do you pick the best available? Go on positional need? Do you curl up in the fetal position and cry as you select Bartolo Colon? Either way, the clock is ticking.
Of course your mileage is going to vary slightly based on your league size and settings, but having a draft strategy is important for moments like these. You don’t need to, nor should you, plan out every pick in the draft. To state the obvious, beyond the first pick and the first round there is no way to predict how things will go and how your fellow managers will draft. You’d need a working knowledge of over 300 players and their relative values and the ability to make decisions on that information in under a minute. So stop right now if you think you have (or should have) any remote idea what your team will look like at the conclusion of your draft. The broad strokes and knowing how to make decisions are what matters.
Your First 3 Picks: Best Available (no matter what)
“But Josh,” you say indignantly, “Shouldn’t I always choose the best available player?”
“No,” I reply unhelpfully.
Until you hit the fourth round of the draft you shouldn’t allow position or positional eligibility to add even the smallest amount of weight to your decision-making. During the first three rounds of the draft you should be selecting the very best player that is available to you.
You have to field a complete team, but also a winning one. And as the talent tiers drop off in subsequent rounds of the draft it’s vital to front-load your team with studs to balance out the risks and reaches of the later rounds. I’ll add the caveat that you should always, within reason, take the best player you can. However, in round 21 when you find you have a full set of offensive starters and bench players but only 4 arms, that might mean adding pitching instead of another bat, even if the “best” player still on the board is a hitter.
But this should not factor in your first three picks of the draft. Even if you end up taking three consecutive middle infielders or three first basemen, you’ll find a place to fit them. Most leagues have a UTIL slot, and usually a pair of combo slots for middle and corner infielders. The worst case scenario, taking three position players with the same eligibility and not being able to start them all, still gives you the ability to pull off a trade.
Removing the burden of positional picking allows for more time in determining who is the best player in front of you. Each additional factor you have to consider adds to decision-making time, and you want to make your draft as simple as possible to reduce that panicked feeling of “crap, I don’t know who to take.”
Beyond that, you should have your own ranking of the top 10-12 players in your draft. If you’re the 9th overall pick, you should know exactly who you’d take with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on. By the time #8 gets selected, you should know who you’re gonna pick at #9 because you’ve crossed out the eight players taken. You may be pleasantly surprised that your #2 preference is still on the board, or you may be dismayed to see that your league-mates already took all the players you had ranked as top-8. For those “ehh, it’s really close!” type of conundrums, use your 60 seconds wisely, and have an idea of what tiebreaker categories matter to you and your league when picking between two similar players.
You will also need to place a strong emphasis on minimizing risk in your top selections. Your first three rounds should be home runs (great analogy, right?) given the glut of talent in the MLB, and at most you want to have one (but preferably zero) of those top three picks be “risky.” What does risky mean? First and foremost that means a player with a low(er) floor. Don’t be the guy (ok it was me) who grabbed Jonathan Villar with the 24th overall pick in 2017 because of his crazy ceiling he tempted us with in 2016. His floor was simply too low for that high of a selection. No one can guarantee player performance: that’s the beauty of sports, and why we watch. But we know that Mike Trout, even in his worst year, will put together a damn good fantasy campaign. He has a very high floor, making him safe to pick at #1 overall, even taking into account his injury history: we know that 4.5 months of Trout is all-but-guaranteed to be better than 6 months of almost everyone else. There are always exceptions. There are always outliers. There will always be the “injury-prone” player who defies the odds and starts 162 games, just as there will always be the “iron horse” player who hasn’t missed a game since middle school and tears his rotator cuff lifting groceries.
Point being there are no guarantees, but there are odds. And we want to maximize our odds of having a great (and consistently great) player when we’re picking from the cream of the crop in early rounds by avoiding guys with low floors, no matter how temptingly high their ceiling is. Trea Turner is a great example of this kind of player. Many mock drafts have him going in the top five. Virtually all of them have him in the top ten. He’s got a very tempting and high ceiling: his speed and base-running might be the best in baseball, he’ll score runs like nobody’s business on a strong Washington offense, which will surely generate RBI opportunities for him as well, and he also hits with very good positional power, and is expected to flirt with the 20 HR mark.
Yet Turner is still trying to crack 100 games started in a season, with last year (98 games) representing his high watermark. This makes him both an injury liability and a small sample size victim. Is he worth the risk? Undoubtedly many people will think so. I’m not saying don’t take Trea in the 1st round, but I am saying that if you do, your 2nd and 3rd rounders had better be established stars with rock-solid floors. May the Bambino above help you if you wind up with Turner, Bellinger, and Judge as your first three picks. Is that a stacked lineup that most of us would be pumped to have? You bet. Is that also a risky, small-sample-size-having, strong-regression-possibility group of players? You bet.
You could draft Turner, Bellinger, and Judge and end up looking like a genius. Or an idiot. Or something in-between. But you don’t want to chase that dragon of temptingly high ceiling-ed players when they have scary-low or unknown floors and no one on your roster with the rock-solid high floor to balance themout. For what it’s worth, I have Turner and Judge going as 1st rounders, and I would gladly pick one of of them for my team this year. Emphasis on “one” of them. I wouldn’t want both of them if it cost two of my first three picks: it’s too much of a gamble to roll the dice on multiple players in rounds that are filled with “sure-things.” No other part of the draft (ie, the later rounds) offers such sure-fire value, and certainty is better than uncertainty (duh).
The last caveat for these rounds, and this advice may be controversial, is to stay away from pitching when possible, and do not overreach for stud pitchers.
I know that just a couple paragraphs above this one are some words written by me spouting completely contradictory advice. So which is it, Josh? Don’t pay attention to position with your first three picks or don’t take pitchers? The short answer is to always take the best player, even if that player is a pitcher. HOWEVER, the argument I am making here is that not one of the current MLB pitchers is worthy of a top-10 selection.
I would not take any hurler, including Clayton Kershaw, with a top-10 pick. Why not? For one thing, pitchers are more volatile and less valuable due to sheer playing time. Pitching once every 5-ish days gives more weight to good performances, but also amplifies shitty ones. When your stud batter lays an egg in a few games it’s not the end of the world: they can get back on their feet by the weekend. But when your stud pitcher lays three or four eggs in a row that’s nearly a month of sucking you have to power through. The biggest issue I have with selecting pitchers early is simply the number of performances they give you. A healthy position player will give you 150+ starts. A healthy pitcher, even the best one, will only start 30+ games. Last season, Chris Archer and Kevin Gausman (lol) led the MLB in GS with 34. There were a half-dozen position players who started all 162 games (including 35yo Joey Votto), and dozens more that crossed the 140 mark. Simply put? Position players generally have more value because they play more. Of course there are exceptions, and if Kershaw falls you at 15th overall you’d be well advised to take him, but to maximize your early-round value you should primarily target position players.
I’m not alone in thinking this way either. The Fantasy Pros consensus rankings and USA Today both have Kershaw at #9 overall and their first pitcher, Razzball has Scherzer as their first SP at #20, and ESPN has Kersh at #11 overall. Scott White from CBS was most generous, and has his first pitcher (Kershaw, of course) at #8 overall. His CBS colleague Heath Cummings is only worth mentioning as an outlier because he actually lists Altuve as #1 overall instead of Trout, and also puts Goldschmidt at #11 overall behind a whopping four pitchers. That kind of insanity is most likely intentionally creating difference for the sake of discussion.
How not to panic: Don’t be afraid to take all of your time. And I mean that in a literal sense. My draft allows 60 seconds per manager, per pick. And if I’m picking seventh overall (please no) then I’m using picks 1-6 as buffer time, to make adjustments based on who they took and who is left, and when my team is on the clock, even if I’m pretty sure that I know who I want, I’m going to take every second I need until I’m confident in my selection. Don’t worry how fast the other managers are picking. Don’t be pressured to give up any of your time. These decisions will impact your entire season, and you should be as informed as possible before making them. Or, at least as informed as you can get in 60 seconds (because we all know you’re going to forget 90% of the research you do before the draft).
In summary: Don’t be afraid to front-load on batting talent. And for those batters, the earlier the round, the less consideration position should have. If you want some more insight into who these stars and sluggers are, feel free to scroll down to the breakdown of my personal Top-15. The short version is when picking your first, second, and third round players you should pick solely based on talent, not team need or position. Take your time with each pick and go down to the last second if need be.
Tier Two: Rounds 4 Through 16, Balance and Ceilings
As we move out of the early rounds and into the meat of the draft, we’re still picking from a buffet of premium talent, but the decisions are getting less and less clear-cut. I think these are probably the most difficult rounds in which to pick: the super-studs are gone and everyone at this point has drawbacks to consider, and we have to start thinking more about rounding out our team and picking by position. Additionally, it’s time to move slowly away from the “I-must-have-a-player-with-a-great-floor” mentality of the first three rounds and allow yourself to draft based more on the player’s potential and ceiling.
This is where research really starts to separate the league champs from the wannabes. Everyone knows who Arenado and Harper and Sale are, but they’re all long gone, and name recognition and knowledge of players starts to drop off the higher we climb out of those early rounds.
It’s good to have a cheat-sheet with how you/a site you trust that ranks players by position (Pitcherlist is always great), and the value of such a tool will come into play more and more as we dive into the mid-late rounds. You’re going to want to continue to pick using the “best-available” strategy, but with a bit more weight and leniency given to players based on positional need. In short, still stock up on anyone who you “can’t believe dropped this low,” but at least two SP’s and three-quarters of your position players should be rostered during this time.
Know what positions are scarce. There are the obvious ones like catcher. Backstop is a notorious black hole of talent with precious few guys being worthy of consideration, much less targeting. Count yourself lucky if you get a Buster Posey or a J.T. Realmuto, and luckier still if you catch a Kraken. With that in mind, it can make sense to reach a bit for one of those players: their relative value increases greatly due to the scarcity of offensive talent in their position.
But it’s not just catcher that you need to keep an eye out for: middle infielders are also separated by very sharp tiers, and can often be much more difficult to replace than an outfielder or starting pitcher. Keep in mind what roster spots will be hard to fill with talent and which will be easy(ier). Before you leave this tier you should have at least one quality player in each position.
A note on closers: Oh lordy. Is there a bigger crapshoot in all of fantasy sports than the closer position? Yes, the Aroldis Chapman’s, Wade Davis’s, Kenley Jansen’s, and Craig Kimbrel’s of the world are all pretty much guaranteed the closer job. Everyone else…not so much. If you see any of the above named guys still on the board in the 6th round or later then snap them up. Otherwise, approach closers and RP’s based more on their ratio’s and overall skills rather than assuming 9th inning duties, and take them late, late, late in the draft. You’ll be adding and dropping closers a half-dozen times this year just like everyone else, so don’t waste an early pick on someone who probably won’t keep the job you’re drafting them to do. Very little in this world is certain, but I can tell you with confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow, “pace of play” is a made-up problem, and you will end your fantasy season with different names in the RP slots than those you drafted. It’s just a fact.
Use the “Moneyball” approach. Look for what your areas of need are first, then consider additional categories in which the player is good. Don’t expect every pick to be a five-tool, well-rounded player. It’s ok to take Billy Hamilton for steals if you have Joey Votto or Goldy to make up for Billy’s abysmal AVG/OBP. It’s ok to target Rougned Odor or Joey Gallo knowing full well they’ll hit 35+ HR and nothing else, as long as your team can make up for their lack of production elsewhere. Obviously it’s best to take someone who can hit, hit for power, and steal, but it’s also ok to split those duties between three different guys. Access your inner Billy Beane.
In summary: the middle rounds are the hardest and fly by the fastest, so cut yourself some slack. You’ll make some genius picks and some terrible picks here. The key is in shifting more (but not entirely) towards roster balance and filling out positions, while also paying more attention to ceiling rather than floor. In these mid-late rounds, it’s alright to swing for the fences and grab guys with better ceilings and lower floors (especially since you took low-risk, high-floor guys in the first three rounds like I said, right?).
Tier Three: Rounds 17-25, Taking on Risk and Ensuring a Full Roster
Once you get here, the focus needs to shift almost completely to rounding out your team and ensuring you have a playable roster. No matter what anyone says, you never want to leave a starting position vacant, and no amount of mental gymnastics will justify having an empty slot at C because you just had to have 9 OF’s. Be sure you’re keeping one eye on your current roster as you make all of your picks. You may find yourself scrolling “down” the draftboard, and that’s fine. Remember that at this point in the game, you need bodies in positions.
This is also prime territory for taking pitchers, specifically SP’s. Pitching is a wasteland the likes of which T.S. Elliot could only dream of. Between injuries, humidors, hangovers, and Rich Hill’s infamous thumb there’s always something that takes your pitcher out of his (Zach) wheel(er)house. Terrible puns aside, you can find a lot of value in pitching through the late rounds of the draft and free agency. This is a good spot to take some risks and pick up some guys who showed promise at the end of last season, or who were injured or found late success and were forgotten about (Jacob Faria, and yes, Rich Hill, are guys that come to mind).
In summary: These are still important picks, but recognize that many of the guys you take in rounds 17 and later will not be on your roster at the end of the year. So take some risks and go for high-ceiling-but-low-floor type guys. Be sure that you are fielding a complete roster and that you aren’t leaving any positions vacant. This doesn’t mean click randomly on players whose positions match your need, but the damage caused by a pick from this late in the draft not panning out won’t hurt you very much, whereas the reward for picking a diamond in the rough is significantly higher.
The Top 15 and Why They’re Ranked That Way
These are who I think the best 15 fantasy players are in a 5×5 league with OBP instead of AVG. You may not see massive differences between my list and other in terms of who is in the top-15, but you will see big differences in where they are ranked. First comes the plain list for the impatient, then the detailed breakdown of each player, including my own projected statline that I created using each player’s most recent three years of data, trends in BABIP, K/BB and Contact rates, and counterbalanced by aggregate projections from ESPN, Steamer, and ZiPS.
Without further ado, the list (position, age at end of 2018 season):
- Mike Trout (OF, 27yo)
- Jose Altuve (2B, 28yo)
- Nolan Arenado (3B, 27yo)
- Giancarlo Stanton (OF, 28yo)
- Paul Goldschmidt (1B, 31yo)
- Kris Bryant (3B, 26yo)
- Anthony Rizzo (1B, 29yo)
- Mookie Betts (OF, 25yo)
- Joey Votto (1B, 35yo/immortal)
- Bryce Harper (OF, 25yo)
- Aaron Judge (OF, 26yo)
- Charlie Blackmon (OF, 32yo)
- Trea Turner (SS, 25yo)
- Carlos Correa (SS, 24yo)
- Clayton Kershaw (SP, 30yo)
#1. Mike Trout
His 2017 fantasy stats: (402 ABs) 33 HR/ 72 RBI/ 92 R/ .442 OBP/ 22 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 40 HR/ 110 RBI/ 125 R/ .440 OBP/ 28 SB
Why: If he stays healthy he’ll be the best player in baseball. If he doesn’t stay healthy he’ll still play 110+ games and outperform most of the other first-round picks. He’s a true 5-tool player and a future HOF-lock at just 26yo, but for fantasy purposes he’s basically a cheat code. If you need more convincing IDK what to tell you. If you take anyone but Trout with the #1 overall pick you should quit and go watch cricket.
#2. Jose Altuve
His 2017 fantasy stats: (590 ABs) 24 HR/ 81 RBI/ 112 R/ .410 OBP/ 32 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 25 HR/ 88 RBI/ 110 R/ .395 OBP/ 38 SB
Why: Another true 5-tool guy and the reigning AL MVP, Altuve will steal more than Trout but fall short in every other category. Altuve plays on a stacked Houston offense that will ensure that he gets driven in when he’s on base and give him plenty of RBI opportunities when he’s at the plate. His AVG (and thus OBP) are outstanding, and while last year’s .410 OBP was bolstered by his absurd AVG, he’ll still slash a minimum of .310/.370/.450. That’s a damn fine basement to live in.
Most guys on this list will hit for more power. Some will rake in more RBI and R. Trea Turner will swipe more bags. But no one will roll elite-level fantasy numbers in every category into one (tiny) player besides Altuve and Trout. Jose Altuve is Trout-lite: more speed and less power, and a pretty damn good consolation prize for whoever has the #2 pick. If it’s you, you had better be taking Altuve.
#3. Nolan Arenado
His 2017 fantasy stats: (606 ABs) 37 HR/ 130 RBI/ 100 R/ .373 OBP/ 3 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 39 HR/ 130 RBI/ 105 R/ .370 OBP/ 2 SB
Why: Oh yes, what an adventurous projected stat line I’ve created. But if you think that it’s a copy/paste of his 2017 numbers, just look at Nolan’s career stats. The dude is a machine: in 2015, 2016, and 2017, Nolan Arenado raked in 130, 133, and 130 RBI, respectively while clubbing 42, 41, and 37 HR in each season. If that’s not proof that the machines have taken over and are replacing our studs then I don’t know what is. That kind of consistency is mind-boggling.
Seriously though, if anyone can ever be called a “lock” to get 35+ HR and 130+ RBI, it’s Arenado. If it wasn’t for the large gap in steals and slight, but still significant, OBP disparity I would advocate for Nolan at #2 over Altuve.
#4. Giancarlo Stanton
His 2017 fantasy stats: (597 ABs) 59 HR/ 132 RBI/ 123 R/ .376 OBP/ 2 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 49 HR/ 120 RBI/ 110 R/ .368 OBP/ 2 SB
Why: Here’s a riddle for you: how do you follow up an NL MVP season? With an AL MVP season. The competition will be fierce, but Giancarlo Stanton is more than capable of repeating last year’s dominant power display. His one glaring weakness is his health. But those HR’s tho. Mmm.
For those of you wondering why I put him this high despite the injury-risk label he carries, listen up: Stanton has dropped his K-rate every year for the last three years, and last year he posted his worst-ever BABIP and still dominated, despite being part of a crumbling organization with minimal protection around him in the lineup. This year he’s in the midst of a team chasing a championship, a smaller ballpark, and will be protected by Sanchez, Judge, Bird, and Gregorious, all of whom are capable of hitting 20+ HR. And Giancarlo’s BABIP, which sat at a career-low .288 at the end of last season, is almost certain to rise closer to his career-average .317 BABIP. You thought last season was fantasy gold? This one promises even more.
Most of all, we’re focusing on floors. Stanton’s floor, even if he misses a couple months with injuries, is something in the ballpark of 25 HR/ 80 RBI/ 70 R, and that’s conservative. Stanton has never failed to hit at least 22 HR in all of his 8 professional seasons. In his shortest-ever season (the 2015 campaign that saw him limited to just 74 games) he still cranked 27 long balls.
Just prepare yourself for a full season of annoying, repetitive commentary from announcers about “something something short porch in right” and “blah blah crowded outfield/DH/learning LF” and “look at him standing next to Judge, all gigantic and huge and big and massive and stuff.” As long as you can handle that, you’re fine.
#5. Paul Goldschmidt
His 2017 fantasy stats: (558 ABs) 36 HR/ 120 RBI/ 117 R/ .404 OBP/ 18 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 33 HR/ 110 RBI/ 105 R/ .412 OBP/ 15 SB
Why: Goldy might be getting old-y, but he’s still the gold standard of fantasy 1B everywhere. And yes, I was trying to see how many terrible jokes I could squeeze into one sentence.
In all seriousness, Goldschmidt turns 31 this September and he shows no signs of slowing down after tying his career-high with 36 HR last season. While the legendary humidor might slow him down a bit in the power department, Goldy’s value is in his disgustingly amazing consistency and high floor. In the past five seasons, Goldy has only failed to record a .400 OBP once, in 2015. That year? Still posted an elite .396 OBP. So even when his OBP is “bad” it’s still top-10 in the league.
Simply put, this dude gets on base like crazy and hits for power, average, and plays in a very good hitting lineup. He’s healthy, and even provides speed for the position, with 18 SB last year, second to only Wil Myers’s 20 swipes among all 1st basemen. That’s dangerously close to 5-tool production.
Will Goldy put up better offensive numbers than the guys below him on this list? Probably, but it’s not a certainty. However, his floor is higher than everyone else below him, and with the #5 overall pick you can’t do much better.
#6. Kris Bryant
His 2017 fantasy stats: (549 ABs) 29 HR/ 73 RBI/ 111 R/ .409 OBP/ 7 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 34 HR/ 100 RBI/ 110 R/ .415 OBP/ 8 SB
Why: Despite putting up a full season, Bryant disappointed many fantasy owners last year with a less-stellar-than-advertised 29 HR and 73 RBI campaign. However, he still scored 111 times while posting an elite .409 OBP and slashing his K-rate to a career-low 19.2% and raising his BB-rate to a career-high 14.3%. We forget sometimes that this young man is…well…young.
Bryant just turned 26 last month, and will be entering his 4th MLB season. Some of his counting stats from 2017 might not show improvement on the surface, but his peripherals show huge growth. There’s the aforementioned career-bests in K and BB-rates, but he has also raised his AVG and OBP every single year he’s played, all while staying healthy and watching his BABIP either go down or stay the same.
Sticking to the theme of floors, Bryant boasts a floor of, well, last season. That’s probably the worst he’ll look, yet he still posted the 7th-best OBP in all of baseball, cracked 110 R, and clobbed nearly 30 HR.
Bryant is continuing to improve. He’s a better, more patient hitter. And he was already a top-10 pick. I see him going nowhere but up: pick with confidence.
#7. Anthony Rizzo
His 2017 fantasy stats: (572 ABs) 32 HR/ 109 RBI/ 99 R/ .392 OBP/ 10 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 32 HR/ 110 RBI/ 100 R/ .395 OBP/ 8 SB
Why: Rizzo is basically Paul Goldschmidt’s slightly less accomplished brother. Anthony Rizzo is a picture of fantasy consistency: His past three seasons have seen him record 31, 32, and 32 HR’s; 94, 94, and 99 RBI; and 101, 109, and 109 R scored, respectively. That’s so consistent it’s almost frightening. To continue to beat my dead horse (on the floor, of course), Rizzo and his exceedingly high floor are exactly what you’re looking for in a top-10 selection.
The reason Rizzo is ranked lower than Goldy is two-fold: Rizzo’s OBP is a good 10-20 points lower (and also lower than his teammate Bryant), and he steals about 10 less bags per season. Other than the OBP, he’s almost identical to the two men in front of him on this list, though with slightly less upside (a lower ceiling) as he’s never cracked 100 RBI in a season.
#8. Mookie Betts
His 2017 fantasy stats: (628 ABs) 24 HR/ 102 RBI/ 101 R/ .344 OBP/ 26 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 26 HR/ 94 RBI/ 110 R/ .375 OBP/ 28 SB
Why: Mookie is a versatile hitter that has put up back-to-back 20/20 seasons, and at just 25 years old he shows no signs of slowing down. Like Altuve, Betts will produce in every category for you, and his plate discipline, BB-rate, and K-rate are all trending in the right direction, posting a career-best 10.8% BB-rate in 2017.
Perhaps most encouraging after a “disappointing” fantasy campaign last year is his uncharacteristically low BABIP in 2017. Betts’s career BABIP is .303, and he posted marks of .327, .310, and .322 in his first three seasons, respectively. Last year (his 4th season) saw his BABIP dip to .268 and his AVG (and thus OBP) suffered accordingly. I strongly expect that BABIP to rise up 40+ points in 2018 and regress to the mean this season, and a 20/20 player with a .370+ OBP who can post 100/100 RBI/R stats is a rare gem.
If you need more convincing, Mookie has added lineup protection this year in the form of new teammate JD Martinez, who will be lurking behind Betts lest the opposing team think to pitch around Mookie. Not that the Sox were slouches to begin with offensively, but Betts is poised for a career-best year.
#9. Joey Votto
His 2017 fantasy stats: (559 ABs) 36 HR/ 100 RBI/ 106 R/ .454 OBP/ 5 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 31 HR/ 94 RBI/ 100 R/ .442 OBP/ 5 SB
Why: Joey Votto is probably the most underappreciated baseball player of the modern era. I don’t know if it’s playing in Cincinnati or what, but it’s kinda mind-boggling that he’s not a household name outside of fantasy (and Cinci). The only times Votto has ever failed to hit .305 or better in 11 damn seasons was his rookie year (still hit .297 by the way) and his very-injured-shortened 2014 campaign, which limited him to just 60 games. His average slashline over the past three seasons (where was aged 32-35, no less) was an unbelievable .320/.449/.556.
So yeah, the man can hit, hit for power, and he gets on base like nobody’s business. Hell, he’ll even swipe a base for you once a month.
The only downside for Votto is that 2017 will probably represent the pinnacle of his fantasy career. Not to keep harping on age, but the man turns 35 this September, and he won’t be able to keep it up forever…. That being said, he played all 162 games last year while posting or tying career-highs in every single offensive category. He is truly the epitome of a player with a high floor. Like, his floor is flood-proof. Whenever he retires he will set up a very successful floor-installation business in a coastal, hurricane-plagued area and build flood-proof houses with the world’s highest floors.
Seriously, his floor is so high. He’s basically going to win you the OBP category no matter what, and he’ll blast 30+ HR while he does it. Just take him.
#10. Bryce Harper
His 2017 fantasy stats: (420 ABs) 29 HR/ 87 RBI/ 95 R/ .413 OBP/ 4 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 39 HR/ 105 RBI/ 110 R/ .420 OBP/ 8 SB
Why: I will be honest here and say that I really like Bryce Harper as a baseball player and I want him to succeed. I remember his arrival in DC (and Strasburg’s) and how much that did to revitalize a slow-building fan-base in the old-but-new baseball city. He has amazing potential that was demonstrated in his 2015 MVP campaign that saw him smash 42 HR along with a .330 AVG and .460 OBP. He just turned 25 this past October, making the 6-year veteran younger than Aaron Judge. I’m projecting him as #10 overall and a 1st round pick.
BUT (and you knew there was a big one coming) I think he is being overvalued by other prognosticators. Fantasy Pros aggregate and USA Today both have him at 7th overall, CBS (both writers) at 4th, Razzball at 5th, and ESPN at 6th. I have him at 10. It might not sound like a big gap, but 3-6 picks in the first round is a chasm.
Bryce has amazing upside. But he also has a lower floor than many of the players in front of him on this list. Outside of his 2015 MVP run, Harper has never hit more than 29 HR. He only eclipsed 120 games played in three of his six pro seasons. His BB-rate has gotten worse for the last three years in a row. I say that to temper expectations and to demonstrate the risk in taking him with a single-digit draft pick.
He also has a disgustingly great OBP. He’s a fantastic hitter with power who can handle two-strike counts like nobody’s business. He plays on a stacked team that will protect him, drive him in, and afford him RBI opportunities galore. He’s also in a walk year and is auditioning for a spot in the crowded Yankee outfield as he tries to earn what will likely be the largest contract in baseball history during the coming offseason. There is every reason to think he’s going to have a monster season. Every reason except health and history.
Harper will finish the year with studly numbers: never doubt that. But will they be studly enough to justify an 8th, 6th, or even 4th overall pick? The odds say no. I wouldn’t be comfortable taking him before the 10th spot.
#11. Aaron Judge
His 2017 fantasy stats: (542 ABs) 52 HR/ 114 RBI/ 128 R/ .422 OBP/ 9 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 46 HR/ 102 RBI/ 110 R/ .400 OBP/ 5 SB
Why: If you read any of my columns last year you’ll know that I love this man. I said I’d rather have him than Bellinger or Thames back in June, I predicted that he’d win the HR Derby and I promised he’d bounce back from his second half slump. Twice, actually. And while I neither promise nor expect a repeat of last year’s MVP-worthy numbers (still salty about Altuve getting 28/30 1st place votes…I mean c’mon) I continue to believe in the Judge’s rule.
I know that Judge is probably not going to flirt with a first-half batting title again (.329 AVG going into the ASB last year), but I do think that his season .284 AVG (and .422 OBP) is fairly indicative of what he’s going to produce over his career, and this coming season.
We all know about his infamous post-HR Derby slump, and we now know that he was playing through injury that had more than just a small effect on his numbers and their decline before he exploded back in September and October.
What I want everyone to focus on is this: his ability to take pitches and his excellent batter’s eye.
“What are you talking about?? He led the league in strikeouts!! How can you say he has a good eye or takes pitches?”
Pick any month of Judge’s second half and look at his walks: 18 in July, 23 in August, and 28 in Sept/Oct. That beats his April and May walk totals (13 and 15 respectively), but not his high watermark of June (30 BB). His eye has been constantly improving, and constantly elite. Only Joey Votto and Mike Trout finished the season with higher OBP numbers than Judge. Only Votto (134) walked more than Judge (127). Yes, he strikes out a lot. But he also gets a lot of hits, takes a ton of walks, and crushes the ball like no one else. His floor/ceiling for AVG may be a lot lower than other players on this list, but his OBP floor/ceiling is top-5.
Judge has figured out how to avoid the breaking stuff. Even in the two Spring Training games I’ve watched he looks good (despite no hits). He took at least 4 nasty curves/breaking balls that he would’ve whiffed at a year ago, and his only strikeout of the Grapefruit campaign came on a changeup when he was looking fastball. He has also already drawn a walk in just 3 PA.
Will Judge reach his sky-high potential? We can only hope. With an absolute Murder’s Row 2.0 behind him, it’s hard to imagine how he doesn’t get to see more pitches and better pitches this year. I honestly think we’ll see his BB-rate go up even higher with Stanton in the on-deck circle. Judge has demonstrated that when his mechanics get a kink in them, the sheer size of his body makes it hard for him to make adjustments and return to form. Yet he’s also shown the ability to make those adjustments, even when injured. He didn’t just tumble down the stat ladder after the HR Derby: he fell down several stories. But he recovered to lead the Yanks to a Wild Card win and within one inning of a WS berth, and damn-near won the AL MVP along with the ROY.
At the end of the day, the power is undisputedly real. He will hit 40+ again. With the lineup the Yankees have he will have guys on base and guys driving him in. And his well-established propensity to walk and get on base, despite the strikeouts, give him an elite OBP to boot. The only reason he isn’t ranked higher is because of his small sample size (compared to the other names on this list) and his recent injury history.
Don’t. Sleep. On. Judge.
#12. Charlie Blackmon
His 2017 fantasy stats: (644 ABs) 37 HR/ 104 RBI/ 137 R/ .399 OBP/ 14 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 30 HR/ 88 RBI/ 110 R/ .375 OBP/ 20 SB
Why: Charlie Blackmon is a weird dude. From 2011-2015 he never eclipsed a .165 ISO or hit more than 19 HR. In 2015 he stole 43(!!) bases. But in 2016 something changed. Which doesn’t often happen to 30yo ballplayers, but whatever. Blackmon established career-bests of 29 HR with a .228 ISO in 2016 before blowing those out of the water last season with an astonishing 37 long balls supported by a .270 ISO. He also scored a whopping 137 R while he did it.
He plays in Coors, he plays in front of the best hitting 3B in baseball, and he has that nasty power-speed combo that fantasy managers drool over. Blackmon has improved his BB-rate for the past five consecutive seasons while raising his AVG, OBP, and ISO in the last four in a row. He might be turning 32 this summer, but he has shown nothing but consistent upside for five years running, and if he can bring just a taste of that 43-steal ability back into his game repertoire he might look like a bargain at #12 overall.
Might. Blackmon, like the man I’m about to suggest you draft after him, has too much upside and fantasy potential to ignore. But he has too weak of a track record to back it up. Will he keep setting new career-highs in HR, AVG, OBP, and ISO this year? Has he peaked? Or is this just the beginning?
There’s no way to know for sure, but his floor is still rock-solid. He’s going to hit at least 25 HR with 80 RBI and 100 R if he stays healthy, and he’ll swipe double digit bags no matter what. A 20/20 season is very possible for him.
#13. Trea Turner
His 2017 fantasy stats: (412 ABs) 11 HR/ 45 RBI/ 75 R/ .338 OBP/ 46 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 18 HR/ 70 RBI/ 100 R/ .345 OBP/ 70 SB
Why: Trea Turner was probably that kid on the playground who liked being “it” just so he could run after people. The kid stole 46 bases in less than 100 games. Had he not broken his wrist we’d have a much bigger and better sample size to work with, but alas we have what we have.
Trea Turner may very well end up as a perennial top-5 pick. Hell, Fantasy Pros, Razzball, and USA Today all already have Trea going in the top-5. ESPN has him at #7, and CBS has him at #10/#11. He has decreased his K-rate each of his first three big-league seasons (albeit all of them abbreviated) and improved his BB-rate by 2.5% from 2016-2017. He steals like a madman. He plays on a great baseball team that will bolster his R/RBI opportunities. He’s projected to develop into a .300+ hitter.
But I’m not ready to anoint him the king of fantasy baseball just yet.
Turner’s potential for scoring R, collecting SB, and hitting are unquestionably valuable. It is hoped that he will continue to develop power, as many young hitters do. But right now that’s just a hope.
Turner’s injury-shortened 2017 (98 games) was his longest pro season. While he did flash some pop in his bat, his numbers extrapolated to a full season still only give him ~16 HR and ~70 RBI. Granted, his SB projects to a whopping 72 and his R to 118 using the same logic, but 16 HR and 70 RBI is just not enough to justify a top-10 pick.
Trea Turner is Altuve with less power and no real track record. One day, maybe even after this year, Turner may prove he can put together a full, well-rounded enough season to justify a top-10 selection. But until he does I wouldn’t take him before this pick. There is simply too much risk and not enough floor to take him over any of the other names before him on this list.
#14. Carlos Correa
His 2017 fantasy stats: (422 ABs) 24 HR/ 84 RBI/ 82 R/ .391 OBP/ 2 SB
My projected 2018 stats: 27 HR/ 110 RBI/ 95 R/ .375 OBP/ 8 SB
Why: If you look at the prognosticators this fantasy season it’s pretty clear that the consensus on Correa is “there is no consensus.” I’ve seen him as high as 8th overall and as low as 23rd. He’s just 23yo (24 in September) and plays for the World Champion Astros and their loaded lineup, including teammate and MVP Jose Altuve.
I’ll admit slight personal bias in that Correa pisses me off because he looks like he should be stealing double-digit bases every year, yet he grabbed a paltry pair of swipes in 2017. It’s not like he’s not fast. He stole 20 bases in just 62 games in 2014 in the Minors, and in 2015 he stole 32 bags between three levels of AA/AAA/MLB play. I don’t know if it’s a managerial decision or what, but 2 bases is unacceptable for a guy who’s showed off 30+ potential.
But I digress.
Correa is a baby star in the making. He’s super well-rounded and contributes in all five categories when healthy. But he doesn’t contribute at an elite level for anything. He does well in all categories (except steals!!), don’t get me wrong, but he doesn’t top anyone on this list in HR, R, RBI, or SB. He tops a few guys in OBP but not by much. He’s an elite baseball player. He is a great fantasy baseball player. But he is not an elite fantasy player. And until he shows some more of the potential scouts keep promising in the form of elite fantasy numbers, don’t draft him in the elite spaces of picks #1-#12.
#15. Clayton Kershaw
His 2017 fantasy stats: really good
My projected 2018 stats: really good
Why: I know I said no pitchers but this is technically second round. Kershaw is the Trout of pitchers. Just accept it, and draft him if he’s here. I’m tired, this is over 7,200 words.