Everyone loves top-10 lists, but this is a top-10 list with a difference.
Many top-10 lists will simply give you a rundown of the best players in roto leagues or the highest scorers in points leagues. Some will go further and detail the most surprising contributors or the best value picks. This list combines all of these elements by featuring the 10 players that made the biggest impact on my fantasy baseball teams.
2017 was a mixed bag of results. Champion in two leagues (one points and one categories), including my favorite/toughest 24-team dynasty league, but disappointing finishes in all three roto leagues.
With that in mind, I have looked back at the teams, the drafts, the trades and the free agency acquisitions which worked best for me in 2017.
This is one of the off-season tasks that every fantasy baseball player should undertake. After reading the article, why don’t you review last season to see what went right and what went wrong? Only by analyzing our own errors can we improve.
It is unlikely that I will write the top-10 most disappointing players on my rosters in 2017. There would be a lot of competition. In a four-keeper league, I decided to lock up saves, while boosting my chances in WHIP and ERA by keeping two closers, Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton. Needless to say, I will not be trying that strategy again.
The biggest regret was drafting Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers’ top prospect was highly rated but failed to break camp and was blocked by Adrian Gonzalez. With limited roster space, I dropped him and was too slow to react when the Dodgers called him up to the Majors to debut on April 25. It would have been an easier pill to swallow had he not been on my roster originally.
Number 10: Elvis Andrus
Using OPS+ as the metric for offensive production, Rangers’ shortstop Elvis Andrus posted seven straight sub-100 OPS+ seasons. That is seven straight years when he was a below-average player. In fact, 2016 was his first above-average year in the big leagues, when he hit .302 on the way to 110 OPS+.
This career-high was viewed as an anomaly by the fantasy baseball world, so, with the plethora of younger, more exciting shortstops available in the draft, Andrus slipped to an ADP of 147.
With a total of 35 home runs in 5,000+ plate appearances in the majors, nothing pointed to the power breakout that we witnessed last season, when the Venezuelan went deep 20 times. The big increase in home runs also resulted in a 30% jump in RBI production.
Unlike many speedsters who sell out for power, Andrus continued to run, and maintained his streak of stealing at least 20 bases in every season since promotion from the minor leagues.
Last year, only nine players hit 20 home runs with 20 stolen bases. Andrus joined Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Tommy Pham in an even more exclusive club, as the only ones to also post a batting average above .290.
Despite the disappointing season endured by the Rangers, Andrus scored 100 runs for the first time in his career, as he finished the year as the top shortstop according to the ESPN Player Rater.
Having missed out on the high profile shortstops in the draft, I took Andrus as the 10th shortstop off the board. As a sign of how unloved he was at the start of the season, he was drafted between Addison Russell and Jose Peraza.
Looking ahead to 2018, there is the inevitability that his stock will rise due to his position-leading season, but he still carries the baggage of only one year of elite production. Don’t expect another 20 home run or 88 RBI season, but he should produce reliably in the other categories.
The fantasy baseball world generally has a short-term memory so expect Andrus to be overvalued, while, based on their below-expectation seasons, Xander Bogaerts, Jean Segura and Trevor Story will all be undervalued.
Number 9: Juan Nicasio
The Dominican relief pitcher makes this list thanks to attentive, waiver wire action towards the end of the season and a slice of good fortune.
Juan Nicasio featured in league-leading 76 games, striking out nearly one batter per inning, with an ERA of 2.61.
The former Rockies’ starter entered 2017 in the bullpen for the Pirates. With a ground ball rate of 45.9%, and 9.00 SO/9, he became established as the most reliable relief pitcher in Pittsburgh behind the sensational Felipe Rivero.
In a seemingly bizarre decision, the Pirates released Nicasio at the end of August. The Phillies claimed him and after two appearances flipped the right-hander to the contending Cardinals for their top-20 prospect Eliezer Alvarez.
With Trevor Rosenthal out for the year, and Seung-hwan Oh and Tyler Lyons struggling for consistency, Nicasio immediately received high leverage, late-game innings. This is despite the fact he would be ineligible for the postseason roster.
He tossed 11 crucial innings (for the Cardinals and my fantasy team), striking out 11 and recording four vital saves, while only allowing two runs.
Fantasy baseball playoffs are won and lost with the smallest of margins. Four saves and two wins in the final three weeks of the season, from a player picked up from free agency in a deep 24-team league, proves you need luck as well as attentiveness to succeed.
His fantasy value next season is linked to where he signs. The 31-year-old has expressed a preference to return to St Louis, which could seriously boost his value as the Cardinals do not currently have a proven closer on their roster.
Number 8: Cameron Maybin
Deep dynasty/keeper leagues are my favorite format. The long-term investment that you have to make in players mirrors real life sports.
In the hectic preseason, I took a gamble to flip a highly rated, young outfielder with superstar potential, for an injury-prone veteran. This was purely based on offseason research. I liked the underlying stats and wanted to benefit if they proved to be correct.
Cameron Maybin was my guy in the offseason. The often-injured outfielder slashed .315/.383/.418 for the Tigers in 2016, putting up counting stats that would have gained more attention had he not missed 68 games.
Apart from his age, everything was trending in the right direction. All three elements of the triple slash represented career-highs. A move to the Angels was full of potential, with the possibility of leading off ahead of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. I could foresee a season with 100 runs, 30 stolen bases and a batting average around .300. To be fair, no-one else could, which is why he had an ADP of 323.
In essence, the trade was their Cameron Maybin for my Jorge Soler.
Soler was the star prize for the Royals in the trade that sent Wade Davis to the Cubs. His future as a key part of the Royals’ outfield looked assured. No-one expected the disastrous season that ensued.
Despite the many derisory comments about my Maybin for Soler trade, based on their 2017 production, it was lopsided in the other direction.
Maybin was a top-5 base-stealer with 33 bags, although he missed a significant part of the season with an almost inevitable injury. My hope for 100 runs was a long way out, but despite the shortened season, he matched his career-high of 10 home runs.
Instead of helping in the batting average category, Maybin was a drain, hitting just .228. This was partly fueled by a 100 point drop in BABIP, coupled with his highest strikeout rate for a few years.
He saw a big drop in line drive rate and appeared to revert to the desire to pull everything as he seemingly sold out for power.
Although Maybin went deep four times in 21 games for the Astros, he won’t be drafted for his home run hitting ability in 2018.
It will be interesting to see where Maybin lands in the offseason shufflings. At the moment he looks like a fourth outfielder with the potential for a high number of steals.
Number 7: Rhys Hoskins
In December 2016, my article of the top-5 first base prospects for 2017 featured Josh Bell at the top, ahead of Cody Bellinger, A.J. Reed, Casey Gillaspie and Dan Vogelbach. The Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins failed to make it onto the honorable mentions section.
Despite slashing .281/.377/.566 with 38 home runs in Double-A in 2016, I wrongly assumed the right-hander was a slugger with limited future in the big leagues. After all, Chris Carter, another one-dimensional slugger, had just been released by the Brewers after leading the league with 41 home runs.
Fortunately, I jumped on the bandwagon when Hoskins was still only 2% owned, and despite the Phillies’ incumbent first baseman Tommy Joseph hitting .300 with seven home runs, I suggested Hoskins should be picked up.
The 24-year-old finally made his Phillies debut on August 10, and immediately looked overmatched, going 1-for-13 in his first four games.
The rest, as they say, is history. The right-hander crushed 18 home runs over his next 30 games, while hitting .343 AVG and posting 1.361 OPS. His production in the climatic part of the season was crucial for my fantasy baseball team and many others.
Particularly useful was the six-game stretch which started on September 8, when Hoskins hit six home runs in six days while slashing .400/.567/1.300
As well as prolific power, Hoskins possesses excellent patience at the plate, as demonstrated by his elite 17.5% walk rate. This is a skill which should enable him to keep producing, even when pitchers make adjustments.
He came 4th in Rookie of the Year voting, one spot behind the Pirates’ first baseman Bell. The performance of both rookies was eclipsed by the award winner Cody Bellinger.
Hoskins will start 2018 with a secure hold on the job in Philadelphia, but it is difficult to see elite production unless the Phillies strengthen the lineup around him. It could become too easy for opposing pitchers to walk Hoskins to first base.
Don’t let Hoskins fall too far in points or OBP leagues but also don’t overreach to add him. The first baseman hit just 7-for-52 (0.135 AVG) in his final 16 games with no home runs.
Number 6: Eric Thames
When the Brewers discarded former NL home run leader Chris Carter to award Eric Thames with a three-year deal, I was at the front of the pack, pulling the bandwagon along.
There were plenty of haters devaluing his achievements in Korea. In his first year in the KBO, Thames hit 47 home runs and swiped 40 bags. In his second season, he hit another 40 home runs. With the assumption that the KBO is of a standard equatable to Triple-A, it seemed obvious that it was worth investing in Thames.
I reached for him all of my drafts, taking the left-handed slugger well ahead of his 197 ADP.
Initially, the pick was like striking oil. In April, he led the league with 11 home runs, scored 28 runs with 19 RBI and a slash line of .391/.509/.772.
In the review of the month’s action, I referred to Bill Pivetz’s excellent article about whether to sell high.
Bill opined about a potential Thames for Edwin Encarnacion trade:
If I were a Thames owner (and I am), I would have a tough time passing that up. In that Cleveland lineup, once Encarnacion gets things going, he’ll be hard to stop.
I was also a Thames owner, but there was no way I could flip this potential MVP for Encarnacion, a player hitting .200 in April.
I should have heeded Bill’s advice. Over the rest of the season, Encarnacion hit 34 home runs, with 98 RBI and .915 OPS. Although Thames went deep 20 more times over the rest of the season, he was a disappointment, hitting just .226 with 44 RBI and 0.789 OPS.
Despite the slump, many of the intangibles remained. He still walked at a high rate and didn’t waste energy swinging until he saw the pitch he wanted.
And as for my hope that he would be a sneaky source of stolen bases, Thames only tried six times and was caught twice.
Looking ahead to 2018, and I might still be a Thames guy. Much of his decline in production can be put down to varying illnesses and injuries. Also, perhaps the workload of the MLB season was more than he was used to. If he arrives at Spring Training in the “best shape of his life” then I might be back on the bandwagon again.
Number 5: Luis Severino
There is an inherent risk of injury attached to starting pitchers. The risk is far greater than with hitters. With so many high upside pitchers available later in the draft, I took the decision in one league to wait on starting pitchers.
This is a strategy that involves luck but surely all pitching strategies require a degree of luck. You could have gone starting pitcher heavy in the 2017 draft and picked Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard back-to-back in rounds two and three. Then consolidated your rotation with Johnny Cueto in round four. It would have looked like an unassailable pitching staff on Opening Day but the trio combined for an ERA just below 4.00.
Some of the high-upside/low-ADP pitchers on my wishlist outperformed projections. James Paxton, Robbie Ray and Alex Wood all looked like aces. Dallas Keuchel returned to his Cy Young winning level, and Charlie Morton lived up to the sleeper hype.
Many were not as successful, including Angels’ duo of Matt Shoemaker and Garrett Richards, the Brewers pair Zach Davies and Junior Guerra, and my favorite sleeper of all, Mets’ Robert Gsellmann.
Without a doubt, Luis Severino was the overwhelming success of my draft. The 23-year-old, with a career 4.46 ERA before the season, finished third in Cy Young voting with 14 wins in 31 starts, and 230 strikeouts at a rate of 10.70 SO/9. Most impressive for his first full season was an ERA of 2.98. As I said, there is a lot of luck involved in choosing the right pitcher.
I will keep Severino in all leagues that I can, with the expectation of another 200 strikeout season, although I’m not expecting another with sub-3:00 ERA year.
The right-hander improved in the second part of the season, allowing just 0.197 batting average against him in the period from July-September. He also improved his swinging strikeout rate. Both are encouraging trends when it could have been expected that the 23-year-old would tire.
Number 4: Joey Votto
I just don’t understand why everyone doesn’t love Joey Votto was much as I do. For as long as I can remember, I have always tried to get Votto on my fantasy baseball team. Usually, he returns an exceptional level of production. According to Fangraphs WAR, the only player better than Votto since 2008 is Mike Trout.
In the preseason player profile of Votto, his ability to walk, hit, get on-base and hit for power, make him such a valuable fantasy player. Yet he was still underrated and went with an ADP of 21.
In points leagues, Votto finished 2017 as the third best hitter. In roto, he was seventh.
The runner-up in NL-MVP voting hit 36 home runs with 100 RBI. He scored 106 runs with 34 doubles and .320 AVG. He led the league with 134 walks, .454 OBP and 1.032 OPS.
The second half of 2016 was the best stretch of Votto’s career when he slashed .408/.490/.668. Although he could not replicate those lofty heights last season, Votto still made improvements by increasing his walk rate from 16% to 19% and dramatically dropping his strikeout rate from 17.7% down to 11.7%.
Votto’s 2017 production was against a .321 BABIP, more than 30 points below his career average, so it could be argued that with a little more good fortune, Votto’s batting average could have been even higher.
In 2018, Votto will be a late first round/early second round pick. Despite a .320/.449/.557 slash over the last three years, Votto still has a stigma of an unfashionable player. He is 34-years-old now and for the same sort of draft day investment, you could get Anthony Rizzo or Freddie Freeman (both 28-years-old).
Number 3: Justin Verlander
One of the elements I love about dynasty leagues is the ability to replicate real life, where struggling teams can transform their chances in future seasons by flipping overpriced veterans for up-and-coming youngsters at the trade deadline.
If you are the team on the verge of the playoffs, it is an expensive gamble to cash in years of potential value of a prospect, for just a few weeks of production from a veteran. But, as they say, flags fly forever.
In one league, I traded my $1 Jesse Winker for their $35 Edwin Encarnacion. It looked a rash move when Winker hit two home runs in his first two games after the trade. In the final two months of the season, Winker hit seven home runs with a slash line of .305/.371/.552.
Over the same period, Encarnacion hit 17 home runs with a slash line of .268/.385/.568.
The second deadline trade saw my farm system further decimated with Indians’ young slugger Bobby Bradley and the Brewers’ first-round pick Corey Ray getting flipped for Justin Verlander.
In a points league, innings-eaters are underrated. Verlander would be an asset in the playoffs but looked like another solid but uninspiring addition to the rotation, having posted 4.29 ERA in his first 22 starts of the season.
As the calendar changed to August, Verlander transformed into one of the best starters in the game, striking out 93 batters in his final 11 starts (76 innings) with 1.78 ERA.
The Astros were not alone in having their season improved by the acquisition of the 34-year-old as these 11 starts were on my roster.
Number 2: Mike Trout
If you have the first pick in the 2018 draft, don’t overthink it, pick Mike Trout.
There is no question that Astros’ Jose Altuve had a fantastic season. With .334 AVG over the last four years, he is one of the most reliable sources of batting average, and for the sixth straight year, he swiped over 30 bags. He consolidated the power gains made in 2016 and for the second straight year, Altuve hit 24 home runs. He is a worthy recipient of the AL MVP Award.
OPS+ measures the offensive production of on-base plus slugging percentage against the rest of the league, with 100 equalling league average and 120 being 20% better than average.
With 164 OPS+, it was the best season of Altuve’s career. Trout has never posted an OPS+ below 168. Even at his best, Altuve was still not as good as Trout’s worst.
The Angels’ outfielder was an expensive keeper in a dynasty league but produced at an elite rate when he was on the field. Although he missed 48 games (30% of the season), Trout finished as the 16th best player in roto leagues, ahead of other first rounders like Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rizzo.
Incredibly, the 26-year-old is getting better. He posted the best OBP of his life, with the highest slugging percentage (and therefore OPS) of his career. In 5×5 category terms, Trout was on pace for 123 runs, 44 home runs, 97 RBI, 30 stolen bases and .306 AVG.
Whatever format you play in, Trout is better than you think.
Number 1: Jose Ramirez
In contrast to the huge investment needed to keep/acquire Mike Trout, the Indians’ Jose Ramirez was a bargain. I have long been a fan of the switch-hitter and kept him in every league I could. In single-season leagues, his ADP of 106 looked reasonable, although there was the likelihood of a drop in production from his fantastic 2016.
That drop never happened, and Ramirez was one of the most outstanding players in fantasy baseball last season, regardless of his cost.
For the second straight year, Ramirez hit above .300, and by posting a career-high .957 OPS, he thoroughly deserved the third position in MVP voting.
He has the highest contact rate of any of the top players but has added power to his game, hitting a career-high 29 home runs with league-leading 56 doubles.
The Indians’ switch-hitter was the top performer at third base in roto, points and category leagues. Even to be mentioned in the same conversation as Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson would have seemed unrealistic at the start of 2017, so the fact that he accumulated more extra-base hits than the four elite sluggers is a testament to the improvements Ramirez has made to his game.
On the biggest stage of the playoffs, Ramirez disappointed, hitting just 2-for-20 with .100/.182/.100 slash line. This is obviously not a reflection of his abilities, although it may serve to dampen the hype on draft day.
Ramirez picked up second base eligibility, so expect him to be the second best player at the position behind Jose Altuve next season.
For me, he scored 580 points, which for a $2 investment represented the best return of any player on any of my teams.
Winning two championships needed hard work and good luck. You can’t win without both. If you think you can win without putting hard work into it, then perhaps you need to play against better opponents. Use the preseason to give yourself an advantage over the rest of your league.
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