Trout atop again, with Altuve right behind; Scherzer new No. 1 arm
By Fred Zinkie
As fun as it is, fantasy baseball is also a grind.
The Major League campaign presents owners with an exciting and demanding challenge that cannot be matched by other sports, and most fans likely prefer to kick back after the regular season is over and enjoy the riveting drama of postseason action without the added stress of managing a fantasy squad.
But even the most worn-out owners can handle a brief look ahead to 2018, right? While trying to keep things light by saving sleepers and busts for another day, here is an early look at the players who will likely populate the initial round of fantasy drafts next spring.
First pick: Mike Trout, outfielder, Angels
Even with a league-wide uptick in offense, Trout has managed to stay ahead of the competition. A generational talent whose early-career output rivals that of any player in history, Trout overcame a near-seven-week absence with a thumb injury to once again rank among the top season-long assets. Having improved his power without sacrificing his other strong plate skills during 2017, Trout should enter '18 as the consensus top pick in all fantasy formats.
Second pick: Jose Altuve, second baseman, Astros
While Trout stands alone atop the fantasy landscape, he is challenged by Altuve for the label of baseball's most consistent superstar. The elite batting-average asset has ranked among the stolen-base leaders in each of the past six seasons, and he was able to sustain his 2016 power gains during the '17 campaign. Now supported by one of the best lineups in baseball, Altuve can contribute stellar stats across the board.
Third pick: Max Scherzer, starter, Nationals
Owners who closely monitor their teams are acutely aware of the shortage of ace-level starters in today's game. Those who acknowledge the shifting landscape will be ready to pounce on elite starters such as Scherzer at the outset of their drafts. While the right-hander may lag slightly behind Clayton Kershaw in terms of per-start production, his spectacular swing-and-miss skills and superior health history make him the best combination of excellence and reliability on the mound.
Fourth pick: Paul Goldschmidt, first baseman, D-backs
By his standards, Goldschmidt had an underwhelming season in the power department during 2016. But the first baseman eased concerns about his swing by returning to the 30-homer mark and maintaining a terrific batting average in '17. Goldschmidt also continued to regularly contribute with his legs, making him one of the top all-around assets in the game.
Fifth pick: Nolan Arenado, third baseman, Rockies
Even in an era that is heavy on sluggers and light on speedsters, Arenado possesses the plate skills to remain a coveted first-round option. The 26-year-old has the ability to hit .300 with enough power to clear 40 home runs. Arenado is also one of the favorites to lead the Majors in RBIs next year, as his production is boosted by a strong supporting cast and a hitter-friendly home park.
Sixth pick: Charlie Blackmon, outfielder, Rockies
Blackmon produced an outstanding encore to his breakout 2016 campaign, setting the table for one of the best lineups in baseball by posting an elite batting mark and displaying career-best power. Like Arenado, the 31-year-old Blackmon should deliver another year of top-tier production with help from Colorado's quality lineup and offense-inducing venue.
Seventh pick: Clayton Kershaw, starter, Dodgers
Kershaw is arguably the best overall asset in fantasy baseball on a per-game basis, but he's missed significant parts of the past two seasons with back injuries. When healthy, the left-hander is a virtual lock to post a sub-2.50 ERA, a WHIP below 1.00 and a lofty strikeout total. But even though his ceiling is sky high, Kershaw carries too much risk to go No. 1 overall. The 29-year-old is definitely the biggest boom-or-bust option in the first round of 2018 drafts.
Eighth pick: Chris Sale, starter, Red Sox
Notice a trend? Hitters dominated the first round of fantasy drafts for many years, but several starters should fly off the board within the initial 15 picks of 2018. Owners will have few better options than Sale, whose '17 dominance has put him in the conversation with Scherzer and Kershaw as the top arm in fantasy.
Ninth pick: Mookie Betts, outfielder, Red Sox
Betts illustrated the high standards for fantasy hitters in 2017, as his campaign was somewhat disappointing even though he produced counting-stat totals that were similar to those compiled during his breakout '16 campaign. The 25-year-old could be a late-first-round steal for owners who recognize that poor batted-ball luck was a contributing factor behind his diminished batting average.
10th pick: Trea Turner, shortstop, Nationals
Turner had compiled 53 runs scored and 35 steals across 315 plate appearances before a fractured right wrist on June 29 wiped out most of his second half. With improved health next season, the speedster should rank among the Major League leaders in stolen bases and runs scored while also supplying a helpful batting mark from his post atop a talented Nationals lineup. And with 21 homers in 683 career plate appearances, Turner can contribute in the power department as well.
11th pick: Bryce Harper, outfielder, Nationals
Harper bounced back from his disappointing 2016 season with a dazzling 2017 campaign, performing at an offensive level that strongly resembled his NL MVP Award-winning effort in '15. In several years, the common consensus will likely be that that his '16 performance was an aberration in an otherwise stellar career. Even if he doesn't regain the baserunning aggressiveness that led to 21 steals in '16, Harper could be a top 10 overall asset by staying off the disabled list in '18.
12th pick: Giancarlo Stanton, outfielder, Marlins
After tantalizing fantasy owners for a several seasons but frequently falling short of expectations due to a combination of injuries and inconsistency, Stanton finally put it all together for a magnificent campaign in 2017. While fantasy managers shouldn't ignore the fact that the slugger played fewer than 125 games four times from 2012-16, the top candidate to lead the Majors in roundtrippers next year cannot be overlooked in the first round.
13th pick: Corey Kluber, starter, Indians
After giving a memorable effort during the 2016 postseason, Kluber stumbled out of the gate in '17 and had a 5.06 ERA when he landed on the disabled list with a back injury in May. But a month on the shelf seemed to do the trick, as the right-hander returned at the beginning of June and logged excellent numbers the rest of the way. Those who are assigned a late spot in '18 drafts would be wise to start their roster by pairing Kluber with a stud hitter.
14th pick: Joey Votto, first baseman, Reds
Already one of the best hitters in baseball for quite some time, Votto elevated his game to another level in his age-33 season by reducing his whiff rate and showing increased power. While the 34-year-old is not surrounded by a star-studded supporting cast, he is talented enough to reach the century mark in RBIs and runs scored regardless.
15th pick: Kris Bryant, 3B/1B/OF, Cubs
Like Betts, Bryant is too talented to fall out of the first round despite producing statistics that were more good than great in 2017. From a premium spot in one of the most talented lineups in baseball, Bryant could hit .300 with 40 homers and 100 RBIs by replicating his 2016 hard-hit rate (40.3 percent).
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Fred Zinkie is the lead fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZinkieMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.