MLB.com Columnist

Fred Zinkie

Fantasy411: Early look at top MVP candidates

Fantasy411: Early look at top MVP candidates

With less than four weeks remaining in the regular season, the races for the American League MVP Award and the National League MVP Award -- not to mention the Best Major Leaguer title, the top honor in the Esurance MLB Awards -- are poised to come down to the wire. And not surprisingly, a close look at the contenders reveals that fantasy value usually matches up with the contributions a player makes to his actual team.

At first glance, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve checks every box for the AL MVP Award. The 27-year-old leads the Majors in batting-average standings (.354) and also tops all qualified AL players in wRC+ (163). Additionally, Altuve is the centerpiece on the winningest team in the AL and the highest-scoring lineup in baseball. A stellar five-category fantasy asset with nary a DL stint in his career, he should be one of the initial three picks in every 2018 fantasy draft.

Zinkie talks streaming options

Were it not for more than a month on the disabled list, Angels outfielder Mike Trout -- the reigning Best Major Leaguer recipient -- would likely lead Altuve in the AL MVP Award race. The outfielder paces all players with more than 110 plate appearances in wRC+ (194), and if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for rate-stat crowns, he would also be tops by a wide margin in OPS (1.125). In the fantasy realm, the 26-year-old has stayed one step ahead of the offensive surge in baseball by displaying career-best plate skills while continuing to run the bases aggressively. Without a doubt, Trout will be the No. 1 pick in virtually every 2018 draft.

While Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was a strong AL MVP Award contender at the All-Star break, he would now need to have a spectacular September to bring home the award. The imposing slugger still ranks second among qualified AL position players wRC+ (157), but most of his standing is based on hitting .329 with 30 homers and a 1.139 OPS in the first half. The 25-year-old has slumped since the Midsummer Classic (.182/.349/.358 slash line) and will now rank among the boom-or-bust picks during the initial rounds of 2018 fantasy drafts.

Stash options for fantasy

Although pitchers rarely garner strong AL MVP Award consideration, Red Sox southpaw Chris Sale and Indians righty Corey Kluber should receive some votes this year. Sale has the strongest case in the AL, as he ranks among the Major League leaders in most pitching measurables and may post the highest single-season strikeout total since Randy Johnson fanned 334 batters in 2002. Kluber is currently pitching as well as anyone (1.85 ERA, 0.76 WHIP since June 1), but he posted a 5.06 ERA across his first six starts of the year before spending almost all of May on the disabled list. With a shortage of ace-level hurlers for fantasy owners to choose from, those who keep pace with the changing landscape will consider Sale and Kluber during the initial round of 2018 drafts.

The NL MVP Award race is arguably tighter than that of the AL, with Giancarlo Stanton having emerged as the possible leader after producing 18 homers and a 1.332 OPS during a memorable month of August. Arguably the most powerful hitter in baseball, Stanton could be the first player to top the 60-homer plateau since 2001. The 27-year-old will have his name called during the opening round of '18 fantasy drafts, as owners are less concerned than MVP voters about his likely lack of participation in the upcoming Postseason.

Stanton's chief rivals are a pair of NL West sluggers. D-backs first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is primed for his first postseason action since his rookie year in 2011. The 29-year-old ranks sixth in the Majors in wRC+ (156) and should be the only NL player to exceed both the 30-homer and 20-steal plateaus this season. Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon can also make an excellent case for the NL MVP Award. The leadoff man easily tops the Majors in runs scored (122) and triples (14), while also leading the Senior Circuit in batting average (.342). Although some MVP voters may dock Blackmon for his mediocre .808 OPS on the road (1.269 OPS at home), those who play in fantasy contests have little concern for how the 31-year-old distributes his elite production. Both Goldschmidt and Blackmon should have their names called by the middle of Round 1 in '18 fantasy drafts.

Zinkie on Upton joining Angels

A pair of corner infielders -- Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon -- still have time to slug their way into serious NL MVP Award consideration. Votto has one of the most complete plate profiles, ranking among the top two big leaguers in wRC+ (165), OPS (1.036) and on-base percentage (.448). However, his membership on a last-place Reds club will hurt his MVP chances, and his lack of wheels (five swipes) will push him to the second round of most 2018 fantasy drafts. Rendon had a signature moment when he went 6-for-6 with three homers and 10 RBIs on April 30, but his fantasy contributions in his other 127 games have been more good than great. Rendon will have his name called in the first half of every '18 fantasy draft but may not be a top-50 selection.

Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer -- last year's Best Pitcher and Best Performance winner in the Esurance MLB Awards -- is the only NL hurler who can put his name in the NL MVP Award discussion. However, the right-hander is likely on the outside looking in after missing time in August and falling off the pace for a 300-whiff season. But Scherzer still has time to enjoy a furious finish and make his case to be a 2017 MVP and a top 5 pick in '18 fantasy drafts. Clayton Kershaw has had an amazing season in his own right -- an unsurprising fact, given his longstanding label as baseball's top fantasy arm. But due to the time he missed to injury, the southpaw will be hardpressed to garner NL MVP Award support -- even with his stellar per-game stats (16-2, 1.95 ERA, 7.3 K/BB ratio).

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.