Fantasy Baseball: Who's the first pick in 2017?
Mookie Betts' power binge has him in the running for first overall pick in 2017, but he has plenty of competition. Scott White looks at the candidates.
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So ... who's first?
I know we're a long way from 2017 still, but with Jose Altuve continuing his historic pace and Mookie Betts pulling away from the outfield pack with a series of multi-homer games, it's probably something you've asked yourself.
It's not a runaway, this battle for the top spot. It rarely is, but usually we can narrow it to two or three players. As of this moment, though, with five weeks yet to go, I count six candidates deserving of consideration.
Let's examine them one by one.
He would be my top choice, which shouldn't be any sort of upset. I mean, yeah, he's only the fourth-best hitter in both Rotisserie and Head-to-Head points leagues so far, but didn't we learn this lesson with Bryce Harper this year? With the first pick, you want security as much as upside, and upside shouldn't be in question for any of these players.
So rather than guess who will score the most points, trust in the one who's always in the discussion, whose five-year track record is without blemish and who's only now entering his prime at age 25. That's Mike Trout.
Sure, the steals come and go. Yeah, he may not quite reach 30 home runs this year after hitting a career-high 41 last year. But that only speaks to the security he provides. If he has an off year in any of the areas where he contributes, he's still among the very best, health permitting.
That caveat is a critical one. I suppose Trout could have been the one to injure his shoulder on a head-first slide and spend the next two months attempting to play through it, as Harper has reportedly done (amid the Nationals' denials). That would make this distinction I'm drawing between the two purely coincidental, but it sure feels like a lesson to be learned.
Until Trout doesn't do it, you should trust that he always will.
He sure doesn't look like he should be capable of the 37-homer pace he's now on, which would more than double last year's total. And yeah, among the 121 players with at least 14 home runs (a fairly low power threshold, mind you), his would be the fifth-shortest on average.
But for Mookie Betts, these seem like trivial details.
First of all, his home park is tailor made for short home runs from right-handed hitters, so unless he's changing teams this offseason (news flash: he isn't), I'm not terribly concerned how far he's hitting them. That isn't to say I'm confident he'll hit another 35-plus home runs next year or any other, just that the average distance, in this particular case, isn't a huge warning sign.
Of course, that's easier to say believing he doesn't need to hit 35 or even 30 home runs to be an out-and-out Fantasy stud. Remember: We were only hoping for a 20-20 season coming into the year, and he was still getting drafted in the middle of the second round. His exceptional contact rate makes him a safe bet for batting average, and when a fly ball of his doesn't quite clear the Green Monster, it usually deflects off it for a double.
He's kind of like Trout. The scope of his contributions is so wide that his value doesn't depend on any one particular skill carrying over from one season to the next. If he falls short of 25 homers as a top-five pick, it'll be a disappointment, sure, but probably not one that costs you the title.
And if he's already showing this kind of power at age 23, I'm taking the over anyway.
I think it's fair to say Jose Altuve has been the most valuable player in Fantasy this year.
The thinking two years ago, remember, was that anything he offered power-wise was gravy. He was such a standout in batting average and stolen bases that he'd be the runaway at second base and an obvious first-round pick regardless of his home run total. So we were over the moon when he hit 15 homers last year, and now here he is closing in on 25 -- and with about a 50-point improvement in batting average to boot.
Players who are already that good don't normally improve that much, which you could view a couple different ways. On the one hand, yes, the improvement has made him the best overall hitter in Fantasy. On the other hand, you have to wonder how sustainable it is.
I'm not even talking about the home runs, which are a separate issue. Let's just assume the new baseline for him is 25. A lot of smart people have argued that his power breakthrough is legitimate, and I'm not inclined to disagree with them.
So we've penciled him in for 25. Great. But guess what? It's not an especially impressive number on its own.
It's impressive in conjunction with everything else Altuve does, and his two standout categories, batting average and stolen bases, also happen to be the most volatile. My own personal rule for projecting batting average is that every player is capable of hitting within 30 points of his baseline in either direction any given year. Yup, it's that dependent on both luck and where the player happens to be positioned on the season-long roller coaster ride when Game 162 comes to an end.
You have to think .365 is the high point for Altuve even if you don't buy my kooky theory. I mean, it's built on a .375 BABIP, which nobody can sustain from year to year. And if you do buy my theory, his batting average could decline by anywhere from 30 to 60 points next year without any sort of skill change.
As for stolen bases, they happen almost independently of skill. A player chooses to run -- or his manager chooses for him -- and often, that choice is decided by his role in the lineup. Altuve's power surge has made him more of a run producer than a table setter, and we've already seen it impact his stolen base habits. He went from having nine in April to six in May and June to four in July to one so far in August. A 30-steal season may not be a certainty for the new and improved Altuve.
Of course, all of this probably sounds scarier than I mean for it to. It's not like there's any real danger in drafting Altuve next year. But when distinguishing between players this high-end, you have to nitpick, and it's a little easier to do for Altuve than some of these others. I would suspect his floor isn't much lower than that of Betts, really, but since second base is considered the deeper position these days, there's your tiebreaker.
If the reliability argument sets Trout apart, then the same should be true for Josh Donaldson. After all, he has put together four straight MVP-caliber seasons, actually out-producing Trout in his two in Toronto.
Then again, that depends how exactly you measure production. According to our Rotisserie formula, Trout has the advantage this year.
There are a couple reasons for that, but the most obvious is the stolen base category. Trout is a contributor there; Donaldson isn't. And therein lies the problem: If one of the advantages Trout (and Betts and Altuve) has is the ability to slump in one area without losing much overall value, then the opposite has to be a disadvantage. If Donaldson slumps in home runs next year, he's suddenly looking a lot like Justin Turner. And as unlikely as that scenario is, it's more likely for a player in his early 30s than one in his mid-20s.
Donaldson isn't a three-true-outcomes guy or anything, but two things he doesn't appear to have the capacity to do are steal a bunch of bases and compete for a batting title. The first is especially damning in today's environment. Stolen bases, for the second straight season, are exceedingly rare, and by passing up Trout, Betts or Altuve, you're passing up the opportunity to secure some early. At least in Rotisserie leagues, that's probably a deal-breaker.
I'd be remiss not to mention Bryce Harper here, seeing as he was my choice to go No. 1 this year, but if it wasn't clear from my Trout write-up, he's not in serious consideration for next year's honor.
He may not even be in my top five, at least not as his numbers currently stand. He's only a .234 hitter since the end of April, after all -- and with fewer home runs than Ryan Howard during that time.
I don't think he's really that bad -- or bad at all, even -- and I wouldn't doubt for a minute that injuries have played some role (though not at all to his shoulder -- no, never). But if your No. 1 goal with your No. 1 pick is not to squander it, well then this year's Harper owners failed at that goal. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I realize the season isn't over yet. I also realize that since his seven-day respite (from something other than the shoulder -- wink wink, nudge nudge), he's 12 for 33 (.364) with three doubles and two home runs, including his longest of the season. He could turn things around yet. But anything short of Player of the Month-type production in September makes Harper a late first-rounder for me.
Full disclosure: Before he suffered the back injury that put the rest of his season in doubt, I was leaning toward making Clayton Kershaw my top overall pick next year.
In terms of consistency, no one -- not Trout, not Donaldson, no one -- can touch him. He has been the best pitcher in baseball six years running, and the one time there was any doubt, 2015, he still became the first in 13 years to record 300 strikeouts. You won't find a player at any position so predictably superlative.
The gap seems to be widening, too. In a year when offense is back on the rise and so many of the presumed aces are plummeting in the rankings, Kershaw was turning in his best season yet, boasting a FIP (1.66) bettered by only one pitcher since World War I. That one was Pedro Martinez during his legendary 1999 season.
But then ... ouchie.
And yet, unlike Harper, I don't feel like Kershaw's owners failed in their goal not to squander their first pick. He was so much better than everyone else for so long that I imagine they're still sitting pretty, even if they have slipped a bit. I know that's the case in the leagues where I drafted Kershaw.
Still, we may not have evidence he's actually healthy by the time we draft next year. Even if he returns this year, he could have surgery in the offseason, and back surgery is no joke. Unless you think the owner of a healthy Kershaw is the only one who could possibly win your Fantasy league (which is patently absurd), I don't see how you could pass up Trout, Betts, Altuve or Donaldson for so many unknowns.
And if Kershaw doesn't return this year, he might drop out of the first round entirely. Sure, he may end up being the steal of the draft in that scenario, but no reward measures up to that kind of risk.
Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt and Manny Machado (who'll retain his shortstop eligibility) are all first-rounders in my mind, and I suspect some will go ahead of Harper and perhaps even Kershaw, depending how his recovery goes. But I don't see them doing anything over the final five weeks to topple these other four.
It's not a referendum on them but more a reinforcement of the idea that you shouldn't have to take any chances with your first-round pick next year ... which is perhaps even more incentive to let Harper and Kershaw fall.
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