The 2018 fantasy baseball season began with questions about whether having at least one ace starting pitcher was critical to a winning strategy.
It ended with questions about whether starting pitchers are even needed.
While the “big four” preseason aces — Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw — mostly lived up to their lofty expectations, an unexpected new development took root at Tampa Bay that could have major repercussions next season.
The Rays’ use of a relief pitcher for the first inning or two before turning to their nominal starter drew criticism from the general baseball community and concern among fantasy owners.
But the strategy was an instant success. Since closer Sergio Romo became their first “opener” on May 19, the Rays’ 3.32 ERA (entering the week) has been the best in the American League. The No. 1 beneficiary: left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, who’s made just six official starts yet has 15 wins in 139 1/3 innings.
Meanwhile, those valuable aces are getting harder to find. Sale and Kershaw have been dominant all season, but both had injuries that will keep them from even qualifying for the ERA title. Two hundred innings were once the minimum for a solid starting pitcher, but this season only 10 or so will reach that mark.
Top starting pitchers are still one of the game’s most prized assets. It’s just that teams might have found a way to survive without them.
So as we look back on 2018 — The Year of the Opener — let’s hand out our annual achievement awards.
Fantasy MVP: Javier Baez, Cubs
Baez had always shown the ability to hit for power, but all too often his propensity to strike out limited his fantasy value. In the preseason, his average draft position was 105, ranking him 11th among second basemen and ninth among shortstops.
He cut down on his whiff rate only slightly, but his power blossomed as he settled into a spot in the heart of the Cubs batting order. Setting career highs across the board, Baez entered the final week of the regular season with a .293 average, 34 home runs, 110 RBI, 97 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
In addition, he made enough appearances at third base to qualify at a third position for next season. With that kind of versatility and contributions in all five fantasy categories, all at a bargain price on draft day, Baez is an easy choice.
Runners-up: Trevor Story, Rockies; Christian Yelich, Brewers; Mitch Haniger, Mariners
Fantasy pitcher of the year: Blake Snell, Rays
After showing some signs he’d fixed his control problems in the second half of last season, Snell took his game to the next level this year. Armed with four plus pitches, Snell has thrown his curveball nearly twice as often and it’s become his greatest weapon.
To top it off, he’s been almost untouchable down the stretch, winning his last nine starts to run his record to 21-5 and lower his ERA to an amazing 1.90. If it holds, he’ll be the first American League pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA since Pedro Martinez did it 19 years ago.
On average, Snell was the 197th player taken in drafts this spring and the 73rd pitcher. He’ll finish as one of the top three.
Runners-up: Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks; Mike Foltynewicz, Braves; Trevor Bauer, Indians; Blake Treinen, A’s
Best waiver pickup: Jesus Aguilar, Brewers
When the season started, it didn’t look like the Brewers had a place for Aguilar on the roster. As a platoon partner for Eric Thames at first base, he figured to lose even more playing time with Ryan Braun getting occasional starts there.
Although he only hit one home run in April, Aguilar hit .378 and managed to work his way into the starting lineup. The sooner fantasy owners noticed, the more they reaped the benefits.
Aguilar hit eight homers in May and 10 in June on his way to earning an All-Star berth and a spot in the Home Run Derby.
With a week remaining, he’s up to 33 homers and 104 RBI. Not too bad for someone fantasy owners likely picked up for free.
Runners-up: Juan Soto, Nationals; Kyle Freeland, Rockies; Max Muncy, Dodgers
Least valuable player: Gary Sanchez, Yankees
Since there are so few offensive assets at catcher, fantasy owners are often willing to pay a premium for someone who can put up big numbers. In 2017, Sanchez did just that, hitting .278 with 33 home runs and 90 RBI.
With a preseason average draft position (ADP) of 19, he was a second-round pick in mixed leagues and a borderline $30 player in auction formats.
But this season was a disaster for the 25-year-old. Injuries and defensive issues only seemed to complicate things as Sanchez hit an abysmal .182 with 16 homers and 48 RBI. That translates to a Roto value of negative $7.
Biggest in-season turnaround: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
There were already questions surrounding Carpenter’s health after he hit a career-low .241 last season and battled a nagging shoulder injury. Fantasy owners could easily have cut him as the 32-year-old’s average dropped to .140 on May 15.
But something clicked and Carpenter ended up having the best season of his career. After hitting rock bottom in May, he hit .294/.402/604 with 33 homers, 66 RBI and 95 runs scored and played his way into NL MVP consideration.
Runners-up: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks; Zack Wheeler, Mets
Hitting line of the year: Carpenter
Carpenter was so hot over the summer, he had a pair of five-hit games in less than a month. The one on July 20 against the Chicago Cubs was the best day at the plate for any hitter this season.
In an 18-5 rout at Wrigley Field, Carpenter went 5-for-5 with three home runs, two doubles, five runs scored and seven RBI.
Pitching line of the year: Gerrit Cole, Astros
Cole might have been the best pitcher in the majors over the first six weeks. His one-hit shutout on the road against the Arizona Diamondbacks was a masterpiece that surpassed even this season’s two individual no-hitters.
Cole struck out an MLB season-high 16 batters and walked just one.
Worst batting line: Kike Hernandez, Dodgers
On July 24, the versatile Hernandez played second base and right field but failed to reach base in his seven plate appearances as the game stretched into extra innings. Even worse, with the Dodgers out of pitchers, Hernandez took over on the mound and gave up a game-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the 16th.
Worst pitching line: Dylan Bundy, Orioles
In a season to forget in Baltimore, Bundy failed to get an out in his May 8 start against the Kansas City Royals. He allowed two walks and five hits — four of them home runs — before being taken out in the top of the first inning. All seven batters scored.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
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