Compared with its more popular gridiron cousin, fantasy baseball is more incremental, more time-consuming, and more of a slog. While fantasy football allows for days off and spotty attention, baseball is a daily beast, and in mid-August, it can be hard to care about how the pitching matchup in a Padres-Reds game might affect a fantasy starter’s platoon situation.
Not this year, though. For the 2017 fantasy baseball season, we’re building the most exciting team fake money can buy, using Yahoo’s standard roster setup and $260 auction budget. We’re looking for home runs, we’re looking for strikeouts, and ultimately we’re looking for a team full of players we’ll want to follow every day. As Robert Mays guaranteed when he completed this exercise for fantasy football last summer, “There will be risks, sure. And there may be some epic flameouts. But here’s what I can promise above all: There will be fun.”
Catcher: Kyle Schwarber, Cubs, $21 (rounded from Yahoo’s average draft price)
I don’t use the word “mash” lightly, but there’s no better verb to describe Schwarber’s outcomes at the plate. Just look at this thing and take in the sounds — the thwack, the crowd’s crescendo, the announcers’ befuddled lines of commentary: “Mercy” and “What in the world?”
Now imagine that every time Schwarber shoots a ball into Wrigley’s jet stream this year, you get to taunt a friend about running up the score in your fantasy matchup. With Joe Maddon contemplating batting Schwarber in the leadoff spot, you’ll have even more opportunities to do so. (If your league doesn’t count Schwarber as a catcher, the Yankees’ Gary Sánchez is fetching the same price and fits this exercise for similar reasons.)
First base: Edwin Encarnación, Indians, $28
First base features a number of capable hitters who can anchor a fantasy lineup, but few who inspire giddiness in spectators while they’re doing so. If IBM made a Watson for baseball, it would hit and command the strike zone like Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto; the problem is that nobody wants to watch a computer hit .330 with a 15 percent walk rate.
Encarnación, now in Cleveland and separated from Bash Brother José Bautista, straddles the line between production and entertainment, mainly by punctuating each of his home runs with his signature “walk the parrot” trot. He shouldn’t lose many counting stats in his new ballpark, either, as an inferior slugger in Mike Napoli tallied 34 home runs and 101 RBI for the Tribe last season. Plenty of parrots will come to roost at Progressive this year.
Second base: José Peraza, Reds, $5
I spent a long time trying to fit Trea Turner into this lineup, but the Nationals’ wunderkind is just too pricey, at an average cost of $41. Peraza, conversely, is a deal at just $5, as the speedy Red stole 21 bases in less than half a season at the MLB level. He ran at the minor league level, too (124 steals combined in 2013 and 2014), and unlike teammate Billy Hamilton, he’s not so overmatched at the plate that his batting average will sink a fantasy team in that category. Peraza is not the flashiest name, but draft him and you’ll be excited to flip to a Reds game on MLB.tv every time he reaches base.
Third base: Alex Bregman, Astros, $15
In a typical fantasy league, the zealous market for young players yields inflated prices, while proven contributors receive a corresponding undervaluation. Third base exemplifies this trend, as Bregman, who has 217 career plate appearances, is in the same price range as Matt Carpenter ($16) and Evan Longoria ($15), who have combined for more than 8,000. The Moneyball move is to select unexciting veterans, but for this team, we’re embracing the youngsters. Give me a higher dosage of uncertainty if it comes with a higher likelihood that I’ll be able to track one of my draftees’ daily ascension to stardom.
Shortstop: Francisco Lindor, Indians, $30
In addition to home runs and strikeouts, our team is going to lead the fantasy league in smiles. Any lineup oriented around the concept of fun has to include Lindor, one of the game’s most charming and charismatic players. Fantasy-wise, the well-rounded shortstop has upside in all five offensive categories; fun-wise, this is the look you’ll make every time he legs out a double or swipes a base and grins at his dugout.
Outfield: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins, $27; Yoenis Céspedes, Mets, $20; Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox, $7
I don’t care that Stanton has never played more than 150 games in a season, or that he hasn’t reached even that total since 2011. I just care that when he does play, he’s always one barreled swing away from a 500-foot home run. Despite his frequent presence on the disabled list, Stanton has still placed in the top 10 in the NL in homers four times since 2011, and he has to crack the 40-homer barrier at least once in his career, right? What if that season is this one? More importantly, what if each of those titanic blasts counts for you, too?
Meanwhile, with his ranch, roasts, and rides, Céspedes’s capacity to entertain the casual baseball observer is as much an outlier as Stanton’s prodigious power. On the field, he’s a bat flip maestro — our team likes bat flips more than Bruce Wayne — and he’s consistently productive, having reached 20 homers, 70 runs, and 80 RBI every year he’s been in the majors.
The Benintendi pick represents a lower-cost application of the Bregman logic. Kole Calhoun is a reliable veteran going for $5, and FanGraphs’ projections predict Calhoun will best Benintendi in homers, runs, and RBI this season. But expectations for Calhoun are constrained by what we know he can do; with Benintendi, the top prospect in baseball, our dreams are limitless.
Utility: Miguel Sano, Twins, $6; Addison Russell, Cubs, $5
Here’s the not-so-fun part: In the past century, no position player with at least 500 plate appearances has struck out as often as Sano. Here’s the fun part: He has a sense of humor about his struggles, and much like Stanton homers when he’s not hurt, Sano homers when he’s not striking out. The young Twin hit 25 last year, and even a minor uptick in efficiency as he enters his age-24 season would make him a steal at this price.
Russell, meanwhile, flashes a cherubic smile almost as often as Lindor, and his 21 HR-95 RBI combination from last season would be valuable from any fantasy bat, let alone one that can slot in at shortstop and is bound to score a bunch of runs in a loaded Cubs lineup.
Starting pitchers: Noah Syndergaard, Mets, $34; Yu Darvish, Rangers, $24
Darvish has the highest K/9 rate of any qualified starter in MLB history, and Syndergaard ranks sixth (nestled between Mark Prior and Kerry Wood — pray for his shoulder). This isn’t complicated: Grab a pair of aces, turn on their starts, and watch your team’s strikeout totals rise.
Relief pitchers: Edwin Díaz, Mariners, $11; Fernando Rodney, Diamondbacks, $1
Díaz burst onto the MLB scene with his flamethrowing routine in Seattle, and by the time his rookie season ended, he had struck out 41 percent of opposing batters and converted 18 of 21 save opportunities. Many relievers boast one wipeout pitch, but Díaz entertains with both a fastball that touches triple digits and a slider that buckles knees. In 85 at-bats ending in a slider, opponents struck out 50 times and hit .141 with only three extra-base hits (all doubles).
Rodney, meanwhile, is inconsistent and liable to blow a save in any given appearance, but there are only so many closer roles to go around, and between Encarnación’s parrot and Rodney’s arrows, our team has a monopoly on the best player celebrations in the sport.
Utility pitchers: Danny Duffy, Royals, $8; Julio Urias, Dodgers, $2; Vince Velasquez, Phillies, $2; Jon Gray, Rockies, $1
To round out our pitching staff, we’re staying true to our type: young, with breakout potential, and likely to stockpile strikeouts. Besides Max Scherzer, who struck out 20 in a game to tie the MLB record, three pitchers amassed more than 15 Ks in a game last year. We’re adding all three, plus Urias, who just completed a 3.39 ERA season and struck out better than a batter per inning as a 19-year-old; Scherzer, for comparison, posted a 5.85 ERA as a freshman at the University of Missouri at that age.
The other three pitchers in this group all have tantalizing talent. Duffy struck out 16 and allowed just one hit against Tampa last season, Velasquez could get hurt at any moment but also struck out 16 Padres in a three-hit shutout, and Gray’s most recent home start was, as measured by Game Score, the best single-game performance in Coors Field history: Against the Padres, Gray threw a shutout, striking out 16 and allowing only four singles and no walks.
Bench: Bartolo Colón, Braves, $1; Evan Gattis, Astros, $4; Dexter Fowler, Cardinals, $4; Byron Buxton, Twins, $2; Ichiro Suzuki, Marlins, $0
Colón’s appeal on this team is obvious, and he’s not a waste fantasy-wise: He won 15 games last year, he doesn’t get hurt, and he will face the Phillies’ porous offense a handful of times this season. He’s also more than twice Urias’s age, which at the very least is a fun fact we can add to our fun team.
It’s hard not to root for Gattis, who underwent a tremendous personal battle before even reaching the majors, and who is a sure bet for power numbers off the bench, both in Houston and on this team. Fowler provides insurance in the outfield if (when?) Stanton misses a month due to injury or if Sano’s contact troubles submarine his counting totals, plus Fowler said his mission in St. Louis is literally to make the Cardinals clubhouse more fun. He’s a welcome presence on our roster.
Buxton could strike out like Sano without matching his teammate’s power, or he could fulfill the potential scouts saw when they named him a top-two prospect in the league three years in a row. At just $2, we’ll stash him on our bench in case it’s the latter.
Our last addition is Ichiro, born the same year as Colón and currently going undrafted in Yahoo auctions. From a pure fantasy perspective, Ichiro has little value: He’s blocked from a starting role by three standout outfielders in Miami, and he hasn’t exceeded one home run or 22 RBI in a season since 2013. And yet. And yet! He played well in Stanton’s stead last season, stealing 10 bases, scoring 48 runs, and managing a top-20 batting average among outfielders with at least 300 plate appearances. With the starting lineup we have — look at those bats again! — we don’t really need tangible production from this last bench slot, anyway. We need entertainment. And no player in baseball better embodies that endeavor than Ichiro.