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The Most Fun Fantasy Baseball Team Fake Money Can Buy

Homers, whiffs, and memes, oh my! How Giancarlo Stanton, Shohei Ohtani, and others can bring you bliss on a budget in 2018.

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The three true outcomes might fill a given baseball game with less action and motion than some fans want from the sport they love, but there’s no better thrill for fantasy owners than for their hitters to homer or their pitchers to strike out a dozen opponents. That joy is both visceral, given the emotional swing those two plays generate, and logical: A dinger boosts the home run, run, RBI, and average or OBP categories, while a strikeout helps K, ERA, and WHIP. No other plays are more fun or valuable for a fantasy owner.

So homers and strikeouts are once again the centerpiece of any effort to build the most exciting team that fake money can buy. Using Yahoo’s average draft prices and standard $260 auction budget, the following team is one that owners can realistically construct while giving them a roster full of players they’ll want to follow every day. As Robert Mays reminds us each year with his fantasy football approach, this draft strategy brings risk this draft strategy brings risk and some flameouts, but that’s the trade-off for a tremendous amount of fun. Last year, this approach would have meant suffering through injuries to Noah Syndergaard, Julio Urias, and Yoenis Céspedes, but it also would have brought fantasy owners the joy of owning Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 homers, a power-hitting Francisco Lindor, mid-breakout Alex Bregman and Andrew Benintendi, and a way-too-cheap Byron Buxton. That’s a reasonable success rate—and, above all, an entertaining composition.

Catcher: Mike Zunino, $1

To save budget space for the really fun players at other positions, it makes sense to save on catcher, but Zunino is worth rostering in his own right. Mariners fans need no introduction to Zunino, who is now good, but those who don’t lurk on Baseball Twitter might: After being picked third in the 2012 draft, Zunino clobbered three levels of minor league pitching but struggled to transfer his success to the majors. After being one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2015, though, Zunino has been above average at the plate in each of the last two seasons, and a full season from the Seattle backstop is worth at least 25 homers, a bucket of runs batted in, and a fair share of memes.

First Base: Rhys Hoskins, $24

This lineup will deliver more dingers—many more—but they’ll start in force with Hoskins, who in one stretch soon after his call-up last year hit 18 homers in 30 games. The natural first baseman will once again be displaced to the outfield in 2018, thanks to Philadelphia’s signing of Carlos Santana, but Hoskins can mash at the plate wherever he appears on defense. In between homering, the wonderfully nicknamed Rhys Lightning is also a good sport for the sake of internet content, which bumps him up the fun scale.

Second base: Javier Báez, $8

Some observers may consider Báez’s fun factor to be so overstated that it swings around to make him less fun, but the free-swinging Cub is considered so entertaining that last September, he won MLB.com’s “Funnest Player” bracket. Even the curmudgeonly Ron Swanson likes him. Although much of that manifests in non-fantasy ways—his slick tags and smooth slides—he’s still a viable and well-rounded contributor on the fake diamond; last year, he was one of just 19 hitters with at least 20 homers, 10 steals, 75 runs, and 75 RBI.

Shortstop: Francisco Lindor, $34

The first repeat player from last season’s list is Lindor, who finished as the runner-up to Báez in MLB.com’s Funnest Player tournament. He’s given no reason to doubt his fun or his fantasy prowess since last season, when he hit 33 homers, and because he costs just $4 more than a year ago, he’s again a worthy addition to this roster.

Third base: Adrián Beltré, $11

Last season, Beltré eclipsed 3,000 career hits, produced an OPS north of .900, and hit .300 for the fifth time in six seasons. He also continued his long-running banter with shortstop Elvis Andrus and was ejected for dragging the on-deck mat over to the spot he wanted rather than the one the umpire wanted. While other stars of the 2000s fade into retirement or become synonymous with their bad contracts, Beltré remains an all-around star and one of the sport’s most enjoyable players to watch.

Outfield: Giancarlo Stanton, $44; Aaron Judge, $38; Adam Eaton, $4

Stanton joins Lindor as a repeat member on this team, and he joins Judge as a colossus in the Bronx. To much of the baseball-watching public, it might not sound so great to watch two Yankees bash homers, but Stanton and Judge are going to get theirs anyway, so you might as well glean some fantasy benefit when they do. Their power potential is basically unmatched, as FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection forecasts three players to reach 40 home runs this season: Judge (41), Joey Gallo (42), and Stanton (all the way up at 58).

Eaton, meanwhile, isn’t a household name like Stanton or Judge, but as a feature player in the Nationals’ lineup, he’s a wildly fun fantasy target. Eaton missed the rest of the 2017 season after tearing his ACL on April 28, at which point the Nationals ranked second in the majors in homers and led in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and wRC+. Through that date, the Nationals as a team (not counting pitchers) were hitting .300/.372/.510, which is what Corey Seager did over all of last season with even more power. All that hitting meant Eaton was a force to reach base, drive runners in, and score himself, and once he returns fully from that injury, he should be no different for a 2018 lineup that didn’t lose a single starter from last season.

Utility: Joey Gallo, $6

Recall that 40-homer-projection line from above. No fantasy team will have more power than this one, so Gallo’s positives outweigh the batting average negatives he also brings.

Starting pitchers: Noah Syndergaard, $28; Masahiro Tanaka, $16

Thus far this spring training, Syndergaard has thrown a triple-digit fastball in his first start, requested that his postgame interview be conducted with him shirtless, and struck out 23 hitters in 20 innings. He’s ready for a full season after an injury-shortened 2017, and if owners can stomach drafting him again after being burned last season, they should be ready for a full season of Thor, too.

Tanaka, meanwhile, showed flashes of brilliance even in a relatively down year (4.74 ERA): He had three separate games with at least 13 strikeouts and no walks, tying for the most such games in a single season in league history. The only other pitchers to reach three are Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, and Yu Darvish. Add in Tanaka’s pristine playoff performance last October (18 strikeouts versus just 13 baserunners and two runs allowed in 20 innings), and he looks poised to give his owner more gems in 2018.

Relief pitchers: Sean Doolittle, $8; Fernando Rodney, $2

Here is a real Washington Post headline from last month: “Nats’ Sean Doolittle avoided Metro for weeks after teen told him he looked like Seth Rogen.” Subhed: “Doolittle admits that ‘it was actually a very good burn.’” Now imagine that player going nearly perfect in save opportunities (21 of 22 in Washington after last year’s trade), and it’s easy to understand his fantasy appeal for both point-scoring and team-naming purposes.

Rodney is the last returning member of this roster, again serving as a cheap saves throw-in. Fantasy owners would happily accept a repeat performance as the notoriously erratic Rodney was actually pretty good last season, tying for fourth in the majors in saves and third in the win-probability stat shutdowns; the only player who bested him in both statistics was the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, who is the best closer in baseball. Rodney is still shooting arrows at the end of team wins, and he brings a further unique aspect to the fantasy fore in 2018: If Rodney, who celebrated his 41st birthday on Sunday, records 15 saves this season, he’d become just the sixth player that old to do so, joining three Hall of Famers, one future Hall of Famer, and, somehow, LaTroy Hawkins.

Utility pitchers: Shohei Ohtani, $16; Marcus Stroman, $7; Charlie Morton, $2; Andrew Miller, $3

Let’s go through these arms one by one:

Ohtani: Obviously. Ohtani is already unique in fantasy baseball history, and if his two-way plans work, he would become one of the most enjoyable players to roster, ever.

Stroman: The Blue Jays ace won’t be ready to start on Opening Day after right shoulder inflammation delayed his spring training schedule, but his entertainment value extends even beyond the confines of an April-through-September regular season. Last spring, he shimmied his way to a World Baseball Classic title, and this winter, he delighted the labor crowd after expressing his disapproval of the sport’s odd arbitration process.

And on a roster that embraces players at the physical extremes, Stroman fits right in. He’s not José Altuve, but at just 5-foot-8, he is the shortest pitcher to make even 10 starts since the 1970s. The median player height last year was 6-foot-2, meaning Stroman was further from average than Judge.

Morton: The last time Morton pitched in a game that counted, he closed out Houston’s first World Series win with four stress-free innings. The 34-year-old has suffered a litany of injuries in his career but pitched better in recent seasons because of two seemingly obvious changes: First, he decided to copy the throwing motion of Roy Halladay, the best pitcher of his generation and the one that other pitchers wanted to become, and second, he decided to start throwing harder. It worked! And given the also obvious strategies that go into the construction of this fantasy roster—grab homers, strikeouts, and upside—Morton’s ethos is a perfect match.

Miller: The most intimidating lefty pitcher since Randy Johnson—seriously, Miller’s legs might be longer than Stroman’s whole body—might be the sport’s best reliever, too, meaning he’s a worthy addition to any fantasy roster even if he’s not his manager’s preferred closer. Plus, every time he enters a game to lower your staff’s ERA and boost its strikeout total, you can offer a smug “Did you know he changed the whole sport’s bullpen usage?” explanation.

Bench: Ozzie Albies, $3; Ronald Acuna, $3; Lucas Giolito, $1; Brandon McCarthy, $0; Tim Lincecum, $1

First up on the bench are two young Braves. Albies is a dynamic 21-year-old second baseman who could pair 15 homers with 25 steals; just last week, he homered from both sides of the plate in a spring training game against Pittsburgh. Acuna, meanwhile, is the top non-Ohtani prospect in baseball; the outfielder should be playing for Atlanta within a month of Opening Day and could excel once there, as he has played better at every level to which he’s ascended over the past calendar year:

  • Single-A: 28 games, .814 OPS
  • Double-A: 57 games, .895 OPS
  • Triple-A: 54 games, .940 OPS
  • Arizona Fall League: 23 games, 1.053 OPS
  • Spring training: 15 games, 1.254 OPS

Across three minor league levels in 2017, he homered 21 times and stole 44 bases; he might not approach those totals this season, especially with the Braves leaving him in Triple-A to start the year, but that’s a tantalizing combination of power and speed found among the likes of Mike Trout, José Altuve, and Paul Goldschmidt at the MLB level.

Giolito is the first starting pitcher off the bench. The former National, who went to the White Sox in last offseason’s Eaton trade, has dropped his arm angle and appears to be throwing harder, which might allow him to recapture the magic that made him a top-five prospect in the sport in 2016. Giolito belongs on the fun roster bench this year like Buxton, another post-hype breakout candidate, did last season.

McCarthy joins the team as another bench arm, now that he’s guaranteed a rotation spot in Atlanta and coming off his best season—3.98 ERA and 3.28 FIP in 16 starts—in several years. It’s not hard to root for a man who runs the best Twitter account of any major leaguer, and if healthy, he’ll provide solid ratios while adding some spirit to this team’s make-believe clubhouse.

And last on the list is Lincecum, one of the most entertaining pitchers of the past decade, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2016 or pitched well since 2011, but who is back, jacked, and throwing fastballs in the 90s again. Lincecum hasn’t appeared in a spring training game yet and likely won’t start the season on Texas’s roster, but he has a chance at winning the closer job in a messy Texas bullpen. It might be wishful thinking to expect Lincecum to grab that role and succeed, but the two-time Cy Young winner has thrown 15 career playoff innings out of the bullpen, in which he allowed just one run and struck out 20. If his renewed stuff plays up in relief, he might be the most fun fantasy closer to own in 2018.