Get an early start on 2018 ros­ters

Time to stock keeper leagues

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - NFC WEST - Jock Thomp­son @Base­bal­lHQ Base­bal­lHQ.com Con­sider cur­rent MLB and fantasy trends. Take an hon­est as­sess­ment of your cur­rent ros­ter. Scour your league’s free agent scrapheap. Check cur­rent play­ing time pro­jec­tions and depth charts. Re­view com­peti­tors’ ros

With a month left in the reg­u­lar sea­son, only a se­lect few are still play­ing to win their 2017 cham­pi­onships, and the long sea­son has taken a toll on many non-con­tenders. Even with plenty of late­sum­mer dis­trac­tions — va­ca­tions, back-to-school prep, the on­set of fantasy foot­ball — savvy keeper league own­ers will take ad­van­tage of this time to jump-start their 2018 ef­fort. Par­tic­u­larly with land­scape shifts cre­ated by trade dead­line moves and Septem­ber ros­ter ex­pan­sion, these fi­nal weeks are prime time for scarf­ing up bar­gains and fly­ers ig­nored by oth­ers.

With this in mind and a look to­ward ros­ter op­ti­miza­tion, the fol­low­ing check­list should help you sift through the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The home run and strike­out spikes, to­gether with pitch­ing in­juries — both in the ma­jors and mi­nors — have dom­i­nated 2017, serv­ing as a re­minder that pitch­ers are riskier than hit­ters.

Bet­ting on high-up­side prospect arms far away from their MLB de­buts can be fool­ish, which in turn has made es­tab­lished aces pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. For hit­ters, while those who strike out less are prefer­able, plenty of swing-and-miss slug­gers still have fantasy value. And sim­i­lar to scarce No. 1 start­ing pitch­ers, po­si­tion play­ers with 30-plus stolen-base up­side can be worth their weight in gold.

So fo­cus on re­build­ing MLB clubs, par­tic­u­larly those with out­stand­ing mi­nor league sys­tems, such as the At­lanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. Those clubs will have plenty of job open­ings through­out 2018, par­tic­u­larly in the ro­ta­tion, and each has su­perla­tive ta­lent on the farm that soon will be ready to con­trib­ute.

Iden­tify your squad’s strengths, weak­nesses and needs, along with your pre­ferred keep­ers, trade tar­gets and cast-offs. Set a rea­son­able tar­get date for your re­turn-to­con­tender sta­tus. This will help in iden­ti­fy­ing a bal­ance of near­ready ta­lent with play­ers who have high ceil­ings but whose MLB de­buts are fur­ther off.

Iden­tify the for­got­ten-but-tal­ented play­ers at the MLB and mi­nor league lev­els who have age and skills on their side. An ex­am­ple is Kansas City Roy­als out­fielder Jorge Soler, 25, who has strug­gled in lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties, but whose 20 home runs and 48 walks in 252 Class AAA at-bats speak to his ta­lent. Soler’s skills are com­pa­ra­ble those of Nel­son Cruz, whose MLB break­through sea­son even­tu­ally came at age 28.

The same can be said for for­mer No. 1 prospect Jurick­son Pro­far of the Texas Rangers, for whom in­juries seem­ingly short­cir­cuited a sure-thing MLB ca­reer. Now healthy but blocked in Texas, Pro­far, 24, has posted an .834 on-base-plus-slug­ging per­cent­age (OPS) with a 38/28 walks to strike­outs (BB/K) ra­tio through 302 at-bats in Class AAA. In ad­di­tion, his av­er­age power has re­turned. In to­day’s home run-happy en­vi­ron­ment, Pro­far’s plate skills should be in de­mand by at least a few or­ga­ni­za­tions this com­ing off­sea­son.

Some­times these sit­u­a­tions have lit­tle to do with cur­rent per­for­mances. At least a few own­ers who checked their league free agent lists last year at this time would have turned up un­signed re­liever Greg Hol­land, who missed all of 2016 re­cov­er­ing from Tommy John el­bow surgery.

Be­fore that, Hol­land av­er­aged 40-plus saves over the pre­vi­ous three sea­sons as a premier closer. Eigh­teen months past surgery as 2017 be­gan, Hol­land was a good bet to re­turn to clos­ing form, which he ob­vi­ously has with the Colorado Rock­ies (36 saves), de­spite his Au­gust strug­gles. Find­ing a post-in­jury fantasy gem such as Hol­land re­quires some dig­ging, but the pay­off can be con­sid­er­able.

Search for post-hype and pop-up names who are sud­denly play­ing (and pro­duc­ing) more than ex­pected.

De­troit Tigers out­fielder Mikie Mah­took, 27, a for­mer All-Amer­i­can at LSU, is be­gin­ning to trans­late his tools and ath­leti­cism into every­day skills. Nor­mally an ag­gres­sive hit­ter, Mah­took has be­come more pa­tient in the sec­ond half, post­ing a near dou­ble-digit walk rate while hit­ting .296 and mak­ing bet­ter con­tact than ever. Mah­took’s per­for­mance sug­gests De­troit might have found a lon­gawaited an­swer to its trou­ble­some cen­ter-field spot.

Even if your league’s in-sea­son trade dead­line has passed, you can be­gin a di­a­logue look­ing to­ward off­sea­son trades.

Pitts­burgh Pi­rates right-handed pitcher Tyler Glas­now logged a 7.45 ERA over 12 ma­jor league starts to be­gin the sea­son, but his de­mo­tion has de­pressed his im­me­di­ate fantasy value. But a sub­se­quent 2.06 ERA and 131/31 K/BB through 871⁄ in­nings at Class AAA speak to Glas­now’s still lofty ceil­ing. Take ad­van­tage of these buy-low sit­u­a­tions as they arise.

Most scout­ing and mi­nor league sites have posted up­dates (Base­bal­lHQ.com’s mid­sea­son Top 50 was re­leased in mid-July), and much has changed since the pre­sea­son. Most new lists in­clude some high-up­side, far-away names that weren’t that weren’t prom­i­nent this past spring.

Among the more con­spic­u­ous are short­stops Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays and Fer­nando Tatis of the San Diego Padres, nei­ther of whom has seen his 20th birth­day yet. The bat-first Bichette has hit .372 be­tween Class A and ad­vanced Class A through 425 at-bats, while Tatis is a five-tool ath­lete who has posted a 20-home run/30-stolen base sea­son in Class A.

Though nei­ther is ex­pected to fac­tor into the 2018 sea­son, both of their of­fen­sive ceil­ings are con­sid­er­able. And Tatis’ mon­ster sec­ond half (1.108 OPS, 17 stolen bases) has fu­eled a leap to Class AA, where he’ll fin­ish Au­gust and a likely play­off se­ries or two. Tatis could be a quick riser, pos­si­bly even mak­ing his MLB de­but by the end of next year.

Tatis is one ex­am­ple of play­ers whose strong fin­ishes or re­bounds from pre­vi­ous sea­sons might still be un­der the radar. An­other name to know: Hous­ton Astros third base­man Colin Mo­ran, an­other for­mer first-round pick who strug­gled in 2016.

Mo­ran roared back this sea­son, show­ing off his once-vaunted hit tool again with .916 OPS (31/55 BB/K) at Class AAA Fresno while hit­ting with le­git­i­mate power for the first time.

A foul ball to the face de­railed his call-up two games in, but there was much to like about his 2017 per­for­mance. Re­build­ing MLB teams will get first looks at play­ers they hope will help them in 2018. Two re­cent ex­am­ples are Cincin­nati Reds start­ing pitcher Tyler Mahle, whose com­mand and 2.06 ERA in 1441⁄ in­nings be­tween Class AA and Class AAA sug­gests No. 3 starter up­side, and Tigers third base­man Jeimer Can­de­lario, whose plate skills and pop (43 walks, 54 ex­tra-base hits in 389 Class AAA at-bats) give him the ceil­ing of an av­er­age MLB reg­u­lar.

Visit Base­bal­lHQ.com for more win­ning fantasy base­ball anal­y­sis.

KEVIN JAIRAJ, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Mikie Mah­took’s sec­ond-half play could make him a long-term an­swer in cen­ter field in De­troit.

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