Fan­tasy awards: Javier Baez, Blake Snell and oth­ers who gar­nered ’18 at­ten­tion.

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Steve Gard­ner USA TO­DAY

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 1391⁄3 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, 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

Waiver pickup of the year: 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.

Run­ner-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 no­hit­ters.

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.

MARK J. REBILAS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Cubs’ Javier Baez was a fan­tasy base­ball player’s dream with his ver­sa­til­ity and pro­duc­tiv­ity.

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