The All-2018 fantasy team

Who will be the most valuable players in fantasy four years from now?

Updated: July 17, 2014, 12:36 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Fantasy baseball, in essence, is a game of prediction.

Expand the time range and you expand the difficulty ... and the fun. That's the idea behind dynasty leagues, and as a longtime dynasty/keeper-league player, I'm always trying to predict the future. That's the excitement of all this; don't forget that this game, at its core, is for fun. I'm using whatever available data I can acquire to project forward, but at the end of the day, some of this game -- a sizable portion of it -- is impossible to predict.

That doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

Let's take a long-range example: 2010, to go four years back. That year, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez, Roy Halladay and Billy Wagner led their respective positions on our Player Rater. This season, they rank 35th (among first basemen), sixth, sixth, 11th (among outfielders), fourth and 76th, with both Halladay and Wagner retired. Much has changed in those four short years, as you can see.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw was correctly predicted to be on the All-2014 team back in 2010. Can he maintain the same level of production in 2018?

But...

Four years back, I also predicted who might be our 2014 Player Rater leaders, with a column called my "All-2014 Team." It's an idea I've used for several summers and, since I've never been afraid to admit my mistaken predictions, it resulted in more hits, but also a number of clear misses. Among the 23 players selected for that squad, four rank among the top 25 on our 2014 Player Rater (though several more members of the top 25 were "best of the rest" selections). The four hits: No. 2 outfielder Andrew McCutchen, No. 1 starting pitcher Felix Hernandez, No. 4 starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw and No. 7 first baseman Miguel Cabrera. But Tommy Hanson and Daniel Bard were also on that team and, gee thanks, Matt Wieters and Prince Fielder, did you have to get hurt this season?

Looking at the current Player Rater, it serves as further evidence that much of the future is indeed impossible to predict: Mike Trout, the No. 1 outfielder, was only a calendar year into his professional career by the 2010 All-Star break, albeit with growing prospect stock. Jose Altuve, the No. 1 second baseman, was in Class A ball and not considered a blue-chip prospect. Jose Abreu, the No. 1 first baseman, was a 23-year-old in Cuba, albeit one in the midst of a tremendous season there. Todd Frazier, the No. 1 third baseman, was 10 months shy of his big-league debut but was in the midst of a .781-OPS campaign in Triple-A. And Jonathan Lucroy, the No. 1 catcher, was two months into his big-league career yet not widely regarded to be a future All-Star at the time.

Again, that doesn't mean it's not worth trying to predict the future. This merely illustrates the wide range of probabilities, which is why dynasty-league owners want to aim for high-ceiling, educated guesses, while also keeping in mind the significant chance that future events could change those projections.

This column is where we take those high-ceiling, educated guesses. Just as I did four years ago, in 2010 with an eye on 2014, I'm again picking my fantasy stars four seasons from now: This is my "All-2018 Team."

Just as with past editions, the "All-2018 Team" follows these guidelines:

• A full 23-man, old-school Rotisserie roster must be selected: That means two catchers; one apiece at first base, second base, third base and shortstop; one corner infielder and one middle infielder (these selections are listed at their primary positions); five outfielders; a designated hitter (for this team, the DH must be an actual DH); and nine pitchers, broken down as seven starters and two closers. The volatility of the closer position dictates more emphasis upon starters, hence the 7/2 pitcher split.

• Players are listed only at the position I believe they'll be playing in 2018. For example, the Chicago Cubs currently have three shortstops in their organization who are viable candidates for this team, but by 2018, the Cubs will have to choose among them, since they can't play all three there at once. All three players have been considered at the positions I currently project they'll play.

• Players are picked based only upon how much fantasy value I believe they will have in the 2018 season alone. In other words, this team projects the 2018 ESPN Player Rater. This is by design, as it distinguishes players with the highest long-term ceilings. For those seeking players projected to have the greatest overall value for the next four seasons combined, see my midseason Keeper Top 250 rankings, published Tuesday.

• Only fantasy potential is considered. That means defense is irrelevant, outside of its impact upon team decisions regarding player positions and playing time.

Use this list whatever way you wish: Structuring your dynasty squad's long-range goals, or merely to debate the picks and point out how terribly, terribly wrong I'll be on many of them. As always, it's all good.

Now, presenting the "All-2018 Team," with players' ages as of April 1, 2018, listed in parentheses. "Best of the rest" picks are in ranked order:

Catchers: Mike Zunino (27) and Buster Posey (31)

[+] EnlargePosey
Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesBuster Posey is poised to continue his hot hitting over the next few years and remain behind the plate for the long-haul.

Catcher is the most difficult of the offensive positions to project four years ahead, partly because of an increasing focus upon defense, partly because of a dearth of true blue-chip catching prospects in recent years. To the former point, Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, offensively-minded and defensively-limited catchers, have been moved to first base the past two seasons, while the New York Yankees dished out $85 million to Brian McCann this past winter, partly on the strength of his pitch-framing skills and ability to manage a pitching staff. To the latter point, only 12 different catchers have graced Keith Law's top 100 preseason prospect lists the past three seasons combined.

That's why a player like Zunino, one of the younger players at his position and one who has stepped up both his power and his defensive game considerably in 2014 -- he has 0.3 defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement), up from minus-0.2 in 2013 -- stands out as a wise long-term investment. There's no question he's a 25-homer candidate during the second half of this decade, but remember that he was a .327 hitter with an 80.0 percent contact rate during his college days and a .286 hitter with a 72.8 percent contact rate in his minor league career. Is it that unrealistic to expect a .275-.280 batting average from him in his prime?

Posey, meanwhile, is already a .280-25-homer candidate, having averaged .302-21 numbers per 162 career big-league games. He's already one of the better defensive catchers, quelling some of the questions about whether he might eventually move to first base full-time, and 31 isn't necessarily "old" for a catcher; Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Lieberthal, Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek all managed better than 80 Runs Created during their age-31 seasons since the turn of the century.

Best of the rest
Salvador Perez (27): Slotting him here and Posey on the team is an effective coin flip; toss it 100 times and Posey wins, 51-49. If Perez can push his current "teens" power into the 20s, he'll be the one who belongs in Posey's spot.
Travis d'Arnaud (29): But will he be healthy in 2018? That is the question. d'Arnaud's bat should rival any catcher's if he is.
Devin Mesoraco (30): He's already one of the best at his craft in only his first full season in the role.
Matt Wieters (31): He's as good a power hitter as any current catcher, and he's sound enough defensively to stay behind the plate for years.

The sleeper: Jorge Alfaro (24). The Texas Rangers prospect is already known for his defense, specifically his cannon arm, but he has a lot of upside as a Rotisserie prospect, too. He has nine home runs in his past 61 games for Class A Myrtle Beach, and he has averaged one steal per 11.4 games played as a pro.

Notable exclusions: Wilin Rosario (29), Carlos Santana (31) and Gary Sanchez (25). Take your pick, because I'd forecast all three of these players as first basemen by 2018, and I'm skeptical that any of them will hit enough to warrant a place on such a team. Sanchez might be the surprise omission; he made my "All-2017 Team," but with Mark Teixeira's career downward slope and his expiring contract after 2016, Sanchez as the New York Yankees' next first baseman seems to make some sense.

First baseman: Freddie Freeman (28)

[+] EnlargeFreeman
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsFreddie Freeman is among the safest bets at first base who still has plenty of fantasy upside ahead.

There are plenty of quality candidates, but not one clear-cut, head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest pick. That's how Freeman slides in; that he'll be only 28 years old come 2018 might take you aback. He does absolutely everything well as a hitter, even if not one aspect of his offensive game is top-shelf. And ask yourself: Who do you see as a safer .300-25 hitter -- with upside from either number -- four years from now?

Best of the rest
Jon Singleton (26): I think he's going to lead the position in homers in 2018 (39?), but the batting average might be Adam Dunn-esque.
Paul Goldschmidt (30): If I'm mistaken on my Freeman pick, it'll be because of Goldschmidt. My one lingering doubt: Will he still be a double-digit base stealer in 2018? I'm not so sure.
Anthony Rizzo (28): He could stake a legitimate claim to the majors' home-run crown in 2018 (37?), but again, he has batting-average questions.

The sleeper: Josh Bell (25). The Pittsburgh Pirates have been starved for first basemen for years -- they haven't had a 2-WAR first baseman since Kevin Young in 1999 -- and Bell is the kind of high-ceiling hitting prospect without a clear position who makes sense to shift there.

Notable exclusion: Jose Abreu (31). How could I exclude the player on pace to challenge the single-season rookie home run record? Simple: Abreu will be 31 by then, meaning perhaps he'll be beginning the downward slope of his power numbers, not to mention he's a free swinger who remains at a bit of batting-average risk going forward.

Second baseman: Javier Baez (25)

[+] EnlargeBaez
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJavier Baez should be a key member of the Cubs' infield by 2018, but maybe at a different position than today.

He's going to move off shortstop; both Addison Russell and Starlin Castro are wiser choices to stick there (in that order). He's also going to make this team wherever he moves, and I'll go with the position at which the Chicago Cubs dabbled with him during spring training. Baez's career is at an interesting stage for dynasty-league owners seeking to acquire him; Kris Bryant is overshadowing him, but his power isn't much less than Bryant's, yet he's a better hitter for average of the two. Talk up Baez's current .240 batting average for Triple-A Iowa and you might perhaps net yourself the 2018 National League MVP on the cheap ... yes, he has that kind of upside.

Best of the rest
Jose Altuve (27): He hits, he runs, he's young, what's not to like? It was a mistake to omit him from the "All-2017 Team," a worry I even cited in that column.
Jason Kipnis (3o): It's easy to lower expectations for a player in the midst of a disappointing year, but he'll still be a near-his-prime 30.
Jurickson Profar (25): It's a good thing he's only 21 years old today, because the injuries are beginning to become a dire concern.

The sleeper: Rougned Odor (24). He has one of the best hit tools of the young second basemen, and he has plenty of time to push his power into the teens, making him a possible .300-hitting, 15/15 type come 2018.

Notable exclusion: Brian Dozier (30). There are a few surprises here, Robinson Cano (35) being another, but Dozier's near-his-prime age is the one most likely to raise eyebrows. I just don't think Dozier is ever going to bat .280 in his career, and if his speed begins to slow by age 30 ...

Third basemen: Kris Bryant (26) and Anthony Rendon (27)

[+] EnlargeBryant
AP Photo/Tony FarlowKris Bryant should be slugging plenty of homers at Wrigley Field sooner than later.

If you're picking 2018 home run champions, Bryant would have to rank among the five players with the greatest odds ... and he'll be the only one I'll currently pencil in for 40-plus. (Hey, it's a fun, predict-the-future column.) He has zoomed through the Cubs' minor league ranks with the only hint of struggle this: A 30.3 percent strikeout rate in his first 24 games for Triple-A Iowa. Bryant's batting average might therefore be at risk once he arrives at Wrigley Field, but he's not an Adam Dunn-esque, streaks-and-slumps, bat-.225 slugger. He'll probably settle in as a .280 hitter, meaning many MVP votes ... unless, come 2018, we're still debating silly notions like only picking singular team standouts for MVP (since, by then, the Cubs will have plenty of good candidates).

Rendon, meanwhile, is the sneaky pick on the squad, a prospect whose stock seemingly sunk due to injuries early in his professional career, but who has answered those questions with an outstanding start to his big-league career. He's capable of hitting for both power and average -- think a comparable .300-25 type to the aforementioned Freeman -- and he's capable of stealing a base.

Best of the rest
Miguel Sano (24): Don't let the year lost to injuries throw you off the scent. He's another excellent candidate for the 2018 home run crown.
Nick Castellanos (26): He's another player with batting-title potential, so now would be a good time to invest in a dynasty league.
Joey Gallo (24): Chris Davis is an apt comparison, and if you've followed Davis' career, you know he had a 6.1-WAR 2013 season sandwiched by a pair of sub-2-WAR campaigns (pacing his 2014). Gallo is probably going to net himself a home run crown some year; predicting the year might be difficult.

The sleeper: Maikel Franco (25). I'm absolutely convinced that, had he not batted .235 with a .365 slugging percentage in his first 44 games for Triple-A Lehigh Valley, he'd be the Philadelphia Phillies' starting third baseman today. Still, Franco isn't far off taking over that spot, and he's young enough to elevate his game to either .300-hitting or 25-homer potential.

Notable exclusion: Again, there are plenty, but Nolan Arenado (26) might be the most obvious, if only because of his age. What separates him from the youngsters listed above, however, is that his ceiling isn't quite as high. He's the "safe" pick at a position full of exciting, MVP-caliber bats, and this far off, it's smarter to shoot for the moon.

Shortstops: Manny Machado (25) and Carlos Correa (23)

[+] EnlargeCarlos Correa
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesCarlos Correa's season-ending leg injury shouldn't derail his long-term fantasy future.

Consider this your last chance to acquire Machado on the cheap, because he's a star in the making, and with J.J. Hardy in the midst of a down year with his contract set to expire during the winter, the possibility remains that Machado will shift to shortstop as early as 2015. He's young enough for such a move to make sense; he's also young enough to add more pop to his bat, and he sure plays in the right park to develop into an eventual 25-homer hitter.

Like the Cubs, the Houston Astros have a bevy of young hitting prospects, with Correa representing the cream of their crop. You've heard the A-Rod comparisons; consider that a good thing, since Alex Rodriguez's before-his-35th-birthday numbers are obviously Hall of Fame-worthy. Correia will probably be entering his second full big-league campaign in 2018, and we've seen many a 23-year-old put forth top-shelf fantasy numbers so far this century.

Best of the rest
Starlin Castro (28): My guess is that Castro doesn't move off shortstop; he'll be traded in the next year or two for more future pieces (probably pitching).
Xander Bogaerts (25): Expect him to move back to shortstop next season, and despite his down 2014, he's a high-average, good-pop hitter in the long haul.
Andrelton Simmons (28): Few shortstops in history can claim his combination of contact ability, pop and defense. What if Simmons is Barry Larkin without the steals?

The sleeper: Francisco Lindor (24). As a 20-year-old (his age today), Lindor has time to add pop to his repertoire. But even if he doesn't, he'll be an on-base specialist who fills a fantasy team's stolen base column.

Notable exclusion: Addison Russell (24). I might be underrating him -- Russell could belong in Castro's spot, and Castro in his -- but I still think the most consistent thing in his long-term game will be his glove. Russell should hand fantasy owners a few 20/15 seasons, but they might be sporadic.

Outfielders: Mike Trout (26), Bryce Harper (25), George Springer (28), Oscar Taveras (25) and Byron Buxton (24)

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsMike Trout should remain the top player in fantasy baseball for many years.

One thing is clear: Outfield is a tremendously deep position as far as the remainder of the decade is concerned, as it pained me to exclude any of the first five names in the "Best of the rest" from the team. Consider that 14 of these 15 picks (from the five above and 10 below) won't turn 30 until at least 2020.

Trout is the most obvious selection on the team, injury probably the only thing standing in his path to a Hall of Fame career. Perhaps by 2018, he'll be stealing closer to 20 bases, but by then he might be a 40-homer hitter in exchange.

Harper, meanwhile, might be an increasingly less-obvious pick, but considering his age, he's not a player to dismiss just yet due to his injuries. He entered the league with perennial future MVP projections, and if he can merely do a better job of remaining on the field, there's little doubt he could develop into a 40/20 type in time. After all, he's one of only six players in baseball history to manage at least 40 career home runs and 30 career stolen bases through his age-21 season, and he has an outside chance at becoming one of only five to manage 50/40 numbers by then (Alex Rodriguez, Trout, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones are the only players to do it thus far).

Remember the days of the 40/40 player? We've seen only four in history and none since 2006 (Alfonso Soriano), and only twice in the past 10 seasons has a player managed even 35/35 numbers. That's why Springer is such a compelling candidate for any future-year list: He's perhaps baseball's most natural 40/40 bet -- if such a thing exists anymore -- as an elite power hitter with the athletic ability to steal as many bases as he desires. Springer's batting average might wind up the lowest of anyone picked for the team -- save for the National League pitchers, if the designated hitter hasn't been introduced there by 2018 -- but he's also a top candidate to lead in homers and he's a strong bet for at least 20 steals. Don't worry too much about Springer's so-so steals numbers thus far in the majors, as he's still learning to get reads on pitchers and has battled a hip flexor issue that might have him playing it conservatively on the base paths.

[+] EnlargeTaveras
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsOscar Taveras has shown glimpses of his potential this season, but there's more to come.

If you're seeking odds for the 2018 National League batting title, Taveras should rank among your top five. He's as skilled at making contact as any prospect, possessing the ability to make hard contact even on non-strikes; there's a reason we've been hearing Vladimir Guerrero comparisons in that regard for a couple of years. Hitters like Taveras tend to develop 20-25-homer power -- and sometimes more -- as they mature, and his raw ability makes him low-risk among youngsters. Don't let his slow start for the St. Louis Cardinals dissuade you; he'll hit his stride once the team finds him a committed, everyday place to play.

Speaking of down years, Buxton's wrist issues shouldn't lower his prospect stock much, and arguably not at all. Now healthy, the 20-year-old should be back on the fast track to a big-league debut sometime during the 2015 season, and he remains a five-tool real-game/five-category Rotisserie prospect. Buxton might, in fact, be one of the top five candidates to top the 2018 Player Rater.

Best of the rest
Yasiel Puig (27): Feel free to consider this a pick 'em among him, Springer, Taveras and Buxton. You're cutting an outstanding player either way.
Andrew McCutchen (31): His age is the only thing keeping him from making the team, and that's only a concern as far as his steals total.
Gregory Polanco (26): He's only here because I think every one of the seven players ranked ahead of him will hit more homers in 2018.
Wil Myers (27): Another candidate to lead the majors in homers by 2018, Myers is a good dynasty buy-low due to his injuries this season.
Billy Hamilton (27): He has a chance to do what only Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman have done in history, and that is string together five consecutive seasons of at least 60 stolen bases (2014-18, in this case).
Christian Yelich (26): His improvements against left-handed pitching continue to support his future batting title candidacy.
Mookie Betts (25): Will he remain in the outfield or might he return to second base eventually? Remember, Dustin Pedroia is signed through 2021.
Jason Heyward (28): As disappointing as his career has been, let's not forget that he's only 24 years old today, with plenty of time to add more power.
Joc Pederson (25): Don't get caught up in his gaudy Pacific Coast League numbers; look more at his walk rate (17.7 percent) or the history of double-digit homers and steals.
Jorge Soler (26): Yes, another Cub. They're in pretty good shape!

The sleeper: Kyle Schwarber (25). Remember that earlier point about offensively oriented catchers being moved out from behind the plate? Schwarber, a catcher during his college days at Indiana University, has split his time nearly evenly between catcher, left field and designated hitter since the Chicago Cubs made him the No. 4 selection overall in this June's amateur draft. Schwarber has immense power -- he had .266 isolated power during his college career and .340 in his first 28 professional games -- and if left field speeds up his ascent (and adjustment) to the majors, fantasy owners won't complain.

Notable exclusion: Justin Upton (30). Perhaps this is a signal that I'm finally giving up on his MVP future -- though when I did that with Adrian Beltre, that's when he broke out -- but this is more about Upton's reaching his 30th birthday come 2018. He shouldn't contribute the steals he does now, and his power might begin a slow decline by then.

Designated hitter: Giancarlo Stanton (28)

Stanton

Feel free to read between the lines that, by 2018, Stanton will no longer be a Miami Marlin, since they play in the National League and therefore won't have a DH. (Probably.) Stanton is actually the aforementioned Harper's best selling point; he "cured" his injury issues from earlier in his career and is finally enjoying an MVP-caliber campaign. But as it pertains to himself, Stanton has proven he has arrived as an annual 40-homer candidate, with the requisite skills to keep his batting average in the .280-.290 range. Among players who have yet to reach their 25th birthday, he's probably the best bet for 500-plus career homers.

Best of the rest: Edwin Encarnacion (35). The DH role should keep Encarnacion fairly healthy and productive deep into his career, and his got a late start besides. If you question whether a 35-year-old could produce elite fantasy numbers, consider that David Ortiz, a player with similar plate discipline and contact ability, had 4.0 offensive WAR at that age (in 2011).

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw (30), Jose Fernandez (25), Stephen Strasburg (29), Matt Harvey (29), Julio Urias (21), Julio Teheran (27) and Kevin Gausman (27)

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJose Fernandez may not return until 2015 because of Tommy John surgery, but he should return to ace status in a few years.

Kershaw is on an all-time great path, a track to first-ballot Hall of Fame candidacy that makes it impossible to keep him beneath the top pitching spot on the team, let alone off the team altogether. If you need one number to summarize it, consider: With a 1.78 ERA thus far, he's on pace to become the first player in the history of baseball to lead the major leagues in the category in four consecutive seasons (Kershaw, Greg Maddux from 1993-95 and Lefty Grove from 1929-31 were the only ones to ever do it in three straight). Kershaw has also been impeccably maintained by the Los Angeles Dodgers, substantially increasing his chances of scoring Cy Young votes even four seasons from now.

Let's address the two pitchers rehabbing from Tommy John surgery together: Fernandez is on pace for a mid-2015 return, Harvey perhaps ready by the beginning of next season. That difference seemingly gives Harvey the edge; Fernandez is the one with more natural talent, not to mention four years' advantage in terms of age. Tommy John surgery has a high rate of recovery, so there's no reason to let either pitcher's rest-of-2014 (and Fernandez's rest-of-2015) absences dissuade you from acquiring either in a dynasty league.

After all, Strasburg himself shows how successful a pitcher can be after returning from Tommy John surgery. In 83 big-league starts since his recovery, he has a 3.10 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 2.87 FIP and 28.1 percent strikeout rate, numbers which rank 11th, 12th, fifth and second among ERA qualifiers during the four seasons those cover (2011-14). Strasburg's arsenal of four plus pitches -- four-seam and two-seam fastball, curveball and changeup -- gives him an outstanding chance at a successful decade run as a top-tier fantasy starter.

Fernandez's story -- at least the first calendar year and change of it -- is a compelling one when it comes to the example of Urias, just 17 years old today. Scouts rave about Urias' ability at his age, and his 28.9 percent K rate shows he should be an elite performer in that category from the moment he debuts in the majors. That debut could happen as soon as 2015, but more likely, he'll be a candidate in 2016 to be what Fernandez was in 2013; a pitcher who surprisingly breaks camp with his team and is an instant fantasy stud. By 2018, there's little doubt Urias will be in the Dodgers' rotation, perhaps giving Kershaw a legitimate run for the title of staff ace.

[+] Enlarge Julio Teheran
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsJulio Teheran has quietly emerged as one a top young ace.

Teheran and Gausman make the team as personal favorites; you could swap in any of the next eight names from the "best of the rest" list if you'd prefer and I'd hardly quibble. Teheran was a member of the "All-2017 Team" as well, and he earns the repeat nod thanks to his advances with his breaking pitches (curveball and slider). He has a .210 weighted on-base average allowed with them, 11th-best among 46 pitchers to have thrown at least 500, and his 60 K's with them rank 12th-most in the majors. Teheran is awfully close to universal declaration of "fantasy ace" status, and I think he'll get there by this time next year at this rate. Gausman, meanwhile, was always a command specialist who this year has made major strides against lefties: They have .217/.293/.337 rates against him. Thanks to a diverse arsenal that includes a mid-90s fastball, slider, splitter and changeup, he's inching ever closer to the front-of-the-rotation projections that scouts had at the time he debuted with the Baltimore Orioles in mid-2013.

Best of the rest
Felix Hernandez (31): He keeps on ticking despite the mileage, and 31 years old is hardly "old" by pitcher standards.
Gerrit Cole (27): His recent injuries have put his career at a bit of a crossroads, but I'm not going to let them dissuade me from predicting a staff-ace's future ... yet.
Madison Bumgarner (28): He's young, consistent and has a filthy slider that should keep him a handy source of strikeouts for years.
Lucas Giolito (23): The injury history is a concern, but he has three quality pitches at such a young age; his skills aren't matched by many prospects.
David Price (32): He's like a Cliff Lee for the future, a pitcher with elite control who should give fantasy owners years of top 10 starter numbers.
Zack Wheeler (27): When he finally harnesses command of his fastball, he's going to mount a serious run at Matt Harvey's status as the New York Mets' ace.
Chris Sale (29): That funky delivery hasn't resulted in a major injury yet, and if it does, he has shown an ability to quickly bounce back from absences.
Dylan Bundy (25): Tommy John surgery shouldn't alter his projected future. He's an eventual staff ace deep into his comeback trail.
Masahiro Tanaka (29): We'll see how his elbow issue plays out, but that splitter is an awfully tough pitch to hit. Surgery or not, he'll be a 200-K source for years.
Sonny Gray (28): Some of this is betting on the Oakland Athletics' history of developing young pitchers. The rest is his big-league performance to date.
Archie Bradley (25): His WHIP is the category to watch, but he'll have had four years to polish his command by 2018. Be patient with him.
Michael Wacha (26): His ceiling might not be as high as some of these others, but with a changeup like his, he's an awfully low-risk, second-tier starter.
Yu Darvish (31): His diverse arsenal should allow him to post, at worst, second-tier fantasy starter numbers for at least another half-decade.
Carlos Martinez (26): If he adds another pitch -- or polishes a current one -- to neutralize lefties, his stock will soar to that of a fantasy ace.

The sleeper: Jon Gray (26). Skills-wise, he belongs in either of the above two groups, but the reason he's here is the team: The Colorado Rockies have Coors Field to lower a pitcher's statistical ceiling. Ubaldo Jimenez is the only prospect the Rockies have ever developed who managed a sub-3.47 ERA in a season for them, and while Gray's prospect stock is arguably higher than any other pitching prospect's this team has ever had, that's not a great team track record. Gray could develop into a fantasy ace, but at the same time, he might top out at an annual 3-3.25 ERA for them.

Notable exclusion: Taijuan Walker (25). After his preseason injuries coming on the heels of his diminished strikeout rate in 2013, Walker needs to prove to me that he has that top-shelf stuff before I'd restore him to even the "Best of the rest" list. He has the raw ability and he's young enough to do it; I'd like to see it in the majors first.

Relief pitchers: Craig Kimbrel (29) and Yordano Ventura (26)

[+] EnlargeYordano Ventura
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyYordano Ventura has electric stuff, but will he be a closer or a starter come 2018?

Never bet on relief pitchers in a dynasty league, not if you can help it.

Consider: Only 13 pitchers have ever managed at least five consecutive seasons of at least 30 saves: Mariano Rivera (9, 2003-11; also 5, 1997-2001), Trevor Hoffman (8, 1995-2002; also 6, 2004-09), Robb Nen (7, 1996-2002), Jonathan Papelbon (7, 2006-12), Troy Percival (7, 1998-2004), Dennis Eckersley (6, 1988-93), Joe Nathan (6, 2004-09), Lee Smith (6, 1990-95), John Wetteland (6, 1995-2000), Francisco Cordero (5, 2007-11), John Franco (5, 1987-91), Jeff Reardon (5, 1985-89) and Francisco Rodriguez (5, 2005-09). More notably, 10 of the 13 had ERAs higher in the final year than in the first year of their streaks, and two who didn't, Cordero and Percival, had substantially higher FIPs which revealed less effective final than first seasons. Hoffman was the only one with better ERA and FIP in the final than first seasons, and he did it during both of his streaks. That reveals a poor long-term projection success rate, with the most accomplished long-range closers usually the ones who pitched effectively enough to secure multi-year, big-money contracts that practically guarantee them jobs for longer (see Papelbon's Philadelphia Phillies deal).

Kimbrel fits into that group, as he inked a four-year, $42 million deal (including a 2018 option) in February that vastly raises the chances he'll still be closing by 2018, even if his stuff isn't quite elite by then. Papelbon or K-Rod comparisons are apt; the two totaled 99 saves and whiffed 31 percent of the hitters they faced as 26-year-olds, and 60 saves with a 26 percent K rate as 29-year olds, and understand that the saves difference was largely tied to K-Rod's setting the single-season saves record at age 26 (62, in 2008), while being traded out of the closer role at age 29 (in 2011).

Ventura, meanwhile, is a different kind of closer pick: He has 100-mph stuff, but I'm not so sure he has the stamina or consistency of his secondary pitches to be more than a dominant short reliever long-term. Remember, many closers were once hard-throwing top starting pitching prospects, and Ventura is as good as anyone from within that group. It also helps that incumbent Kansas City Royals closer Greg Holland becomes eligible for free agency after 2016. I figure that even if I get his position wrong, Ventura still made the team, and that's really what counts when you're projecting ahead in a dynasty league.

Best of the rest
Kenley Jansen (30): Like Mariano Rivera, Jansen's money pitch is his cutter, one that doesn't seem to suffer during the aging process. I'd call Jansen one of the safest closer investments ... if there is such a thing.
Aroldis Chapman (30): The only concern I have with him is that he might begin to slightly lose velocity by age 30, and when he dials his fastball down to 95 mph or below, he's noticeably more hittable.
Mike Foltynewicz (26): He's another hard thrower with a good curveball, but he often varies his arm slot; I wonder whether his future is as a deceptive, dominant closer rather than starter.
Trevor Rosenthal (27): He's the current closer who might have been smarter as a starter selection in this column. Either way, he belongs.

The sleeper: Jeurys Familia (28). He can touch 100 mph and he has improving control, and the New York Mets hardly need to limit Jenrry Mejia to short relief for the entirety of his career. I'd predict Familia to record the Mets' final save of 2014 ... and he has the stuff to keep the job for a solid half-decade.

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