ROTISSERIE: Potential overall No. 1 Acuña tops NL keeper list

Over the past month, Ronald Acuña Jr. has emerged as perhaps the most dominant force in baseball.

Since the All-Star break, no one has come close to putting up the fantasy stats the Atlanta Braves outfielder has. Entering the week, Acuña is first in runs (31), third in homers (12), seventh in RBI (27), and lapping the field in stolen bases (15, six more than anyone else). And he’s doing it at the tender age of 21.

Not going very far out on a limb, I mentioned last week that while Mike Trout is still the game’s best player, there’s a decent chance Acuña ends up No. 1 overall in my fantasy rankings next season.

At the time, I didn’t know how close he was to being there already. While Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger are on TV commercials battling each other in a game of M-V-P, Acuña ($45) has moved ahead of Bellinger ($38) in overall fantasy value and is quickly closing the gap on Yelich ($46).

Yes, he still strikes out a lot. Through Aug. 11, only three players had more Ks this season. But both his strikeout and walk rates are better than they were as a rookie. What if his plate discipline continues to improve?

Although Acuña has thrived as the Braves' leadoff man, that spot has cut down on his RBI opportunities. Of his 33 home runs, 22 have come with the bases empty. What if he drops down, say, to the No. 2 spot next season between Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman?

At his current pace, Acuña will finish with a .298 average, 45 homers, 134 runs, 108 RBI, and a league-leading 38 steals. With teams running less frequently, those stolen bases are going to be even more valuable going forward.

Only four players in history—and no one since Alfonso Soriano in 2006—have ever hit 40 homers and stolen 40 bases in a season. If Acuña doesn’t do it this year, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he does in the very near future.

NL All-Keeper team

As we look ahead to next season, Acuña figures to be high on many keeper lists, even though he was a consensus first-round pick and a $30-plus player in auctions. Value is important, but in the end production is what wins championships.

Let’s take a look at which NL players have provided both this season and who could be building blocks for fantasy teams in 2020 and beyond:

OUTFIELD: Acuña; Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks; Jeff McNeil, New York Mets

If you’re paying full price, Acuña gets the nod over Bellinger—who cost a little less this spring after regressing a bit in his sophomore season. The consistent improvement Acuña has shown in Year 2 gives him the edge.

The other two outfielders in the mix are converted second basemen who will qualify at both positions next season. Marte and McNeil have enjoyed breakout seasons, hitting over .300 and demonstrating unexpected increases in power. McNeil could even win the NL batting title.

(Honorable mention: Alex Verdugo, Bryan Reynolds, Austin Riley)

CATCHER: Carson Kelly, Diamondbacks

In limited at-bats backing up Yadier Molina over three seasons in St. Louis, Kelly never hit better than .174. Given an opportunity for more playing time after a trade to Arizona, he’s put up a .268/.356/.550 slash line in 264 plate appearances. His 16 homers ranks third among NL catchers.

(Honorable mention: Will Smith, Francisco Mejia)

FIRST BASE: Pete Alonso, Mets

Alonso’s power pedigree has never been a question. But could he do enough damage to offset his propensity to swing and miss? With this year’s lively baseball, the answer was an unqualified yes. 

Give the Mets credit for putting Alonso on the opening-day roster. With 38 home runs, he’s on the verge of breaking Bellinger’s NL rookie record—with over a month to spare.

(Honorable mention: Josh Bell)

SECOND BASE: Keston Hiura, Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers waited a little longer to give their prized rookie a spot in the majors because they had Mike Moustakas as their starting second baseman. Even after an impressive three-week stint in May, they still sent Hiura back to the minors.

Since returning for good on June 28, Hiura has hit .316/.392/.632 with nine homers, 23 runs, 23 RBI and six steals in 37 games. With Marte and McNeil also eligible at second, this might be one of the deepest positions in fantasy next season.

(Honorable mention: Ryan McMahon)

SHORTSTOP: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

After an abbreviated 2018 due to a broken thumb and no experience above the Class AA level, even someone as physically gifted as Tatis should have expected growing pains at 20.

At times he has been overaggressive at the plate (29% strikeout rate) and on the basepaths (caught stealing five times), but he’s shown a jaw-dropping combination of speed and power with 22 homers and 16 stolen bases – all while hitting .320.

(Honorable mention: Dansby Swanson)

THIRD BASE: Scott Kingery, Philadelphia Phillies

As anxious as fantasy owners are to embrace prospects when they arrive, they’re even quicker to dismiss them if they don’t see instant results.

After signing a long-term contract last season before he’d played a game in the majors, the versatile Kingery never found a position that could keep him in the lineup. Hitting .226 didn’t help either.

This season, he’s hitting the ball with more authority. (Kingery’s 46.5% hard-hit rate leads the Phillies and would rank in the Top 20 in the majors if he had enough at-bats to qualify.) Despite missing nearly a month with a hamstring injury, he’s hit .272 with 14 homers and 10 steals.

(Honorable mention: J.D. Davis)

STARTING PITCHER: Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds; Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers; Mike Soroka, Braves

Castillo has followed the Bellinger arc: Impressive debut, step backward, major resurgence. Despite pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly home parks, he’s posted a 2.69 ERA. Among starting pitchers, Castillo’s 16.4% swinging strike rate is second in the majors behind Max Scherzer.

Ryu’s problem has always been staying healthy. Owners who took a chance on him have been rewarded with a 1.45 ERA, the lowest of any pitcher through 22 starts since Roger Clemens in 2005.

Soroka, 22, was an afterthought on draft day after missing half of last season with shoulder issues. He’s come back strong with a 2.32 ERA in 21 starts. Although his workload might be limited down the stretch, that shouldn’t be an issue next season.

(Honorable mention: Chris Paddack, Brandon Woodruff, Max Fried, Sonny Gray)

RELIEF PITCHER: Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

It’s generally not a good idea to hang on to closers, but Hader might be an exception. Because of his ability to pitch more than one inning at a time (not to mention his 16.6 K/9 rate), no other reliever comes close to his 102 strikeouts.

(Honorable mention: Jordan Hicks)

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.