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Thursday 14th Dec 2017

On the sixth day following the conclusion of the World Series, (next Tuesday at the latest), something important will happen. On that day, impending free agents will become free agents. Fantasy owners will be keeping a close eye on all of the free agency developments throughout the Hot Stove season, as a change of uniforms can often affect a player's fantasy outlook and expected draft day price. But, the 2017-18 free agent pool is not the focus of this article.

The "contract year" theory has been around for as long as I've been playing fantasy baseball. The theory suggests that a player entering the final year of his contract could be on the verge of a career-best season since he will have extra motivation in his quest to secure a big payday the following winter. Maybe he will train better during the off-season. Maybe he will do a better job of staying focused from April through September. Some fantasy owners pay a lot of attention to the contract year factor while others ignore it entirely. I fall somewhere in the middle, often using it as a tiebreaker if I'm having trouble deciding between two players when devising my pre-draft rankings.

A quick study of this year's free agent class reveals that most of the fantasy relevant players either maintained or improved their stock in 2017. J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas, Logan Morrison and Andrew Cashner are the most notable examples on the positive side. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Lucroy, who has plummeted from a top-3 catcher to a questionable top-10 option.

OK, enough about this year. Let's take a look at a handful of names that will be accompanied by a contract year asterisk on my cheat sheet in March.

Wilson Ramos - The Rays took a chance by signing Ramos to a two-year deal last winter despite knowing that he would likely miss half of the 2017 season as he rehabbed from a serious knee injury. Now it's time for the club to be rewarded, as the 30-year-old backstop will enter 2018 with a clean bill of health, this after posting a .260-11-35 line in just 64 games following his late-June return. Ramos, who enjoyed a career-best season in 2016, figures to be undervalued in drafts and offers plenty of upside as a potential 20-plus home run catcher. I'm a big believer in this guy.

Brian Dozier - I avoided drafting Dozier this year, unwilling to pay a premium for a player who was fresh off a 2016 season in which he posted career-highs in home runs (42), RBI (99) and OPS (.886). Well, after slugging 34 homers to go along with 93 RBI, 106 runs scored, 16 steals and a .853 OPS, including 21 homers, 52 RBI and a .301 batting average in the second half, I'm now convinced. The 30-year-old is a legitimate fantasy star deserving of a hefty draft day price.

A.J. Pollock - Only two years ago, Pollock was a solid first-round pick. Now he can be drafted outside of the top-50. Injuries have limited Pollock to just 124 games since the start of 2016, but the Diamondbacks centerfielder did manage to record 14 homers and 20 swipes in only 112 games this past season. He remains somewhat of a health risk, but considering Pollock's five-category production and the discounted price, I'd be willing to take the risk.

Drew Pomeranz - Chris Sale wasn't the only Red Sox starting pitcher who excelled this season. After struggling down the stretch in 2016, Pomeranz notched 17 wins across 32 starts while registering a 3.32 ERA and whiffing more than a batter per inning. Although his walk rate (3.6 BB/9 in '17) could certainly use some improvement, don't be surprised if the 28-year-old southpaw again rewards his fantasy owners with a positive return on investment.

Garrett Richards - It was surely déjà vu for Richards in 2017, as a biceps strain caused him to miss all but six starts, this after he made only six starts in 2016 due to a torn UCL. The good news is that the Angels righty was dominant in September, pitching to a 2.74 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP over five starts while striking out a batter per inning. In his last fully healthy season, Richards posted a 3.65 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP en route to 15 wins, so he clearly has the talent to serve as a quality mid-rotation fantasy hurler. Whether or not he can avoid the DL in 2018 is the question. It's worth a late-round pick to find out.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

Technically speaking, the postseason doesn't count for fantasy baseball purposes. But ,whoever says that fantasy owners should completely ignore postseason stats is sorely mistaken. In fact, many fantasy owners might overrate a player coming off a strong postseason due to recency bias. So, in the coming months, it's important to identify these guys and decide whether or not you will be willing to pay the increased price come draft day. Let's take a look at five players who deserve our immediate attention.

Didi Gregorius - As if Gregorius' .287-25-87 line in just 136 games this season wasn't impressive enough, "Sir Didi" has further enhanced his 2018 fantasy appeal by launching three homers to go along with six RBI through seven postseason contests. This includes his two home runs in Game 5 against the Indians, both versus AL Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber. At this point, Gregorius, who has now posted back-to-back 20-plus home run campaigns and will be only 28 on Opening Day, needs to be taken seriously as a top-10 fantasy shortstop.

Greg Bird - Injuries have obviously been the major issue for Bird throughout his young big league career. But after smacking six home runs while collecting 16 RBI in September, the Yankees first sacker has played a vital role in the club's October surge, tallying three more homers, five RBI and four runs scored and posting a .400 OBP through seven games. Bird will be a hot fantasy commodity as he enters his age-25 season, and he clearly carries plenty of upside. Still, considering his injury history and a first base position that is well-stocked with quality offensive producers, I'm not so sure that reaching for Bird is a good idea, at least in non-keeper formats.

Michael Taylor - Who saw that coming? Taylor's five-game postseason sample included two home runs, eight RBI and a .333 batting average. The 26-year-old surfaced on the mixed league radar in May following Adam Eaton's season-ending knee injury and maintained mixed league value throughout, finishing with 19 home runs and 17 steals. Taylor certainly performed well enough to earn a starting job to begin 2018, and the likely departure of impending free agent Jayson Werth would conceivably open a spot for Taylor. But the Nationals might turn to the free agent market to address that void. For the time being, Taylor's fantasy outlook for next season is very much up in the air.

Dallas Keuchel - Despite being limited to 23 starts due to injury, Keuchel enjoyed a stellar bounceback campaign this season, notching 14 wins while pitching to a 2.90 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. Although his modest strikeout rate separates him from fantasy ace status, the Astros southpaw is a fine second or third starter in 12-team mixed leagues, health permitting. The problem is that Keuchel's ace-level postseason performance (2-0, 0.71 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 12.1 K/9 in two starts) might elevate his draft price to that of a true ace, so beware.

Masahiro Tanaka - I've consistently stayed away from Tanaka in fantasy drafts, and I'll continue to stay away from him until he undergoes the inevitable Tommy John surgery. Do note, however, that aside from his mediocre 4.74 ERA, Tanaka registered a 1.24 WHIP and 194 strikeouts across 178 1/3 innings, so despite his start-to-start inconsistency, he wasn't a complete waste of a pick. Also keep in mind that the Yankees righty recorded a solid 3.77 ERA in the second half. The owner of a 1.38 ERA and a 0.69 WHIP through two postseason outings, Tanaka has certainly raised his fantasy appeal over the past few months. Although I'll avoid him once again next spring, it would be a lie to say that I won't be at least mildly tempted. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB  

The break will begin on Monday morning, or maybe Tuesday in the unlikely event of a tiebreaker game. The break will be refreshing. No more box score tracking, no more FAAB bidding, no more lineup setting, no more trade talking and no more fantasy baseball thinking. The break will last at least a month, maybe six weeks until early mock draft season gets underway. But every year, before this break, I make a list. No, it won't be a list of players I will target in drafts the following spring. That list requires a great deal of thought and will have to wait until February. This list is easier. This list is a list of players who I owned in at least one league but will not be drafting again under any circumstances. Well, maybe under almost any circumstances. And it's important that I compile this list as soon as possible, before a long off-season causes me to forget about how frustrating it was to own some of these guys.

On that note, let's take a look at a handful of players who I have already included on this list.

Chris Archer - I'm not saying that Archer isn't a valuable fantasy asset. After all, he's proven to be very durable and provides a guaranteed 225-plus strikeouts as long as he remains durable. The problem is that he carries the price tag of a legitimate ace when in reality he's more like a strong SP2 in mixed leagues. I shelled out 26 bucks for Archer's services in Mixed Auction Tout Wars, believing that 2017 would be the year that the Rays righty makes the jump to top-10 SP status, at the very least. In return, I've been rewarded with a mediocre 4.18 ERA through 33 starts and a disastrous month of September (9.72 ERA, 2.10 WHIP in five starts). There was another $26 starting pitcher. His name is Corey Kluber, and it's no coincidence that he resides on runaway champ Jeff Zimmerman's roster. Oh well, at least I've learned my lesson with Archer.

Cole Hamels - There's something to be said about saying goodbye to a player a year too early rather than a year too late. I remember Lord Zola stating this in his preseason player profile for Hamels, and I really should have followed that approach. But Hamels has been so consistent over the years that I felt good about making him my No. 2 starter in Mixed Auction Tout Wars. Things haven't gone as planned, to put it mildly. Between an oblique strain that sidelined him for nearly two months, a drastically declining strikeout rate and overall inconsistency, I've already said my final goodbye to the veteran southpaw.

Matt Moore - At this point, it's hard to believe that just six months ago, Moore was a popular "sleeper" pick after posting a 3.63 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 15 starts following the All-Star break in 2016. In fact, I considered the 28-year-old lefty to be one of my better Tout Wars buys at the bargain price of $5. As it turns out, I could have simply left those five bucks at the auction table and I'd be better off. The fact that Moore's 4.86 ERA and 1.33 WHIP since the All-Star break represents a significant improvement over his first half performance (6.04 ERA, 1.69 WHIP) goes to show the degree to which he has struggled in his first full season with the Giants. Maybe a true breakout campaign is still in store for Moore, but if and when it does come, he won't be on any of my fantasy squads.  

Matt Wieters - Here I was thinking that Wieters was a safe choice to finish the season as a top-12 fantasy catcher. A final line of 20 homers and 65-70 RBIs seemed like a reasonable expectation. Not quite. The former top prospect has been one of the biggest backstop disappointments of 2017, batting a paltry .225 with just 10 homers heading into the final weekend. Remember when some scouts described him as "Joe Mauer with power"? Now that was a long time ago. As for 2018, Wieters is no more than a No. 2 catcher in mixed leagues.

Ben Zobrist - In recent years, I've never been a fan of Zobrist from a fantasy perspective, especially in non-OBP leagues. His 20-HR seasons appeared to be over and he wasn't running much anymore. But, when I waited a bit too long to draft a second baseman in my NFBC Draft Champions league, I figured that Zobrist, who was coming off a productive 2016 campaign, was worth the mid-round investment. I figured wrong. What followed was one of the worst seasons of Zobrist's career, one that even included a DL stint. At 36 years of age, he's barely on the mixed league radar for next season. Draft him only as a last resort.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

Thanks to a pair of rocky pitching performances by Gio Gonzalez and Cole Hamels on the final day of the season, my 2017 Mixed Auction Tout Wars squad, which seemed destined to finish in second place, barely hung onto third. It was a disappointing ending to what was on the whole a successful season, my fourth straight top-4 finish, including last year's championship run. And hey, it's not like first place was up for grabs.

Jeff Zimmerman pretty much clinched the title by early-July. Looking back, there are some decisions that I regret, but a lot went right. My draft was strong and my newfound willingness to make significant trades to shake up my roster had an overall positive effect. When Aroldis Chapman got injured and Francisco Rodriguez lost his closer job, I decisively made the uncomfortable decision to punt saves, waiting for Chapman to return before swapping him along with Justin Upton for Charlie Blackmon and Jonathan Villar. Although the Villar experiment turned out to be a disaster, the complete trade netted me 2.5 points in the final standings. Yes, I did figure this out, purely out of curiosity.

Anyway, before I stop analyzing my Tout Wars season (or at least try to stop analyzing it), here are the highlights.

Best auction purchase: Marcell Ozuna ($10)

Was Ozuna on my draft day target list? Yes. Did I expect him to post career-best numbers in 2017? Yes. But I was thinking more like 28 homers, 90 RBIs and a .330 OBP, not 37 homers, 124 RBIs and a .376 OBP. Now that's ten bucks well spent. Keep in mind that Ozuna is still just 26, so there's room for further improvement. Scary indeed. Mike Moustakas ($8) deserves an honorable mention here. Like Ozuna, Moustakas far exceeded even my own optimistic projections.

Worst auction purchase: Kevin Gausman ($9)

By now, it's hard to believe that of all my buys on that Saturday in late-March, the Gausman purchase received the most positive feedback on Twitter. But this "steal of the draft" turned out to be a season-long headache, getting roughed up on a regular basis while sprinkling in a few dominant outings just to tease his fantasy owners. To add to the misery, my prognostication accuracy when it came to Gausman was poor. The Orioles righty registered a 6.29 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP in 15 starts while in my active lineup compared to his overall 4.68 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 34 starts this season. Maybe Gausman will bounce back in 2018, but I'm done with him. And let's not forget about Matt Moore, whom I discussed in last week's column. What a waste of five dollars that was.  

Best FAAB addition: Jhoulys Chacin ($18)

Chacin's extreme home/road splits made life easy when deciding whether or not to start him in any given week. I mostly followed the splits, pitching him almost exclusively at home after acquiring the Padres righty in mid-July and was rewarded with five wins, a 2.48 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP across 10 starts. A free agent this winter, Chacin would be wise to remain in San Diego.

Worst FAAB addition: Joaquin Benoit ($53)

Ah, the fun of chasing saves. Before the Chapman injury and the K-Rod demotion, I was doing all I could on the FAAB front to stumble upon a third closer. Nothing paid off. Between Benoit and Jason Grilli ($52), I got one save in exchange for more than one-tenth of my total FAAB budget. Perhaps punting saves is the way to go. 

Best trade: Nomar Mazara for Elvis Andrus

Frustrated by Tim Anderson's struggles, I needed a new starting shortstop, preferably a shortstop with speed. It was early-June and Elvis Andrus had already swiped 14 bags. I could afford to deal some homers and RBIs and Mazara, with six home runs and 35 RBIs, seemed like a solid sell-high candidate. Strangely enough, Andrus would record only 11 steals in nearly four months on my roster but would hit just one fewer home run than Mazara and trail him by only 10 RBIs. In the runs scored department, Andrus topped his real-life teammate by a healthy margin. From an overall value standpoint, this trade was a win.

Worst trade: Jonathan Schoop for D.J. LeMahieu 

While LeMahieu was productive for my team, I sure wish I could have this one back. At the time, in late-May, figuring that I was selling Schoop at peak value before his lack of plate discipline would lead to a prolonged cold spell, LeMahieu seemed like a great return. What followed was a three-month stretch from the beginning of June through the end of August during which Schoop launched 23 homers while tallying 76 RBIs and getting on base at well over a .360 clip. If I had not been so quick to ship off Schoop, I would have easily finished in second place.

But even more importantly, Schoop's name would have appeared in a different section of this article. At three bucks, the Orioles second baseman would have been my best auction purchase.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB   

In last week's column, I examined some wacky preseason NFBC hitter ADP stats. So, following the same format, let's head to the mound and give the pitchers the attention they deserve.

Jon Lester SP Ranking: 9

Robbie Ray SP Ranking: 55

Coming off a Cy Young worthy campaign in 2016 and having posted an ERA no higher than 3.34 and a WHIP no greater than 1.12 from 2014-2016, Lester seemed like an ultra-safe draft day investment. But as I've learned over the years, there is really no such thing as a safe starting pitcher in fantasy baseball. Through 29 starts this season, the veteran southpaw sports a 4.30 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Not exactly what owners had in mind when they confidently selected him as their staff ace. On the other hand, Ray is enjoying a career year, highlighted by a 2.74 ERA through 25 starts to go along with a gaudy 12.3 K/9 rate. 

Masahiro Tanaka SP Ranking: 18

Luis Severino SP Ranking: 99

This tale of two Yankees is an intriguing one indeed as Tanaka, the club's Opening Day starter, has been inconsistent all season, pitching to a 4.73 ERA through 28 starts. Meanwhile, Severino, who wasn't even assured a rotation spot heading into Spring Training, has assumed the ace roll in his first full big league season. Listen, it's only a matter of time before Tanaka undergoes Tommy John surgery. Until that happens, he will be nowhere near any of my fantasy rosters. Congrats to those of you who drafted Severino in a keeper league. 

Julio Teheran SP Ranking: 25

Gio Gonzalez SP Ranking: 77

The owner of a 3.31 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP since the beginning of August, Teheran is doing his best to salvage what has been a lost season. But the damage is already done. Still, don't give up on this guy. He will only be 27 on Opening Day 2018 and has already built a solid enough track record to suggest that a bounce back is likely. He might have been a little overvalued this year. but will surely be undervalued next year. The case of Gonzalez is the exact opposite. I've always been a fan of Gio, and for the bargain price of two bucks, he's turned out to be one of my better purchases in Mixed Auction Tout Wars. But a 2.68 ERA through 29 starts? Who could have expected that from a pitcher who prior to 2017 seemed to be on the decline? It would be a mistake to pay list price for Gonzalez next spring.

Rick Porcello SP Ranking: 28

Ervin Santana SP Ranking: 87

One season removed from a Cy Young award, Porcello has returned to his old form, best described as mediocre. At this point, he barely deserves a mixed league roster spot. The Red Sox righty is not someone I'll be targeting next season. Few owners were targeting Santana this season, but the 34-year-old continues to exceed expectations, delivering mid-rotation production at a fraction of the cost. One auction dollar was all it took to add Erv to my Tout Wars staff, and I'll continue to draft him as long as my league mates continue to undervalue him.

Francisco Rodriguez RP Ranking: 18

Greg Holland RP Ranking: 33

For years, we all waited for K-Rod to collapse, but it never happened. At least not until this year, and the breakdown was ugly. Rodriguez was bounced from the Tigers' closer role by early-May and jettisoned from the Tigers team by late-June. He was then released by the Nationals in mid-July after signing a minor league deal a few weeks earlier. His big league career is probably over. Holland missed the entire 2016 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery and did not enter 2017 as Colorado's clear-cut closer, so he wasn't even drafted in many mixed leagues. But despite a rocky (no pun intended) month of August (9 1/3 IP, 14 ER), Holland is once again performing at an elite level. Top-10 stopper entering 2018? Absolutely. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

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