2014 Outlook: Sit back and enjoy the show. Through parts of three major-league seasons, Trout has 20.8 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the most of any player in history through his age-21 season, and in 2013 he became the first player to manage at least a .300 batting average, 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases before his 21st birthday. We are witnessing history -- five-category fantasy stud history -- in the making. What's more, Trout's gains in 2013 eclipse his losses: He cut his strikeout rate by nearly three percent, integral to his keeping his batting average in the .320s, and he walked nearly five percent more often; that should ease the minds of those troubled by his 16-steal decline. Trout is the game's best 30/30 candidate, and a batting-title contender to boot. Feel free to engage the philosophical debate as to whether that, or the .340-39-127 stat line that Miguel Cabrera has averaged the past three seasons, warrants the No. 1 overall pick. You really can't go wrong with either one.
2014 Outlook: The National League's reigning MVP, McCutchen is one of two players to have managed at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in each of the past three seasons (Carlos Gonzalez is the other), and he and Mike Trout are the only players to have managed 20/20 numbers with at least 80 apiece of RBIs and runs and a .300-plus batting average in each of the past two seasons. McCutchen is also a defensively sound player with an above-average contact rate and a walk rate in double-digits (the majors' average is typically eight percent); it's this balanced approach that makes him such a sound investment in any format. He's a prime-age, 27-year-old player who makes consistently hard contact -- his .275 well-hit average (percentage of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact) -- and is therefore as safe a pick as they come.
2014 Outlook: In which Ellsbury did the New York Yankees just invest $153 million: The 30/30 man of 2011 who finished second overall on the Player Rater, or the 50-plus-steal, sub-10-homer performer of either 2009 or 2013, both of whom also ranked among the top 10 fantasy players in the game? Ah, that's the grand question, and the gamble owners interested in Ellsbury must take. He has good pop to right field, and Yankee Stadium presents him a more tantalizing, and more importantly shorter, target; at the same time he had more of an all-fields approach that could stabilize his batting average and on-base percentage, therefore fueling his steals and runs totals. Whichever the answer, the sum of Ellsbury's numbers will put him in the top 10 in the game on a rate basis, the more valid concern his propensity for injury: He has missed 273 games combined the past five seasons, though in his defense many of those were the result of fluky, accidental ailments.
Stephania Bell: Ellsbury's past four seasons have alternated between injury-plagued and super productive. If that cycle continues this year, well, it could be tough.
2014 Outlook: For as free-swinging a player as he is, Jones has been remarkably consistent. In the past five seasons, he has swung at a pitch outside the strike zone nearly 40 percent of the time, the eighth-highest rate in the league. And during that same span, he has either matched or increased his home run total, and batted .283 overall and between .277 and .287 in any individual year, while averaging 12 stolen bases per season. He's now 28 years old, in the thick of his prime, and his odds of at minimum a repeat of his 2013 are good. Jones' low walk total might be a problem in leagues that weight that or on-base percentage, but in any traditional Rotisserie scoring system he's a consistently reliable performer who warrants your early-round pick.
2014 Outlook: Homers and steals, homers and steals. After a second-half breakthrough in 2012 -- he managed .278/.321/.448 rates, 14 home runs and 26 stolen bases after the All-Star break -- Gomez extended that performance into 2013, hitting 24 homers and stealing 40 bases to become the year's only 20/40 man, as well as only the 10th individual to do so in a single year since 2000. He has done this with a combination of a more aggressive approach early in the count, batting .402 on the first pitch last season, as well as more selectivity, making hard contact more than 25 percent of the time when any pitch he saw was in the strike zone. But Gomez is, and always has been, a liberal swinger; this is the reason for his precariously low 5.3 percent career walk rate, and the resulting .255 career batting average (and .248 from July 1, 2013, through season's end). He has elevated his game to the point he's one of the most attractive homer/steal players in Rotisserie formats, and a case can be made he's a candidate for top-10 overall status in those. In points-based or on-base-heavy leagues, however, he warrants some hesitation, settling in as more of a first-few-rounder. Stephania Bell: Gomez underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in mid-October to remove loose bodies. He is expected to be a full go this spring.
Addendum (3/12): Gomez has been solid so far this spring and the elbow issues appear to be behind him.
2014 Outlook: One of the most disciplined hitters in baseball, Choo chose one of the most offensively advantageous landing spots for his skill set that he could have this winter, agreeing to a long-term deal with the Texas Rangers. Among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances the past five seasons combined, he had the sixth-highest on-base percentage (.392), a substantial gain for a team that had a mere .324 mark from its Nos. 1-2 hitters yet scored the eighth-most runs in the majors in 2013. Choo's gaudy run total of last season therefore has a good chance at being repeated, and he's a 20/20 capable player especially attractive in leagues that reward him for his walks. He's not a player without weakness -- he batted just .220/.333/.293 against lefties from 2011-13 -- but he's well worth regarding as a building block, even in shallow mixed.
2014 Outlook: Injuries have knocked Kemp from his former first-round fantasy perch; since topping the 2011 Player Rater, he plummeted to 92nd in 2012 and 388th in 2013, missing 56 and then 89 games in those years. Though he's still an attractive option during his healthy games, the injury question remains as valid with him entering 2014 as anyone: He had a surgery to repair the AC joint in his left shoulder in early October, a surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left ankle only a couple of weeks later, and now his status for Opening Day is in doubt. It's that ankle issue that casts doubt upon his fantasy prospects, resulting in his modest ranking, as it threatens his ability to steal bases, which fueled much of his value from 2008-11. Kemp could use some promising news during spring training to improve his draft-day stock; for now, understand that his ceiling is high, but his risk just as high. Stephania Bell: Kemp struggled with multiple injuries last season -- including his hamstring and shoulder -- but the ankle is the worrisome element heading into this year. Still on a modified running program to protect the joint, it's unclear when Kemp's season will start, but it won't likely be in Australia in March.
Addendum (3/12): Kemp began running on land in early March and progressed to intrasquad games this week. While playing in Australia still appears unlikely, Kempís progress is an encouraging sign that he may not be out as long as originally feared.
2014 Outlook: Hey Jason, we're waiting for that breakout ... A 2007 first-rounder, and Keith Law's No. 1 prospect entering his rookie year of 2010, Heyward has yet to become that MVP-caliber talent many predicted during his minor league days. Injuries have held him back: He made two trips to the DL last season alone, and has missed 17.9 percent of Atlanta Braves games during his four-year career. Heyward's BABIPs, not to mention his steals totals, have been all over the map, meaning that those speculating on his statistical ceiling need to brace themselves for inconsistency. Still, he's 24 years old, made huge strides in terms of his contact rate last season (80.9 percent, up from 74.1 in 2012), and has averaged 22 homers and 13 steals per 162 games played thus far to illustrate his power/speed potential. Don't let Heyward slip too far in your draft, as he's plenty capable at making a run at the top 25 fantasy players overall in any future year. An aside: For category counters, be aware that the Braves plan to bat him leadoff, meaning he's more likely to have a higher runs than RBI total.
2014 Outlook: Injuries, a widening platoon split and a dead-pull tendency have held Jennings back from becoming one of the most attractive picks in fantasy, but as a 27-year-old, he still has time to take another step. Even as is, he is one of only three players to have managed at least 20 stolen bases with double-digit homers, joining Carlos Gonzalez and Andrew McCutchen, and he has a keen enough batting eye to be a sleeper in leagues that reward on-base percentage instead of batting average. Jennings continues to show small gains -- he chased 5 percent fewer non-strikes in 2013 than 2012, and he boosted his walk rate from 8.2 to 10.6 percent -- and he might top the Tampa Bay Rays lineup again. He's an intriguing mixed-league middle-rounder with upside.
2014 Outlook: Venable has had his fans in deeper fantasy leagues over the years, most of those being his NL-only owners or those with the luxury of mixing and matching him against right-handers in leagues with daily transactions. In 2013, however, he became a more complete hitter, batting .276/.309/.524 against left-handers, a substantial improvement upon the .216/.295/.287 rates he had against that side in his first five campaigns. Those earned him one key advantage as he enters 2014: The San Diego Padres are sure to treat Venable as a regular this time around, meaning more at-bats to fuel his runs/RBIs totals. He's not quite the power source his numbers hinted -- he hit 15 of his 22 homers at Petco Park, an unsustainable rate despite the team having moved the right-field fences in before last year -- but he's plenty capable of double-digit homers, 20-plus steals and runs/RBIs that will help his rotisserie owners. His low walk rate, however, keeps him in more of the mix-and-match bin in on-base percentage leagues.
2014 Outlook: For the first time in his career, Crisp surpassed the 20-homer mark, not to mention amassed more bombs than steals. The power spike emanated from lofting a few more balls in concert with a big jump in the percentage of fly balls leaving the yard. With such a drastic change in the type of production Crisp generated last season, he's difficult to baseline. Perhaps it's best to look at things in a more general sense instead of trying to pinpoint exact numbers. Approach Crisp with the mindset his home runs will drop while he should run a little more, then temper expectations since he is 34 years old with a checkered injury history. Then let the season play out a bit and manage your roster in accordance with where Crisp's production is leaning.
2014 Outlook: Upside, thy name is Leonys Martin. Let's first look at things straight. If you overload on home runs early, Martin is an ideal complement to balance your stats, since he'll run quite a bit while not inflicting lasting damage to your average or power. Now let's have some fun. Presently, Martin carries a fly ball rate of less than 30 percent. If he can increase that to even the mid-30s without any collateral damage and make better contact, a homers total in the teens is possible. Speaking of contact, Martin's minor league numbers suggest he can lower his 21 percent strikeout rate, which should not only increase his batting average but afford more stolen base opportunities. And finally, if Martin can accomplish any of the above while also taking a few more walks, he's a candidate for the cushy 2-hole in the Texas lineup, which would get him more chances along with ramping up his production. This is not a prediction this all will happen; it's simply a suggestion it could plausibly happen.
2014 Outlook: Don't race to affix the "injury-prone" label to Granderson; recognize that his 101 missed games last season were largely the result of two unfortunate hit-by-pitch incidents, one during his very first at-bat of spring training, the other 31 plate appearances following his return from the DL. Those effectively ruined his year, but not his winter payday, as he hopped aboard the seven train to Flushing to join the New York Mets. It's the ballpark change, not Granderson's health, that warrants greater concern, as he has historically been a feast-or-famine, yank-flies-to-right slugger; that is a style perfect for Yankee Stadium's short porch, but less so with all the right-field nooks and crannies at Citi Field. His power numbers might suffer, his low batting average is a liability in Rotisserie leagues and his high strikeout rate a problem in leagues than penalize for them, but the mere prospect of a 30- even if not 40-homer campaign makes him a modest bounce-back candidate.
2014 Outlook: Four of the 21 100-steal seasons in the history of baseball were recorded by a player named Billy Hamilton, a 19th-century Hall of Famer who played for the Kansas City Cowboys, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Beaneaters. Now another Billy Hamilton vies to join that group -- assuming he can accrue the requisite playing time. For those familiar with scouting terms, Hamilton's speed is an "80-plus" on the 20-80 scouting scale; if the scale extended further, he'd surely grade higher. This Cincinnati Reds speedster has a clear path to a premium gig: Center field and the leadoff spot are his for the taking. Hamilton, however, lacks the polish one would expect from a projected starter, having one season's experience in the outfield under his belt and having suffered a precipitous three-plus-percent drop in his walk rate between Triple-A and the majors in 2013 (7.0 percent, down from 10.3 from 2009-12 in the lower minors). Picking him is speculating on his one tremendous tool (speed), and that makes him a far more valuable asset in rotisserie formats than points-based leagues, where his flaws will detract from his totals. Can you afford a one-category performer, and one largely untested in the majors? He's the ultimate risk/reward play in rotisserie play entering 2014.
2014 Outlook: Upton's 2013 was historically bad: His .184 batting average was fourth-worst in modern history among players with at least 400 plate appearances, with his 33.9 percent strikeout rate coming in at 10th-worst. Things started badly and didn't improve, and got to the extent that the Atlanta Braves were rumored to be considering demoting him to the minors. Instead, they granted him only 30 starts in their final 67 regular-season games. Upton provided zero evidence to hint at a 2014 rebound. Any such hope hinges entirely upon previous history, such as his 23-homer, 36-steal annual averages from 2010-12. He's plenty capable of approaching that form, though his rising strikeout rate also hints that any "rebound" might still land him short of it. In rotisserie leagues, Upton might be worth the late-round gamble. In leagues that have on-base percentage, perhaps he's not.