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: Arguably the most skilled hitter in the game today, Cabrera in 2013 came within a Chris Davis power surge -- specifically within nine home runs and one RBI of Davis -- of a second consecutive Triple Crown, something no player in baseball history has done. Cabrera's elite and balanced numbers in those three categories, which comprise three-fifths of the standard rotisserie departments, are unrivaled: He has led all major leaguers in batting average in two of the past three years (2011 and 2013), RBIs in two of the past four (2010 and 2012), and home runs in 2012; and in the past five seasons combined he batted seven points higher, hit 17 more homers and drove in 52 more runs than anyone else. What's more, Cabrera's performance last year is all the more remarkable if you consider that he played visibly hurt the final four months, an injury that required "core muscle repair" surgery in October. Despite this, he missed only 13 of the Detroit Tigers' final 89 games (playoffs included), batting .306/.402/.552 with 21 homers and 62 RBIs in that span. If Cabrera has a weakness, it's his defense, but even that might no longer be so damaging to his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) now that he's returning to first base following the Prince Fielder trade. Cabrera makes a compelling first or second overall pick, regardless of format.
Stephania Bell: Cabrera is back on track to start the season despite last fall's surgery, and from a physical-demand standpoint, the move to first base can only help.
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: Few players in baseball have done more to boost their stock the past three seasons than Goldschmidt, culminating in a 2013 campaign that placed him within 167 vote points of the National League's MVP award (Andrew McCutchen won, 409-242). Since failing to crack either Keith Law's or Baseball America's top 100 prospect lists entering his rookie year of 2011, Goldschmidt has boosted his batting average, OPS and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in each year, culminating in 2013 numbers that ranked him 19th, fifth and ninth in the majors in those departments. What's more, he flashed above-average defense and managed a second consecutive season of at least 15 stolen bases, becoming the first first baseman since Derrek Lee (2002-03) to do that. It's Goldschmidt's multi-category contributions that make him so attractive in Rotisserie formats, but even those in points-based or more sabermetric scoring formats should regard him a first-round pick. After all, thanks to substantial skills improvements in terms of his plate coverage, pitch recognition and performance against breaking stuff (curveballs and fastballs), Goldschmidt is no longer the feast-or-famine slugger scouts once witnessed in the low minors.
2014 Outlook: A multi-category fantasy stud, one of only two players in baseball with at least a .300 batting average, 100 home runs and 50 stolen bases the past four seasons combined (Ryan Braun is the other), Gonzalez enters 2014 with a hint more risk than usual. Though his final stat line was excellent, he missed 49 of the Colorado Rockies' final 73 games due to a sprained right middle finger, batting .291 with only three extra-base hits in his healthy contests. Gonzalez opted against surgery to repair the digit, has no plans to alter his swing to compensate for the injury, and will shift to center field full-time; all of these could put him at greater risk of recurrence. Still, he made significant strides in reducing his home/road split -- he batted .332 with 14 home runs away from Coors last season -- and he's a prime-age 28. If you can appreciate Gonzalez both for his production and his 129-game average from 2010-13, you'll value him correctly: A best-in-fantasy candidate on a per-game basis, but one with a reasonable chance of a month-long DL stint. Stephania Bell: While Gonzalez opted against offseason surgery on his sprained right middle finger, a surprise appendectomy in January may have interrupted his conditioning, but he's been cleared for full activity this spring.
Addendum (3/12): Gonzalez has been hitting well this spring, showing no signs thus far of any lingering issues with the finger.
2014 Outlook: Now that's a breakthrough. Always a powerful hitter -- and one who planted the seeds in 2012 -- Davis belted 53 home runs last year; only 16 players in history have ever hit more in a single year. He did this in two ways: He improved his plate coverage, hitting 19 of the homers with a .338 batting average on pitches on the outer third of the plate, and extended his 2012 excellence against breaking pitches (curves and sliders), hitting 17 homers off them. But before you start thinking about Davis taking another step, mounting a challenge to the record books, know this: Thirty-seven of his homers came in the first half, backed by a .315 batting average; he hit .245 with only 16 bombs after the All-Star break. That's a regression tale not to be ignored, but even if it means he's more 40- than 50-homer hitter, that's probably still enough for him to pace the majors in the category, and earn your early-round pick.
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: It took eight big-league seasons, but the Toronto Blue Jays finally, in 2012, isolated Encarnacion's best skills: He's a pull-power slugger with a good batting eye, and the team embraced those abilities knowing that their home venue, Rogers Centre, could harness them. Sure enough, he has the third-most homers (78) and eighth-most walks (166) the past two seasons combined, despite his having missed 31 games due to injuries, including a wrist problem that required surgery last September. Encarnacion is expected to make a full recovery in time for the season, however, and the fact that he's a much better contact hitter than people give him credit -- he had a career-best 88.3 percent contact rate in 2013 -- makes him an outstanding early-rounder in any scoring format. He's especially attractive in points-based leagues, and if your format affords a 10-game position qualification, he'll be third base-eligible, propping him up even more.
Stephania Bell: After undergoing surgery on his left wrist in September to address cartilage damage, Encarnacion posted a photo of himself working on his swing in January. Appears on track to start the season, but will he hold up?
2014 Outlook: Don't let winter criticism of the length of his 10-year, $240-million deal with the Seattle Mariners, nor chatter that Yankee Stadium artificially inflated his statistics, inspire panic that Cano's fantasy value will plummet. It's fair to point out that he hit 16 more home runs at home than on the road the past five seasons combined, coinciding with the entirety of new Yankee Stadium's existence thus far, and that the New York Yankees averaged 1.4 more runs per game than the Seattle Mariners during that same five-year span. But in Cano's defense, during the same time he batted four points higher on the road (.316 to .312) and hit 10 more home runs to left and center field (23 to 13) in road games, and that the 2013 Yankees averaged only 0.2 runs per game more than the Mariners suggests that his runs/RBIs might not suffer much by his changing uniforms. Cano's strength is also his durability: He has played the second-most games of any player the past five seasons (behind only Prince Fielder), and he has appeared in at least 150 games at second base in seven consecutive years, a streak exceeded in history only by Nellie Fox (eight straight, 1952-59). He is the class of a weak second base crop, an advantage that still props him up as a first-rounder in any format.
2014 Outlook: The first three-time defending major-league ERA leader in 18 years (Greg Maddux, 1993-95), and one of only two to do it in three consecutive non-strike-shortened seasons (Lefty Grove, 1929-31, was the other), Kershaw is at the top of his -- and the top of the -- game. He led all major-league pitchers in traditional Rotisserie (1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP), modern (.521 OPS allowed, 27 quality starts) and sabermetric statistics (.232 wOBA allowed, 7.9 Wins Above Replacement, 2.00 FIP) in 2013, and in yet another personal feat that showed how much he has grown in terms of pitch economy, he set career bests in innings per start (7.18) and pitches per batter faced (3.77). Kershaw's profile is practically flawless, hence his massive payday in January, and he's in prime position to repeat his status as fantasy's No.1 pitcher, regardless of format.
2014 Outlook: At a position with many popular, occasionally overrated name brands, Beltre is an "old reliable." Fact: He is the only third baseman to have managed at least a .275 batting average, 25 home runs and 75 RBIs in each of the past three seasons, and be aware that he has easily eclipsed those numbers, with a .312-33-100 average stat line during that three-year span. While it might not seem as if he's the class of the position, those statistics should cement it, and despite his 34 years of age he's in a tremendous situation in which to potentially repeat (or exceed) those numbers. Beltre garners a benefit from hitting-friendly Rangers Ballpark -- his wOBA there is 61 points higher there than on the road in his three years with the Texas Rangers -- and the team fortified its lineup by adding Shin-Soo Choo this winter, potentially improving Beltre's RBI stock. Other than his 2004 outlier, it took him 13 seasons (until his 2010 with the Boston Red Sox) to develop into a fantasy superstar, but that's simply what he is today. Stephania Bell: Calf and hamstring injuries have been a theme for Beltre over the past three years. However, he's missed just a handful of games in the past two seasons combined. At 34, can he will his legs through another 150-plus games?
Addendum (3/12): Manager Ron Washington said he plans to use Beltre in a DH role more often, particularly when day games follow night games, to help preserve his health.
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: While his propensity for injury might be here to stay -- he has missed 150 team games combined the past three seasons -- Ramirez's bat showed signs of rebirth in 2013, as he set new personal bests with a .345 batting average, .638 slugging percentage and .435 weighted on-base average (wOBA). On the surface, the gains coincided with Yasiel Puig's ascension to the majors in June, but the truth is they were skills-based: He managed a more-than-100-point wOBA gain against breaking balls (curves and sliders), and returned to his early-career form on pitches outside the strike zone. Puig's arrival, not to mention the mid-2012 acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, did help Ramirez's runs/RBI case, though, and should continue to do so in 2014. There's as much risk here as with any top-shelf talent, but the potential payoff is massive.
2014 Outlook: In one of the more unexpected moves of the offseason, Fielder was traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Texas Rangers, where he'll not only reap the benefit of fresh surroundings, but a ballpark that's more favorable for left-handed power and a lineup that is no less potent. He's coming off a down year by his standards, his 25 home runs his least in any of his eight full seasons, though in his defense he finished on a high note, batting .325/.384/.513 with eight home runs in his final 50 regular-season games. Fielder is a high-walk, low-strikeout, points-league dynamo, and he's despite his weight he's the most durable player in baseball: He has played 505 consecutive games, the longest active streak, and has missed one contest in the past five seasons combined. Those betting on a bounce-back season have good reason to.
2014 Outlook: After chiseling a Rookie of the Year award (2007), an MVP (2011), five Silver Sluggers (2008-12) and three top-10 finishes on our Player Rater (second in 2012, third in 2011 and seventh in 2009) onto his career résumé, it all came crashing down for Braun in 2013, as he accepted a 65-game, season-ending suspension for violations of baseball's Basic Agreement and its Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Fantasy owners tend to be quick to judge; they might harshly deflate Braun's draft stock assuming that his post-suspension self might be significantly less in ability. But what right do we have to decide what he did, when he did it and what specific effect it had? Braun, before 2013, had showed an unparalleled combination of hit-for-average, hit-for-power and base-stealing ability, and his critics shouldn't instantly assume he can't again flash .300-hitting, 30/20 skills. He is now more of a guess because of the suspension as well as the thumb injury that cost him 36 games, but fantasy owners -- in any league regardless of format -- shouldn't allow him to slip too far beyond their first round or so, because of what he showed us from 2007-12.
Stephania Bell: Braun has been on the verge of extended injury absence several times, but his first DL stint wasn't until 2013, the same year in which he served a suspension for PED use. Could this be when he starts to break down?