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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: On a per-game basis, and comparing his numbers to the rest of the shortstop pool, Tulowitzki is one of the most valuable assets in fantasy baseball. In his seven-year career, he has .295/.367/.509 lifetime rates and has averaged 29 home runs, 103 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and 101 runs scored per 162 games played; shortstops as a whole had .254/.308/.372 numbers and averaged 12-60-14-69 numbers per 162 in 2013 alone. That said, during those same seven seasons, Tulowitzki has missed 290 games, or 25.6 percent of his Colorado Rockies' scheduled contests, and made five trips to the DL. If not for his position, he might be regarded more of a headache, but numbers like this are rare from a shortstop. Understand that Tulowitzki is one of the riskiest assets in the game, but he's also one with a potentially high reward. Stephania Bell: Finally recovered from the core muscle surgery of 2012, Tulowitzki showed last year he could return to form. He's still somewhat vulnerable to injury, due to both his history and his position, but the calf bruise this spring isn't his fault (hit by pitch), nor does it appear especially serious.
2014 Outlook: Though Kipnis did enjoy a breakthrough in 2012, hitting 14 home runs and stealing 31 bases, he truly arrived as a big-league star in 2013. His underlying numbers showed considerable growth: He batted 93 points and slugged 198 points higher against left-handers than he did in 2012, he increased his overall walk rate from 10.0 to 11.6 percent, and he was the third least-likely to swing at a pitch outside the strike zone in baseball (17.4 percent rate). In the process, Kipnis became the sixth-youngest second baseman in history to manage a 15/30 season, and a viable contender to Robinson Cano for the title of best at his position in fantasy. Kipnis' only legitimate criticism, as he enters the prime of his career, is his two-year history of wide first-half/second-half splits: he batted 42 points higher in the first half, hit 24 of his 31 homers and stole 41 of his 61 bases before the All-Star break. Those could just as likely be the product of a young player adapting to the grueling 162-game schedule as a future trend, and if Kipnis gains more consistency in that regard, he could easily repeat or exceed his No. 18 overall finish on the 2013 Player Rater.
2014 Outlook: One of the most complete Rotisserie performers in baseball -- he has a .301 career batting average and has averaged 26 home runs, 103 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and 101 runs scored per 162 games played -- Wright has but one limitation preventing a run at the very top tier of fantasy studs: His injury history. He has made three trips to the DL in the past five seasons, missing 17 percent of his New York Mets' scheduled games during that time span, making the question valid. Wright's power is also slightly capped as a result of his spacious home ballpark -- that's despite the 2011 fence adjustments -- which keeps him a hair behind more proven third base-eligibles like Miguel Cabrera or Adrian Beltre. But back to that word, "hair": Aren't we splitting them when we're using comparisons to two top-20 overall players to discount Wright?
2014 Outlook: The Votto debate will be one of scoring format philosophy; his penchant for walks makes him a highly attractive asset in more modern, sabermetric scoring, but the resulting limit on his homer/RBI totals frustrates those in more traditional Rotisserie formats, where his skills don't carry as much weight. He is baseball's most disciplined hitter: He led in walks (135), walk rate (18.6 percent) and lowest swing rate on non-strikes (16.1 percent), and his .431 on-base percentage the past five seasons combined paces the bigs by 12 points. Still, Votto mans first base, one of the easier positions to fill in fantasy, and therefore he's not quite the automatic first-rounder he once was in Rotisserie scoring. There are skills here that bump his value up considerably if your league rewards them; but the upshot is that this is a safe, stable, consistent fella.
2014 Outlook: A torn ligament in his left thumb suffered last Opening Day sapped his power, but Pedroia nevertheless fought through, playing a career-high 160 games and amassing 724 trips to the plate in 2013, earning himself a third consecutive season ranked among the top five second basemen on our Player Rater. To put his year into statistical perspective: His per-162-games career averages were spot on in nearly every major category except home runs (nine in 2013, 16 career) and slugging percentage (.415 and .454). Pedroia remains in the prime of his career and again should pace one of the most productive lineups in baseball. He's especially attractive in points leagues, where his high on-base percentage and contact rates carry additional weight, but there's no question that he's an early-round pick in any scoring format.
Stephania Bell: It's no surprise that Pedroia played all season despite tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb in the very first game. Equally unsurprising is the expectation he'll be ready for spring training after having it surgically repaired in November.
2014 Outlook: Desmond is riding back-to-back 20/20 seasons, a rare feat for a shortstop, illustrated best by the fact that only three shortstops in history -- Hanley Ramirez (4), Jimmy Rollins (4) and Alex Rodriguez (3) -- have had more in their careers. Always a capable base stealer, Desmond picked up the power pace in 2012, utilizing a more aggressive approach in which he improved by leaps and bounds covering the inner third of the plate. He's a bit more strikeout-prone than a points-league owner might prefer, but preferences should be cast aside for a player aged 28 with his recent track record of success. This is an early-round pick, well worth building around in any format.
2014 Outlook: Even the injury-prone can have the most miraculously healthy of seasons, as Longoria did in 2013. He set career highs with 160 games played and 693 plate appearances, despite playing through a case of plantar fasciitis in June. Longoria's 2013 was spot-on to his career rates; he batted .269/.343/.498 with a .355 weighted on-base average and 32 home runs, and he's a career .275/.357/.512 hitter with a .371 wOBA and an average of 33 homers per 162 games played. In short, what you see is what you get, and any hesitation drafting him should be your confidence he can repeat as healthy a year. Nevertheless, Longoria should remain one of the first third basemen off your draft board.