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: 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: 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?
2014 Outlook: Few players possess a wider range of potential 2014 outcomes than Harper: He is a 21-year-old, budding MVP candidate, but one who absorbed a slew of injury questions in 2013. To put it simply, he batted .300/.400/.622 with 10 home runs in his first 35 games of 2013 before crashing into the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13; he played only 83 of the Washington Nationals' next 124 games and batted .262/.356/.433 with 10 home runs thereafter. Harper's all-out style has spawned inquiries about whether the label "risk/reward" player need be applied in fantasy circles, but at the same time, he's a No. 1 overall draftee (2010), a two-time No. 2 prospect in baseball (Keith Law's 2011 and 2012 lists), and a player who had the fourth-most Wins Above Replacement through his age-20 season (9.0) of anyone in baseball history, behind only Mike Trout, Mel Ott and Ty Cobb. At some point Harper the stud will emerge and you'll want to already be on board, but we'd understand if you do so covering your eyes every time he attempts a play with reckless abandon.
Stephania Bell: Harper dealt with chronic bursitis in his left knee last year and had October surgery to address the issue. He should be ready to start the season if he doesn't overdo it this spring.
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: His was a tale of two seasons. Upton batted .286/.404/.629 with 13 home runs through his first 40 games for the Atlanta Braves, looking like a surefire MVP candidate after years of such career prognostications but then hit just .256/.335/.409 with 14 home runs in his next 109 games, looking more like a league-average right fielder. (Hey, at least he wasn't the worst Upton.) Justin showed little skills improvement during his "cooling" stage, tempering some of those lofty career expectations as he enters his age-26 season. That said, he's still a player who has flashed occasional MVP talent, and one who, again, at 26, is entering the prime of his career. Could this be the season? Perhaps, but it's no longer worth spending that first-round pick to find out.
2014 Outlook: After a breakthrough 2012 in the States, Cespedes regressed badly in 2013, his strikeout rate rising (23.9 percent, up from 18.9), walk rate dropping (6.5 percent, down from 8.0) and both his batting average and BABIP plummeting by identical 52-point margins. This resulted in a 92-spot decline in Player Rater standing -- 28 spots among outfielders alone -- and a second consecutive season with a DL stint because of a hand injury continued to fuel questions about his long-term health as it relates to his violent swing. Cespedes still has massive power, however, as his isolated power and fly-ball and line-drive rates remained consistent in the two years, and if he enjoys any correction to his BABIP, he could recapture at least some of his 2012 fantasy stock. After all, he did finish 2013 with a .314/.337/.570, six-homer September, and a strong spring could increase his draft stock. It might be prime time to buy a rebound.
2014 Outlook: Craig is much more of a risk/reward hitter than fantasy owners give him credit for. Consider that his 134 games played in 2013 represented a career high; he has appeared in only 67.8 percent of the St. Louis Cardinals' scheduled games (playoffs included) in his big-league career, making four trips to the DL in four years. Still, despite his injuries, Craig has the 10th-best batting average (.311) and 17th-most RBIs (189) the past two seasons combined, showing how productive a hitter he is when he takes the field. The RBIs might have been somewhat fluky; keep in mind that the Cardinals managed the highest batting average with runners in scoring position of any team in history, and Craig himself plated 24 percent of his runners on base, tops in the majors. His health might also remain in question as a regular outfielder; he's expected to move to right field to clear first base for Matt Adams. Craig's ceiling is awfully high and he's more reliable (when healthy) than Adams, but be prepared with a contingency plan for the likelihood he misses additional time in 2014.
Stephania Bell: Craig suffered a Lisfranc injury while rounding first base last September but was able to avoid offseason surgery. He expects to be a full participant this spring although the key will be how well he's running.
2014 Outlook: A free-swinging, speedy type with a hint of power, Marte got off to a hot start in 2013, batting .291 with nine home runs and 28 steals in 88 first-half games, defying the scouts who didn't typically rank him among the top prospects in the game entering the year. As expected, his batting average regressed; he hit .254 with three homers and 13 steals in 47 games in the second half, his strikeout rate swelling to 29.7 percent during that time. Still, so long as you neither expect his .290-plus batting average of last year's first half, or the .303 career mark he had in the minors, Marte is an attractive rotisserie-league target thanks to his potential to fill the steals/runs/homers categories. More patience would serve him well, but as a 25-year-old with the prime of his career ahead of him, Marte is well worth the early-to-mid-round pick in that format, though he's somewhat less intriguing in sabermetrically minded scoring.
2014 Outlook: Consistency has been the name of Holliday's game. He and Miguel Cabrera are the only two players to have batted at least .290 with 20 home runs in each of the past eight seasons, and during his four full seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has averaged .301-25-94 numbers. Even at age 34, Holliday is one of the more reliable early-round selections among outfielders, though his odds of a small step backward remain greater than one forward. He has made trips to the DL in two of the past three seasons, plus has battled minor bumps and bruises, and he's beginning to show weaknesses on pitches up in the zone, batting .105 on those the past two seasons combined. We're splitting hairs, yes, but with name brands like Holliday's, we need to outline causes for caution.
2014 Outlook: If such a thing as a "first-half player" exists -- it's a notion that has been largely overstated during the 30-plus-year history of Rotisserie baseball -- Trumbo would top the list of candidates. Through three big-league seasons, he has hit 60 of his 95 home runs before the All-Star break, his batting average 41 points higher before (.268) than after (.227) it and his slugging percentage 107 points higher before (.517) than after (.410) it. Tuck that away if you're the lucky owner to secure his draft-day rights; ads for your Trumbo sale should run during every commercial break by mid-June. That said, he's still a remarkably powerful slugger, and one surrendering Angel Stadium for the more hitting-conducive dimensions of Chase Field, meaning a fourth consecutive season of setting new personal bests in home runs is possible. To be clear: No double coupons, and no deep Black Friday discounts. (OK, maybe we'll allow it in leagues that penalize for strikeouts or use on-base percentage.)
2014 Outlook: Two straight seasons of a BABIP well above the league norm buoyed Gordon's production, but last season, he failed to maintain that elevated level and his average fell. Fortunately, a spike in his fly ball percentage propelled his homers back to the 20 plateau, so his production did not suffer much. All totaled, Gordon has one of the more stable skill sets in the league. There will be some variance around his batting average, but his consistency and durability are more important considerations. Gordon is falling into the boring stage of his career, but boring can help build a stable, winning foundation. And winning is by no means boring.
2014 Outlook: Brown's is a challenging case. After parts of three disappointing big-league seasons, he finally realized his potential in 2013, hitting a professional-best 27 home runs and batting .272, 36 points higher than he did from 2010-12. Now the question: Was it more a product of adjustments to his stance and swing -- he lowered his hands and reduced the motion in his lower body -- or good batted-ball fortune? To the latter point, Brown hit 17 of his 27 homers in a 43-day, 39-game span, and 12 of his 27 homers were judged either "just enough" or "lucky" homers by ESPN's Hit Tracker tool, meaning he hit a fair share of wall-scrapers. Now 26, Brown has room to improve, so perhaps any loss of luck will be mitigated by natural skills growth. However, he has shown a propensity for streakiness, so be careful letting your expectations get the best of you.
2014 Outlook: Prado got off to a sluggish start for his new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, last season, but come the second half of the year, he looked much closer to his old self. He batted .324/.374/.490 after the All-Star break, en route to a career-low 8 percent strikeout rate, and he logged enough time at three defensive positions -- second base, third base and the outfield -- to carry valuable flexibility into 2014 in fantasy leagues. In defense of Prado's up-and-down year, it was his first in any other organization than the Atlanta Braves in a decade of pro experience, and adapting to the change might have contributed. He's not at a stage of his career where a significant step forward should be expected, but he's a reliable, versatile mid-round bet in any fantasy format.
2014 Outlook: Guess who's hit the ninth-most homers in the majors over the past three seasons? At an age where his skills should be declining, Soriano's are remarkably stable. Conventional wisdom suggests it is easy to pick up cheap speed later in drafts, but Soriano is a great source of cheap power. As batting average is dropping across the league, the fact that Soriano's is consistent means it isn't as detrimental as in past seasons. However, a repeat of 18 steals is unlikely, especially considering he swiped a total of just 22 the previous four seasons combined.