2014 Outlook: One of the best raw power hitters in baseball -- his 152 home runs since the beginning of 2010 trail only Miguel Cabrera's 156, and they are 26 more than third place in the category during that span -- Bautista has fallen somewhat into injury-risk territory recently, having appeared in only 210 games combined the past two seasons because of wrist, back, ankle and hip issues. His 2013 represented his second consecutive year ended prematurely in August, this time because of a bone bruise in his hip, though all reports on his health during the winter were positive. Bautista's skills might be slowly declining, understandable for a 33-year-old, but he's still capable of approaching 40 home runs at the expense of a middling batting average; his on-base and slugging percentages, however, should remain good. He's an early-round pick in traditional rotisserie leagues, and a more attractive one, albeit with risk, in more sabermetric scoring formats.
Stephania Bell: Bautista recovered nicely from wrist surgery a year ago but ended his 2013 season early with a bone bruise in his hip. He was healed by November and enters the spring healthy.
2014 Outlook: The 2014 season will represent Bumgarner's fifth as a full-time big leaguer, and in each of his previous seasons he has improved his WHIP, culminating in a 2013 in which he also set personal bests in terms of ERA (2.77), strikeout rate (24.8 percent), total K's (199) and quality start percentage (71.0). Considering his three-year track record of consistent success, it's sometimes difficult to digest the fact he's still only 24 years old. These facts put Bumgarner in the upper tier of fantasy starters, with only a few questions holding him back from a higher rank: One, his win potential on the San Francisco Giants working slightly against him in traditional rotisserie scoring. Two, a heavy reliance upon an arm-taxing slider, as he is one of only four pitchers to have thrown the pitch more than 30 percent of the time in each of the past three seasons. Three, he posted a career-high walk rate in 2013 (7.7 percent). We admit, however, that we're picking nits, but when it comes to top-shelf starters, nits must sometimes be picked.
2014 Outlook: One of the precious few "trustworthy closers," Kimbrel's numbers stack up favorably among history's young finishers: His 1.39 ERA and 43.2 percent strikeout rate were both best all-time among any pitcher through his age-25 season (minimum 200 innings), and his 139 career saves at the time of his 25th birthday ranked second all-time (Francisco Rodriguez, 146). Take that to heart, if you're among the rare critics of Kimbrel's 2013 strikeout-rate drop; his 38.0 percent number, a decline of a little more than 12 percent, was still the 20th-best in any year all-time (minimum 50 innings). In other words, his skills remain excellent, his workload has been managed much more conservatively the past two seasons than in 2011, diminishing any health risk, and his Nos. 30 (2011), 10 (2012) and 14 (2013) Player Rater rankings overall support his candidacy for top-50 draft status even in shallow mixed leagues. Do you pay for saves? This is one of the rare closers worth the hefty price.
2014 Outlook: A late bloomer, Molina has developed into one of the most reliable catchers in fantasy, and frankly the most valuable catcher in the on-field game, where his defensive prowess carries additional weight.
2014 Outlook: One of 2013's biggest breakout stories, Donaldson's success dates back to the final month of 2012, a small hint that he might not be mere one-year wonder. From 2010-13, he played a near identical number of games at both the Triple-A (252) and major-league levels (247), and look at how similar his numbers: .270/.354/.486 rates in Triple-A, .277/.350/.460 in the majors. Those batting averages do show potential for regression, but in Donaldson's defense, his walk-rate gains last season give hope it'll be minimal, while his power probably shouldn't suffer. He's a player who succeeded as a result of growth, not some fluky result, and it's time to trust him as a building block in all scoring formats, targeting him in the early rounds.
2014 Outlook: After 12 consecutive seasons of first-ballot Hall-of-Famer statistics, Pujols finally suffered some adversity in 2013. Painful plantar fasciitis plagued him for much of the season, resulting in a partial tear that ended his season in July, and statistics that across the board represented career worsts. Pujols' prognosis for 2014 has improved -- he had resumed taking batting practice in November and was on track for a full spring training -- but at the same time, his home run total, batting average, on-base percentage and OPS have all declined in each season since 2008. He is following the natural downslope of a career that a slugger faces, and the history of comparable Hall of Fame talents isn't positive; at 34 years old, many of them had productive seasons, but hardly numbers worthy of MVP votes. Pujols' power might return -- this bears the closest watching during camp -- but understand that he is not the same player who scored MVPs in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Don't let the name brand cause you to reach in drafts.
Stephania Bell: Pujols says his left foot is much improved compared to last year, but one wonders if wear and tear from so many games over the years is catching up.
2014 Outlook: After a winter of trade rumors, Phillips thankfully returns to the Cincinnati Reds, with whom he'll once again call a hitter-friendly ballpark his home and will again occupy a premium lineup spot (second, fourth or fifth, in all likelihood). Here's why that's important: Phillips has hit 95 of the 160 homers during his Reds career at Great American Ball Park, and his Reds scored the third-most runs in the National League in 2013. His skills have begun to decline slightly, which is understandable for a player set to turn 33 midseason, but he is also one of only 15 players to have hit at least 75 home runs and stolen at least 75 bases the past five seasons combined. Phillips is one of the most consistent, well-rounded second basemen in fantasy, though his modest walk and rising strikeout rates do make him a slightly riskier early-rounder in points-based or sabermetrically inclined scoring formats.
2014 Outlook: Fernandez's 2013 was one of the most unexpected, yet successful, rookie campaigns in baseball history. Undrafted in practically every fantasy league because of his young age and likelihood of a full season in the minors, Fernandez was a surprise inclusion on the Miami Marlins' Opening Day roster, despite his making only one Grapefruit League appearance. From there, he continued to defy the odds: Among rookies since World War I, his 6.3 Wins Above Replacement ranked ninth, his 2.19 ERA ranked fifth and his 0.98 WHIP ranked seventh. What's more, he seemed to only improve as the season progressed, managing 12 quality starts in 13 games from July 1 forward, with eight wins, a 1.43 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and .159 batting average allowed. Fernandez is now one of the most tantalizing picks in fantasy baseball, but our rank provides you some caution (caution that has no place in a dynasty league, that is): His peripheral numbers show that some regression is in order, his pitch efficiency numbers would be difficult to repeat, perhaps capping his innings total at beneath 200, and as a member of the Miami Marlins, his workload might again be conservative (after all, they're not a contender) and he'll struggle in the win column in leagues where that counts. We love the guy, but we'd be amiss if we didn't itemize the risks.
2014 Outlook: It's a legitimate point to make that Greinke has finally found confines that maximize his skill set: His annual FIPs, working forward from 2009, have gone 2.33, 3.34, 2.98, 3.10 and 3.23, which suggest a far more consistent pitcher than a traditional rotisserie owner might believe. Considering that he spent some of that time in the American League, and some in hitter-friendly Miller Park, Greinke warrants some benefit of the doubt. He thrived at Dodger Stadium last year -- he had a 2.11 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 14 starts there -- and the sum of his past five seasons results in a 3.24 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 66.7 quality start percentage and an annual average of 194 K's, numbers that would place him at or near the upper tier at his position. Long a sabermetric darling, Greinke might be one of the most attractive values in the SP2 class.
2014 Outlook: Though no longer the top-10-overall fantasy talent he was three short years ago -- he finished eighth on our 2011 Player Rater -- Gonzalez has quietly settled in as one of the more consistently reliable performers at his position. Since he became a regular in 2006, he has appeared in the second-most games (1,274), driven in the fifth-most runs (860), scored the 12th-most runs (716) and produced healthy .296/.371/.505 offensive rates. What's more, Gonzalez has shown a remarkable penchant for exploiting the confines of his ballpark: In Boston, his ability to hit with power to the opposite field helped him boost his batting-average and doubles totals, but in Los Angeles, he has taken somewhat more of a pull approach, knowing that left field is considerably more expansive in Dodger Stadium than at Fenway Park. Gonzalez might no longer be a lock for a .300-plus batting average or 30 home runs, but it's within reason to argue that he'll reach either plateau. And if he's a .295-25 performer in the deep Los Angeles Dodgers lineup, he might be a sneaky value in rotisserie leagues.
2014 Outlook: Though Zimmerman's 2012-13 shows a much more consistent .280/25/85 performer than fantasy owners tend to give him credit for, his critics do raise important points. Injuries have long been an issue -- he averaged 133 games during the past six seasons -- his eroding defense at third base lends legitimacy to chatter that the Washington Nationals might eventually shift him across the diamond to first base and both his strikeout and swing-and-miss rates have risen in back-to-back seasons. For 2014, however, Zimmerman retains his third-base eligibility -- and he'll probably keep it at least through 2015, too -- meaning that, once again, he should settle in as a top-10 mixed-league third baseman and top-75 overall player. At this stage of his career, however, any upside from that status might be gone.
2014 Outlook: Craig Kimbrel might get the press -- he's the one who has held a closer's job for a longer period of time -- but Jansen has skills that place him right up there with the Atlanta Braves' finisher. Like Kimbrel, Jansen possesses three of the 20 best single-season strikeout rates in history (minimum 50 innings), finishing fourth in 2011 (44.0 percent), 12th in 2012 (39.3) and 18th in 2013 (38.0). Frankly, if the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't keep signing lesser-skilled relievers with "closer experience" -- from Brandon League to Brian Wilson to Chris Perez -- Jansen would probably have more faith from fantasy owners. Still, despite the seemingly endless list of closer contenders, Jansen is actually one of the safest save-getters in the game, and following an October 2012 heart surgery, he suffered zero injury setbacks in 2013 to diminish any such future worry. There is a four-man tier of "elite fantasy closers" -- three of whom hail from the National League -- and Jansen belongs squarely in that group.
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: After a four-year span (2009-12) as arguably fantasy baseball's most consistently productive starting pitcher -- he finished ninth (2009), 10th (2010), first (2011) and second (2012) at the position on our Player Rater -- Verlander endured a tumultuous past calendar year. His velocity was down for much of the early stages of 2013, his statistics suffering for it, and his critics asked whether the 180 starts, 1,243⅔ innings or 20,264 pitches thrown from 2009-12 (playoffs included) -- all major league highs -- might have come back to haunt him. Verlander rebounded late in the season, however, culminating in an October during which he had a 0.39 ERA in his three playoff starts while regaining some of that lost velocity. But he then succumbed to core-muscle repair surgery in January, again casting his 2014 value into doubt. All indications are that Verlander should be ready by Opening Day, if not shortly thereafter, but his spring progress is critical to determining the extent of his bounce-back potential. Stephania Bell: Verlander underwent core muscle repair surgery in January and a month later is throwing off a mound without issue. He continued his strong spring and has been named the Opening Day starter for the Tigers.
2014 Outlook: After many years of chatter that his bat was too valuable to risk having him wear the tools of ignorance on a daily basis, Mauer finally was moved off catcher this winter: He'll be the Minnesota Twins' everyday first baseman in 2014. It took a season-shortening concussion in August to force the Twins' hand, but there are many fantasy advantages that result: Mauer should take less wear and tear at first base, increasing his chances at racking up games and plate appearances, and he'll remain catcher-eligible throughout 2014 in ESPN leagues, while accruing the larger number of PAs typical of a first baseman comparative to a catcher. That's big news for this batting-average/line-drive specialist; a .300-plus hitter, not to mention a .400-plus on-base artist, carries much more weight in those categories the more times he comes to the plate. (Incidentally, Mauer's .323 career batting average is tops among active players.) Take this to heart especially in points-based leagues; the case can be made that Mauer will pace the position in the format. But even in rotisserie leagues, he's one of the best at his "position" ... well, his eligible fantasy position of catcher.
Stephania Bell: Mauer's season ended in August due to a concussion, the result of a foul tip to his mask. He was symptom-free by October, and with the full-time move to first base this year, he should have an easier time staying in the lineup.