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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.
2014 Outlook: Few pitchers boast Darvish's diversity of arsenal: He throws as many as eight different pitches, only his fastballs (two- and four-seamers) registering beneath major-league-average statistical performance, and yet those fastballs generated 65 of his 277 K's and limited opponents to a .223 batting average in 2013. Darvish is one tough cookie for opposing hitters to pick up, particularly his curveball and slider, and the total package has resulted in a strikeout rate that has risen in every one of his four half-seasons in the U.S. (pre- and post-All-Star break, 2012-13). There is no better bet to lead all of baseball in strikeouts, a skill that will drive his value in practically every fantasy format, and he has shown nothing but increasing mastery of the U.S. game as he approaches his prime years. Make Darvish one of the first pitchers off your draft board.
Stephania Bell: Darvish dealt with a nerve issue in his lower back late last season, even receiving an injection in October. The Rangers say he was pain-free by November and expected a normal offseason, but back problems can be recurrent.
Addendum (March 26): Forget the low back; Darvish's neck has been the source of his spring woes. Stiffness led to a visit with spine specialist Dr. Drew Dossett. No structural damage was reported and Darvish can resume throwing on March 29 but he has been scratched from his Opening Day start. He may not miss much time but the bigger concern is the proximity of this episode to the lower back episode from last year, especially in a high volume thrower.
2014 Outlook: Hernandez absorbed some criticism early last season for a dip in fastball velocity, but come year's end he had the same old, consistent numbers he always has had, and he set new career highs in terms of strikeout rate (26.3 percent of batters faced) and K's per nine innings ratio (9.51). The reason is that he is a pitcher who relies more upon command and keeping hitters off balance, and keeping the ball on the ground as evidenced by his 51.9 ground-ball rate the past four seasons combined, rather than sheer velocity. Hernandez is as consistent as they come; both his 124 quality starts and 75.2 quality-start percentage lead all major leaguers the past five seasons combined. That is his strength, but his difficulty winning games is an unfortunate factor in traditional Rotisserie leagues. If not for that, he'd make a compelling case to be the second starting pitcher off the board. It's your call: how much do those wins matter to you?
2014 Outlook: Once considered one of the more unpredictable fantasy performers, Rios has developed into a remarkably reliable power/speed player: His .278/18/79 per-162-games career rates were spot-on to his .278/18/81 numbers in 2013. The primary difference was his speed: He swiped a career-high 42 bases, 16 of those coming in the 47 games he played following his Aug. 9 trade to the Texas Rangers. Still, even if he regresses on the basepaths at the age of 33, he's a potential 20/20 player who is one of only six in the majors with at least 150 apiece in homers and steals in the past eight seasons combined. This is an early-round Rotisserie performer, one whose only true weakness is a lack of walks; unless your league gives those hefty weight, he's a clear selection in the first four rounds.