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: 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: 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: 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: 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: It took 330 big-league games spread over a little more than two calendar years, but late last season Hosmer finally developed into the premier hitter scouts forecasted as far back as the time he was picked third overall in the 2008 amateur draft. From June 1 on, he batted .318 with 16 home runs in 109 games, thanks to an all-fields approach that countered some of the defensive shifts he had faced earlier in his career. Hosmer is that rate power/speed first baseman, but he's also one with a lot of batting-average stability; the sum of his parts makes him a much safer investment than it might seem. You'll pay for it on draft day, with perhaps a top-50 pick in a mixed league, but the potential reward is a player who could finally develop the power those same scouts once predicted: Might 25 homers be within his sights?
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: 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 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.
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: Even with the fence adjustments at Safeco Field last season, Seager still couldn't capitalize in terms of power, and it's worth a debate as to whether he'd vault into the upper tier of fantasy third basemen if he wasn't a member of the Seattle Mariners. His road numbers are tantalizing: He's a .289/.345/.491 hitter, including 32 of his 45 career home runs, away from Safeco, but, at the same time, those facts, coupled with his 53-point career wOBA split between lefties and righties (favoring the side against right-handers), seem to place Seager more in the "matchups" than "breakout candidate" bin. That said, he's a fourth-year big leaguer aged 26, meaning his prime years have arrived, and the Mariners' lineup should be better in 2014 than 2013, supporting his runs/RBIs. It's not unthinkable that Seager could gain more consistency with experience. He's an attractive bargain bet.
2014 Outlook: Ah, the possibilities. Santana enters a 2014 of change: He's catcher-eligible in fantasy leagues, but all indications are that the Cleveland Indians will move him off the position -- probably to designated hitter -- though he did dabble in some third base in winter ball. Chances are he'll be a catcher-eligible player who experiences a games played/plate appearances bump as a regular elsewhere on the diamond; such players gain an advantage because of the result on their counting numbers. Santana has made small gains in terms of making contact in each of the past two seasons, and he has always had underrated power. Might a new position help him finally reach the 30-homer plateau? It's that prospect which keeps him high in the catcher ranks, and those in leagues that reward walks or on-base percentage should be especially intrigued.
2014 Outlook: In 2013, Lawrie battled through assorted injuries (ribs, oblique, ankle) as well as a brief position change to second base, yet he managed to improve his skills, albeit marginally. Lawrie fanned less and walked more than 2012, hitting the same number of homers in 78 fewer plate appearances. Still just 24 years old, Lawrie has plenty of time to realize the potential many thought he possessed when he was a top prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization. To do so, other than health, he could stand to take a few more walks and hit a few more balls in the air, as a fly-ball rate below 35 percent caps his homers in the high teens. Injuries may be to blame, but Lawrie's stolen base success rate also needs some polish. The term post-hype sleeper is a bit cliché, but Lawrie fits the profile. The skills are still there, health permitting.