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: The National League's reigning MVP, McCutchen is one of two players to have managed at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in each of the past three seasons (Carlos Gonzalez is the other), and he and Mike Trout are the only players to have managed 20/20 numbers with at least 80 apiece of RBIs and runs and a .300-plus batting average in each of the past two seasons. McCutchen is also a defensively sound player with an above-average contact rate and a walk rate in double-digits (the majors' average is typically eight percent); it's this balanced approach that makes him such a sound investment in any format. He's a prime-age, 27-year-old player who makes consistently hard contact -- his .275 well-hit average (percentage of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact) -- and is therefore as safe a pick as they come.
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: 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: 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: 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: Homers and steals, homers and steals. After a second-half breakthrough in 2012 -- he managed .278/.321/.448 rates, 14 home runs and 26 stolen bases after the All-Star break -- Gomez extended that performance into 2013, hitting 24 homers and stealing 40 bases to become the year's only 20/40 man, as well as only the 10th individual to do so in a single year since 2000. He has done this with a combination of a more aggressive approach early in the count, batting .402 on the first pitch last season, as well as more selectivity, making hard contact more than 25 percent of the time when any pitch he saw was in the strike zone. But Gomez is, and always has been, a liberal swinger; this is the reason for his precariously low 5.3 percent career walk rate, and the resulting .255 career batting average (and .248 from July 1, 2013, through season's end). He has elevated his game to the point he's one of the most attractive homer/steal players in Rotisserie formats, and a case can be made he's a candidate for top-10 overall status in those. In points-based or on-base-heavy leagues, however, he warrants some hesitation, settling in as more of a first-few-rounder. Stephania Bell: Gomez underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in mid-October to remove loose bodies. He is expected to be a full go this spring.
Addendum (3/12): Gomez has been solid so far this spring and the elbow issues appear to be behind him.
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: Few players enjoyed as immediate a big league splash as Puig; he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in 26 games during his debut month of June 2013, his numbers ranking among the greatest of any player during a debut month in history. Even after opposing pitchers familiarized themselves with his free-swinging ways, however, Puig continued to thrive, batting .284 with 12 home runs in his next 88 games (playoffs included), a testament to his immense talent. He's not a player without questions: His aggressive approach could lead to streakiness and liability in walks/on-base percentage leagues, not to mention make him more susceptible to injury than an average player, and, occasionally, he has lapses in judgment. Still, Puig's ceiling is as high as anyone's, especially in traditional Rotisserie scoring, in which he makes a compelling case to be one of the first 25 names off the board.
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.
2014 Outlook: Stanton is one of the most powerful hitters in baseball: Since the date of his major league debut in 2010, he has hit the fourth-most homers (117), has the second-highest home run/fly ball percentage (24.3) and the ninth-longest average home run distance (411.7 feet). In addition, historically speaking, the 117 homers are 10th most among any player before his 24th birthday; his .535 slugging percentage through his age-23 season is also 11th best among those with 2,000-plus plate appearances. However, Stanton still falls short of "elite" status -- those with a legitimate stake at first-round status -- because of a checkered injury history at a young age: He has missed 101 of 590 career games, including for foot, shoulder, oblique, knee and hamstring issues. He also suffers somewhat in terms of quality pitches to hit as well as his counting numbers (runs, RBIs) due to his status as a heart-of-the-order hitter for one of the game's weakest lineups, though, in his defense, Stanton's per-game numbers have been quite good. He's a player who could become that superstar/MVP-caliber performer scouts long predicted as he enters his prime, but bear in mind the injury track record.
Stephania Bell: He spent six weeks on the DL in 2013 with a hamstring injury and despite being just 24 years old, Stanton's games played have declined progressively the past two years. Can he reverse the trend?
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: A power-hitting left-handed bat in a perfect park for that type, Bruce has hit at least 30 home runs in three consecutive seasons, one of only three players who can claim that (Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre are the others). At the same time, Bruce's game has almost entirely moved toward power; this has resulted in rising strikeout rates every year since 2009 and a propensity for streakiness. To the latter point, he batted .246 with one homer in his first 34 games of 2013, .307 with 17 in his next 41. Bruce's power places him in the class of early-round fantasy picks, but his strikeouts are a concern in points leagues, and those who select him need to be patient through his rough patches.
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.