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: Few players in baseball have done more to boost their stock the past three seasons than Goldschmidt, culminating in a 2013 campaign that placed him within 167 vote points of the National League's MVP award (Andrew McCutchen won, 409-242). Since failing to crack either Keith Law's or Baseball America's top 100 prospect lists entering his rookie year of 2011, Goldschmidt has boosted his batting average, OPS and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in each year, culminating in 2013 numbers that ranked him 19th, fifth and ninth in the majors in those departments. What's more, he flashed above-average defense and managed a second consecutive season of at least 15 stolen bases, becoming the first first baseman since Derrek Lee (2002-03) to do that. It's Goldschmidt's multi-category contributions that make him so attractive in Rotisserie formats, but even those in points-based or more sabermetric scoring formats should regard him a first-round pick. After all, thanks to substantial skills improvements in terms of his plate coverage, pitch recognition and performance against breaking stuff (curveballs and fastballs), Goldschmidt is no longer the feast-or-famine slugger scouts once witnessed in the low minors.
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: The first three-time defending major-league ERA leader in 18 years (Greg Maddux, 1993-95), and one of only two to do it in three consecutive non-strike-shortened seasons (Lefty Grove, 1929-31, was the other), Kershaw is at the top of his -- and the top of the -- game. He led all major-league pitchers in traditional Rotisserie (1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP), modern (.521 OPS allowed, 27 quality starts) and sabermetric statistics (.232 wOBA allowed, 7.9 Wins Above Replacement, 2.00 FIP) in 2013, and in yet another personal feat that showed how much he has grown in terms of pitch economy, he set career bests in innings per start (7.18) and pitches per batter faced (3.77). Kershaw's profile is practically flawless, hence his massive payday in January, and he's in prime position to repeat his status as fantasy's No.1 pitcher, regardless of format.
2014 Outlook: While his propensity for injury might be here to stay -- he has missed 150 team games combined the past three seasons -- Ramirez's bat showed signs of rebirth in 2013, as he set new personal bests with a .345 batting average, .638 slugging percentage and .435 weighted on-base average (wOBA). On the surface, the gains coincided with Yasiel Puig's ascension to the majors in June, but the truth is they were skills-based: He managed a more-than-100-point wOBA gain against breaking balls (curves and sliders), and returned to his early-career form on pitches outside the strike zone. Puig's arrival, not to mention the mid-2012 acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, did help Ramirez's runs/RBI case, though, and should continue to do so in 2014. There's as much risk here as with any top-shelf talent, but the potential payoff is massive.
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: On a per-game basis, and comparing his numbers to the rest of the shortstop pool, Tulowitzki is one of the most valuable assets in fantasy baseball. In his seven-year career, he has .295/.367/.509 lifetime rates and has averaged 29 home runs, 103 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and 101 runs scored per 162 games played; shortstops as a whole had .254/.308/.372 numbers and averaged 12-60-14-69 numbers per 162 in 2013 alone. That said, during those same seven seasons, Tulowitzki has missed 290 games, or 25.6 percent of his Colorado Rockies' scheduled contests, and made five trips to the DL. If not for his position, he might be regarded more of a headache, but numbers like this are rare from a shortstop. Understand that Tulowitzki is one of the riskiest assets in the game, but he's also one with a potentially high reward. Stephania Bell: Finally recovered from the core muscle surgery of 2012, Tulowitzki showed last year he could return to form. He's still somewhat vulnerable to injury, due to both his history and his position, but the calf bruise this spring isn't his fault (hit by pitch), nor does it appear especially serious.
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: One of the most complete Rotisserie performers in baseball -- he has a .301 career batting average and has averaged 26 home runs, 103 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and 101 runs scored per 162 games played -- Wright has but one limitation preventing a run at the very top tier of fantasy studs: His injury history. He has made three trips to the DL in the past five seasons, missing 17 percent of his New York Mets' scheduled games during that time span, making the question valid. Wright's power is also slightly capped as a result of his spacious home ballpark -- that's despite the 2011 fence adjustments -- which keeps him a hair behind more proven third base-eligibles like Miguel Cabrera or Adrian Beltre. But back to that word, "hair": Aren't we splitting them when we're using comparisons to two top-20 overall players to discount Wright?
2014 Outlook: The Votto debate will be one of scoring format philosophy; his penchant for walks makes him a highly attractive asset in more modern, sabermetric scoring, but the resulting limit on his homer/RBI totals frustrates those in more traditional Rotisserie formats, where his skills don't carry as much weight. He is baseball's most disciplined hitter: He led in walks (135), walk rate (18.6 percent) and lowest swing rate on non-strikes (16.1 percent), and his .431 on-base percentage the past five seasons combined paces the bigs by 12 points. Still, Votto mans first base, one of the easier positions to fill in fantasy, and therefore he's not quite the automatic first-rounder he once was in Rotisserie scoring. There are skills here that bump his value up considerably if your league rewards them; but the upshot is that this is a safe, stable, consistent fella.
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: Desmond is riding back-to-back 20/20 seasons, a rare feat for a shortstop, illustrated best by the fact that only three shortstops in history -- Hanley Ramirez (4), Jimmy Rollins (4) and Alex Rodriguez (3) -- have had more in their careers. Always a capable base stealer, Desmond picked up the power pace in 2012, utilizing a more aggressive approach in which he improved by leaps and bounds covering the inner third of the plate. He's a bit more strikeout-prone than a points-league owner might prefer, but preferences should be cast aside for a player aged 28 with his recent track record of success. This is an early-round pick, well worth building around in any format.
2014 Outlook: And there we go. One year after posting the fewest wins (6) of any pitcher in baseball history who had a sub-4 ERA and greater than 160 strikeouts in the given season, Lee's win total swelled to 14, despite skills that were practically spot-on to those in any of his preceding five seasons. His FIP patterns, working forward from 2008, illustrate this: 2.83, 3.11, 2.58, 2.60, 3.13, 2.82. Lee does this with the most precise command in baseball, his 1.33 walks-per-nine ratio and 3.7 percent walk rate since 2008 both best in the majors, that year coinciding with the addition of a two-seam fastball to his arsenal. Despite his 35 years of age, he's as consistent as anyone in the game, even in years his win total suffers. Make Lee one of the first 10 pitchers off your board, and arguably the first five in leagues that use quality starts instead of wins.
2014 Outlook: Wainwright's recovery from Tommy John surgery has been effectively seamless: He finished second in the National League Cy Young balloting, and second among starting pitchers, on our Player Rater in 2010; he went under the knife on Feb. 28, 2011; and in his second full season back he finished second again in the NL Cy Young balloting, third among starters on our Player Rater, in 2013. What's more, while his 2010 and 2013 numbers -- even the underlying ones -- looked practically identical, since his surgery he has polished both his four-seamer and cutter, to the point he now has five reliable pitches from which to draw. There's nothing in Wainwright's recent profile to suggest he's anything but the ace-caliber fantasy starter we witnessed in 2013.
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.