2015 Outlook: Many owners had their finger on the panic button early in 2014, with Hamilton managing just a .140 average and two steals in the first two weeks of play, but he slowly started to come around. Things really seemed to click in June, as Hamilton hit .327/.348/.500 with 14 steals during the season's third month, numbers buoyed by a whopping 10 multihit efforts. At the All-Star break, Hamilton was hitting .285/.319/.423 with five homers and 38 steals in 53 attempts. As was the case with many of his teammates, Hamilton began to unravel in August and completely fell apart in September until a concussion put a premature end to his rookie campaign. The overall numbers were slightly disappointing, especially his conversion rate on the basepaths (56-for-79) and walk rate (5.8 percent), but there's reason for optimism entering his age-24 season. The returns of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to full health should ease the burden on Hamilton and afford him more run-scoring opportunities, and his steal total, which was good enough for second in the NL last season, should only improve as he learns how to get better jumps and avoid pickoffs.
2015 Outlook: Teheran's second velocity drop -- his average fastball lost 1.1 mph last year after having stabilized following a full-point drop from 2011 to 2012 -- is a matter of some question. Was this due to the wear and tear of a long season, one in which he exceeded 200 innings for the first time in his career, was it by design for purposes of longevity and increased control, or is this a warning sign? Along with that drop in velocity came a small drop in Teheran's strikeout rate, from 22 percent to 21 percent, not to mention his FIP, which suggests last year's 2.89 ERA was an aberration. Another point of concern is Teheran's team context -- the Braves traded away two-thirds of their starting outfield in Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, then Evan Gattis, leaving them with an outfield of B.J. Upton, Nick Markakis and a big question mark in left field. The net effect will likely be a decline in outfield defense, which isn't good for a fly ball pitcher like Teheran, and he's likely to see reduced offensive support as well. Pointing out all of these concerns isn't to say you should avoid Teheran, but he might not take the next step in his development in 2015.
2015 Outlook: Wainwright turned in yet another stellar season in 2014, posting career-best ratios despite a strikeout rate that dropped to 19.9 percent. But that drop in strikeouts sometimes worked in his favor, as he needed fewer pitches to get through an inning than his high-strikeout peers. His status should be monitored carefully this spring after he had surgery to trim a piece of cartilage from his right elbow immediately after the playoffs. Another issue popped up in camp, with Wainwright suffering an abdominal strain that could keep him out of spring games until mid-March. His status should be monitored by prospective owners throughout spring training, but this represents a nice buying opportunity for the bold, as he is going at a firm discount in drafts due to his health concerns.
2015 Outlook: Shields turned in another solid performance in his final season with the Royals in 2014, posting a 3.21 ERA over 227 innings. He seemed to trade off a few strikeouts in exchange for better control, walking only 4.7 percent of the batters he faced. Given that he’s a fly ball pitcher who pitched in a park that depresses home runs and had the best defensive outfield in the game behind him, this pitch-to-contact approach made a lot of sense. He will likely deploy a similar strategy once again in 2015, now that he can call Petco Park his home. San Diego is one of the best destinations for free-agent pitchers, so Shields' value will be trending up heading into drafts. The outfield defense could be a bit of an issue, but the Padres have one of the best bullpens in baseball, and will finally field a competent big league lineup, which should allow Shields to win double-digit games for the ninth season in a row.
2015 Outlook: Giancarlo Stanton gets much of the credit for the Marlins' surprisingly competitive 2014 campaign, and rightfully so, but Yelich deserves a lot, too. Yelich set the table atop the order for Miami, drawing 70 walks in 660 plate appearances en route to 94 runs scored, good for fifth in the National League. He fared far better against left-handed pitching than he did over the final two months of the 2013 season, slashing .317/.376/.444 in 158 plate appearances, up from just .165/.245/.231 in 102 trips the year before. The former first-round pick (23rd overall in 2010) also swiped 21 bags in 28 attempts and won a Gold Glove in left field, all as a 22-year-old. He has been able to maintain a high BABIP at each stop as a professional and thus isn't much of a batting-average risk, and it's reasonable to think he can reach double-digit homers in 2015 if healthy for the entire year. Yelich made one trip to the DL last season due to a back injury.
2015 Outlook: Cole has been a very effective major league pitcher in his first two seasons, but his performance, especially in the fantasy realm, still lags behind the hype that follows the former No. 1 overall pick. He has a 3.09 career FIP in 255⅓ innings, but in his rookie season Cole failed to notch the strikeout totals owners had hoped for, and last season he missed 10 weeks with fatigue and a subsequently diagnosed strain in his throwing shoulder. The big, 6-foot-4 righty possesses a fastball and slider that are among the best offerings in the National League, and while healthy, his strikeout totals finally started to sync up with his elite raw stuff. Cole's 24.2 percent strikeout rate in 2014 was a nice improvement on his 21.3 percent rate from his rookie season, and it does not take much imagination to project further strides in this department in coming seasons. Until he has the 220-inning tour de force campaign most agree he is capable of, Cole's price on draft day will continue to offer room for fantasy owners to profit.
2015 Outlook: Falling one home run shy of a 30-20 season, Frazier finished as a top-three third basemen in rotisserie leagues in 2014, behind Miguel Cabrera and Anthony Rendon. Surprisingly, just four of Frazier's 29 long balls came against left-handed pitching (145 PA) after he hit nine against southpaws in 2013, so while his 17.0 percent HR/FB figures to regress this season, he should have no trouble exceeding 20 homers again if he hits right-handers anywhere near as well as he did last year (.278/.334/.473). Frazier's contact and swinging-strike rates both went in the wrong direction in 2014, but he's been able to maintain consistent strikeout and walk rates across his first three full major league seasons, and his BABIP was not abnormally high last year (.309). The 20 stolen bases, twice as many as he had for his career entering the season, were indeed an anomaly, but improved totals in RBI and runs scored in a healthy Reds lineup would offset the expected dip in steals to a large extent. Keep in mind, Frazier is also eligible at first base, a position at which he was a top-five option a year ago.
2015 Outlook: Arenado mashed left-handed pitching (.313/.375/.598) and took advantage of playing half of his games at Coors Field (where he hit .303/.344/.584 with 16 his 18 homers) to assert himself as one of the premier bats at his position during his age-23 season. In terms of isolated power, only Juan Francisco (.237 ISO) eclipsed Arenado's .213 mark among third basemen. As an excellent defender, Arenado will have plenty of leash to continue playing regularly even if he falls into a prolonged slump, though his second-half numbers (.284/.347/.550, 7.2 percent BB percent) point toward another big step forward as he moves into his third year in Colorado. Further, he lost time to pneumonia and a broken finger last season, which limited him to just 111 games. With a healthy season's worth of at-bats and the potential for more steady contributions from Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, Arenado has the skills and supporting cast necessary to join the ranks of the elite at the hot corner in 2015.
2015 Outlook: Harvey is returning from Tommy John surgery after not throwing a pitch at any point in 2014. The good news is that the success rate of pitchers returning from the procedure, while not uniform, is much better than a decade ago. Moreover, Harvey will be 17 months removed from his surgery by the start of the season, so he might not have some of the growing pains experienced by some of his peers who came back in 10-12 months. His previously elite velocity was already all the way back in early spring outings, but as is the case with most pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, the return of his command and control will be the key to Harvey achieving his prior level of dominance. The Mets intend to limit Harvey's workload a little in 2015, so he'll probably throw fewer than 200 innings and might skip a start around the All-Star break.
2015 Outlook: Lucroy turned in another strong season in 2014, carrying a career-high .373 OBP on the strength of a 10.1 percent walk rate and setting a new record for doubles by a catcher (53). In the past, he showed more favorable splits against left-handed pitching, but his numbers were nearly identical across his lefty-righty splits last season, and 12 of his 13 home runs were hit against righties. In addition to providing a steady bat capable of racking up plenty of RBI in the heart of the Brewers' batting order, Lucroy is an excellent defender behind the plate. He also takes on a workload at the high end of the scale for a catcher, thanks to his ability to cover first base when the Brewers need a right-handed option to make a spot start at the position. At age 28, there is little reason to think he'll slow down in 2015, though a hamstring strain, suffered in early February, has clouded his status for the start of the year. The Brewers are still hoping Lucroy will be ready for Opening Day, but if not, Martin Maldonado will begin the year as the team's primary option behind the plate.
2015 Outlook: A true offensive enigma, Heyward was traded to St. Louis in the offseason, which only heightens the sense of hope and mystery surrounding his 2015 campaign. In his final year with the Braves, he delivered a .271 average and 20 steals, very nearly marking career highs in each category. However, his power completely cratered, as he hit just 11 home runs with a .113 ISO, and his HR/FB was sliced in half from 13 percent in 2013 to 6.5 percent in 2014. Heyward has always been excellent at driving balls down in the strike zone, but last season he hit for virtually no power on pitches in the upper third of the zone. This has not always been the case, as he was able to do some damage on balls middle-up in his 27-homer 2012 season. A shift in his approach may also be slightly to blame for his decreased power over the past two seasons, as his strikeout rate has dipped from 23.3 percent in 2012 to 16.6 percent in 2013 and a career-low 15.1 percent in 2014. It's possible that Heyward is trading power for contact, but there's no reason he can't regain the power he's shown in the past with proper instruction. Entering his age-25 season, which also happens to be a contract year, there are many reasons to believe Heyward will top his numbers from 2014, possibly by a wide margin.
2015 Outlook: Perhaps Pence's greatest strength in past seasons -- staying healthy -- was nixed early in spring training when he was hit by a pitch and suffered a fractured left forearm that will force him to miss 2-to-4 weeks in April. His past ability to stay on the field allowed Pence to establish impressive statistical floors, reaching the 20-homer, 70-RBI, 75-run thresholds in each of the past seven seasons, but that streak could end with him slated to start this season on the DL. He has hit above .276 in all but one of the past six campaigns, and the one outlier (.253 in 2012) was a year in which he posted a .290 BABIP that was nearly 30 points below his .319 career mark. Admittedly, there are some indicators that Pence's skills may be in decline as he enters his age-32 season; namely, his career-low .168 ISO, career-high O-Swing rate (35.9 percent) and 14 percent line-drive rate from a year ago, the last of which was more than three ticks lower than his 2013 mark. However, once he returns from injury, Pence has the chance to once again establish himself as one of the more reliable outfield sources of across-the-board production.
2015 Outlook: Gonzalez missed six starts in 2014 due to shoulder inflammation, which has to be frightening for fantasy owners considering him at the draft table. But when he was on the mound, his results were similar to his career numbers, if not better in some instances. His 24.8 percent strikeout rate was better than his career average, and his 8.6 percent walk rate, while not elite, was still the best of his career. He also was a little bit unlucky, as his strand rate was a tick below average at 70.6 percent. Gonzalez did lose half an MPH off his fastball, however, and that's probably not coming back at age 29. Look for him to receive somewhat improved run and bullpen support, and if he stays healthy, his peripherals suggest he'll improve on last year's 3.57 ERA.
2015 Outlook: Two years ago, Castro was being drafted as a top-30 player, but he finished 2013 near the bottom of the top 300. However, 2014 ended up being a profitable year for his owners, as Castro largely returned to his 2012 levels. The one area where Castro's game did not rebound is the stolen-base department, as he took off just eight times and has only 13 steals in the last two seasons now. New manager Joe Maddon does like to use a lead foot with the running game, though, and a change in philosophy could help Castro regenerate that value. His skills aren't as worrisome as his off-the-field issues, as he did get into some legal trouble in late December back in the Dominican Republic, which could affect his 2015 value.
2015 Outlook: Ross has been one of the best success stories on the Padres under manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley. After acquiring Ross from the A's before the 2013 season, the Black-Balsley duo changed the righty's mechanics -- giving him a higher leg kick, among other adjustments -- and he paid dividends starting midway through that season. He has one of the best sliders in the game, and he also uses that slider more than nearly every starter in the game. Ross might be paying the bill for that soon, however -- he missed the end of the 2014 season with a forearm flexor strain. The Padres overhauled their roster in the offseason, giving them a much better lineup, albeit at the expense of defense, especially in the outfield. Fortunately, Ross shouldn't be affected as badly as other starters on the staff, given his high strikeout and groundball rates from last season.