The following countdown touts my best early guess of the top 30 baseball players heading into fantasy drafts for 2013.
(Stats compiled through Aug. 29)
This off-the-cuff brainstorm may be rooted in hard numbers, but it's also a soft measurement of where the market currently stands and where it'll be in mid-to-late March.
For all we know, young guns like Manny Machado (Orioles), Lorenzo Cain (Royals), Brandon Belt (Giants), Starlin Castro (Cubs) or Bryce Harper (Nationals) could force their way into the next countdown, thanks to a run of robust September stats.
But at this point, I prefer to lean on the following cast of savvy veterans, which includes a 21-year-old dynamo seemingly from another planet.
Enjoy the show!
2012 Stats: 11 HR, 44 RBI, 71 Runs, 29 Steals, .283 BA, .345 OBP
We've got seven loooong months to alter this countdown and ample time to choose a No. 2 shortstop behind Troy Tulowitzki (reputation pick).
Yes, Derek Jeter (84 runs, .321 batting) is having a better statistical year, and Starlin Castro and Alcides Escobar (27 steals, .304 batting) may possess more five-category upside.
But when it comes to filling fantasy baseball's scarcest position, I still gravitate toward Reyes' capacity for hitting .315 or above and/or logging 50-plus steals.
(Not this year, obviously.)
2012 Stats: 13-5, 2.82 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 164/36 K-BB
Come March, this spot in the countdown could easily go to Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay.
But I'm comfortable with the early selection of Matt Cain, who's on track to post career highs in wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and walks per nine innings this year.
From a splits perspective, Cain has tallied two months of four wins and three months of a 3.10 or lower ERA.
Of equal importance, the Giants ace has had two months of 40-plus strikeouts and two months of an opponents' batting average under .206.
2012 Stats: 16-5, 2.53 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 170/50 K-BB
Here's all you need to know about David Price's countdown candidacy, aside from the superb numbers above: From June 19-Aug. 21, spanning 12 starts, Price was an immaculate 12-for-12 in allowing three runs or less, including four scoreless gems. In that span, he was also unblemished in giving up three walks or less.
As the topper, Price had a 7-0 record in that span, and he notched seven or more strikeouts eight times.
2012 Stats: 24 HR, 90 RBI, 83 Runs, 4 Steals, .306 BA, .905 OPS
If memory serves, Matt Holliday garnered only top-40 status in my 2012 preseason rankings.
In other words, despite being on the wrong side of 30 (whatever that means) and without Albert Pujols in the Cardinals' lineup, Holliday (through 127 games) has already matched or eclipsed his 124-game output from last year in runs, hits, triples, homers, RBI, steals, batting average and slugging.
And his marks with on-base percentage (.380) and OPS (.905) are nonetheless stellar.
Bottom line: For those who believe in stockpiling outfield assets early in drafts, Holliday represents the perfect No. 2 option in that realm.
2012 Stats: 5-4, 1.27 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 113/16 K-BB, 33-of-37 Saves Opportunities
I usually don't include relievers in high-end fantasy rankings given the dime-a-dozen aspect to finding guys with 3.00 ERAs and 25 saves by season's end.
But Aroldis Chapman is no ordinary closer...not by a long shot.
Here's a snapshot of Chapman's mind-blowing numbers from July:
1. In just 14.1 innings, only eight opposing hitters reached base (two by walk), and the cumulative batting average was .122.
2. Chapman allowed zero runs and posted a microscopic WHIP of 0.56 for the month.
3. He was a perfect 13-for-13 in save opportunities.
4. Chapman's K/9 ratio for July was 19.5, easily his best effort of the season. (Point of record: A low K/9 for Chapman would represent something in the 15s.)
5. His K/BB rate of 15.50 was three times the amount of his splits for April, May and June. In fact, if you added up the first three months, it would barely surpass that of July.
Verdict: If you're game enough to invest a Round 2 or 3 pick on Chapman in 5x5 roto drafts, for once, I won't there to protest the move.
2012 Stats: 14-6, 2.99 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 172/45 K-BB
We couldn't have a countdown without featuring at least one Phillies pitcher, and Cole Hamels gets the nod over Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
At this point, Hamels ranks ninth in strikeouts and 10th in wins. And his ERA and WHIP marks are exactly what you'd expect from an elite-level starter.
The only drawback here: Hamels isn't a lock for 200 strikeouts this season—a threshold of excellence he has encountered only once in his stellar career (2010).
2012 Stats: 9 HR, 55 RBI, 85 Runs, 37 Steals, .283 BA, .349 OBP
It's anybody's guess where Michael Bourn, a prospective free agent, ends up next year.
Atlanta? Philadelphia? Boston? Los Angeles? Washington?
But it's safe to say he'll be a top-15 outfielder in 2013, regardless of which uniform he dons for 162 games.
Through 131 games, Bourn is on track to eclipse last year's output in runs (94), triples (10) and on-base percentage (.349). And Bourn has already crushed his 2011 marks in homers, RBI, slugging and OPS.
The one knock—and it's a big one: Bourn (61 steals last season) needs to flirt with 50 steals to be a high-end fantasy asset from year to year.
2012 Stats: 16-3, 2.85 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 118/34 K-BB
One month ago, Jered Weaver was sitting pretty as the presumptive pick for American League Cy Young.
But it's a funny how one nine-run meltdown against the Rays (Aug. 17)—and a perfect game from the No. 14 asset in this countdown—can muddle that picture rather quickly.
For this exercise, though, only the seasonal numbers matter:
1. Weaver has eight full outings of zero runs allowed and four others with just one run surrendered.
2. He has logged eight-plus strikeouts five times.
3. Weaver won nine straight appearances from June 20 to Aug. 6, yielding three runs or less in eight of the outings.
2012 Stats: 34 HR, 89 RBI, 80 Runs, 13 Steals, .287 BA, .946 OPS
At first blush, a No. 22 ranking seems quite unfair for a five-category stud like Edwin Encarnacion. But let's remember that Encarnacion likely won't have third-base eligibility next season. And he has never posted 20-plus homers in back-to-back campaigns.
These factors, trivial in the eyes of some, still carry some weight when separating the most valuable commodities in fantasy baseball—especially among power hitters.
One more thing: At the risk of being a "hater," it's worth noting that Encarnacion's current OPS (.946) is 115 points higher than his previous career best. And that occurred way back in 2006.
2012 Stats: 23 HR, 93 RBI, 69 Runs, 1 Steal, .310 BA, .925 OPS
Since July 31, Prince Fielder is hitting at a .345 clip, with seven homers and 21 RBI.
While nobody expects those 30-day splits for the entire season, no one should be surprised by Fielder's most recent surge—which coincides with the Tigers' revival in the American League playoff picture since the All-Star break.
As good as Fielder's numbers look through to date, one stat stands out above all: Fielder is well on his way to a fourth consecutive season of sporting an on-base percentage above .400.
2012 Stats: 15-6, 3.05 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 186/44 K-BB
For 2013, fantasy owners should operate under the assumption that Stephen Strasburg won't be subjected to any pitch counts or innings-limit thresholds courtesy of Nationals management or the co-archiect of Washington's roster, agent Scott Boras.
But that doesn't necessarily guarantee better numbers for Strasburg, who's already a rock-solid candidate for 20 wins, 200 strikeouts and a sub-3.00 ERA during healthy seasons.
Therein lies the crux of committing to Strasburg in Round 2: There's a (mis)perception out there that he's been holding back. But how much more dominant can he be from year to year?
2012 Stats: 16 HR, 65 RBI, 90 Runs, 20 Steals, .267 BA, .337 OBP
If Ian Kinsler can replicate his production of the last 30 days (five homers, 18 RBI, 20 runs), he'll be at or above 110 runs on Oct. 1—lending credence to last season's otherworldly output in runs (121).
Throw in Kinsler's regular capacity for 25 homers, 25 steals and a .350 OBP, and it's easy to see why he's my default choice for the No. 2 second baseman (behind Robinson Cano, of course).
Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, Jason Kipnis, Danny Espinosa, Aaron Hill and Ben Zobrist clearly have immense potential at second base.
But when in doubt, I'll simply bank on Kinsler's consistency in the fantasy realm.
2012 Stats: 27 HR, 65 RBI, 64 Runs, 5 Steals, .241 BA, .358 OBP
If Jose Bautista had never suffered a substantial wrist injury last month (that required season-ending surgery), I wouldn't have to work too hard to present his case for next year's top 20.
Instead, I'm left to remind skeptical readers of the following:
1. Bautista likely would have cleared 40 homers for a third straight season.
2. For the months of May and June, Bautista tallied 23 homers and 52 RBI.
3. After a horrible April (.181 BA), Bautista's batting average markedly improved over the next three months.
4. The excellent marks in on-base percentage (.358) and walk-to-strikeout ratio (59/63) indicate that Bautista's .241 batting average was an aberration.
As a result, I love his chances for 43 homers, 103 RBI and .285 batting next year.
2012 Stats: 12-7, 2.80 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 198/50 K-BB
For the next few years, I'm going to pencil Justin Verlander in for the following numbers: 18 wins, 2.67 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 234 strikeouts.
The only events that could halt these elite-level predictions would be major injury...or Verlander getting traded to the Royals and being obligated to pitch at least 20 games at Kauffman Stadium.
Counting the All-Star game and last week's rough outing, Verlander has allowed 13 runs in just 6.2 innings of work at the Royals' beautiful—but apparently unforgiving—ballpark.
2012 Stats: 8 HR, 27 RBI, 33 Runs, 2 Steals, .287 BA, .360 OBP
Troy Tulowitzki's place in this countdown is neither a reward for a great 2012 campaign nor a nod to being durable for 150 games year-in, year-out.
But in the realm of fantasy-draft speculation, shortstops are a vital component to the process.
And Tulowitzki, from a 162-game standpoint, remains a healthy lock for 27 homers and 102 RBI heading into his age-28 season.
2012 Stats: 17 HR, 78 RBI, 77 Runs, 12 Steals, .315 BA, .918 OPS
There's a certain amount of risk that goes with endorsing a fantasy star who's no longer a lock for 25 homers or 20 steals in a given season.
It also doesn't help when that star is continually buttressed by a handful of middling hitters.
And yet, prospective drafters should be all-in with David Wright next season midway through Round 2.
He's still a healthy bet for 20 homers, 90 RBI, 90 runs, 15 steals and elite-level batting average that belies his mediocre protection in the Mets' lineup.
2012 Stats: 13-5, 2.43 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 184/46 K-BB
Thanks to a work "vacation" in Michigan two weeks ago, I never got a chance to comment on Felix Hernandez's perfect game against the Rays (Aug. 15).
My take: From a fantasy perspective, did you really need to see Felix go 27-up/27-down to know that he's a top-three asset amongst starting pitchers?
Did you need to see perfection on an immaculate weather day in Seattle to realize that King Felix has won nine straight decisions? Or that, in his last 10 outings, he's surrendered just two or less runs nine times?
From a real-world perspective, Hernandez's magical outing was a career topper. But for the fantasy consumer, it was just another nine innings of ho-hum excellence, similar to the Mariners ace's 30-day numbers (4-0, 1.08 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 31/5 K-BB).
2012 Stats: 21 HR, 82 RBI, 80 Runs, 16 Steals, .309 BA, .906 OPS
There are three reasons to support Carlos Gonzalez's vise-like grip on a high Round 2 slot in roto drafts:
1. Without Troy Tulowitzki in the Rockies' lineup for a good chunk of this season, Gonzalez's monthly tallies in on-base percentage haven't dipped below .340.
2. There are only so many five-category locks for 27 homers, 90 RBI, 90 runs, 20 steals and a .300-plus batting average in fantasy circles.
3. His production in May (10 HR, 26 RBI, 26 runs, 4 steals, .351 BA, .417 OBP, 1.145 OPS) might rank as one of the 15 single best months of any MLB player by season's end. It also came at a time when the Rockies needed a dominant presence to carry the club.
Of course, this hearty recommendation may go away if CarGo replicates a deflating August batting average of .221 in September.
2012 Stats: 12-8, 2.85 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 192/47 K-BB
Looking ahead, Clayton Kershaw seems like the most comfortable lock for 20 wins, a 2.40 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 220 strikeouts in 2013.
It's an extension of the Dodgers ace's steadily evolving into one of fantasy's most bankable pitchers (starter or reliever).
It's also the rationale of someone who believes Kershaw will soon be owed another 20-victory campaign from the fantasy gods thanks to a bevy of hard-luck outings this season.
2012 Stats: 16 HR, 92 RBI, 66 Runs, 1 Steal, .298 BA. .343 OBP
I must be crazy to breathlessly endorse a superstar in his 30s who was just traded from one of baseball's most schizophrenic clubs...because of his large salary and not because he may have tried to lead a players-only coup against Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. (wink-wink)
But that's where we stand with Adrian Gonzalez, traditionally a good bet for 27 homers, 105 RBI and 95 runs when healthy. And as long as Dodgers management spends lavishly on their batting lineup, Gonzo should prosper again in 2013.
Just don't expect any more seasons of 200-plus hits or a .330 batting average. Those memories shall forever remain in Boston.
2012 Stats: 29 HR, 72 RBI, 62 Runs, 5 Steals, .291 BA, .965 OPS
This elite thumbs-up for Giancarlo Stanton comes with a few statistical assumptions heading into the 2013 season:
1. A healthy Stanton will flirt with 45 homers.
2. He'll maintain a .285 batting average, 85 RBI, .900 OPS and log double-digit steals for the first time in his MLB career.
3. Stanton will be so feared at age 23 that we'll be having a conversation about his .385 OBP/.620 slugging next September.
2012 Stats: 27 HR, 70 RBI, 78 Runs, 3 Steals, .307 BA, .918 OPS
Fantasy GMs better not fall asleep on Robinson Cano next March.
Yes, he'll most definitely finish short of his standard, triple-digit output in runs and RBI by season's end. But the numbers, even with that two-category shortfall, are still pretty damn good.
Heading into his age-30 season, there's still time for Cano to notch 30 homers, 105 runs and 110 runs in a single campaign, creating more leverage for a lucrative contract extension within the next 16 months.
2012 Stats: 29 HR, 88 RBI, 72 Runs, 8 Steals, .285 BA, .346 OBP
Do we really need to spend a lot of time justifying Albert Pujols' standing in this countdown?
We're talking about this century's greatest hitter—a good bet for 35 homers and 105 RBI during a slow season. Many hitters would kill for that type of career-nadir production just once. Heck, they'd even settle for Pujols' mediocre-for-him marks with OBP (.348) and OPS (.887).
Bottom line: The days of Pujols ranking as fantasy's No. 1 asset may be gone, but he's still a viable threat to carry your club in 2013.
By extension, a Round 1 pick makes sense.
2012 Stats: 14 HR, 49 RBI, 52 Runs, 5 Steals, .342 BA, 1.069 OPS
Back in mid-July, before Joey Votto would miss many games to a knee injury, the Reds superstar maintained the following rankings amongst first base-eligible assets: first in doubles, batting average, OBP (.469) and slugging (.620) and second in runs and hits. Of equal importance, Votto was the only player at his position to boast an OPS above 1.000 (July 9).
Bottom line: Regardless of how Votto finishes the 2012 season (and postseason, assuming he's healthy enough to play), remember the above information on draft day.
Also, remember the following creed: You can never have enough elite-level corner infielders on a roto roster.
2012 Stats: 36 HR, 112 RBI, 85 Runs, 7 Steals, .292 BA, .941 OPS
It's hard to imagine Josh Hamilton potentially wearing a different MLB uniform next year. Just like it was difficult to fathom the slugger's extreme highs (21 HR, 57 RBI, .360-plus batting in April/May) and head-shaking lows (.177 batting, .253 OBP) for this season.
That aside, Hamilton remains a top-10 fantasy asset for the foreseeable future, regardless of how his plunge into free agency shakes out this winter.
(I'm proud of myself for not referencing Hamilton's nine-homer, 18-RBI explosion from May 7-13—for the 200th time on The Fantasy Blog. Oh wait...nevermind.)
2012 Stats: 17 HR, 54 RBI, 60 Runs, 8 Steals, .337 BA, .404 OBP
I'm willing to extend Matt Kemp a free pass in steals this season given his chronic hamstring issues. But it's also fair to wonder if Kemp has passed the point of no return in his development, where he's far more valuable as a power-focused hitter and defensive anchor in center field.
In other words, upon drafting Kemp (.988 OPS) next March, do it with best-case scenario projections of 35 homers, 110 RBI, 105 runs and .320 batting, but not the 40 steals from 2011.
He'll likely leave the thefts to Dee Gordon.
2012 Stats: 35 HR, 90 RBI, 85 Runs, 20 Steals, .308 BA, .986 OPS
It's been said many times on this blog: Ryan Braun may be fantasyland's safest bet for monster numbers in all five categories (although, that comment may have to be amended to support Mike Trout's big-league impact).
Remember Braun's MVP campaign last season? Well, he's on track to match or eclipse his 2011 numbers in homers, slugging and OPS; and right now, it's still too close to call on the runs, RBI and OBP fronts.
I've always been partial to the No. 3 and 4 slots in 12-team roto drafts, and that's prime territory for landing Braun next March.
2012 Stats: 24 HR, 79 RBI, 90 Runs, 15 Steals, .344 BA, .975 OPS
Andrew McCutchen is having one of the most remarkably balanced seasons of any hitter, morphing from viable All-Star to no-brainer superstar in just one season's time.
But the questions will surely come next spring:
1. Does McCutchen have enough supporting talent to endure a flurry of fruitless at-bats in 2013, courtesy of intentional walks or lackluster pitches?
2. Is he too important on the Pirates' power side to risk stealing 30 bases every season?
3. And does McCutchen have the physical upside to become a regular 30-homer threat?
McCutchen's 2012 splits are absurd: three months of seven-plus homers; three months of 19 or more runs; four seasons of .300-plus hitting, including three 30-day stanzas of .360 or above; three months of an OPS above 1.000; and five months of an on-base percentage above .347.
If that doesn't scream top-three pick in roto drafts...I don't know what does.
2012 Stats: 32 HR, 107 RBI, 84 Runs, 4 Steals, .325 BA, .973 OPS
If only the Angels had suppressed Mike Trout's promotion to the major leagues for another full season, then maybe Miguel Cabrera would rank as the No. 1 asset for 2013.
But there's still plenty to love about Cabrera heading into next season.
With annual averages of 37.2 homers, 113.6 RBI, 97.4 runs and a .322 batting average in five seasons with Detroit—and keep in mind that Miggy has all of September 2012 to hit—Cabrera has evolved into a near-carbon copy of Albert Pujols (in his 20s).
Of similar importance, Cabrera still has room for growth at age 29, meaning that I will be mildly chagrined if Miggy doesn't tally 105 runs or bat .330 next year, when Victor Martinez (season-ending knee injury) returns to the Tigers lineup.
2012 Stats: 25 HR, 74 RBI, 102 Runs, 41 Steals, .339 BA, .401 OBP, .989 OPS
Mike Trout's accomplishments since earning a late-April MLB promotion are the stuff of legend:
1. Of the top-25 steals leaders (through Aug. 30), Trout and Ryan Braun are the only speed demons with slugging rates above .500.
2. For the 30-day window of June 8-July 8, Trout ranked first in runs (31), second in hits (40), 17th in homers (six) and first in steals (17). For good measure, he batted .360 in that time frame.
3. In just 108 games, Trout already ranks first in runs, hits, triples, steals, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS among Angels batters—along with third in homers and RBI.
As a result, the 21-year-old phenom—and runaway Rookie of the Year—is a top-two candidate for American League MVP this season (with Miguel Cabrera).
And for 2013, Trout is the most logical pick to conquer the immortal threshold of 40 homers/40 steals...or maybe even 45/45.