With MLB spring training set to start in a couple of weeks, it also signals the beginning of a new fantasy baseball season. Drafting is always one of best parts about fantasy (besides winning your championship, of course) and there's plenty of research to be done before you get ready to dominate your fellow owners.
While there are still a few marquee free agents available like Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz and Stephen Drew, we have a good feel for the MLB landscape heading into 2014. It's never too soon to take a look at fantasy baseball player rankings, so here's an early peek at the top talents around the league for this season.
Baseball provides fantasy baseball players with a couple of different scenarios for leagues. While rotisserie-style leagues are still going strong more than 30 years after their inception in a New York restaurant, points-based leagues are also very popular in the world of fantasy baseball.
When drafting for roto leagues, balance is essential. Statistics like stolen bases and saves are just as important as home runs or ERA, which comes into play especially during the mid- to late rounds of the draft. Once they get past the top level of talent, owners will have to weigh which categories they want to address and when.
Does your roster need home runs from a Mark Trumbo type, or does it need more steals from a speedster like Billy Hamilton? It's also important not to go overboard on the same statistic while trying to craft a well-rounded roster. Drafting to fill category needs is often just as important as selecting players based by position.
In points leagues, it's key for owners to look at the assessed values for each statistical category. If your league weighs home runs and RBI heavy and doesn't penalize much for strikeouts, for example, you would logically target power hitters at the expense of other categories. It's really a case-by-case basis when it comes to points leagues, but it always helps to try to find categories to take advantage of.
Regardless of the format of the league, roto or points, it's clear that positional players carry more weight than their pitching counterparts. Heading into 2014, baseball's best hurler Clayton Kershaw, is the only pitcher to consistently be regarded among the top 10 overall players in the draft.
Baseball is more specialized than any other major fantasy sport in that there are so many positions to fill. It's also key to note the depth across the league at any given spot. While solid-hitting shortstops are rare in today's game, it likely won't be hard to find a productive first baseman later in the draft.
With those things in mind, here's a look at the top 25 overall fantasy targets for 2014, followed with position-by-position breakdowns of the top players and sleepers around the diamond.
|2014 Fantasy Baseball Top 25|
|Alex Espinoza's Rankings|
When it comes to fantasy baseball, Mike Trout is the most complete player an owner can ask for. He hits for power and average, drives in runs and also is a major threat to steal bases. He's a five-tool talent in reality, and the same goes for fantasy.
Kershaw is poised for another dominant season so he checks in at No. 5 on my list, behind the top four MVP finalists and ahead of Robinson Cano, whose production should dip a bit with a questionable Seattle Mariners lineup.
If he stays healthy, Hanley Ramirez can be a top-three player along with Trout and Miguel Cabrera, but his recent history of injuries makes him a high-risk, high-reward draft pick in the first round. Meanwhile in Texas, Prince Fielder should have a monster campaign in a high-octane Rangers lineup, vaulting him into my top 10.
|Top 5 Catchers for 2014|
This year's crop of hitting catchers is pretty deep and features a solid mix of proven veterans like Buster Posey and Yadier Molina along with rising stars like Wilin Rosario. Quietly, Rosario has become one of the top slugging catchers in the game for the Colorado Rockies the past couple of years, and at an Opening Day age of 25, the best might be to come.
Carlos Santana remains in his prime for the Cleveland Indians, and I expect big things from Brian McCann in his first year with the short right-field fence at Yankee Stadium.
Sleeper: Dioner Navarro, Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays potentially pulled off one of the bargains of winter by signing Dioner Navarro to a two-year, $8 million contract. That's a club-friendly deal for a starting catcher who showed a lot of promise as a Chicago Cubs backup in 2013, batting .300/.365/.492 with 13 homers and 34 RBI in 89 contests.
|Top 5 First Basemen for 2014|
As far as sluggers go, first base is a deep position with some big bats like Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto and Chris Davis leading the way.
Prince Fielder had a bit of a down year by his standards in 2013, but playing in a hitter-friendly home ballpark with the Texas Rangers and in a potent lineup with table-setters like Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus should lead to a huge campaign in 2014.
Rounding out the top five is Edwin Encarnacion, who has been one of the best raw power hitters in baseball the past couple of years while playing north of the border for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sleeper: Brandon Moss, Oakland Athletics
A's manager Bob Melvin likes to trot out a bunch of different lineups, making Brandon Moss something of a platoon man with right-handed Nate Freiman at first base. But Moss has seen plenty of time in the outfield in recent years as the A's have dealt with injuries to Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick.
Moss managed to make 505 plate appearances in 145 games, probably becoming baseball's most anonymous 30-home run hitter in the process. The 30-year-old finished the year with a .256/.337/.522 slash line in 2013, along with 30 homers, 87 RBI and a 139 OPS+.
|Top 5 Second Basemen for 2014|
Cano's numbers figure to drop slightly now that he's leaving the Bronx and going to Seattle, where he doesn't have much of a supporting cast. Still, he's in his prime and one of the best hitters in baseball, and it's a bonus that he plays second base.
Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler are two steady veterans who can be counted on for solid campaigns in 2014, but Jason Kipnis might have the most upside of them all.
Matt Carpenter is also a very valuable pick since he will likely earn third base eligibility early in the season as Kolten Wong takes over at second base for the St. Louis Cardinals, following the offseason trade of David Freese.
Sleeper: Kelly Johnson, New York Yankees
Kelly Johnson has eligibility as a second baseman but might end up as New York's everyday third baseman now that Alex Rodriguez has been suspended. Along with his outfield eligibility, Johnson's position flexibility makes him an attractive buy-low candidate.
In 118 games as a utility man for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013, Johnson batted .235/.305/.410 with 16 homers and 52 RBI. Don't expect a high average from Johnson, but he can provide some pop at a discount price.
|Top 5 Shortstops for 2014|
Shortstop appears to be the thinnest group when it comes to position player depth, so draft accordingly.
Ramirez has big injury concerns but showed last year that he still has unique abilities with the bat playing in the middle of the stacked Dodgers lineup. Ian Desmond is elevating himself into the game's elite along with Troy Tulowitzki, who is still one of the best all-around players in the game.
Jose Reyes made it to No. 4 based on potential, even though the past couple seasons in Toronto haven't been as productive as expected. Jed Lowrie finally put together a full season for the A's in 2013 and barely edged out J.J. Hardy for the fifth spot on this list because he's a more well-rounded hitter.
Sleeper: Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians
Asdrubal Cabrera has maintained a low profile in Cleveland the past few years, but has shown plenty of pop in his bat since his career year in 2011. This past year, Cabrera batted .242/.299/.402 with 14 HR, 64 RBI and nine stolen bases. But he's a career .273 hitter in six-plus MLB seasons, and he should be available later in the draft.
|Top 5 Third Basemen for 2014|
This year's crop of third basemen is a top-heavy group that features a few elite sluggers and then a significant drop-off.
It will be interesting to see how Miguel Cabrera fares without Fielder in the Detroit Tigers lineup, but expect another monster year from Miggy regardless. Adrian Beltre should benefit from Fielder's presence in the Texas order along with the addition of Choo.
You know all about Evan Longoria and David Wright, with the New York Mets third baseman poised to get some help from Curtis Granderson this year. Consistent Ryan Zimmerman gets the nod over 2013 surprise Josh Donaldson, who needs to prove he can post big numbers again for the A's.
Sleeper: Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox
This is something of a feast-or-famine pick at sleeper for third base.
If you pick up Will Middlebrooks late in your draft and he looks like his 2012 self (.288/.325/.509, 15 HR, 54 RBI in 75 games), you might look like a genius. But if he struggles like he did throughout 2013 (.227/.271/.425, 17 homers, 49 RBI), including a bad playoff run when he essentially disappeared from the lineup, Middlebrooks won't be worth a spot on your roster.
|Top 10 Outfielders for 2014|
There are a host a great players to be had in the outfield, highlighted by Trout.
What makes a lot of these top outfielders special is their ability to contribute solid stats across the board, something that should be noted when drafting in roto leagues. Along with Trout, 2014 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Adam Jones and Jacoby Ellsbury highlight this crop of versatile talents.
A dark cloud hovers over Ryan Braun after last year's PED-related suspension, but he has been one of baseball's best hitters since the start of his career. Choo hit all 21 of his homers last year against right-handers, which is concerning, but Texas' lineup looks so deadly that he should still be a solid contributor in a lot of categories.
Of all the talented Dodgers outfielders, I think Matt Kemp is capable of the biggest year if he can stay healthy. Rounding out the top 10 are two young talented sluggers who still have room to improve in Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper.
Sleeper: Oscar Taveras, St. Louis Cardinals
With a big spring training, top prospect Oscar Taveras could claim a starting job in the St. Louis Cardinals outfield.
The 21-year-old suffered an ankle injury that limited him to 47 Triple-A contests in 2013, but showed immense potential during his last full season in 2012. In 124 contests at Double-A that year, Taveras batted .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers, 94 RBI and 10 stolen bases.
If Taveras can show the St. Louis brass that he's ready for duty, he would be an intriguing addition to an already potent Cardinals lineup. Maybe he can do the same for your fantasy team.
|Top 10 Starting Pitchers for 2014|
When wins are such a big part of fantasy baseball, luck can play a big part in the value of a pitcher.
Still, there are plenty of safe bets you can focus on once pitchers start getting taken off the board. Early on in the draft you'll likely have to weigh the quality of a starter to the need of a position player, key decisions that will lead to the makeup of your team.
Kershaw figures to be the top pitcher taken in every fantasy league this year (hometown biases not withstanding), while the rest is open for debate. Yu Darvish led all MLB pitchers with 277 strikeouts in 2013, and he figures to have plenty of run support with the Rangers this year that could drive up his win total.
When talking about upside, Miami Marlins righty Jose Fernandez might have the most of any player in baseball. He burst on to the scene in his rookie year and will be just 21 years old on Opening Day, with some of the nastiest stuff in baseball.
You know all about Detroit's duo of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, while Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and Cliff Lee are all reliable veterans you can count on. In Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale you have two of the top young pitchers in the game who are capable of even better numbers in 2014.
Sleeper: Martin Perez, Texas Rangers
Like every other pitcher on the Texas staff, lefty Martin Perez figures to benefit greatly from the revamped lineup that will feature the high-profile additions of Fielder and Choo.
Perez might not be a household name, but he was a solid force in 20 starts for the Rangers in 2013 behind Darvish and Derek Holland. The 22-year-old wrapped up his rookie year with a 10-6 record and a 3.62 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.34 WHIP and 84 strikeouts in 124.1 innings pitched. Though his strikeout rate and WHIP leave something to be desired, Perez can still be a valuable addition to your staff.
|Top 5 Relievers for 2014|
Aroldis Chapman lights up the radar gun, and he's also registered 38 saves in each of the past two seasons while posting big strikeout totals.
Since he plays for Kansas City, Greg Holland isn't a household name, but he ranks up there with the best closers MLB has to offer. Kenley Jansen has been a dominant force for the back end of the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen, while Koji Uehara's minuscule WHIP from 2013 is still hard to believe.
Sleeper: Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Staying with Texas for pitching sleepers, Neftali Feliz is a prime candidate to take over the closer role after Joe Nathan left for Detroit via free agency.
Even though he's just 25 years old, Feliz has been through quite a bit already in his career. The hard-throwing righty converted 72 saves and posted a 2.73 ERA during the 2010-11 seasons before being moved to the rotation in 2012. He eventually suffered an injury that required Tommy John surgery, but returned at the end of last year to make six appearances.
If Feliz can recapture his form, he should have plenty of saves while closing out games for the Rangers.