Fantasy Baseball 2014 Preview: Sleepers, Predictions and Position Rankings
Spring is coming. As MLB players report to duty in preparation for the 2014 season, fantasy baseball managers also must begin their training.
The season kicks off early, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks playing in Australia on March 22. That doesn’t leave much time to usher in the season by selecting your fantasy baseball squad.
Perhaps you’re rusty after divulging in football, basketball, hockey, the Winter Olympics or season two of House of Cards. Have no fear, there’s still enough time to get up to speed, and I’m here to help the process.
This extensive guide includes rankings by position, my overall top 50, a team of sleepers not included in any of those rankings and a few other predictions for good measure.
Before we begin, there are a few important notes to mention. All rankings were assembled with a five-by-five rotisserie league in mind; those who play in differing formats should adjust the rankings in order to meet that specific league's format.
Also, for a player to garner eligibility at a certain position, I used 15 games as the parameter. While a player needs just five games to qualify for a certain position in Yahoo formats, ESPN requires 20 games played the previous season and 10 during the current season in order to gain eligibility.
I also took some liberties in not including catchers with first-base eligibility at first base in these rankings; instead, they are ranked as catchers. Nobody is drafting Joe Mauer or Buster Posey to slot at first base. (And if you are, don’t.)
Put down the shovel, cancel your plans, call out sick, hire a sitter or do whatever else necessary to clear your calendar. It’s time to begin preparation for your 2014 fantasy baseball draft.
Unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.
|1||Buster Posey (1B)||Giants|
|2||Joe Mauer (1B)||Twins|
|3||Carlos Santana (1B/3B)||Indians|
|15||A.J. Pierzynski||Red Sox|
- Are you a batting average guy or gal, or is power your cup of tea? Catcher is deep enough in standard mixed leagues, but drafters can't get greedy and expect a five-category superstar behind the plate. Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina are safe bets to hit over .300, but Carlos Santana and Wilin Rosario will knock 20-25 balls out of the park.
- Perhaps your decision is to pass on all the top catchers. Fair enough. Jonathan Lucroy can hit .280, belt 15-20 homers and even swipe a few bags. Salvador Perez is a slightly cheaper model of Mauer and Molina at a significantly cheaper cost, and Matt Wieters exceeds 20 homers on a yearly basis.
- Want to wait even longer? That's cool, too. Evan Gattis hit 21 homers in 105 games last year, and more playing time awaits him with Brian McCann moving to New York. Yan Gomes slugged .481 in limited action last year, convincing the Cleveland Indians to try Santana's glove at third base. That switch bodes well for both of them.
|3||Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays|
|10||Allen Craig (OF)||Cardinals|
|11||Mark Trumbo (OF)||Diamondbacks|
|15||Michael Cuddyer (OF)||Rockies|
- David Ortiz is first-base eligible in Yahoo leagues after playing six games there last season. In that case, slot him between Eric Hosmer and Albert Pujols at No. 8.
- Edwin Encarnacion accumulated more walks (82) than strikeouts (62) in 2013 while enhancing his line-drive rate to 21.6 percent. That all speaks well for a higher batting average to supplement 35-40 homers and a few steals. He deserves more first-round consideration than he's getting.
- Some superstars of yesteryear are trying their best to keep their footing in the rankings. While he's no longer a huge power threat, the new .290 BA/20-HR Adrian Gonzalez is still a safe, steady choice.
- The same can't be said for Albert Pujols, who has seen every facet of his triple-slash line deteriorate in each of the past four seasons. Yet he's still Albert Pujols, so we can't write off another 30-homer, 100-RBI campaign.
- There's a buffet of upside choices after the top 10. In his first taste of regular playing time, Brandon Belt hit .326/.390/.525 after the All-Star break. Anthony Rizzo and Matt Adams can each smash 30 homers, but their struggles against southpaws create a potential roadblock.
|3||Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox|
|5||Matt Carpenter (3B)||Cardinals|
|7||Ben Zobrist (SS/OF)||Rays|
|12||Daniel Murphy (1B)||Mets|
|13||Martin Prado (3B/OF)||Diamondbacks|
|14||Jed Lowrie (SS)||Athletics|
- Matt Carpenter is a legitimate major league player, but his fantasy value won't match his real productivity. Although his average shouldn't dip drastically due to a sterling 27.3 line-drive percentage, his lack of power and speed leaves him too dependent on the BABIP lords to fend off any misfortune.
- Brandon Phillips just drove in 103 runs. He has hit 18 homers in each of the past four seasons. Sounds like a top-tier second baseman, but the warning signs say otherwise. His slash line has shrunken across the board over the past two years, declining to .261/.310/.396 last year. He'll also receive less RBI chances with on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo leaving Cincinnati.
- Jedd Gyorko is an interesting player to project. Given his 22.5 line-drive rate and .321 batting average through the minors, that .249 average has ample room for improvement. It's then a matter of him sustaining that lofty 15.9 HR/FB rate to attain stardom in his sophomore season. Even if he doesn't keep up his 2013 power pace, a .260, 25-homer season will do just fine for a second baseman.
- Daniel Murphy used to be the epitome of a boring fantasy pick whom owners just picked up for two weeks to ride a hot streak or replace an injured player. Then he hit 13 homers, stole 23 bases and scored 92 runs with 78 RBI. Always a strong contact hitter, he'll continue to play every day in front of David Wright in the No. 2 spot, so he only needs 10-12 homers and 12-15 steals to maintain mixed-league relevance.
|7||Matt Carpenter (2B)||Cardinals|
|12||Brett Lawrie||Blue Jays|
- Miguel Cabrera rightfully gets top billing at third, but Adrian Beltre can rule the position with the Detroit slugger switching to first. Since joining the Rangers in 2011, Beltre has hit .312 with 32 homers, 99 RBI and 88 runs per season. His consistency and Choo spawning more run-producing chances makes the veteran a solid choice late in the first round.
- Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Donaldson jousted for a spot in the top five, but Zimmerman's track record narrowly beats out Donaldson's one sensational season. Never known for his power, Donaldson's 24 homers from 2013 represents the ceiling, and his average will likely dip under the .300 line. While health and slow starts are frequently a concern for Zimmerman, he usually finds a way to finish with 25 homers and plenty of counting numbers.
- Whether or not to not draft Pedro Alvarez depends on the rest of your roster. His bloated 30.6 percent career strikeout rate hinders any realistic chances of a decent batting average, but his power is legit. Only Chris Davis and Cabrera hit more long balls than Alvarez last year.
- Our first "best shape of his life" preseason story goes to Pablo Sandoval, who dropped several pounds during the offseason. Tired of all the noise surrounding his weight, he told USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz, "I wanted to show my maturity. The criticism I got made me grow up. It motivated me." His poor conditioning has factored into shorter seasons, so it's a note worth stashing in your mental database on draft day.
|4||Jose Reyes||Blue Jays|
|8||Ben Zobrist (2B/OF)||Rays|
|10||Jed Lowrie (SS)||Athletics|
|14||Alexei Ramirez||White Sox|
|15||Xander Bogaerts||Red Sox|
- Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki are two of the riskiest early-round options, but big bats are hard to find at shortstop. At this point, a full season from Tulowitzki is a pipe dream, but a motivated Ramirez can eradicate his lackadaisical results from 2011 and 2012 and return to offering first-round production.
- The times are changing, as the three men ranked behind Jose Reyes are all better stolen-base threats. If he can revive his success before serving his 50-game Biogenesis suspension, Everth Cabrera could finish as the best choice among the trio. He swiped 37 bags in 95 games while hitting a career-high .283 due to a sliced strikeout rate.
- Jed Lowrie ranked among the top-five shortstops in all sorts of good stats such as slugging percentage, weighted on-base percentage and weighted runs created. Before saying that doesn't matter in a basic fantasy league, those skills helped him place second with 80 runs and fourth with 75 RBI.
- Fellow top prospect Jurickson Profar could have just as easy occupied the final spot, but Xander Bogaerts' immense power upside gives him the slight edge. His plate disciplined in a brief taste of MLB action also bodes well for the 21-year-old's readiness.
Outfield (No. 1-20)
|13||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays|
- How much did PEDs help Ryan Braun flex his muscles as a premier fantasy star? He's a .312 hitter who regularly offered 30 homers and occasionally as many steals, so I'm not letting him fall too far down the rankings.
- Adam Jones hit .285 with 33 homers, 108 RBI, 100 runs and 14 steals last year. It can't be considered much of a fluke since it's nearly identical to him batting .287 with 32 homers and 16 steals during 2012. Yet I just can't find the strength to place a guy with a .318 on-base percentage any higher.
- Jay Bruce is hardly an on-base fiend either, but there are few safer sources of 30-plus deep flies in baseball. Missing only 14 games in three years adds to his consistency bonus.
- Speaking of consistent performers, Matt Holliday never receives the respect he deserves. He's a career .311 hitter who has belted at least 22 homers in eight consecutive seasons with bountiful counting numbers to boot in St. Louis' loaded lineup.
Outfield (No. 21-40)
|22||Allen Craig (1B)||Cardinals|
|24||Mark Trumbo (1B)||Diamondbacks|
|25||Shane Victorino||Red Sox|
|31||Ben Zobrist (2B/SS)||Rays|
|37||Michael Cuddyer (1B)||Rockies|
|39||Brandon Moss (1B)||Athletics|
- Before assuming Yoenis Cespedes will rebound from a shaky 2013, his strikeout rate soared to 23.9 percent while his walk rate dwindled to 6.4 percent. He also converted just half of his stolen base attempts (7-of-14), and the book on the Oakland Athletics is they don't tolerate forfeiting outs on the bases. That's not just an expression; remember Moneyball?
- Some positive news on the injury front could spring Matt Kemp up the rankings before April. But in the beginning of February, the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez wrote that the former MVP "might not be ready to play on Opening Day." Proceed with caution for now.
- Billy Hamilton could steal 90 bases and win the category by his lonesome. Billy Hamilton could hit .215 and lose his starting job by May. It's the definition of a risk-reward pick for bold drafters.
- Two old goodies in Coco Crisp and Alfonso Soriano rank side by side. Per ESPN's Home Run Tracker, Crisp's average home-run distance of 368.9 feet was the shortest among anyone with at least 18 homers. Expect his 22 dingers to revert closer to the mean, but he can amend that loss with more steals. As for Soriano, he has averaged 30 homers per season since 2011. Cheap power is cool.
Starting Pitcher (No. 1-20)
|8||Chris Sale||White Sox|
- Only two starting pitchers amassed at least nine strikeouts and less than two walks per nine innings. One of them, Matt Harvey, will sit out the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The other, Chris Sale, dealt with terrible luck in the win column that could discourage novice drafters.
- The Detroit News' Tom Gage reported that Justin Verlander has thrown three sessions without pain, boding well for a successful recovery from offseason surgery. While he endured some rough patches during the 2013 season, he came to life in September and October and finished the regular season with a 3.28 FIP.
- MLB.com's Todd Zolecki sent Cole Hamels' value into a tailspin with news of left shoulder tendinitis possibly delaying the ace's season debut. He shouldn't plummet down the rankings if he'll only miss one or two starts, so continue to monitor his status.
- After the All-Star break, rookie Gerrit Cole posted a 2.85 ERA, 8.92 K/9 ratio and 2.26 BB/9 rate. With a 2.91 FIP and a fastball that registers in the high 90s, Cole is the leading candidate to become this year's Harvey.
Starting Pitcher (No. 21-40)
- Count me among those expecting big things from Alex Cobb. A freak injury limited his breakout season to 143.1 innings, but his 2.76 ERA, 8.41 strikeouts and 2.83 walks per nine innings still point to ace potential within the 26-year-old.
- The slow burn of A.J. Burnett's signing decision took him from the limelight, but he notched a 2.80 FIP and 209 strikeouts last season. While playing in Philadelphia doesn't help his fantasy value, at least he did not expose himself to the American League East again by signing with Baltimore.
- There's a whole bunch of upside occupying this portion of the rankings. Michael Wacha receives the most attention of the young hurlers due to his sensational postseason, but Danny Salazar and Sonny Gray are not far behind. It wouldn't be surprising if anyone from that trio finishes among the top-20 starters.
- With apologies to Cincinnati Reds fans, Tony Cingrani and Johnny Cueto just missed the cut at No. 41 and 42, respectively. For Cingrani, his 3.70 BB/9 rate, .241 BABIP and low ground-ball rate were enough to keep him off the list despite his 120 strikeouts through 104.2 innings. Cueto's high FIP is going to catch up to his ERA one of these years.
|5||Koji Uehara||Red Sox|
|14||Casey Janssen||Blue Jays|
- Anyone willing to pay top dollar for a closer will certainly have several studs to choose from. Kenley Jansen's improved control makes him Craig Kimbrel's biggest threat to the throne, but Trevor Rosenthal should also flourish in his move to the ninth inning. Despite a bloated .341 BABIP, he recorded a 2.63 ERA on the strength of a 12.90 K/9 rate. A lower BABIP should help him peer closer to his 1.91 FIP.
- The most underrated elite closer, Glen Perkins will not cost an arm and a leg despite his 2.30 ERA and 5.13 K/BB ratio. That's enough to rank him over Joe Nathan, whose 3.06 BB/9 rate, .224 BABIP and 3.0 percent HR/FB ratio suggest a course correction in 2014.
- Over the last three years, Casey Janssen has registered a 2.46 ERA, 170 strikeouts and 38 walks through 172 innings. He's the perfect unheralded closer for those in no rush to pay for saves.
Overall (No. 1-25)
|12||Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays|
- Trout or Cabrera? Barring an injury, there’s no loser in this argument. Both are absolute studs, but Trout gets the nod because he is eight years younger and 800 times faster.
- Robinson Cano has lost his first-round status in the eyes of many experts, but I’m not stripping him of his top-10 spot. Worried about him struggling away from Yankee Stadium? He holds a career .503 slugging percentage on the road, slightly below his .507 home clip. About that decreased lineup protection, the Yankees outscored the Mariners by 26 runs, and that’s because they had Cano.
- When should drafters start looking Clayton Kershaw’s way? It’s hard to shun the ace due to higher risk when he has started at least 30 games in each of the last five years. I’m typically opposed to taking a pitcher so early, but Kershaw carries less downside than Ramirez, Braun, Ellsbury, Tulowitzki and every other hitter looking to sneak past him.
- Several experts tout Bryce Harper as a first-round player on FantasyPros, but that’s a big leap for a 21-year-old who hit .274 last year and missed 42 games due to his extreme aggressiveness. He should take another step forward to realizing his star upside, but be careful not to reach too high in re-draft leagues.
Overall (No. 26-50)
|30||Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox|
|33||Chris Sale||White Sox|
|40||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays|
|43||Jose Reyes||Blue Jays|
- You shouldn’t want Max Scherzer for his 21-3 record. You should be weary of his 2.90 ERA and 0.97 WHIP regressing when his .259 BABIP increases and his 7.6 HR/FB rate returns closer to his 10.4 percent career norm. But you should stick around for the nasty strikeout totals.
- Yasiel Puig’s impatience will lead to a sub-.300 batting average when that unreasonably high .383 BABIP falls down to earth. How he swung that mark with half his batted balls going for grounders is a mystery. Luckily for the dynamic Cuban star, he could easily deliver a 25/15 season with the potential for more.
- Justin Upton’s career trajectory has taken a step backward. Instead of realizing his ceiling as a top-five player, his average continues to drop as his strikeout rate continues to climb. After ending a quarter of his plate appearances in punchouts, he hit a career-low .263 while halting his efforts swiping bases. This ranking may seem low, but it’s actually giving him the benefit of the doubt.
|3B||Will Middlebrooks||Red Sox|
|OF||Adam Eaton||White Sox|
- I’m hunting for under-the-radar power with all but one of these infield selections. Devin Mesoraco will finally get the starting nod in Cincinnati and is worth the gamble in two-catcher formats. Returning after missing a full season due to knee surgery, Corey Hart will look to remind everyone that he crushed 30 homers in 2012.
- Kelly Johnson should utilize Yankee Stadium’s short porch well, and Will Middlebrooks hit .276 with eight homers in 145 at-bats upon reemerging from his demotion.
- Miss out on all the top speedy shortstops? Jonathan Villar stole 18 bases for the Astros in just 58 games to close out 2013 after swiping 31 bags in Triple-A. He is also likely to provide an eyesore at batting average, but it could come with 40 steals and a few homers at a shallow position.
- By the time most drafts roll along, Khris Davis and Kole Calhoun won’t at all resemble sleepers. They’re each becoming supremely popular targets, for good reason. Khris nearly matched Chris Davis’ power in a short sample size, slugging .596 with 11 homers in 56 games. According to the Orange County Register’s Jeff Fletcher, Calhoun “seems to be the most obvious candidate” to precede Trout on top of the Angels’ batting order. His .347 on-base percentage would help him score several runs, and he also could toss in 15-20 homers and 10 steals.
- When targeting sleeper pitchers, I’m looking at starters with a good mix of command and strikeout stuff and a FIP that underscores less attractive surface numbers. With a 8.31 K/9 ratio, 2.02 BB/9 rate and 3.30 FIP, Corey Kluber meets all the criteria.
- Scott Kazmir also revitalized his career with 162 strikeouts, 47 walks and a 3.51 FIP through 158 innings. Rick Porcello should enjoy an improved Detroit defense after tallying a 4.32 ERA despite a 3.53 FIP.
- Yes, the Miami Marlins are a bad team. No, that does not prohibit Steve Cishek from saving games. He earned 34 saves last year while producing a 2.33 ERA and 74 strikeouts through 69.2 innings. Walks hampered him in the past, but he lessened those concerns with 22 free passes, giving him a career-best 2.84 BB/9 rate. Let other drafters run away from closers on bad teams and snatch up Cishek at a bargain
As a parting gift, here are some predictions regarding some players I’ve yet to cover in this preview.
Matt Moore Will Disappoint Drafters
Matt Moore is valued way too high right now. ESPN ranks him as the No. 33-overall starting pitcher, but he should consider himself lucky to crack the top 50.
I get it. A 3.29 ERA, a bunch of strikeouts and 17 wins is impressive. First off, shame on you for looking at wins. (I know, I was the one that brought it up, but still.) As for the ERA, a .259 BABIP helped him combat his 3.95 FIP.
His 8.56 K/9 rate is cool, but it comes at the price of terrible control. Simply put, his 4.55 BB/9 rate is too darn high to ensure sustained success.
The lefty is still 24, so perhaps he will show real improvement and flourish the right way. Until that occurs, however, stay away.
Derek Jeter: Draft-Day Bargain?
In the final season of his 20-year career, Derek Jeter could be an overlooked fantasy option for the first time.
Unfortunately for the future Hall of Famer, intangibles and attractive female companions aren’t categories in fantasy baseball. (This is where many cruel people would make a joke about fantasy managers participating because of a lacking love life, but you’re this far into a lengthy fantasy preview.)
After recording 12 hits (10 singles) in 17 games last season, even his most loyal supporters are looking for new players in which to attach their allegiance. If he costs next to nothing, Jeter actually justifies the latest of picks.
Just two years ago, "The Captain" hit .316 with 15 homers, 99 runs and nine steals. If he plays most of the time, hits near .300 at the top of the order—Joe Girardi won’t have the guts to stick him down the lineup during his farewell tour—and can scrape together 10 homers this year, he’ll be a steal.
Fallen Aces Won't Get Back Up
Drafters unwilling to pony up for an ace will look at the array of intriguing options waiting in the later rounds, particularly several former aces looking to rebound.
Memories of better times will compel owners to instill their faith in a comeback, but don’t be surprised if there’s little left in the tank.
CC Sabathia lost substantial weight during the offseason, but he’s still a 33-year-old who lost velocity and strikeouts last season, leading his offerings to get treated like a pinata to close out 2013. He’ll lower that 4.78 ERA, but a 3.78 ERA and 175 strikeouts doesn’t separate himself from the hoard of alluring arms.
It’s also time to accept that Cy Young-winner Tim Lincecum is no longer with us. Over the past two years, his average fastball velocity has dipped to slightly above 90 mph, and his line-drive rates have soared as a result. Throw in control issues, and drafters should be careful not to overextend for Lincecum because of name recognition.
Yovani Gallardo absorbed all his fantasy value from strikeouts, and those evaporated last season. Even when he posted a 3.09 ERA after the All-Star break, he tallied an uninspiring 53 strikeouts through 67 innings.
None of these guys are bad picks at the right price, but don’t let their past success steer you to reach too high for them.
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