Fantasy Baseball: Top 10 High-Risk/High-Reward Players for 2014

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2014

Fantasy Baseball: Top 10 High-Risk/High-Reward Players for 2014

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    The sky is the limit for Matt Kemp, if he can stay healthy.
    The sky is the limit for Matt Kemp, if he can stay healthy.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Fortune favors the bold fantasy baseball players looking to seize control of their league.

    Drafters can play it safe and fill their squad with dependable veterans, but where’s the fun in that? By taking average players, you’ll finish in the middle of the league’s standings. And when some “sure things” inevitably crumble, you’ll feel all the more crushed.

    Based on Las Vegas’ popularity, people are drawn to taking chances. Sure, I just lost $200 playing slots the casino configured to contain odds leaning in its favor, but what if I hit the jackpot on the next spin?

    Hopefully your fantasy baseball risks involve more thought and calculation. If you research and pick your spots carefully, a bold maneuver could make the difference between glory and gloom.

    On one hand, these guys could leave you downtrodden and wondering what spurred you to make such a stupid selection. As someone who took Matt Kemp in the opening round last year, I can attest to that lonely feeling.

    Or bright lights and loud noises can fill the air as you celebrate winning the jackpot.

    Inclusion on this list is not an endorsement, nor is it a plea to run for the hills. These guys could help win your league, but they can also cause your demise. Approach with caution, but don’t ignore them if the price is right.

     

    Note: All advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.

Honorable Mentions

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    Troy Tulowitzki is an injury waiting to happen.
    Troy Tulowitzki is an injury waiting to happen.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies

    Too easy. At this point, it’s not a risk as much as an accepted stipulation Troy Tulowitzki will spend some time on the disabled list. The reward, however, comes when he shines as baseball's best shortstop when he graces us with his presence. 

     

    Cole Hamels, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

    Cole Hamels has tossed at least 200 innings in each of the past four years, but the streak could end due to the ace's shoulder tendinitis that may force him to delay his 2014 debut.

    He was a prime candidate to rebound after catching some unfortunate breaks (eight wins, a 3.60 ERA compared to his 3.26 FIP) in 2013, but his arm issues add another area of concern.

     

    Closers

    Wacky things can happen when dealing with small sample sizes. It only takes a few rough outings to ruin a relief pitcher's stats.

10. Michael Wacha, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Michael Wacha isn't going to sneak up on anyone after his sensational postseason.
    Michael Wacha isn't going to sneak up on anyone after his sensational postseason.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    It’s safe to say everyone knows about Michael Wacha now.

    The 22-year-old hurler dismantled his sleeper potential by tossing gems in his first four postseason starts. By shining on a nationwide stage, Wacha became a household name that savvy drafters could no longer store in their back pocket for the later rounds.

    Including his playoff starts, Wacha recorded a 2.74 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 98 strikeouts through 95.1 innings. Even without the October success, he garnered attention by nearly throwing a no-hitter to conclude the regular season.

    So what’s the problem? We’re catapulting him to stardom on a limited sample size.

    Wacha clocked some innings in the bullpen during the season. As a starter, he registered a 7.67 K/9 ratio through 54 innings, which is on par with his 7.73 rate in 85 Triple-A frames. Expecting him to strike out a batter per inning in 2014 is probably unreasonable.

    Then there are fears of hitters adjusting and his arm holding up after working 180.1 innings in his first full professional season. The major default rankings take these risks into account while balancing his ace upside, but there’s bound to be somebody in your league who ignores the possible pitfalls.

    Drafters can also use Wacha as an amalgam for all young hot shots, especially pitchers. Danny Salazar, Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole and Tony Cingrani (all but Cole are cheaper choices) are all risky picks filtered with immense upside who should be considered high-risk/high-reward plays.

9. Josh Hamilton, OF, Los Angeles Angels

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    Josh Hamilton lost his power stroke with the Los Angeles Angels last season.
    Josh Hamilton lost his power stroke with the Los Angeles Angels last season.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Josh Hamilton possesses a special knack of transforming from world-beating monster to below-replacement hitter who couldn’t make contact with a ball resting on a tee. Last year, however, the great Hamilton never showed up.

    In his first season with the Los Angeles Angels, every skeptic’s worst worries surfaced. The strikeouts caught up to him, dwindling his average to a career-low .250.

    No longer playing half his games in Arlington, he slugged .432 with 21 home runs, hitting .236/.289/.401 in his new, pitcher-friendly home.

    To be fair, the guy who batted .177 in July of 2012 didn’t materialize either. While he disappointed drafters expecting the .300, 35-homer version of Hamilton, he was still a semi-useful player.

    While Hamilton consistently performs in spells of erratic streaks, his overall downside is more manageable than others on this list.

    He has missed time before, but not significantly during the past two years. Another .250, 20-homer season denotes the worst-case scenario for a healthy Hamilton, but the ceiling remains much higher.

    His batted-ball rates didn’t change much from career standards; his 22.2 line-drive percentage actually set a new personal best by a slight margin. Despite his ugly strikeout tendencies, he has maintained a .295 career average and a .330 BABIP.

    If his .303 BABIP from 2013 deviates closer to the mean, his average should also improve, even if he’s now a .275 hitter instead of a .300 one.

    This is the same man who entered the 2012 All-Star break with 27 homers and 75 RBI. The same dude who batted .410 with 22 homers from May to July of 2010. When he finds his touch, Hamilton is virtually unstoppable.

8. Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds

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    Billy Hamilton could steal some lucky drafters a fantasy title. See what I did there?
    Billy Hamilton could steal some lucky drafters a fantasy title. See what I did there?Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Young, unproven, one-dimensional players are typically not wise ventures, but what if one could single-handedly carry a category for your squad?

    Billy Hamilton notched a .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A last year. He hit 13 home runs through 502 career minor league games. Don’t get fooled by his .368/.429/.474 slash line during a super-slim sample size of 22 MLB plate appearances.

    Speed is his meal ticket, one that will fully stuff drafters if he can reach base. He swiped 13 bags in last year’s September call-up, finishing the season with a total of 88 steals. That marked a huge drop from the 165 bases he stole in 2012.

    Last year, Jacoby Ellsbury led the majors with 52 steals, making him the only MLB player to exceed 50 and one of seven players with at least 40 steals. Hamilton could fall short of expectations and still finish first in his specialty.

    He’s fast enough to steal 60 to 70 bases with ease, but getting on first is the concern. Not only must he reach the basepaths to pile up the steals, but he must exhibit enough plate skills to maintain his starting job.

    Fantasy owners would gladly take a .245 hitter if he came with 65 steals, but will the Cincinnati Reds take that with a .300 on-base percentage and no power?

    There’s no power hitter with the potential to put your team halfway to a first-place finish in homers by his lonesome. Even Yu Darvish won’t guarantee a fantasy team strikeout success without complementary pieces. If Hamilton pans out to his full potential, there’s no need to chase any other flawed speedsters.

7. Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees

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    Nobody knows how Masahiro Tanaka's success will translate to MLB.
    Nobody knows how Masahiro Tanaka's success will translate to MLB.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Masahiro Tanaka is the fantasy equivalent of an unopened pack of trading cards or those tiny helmets from vending machines in a supermarket entrance. You’re hoping you get something good, but there’s no way to be sure.

    Yes, Tanaka posted an incredible 1.27 ERA in Japan last season, but that level of competition is believed to fall in between Triple-A and MLB. He’s not replicating that number for the New York Yankees.

    Even Brian Cashman, the man who signed off on giving Tanaka $155 million, tried to moderate expectations of his new acquisition. He kept the bar low during an appearance on ESPN Radio’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd (via ESPN New York’s Andrew Marchand):

    We view him to be a really solid, consistent No. 3 starter. If we get more than that, all the better. He's got a great deal of ability.

    There is definitely some unknown because of the transition. We scouted him extensively. Certainly, we look forward to adding him into the mix with the rest of our rotation. That's what we look at him as: A solid, potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues.

    That’s not to say he can’t succeed in the U.S. His split-finger is a vital weapon, and his control should help him post a low WHIP. However, it’s hard to tell whether he can deliver ace numbers or simply realize Cashman’s mild goal as a solid starter.

    Oliver projects him to register a 2.59 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, but Steamer foresees a 3.71 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and subdued 7.32 K/9 ratio (h/t FanGraphs). One path pushes him to Cy Young contention, but the other projects a pitcher who would struggle to finish among the top 50 fantasy hurlers.

    Unlike those souvenir helmets that come out of a rusty plastic case, Tanaka will cost more than a quarter or two to obtain. Drafters would be wise to adapt Cashman's mentality and limit their hopes.

6. Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels

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    Formerly a consensus No. 1 pick, Albert Pujols now must fight to remain a starting first baseman in standard mixed leagues.
    Formerly a consensus No. 1 pick, Albert Pujols now must fight to remain a starting first baseman in standard mixed leagues.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Nobody can deny that Albert Pujols’ career is on the downswing.

    Despite what the Angels would prefer everyone believe, his regression did not pop out from nowhere. His batting average and on-base percentage have dropped in each of the past five years while his slugging percentage, home runs, runs scored and stolen bases have suffered the same fate four years running.

    In the former MVP’s latest step backward, he hit .258/.330/.437 in 2013, missing the final two months due to a foot injury. Because he’s Albert Pujols, he won’t plummet too far down the rankings.

    As a perennial top pick during the past decade, drafters may struggle to pass on Pujols in the fourth round. It would be the lowest he’s been picked since his rookie season, but is he still going too high?

    While Pujols’ skills waned again last year, he still could have delivered 25 homers and 90 to 95 RBI in a full season. Somebody has to drive Mike Trout home.

    His .285 average from 2012 set a career low before he lowered it with a .258 clip last year, but the stark difference should prevent another decline. If he can hit .265 with 25 to 30 homers and a handful of RBI, he’ll derive enough fantasy value.

    That’s a realistic prediction for a healthy Pujols, even if he’s 34 and getting worse by the year. The future Hall of Famer could still shock the world and rise back to stardom in 2014.

5. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins

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    Giancarlo Stanton's power keeps him on top of the outfielder's ranking despite his health concerns and weak supporting cast.
    Giancarlo Stanton's power keeps him on top of the outfielder's ranking despite his health concerns and weak supporting cast.Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Is it possible we’re all chasing a 50-homer unicorn in Giancarlo Stanton?

    When somebody notches a .608 slugging percentage, the fantasy baseball universe collectively goes bonkers. In 2012, Stanton needed just 501 plate appearances to crush 37 homers, vaulting him into first-round status for upcoming drafts.

    Managers who chased the power were left with an underwhelming 24 homers—not to mention his .249 batting average, 62 runs and five weeks missed due to a sprained hamstring.

    Considering his 28.6 career strikeout rate, that .290 average from 2012 was a fluke. If he hits .275 this year, you’re happy. If he hits .260, that’s fine.

    Unfortunately, the Miami Marlins offense stinks. They ranked last in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs and home runs, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia isn’t revolutionizing the feeble lineup. Still, Stanton should get enough counting numbers if he does his part.

    After missing around a quarter of the last two seasons, owners have to fear a lengthy trip to the disabled list, which nobody wants from an early draft pick.

    So why stick around? The power. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he hits 35 homers, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he produced 45 deep flies. That would make him a steal in the third round.

4. Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers

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    Justin Verlander has endured a heavy workload over the last few years.
    Justin Verlander has endured a heavy workload over the last few years.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Justin Verlander taught fantasy baseball gamers an important lesson last season: There’s no such thing as a sure bet, especially with pitchers.

    The 31-year-old ace has started at least 30 games in all eight of his major league seasons. In the past seven, he has logged at least 200 innings.

    As far as meltdowns go, Verlander’s rates incredibly low on the disaster scale. He still took the ball every fifth game and finished the season with a 3.28 FIP and 217 strikeouts. So what’s the problem?

    Due to an increased 3.09 BB/9 rate and midseason struggles, he left owners with an uninspiring 1.31 WHIP. The 13 wins also served as a useful reminder that even a workhorse pitching behind a star-studded offense is not immune to the category’s fickleness.

    But bad luck is not all to blame for the down stretch. A year after tallying 267 innings (including the postseason), his average fastball velocity declined a full mile per hour. Is Verlander finally wearing down?

    News of an offseason core muscle surgery naturally strengthens those fears. Despite his encouraging progress, his ample mileage incites nightmarish memories of fellow Cy Young winner Roy Halladay’s recent collapse.

    Verlander was magnificent in his three playoff starts, allowing three walks and one run through 23 innings while recording 31 strikeouts. He very well could return to the premier hurler drafters assumed they were getting last season, but beware of the warning signs.

3. Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Kemp was a 40/40 threat once upon a time.
    Kemp was a 40/40 threat once upon a time.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    If all goes swimmingly with Matt Kemp, he’ll provide first-round value at a much cheaper cost. If last year’s woes unfold again, you just tossed a fairly early pick down the drain.

    Hence the entire purpose of highlighting these risk/reward players. Kemp could return at full strength in April, go off with a 30/30 season and win your league in the process. He could also need more time to recover, and even then he’ll have to dust off the cobwebs upon taking the field.

    It doesn’t help that the Los Angeles Dodgers already have three capable outfielders in Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier. Until he proves himself to be 100 percent, an active Kemp will still probably get more days off than the typical starting outfielder.

    Fine, I’ll get to the positive stuff. In a 2011 season that should have ended with the National League MVP trophy in his hands, Kemp hit .324/.399/.586 while falling one homer shy of reaching the rare 40/40 plateau.

    Injuries interfered with an encore the following year, but not before he hit .417 with 12 round-trippers in April. When he’s right, Kemp is a stud.

    Clearly bothered by numerous ailments, he hit a paltry .270/.328/.396 in 73 games last year. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Dylan Hernandez, he is currently not on track to be cleared in time for their early Opening Day in Australia.

    The biggest dice roll of the 2014 season, Kemp’s fate will either delight or infuriate fantasy owners across the land.

2. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Hanley Ramirez may have been the most valuable fantasy player on a per-game basis last year.
    Hanley Ramirez may have been the most valuable fantasy player on a per-game basis last year.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    How often do superstar hitters virtually take two years off?

    If we take our time machine back to 2007-10, Hanley Ramirez was a perennial first-round choice. A shortstop with exceptional power and speed with the ability to compete for a batting title, Ramirez was fantasy gold.

    Then he hit .243/.333/.379 in 2011 while playing just 92 games. A .275 BABIP (below his .334 career mark) stood partially to blame, but a career-low 15.9 line-drive rate helped rationalize that lower mark.

    He delivered another 20/20 campaign in 2012, but not without an accompanying .257/.322/.437 slash line and career-worst 19.8 strikeout percentage.

    After seemingly growing complacent with the Marlins, a rejuvenated Ramirez hit a marvelous .345/.402/.638 in 86 games with the Dodgers last season. In slightly over half a season, he tallied 20 homers and 10 steals.

    Had he not injured his shoulder during last year’s World Baseball Classic, we’d likely be discussing him as a top-five player, but averaging 111 games played per season in the last three years dampens his top-10 status. And can we just forget his two-year free fall with so much at stake?

    If vintage Ramirez shows up for 140 to 150 games, you’re getting a transcendent talent who can easily hit .300 with 30 homers and 20 steals. If his past struggles prove to be more than just a footnote, drafters are dearly overpaying.

1. Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Will Ryan Braun pick up where he left off?
    Will Ryan Braun pick up where he left off?Marc Serota/Getty Images

    I would have never imagined Ryan Braun deteriorating into a high-risk selection.

    From his debut in 2007 to 2012, Braun signified money in the bank. He hit .304 with 25 homers, 103 RBI, 101 runs and 14 steals during his worst fantasy campaign. In every other season, he offered at least 32 deep flies, and he began to add 30 stolen bases to his repertoire.

    Then Biogenesis happened.

    Even before getting hit with a season-ending suspension, Braun was suffering through a down year, harvesting just nine homers and four steals through 61 games. The usually stable star spurned those who invested a first-round pick on the slugger.

    The PED drama has stripped him of No. 1 pick consideration, but with or without steroids, his numbers are too gaudy to completely forget him. When Braun was on his game, there was no better five-category player in fantasy baseball.

    In terms of a payment, it doesn’t get much higher. Finishing right behind Trout and Miguel Cabrera is a perfectly feasible result, but you’ll have to spend several dollars or a late first-, early second-round pick to reap the rewards.