Fantasy Baseball 2012: Positional Leaders

Jay Clemons@ATL_JayClemonsFantasy Sports Lead WriterMarch 13, 2012

Fantasy Baseball 2012: Positional Leaders

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    With Grapefruit and Cactus league play running smoothly, here are my 12 highest-ranked fantasy stars at their respective positions heading into the 2012 season, a countdown that's sure to spark a few debates.

    This list covers two starting-pitching slots (one right-hander/one left-hander), one catcher, one first base, one second base, one shortstop, one third base, one DH, one closer and three outfield slots (RF/CF/LF).

Starting Pitcher (Right): Justin Verlander, Tigers

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    Skinny: Verlander clipped Roy Halladay in three categories last year, losing only ERA by a razor-thin margin. Does that mean he'll win the battle in 2012? At this point, the younger Verlander has earned the right to be drafted first.

    Targets: 19 wins, 234 strikeouts, 2.93 ERA, 1.01 WHIP.

Starting Pitcher (Left): Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

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    Skinny: Kershaw, 24, may not have the long-term track record of Cliff Lee or CC Sabathia, but of the trio, he's the most comfortable lock for 18 wins, 245 strikeouts, 2.50 ERA and 1.02 WHIP this season. In the battle of fantasyland's best southpaw, Kershaw gets the nod.

Catcher: Carlos Santana, Indians

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    Skinny: The best-catcher-in-fantasy debate could involve Buster Posey, Mike Napoli, Brian McCann or Joe Mauer. But we're siding with Cleveland's Santana, who possesses 30-90-90 potential and stands as the surest bet, among backstops, to finish top five in runs, HRs, RBIs and steals in 2012.

First Base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

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    Skinny: At some point in mid-April, Cabrera will morph into the most valuable asset in fantasyland, tacking on 3B eligibility. In the meantime, he'll have to settle for being one of the most destructive forces in baseball, leading a group of elite-class first basemen.

    Targets: 33 HRs, 109 RBIs, 112 runs, .327 average.

Second Base: Robinson Cano, Yankees

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    Skinny: Fantasy GMs would be wise not to take Cano's rock-solid, all-world consistency for granted. There's still room for 30 HRs, 110 runs and/or 12 steals this season, especially with Cano angling for a lucrative extension in the not-too-distant future. Don't let him slide past the 10th pick.

Third Base: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

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    Skinny: There's a Barry Bonds-esque aspect (circa 2001-04) to Bautista's development: His walks are steadily on the rise (56 to 100 to 132) and yet his power and efficiency rates haven't suffered from fewer at-bats. OK, so Bautista (3B-OF eligibility) may never club 50 homers again, but he's a virtual lock for 40 HRs, 100 RBIs, 100 runs, eight steals and .315 average.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies

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    Skinny: Tulo may not be a classic five-category monster, but he's still the lead dog among shortstops. With three straight seasons of 27-plus homers and .900 OPS, few can match Tulo's combination of power, speed, plate discipline and capacity for carrying real-world and fantasy teams for long stretches.

    Targets: 29 HRs, 104 RBIs, 86 runs, 14 steals, .306 average.

Left Field: Ryan Braun, Brewers

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    Skinny: Braun is one of the most bankable commodities in fantasyland, a 5x5 wunderkind whose ceiling hasn't been clearly defined yet. That aside, it'll be interesting to see how Braun fares without Prince Fielder in the Brewers' lineup.

    Targets: 29 HRs, 104 RBIs, 27 steals, 101 runs and .323 average.

Center Field: Matt Kemp, Dodgers

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    Skinny: There are zero fears of complacency when assessing Kemp's prospects for 2012. Yes, he's bound to experience slight regressions from last year's 39 homers, 126 RBIs and 115 runs—all personal highs. But he remains a solid play for 30-30 production in HRs and steals while cracking triple digits once again in runs and RBIs.

Right Field: Justin Upton, Diamondbacks

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    Skinny: At 24, Upton remarkably has but one unchecked item on his Fantasy Bucket List: make another sizable leap in RBIs, which would cement his status as a five-category machine.

    Targets: 28 HRs, 97 RBIs, 102 runs, 24 steals and .296 average.

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox

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    Skinny: Reports of Big Papi's demise have been greatly exaggerated, as the avuncular slugger remains an annual candidate for 29 HRs, 98 RBIs, 85 runs and .285 average. You won't find too many four-category dynamos on the wrong side of 35...but that's Ortiz, in a nutshell. A special talent.

Relief Pitcher: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

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    Skinny: Kimbrel will likely finish top five among closers in wins, ERA, WHIP and saves this season. But the real separation comes with strikeouts, as his 127 Ks in just 77 innings and K/9 ratios north of 15.9 for three separate months last year were absurd numbers for Randy Johnson at a Mariners' fantasy camp...let alone big-boy baseball. Kimbrel is the clear-cut No. 1 closer.