Long offseason, right? Not much to hold you over after the holidays come and go. Seeing as you're already here, you're probably anxious to dive right into another Fantasy Baseball season.
But that's how people hurt themselves. They get hypothermia or break their necks on the rocks below. They let stupid things happen to them because they didn't take time to assess the situation. It's what your mom meant when she said "look before you leap." You have to know what you're getting into first.
To that end, colleague Al Melchior and I have compiled a list of the top 30 storylines heading into 2012. They're the ones most worth monitoring in spring training and beyond, the ones that could potentially make or break your draft depending on the approach you take with them.
So what approach should you take? Hey, all we can offer now is a best guess. Hopefully, most of these storylines will resolve themselves in the weeks ahead -- and we'll be keeping you informed with every player update, column and podcast along the way -- but some of them won't until after your draft. For some of them, you'll have to rely on your own intuition.
So take some time now to read the facts, weigh the opinions and figure out where you stand on all 30 of these lingering questions. Because if you're serious about this whole Fantasy Baseball thing, the draft room is the last place you want to figure it out.
|1. Were Mike Napoli's and David Freese's postseason heroics the start of something more?|
| Both Napoli and Freese hit well over .300 in the playoffs and smashed eight home runs between them, and Freese earned the World Series MVP award with his effort. Neither player entered the postseason looking like a hitter who would lead his team to a championship, at least compared to his better-known teammates. Both players enjoyed their best seasons last year but do their postseason performances foreshadow better things to come? Or were these isolated moments of glory never to be recaptured? |
Our best guess: Napoli's numbers from the regular season were already off the charts compared to his earlier work, so despite his postseason heroics, he is likely due for at least a modest downturn. Freese, on the other hand, has yet to tap his power potential in the regular season, but the playoffs provide too small of a sample size to assume he has experienced his breakout. We need to see much more from Freese before viewing him as more than a lower-end third baseman for standard mixed leagues.
|2. Will Miguel Cabrera honestly stick at third base?|
| The Tigers signed Prince Fielder to be their first baseman this offseason, which means they have to find somewhere else for Cabrera to play. Their solution: third base. Why not? He's done it before, both with the Marlins and Tigers. The problem is he's now older, bigger and not so agile. Not many people seem to think he can do it. And because he's not actually eligible at third base yet, if those people are right, the Fantasy owners who drafted Cabrera to be their third baseman will feel pretty silly. |
Our best guess: Even if Cabrera makes an ever-loving fool of himself this spring, the Tigers won't be so quick to abandon this plan if it means confining their best player to DH for the next however many years. And because five games are all it takes to gain eligibility at a position in standard leagues, it'll work out in Fantasy even if it doesn't in real life.
|3. Will Hanley Ramirez get his act together?|
| A year ago, Ramirez was an early first-rounder in many leagues, even though he was coming off a season with disappointing extra-base production. Owners face a bigger quandary this year, as Ramirez's production took an even bigger hit last year, plus he missed almost the entire last two months of the season with a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery. Can Ramirez recapture his power? Will he be hampered by his shoulder? And what about his move to third base, which was necessitated by the Marlins' signing of shortstop Jose Reyes? |
Our best guess: Ramirez's timing at the plate was reportedly off early last season, but he appeared to have set things straight in the weeks prior to his season-ending injury. He also has said that he has accepted the move to a new position. There is still too much risk to trust Ramirez as a first-rounder, but there are enough encouraging signs to feel safe grabbing him in the second round.
|4. Is Stephen Strasburg already a Fantasy ace?|
| For a guy who has only 17 career starts, Strasburg has sure made a name for himself. From his electric debut midway through 2010 to his equally impressive return from Tommy John surgery last year, he has done nothing but live up to the hype. Despite the lack of track record, a player of his talent is clearly worth a reach. But how much is too much? Percentage-wise, Strasburg may well be one of the 10 or 15 best pitchers in Fantasy, but with the Nationals adamant about limiting his innings -- 160 being the most cited number -- his totals may not live up to the price tag. |
Our best guess: As enticing as his talent may be, Strasburg won't give you everything you need from an ace until the Nationals are willing to turn him loose. You're better off with the tried-and-trues.
|5. Bryce Harper won't really make the opening day roster, will he?|
| Though he is just 19 and has all of 37 games of experience at Double-A and none at Triple-A, Nationals manager Davey Johnson has lobbied this offseason to get Harper into his opening day starting lineup in right field. While the prospect of adding Harper to the Nationals' souped-up roster is enticing, it's not without its risks. He didn't exactly master Double-A, batting just .256 with three home runs in 129 at-bats. Jayson Werth would also have to shift to center field, a position he has played only sparingly as a big leaguer. |
Our best guess: If Harper struggled in his transition to Double-A, it's hard to see him getting through spring training unscathed. He will raise enough doubt to earn a demotion, but he'll be heard from later this year and will be better positioned to make an impact in Fantasy at that point.
|6. Is the hype on Yu Darvish warranted?|
| We've seen it all before. A star pitcher comes over from Japan, grabbing headlines and signing multimillion dollar deals only to put together a head-scratcher of a season that doesn't even halfway live up to the hype. But Darvish, they say, is different. He's bigger. He's younger. His stuff is just plain better. And his numbers in Japan ... yikes. He had a career 1.72 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Still need to see it to believe it? Hey, the Rangers could have spent less to keep C.J. Wilson and chose not to. That has to say something, right? |
Our best guess: Though he's not without risk, if you're able to get Darvish as, say, you're third starting pitcher, he's more likely to impress than disappoint.
|7. What will Albert Pujols do for the rest of the Angels lineup?|
| In St. Louis, Pujols normally batted in front of Matt Holliday, and that gave Holliday plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. In 2009, Kendrys Morales showed himself to be a hitter of a similar caliber to Holliday, and though Morales is capable of taking advantage of his chances to produce runs, his playing time and health are question marks heading into 2012. Torii Hunter is another candidate to bat in the middle of the order, and he has hit better with runners in scoring position than he has overall in each of the last three seasons. |
Our best guess: Both Hunter and Morales should benefit from Pujols' presence, as each could drive in more runs than they would otherwise. Erick Aybar, Peter Bourjos and Howard Kendrick -- all candidates to bat ahead of Pujols -- could see better pitches to hit, but none has a history of being selective, so pitchers may try to exploit that.
|8. Is Brett Lawrie already a high-end third baseman?|
| Yeah, Lawrie was impressive after getting called up late last year, hitting .293 with nine homers and seven steals in 150 at-bats, but you can't elevate him to elite status based on that small sample size. Or can you? Consider the other third basemen you'd put in that same class. David Wright? Performance risk. Adrian Beltre? Injury risk. Ryan Zimmerman? Injury risk. Kevin Youkilis? Injury and performance risk. Factor in their drawbacks and our modest projection of .280-21-72-79-18 puts Lawrie right in the thick of that bunch. And honestly, don't you see him finishing with better numbers than that? |
Our best guess: Just accept it. He's the man.
|9. How trustworthy is Josh Johnson?|
| When Johnson is healthy, there's not much, if anything, to dislike. He avoids contact, doesn't hand out many free passes and rarely allows home runs. It's too bad that health is a chronic issue for him, as Johnson has exceeded 28 starts only once in his career. Johnson did not make a start after mid-May last season, as he was eventually shut down due to inflammation in his right shoulder. He is reportedly feeling no effects from the injury so far this spring, so there is reason to hope that Johnson can serve as the Marlins' ace all season long. |
Our best guess: Perhaps the Marlins were being conservative last year, and maybe this is the year that Johnson stays healthy enough to seriously contend for a Cy Young Award. However, he has been derailed by health issues a little too often over his career. Though he can perform like a Fantasy ace, he should be drafted as a No. 2 starter.
|10. Will the real Jason Heyward please stand up?|
| This time a year ago, Heyward was the reach everyone was happy to make, convinced he was destined for stardom after a rookie season in which he posted a .393 on-base percentage and was voted to start the All-Star game. Instead, he struggled so mightily that he briefly lost his job to career minor-leaguer Jose Constanza last August. Now, nobody quite knows what to make of Heyward. The popular excuse -- that a shoulder injury threw his mechanics out of whack -- seems plausible enough, but how easily can he correct those mechanics? And how likely are they to fail him again? |
Our best guess: The Braves have pretty much devoted their entire offseason to getting Heyward back on track and considering he was the top prospect in baseball just a couple years ago, chances are he's in line for a bounce-back -- or perhaps even breakout -- season.
|11. How will Michael Pineda handle the move to New York?|
| One of the most surprising moves this offseason was the Yankees' acquisition of Pineda from the Mariners. The move did make sense for both clubs, as the Yankees bolstered their rotation without dipping into the pricey free agent market, and the Mariners improved their tepid offense with the addition of young slugger Jesus Montero. While Pineda should certainly enjoy much better run support in the Bronx, how much will his new ballpark hurt him? The flyball-prone Pineda moves from one of the American League's worst home run parks to one of the best. |
Our best guess: Handling the pressure of the Big Apple should worry owners more than Yankee Stadium's park effects. Pineda was actually more homer-prone in Seattle than on the road last year, but he had a higher ERA in away games because of an unusually-low strand rate. While pitching for the Yankees may require an adjustment, Pineda should be just fine, putting up better stats overall than he did in his rookie season.
|12. Can Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau return to MVP form?|
| Both play for the Twins, are former AL MVPs and have last names that start with "M." One lost the ability to drive the ball last season because he never regained the strength in his legs following knee surgery. One lost the ability to hit altogether because, well, that's what happens sometimes to players who suffer severe concussions. Both come at a discount this year, but neither offers many assurances in Fantasy. In addition to the concussion, Morneau is working his way back from wrist, knee, foot and neck surgeries, and Mauer is no stranger to the trainer's room himself. |
Our best guess: Chances are an offseason of rest will do Mauer a world of good, but that concussion might end up being a deal-breaker for Morneau. No sense reaching for him.
|13. Is a return to form for Adam Wainwright a given?|
| Tommy John surgery is hardly a death sentence for a pitcher's career, as we have seen hurlers like Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter and Jordan Zimmermann make triumphant returns from the procedure in recent years. Then again, pitchers like Mike Hampton and B.J. Ryan, who were never the same after the surgery, offer cautionary tales. By all accounts, Wainwright's recovery is going smoothly and he should be ready for the start of the regular season. It's early, though, so it may be premature to expect Wainwright to be an ace again right away. |
Our best guess: A return to form is definitely not guaranteed, and at the very least, Wainwright's owners should expect some curtailment of his innings. That alone makes him a No. 3 mixed league starter and a risky one at that.
|14. Is Jesus Montero as good as the Mariners think he is?|
| The Mariners had what is widely considered the most valuable commodity in the game: a young pitcher with knockout stuff and command of the strike zone. And yet they were willing to trade Michael Pineda to the Yankees because they're so convinced that Montero -- a player with 61 career at-bats -- is the star hitter they've been missing. Granted, those at-bats were awfully impressive. If they're right, he'll be slugging the ball at either catcher or DH on an everyday basis, making him easily one of the top catchers in Fantasy. If not, he might have been better off staying at Yankee Stadium. |
Our best guess: Montero was considered a better catcher prospect than Carlos Santana and Buster Posey when the three were coming up through the minors, and his stellar debut only supports the idea he's the real deal.
|15. Can Carl Crawford rebound?|
| After a miserable April in which he batted .155, Crawford made a partial rebound over the rest of the season. His batting average from May forward was .279, and he mashed 25 doubles, 7 triples and 10 homers. However, his batting average still wasn't up to his usual standards and he stole just 18 bases all season. To make matters worse, Crawford will start the year still recovering from January wrist surgery. He is expected to miss a few weeks and could struggle when he does return. |
Our best guess: Not only can wrist injuries be hard to overcome, but Crawford's strike zone judgment has withered over the last two seasons. Given how awful his start was last year, owners can expect a rebound, but probably only a very mild one.
|16. Will Citi Field's new dimensions make a difference?|
| Hoping to eliminate what he called a "distraction" for his team, GM Sandy Alderson managed to get the fences moved in and lowered at the previously pitcher-friendly Citi Field. And the entire Fantasy-playing world rejoiced. But while the new dimensions can only benefit Mets hitters, the exact impact is difficult to gauge. David Wright's struggles over the last few years haven't been strictly confined to his power numbers and Jason Bay might already be a lost cause at age 33. Plus, you have to figure the Mets' already thin pitching staff becomes even more useless now. |
Our best guess: While the new dimensions should make the Mets' up-and-coming hitters -- such as Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy -- all the more attractive to Fantasy owners, they won't be a miracle cure for the rest of the lineup.
|17. Is Buster Posey back to normal?|
| Posey's stomach-churning injuries to his ankle and leg sustained in a home-plate collision rank among the least pleasant memories that Fantasy owners took away from 2011. He has been taking batting practice over the last several months, but we still can't know for certain how his ankle will respond to the rigors of catching or how his bat will play during in-game situations. Also, Fantasy owners will have to judge the meaning of Posey's poor power numbers established prior to his injury in the early going last season. |
Our best guess: Posey's increased difficulties in making contact and hitting for gap power last year could have just been part of the normal ups-and-downs of a young player's development. However, given that he will also face the challenge of rebounding from a gruesome injury, it may be expecting too much to count on Posey to rebound to his 2010 levels this year.
|18. Is any Braves starting pitcher safe to draft right now?|
| The best for much of last year, Jair Jurrjens, missed the final month with a sore knee. The best in terms of upside, Tommy Hanson, missed the final two with a partially torn rotator cuff and is now dealing with a concussion sustained in a February car accident. The best in terms of track record, Tim Hudson, needed back surgery this offseason. All are supposedly fine, but who isn't this time of year? And until you know what happens with them, you can't get excited about potential replacements Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. So really, Brandon Beachy is the only one who comes with any assurances, and he threw only 141 2/3 innings last year. |
Our best guess: Often these vague spring injury concerns end up not being such a big deal, but in the interest of prudence, you probably shouldn't be reaching for Hanson, Jurrjens or Hudson.
|19. Is 40 homers the expectation for Curtis Granderson going forward?|
| Coming into the 2011 season, Granderson's career high for home runs was an even 30, but he obliterated that mark with a total of 41 last year. The obvious explanation is that Granderson was taking advantage of his launching pad of a home stadium, but he hit nearly half of his homers on the road. What changed was his ability to hit for power against lefties, as he went yard once every 11.9 at-bats against southpaws as opposed to once every 39.5 at-bats the year before. |
Our best guess: Granderson has been a different hitter since re-working his swing in late 2010. He wasn't especially dangerous with runners in scoring position in 2011, so there is actually room for him to build on last year's 119 RBI. Look for a repeat of last season or maybe even something better.
|20. How long should we expect to go without Ryan Howard, and will we be sorry when he returns?|
| Adding injury to insult, Howard ruptured his left Achilles' tendon on the play that eliminated the Phillies from the playoffs last season and had surgery soon afterward. The Phillies say he'll be ready to go in May, but the Angels said something similar about their middle-of-the-order slugger, Kendrys Morales, coming off ankle surgery last year. Morales had a worse injury, sure, but the fact is Howard's timetable is more likely to grow than shrink. And given his declining numbers the last two seasons, any delay could make him not so worth the wait. |
Our best guess: For now, the Phillies' timetable seems reasonable, but that's still no reason to invest heavily in Howard this spring. He's good, but no surefire stud.
|21. How long before Kenley Jansen takes over as Dodgers closer?|
| The Dodgers enter spring training without a set closer, as Jansen and Javy Guerra will compete for the role. Guerra is generally considered to be the frontrunner to win the job coming out of camp, as he claimed most of the team's saves late last season. However, Jansen -- with his stratospheric strikeout rates -- has a more "closer-like" profile. To Guerra's credit, he comes to the Dodgers with the more established track record as a minor league closer. |
Our best guess: While Guerra has 27 minor league saves on his resume, that doesn't necessarily mean much for his future as a big league closer. His 21 saves and 2.31 ERA from his rookie year owe a great deal to opponents hitting .043 against him on flyballs in play. As soon as more flyballs start falling in, Jansen will get his chance and won't likely let it go. He could grab the job early this season.
|22. How will the Rays make room for Matt Moore?|
| The Rays have always been extra patient with their top prospects, but Moore appears to be the exception. They let him start their first playoff game last fall, after all. By now, his upside is obvious, but Fantasy owners would be a little more willing to go all-in for him had the Rays rolled out the red carpet by trading one of Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis this offseason. Neither deserves to go to the bullpen, but one has to, right? No matter how the Rays sort it out, a viable Fantasy option is getting wasted here. |
Our best guess: Moore is a virtual lock, so Davis will go to the bullpen until the Rays make a trade, which will happen as soon as they realize they're just as loaded with pitching in the minors as the majors.
|23. What will it take to get Mike Trout in the Angels lineup?|
| Heading into spring training, the Angels have a real roster crunch on their hands. They have seven players -- Trout, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, Bobby Abreu, Peter Bourjos, Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo -- competing to fill the three outfield spots and the DH role. Morales may not be ready for opening day, and Trumbo could get shifted to third base, but that still potentially leaves 20-year-old Trout as the odd man out. He struggled in his first exposure to big league pitching last year, but even with Albert Pujols in the fold, the Angels could use his bat in the lineup. |
Our best guess: Both Abreu and Bourjos were mentioned in offseason trade rumors, so it's not unthinkable that the Angels will clear a spot in the lineup for Trout before spring training is over. Demoting Abreu to a part-time role is another possibility, so one way or another, Trout should get plenty of at-bats this season.
|24. Is Adam Dunn done?|
| Dunn homered in his first game as a White Sox, and that's about all he did right last season. No, really. He finished with a .159 batting average, the lowest for any full-timer in the last century -- and the next-lowest was a full 20 points better. So what went wrong? Hard to say. He wasn't injured, and he wasn't over the hill at age 31. With nothing to blame, the solution isn't so clear. Considering his contract, Dunn will have every chance to get back on track, but obviously 35-40 home runs are no longer the expectation. |
Our best guess: Dun dun dun ... yeah, he's done. He's worth a late-round flier just in case the mystery ailment has a mystery cure, but don't get your hopes up.
|25. How long before Yoenis Cespedes arrives? OK, but how long before he arrives?|
| One of the biggest surprises this offseason was the A's signing of 26-year-old Cuban defector Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million contract. The team will look to Cespedes to be their opening day center fielder, even though there is plenty uncertainty as to how well he will hit major league pitching. The A's slugged just .369 as a team last year, so they can't be blamed for taking a risk with Cespedes, but many observers think he will need time to become a productive major league hitter. |
Our best guess: In addition to dealing with the transition to the majors, Cespedes will have to contend with playing roughly two-thirds of his games in stadiums (O.co Coliseum, Angel Stadium of Anaheim and Safeco Field) that could be tough on a right-handed pull hitter. He may need half a season or more to adjust.
|26. Is the Neftali Feliz-Alexi Ogando role reversal, like, permanent?|
| C.J. Wilson leaves this offseason. The Rangers have an opening in their rotation. They say they want Feliz, their closer, to fill it. For real this time. No takebacks. They then sign Yu Darvish. They have six men in their rotation. Who do they remove? Feliz? Right, no takebacks. Ogando? Hey, he's been a reliever before. Of course, he's also been a success as a starter, going 13-8 last year. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul. If the Rangers really want Feliz to start, believing his potential is wasted in relief, fine. But the same is true for Ogando. |
Our best guess: Because the Rangers seem to "get it" when it comes to developing pitchers, they'll make a trade before they confine Ogando to the bullpen long-term. It's coming.
|27. Which of the Athletics young starters are worth drafting?|
| Veterans Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon have the first two spots in Oakland's rotation sewn up and Dallas Braden should be back in the mix by mid-April, but a scrum of young arms will battle it out for the fourth and fifth spots. Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone -- all acquired via trade this offseason -- will vie for a spot, and Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey will be in the mix, too. With the exception of Godfrey, none of the aspiring starters is older than 25 and only Ross has pitched more than 30 major league innings. Regardless of whom manager Bob Melvin chooses, he will be banking on some inexperienced talents. |
Our best guess: All of the candidates have options remaining but despite their higher upside, Parker and Peacock could both use a little time in Triple-A. Godfrey could be destined for long relief eventually, so Ross and Milone seem like the most likely choices to start the year in the rotation. With Parker and Peacock waiting in the wings and Brett Anderson set to return from Tommy John surgery in August, they could be on very short leashes.
|28. Will Yonder Alonso and Carlos Quentin fall victim to PETCO Park?|
| PETCO Park is a miserable place for power hitters, particularly ones that bat left-handed. So as much as Fantasy owners were rooting for the Reds to trade Alonso this offseason, their enthusiasm turned to disappointment when he ultimately landed in San Diego. Just a couple weeks later, Quentin, another hitter who has long enticed Fantasy owners with his OPS potential, suffered the same misfortune. Granted, he's right-handed, but anytime a hitter enters that environment, it's cause for a downgrade. If Alonso and Quentin can buck the trend, they're bargains, but otherwise ... |
Our best guess: Unless Alonso channels his inner Adrian Gonzalez, he's probably not a 20-homer guy this year. Quentin might be OK, but that's the most Fantasy owners have come to expect from him anyway.
|29. How will the Brewers make up for the loss of Prince Fielder?|
| The Brewers may start the season with a double-whammy, beginning the year without either Prince Fielder or Ryan Braun for the first time since 2005. Whereas Braun --if suspended -- will return in late May, Fielder is gone for good, having signed a nine-year, $214 deal with the Tigers. Mat Gamel will get the first crack at replacing Fielder at first base. While Gamel has hit well in three separate extended trials in Triple-A, he has yet to solve major league pitching. At least the Brew Crew upgraded at the opposite corner of the infield, bringing in former Cub Aramis Ramirez to replace Casey McGehee at third base. |
Our best guess: Even if Gamel can reproduce his minor league numbers at the major league level, the Brewers probably won't be able to fully compensate for the loss of Fielder. The good news for Fantasy owners is that Gamel will be eligible at third base this season, so he has a chance to be a contributor in standard mixed leagues as a low-end option.
|30. Who will fill out the Red Sox rotation?|
| The Red Sox's starting rotation, which turned out to be their Achilles' heel last year, has a clear top three in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, but after that, your guess is as good as anybody's. They made it their mission this offseason to collect every castoff and reject they could find: Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, Ross Ohlendorf, etc. They're also attempting to convert relievers Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. Whoever wins the jobs will benefit from stellar run support, making them at least fringe options in Fantasy. |
Our best guess: The Red Sox have to know those retreads won't survive the AL East, so chances are they're just fallback options in case Bard and Aceves don't pan out.
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