This time of year, Fantasy Baseball owners fall into two categories: Those who set their lineups this past Monday and those who didn't.
Those who didn't, had nothing left to play for. Those who did are either so deep in talent that they're already on cruise control or so close to elimination that they're hanging on every word of the Hit Parade and Pitching Forecaster.
In short, big-picture concerns have gone out the window because the big picture is all of 3 1/2 weeks.
Which makes now the perfect time to peer into next year.
Here, I give you the first in a series of rankings looking forward to 2014. In the weeks ahead, I'll go position by position, examining how first basemen compare against each other, second basemen compare against each other and so on, but to start out, I've outlined what I consider to be the ideal first two rounds of a 12-team mixed-league draft.
One caveat: Attempting to present the inexact as exact is a difficult, painful exercise wherein nobody comes away happy. I'm not happy. Just in the process of writing this intro, I've stopped to adjust the rankings four separate times. My goal here isn't just to put players in the order they should go off the board, but to do it in a way that has all 12 teams beginning on as close to equal footing as possible. For the most part, I think I've done that.
Except with the 10th pick. If I picked there, I'd feel like I either won the lottery or put myself at risk of going without an elite hitter, depending on how I felt about a certain controversial someone.
Projected first round for 2014:
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers
2. Mike Trout, OF, Angels
3. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays
5. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
6. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates
7. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
8. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
9. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles
10. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
11. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Red Sox
12. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
OK, so it doesn't start out difficult or painful. Anyone who doesn't select Cabrera first or Trout second should lose the right to pick first or second ever again. With 4.72 Head-to-Head points per game, Cabrera is in a different stratosphere from Trout, and with 4.27 Head-to-Head points per game, Trout is in a different stratosphere from everyone else. The next-best hitters in these first two rounds are averaging 3.93, 3.86, 3.83, 3.83, 3.82, 3.67, etc. -- close to each other, yes, but not to those first two. That's what "different stratosphere" means.
Beyond Cabrera and Trout, differences of opinion enter the equation, making it less an equation than a postulate ... or something. The next two players I think are pretty clear, but what isn't clear is the order. I'm tempted to take Encarnacion third purely for the productivity. This season, he's the fourth highest-scoring hitter in Head-to-Head leagues. Last season, he was the fourth highest-scoring hitter in Head-to-Head leagues. A combination of power and plate discipline will do that. So what about the third highest-scoring hitter this year? He's not under consideration just yet.
Cano, however, is. With his modest regression in 2013, he may not give your team quite the upside that Encarnacion would, but by offering assured production at a position where little is assured, he gives you a better chance of having a team you'll like from top to bottom. Second base may seem deeper than usual heading into 2014, but a few underachievers could thin it out quickly. Just look at third base this year.
You could make an argument for any of the next six at No. 5. I personally wouldn't go the starting pitcher route because I feel like that position is deep enough that you could get a true ace (or maybe two) even if you don't bother with it until Round 4, but Kershaw has become such a standout that I wouldn't fault anyone for prioritizing him midway through the first round. Just don't delude yourself into thinking you'll get a first round-type hitter in the second round. Doesn't work that way this year. Peek ahead if you don't believe me.
Format makes a difference with this group. I've geared these rankings more for Head-to-Head leagues, but in Rotisserie, I might prioritize McCutchen and Gonzalez over Votto, preferring steals to walks. Or maybe I'd leave Gonzalez right where he is. Above all, I want something safe in the first round, and considering Gonzalez hasn't played more than 135 games in any of the last three seasons, the risk outweighs the reward with Votto and Goldschmidt on the board.
But not Davis, the third highest-scoring hitter so far this year? He's risky in his own right. I suppose you could argue he's not any less proven than Goldschmidt, who's also a first-rounder for the first time in his career, but while Goldschmidt's steady progression since arriving in 2011 makes his 2013 breakout the logical next step, Davis' sudden explosion has a bit of a Chase Headley flavor to it.
Maybe that's not fair. I do trust Davis for big power numbers -- he hit 33 home runs last year, after all -- but considering he's batting .261 since the end of May, I don't trust everything else that has made him who he is this year. A .265 batting average and, say, 45 homers are still enough to make him a first-rounder in Fantasy, but not a best-of-the-best-type option, particularly in leagues that penalize strikeouts.
Ellsbury might seem like an odd choice for the first round considering he still hasn't regained the power stroke that generated 32 homers in 2011, but the numbers say he doesn't need to. Between the batting average and stolen bases, what he's done this year is completely sustainable, and it's generated 3.67 Head-to-Head points per game. Apart from Hanley Ramirez, who has obvious injury concerns, no hitter in the second round is above 3.54.
Projected second round for 2014:
13. Prince Fielder, 1B, Tigers
14. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Dodgers
15. Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers
16. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox
17. David Wright, 3B, Mets
18. Yu Darvish, SP, Rangers
19. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
20. Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians
21. Adam Jones, OF, Orioles
22. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers
23. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays
24. Jose Reyes, SS, Blue Jays
The top three hitters here are the last three who I believe can deliver first-round numbers, at least in a most-likely scenario. Fielder has fallen a little short this year, but he's still in the prime of his career and has done it so many times in the past that I consider him as safe as safe gets. Ramirez has performed like the player who used to be the first overall pick in Fantasy three or four years ago, but of course, he's done it in between two lengthy DL stints, putting him in the same what-if category as Tulowitzki. Shortstop is unquestionably the weakest position in Fantasy, so Tulowitzki and Ramirez should be among the first of the riskier options off the board. You could make the argument for either, but I trust Tulowitzki more.
The real eye-opener here, though, is Braun, who will have completed his long overdue suspension for now admitted PED use by the start of next season. Where I have him is probably the highest he'll go. Some owners will avoid him strictly on principle. Others will wonder if he'll be even half the player he was now that he's off "the juice." I, for one, don't believe PEDs can make something out of nothing. Six years of first-round production -- and absolutely nothing less -- are enough to make Braun well worth the gamble with a round already in the books. Pairing him -- a top-five hitter most years -- with the best pitcher in Fantasy is an especially appealing thought. Even if Braun doesn't quite recapture his prior form, I can't imagine him being less than a starting-caliber outfielder.
With the boom-or-bust types off the board, you can take your pick with the next group. Pedroia is an injury risk but, when healthy, isn't far off from Cano in terms of overall production. Wright doesn't have a tier to himself at third base, but he's significantly younger than Beltre and a good bit more reliable than Evan Longoria. Plus, he's the only base-stealer of the three. For some, Darvish isn't the clear second choice at starting pitcher, making him seem like a reach here, but his strikeout totals are off the charts. With room to improve at age 27, he has a realistic chance of becoming the majors' first 300-strikeout guy since Randy Johnson in 2002. If you played Fantasy back then, you know how big of a deal that would be.
Jones stands out as a beacon of stability in a sea of uncertainty. With miserable plate discipline, he's never going to be more than a second-round type, but with back-to-back seasons of that sort of production to begin his prime, he's a safe bet to continue it. Taking Harper ahead of him is a gutsy move, but worth it to me because of his limitless potential. If a worst-case scenario for him is a banged-up Jay Bruce, like this year, I'll manage.
Beltre, Reyes and Bautista are old hat in Fantasy and could potentially drop behind younger players like Evan Longoria, Jean Segura and Giancarlo Stanton on Draft Day, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Beltre has put up first-round numbers the last two years, so even though he's at that stage where any year could be his downfall, he's too much of a value to pass up at this point. Despite having only a dozen steals so far -- an injustice that will surely correct itself next year -- Reyes has been as productive as Segura on a per-game basis, so no worries there. Bautista is no help in batting average and no certainty to play a full season, but his walks still set him apart from Stanton. Before injuring his hip, he had performed about like McCutchen in terms of Head-to-Head points per game.
Of course, in some leagues, more than two starting pitchers will go in the first two rounds, bumping players like Beltre, Reyes and Bautista to Round 3, but the type of pitchers you could get here wouldn't be so different from what you could get in Rounds 4 and 5. Can't say the same for the hitters.
Max Scherzer, SP, Tigers: My decision to leave the AL Cy Young favorite out of the first two rounds isn't as much a slight as a celebration of the depth at starting pitcher. Unless you think Scherzer can produce another historic win-loss record, he's not any more studly than, say, Chris Sale, who has produced a comparable ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate.
Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels: If Pujols can produce like a third-rounder while playing with a noticeable limp, I'm not so sure an offseason of rest won't make him a first-round type again. Still, enough safer options have emerged -- some at weaker positions -- that you'd be exposing your team to needless risk by taking him before Round 3.
Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, Cardinals: If you could guarantee me Carpenter will be every bit as good in 2014 as he was in 2013, I'd say he's a second-rounder for sure. But as the president of the Matt Carpenter fan club (self-proclaimed this spring), I reluctantly admit that, going forward, a .290 batting average is more likely than .310 and 100 runs are more likely than 120. He's more Martin Prado than Dustin Pedroia.
Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers: My hesitance to rank Puig among the best of the best is as much out of respect for the second-year slide suffered by Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, Brett Lawrie and countless other take-the-league-by-storm-type rookies as out of recognition that his .351 batting average, unsustainable by anyone's standards, has generated only 3.33 Head-to-Head points per game. Lowly Shane Victorino is averaging 3.31, and I don't see him in the discussion for a second-round pick.
Buster Posey, C/1B, Giants: Posey is still the best catcher in Fantasy in my mind, but apart from his late-season push for NL MVP last year, he doesn't stand out enough from Carlos Santana, Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina or even Jonathan Lucroy to justify drafting as the foundation of your team, especially with catchers being so susceptible to injuries.
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