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Projecting the first two rounds for 2015

Senior Fantasy Writer
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It's been a fun season, hasn't it?

If you wonder why I use the past tense with five weeks still to go, you're obviously one of the fortunate few with something more to play for. But in several Head-to-Head leagues, the playoffs have already started, and in most Rotisserie formats, only the top four or so still have a realistic chance.

In other words, it's that time of year again. When I tweet out links to Fantasy Baseball columns and get Fantasy Football questions in response, it's a pretty good indication the status quo isn't cutting it anymore.

What the Fantasy Baseball world needs right now is something to get people talking. And nothing stirs up controversy quite like a rank list with no real basis for comparison.

Truth be told, it's too early for 2015 rankings. Something will happen over the last five weeks to change them. At about this time last year, I had Edwin Encarnacion going fourth overall, but after hurting his wrist in September, that's not where he ended up going (though perhaps he should have).

So take this exercise for what it is: the beginning of the discussion. We'll have six months to hammer out the exact order, and I'll be happy to hear any arguments along the way. I've always been malleable with this sort of thing, considering it self-defeating to zig while everyone else zags on Draft Day.

Let's begin the discussion at the beginning, with the first two rounds of a standard 12-team draft. I'll break down each position individually in the weeks to follow.

Projected first round for 2015:
1. Mike Trout, OF, Angels
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
3. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates
4. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
6. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins
7. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
8. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays
9. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
10. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
11. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners
12. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays

At first glance, these 12 are exactly who we're used to seeing go in the first round. Trout and Cabrera are still perched at the top even though they haven't outpaced the field by nearly as much as they did a year ago. In fact, of all the hitters listed here, only Robinson Cano has averaged fewer Head-to-Head points per game than Cabrera's 3.39 (through Tuesday, that is). Cabrera has said he's playing at less than 100 percent this year after having surgery in the offseason to repair a torn groin, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him bounce back with MVP-type numbers at age 32 next year. If the downside is what he's done this year, he certainly won't hurt you at No. 2 overall.

The round does veer in a new direction at Pick 4, however. While Kershaw has been the undisputed No. 1 starting pitcher in Fantasy for a couple years now and the No. 1 starting pitcher traditionally goes in the first round, rarely does he go so early, particularly in Rotisserie leagues. During my time here at CBSSports.com, I've always rallied against taking starting pitchers that early, but in this case, I think it's justified for two reasons:

1. Kershaw is that good. He's on pace to lead baseball in ERA for the fourth straight season, including two straight with a sub-2.00 mark. He's like Greg Maddux, but with strikeouts. Or maybe Pedro Martinez during his years with the Red Sox is a more apt comparison. Either way, you're talking historically good pitching for not just one outlier season, but year after year after year.

2. The hitters in the discussion simply don't inspire as much confidence. It's even more evident in the second round. A changing of the guard has taken place this year, leaving you to choose between underachieving mainstays like Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez and David Wright or unproven newcomers with only one year of elite-level production to their names. Or you could take the easy way out and draft an established ace.

More than anything in the first round, you want safe and predictable, which normally doesn't describe starting pitchers since, by the nature of what they do, they're more susceptible to injury. But look who comes after Kershaw in my projected first round: four players with a history of injuries, followed by one just wrapping up his rookie season. And who comes next? That's right: another starting pitcher.

Like Kershaw, Hernandez has a sub-2.00 ERA this year and a long history of good health. Yeah, Kershaw had that back issue after his flight home from Australia earlier this year, but compared to what most players, pitcher or otherwise, have to contend with over a seven-year span, it was just a blip on the radar. And he's erased all concerns of it being a precursor to something worse with his performance since.

So what about those five hitters in between? By far the most controversial is Tulowitzki, as I learned the hard way in a recent post to the Fantasy Baseball Today blog, ranking him sixth the day after the world learned he needed season-ending hip surgery. I've since seen the light on Stanton -- whose injury concerns, like Goldschmidt's, might be a little overstated -- but provided his recovery goes smoothly, I still think Tulowitzki is too valuable to pass up with a mid first-round pick, even if you can only count on him to play 110 games. To date, only Encarnacion, Trout and McCutchen have averaged more Head-to-Head points per game than him this season.

I listed those three in order, by the way, in case you were wondering why Encarnacion ranks so high. He's performed at that level three seasons in a row now, too. Of course, Abreu is younger but also less disciplined at the plate, making me a little skeptical of the midsummer surge that his brought his batting average up over .300. It's nitpicking, of course -- he's clearly an awesome player -- but he doesn't measure up to Encarnacion or Goldschmidt in terms of predictability.

Pick 12 is the first spot where my selection might vary according to format. Even with his power numbers on the decline, Bautista remains too much of an on-base threat to pass up in Head-to-Head points leagues, but in Rotisserie formats, I'd instead opt for the five-category potential of the first player on this next list ...

Projected second round for 2015:
13. Carlos Gomez, OF, Brewers
14. Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers
15. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox
16. David Price, SP, Tigers
17. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros
18. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals
19. Max Scherzer, SP, Tigers
20. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Athletics
21. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
22. Michael Brantley, OF, Indians
23. Adam Jones, OF, Orioles
24. Johnny Cueto, SP, Reds

Gomez slipping to the second round means we have an honest-to-goodness case of first-round overflow, which is a welcome departure from last year's melee where several owners were forced to build their teams around Carlos Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun or Jacoby Ellsbury. Adding a second starting pitcher to the first round helps create a more even distribution of talent, as does slotting Sale and Price just behind the ceiling-less Puig.

But after that, pandemonium.

Something about drafting players like Altuve, Rendon and Brantley in the second round just feels ... wrong. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about the early-round hitters not inspiring as much confidence as in years past. With mainstays like Votto, Gonzalez, Wright, Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia and Evan Longoria falling out of favor, someone has to take their place. Considering Altuve, Rendon and Brantley have been among the highest scorers in Fantasy this year, it's only fitting that it's them.

As much as Altuve has distanced himself from the rest of the second base crop in both Head-to-Head and Rotisserie leagues, a mid second-round pick seems perfectly reasonable. And don't think I'm just projecting his stats from this year onto next. If I did that, he'd go in the same range as Stanton. He's been that good.

The problem is he's been that good despite being on pace for just seven home runs, 52 RBI and 87 runs scored, putting pressure on him to repeat as a league leader in batting average and stolen bases. That's a bit much to ask of anyone. Now, maybe he adds some power to his game at age 25, or maybe the lineup around him improves next year, raising his run and RBI totals. It's not like he'll be a poor source of batting average and stolen bases next year, so if he can make up for the little he loses in those categories with slight gains in the other three, he may not lose any value at all. I just wouldn't want to assume that. Still, weighing the pros and cons for Altuve, I don't think we should treat him as anything less than an elite player.

Rendon would have to be about as good as he's been this year to live up to a second-round pick, but at least he has the pedigree to back up the performance. Some have said he would have been the first overall pick in the 2011 draft if not for an injury-plagued final season at Rice. Plus, he's a third baseman, which also boosts Donaldson's value despite some concerns over his batting average. Rizzo only figures to build off his breakthrough 2014, especially with the lineup continually improving around him, and Jones' consistency makes him an early-round fixture even if he always seems to produce more like a third-rounder than a second-rounder.

Having consulted Twitter on the matter, I feel confident saying Brantley and Cueto are the two players Fantasy owners will be most reluctant to draft this early, which is in some ways surprising since they're probably the two most deserving based on 2014 performance. But in some ways, it's not.

Cueto has an extensive injury history, having only once thrown 200 innings prior to this season, and will be coming off the biggest workload of his life. And while he's always been a good pitcher, his transformation this year into a strikeout-per-inning type, which has contributed to his MLB-leading hit rate, is almost too good to be true.

But both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee improved their strikeouts rates even after winning Cy Young awards and kept it up for several years thereafter. If not for Kershaw, Cueto would be a shoo-in for the NL Cy Young award, making him awfully hard to pass up after two rounds are complete.

As for Brantley, who entered play Wednesday as the third-best hitter in Head-to-Head points leagues and the fourth-best in Rotisserie, nobody thought he had this kind of potential. A power breakthrough at age 27 is hardly uncommon, though. The question is whether he goes the way of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion or the way Chris Davis hereafter. Give that his plate discipline comes much closer to the former than the latter, I take an optimistic stance with him.

Notable omissions:

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers: If I projected a third round, Beltre would lead it off, his value boosted by both his consistency and the position he plays. His power has dipped for the second straight year, though, and at age 36, the end is near.

Adam Wainwright, SP, Cardinals: A Cy Young contender for much of the year, Wainwright's struggles in six starts since the All-Star game (where he didn't put his best foot forward either) have served to expose his shortcomings. His strikeout rate and average fastball velocity are both down from last year, giving some reason to wonder if the innings are catching up to him. (My thinking: probably not.)

Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals: A strong finish would do more for Harper's 2015 stock than virtually any other player's. As things stand now, an injury-plagued season in which he took a step back statistically makes the upside seem not worth the risk in Round 2.

Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers: Believe it or not, Braun has averaged more Head-to-Head points per game than Yasiel Puig this season, but with a .249 batting average and .738 OPS since May, he still has a lot to prove. I wouldn't rule out a big-time bounceback if he gets his thumb injury under control this offseason.

Masahiro Tanaka, SP, Yankees: This one is pretty obvious. If Tanaka returns in September and dominates, his performance as a rookie makes him easily a top-15 pick. But even in that unlikely scenario, could you trust he wouldn't need Tommy John surgery within his first few starts next year?

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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