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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Early 2014 hitter rankings

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

The race for the No. 1 spot on 2014 draft boards is an exciting one.

Hit Parade

But how players register after that should generate the real debate. As in, let's place early odds on a popular statement of the 2014 draft season being, "Boy, doesn't it stink to have the No. 3 pick in the draft?"

Ask anyone about their early top-10 picks for 2014, and they might struggle to find 10 players they feel strongly enough about for inclusion. This point was made by colleague Eric Karabell on a recent Fantasy Focus Podcast, and I agree. It is a very difficult snap decision to make and will require much examination by every fantasy owner heading into next year.

In this final 2013 edition of Hit Parade, let's get a head start on those 2014 ranking decisions, particularly that top 10. Today's edition provides preliminary hitter rankings for next season (and only next season). Player value encompasses standard ESPN rules: Rotisserie 5x5 scoring and traditional rosters minus the second catcher.

In addition, let's make some early predictions about 2014 trends, including:

"Who's No. 1": Self-explanatory.

"Early buzz": A player most likely to spend the winter riding the hype machine, whether he is expected to be a top pick at his position or is primed to rise the ranks.

"Hot stove impact": Players whose projected 2014 draft-day price tag might be significantly impacted by winter transactions.

"Value picks": Also self-explanatory.

Now, let's get to the rankings!

Who's No. 1

Trout
Trout
Cabrera
Cabrera

It was the question posed during the 2012 American League Most Valuable Player balloting; it was the question posed again on draft day 2013; it was the question posed throughout the 2013 season; it was the question hinted at in the beginning of this column; and it'll be the question asked all offseason.

Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera?

Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout?

Player Rater data from this season says it's Cabrera. Player Rater data from 2012 says it's Trout. Combining the two years and going head-to-head with their Rotisserie contributions grants Cabrera a 3-2 advantage (batting average, home runs and RBI; Trout wins stolen bases and runs scored). But consider their relative major league standings over these two years combined in those five primary categories:

Cabrera: .337 AVG (1st), 88 HR (1st), 276 RBI (1st), 212 R (2nd), 7 SB (202nd)
Trout: .325 AVG (2nd), 56 HR (14th), 175 RBI (25th), 237 R (1st), 82 SB (2nd)

Trout is only the 15th player in history to post consecutive 25 HR/30 SB seasons, and only the fourth to do so before his 25th birthday (Bobby Bonds, Cesar Cedeno and Hanley Ramirez were the others) and only the fifth (of any age) to do so with batting averages of .300 or better in each year. Cabrera, meanwhile, is only the seventh player in history to post consecutive seasons with a minimum of a .330 AVG, 40 HRs and 125 RBIs (Chuck Klein, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Duke Snider and Todd Helton were the others), and he'd have back-to-back Triple Crowns if not for Chris Davis' crazy power year.

So how does one make this effectively split decision? One thing you might want to consider is the evolving value of the stolen base, the one substantial difference between the two. Here's a quick illustration, with "SB opportunities" as judged by Baseball-Reference.com:

2013: 0.55 SB per game, 72.7 SB%, 18.1 SB opportunities per attempt
2012 (1 year ago): 0.66 SB per game, 74.0 SB%, 15.1 SB opp. per attempt
2008 (5 years ago): 0.58 SB per game, 73.0 SB%, 18.3 SB opp. per attempt
2003 (10 years ago): 0.53 SB per game, 69.4 SB%, 18.8 SB opp. per attempt
1988 (25 years ago): 0.79 SB per game, 70.0 SB%, 12.2 SB opp. per attempt

Keeping in mind that both 2003 and 2008 resided in more offensive-friendly historical baseball environments than 2012 and '13, that's a marked decline in stolen base production, which helps explain how a player like Billy Hamilton could be the No. 44 hitter on our Player Rater's "Last 30" split despite only 20 plate appearances during that span. (For some perspective, that's 97 fewer than the No. 1 player, Hunter Pence, has in that time.) Speedsters -- specifically power-speed types -- took on greater importance this season, and that's a trend somewhat likely to extend into 2014.

There is no incorrect choice between these two; the debate is a legitimate one and the value difference between the two is negligible.

Still, a pick must be made, and astute readers who caught on to my hint last week know I'd select Trout. Besides the stolen-base contributions, he possesses one more potential advantage: He'll play approximately two-thirds of the 2014 season as a 22-year-old, while Cabrera will turn 31 in April. That's not to say that every 22-year-old is a lock to take a step forward, or that a 31-year-old is destined for decline, but the odds of the 22-year-old gaining value is simply greater. And if Trout gains even a hint more of power while keeping his steals in the 30s -- a distinct possibility considering how much improvement he showed in terms of plate discipline in 2013 -- he'll more than make up the small Player Rater difference between the two.

Early buzz

Every winter has its share of buzz-worthy fantasy names, players most likely to spend the offseason riding the hype machine en route to soaring up the 2014 preseason rankings. That's not to say they aren't deserving; it's merely to say that you'll hear plenty of chatter about the following hitters between now and March:

Paul Goldschmidt
Paul Goldschmidt has been deserving of many accolades from fantasy owners this season.

Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks: He isn't receiving nearly enough credit for his 2013 contributions, and since his Diamondbacks missed the playoffs, he could be assured of not getting credit in the MVP balloting run, too. So let's fuel some hype: Goldschmidt has the third-most homers (36), third-most RBIs (124) and fourth-best slugging percentage (.561) in baseball, and the obvious reason he's not praised more for them is that Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis have had epic campaigns. Plus, what elevates Goldschmidt over other first basemen is his speed; he is the first player with at least 100 games played at the position to manage consecutive 15-steal campaigns since Derrek Lee (2002 and '03), and he is only the ninth player in history with at least 100 games at first base with a season of at least a .300 batting average, 30 home runs and 15 steals. Incidentally, if you're worried about Goldschmidt's BABIP (.345) portending a drop in batting average, consider that he had a comparable BABIP in 2012 (.340). He also lowered his strikeout rate by nearly 2 percent (22.1 in 2012, 20.6 this year) and his chase rate by more than 6 percent (27.0 to 20.8), and for the second consecutive season he made significant strides in performance against breaking pitches (curveballs and sliders), a former weakness of his.

Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers: What of Ryan Braun? He'll be back from suspension for the start of 2014, but what production from Braun might we expect? This isn't even hinting that he'll experience a PED-related decline in performance; what about the daily strain of fan (and potentially player) criticism? Braun will be a subject of much debate throughout the winter, and he'll face arguably the greatest challenge of his career once camps open. However, in his defense, he seemed plenty motivated to quiet his critics in 2012, the last time he was surrounded by PED chatter -- remember, that was the season coming off his successful appeal of a similar suspension -- and he's one of the few players in baseball with legitimate 30-homer, 20-steal potential. And perhaps setting even those as his baselines is being too conservative.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals: Everyone loves Bryce Harper. He was the "it" player in the hype department last year, and as a 21-year-old with the projected career ahead of him, he's sure to be a popular choice again in 2014. Before this season, Harper was the No. 27 player selected overall in ESPN live drafts, and in many other competitions he was regarded a top-20 selection. He was a .356 hitter with nine home runs in 25 games (that's a 58-homer pace) before crashing into a wall and injuring his hip on April 29, and a .303 hitter with 10 homers and 21 RBIs in 38 games (43-homer pace) before crashing into another wall and injuring his left knee on May 13. He continued to play through both ailments before finally succumbing to the DL, and after his return on July 1, he wasn't quite the same player: He batted .271 with eight homers, 34 RBIs and nine stolen bases (17-homer, 71-RBI and 19-steal paces) in 72 games. A winter's rest should surely do Harper some good, and while he does have some warts at this stage of his career -- he's a .211/.327/.313 hitter against lefties and .218/.288/.436 against breaking pitches (curves and sliders) this season -- his ceiling, even for 2014, is as high as anyone's in baseball. He is generously ranked in this space accounting for that, but it's also a conservative ranking admitting he has improvements to make.

Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals: There are a couple of reasons he'll be massively hyped -- he'd be my early pick for the A-No. 1 hype-machine player of 2014. The first is his No. 32 ranking among all hitters on the 2013 Player Rater, and the second is his monstrous career turnaround beginning on June 1: From that day forward he batted .321/.371/.500 with 16 home runs, 63 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 106 games. It wasn't a mirage, either, as Hosmer made many of the improvements we needed to see to believe he'd develop into the top-five fantasy first baseman everyone predicted when he debuted in the majors in 2011: He made massive strides covering the inner half of the plate, batting .358/.389/.549 on those pitches from June 1 forward, compared to .215/.280/.299 from the beginning of 2012 through June 1, 2013. This resulted in his pulling the ball on the ground 16 percent less often, which helps counter some of the defensive shifts he faces.

Yasiel Puig
Yasiel Puig got off to a huge start in his big league career, but what will happen to him in a full season?

Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers: Well of course he'll be hyped; his June ranked up there with some of the all-time great first-month performances in baseball history. Granted, he played only four of six months in the 2013 season, but were you aware that, despite his efforts, he might finish outside the top 50 hitters on our Player Rater (he's 51st)? From July 1 forward, Puig batted a more human .284/.371/.483 with 12 homers, 46 runs scored and seven stolen bases in 74 games (25-homer, 97-run and 15-steal paces), and his season BABIP (.386) was second-highest among players with 400 plate appearances. Some degree of regression is inevitable for Puig in 2014, and each fantasy owner's judgment of how extreme it might be will be a storyline for the winter.

Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds: Um, he's fast. Again, he has been a top-50 fantasy hitter during the past 30 days -- and he has been in the major leagues for only 24 of those -- thanks almost entirely to his 13 steals. To put his stolen-base prowess into perspective, consider that Hamilton's 13 steals have been exceeded by only 58 other major leaguers for the season, and every one of those 58 players has appeared in at least 43 more games and accrued at least 207 more PAs than him. Hamilton has also amassed 103, 165 and 88 steals in his past three professional seasons; only nine major leaguers in history have ever stolen at least 88 in a single year. He has also not appeared lost at the plate in his 20 PAs -- granted it's the tiniest of samples -- and his speed might give opposing pitchers fits if he's given a chance to play regularly. Hamilton's 2014 role might have a massive impact on fantasy baseball.

Hot stove impact

Two of the winter's top free-agent hitting prizes reside in the top 10 on our Player Rater overall: One is the A-No. 1 prize, second baseman Robinson Cano, and the other is former No. 2-overall-on-the-Player Rater (2011) outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Robinson Cano
Robinson Cano's value could be significantly affected depending on where he signs this offseason.

Cano's 2014 destination might be the story of the hot stove season, as he could command in excess of $25 million per season. Yet he has spent his entire career playing for a New York Yankees team that this past year boasted a "pinching pennies" strategy. His situation will answer the question: Was it more important to the Yankees to keep their best player in pinstripes at any cost, or to meet their goal of a $185 million payroll for 2014? The answer is critical not only in the real game, but also in fantasy, as the left-handed Cano certainly enjoys a statistical advantage thanks to the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium. He has hit 79 of his 204 career homers there, and 79 of 142 (or 55.6 percent) since the venue opened in 2009. In addition, his home run/fly ball percentage is 3 percent higher at Yankee Stadium than it was on the road from 2009 to '13 (18.5 percent, compared to 15.4 percent on the road). Cano would remain the No. 1 second baseman in fantasy wherever he plays, but he's a slightly more attractive pick in pinstripes.

Ellsbury, meanwhile, also might not remain as valuable in fantasy if he leaves the Boston Red Sox. The most pertinent impact would be on his stolen-base production; one would hope that he winds up with a team as apt to give him the green light, though his 52-for-56 performance in the category this season suggests that even a conservative squad like Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics would still recognize his ability. Ellsbury could score fewer runs if he signs with a below-average offensive team, though the average major league leadoff hitter managed a .328 on-base percentage and 93 runs scored (using teams' leadoff-spot totals), and Ellsbury has a .357 OBP with 91 runs this year and a .351 OBP and an average of 108 runs per 162 games played in his career. He has actually been surprisingly weak in runs scored, at least if you account for his speed and on-base ability.

Cano and Ellsbury aren't the only prominent free-agent hitters who will be on the winter market. Listed below are a few other key names, the first of which has a direct bearing upon the last player discussed in the previous section:

Shin-Soo Choo: He plays the precise position that Billy Hamilton played 118 times for Triple-A Louisville this season, and at the time of Choo's acquisition last winter, the Reds openly hinted that he'd be a one-year center-field plug-in as Hamilton adapts to that new position (Hamilton was previously a shortstop). Choo's fantasy value soared in Cincinnati, as the Reds in 2012 had the majors' second-worst on-base percentage among leadoff hitters (.284), resulting in 92 runs scored out of that spot; Choo managed a .434 on-base percentage and 104 runs in that spot this season. Great American Ball Park also padded his numbers, as he was a .321/.450/.509 hitter there compared to .251/.399/.424 on the road, though he did score more runs on the road (57) than at home (49). As awkward as it might sound, fantasy owners might want to root for Choo to re-sign with the Reds. After all, in two of Hamilton's three starts this season, Choo shifted to left field (he sat the third game), hinting that there's a reasonable scenario in which both could play in the same outfield. In addition, a Reds lineup that includes both probably has Hamilton leading off and Choo batting second; that'd represent a significant advantage for Hamilton, because of Choo's ability to work the count and afford the speedster maximum stolen-base opportunities.

Nelson Cruz: He's in a similar boat to Ryan Braun, though he's not quite as accomplished a hitter and he'll also have a chance to return to action if the Texas Rangers qualify for the postseason, at least providing an opportunity for us to examine him post-suspension. Would the Rangers re-sign him, knowing that his 50-game absence has been a contributing factor in their decline in the standings? A return to Texas might be critical to Cruz's fantasy prospects; the past three years combined, he was a .280/.341/.549 hitter in his home games at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, compared to .247/.299/.432 on the road.

Brian McCann
Brian McCann has eight straight seasons with at least 18 homers. Will he make it nine in 2014, and will it even be in Atlanta?

Brian McCann: His recovery from shoulder surgery this season went about the best that could possibly be expected, as he managed the seventh 20-homer campaign of his career despite not appearing in a game until May 6. But do the Braves intend to bring back McCann, knowing that he'll reach his 30th birthday in February and that his batting average has been trending downward? Where he lands might not have much of an impact upon his own fantasy value, but it has a bearing on Evan Gattis' 2014 appeal. McCann has never had the best defensive reputation -- that is partly undeserved -- and it's possible that the Braves might be more open to letting Gattis take over, knowing they already have a defensively minded backup under contract for 2014 in Gerald Laird. Re-signing McCann, too, might signal a possible trade of Gattis, presumably to an American League team that wants him as a designated hitter.

Curtis Granderson: Like Cano, the prospect of Granderson leaving Yankee Stadium is an ominous one. But while Cano, the more complete hitter of the two, wouldn't lose much of his fantasy appeal in new surroundings, Granderson is at far greater risk of a precipitous drop, in terms of per-game value, considering he missed much of his "walk year" with multiple fractures, first to his right forearm and then to his left hand. Granderson has hit 115 home runs in his Yankees career, and 63 of those (54.8 percent) came at Yankee Stadium. What's more, he's an extreme pull, fly-ball hitter: He has the third-most pulled fly balls of any left-handed hitter since 2010 (191), and his 49.7 percent rate of pulled balls in play trails only Carlos Pena and Matt Joyce among left-handed hitters during that span. Leaving for a more spacious ballpark might require another adjustment to his swing, something that has put Granderson at risk for slumps or diminished power in the past.

Mike Napoli: This one is as simple as position eligibility. Napoli hasn't played a single inning at catcher this season for the Boston Red Sox. That means he'll enter 2014 eligible only in first base in fantasy leagues, which is a hit to his value, evidenced by his ranking as the No. 5 catcher but only the No. 17 first baseman on our Player Rater. The Red Sox might seek to re-sign him, knowing that Napoli has answered the questions about his hip that were present last winter, but if they don't, might another team consider him for at least part-time duty behind the plate?

Other free agents of note: A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Ruiz, Corey Hart, Paul Konerko, James Loney, Kendrys Morales, Justin Morneau, Michael Morse, Mark Reynolds, Kevin Youkilis, Omar Infante, Kevin Youkilis, Michael Young, Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta, Carlos Beltran, Rajai Davis, Raul Ibanez, Nate McLouth, Hunter Pence.

Risky option years: Among the class of prospective free agents who would first need their teams to decline options -- or in some cases they themselves could -- are: Adam Lind, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, Derek Jeter, Norichika Aoki and Coco Crisp.

Value picks

Extending the rankings 150 hitters deep greatly reduces the amount of "sleeper" candidates, so among those ranked no higher than 75th, here are a few I'll be closely examining all winter (and spring) as possible bargains:

Matt Adams
The Cardinals will need to find room next year for Matt Adams, who's come up big in September.

Matt Adams, St. Louis Cardinals: Not many teams can claim this much roster depth: Allen Craig, the Cardinals' cleanup hitter for 110 games this season, has been out since Sept. 4 , but they haven't experienced even a decline in production at his position. Adams is that good, sporting a .325 batting average and eight home runs in 22 games in September, including 18 starts in the Cardinals' 24 games in the month. Adams completed his minor league career with .318/.364/.563 triple-slash rates and an average of 36 home runs per 162 games played, and through a year-plus in the bigs he has .276/.325/.481 rates and an average of 23 homers per 162. Among bench players in baseball, he's one of the most deserving of a starting job in 2014, and the Cardinals could face an interesting decision this winter as a result. Might they trade Adams or Craig? Or, perhaps more reasonably, could they let free-agent Carlos Beltran depart and let Craig, rather than prospect Oscar Taveras, take over in right field?

Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox: He's another player potentially impacted by winter free-agent moves, as the current Red Sox shortstop, Stephen Drew, has an expiring contract. Bogaerts' future is probably at shortstop, especially with Will Middlebrooks handling third base adequately, and fantasy owners would probably prefer to see the youngster wind up at short. Don't criticize Bogaerts for lackluster production in the majors this year. Since his promotion, he has started consecutive games only twice, and neither time at the same position, though he had been accustomed to regular playing time only at shortstop during his minor league career. He's one of the more disciplined prospects in the game and will have his perceived value deflated based on his unimpressive 2013 stat line.

Oswaldo Arcia, Minnesota Twins: He has a swing that should produce much natural power, and as a 22-year-old, he has potential growth in that department and a lengthy career in which to display it. That the Twins have been out of the running all year has afforded Arcia the advantage of adjusting to the bigs with almost zero pressure; it also means that most fantasy owners probably don't even know who he is. He does, however, have eight home runs in 36 games since his most recent recall, including three at Target Field, which has that high right-field wall. Arcia is that kind of power prospect; if he hits 30 home runs as early as next season, I won't be remotely surprised.

Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners: He has endured a trying season, batting only .227/.297/.478 in 52 games for Triple-A Tacoma, .215/.295/.337 in 49 games for the Mariners, and missing two months with a fractured hand. It's natural, therefore, that so many people who loved Zunino entering the year might now have their doubts about his long-term future. Still, be patient with him. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, he was advanced quickly to the majors at the age of 22, with fewer than 100 games of minor league experience, and even more experienced catching prospects often take considerable time to adapt to the majors. Zunino is as good a hitting prospect as fellow Mariners catcher Jesus Montero, and is a more capable defender.

Adam Eaton, Arizona Diamondbacks: Let's face it, the only thing that has really changed with Eaton, a popular sleeper at the beginning of spring training this season, is that he missed a significant chunk of the year with a sprained left elbow. Frankly, he's every bit the power/speed combo player -- OK, let's say a bit more of a "lite" example of it -- that he was back in March. Since Aug. 1, he's a .274/.330/.403 hitter with three home runs, 20 RBIs, five stolen bases and 31 runs scored; those represent 9-homer, 62-RBI, 16-steal and 97-run season paces. And while those paces might not overwhelm you, bear in mind that he hasn't exactly been granted a regular position in either the lineup or the field -- he was projected the team's every-day leadoff hitter and center fielder in the preseason -- meaning that a clearer role entering 2014 might help his cause. He could be a sneaky 12/30 pick.

George Springer, Houston Astros: Will Springer break camp with the Astros in 2014? He certainly has the talent to make a compelling case for it. A tremendous athlete, Springer finished the year three home runs shy of becoming the first 40/40 player in modern minor league baseball history; his line was .303/.411/.600, plus 37 home runs, 108 RBIs, 45 stolen bases and 106 runs scored in 135 games between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City. And while both of those teams reside in hitter-friendly leagues (Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues), Springer has a brilliant combination of elite power and efficient speed (he's 81-for-97 in his career attempting steals). He might garner a good chunk of early buzz for 2014 American League Rookie of the Year honors, and he will be one of the most important players to monitor once camps open in February.