2014 fantasy rankings update

Jose Abreu continues rising up charts; what to make of Harper, Betts

Updated: July 2, 2014, 5:16 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is having one heck of a season.

Entering Wednesday's play, he shared the major league leads in both home runs (26) and RBIs (67) with Nelson Cruz, and he has done so despite missing 14 games in late May due to posterior tibial tendinitis in his left ankle. (Remarkably, that was a minimum-length DL stint for an injury initially at risk for a lengthier stay.) He is on pace for 50 home runs and 128 RBIs; the former would break Mark McGwire's 27-year-old rookie record (49), the latter would place him sixth all-time among rookies, and only 17 RBIs shy of Ted Williams' mark (145, 1939).

[+] EnlargeJose Abreu
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesJose Abreu has more than proven he's the real thing, and that's even with a short disabled-list stint.

Digging further, Abreu's 26 homers are the most by any player in his first 71 major league games since at least 1914 (per Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index tool, which has data since that year), his 199 total bases rank fifth (behind only Ryan Braun's 199, Joe DiMaggio's 192, Wally Berger's 178 and Willie McCovey's 176) and his 67 RBIs rank sixth (behind only Walt Dropo's 80, Williams' and Rudy York's 72 apiece, and Zeke Bonura's and Jim Bottomley's 69 apiece).

This is a career commencement that has rarely been rivaled, and it is one extensive enough in length to warrant top-shelf fantasy status as you align your pieces for the second half. Originally my No. 151 player overall (in the preseason), Abreu has enjoyed a steady rise, to the point that he's now ranked 12th going forward.

There's not much left to nitpick with Abreu. His .280 batting average (just 54th out of 167 batting title-eligibles, and judged the 81st most-valuable contribution in the category thus far per our Player Rater) and his 5.9 percent walk rate (ranked 133rd) are the only reasonable criticisms. But this discussion isn't meant to illustrate the negatives; it's to accentuate the positives.

Abreu has enjoyed greater contact and walk rates since his June 2 return from the DL (78.3 and 7.0 percent since June 2, compared to 71.1 and 5.3 percent in April and May). Though his underlying numbers don't reveal a substantial improvement in terms of his selectivity, meaning a .300-plus batting average going forward isn't especially likely, they show better strike-zone judgment that might result in his batting at least the .280 he has to date in his remaining games. That Abreu's BABIP is just .284 supports this notion; it's not like his season number has been unrealistic.

As for his power, Abreu might have baseball's highest home run/fly ball percentage (35.1), leading by a substantial margin (Cruz's is 24.8 percent), but there's still plenty of reason to expect him to challenge McGwire's rookie homer record. Considering that Abreu plays his home games in one of baseball's most homer-friendly venues, and even if we correct his year-to-date percentage to 25 --  a more reasonable number for a league leader -- he'd have hit 19 homers. At a rate of one homer per 3.74 games -- that's 19 homers in his 71 games to date -- he'd be capable of another 21, should he appear in all 77 of the White Sox's remaining games.

Sum it up and if Abreu manages .280-20-50 numbers the remainder of the year, he's easily a top-20 player, and one capable of more considering his skill and ballpark.

Harper is back ... but not into the top 25

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsBryce Harper's talent isn't in question, it's whether he can stay healthy.

Bryce Harper's return to the Washington Nationals this past Monday resulted in one of the most substantial upward moves of any player in the rankings, but there are enough questions regarding him that he'll need to prove his worth before he's restored to my top 25 (he concluded the preseason my No. 21 player).

Most notably, his track record of injuries at a young age is enough of a question that Harper appearing in all 79 remaining games is a stretch. After all, he has played just 142 of 245 team games since the beginning of last season, having missed time due to the flu (1 game), toe (2), chin (1), knee (34), hip (5), quadriceps (1) and thumb (57) injuries; he also sat out two games for rest.

But this is also about Harper's yet-to-be-seen production; he has been long touted a future MVP candidate, but one who might be further from reaching the pinnacle than we initially thought. Among the 243 players with at least 500 trips to the plate since the beginning of last season, Harper ranks 80th in batting average (.276), 29th in on-base percentage (.365), 35th in slugging percentage (.472) and 57th in home run rate (4.1 percent). FanGraphs also grades Harper's speed score at 5.3 during that time span, which ranks 57th among that same group.

I have little doubt that Harper has an MVP-caliber season in him, which is why he's sure to earn a loftier ranking in dynasty formats, but for the remainder of the 2014 campaign he's more smartly valued a borderline top-50 player.

Mookie Betts' arrival

Mookie Betts became the next big thing to arrive among prospects, though his wasn't quite with the rankings fanfare of a George Springer or Gregory Polanco.

There were a couple of key differences between the three: Springer's power potential is substantially greater than that of Betts; Springer homered in 6.0 percent of his minor league at-bats, compared to Betts' 2.3 percent. Polanco, meanwhile, had a slightly better homer rate of his own, but more importantly had logged a little more time at Double- and Triple-A to prove his worth, with 132 games and 569 plate appearances between those levels compared to Betts' 77 and 359.

Looking at Betts' initial ranking below (165th) his is a sensible placement considering Springer appeared at 132nd (on April 16) and Polanco 118th (on June 11) in the first going-forward rankings sets published after their big league promotions. Betts could manage a .280 batting average, 4-6 home runs and 8-12 stolen bases for his fantasy teams, but his strength might be his contact ability, which should help him make a quicker adjustment to the big leagues than most.

As my No. 44 outfielder, Betts is well worth a pickup in the more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's still available, but understand that he's still only on the fringe of being roster-worthy in those 10-team mixed formats.

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