Building a winning fantasy team is like building a good hearty sandwich. First and Third base would be the bread. You don’t want some cheap white wonder bread if you’re going to make a good sandwich, you want something with taste, something filling and something that’s not going to fall apart on you. Second base would be the cheese that complements the tasty meaty delicatessen choices you’ve selected. Some cheeses may stink but you still need them to make a good sandwich. Shortstop would be the mustard. You can settle for a cheap generic brand off the shelf, but for a tasty sandwich you’re better off spending an extra few bucks to get a good jar of Dijon spicy mustard. Catchers would be the lettuce or garnish. Some lettuce is crisp and green while others are brown and wilted. Most people like a good garnish, others only like a light garnish and a few don’t care for it but will have it anyway just to have some greens. There are a few though who would prefer to pick it off and do without.
But, for a truly tasty sandwich…you need some good meat. And not just one kind of meat, you need several layers of spicy goodness to truly complete your sandwich. You need Capicollo, Prosciutto, Milano Salami (or insert your own personal preferences). And once you’ve decided on your meat you have to choose the brand name for the quality. Do you buy it prepackaged, go to the deli counter or spend a few more bucks and get some fresh from the butcher. Some meats like ham are generic and you can get away with a cheap brand and still have it taste good, while other meats are higher end and you’ll have to pay more if you really want them. You could go all higher end, but remember that you’re on a budget so if you spend too much money here you may end up with stinky cheese and a stale crumbly roll to put it on.
But you didn’t mention pitchers or closers? Well that’s because we’re building a sandwich now, we’ll get to the side dishes that complement your creation later, and then discuss the tasty dessert you’ve chosen to close out your meal. OK so maybe this isn’t the best analogy, but I bet you’re hungry now. Well before we build our sandwich, let me tell you a little about the chef specials:
This year’s free agent class includes Chris Young (Signed by Mets), Jason Kubal (signs with Twins), Franklin Gutierrez, David DeJesus (Resigned by Tampa), Reed Johnson, Curtis Granderson (signed w/Mets), Carlos Beltran (signed w/Yankees), Nelson Cruz, Jacoby Ellsbury (signed with Yankees), Shin-Soo Choo (signed with Rangers), Jeff Francour, David Murphy (signed by Indians), Raul Ibanez, Rajai Davis (signed with Tigers), Nate McLouth (signs with Nationals), Andres Torres, Laynce Nix, Jason Bay, Delmon Young, Tony Gwynn Jr., Rick Ankiel, Nyjer Morgan, Matt Diaz, Marlon Byrd (signed w/Philly), Juan Rivera, Jeff Baker and Austin Kearns.
There are some high-profile names available this winter, but for the most part the list consists of third or fourth outfielders and names irrelevant to all with the exception of those in the deepest of leagues. Almost one-third of the players on the list are age 35 and older (I wonder if Ibanez will give it a go at age 42?). Some of the players best days are behind them and others are still playing hoping to have a good year so they have something (anything) to look back on and smile. It will be interesting to see where some of these players sign as their new team (and home park) could affect their value, while other signees could affect the future of a young player hoping for a job with the big club come spring training. Let the free agent games begin.
Continue on without me, I’m gonna go make a sandwich.
As always, feel free to disagree in the comments section below.
1. Mike Trout (Angels): Move over Michael Jordan, there’s a new Mike everyone wants to be like. While his numbers were down from last season, nobody expected Trout to duplicate his phenomenal rookie season. At age 22 Tout has already moved into the upper echelon and this is just the beginning. Trout is legitimate 30/30/100 threat capable of batting .300 or above for many years. He slightly decreased his strikeout percentage and raised his walk percentage a full 5 points up to 15%. Very few rookies of his age have burst onto the scene and accomplished what he has. He’s a five tool monster who will only be rivaled at the top of the draft board by Miguel Cabrera.
2. Andrew McCutchen (Pirates): Andy has really come into his own since his arrival five years ago. For the third year in a row he produced a 20/20 season with very good run and RBI numbers. His normal .365 OBP has surpassed .400 the past 2 seasons, and his batting average has been above .310 for the past 2 seasons as well. McCutchen will be 27 next year and this is usually the mythical time for hitters to bust out. I’m not sure how much better he can get, but at a minimum you can expect numbers somewhere between his 2012 and 2013 seasons. Only 2 players have put up 20/20 seasons for the past three straight years, Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gonzalez.
3. Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies): While McCutchen has had 3 straight 20/20 seasons, CarGo just completed his fourth. He has also batted .300+ in three of the past four season (.295 in 2011) and hit .332 on the road this year as he tries to shed that cloud that Colorado hitters can only hit at home. CarGo could actually rank higher than McCutchen if it wasn’t for one small problem; injuries have a way of finding him. The most games he has played in a season is 145 in 2010 as he’s spent time either on the DL or sitting on the bench for days at a time with miscellaneous ouchies (which frustrates fantasy owners to no end). The injuries should push his value lower and if it wasn’t for the fact that he can produce a 20/20 season in only 110 games, it would be. If you draft him there is a chance he will miss about a months’ time, but if he manages to stay healthy for the year, a 30/30 season could be waiting for him.
4. Adam Jones (Orioles): It seems that each year that Baltimore improves, Jones does as well. He had his second 30+ home runs season in a row and passed the 100 RBI mark for the first time in his career. His batting average for the past four years has stayed in the .285 range and while he should be able to duplicate that in 2014, there are some troubling signs. His 3.6% walk percentage was an all time low and his strikeout percentage was close to 20%. For now Jones has figured out a way to make that work for him, but as he gets older and his timing slows I can see it becoming a major problem for him. For 2014, I’d expect numbers on average of what he’s done the past 2 years, but with a slight decline in home runs as pitchers might start to throw to him differently now that he’s established his power stroke.
5. Ryan Braun (Brewers): It took a year and a half, but Bud Selig finally got his man. In a way, the suspension was a merciful way to end Braun’s year as he was having the worst season of his career. Many folks are afraid to draft Braun after this PED scandal, but before you run away from him just look at his career numbers from his rookie season through 2012. Five out of six of those seasons he hit 30+ home runs, had 100+ RBIs (97 in the year he came short), batted over .300 and scored 90+ runs. His stolen bases were in the double digits each year and 2 of those years were 30 or more. If ever there was a year for him to fall apart it would have been 2012, but that year turned out to be one of his most productive. I find it hard to believe that every single one of those years were due to some type of substance, especially after looking at his NCAA and minor league numbers. The players below are capable of putting up good numbers, but none of them have put them up with the consistency that Braun has. Ignore the rumor mill, ignore last season and have some faith. He probably won’t go in the first round, but he’s easily a second round pick if available.
6. Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees): When Ellsbury is healthy he can bat close to or above .300, can score 90+ runs and steal in the neighborhood of 50 bases. The key word in that sentence is healthy because Ellsbury has lost the better part of 2 seasons to injuries, though I can’t blame either one on conditioning. In 2010 he missed a good piece of the season after a collision with Adrian Beltre left him with 4 broken ribs, and in 2012 he missed half the season when Reid Brignac fell on his shoulder when Jacoby attempted to break up a double play sliding into second. Fantasy owners can forgive when a player missed a few weeks or even a month, but when a first round pick goes down for three or more months; it’s into the doghouse with you. Now Ellsbury should be able to duplicate his 2013 numbers, but that is contingent on which team he decides to play for. Boston gave him the green light and the freedom to run whenever he sought fit. Let’s just hope that his new skipper will afford him the same liberties on the base path.
Edit: 12/03 – Ellsbury should be hitting atop of the Yankees lineup so health permitting, he should be able to duplicate his 2013 season.
7. Bryce Harper (Nationals): An injury in May put a damper on his season and he wasn’t the same player afterwards, but his bottom line looked pretty good for a 20-year-old kid. His batting average, OBP and base on balls all saw an increase while his strikeout percentage was down a point from last year. The Nationals had him batting third for most of the year and if stays in the middle of the lineup (and I don’t’ see him moving out), you can expect increased numbers across the board in 2014. He has incredible talent and unlike Mike Trout, we’ve just scratched the surface. We may not see his full power potential for a few years as he’s still filling out, but once that happens he could rival Trout for the top outfield spot. Realistically he should be ranked a few spots lower, but his potential to out hit the players below him gives him the extra value.
8. Matt Kemp (Dodgers): Kemp has fallen out of favor with the fantasy community. Part of that stems from the fact he has missed over 100 games the past 2 season, and part of it comes from the unrealistic expectations we all placed on him after his obscene 2011 season. That was a career year and nothing more so just be happy if you had him on your roster. Kemp is a .290 batter who will average 25 home runs and 25-30 stolen bases (with a chance for a few more in each category). If you drafted him expecting more than that, well that’s your fault. As for the injuries, he played in 399 consecutive games before hitting the DL with a hamstring injury in 2012 (and reinjured the hamstring 2 days after he returned). This season he went on the DL for hamstring and ankle injuries, along with problems with his surgically repaired shoulder. His ankle and shoulder should be 100% next season, and Jose Reyes had 4 healthy productive seasons after his bouts with hamstring issues. Kemp is only 29 so he should be able to bounce back to his normal self. His numbers support his ranking, but if his health worries you then maybe one of the players listed below might be more to your liking.
9. Jay Bruce (Reds): The bad news is that Bruce is a career .257 hitter who struggles at times against lefties. He also strikes out a ton, but he does collect enough walks to compensate. Not a ringing endorsement so far for a guy ranked ninth. The good news is, for the past 3 years Bruce has average 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, scored 87 runs and stolen 8 bases. Some of the players below may have more power, some may be able to hit for a better average and others might have more speed, but none of them put up numbers more consistently than Bruce. There is zero risk here as you know exactly what you’re going to get when you draft him, no questions asked. And just like Andrew McCutchen he will be 27 years old next season so there is the potential for a breakout or career year. His average may be mediocre, but you won’t find a steadier or more dependable bat.
10. Jose Bautista (Blue Jays): He’s not the .300 batting average guy we saw in 2011 as he’s only a .260 hitter on a good year. The 54 home runs in 2010 were an aberration. Bautista is more of a 35-40 home run guy capable of giving you 100 runs and RBIs over the course of a full season. The extra power and few points of average should get him ranked above Jay Bruce, but Joey Bats has missed time the past two seasons. He missed the last 10 weeks of the season last year with wrist problems that eventually required surgery and miss the final 6 weeks of this season with a left hip bone bruise. His wrist should be fully healed next year and the bone bruise isn’t anything to be concerned about, but I’m going to err on the side of caution. Bautista should deliver big in 3 categories but just like Bruce, you’ll have to accept the pedestrian batting average.
11. Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins): Stanton will be 24 next year and already has 3 years of service under his belt. He has enormous power potential and I would love to rank him higher, but several factors stand in his way of moving up these rankings. He has shown in both the majors and minors he can hit for a high average, but he also shown at both levels that his batting average could rival Jay Bruce and Jose Bautista. The second problem is that he plays for the Marlins. Home runs are nice but with little talent on the team (which isn’t going to change anytime soon) his RBI opportunities are going to be lower that the players ranked above him and his run totals even lower. The final factor is health as he’s missed time in each of the past 2 seasons. With some players I will overlook an injury or two but when I do, that player usually has some kind of healthy track record to support my case. I want to tell you to jump on him for his power and upside, but hesitate due to his team and injuries at such a young age. Follow your gut feelings on this one.
12. Justin Upton (Braves): It was a down year for the Upton family this season. Justin’s batting average was down this season which could be attributed to not being comfortable with his new place of residence. In the past his batting average was sustained by a high home average so hopefully next year Justin will be settled in. His strikeouts were higher than normal and his stolen base total didn’t reach double digits let along get close to the 20 he has averaged the four years prior. Given his track record in both these categories I’m willing to overlook this as a fluke or just a bad year. As long as Justin isn’t taking any hitting advice from his older brother B.J., expect the batting average to be back up in the .280 range next year and he will again threaten to give us a 20/20 season (but come up just short).
13. Carlos Gomez (Brewers): I had my doubts about Gomez coming into this year and quite honestly I still have them, but when I put my personal feelings aside I can’t argue with the numbers he’s put up the past two years. The speed doesn’t surprise me as that has always been there, but the power he has displayed the past two years came out of nowhere. I don’t know if it was a hitting coach, a minor league instructor and if he was just a late bloomer, but whatever the reason Gomez has gone from being a potential journeymen player to a 20/30+ threat. He is a free swinger so I wouldn’t trust the batting average he put up this season just yet, but the rest of his numbers are certainly within reach. If he repeats what he did last year he’ll certainly outperform his rankings here.
14. Yasiel Puig (Dodgers): The international man of mystery came into spring training and put on a hitting display. Despite his impressive numbers there was no room for Puig in the Dodgers outfield so he was banished to the minors. When injures arose he didn’t wait for the door to be opened for him, he kicked it down. He made a big statement batting .436 in June leaving the Dodgers no choice but to keep him up regardless of what ever happened with the rest of the outfield from that point on. He batted .273 in the second half which isn’t eye opening, but his overall numbers and increased walk rate were enough to raise the hopes of those in the Dodgers organization and fantasy owners alike. Puig has shown he’s capable of hitting 30 home runs next season, which is impressive for someone who hasn’t turned 23 yet. I don’t know about a .300+ batting average next year, but 28-30 home runs with double-digit steals would be easily attainable. If Puig pulls that off he’ll easily graduate to the top 10 in 2015.
15. Matt Holliday (Cardinals): Matt gets some grief from fantasy owners for the occasional day off due to back issues, but for the past two seasons he has finished in the top 10 for outfielders. The power is still there to swat 28 home runs, but the lower number of at bats gives the illusion that his power is diminishing. The batting average has been in the .300 neighborhood for the past four years. Couple that with the run and RBI numbers that hover around 100 each season and you get a very stable, productive outfielder for half the price of the players listed above. Holliday will be 34 next season and while a drop in numbers is usually expected as a player ages, I don’t see it being anything substantial in this case. He will miss or be given off days here and there, but you’ll be very happy with the final results. Some older players get dismissed on draft day, but don’t do that here.
16. Alex Rios (Rangers): If it wasn’t for his collapse in 2009 when he was traded to the White Sox or the down year in 2011, Rios would garner more attention than he does. Even at age 32 he still has the wheels to steal 30 bases, but Rios is good for more than stolen bases. He also has the power to launch 20 balls over the wall, and now that he’s in Texas that number could go a little higher in 2014. His batting average tends to fluctuate some, but expecting something around .280 is a realistic expectation. A full year of hitting in the middle of the order in Texas has the makings of a career year, but don’t draft him expecting a huge increase because of his new surroundings. For 2014 I’d say 20 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 80 runs and RBIs would be safe, but don’t be surprised if those numbers are higher.
17. Hunter Pence (Giants): For six straight seasons Pence has belted 20+ home runs, 25 or more in four of those seasons. Like Alex Rios, the batting average tends to fluctuate, but usually levels off in the .280 range. The stolen bases were nice to see this year after taking a two-year hiatus from the double-digit department. Overall it was another typical Hunter Pence Year. He struggled with the Giants when he first arrived last year, but this year he seemed very comfortable and I think is a safe bet going forward. A repeat of this year shouldn’t be a problem minus a few home runs and RBIs. I wouldn’t draft him expecting 20+ stolen bases though. Until we know the speed has returned and didn’t just make a guest appearance, just be happy with whatever he contributes here.
18. Yoenis Cespedes (A’s): While he didn’t quite live up to his 2012 season, the 27-year-old Cespedes had a decent overall season. His numbers slipped across the board, most notably his batting average. He batted .237 or lower for the first five months but a .314 average in September helped bring things up to a respectable level. The power was still present and his run and RBI totals were good, but I think everyone was expecting more. While his strikeout totals were higher, his strikeout percentage actually dropped 3.4% from last season. The speed we saw last season was cut in half and he was caught as many times as he was successful. Was it a sophomore slump or was he just playing over his head in 2012? Cespedes has the power to hit 20+ home runs and is good for 70+ runs and 80 or so RBI, but the batting average and stolen bases are the wild cards here. Draft him based upon numbers from those 3 categories and hope for the best in the other two.
19. Starling Marte (Pirates): Is a new star on the rise? Marte reminds me of a Young Carl Crawford. Each of them was called up in the middle of their fourth season in the minors. Both hit close to .260 on their initial call up with minimal success. In their first full year Marte batted .280 with 83 runs to Crawford’s .281 and 80 runs. Neither one had much success at drawing walks nor avoiding strikeouts. Marte has shown a little more power in his first year while Crawford put his speed on display. So what can we expect of Marte in 2014? If he continues to follow in Crawford’s footsteps we should see an increase in runs and batting average with a few more stolen bases. Marte isn’t going to be a 20 home run hitter, but like Crawford he has double-digit power and may come close to 20 a few times. He is a speed guy with some pop that should be a good source of runs and batting average. Don’t expect more than 50 RBIs hitting in the leadoff spot.
20. Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers): The soon to be free agent did his job and raised his value by returning to his 20/20 ways. Life was good at the top of the order in Cincinnati as Choo scored 107 runs and accumulated 112 walks (both career highs). With the exception of 2011, Choo has had 5 years now that have been pretty similar with the exception of his RBI totals, but that just reflects where he hit in the order and not how good or bad or a player he is. I don’t see him getting an offer from The Reds unless they’re not willing to hand over centerfield to Billy Hamilton yet, but with what he’s done since 2009 and the consistency of his numbers he should have numerous offers. Unless he signs with someone like Oakland, San Diego, someplace with a cavernous home park, expect Choo to put up numbers between what he has done the past two seasons. All aboard the Soo Choo Train.