My weekly Fantasy baseball article is typically geared toward the competitive owner, one that needs every little edge he/she can get. In an ideal world, every single reader is in that situation, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Maybe injuries have decimated your roster or maybe you simply started reading The Stat Rant one week too late. Whatever the case may be, you’re seeking your revenge in 2015. I’m not punishing the playoff bound/competitive owners; I’ll resume my late season studs/duds next week. But everyone needs to be prepared for next season and here is your first look at the 2015 positional rankings.
- Buster Posey: A low BABIP has masked his improved line drive rate and solid contact numbers. A gradual move to first base should lead to more at-bats and thus better counting numbers.
- Jonathan Lucroy: Team and ballpark help, but so does increasing ISO and a low SwStr%. Possesses a nice combination of batting average and sustainable power.
- Salvador Perez: At just 24 years of age, comparisons to Yadier Molina are spot on. With strong command of the strike zone and no holes in his approach, Perez could well be the future of the position.
- Yadier Molina: Age is a concern, but few catchers offer the consistency of the veteran from at-bat to at-bat. Playing in the NL hurts him, but he still has at least one season of high-level production left as a key cog in the Cardinal attack.
- Evan Gattis: His batting average is a bit fluky, but his power is every bit legit. He’s smashed at least six homers in five of the six months of his career in which he’s had at least 60 at-bats.
Don’t forget about Matt Wieters – Few catchers swing as often as he does while still making consistent contact. He’s still just 28 years old and hits in the middle of a loaded lineup in a favorable park.
- Miguel Cabrera: Simply the best bat in the game. His lower than expected BABIP and ISO indicate that this season could be his floor, making him as close to a zero risk player as we have.
- Paul Goldschmidt: A hand fracture isn’t going to slow him long term and he offers nice speed at first base. More swings and more fly balls would help make him an elite power option, but the 26-year-old can do it all and should be the third player off draft boards again in 2015.
- Edwin Encarnacion: Staying healthy is the key, but the power is elite enough to make him worth the gamble. High level plate discipline will keep him as an elite Fantasy option for years to come.
- Freddie Freeman: Improving line drive rate and ISO have me buying into Freeman as a future 25-30 homer guy, a jump in power production that would make him a younger E5.
- Jose Abreu: The rookie of the year has shown elite power, but I worry that his low-ish contact rate could cap his immediate upside. Pitchers will benefit from having tape on him, but that shouldn’t stop him from clubbing 30-plus homers in 2015, but with some batting average regression.
- Prince Fielder: I’ll drive the Fielder bandwagon this offseason, as I still believe. He was the picture of health and consistency prior to this year and should thrive in hitter-friendly Texas. Surgery took place early enough that he should be 100 percent healthy by opening day, thus making a 90-30-105-.285 season very obtainable given 580 at-bats.
- Anthony Rizzo: Consistently increasing ISO, line drive rate, and fly ball percentage make Rizzo’s breakout a sustainable one. The Cubs are loaded with young offensive talent and Rizzo figures to be batting in the middle of it for the next decade. The value on him in 2015 drafts will be greater than that on Abreu. Book it.
- Albert Pujols: Much like an aging pitcher who learns how to pitch without his high-end fastball, Pujols has learned how to hit with moderately declining skills. He continues to cover the entire plate and drive the ball with consistency. Oh yea, and he hits behind that Mike Trout guy.
- Matt Adams: The “shift-buster” proved himself as a complete hitter, not just the jolly first baseman with grown man power that we assumed he was. The power dipped a bit this season, but his ability to spray the ball around the ballpark makes me think that he will be able to combine batting average and high-end power sooner rather than later.
- Chris Davis: He’s far from a complete hitter but he is an elite power option, and that hasn’t changed. In his three seasons prior to 2014, Davis dominated at home and crushed right-handed pitching. The AL East is full of hitter-friendly parks, and with roughly 75 percent of pitchers being right-handed, bank on a nice bounce back from Crush at a discounted rate.
Don’t forget about Brandon Belt – Injuries and slumps have made him a non-factor in 2014, but he profiles as a nice average/power hitter. Ability to hit both LHP and RHP is a part of a nice skill set that will come cheap next season.
- Robinson Cano: Unreal contact numbers have allowed him to maintain elite standing at his position despite limited power. Look for the batting average to drop a bit but the power to pick up. This Mariners lineup is better than you think and he’s the straw that stirs the drink.
- Jason Kipnis: Ignore the season numbers for Kip and instead be encouraged by the growth of Michael Brantley and the late season resurgence of Carlos Santana. The batting average is never going to be great, but his upside in the other four categories is unlike any other at this position.
Anthony Rendon: This is not a drill. Rendon came through the minor leagues as a nice power option and he is already realizing that potential in the big leagues. He’s also a great contact hitter with plus-speed who bats second in a strong lineup. Rendon is having an elite season despite suffering through a month of May in which he slashed .212/.292/.323. He’s going to finish 2014 as the most productive Nationals hitter, and he could do so again in 2015.
- Ian Kinsler: It’s easy to forget that Kinsler averaged 23 homers and 24 steals from 2011-2013 per 162 games, and we’ve seen flashes of an even better version in his first season in Detroit. He’s always been an elite contact hitter, but his numbers hitting ahead of Cabrera/Martinez have gotten even better, making him the best five-tool asset at second base.
- Jose Altuve: Finding elite speed isn’t easy, but finding elite speed that is complimented by an elite batting average is darn near impossible. The MLB leader in multi-hit games is making consistent hard contact and is a lifetime .297 hitter. The best way to steal a ton of bases is to get on base with regularity, something Altuve has proven he can do over three seasons now.
- Dee Gordon: The speed is unreal and the willingness to be more selective at the dish has allowed Gordon to carry his owners this season. We must not forget that he hit .229 in 397 at-bats from 2012-2013, as some regression in the BA/OBP departments is to be expected in 2015.
- Daniel Murphy: Good luck finding a less sexy name on this list, but Murphy is on his way to a second straight season of reasonable across the board production. He has adjusted his approach a little bit and is now hitting more line drives and fewer fly balls. There just aren’t many middle infielders that can hit .300 while contributing everywhere else, and while the upside isn’t great, I have a hard time believing you’ve lost value on this investment recently.
- Howie Kendrick: His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate down, a nice combination for a well-rounded hitter in a potent lineup. As with Murphy, you’re paying for stability, not upside, and that’s not a bad thing if you can’t land an elite second base option.
- Kolten Wong: If he moved up two spots by the time you’re drafting your 2015 team I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s been a season of ups and downs for the 23-year-old, but it is impossible to ignore his raw talent. He profiled in the minor leagues as a nice average hitter, and a low BABIP would indicate some misfortune is to blame for his low batting average this season. The Cardinals don’t run much, but envisioning Wong to be statistically similar to 2012 Brandon Phillips (86-18-77-15-.281) is far from unreasonable.
- Brian Dozier: He strikes out a lot, swings little, and has a very average career pitch value score. The power/speed combination is nice, but can he continue to produce with limited plate skills? Consider that he hit seven homers in an 18 game stretch in April, and has hit 12 in 93 games since. The batting average is unlikely to come around, making 2014 a tough ceiling to repeat.
Don’t forget about Chase Utley – He’ll be 36 when next season begins, but all he knows how to do is produce. He hits for nice power at home, and with double digit HR/SB and a .280 batting average, Utley has been among the most consistent at his position in the past decade. He isn’t going to win you a title with a massive hot streak, but until he shows signs of decline, he is a starting MI in most leagues that you don’t have to worry about when healthy.
- Troy Tulowitzki: Assuming he is still in Coors and upright for at least 125 games, there is no reason to get cute here. His line drive rate and fly ball to ground ball ratio are at career highs this season, indicating that a power surge is on the horizon.
- Ian Desmond: His ground ball and strikeout rates have spiked while his line drive rate has taken a significant step backwards, and yet he still ranks second at the position in HR’s. Take into account that he’ll turn 29 this offseason and gives you 20 steals as well, and you’ve got a player ready to enter the Top 25 overall hitters.
- Hanley Ramirez: How close are we to seeing a player that has more name value than statistical production? The line could be further blurred in 2015 if his ground ball rate continues to trend in the wrong direction.
- Starlin Castro: He’s been a bit all over the place during his first 700-plus professional games, but it is easy to see why scouts love Castro. He’s shown the ability to hit for average and power in addition to above average speed, but is 2015 the year he puts it all together?
- Jimmy Rollins: It seems that all Phillies are the same player, as Rollins isn’t loaded with upside but his name appears on the roster of many competitive teams’ year in and year out. He’s a good bet to finish with 16 homers and 25 steals for the third time in four seasons, and should the luck turn around, his batting average could bounce back a bit.
- Jean Segura: To be fair, I didn’t own Segura on a single team this season, so I was not as exposed to the disappointing campaign, but the upside is too high for me to exclude him from the Top 10. His BABIP has dipped 60 points this season and his base running score actually improved, making a 12-15 home run/35-40 steal campaign well within reach for this 24-year-old. The Brewers boast a strong offense and are fifth in stolen base attempts, a game plan that makes their shortstop a nice post-hype sleeper.
- Alexei Ramirez: He is capable of hitting both types of pitchers and becomes a power force at hitter-friendly US Cellular. An elite contact hitter that is also a free swinger is a rare combination, but a Fantasy friendly one. For a second consecutive season, Ramirez improved his production against the fastball, a pitch he will see with regularity when batting around Jose Abreu. He’s streaky, but next year’s end of the season numbers should be similar to what he’s done this year.
- Ben Zobrist: He doesn’t grade out as “above average” in any one category, but the super utility man is quietly producing the same season he always seems to end with: 80-15-70-15-.270. Spectacular? No, but there is also very little risk.
- Elvis Andrus: In case you couldn’t tell from the Prince Fielder ranking, I’m buying this Texas attack in 2015, and I think they have a chance to deliver in a big way. He’s a strong contact hitter that will turn 26 later this month and stands to gain in a big way should Fielder produce and Leonys Martin mature. Make no mistake about it, this Rangers offense is going to score runs and the speed from Andrus is something you can count on.
- Jose Reyes: I worry a little bit about a player who relies on his legs and has some injury concerns, not to mention that he will turn 32 prior to the 2015 All Star Break. His approach at the plate reflects a player who knows his speed is no longer (increasing fly ball and swing rate) a plus-asset, which means Fantasy owners are banking on double-digit homers to make him worth a Top 75 selection.
Don’t forget about J.J. Hardy – The high strikeout rate is concerning, but it appears to be an outlier. An early season injury slowed him a bit in the early going, but his track record indicates that his power is legitimate. His fly ball rate has remained steady despite his struggles, which is the key to rediscovering his power stroke in the fan box known as Camden Yards. We are looking at two, maybe three shortstops to finish 2014 with 20-plus homers … a club I think Hardy joins in 2015.
- Adrian Beltre: The 35-year-old has been hitting in the center of an underachieving lineup and considered to be having a “down” season. However, if you project his numbers through 100 games for an entire season, Beltre was on pace for 96-26-99-.319, numbers that would rank better than his 2013 campaign. He dominates in Texas, and any age-based regression should be offset by a reasonably effective supporting cast in 2014.
- Anthony Rendon: If you spend an early pick on Cano, don’t hesitate to put the Nats’ promising youngster at third, a position that displayed less Fantasy depth in 2014. His breakout season was not a fluke and this may be your last opportunity to draft him outside of the Top 25 overall players.
- Kyle Seager: His ISO and HR/FB rate have risen in back-to-back seasons, and with a patient approach that features the elite ability to make solid contact inside the strike zone, that power is here to stay. His supporting cast offers a nice combination of speed, average, and power, thus giving him the potential to produce nice numbers across four categories. His strong 2014 has come with road numbers that are well below his career average, making improvement possible as he develops consistency.
- Josh Donaldson: His low BABIP would indicate some bad luck, but with a low line drive rate and a poor K-rate, I fear that Donaldson’s ceiling is not as high as you’d assume. His power is nothing more than average at home and against righties, two trends that have been consistent over his career. The loss of Yoenis Cespedes is also going to affect Donaldson’s production, and while the power is legitimate, counting on a repeat performance is risky.
- Evan Longoria: I’m still buying the talent here, but Longoria’s disappointing 2014 has been the result of forcing the issue, a trend that has the risk of continuing if he doesn’t get some help. He’s swinging more, but those swings have come at pitches outside the zone, resulting in an 85 point dip in ISO. Since the 2013 All Star break (707 at-bats): 96-28-94-.255
- Nolan Arenado: The defensive wizard was batting .305 prior to a broken finger that placed him on the shelf for five weeks and disrupted the rhythm he had established. What’s not to like about a player who has more than twice as many hits as strikeouts and strong line drive/fly ball rates while playing in Coors? This is a conservative ranking, as I think he is poised to take over the top spot at this position sooner rather than later if he stays in Colorado for the entirety of his career.
- Manny Machado: His plate discipline has dipped since he first burst onto the scene, a trend that has resulted in more ground balls than Fantasy owners would like to see. He has the raw ability to be great, but he has yet to show me enough as a run-producer to be considered as an elite option.
- David Wright: Is the speed gone? How about the power? What’s the deal with him swinging more, and making less contact, at pitches outside the zone? The Mets don’t have many pieces around Wright and that’s allowing pitchers to dictate his at-bats. He’ll be 32 this December, and with some nagging injuries popping up over the last four seasons, it is tough to rate Wright higher than this given the upside of those young guns.
- Matt Carpenter: The hits will continue to come in bunches, and while each individual hit doesn’t result in major Fantasy production, I’ll gladly take my chances on a top of the order hitter who is constantly on base. Even in a down season, Carpenter’s near slump-proof approach has allowed him to rank among the 10 most valuable players at his position. The Cardinals offense, as a whole, should improve (they are the second lowest scoring team in baseball) and once again make this hit machine a safe play.
- Todd Frazier: The “Billy Hamilton Effect” has everyone on this Reds offense thinking they can be aggressive on the base paths, and while it has worked for Frazier this year, the odds of it being sustainable seem to be slim. His cartoonish 16.8 percent HR/FB rate represents a 43.6 percent jump from a season ago, growth that is difficult to repeat. Frazier has profiled as a .260 hitter for his entire professional career, thus making not only a regression in quality of hits likely, but also the quantity.
Don’t forget about Trevor Plouffe – He has shown the ability to hit both lefties and righties this season and has proven capable of getting very hot. He’s not a perfect hitter, but his batting eye has progressively gotten better and he is still just 28 years old. Draft him knowing that streaks are part of the package, and hope that lasts long enough for him to record a 70-15-70-.260 type of season in the middle of the Twins lineup.
- Mike Trout: He’s striking out more, walking less, didn’t steal a base for the entire month of July, and ranks fifth on his own team (minimum 120 at-bats) in home batting average … and he’s still rated as the top Fantasy batter for 2014. I don’t care about your format; Trout is the top overall player for at least the next five years.
- Andrew McCutchen: From 2011-2013, McCutchen was a stud, but he was pounding left-handed pitching (.348/.435/.628) and not excelling, by his standards, against righties (.289/.376/.473). That changed this year as he adjusted his approach and is currently slashing .323/.418/.549 against RHP. In addition to matching a career high in ISO, Cutch is also stealing bases in a far more efficient fashion.
- Giancarlo Stanton: The power is as overwhelming a skill as there is in professional sports today, as his pure strength makes “pitching around him” nearly impossible. The lineup is obviously a concern for his counting numbers (he’s been responsible for driving himself in 43.4 percent of the time and has a mere 372 career RBIs despite 286 extra base hits) and his low contact rate makes prolonged slumps a very real possibility (he’s hit .250 or worse in seven different months since the beginning of 2012). He has struggled mightily against the slider, a pitch that is becoming more and more popular. So there are red flags here, but I’m not tugging on Super Man’s cape; chase the power, accept the average, and hope for the continued uptick in speed.
- Carlos Gomez: Watching him play the game of baseball is tough and I would never advise a young child to approach the plate the way he does. But the more success he has, the clearer it becomes that this style simply works for him. His elevated BABIP has made it appear that he has solved RHP (.418 BABIP vs righties), so I still have my concerns, but it is a step in the right direction. Given how hard he swings, it stands to reason that he is going to have a high BABIP. His third consecutive season with a .220-plus ISO and his focus on elevating the ball in a hitter-friendly park have me buying 30-homer upside. And with his stolen base success rate being 85 percent as a member of the BrewCrew, he’s my pick for baseball’s next 30-40 player.
- Adam Jones: An ever so slightly lesser version of Gomez, Jones too takes an uber-aggressive mindset with him to the plate. His walk rate has continued to somehow decline (currently sitting at 3 percent), but it is the dip in power numbers that have me a bit worried. He’s hitting more fly balls but generating less power and fewer line drives for a second consecutive season, something that tells me that his numbers may be inflated due to his ballpark. That’s fine from a Fantasy standpoint, but when it comes to evaluating talent, I’ve got him behind Gomez and the next three outfielders on this list.
- Bryce Harper: It’s a fact: this season has not gone the way Harper owners had hoped. It’s a fact: the kid won’t turn 22 years old for another two months. Barry Bonds played two months in the big leagues before turning 22, Harper has played three seasons. Injuries have derailed him a bit this year, but don’t forget that there is still plenty of time for him to harness his potential. His pitch value score is negative this year after averaging plus 21.5 in his first two seasons in the bigs, indicating that he is simply pressing and guessing. A healthy offseason and a promotion up the lineup will do him good, as I have him projected as a player who could go 90-25-100-10-.280 next season without much of a problem.
- Carlos Gonzalez: Another star player having a down year, but as long as you factor in a DL stint, there is no reason to shy away from CarGo. During five-plus seasons in Colorado, his per 162 game averages are borderline Trout-ian: 108-32-103-25-.300. He has taken a much more aggressive approach in his limited action this season, a trend that should have Fantasy owners drooling, as long as he can keep his mid-30 percent fly ball rate and his line drive percentage rebounds toward his career average.
- Yasiel Puig: His increased maturity at the plate is very encouraging, as Puig has sped up the learning curve, thus making Fantasy greatness a very real option sooner rather than later. He’s an athlete, but his position in the batting order and his lack of instinct when it comes to stealing bases (successful on 18 of his 33 career attempts) profile him as more of a 10-15 steal player than the 20-plus we initially thought. That being said, all signs are pointing in the right direction for continued growth in the other four Fantasy categories.
- Jose Bautista: A fly ball hitter who plays in Toronto and has elite command of the strike zone? Yes, please. There are some health concerns here, but with an increasing line drive rate and versatility when it comes to his ability to hit any pitch (only the changeup in 2012 rated as a negative pitch value over the past four seasons) make him a safe bet to continue the 45 homer per 162 game pace that he has maintained since 2010.
- Billy Hamilton: I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t generally recommend chasing speed, but Hamilton has flashed the potential to be more than a glorified pinch runner. Not only does his speed score rank similar to that of Jose Reyes in his prime, so do his line drive and fly ball rates, hinting that a 10-15 home run, 60-70 steal season with a .275 batting average is not unreasonable. In the worst case, Hamilton will rank you among the best teams in stolen bases, but if his ability to drive the ball maintains, he could once again rank as a Top 30 hitter in 2015.
- Justin Upton
- Ryan Braun
- Yoenis Cespedes
- Jacoby Ellsbury
- Michael Brantley
Don’t forget about Wil Myers – Injuries have plagued him this season, but four months short of his 24th birthday, Myers still has plenty of upside. We are currently in a decline when it comes to true power, but Myers’ track record indicates that he has the type of home run potential that is worth reaching for. His ISO throughout the minor leagues was over .250 and it was a very strong .185 in his rookie campaign. Speed is easier to find in the outfield than a player with power/batting average potential, so make sure to have Myers circled on your draft board as a player worth rostering at his sure to be discounted rate.
- Clayton Kershaw: Home, road, right, lefty … it doesn’t matter, no one can make consistent contact against the current best pitcher in baseball and maybe of this generation. I do believe that some regression is due to set in, but there is no safer bet on a start-to-start basis than this lefty.
- Felix Hernandez: With a declining line drive rate and an increasing ground ball rate, The King is now dominating even when opponents make contact. He’s been an elite talent for the better part of six seasons, and now with a reasonable offense supporting him, the major detractor in standard Fantasy leagues is no longer a certainty. The only concern here is the high career pitch count (on pace to throw 3,000-plus pitches for the ninth consecutive season), but wouldn’t we have seen some signs by now if that was going to be an issue?
- Yu Darvish: The high-strikeout upside is appealing for owners that chase K’s, and with a declining walk rate, Darvish is making full use of his full repertoire. I worry that his fly ball-to-ground ball rate is on the rise due to the ballpark he plays in, but with a career xFIP that is 0.15 runs lower than his ERA, it is reasonable to project another season with 8-9 strikeouts per outing and an ERA right around 3.00.
- Adam Wainwright: He’s an elite ratio pitcher, and while his strikeout rate is nothing to sneeze at, it does prevent him from joining the Fantasy class of the three pitchers ranked ahead of him. He relies quite a bit on the defense behind him, given his aggressive approach. While that hasn’t hurt him this season, it has the potential to (he ranks fifth in ERA and 26th in xFIP).
- David Price: The jury is still out on Price’s move to Detroit, but I have a hard time believing that it will hurt his Fantasy value. He’s had another stellar season despite an elevated fly-ball and HR-rate, two trends that could well regress to his career mean and allow him to vault over Wainwright.
- Chris Sale: He plays on a below average team in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the bigs, yet he’s developing into one of the most reliable young Fantasy pitchers in all of baseball. The funky motion could lead to future problems, but with an increasing swing and miss rate to go along with throwing more first pitch strikes (a major improvement, as opponents are slashing .215/.305/.356 after a first pitch ball and ..184/.217/.243 after a first pitch strike this season), I can live with the injury risk that seems to surround every successful pitcher these days.
- Stephen Strasburg: I could wax poetic here about the underlying talent here and the consistent strikeout count that limits his downside, but I’ll instead focus on luck. Not only is his xFIP 1.15 runs lower than his ERA, but opponents are batting an insane .418 on balls put in play with runners on base. If your leaguemates feel Stras has failed to live up to the hype, feel free to select him outside the Top 15 at his position and win your league.
- Max Scherzer: The occasional awful outing tends to inflate his season numbers, but his ability to buckle down with runners in scoring position (.220 batting average against since 2011) is a skill that often limits the damage. I worry a bit about his decline in usage of his fastball and his tendency to allow opponents to elevate the ball, two traits that are rare among top notch pitchers.
- Madison Bumgarner: It’s a very thin line that separates the good from the elite, and Bummy has simply experienced some bad luck this season that has prevented his numbers from crossing over. Despite bettering his K-BB percentage for a second straight season, his ratios took a serious step backwards from his impressive 2013 campaign as a result of an elevated BABIP. In fact, the number of base runners wouldn’t have been a major issue had he stranded them at his career rate or not struggled to retire the speed hitters atop the lineup (1-2 hitters have combined for a .407 BABIP this season, a 97 point spike from 2011-2013). A bounce here or there and a few more timely outs, and Bumgarner has the potential to be among the game’s very best.
- Zack Greinke: The book on Greinke early in his career was that he was a great pitcher … when comfortable in his surroundings. After a second consecutive elite level season in Los Angeles, it would appear that he is plenty comfortable under the bright lights. He reemerged as a strikeout pitcher after low totals over the last two seasons, a theme that I expect to continue, as the movement that made him elite in Kansas City is back (opponents are swinging at more and hitting less pitches outside of the zone). His shift in pitching repertoire has limited the effectiveness of left-handed power hitters this season, his primary downfall over the past three seasons.
- Julio Teheran
- Masahiro Tanaka
- Cole Hamels
- Johnny Cueto
- Jon Lester
- Matt Harvey
- Garrett Richards
- Corey Kluber
- Jordan Zimmermann:
- Hisashi Iwakuma
Don’t forget about Andrew Cashner – It’s easy to ignore a converted reliever that plays on the West Coast and has 17 career victories, but make no mistake about it, Cashner can produce at a high level. He won’t strike out a ton of batters, but with a high ground ball rate and a low walk rate, I love the potential ratios of this 27-year-old. He can’t be touched at home (1.75 ERA in 20 San Diego appearances since the beginning of last season), and given the trajectory of his metrics, it is very possible we see that high level of efficiency carry over to his road starts.
The ranks are obviously subject to change, but it is never too early to get a head start on draft preparation. I will be updating these periodically as we approach winter and I take a trip to Arizona Fall League to peek at some of the prospects, so stay tuned.