It's been three-and-a-half months since the last out of the World Series was recorded, but even though games haven't been played, the landscape of baseball hasn't stopped shifting over the winter. Some players changed their teams, positions or roles. Others have been recovering from injuries or looking for ways to overcome a disappointing season, while still others look to build on a surprising level of success.
That's a lot of change for Fantasy owners to track. With draft prep season cranking up with the first days of spring training, now is a good time to revisit some of the most impactful stories that developed over the offseason. Below are 10 of the most prominent ones, particularly from a Fantasy perspective. From the Marlins' latest fire sale to the post-suspension return of Melky Cabrera north of the border, we will review some of the biggest game-changing developments and what they mean for Fantasy owners on Draft Day. While many of these stories are still developing, I will make my best guess as to how owners should approach the players in question as they put their Fantasy rosters together for 2013.
Can Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez bounce back in L.A.?
Going into 2011, Crawford, Gonzalez and Ramirez were all among the top options at their respective positions, and all were conceivably first-round material in Fantasy drafts. The Dodgers acquired each member of this trio last season, but this will be the first year in which they will wear Dodger Blue on opening day. In addition to sharing a recent history of disappointing Fantasy owners, as teammates they will rely on each other for run-producing opportunities. If all three are showing signs of continued decline, the multiplier effect could spell bad news for their Fantasy production.
My best guess: Gonzalez is just one year removed from having one of his best seasons and Ramirez enjoyed a minor resurgence after joining the Dodgers. However, Gonzalez's plate discipline has been eroding and Ramirez has ceased to be a doubles hitter. With Crawford missing all but 31 games in an injury-marred year, it's difficult to know what to expect from any of the trio, much less count on them to return to elite status. However, all are good bets to experience at least mild rebounds, and Gonzalez and Ramirez can be viewed as solid second-tier options at their respective positions.
How will the move to Anaheim affect Josh Hamilton?
When Hamilton signed with the Angels in December, he helped to form baseball's most formidable trio of hitters in the same lineup, joining forces with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. Granted, Hamilton had the luxury of batting in the majors' highest-scoring lineup last season in Texas, but Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler are not quite Pujols and Trout. While Hamilton's new teammates should provide lineup protection and RBI opportunities, he also has to contend with moving from one of the American League's best hitter's parks to one of the worst.
My best guess: Hamilton's career .260/.325/.440 slash line at Angel Stadium doesn't seem to bode well for his performance in his new home park. He has only 166 plate appearances there to date, but he has also struggled at other pitcher's parks, like O.co Coliseum, Safeco Field and Tropicana Field. Given the extreme change in his home hitting environment, we can expect Hamilton to lose at least a little bit of home run power. However, if he can rebound from last season's career-worst strikeout rate, Hamilton can make up for a home run per flyball ratio that should tumble.
Does Giancarlo Stanton lose Fantasy value due to the Marlins' weak lineup?
The Marlins were 29th in the majors in runs scored last year, but with the departures of Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio since last July, they could be even more anemic this season. Even with questionable lineup protection, Stanton drove in 86 runs in 123 games last year. With better health, Stanton should improve his run production numbers, just by virtue of getting more at-bats, but the Marlins' depleted lineup could take a toll on Stanton's per-game production, as he could hit with fewer men on base and see fewer good pitches.
My best guess: The 2012 Reds provide something of an analogy for Stanton's current situation. Their run total dropped to 669 from 735 the year before, but Joey Votto and Jay Bruce were able to maintain or improve their run production stats on a per-game basis. However, Votto's increased batting average and Bruce's escalating extra-base power were instrumental to that, so Stanton may need to take his hitting to the next level to take advantage of his run-producing opportunities. He's already taken some pretty big developmental leaps, so that may be asking for too much.
Is Craig Kimbrel worth the investment?
In early drafts on our site, Kimbrel has typically been the first closer taken, and on average, he is being drafted within the first 50 picks. That's even earlier than he was being picked a year ago, and no other closer is being taken within the first 80 picks on average. Last season, Kimbrel was the most valuable closer in standard Rotisserie leagues, but he was outscored in standard Head-to-Head leagues by Fernando Rodney and just squeezed past Jim Johnson for second place in the points rankings. Kimbrel may be in a league of his own when it comes to strikeouts (assuming flamethrower Aroldis Chapman doesn't close this year), but does that make it worth drafting him so early?
My best guess: Kimbrel didn't exactly pull away from the field in Head-to-Head leagues last year, and as good as he is, he could have a difficult time holding opponents to 27 hits and seven earned runs again. He may be a little overrated in those formats, but in Rotisserie leagues, Kimbrel is worth the heavy price. He is projected to record 20 more strikeouts than the next-highest-ranking closer (John Axford) in the category. That's a large enough gap to make a difference in Rotisserie, and if the projection becomes a reality, Kimbrel can single-handedly make a serious impact on your Rotisserie team's success.
Can Oakland's young starters avoid a sophomore slump?
In 2012, the A's rotation compiled the third-lowest ERA in the American League, even though they had to rely on 453 2/3 innings from a trio of rookies. Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin combined for a 33-19 record and a 3.51 ERA, as each was viable -- at least as streaming options -- in standard mixed leagues. Of the three, only Parker was considered a top prospect, so owners may enter 2013 with some skepticism around Milone and Griffin. At least on the surface, the latter two pitchers would seem to be candidates for a sophomore-year regression.
My best guess: Griffin is the most likely to see a downturn this season, as he managed to strand nearly four out of every five runners in his rookie campaign -- a rate he probably won't sustain. Then again, he doesn't put many runners on base to begin with, so Griffin's decline should be mild. Parker could also experience a minor dip in value, as he was fortunate to allow only 11 homers last year. Soft-throwing Milone is probably the least heralded of the group, but he is best positioned to improve, as he should be able to reduce his .313 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). All three are worthy of drafting in standard mixed leagues.
Which Mariner pitching prospect is most likely to make a 2013 impact?
The Mariners' top four pitching prospects -- Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer -- all have a chance to earn one of the last two spots in the rotation, though in all likelihood, each will begin the season in the minors. Even so, there is a good chance that more than one of them will make a Fantasy impact this season, and the question is when that will happen. Each has experienced a high level of success during some portion of his minor league career, and the likes of Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi, Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman don't represent major roadblocks to promotion.
My best guess: Hultzen and Walker get the most hype, but both put up disappointing stats in their most recent minor league stops, so both could stand to spend some more time developing. While Hultzen has the apparent advantage of having pitched in Triple-A, Paxton is a year older and is coming off a successsful campaign at Double-A. Unless Hultzen quickly irons out his control issues, Paxton could be the first one in The Show. Though Paxton could be the first arrival, both Hultzen and Maurer could be viable options in mixed leagues with a mid- or late-season callup. With so much pitching talent in the pipeline, the M's can afford to take their time with the 20-year-old Walker.
Can Edwin Encarnacion be an elite Fantasy producer again?
Encarnacion didn't exactly come out of nowhere last season, but few likely saw his 42-homer, 110-RBI explosion coming. Of all the players entering 2013 with first base eligibility, Encarnacion had the greatest value in standard Rotisserie and Head-to-Head leagues a year ago. In his previous seven seasons, Encarnacion never hit as many as 30 home runs or drove in as many as 80 runs, so owners can't be blamed for doubting his ability to flirt with the top of the leaderboard again.
My best guess: Encarnacion had put up big power numbers before -- just not over an entire season as a regular. With 21 homers in 96 games in 2010 and 20 homers over a 66-game span in 2011, Encarnacion has shown glimpses of elite-level power potential. Still, it's another thing to sustain that level for an entire season, and Encarnacion's 2012 home run per flyball ratio was well above any of his previous full-season rates. He has enough power to rank as a top five first baseman going into 2013, but it's highly unlikely he will match the stats he produced last season.
How valuable will Aroldis Chapman be as a starter?
Here's what we learned about Chapman last year: when given a chance to close, he has the capacity to be an elite reliever in Fantasy. What we don't know about Chapman for sure is what his role will be in 2013. The Reds are planning on moving him from the bullpen to the rotation, but the club has not divulged whether this will happen right out of camp, if he will be eased into the new role or if they may scrap the plan altogether. And if Chapman begins the season as a starter, will he be curtailed by an innings limit later in the year? There are plenty of unanswered questions, but how they get answered will have an impact on how much Chapman can contribute in Fantasy.
My best guess: Chapman was one of the top relievers in Fantasy last year, even though he didn't start closing games until mid-May. Having pitched only 71 2/3 innings last season, it is probably safe to assume there will be some sort of innings limit, and that could really put a damper on Chapman's value in Rotisserie leagues. In Head-to-Head formats, Chapman will still be highly valuable, since he can be used in an RP slot. Unless the Reds have a change of heart regarding Chapman's role, he will be a middle-round option in Rotisserie drafts, but he can be taken among the top relief-eligible pitchers in Head-to-Head drafts.
Without an innings limit, will Stephen Strasburg join the pitching elite?
Strasburg has been around the majors since 2010, but between having Tommy John surgery and then last season's innings limit, we have yet to see the full extent of what he can do for Fantasy owners. Based on what he has shown us over his first 45 career starts, there are good reasons to get excited about his first real full season. Of all starters with at least 250 innings since 2010, Strasburg has the highest strikeout rate per nine innings (11.2), with Brandon Morrow (9.8) clocking in at second place nearly a strikeout-and-a-half behind. Add in a 21-10 record, 2.94 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, and you have what looks to be the makings of a pitcher who can live up to his considerable hype.
My best guess: With an innings bump, Strasburg certainly projects to be the major league leader in strikeouts, but that won't necessarily make him one of the top five starters in Fantasy. His command faltered over his last six starts in 2012, leading to a spike in his ERA (3.94) and BB/9 rate (3.9) over that stretch. Perhaps it was just a slump, but the timing of it suggests Strasburg may have tired toward the end of the season. The potential for late-season fatigue due to increased innings will keep Strasburg a notch below the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, David Price and Felix Hernandez, but he is still an ace worth drafting in the early rounds.
Can Melky Cabrera pick up where he left off?
Cabrera shocked the Fantasy world two seasons ago by finishing among the top 10 outfielders in standard formats, and then last season, he outdid himself by raising his batting average from .305 to .346. That, of course, was before he was slapped with a 50-game suspension for a positive test for testosterone. Cabrera missed the rest of the season, thus ending his brief 113-game stint with the Giants, as he signed with the Blue Jays this offseason. There aren't many cases of hitters in their prime years testing positive for a PED, so owners are left to connect the dots and figure out whether Cabrera is a safe bet to repeat the level of performance he established over the last two years.
My best guess: A conservative approach would assume Cabrera will regress back to a level below where he was in 2011, but owners shouldn't sell Cabrera too short. In 2009, he hit 13 home runs and 28 doubles in 485 at-bats, putting him on a pace for extra bases that was not far off his 2011 and 2012 levels. With a slight decline from his 2011 level of production, Cabrera could still be a top 30 outfielder, provided he stays healthy and gets regular at-bats.
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