Offseason? Who needs an offseason?
Fantasy baseball is a 365-days-a-year sport, and while many of you, now out of the championship hunt in your leagues, have shifted your focus entirely to your fantasy football teams, I say such a decision is foolish. It's the people who "turn off the switch" who get feasted upon by those who don't.
I might have run the table with wins in all six of my head-to-head fantasy football leagues in Week 1 -- yes, I'm patting myself on the back but I say I'm entitled just this once, being that it's the first time I've ever "run the table" in the opening week -- but who cares? I can always check those teams out on Sunday, and use the rest of the time to hone my baseball skills for the 2012 season.
It's never too early to begin that next-year scouting, and today, I'm going to help you on your way. Consider this week's "Hit Parade" -- our final edition of 2011 -- your 2012 head start: Listed below are preliminary rankings for next season and next season alone. Player value encompasses standard ESPN rules: Rotisserie 5x5 scoring, traditional rosters. Included under each position are also some "quick picks," early predictions on some expected 2012 trends. They include:
"Early buzz:" A player most likely to spend the winter riding the hype machine, whether it's a top pick at his position or one primed to rise in the ranks.
"Questions:" Somewhat self-explanatory, but this is a player I see potentially disappointing in 2012, perhaps even comparative to my ranking of him.
"Unranked value pick:" Also self-explanatory.
"Hot stove impact:" Players whose projected 2012 draft-day price tag might be significantly affected by winter transactions.
"Position eligibility" (where applicable): Any important nugget or shift in a player's eligibility that might have an impact upon the rankings.
Let's get started …
Top 50 overall
Top 10 catchers
Early buzz: It'll surround one of two players, second-half sensation Mike Napoli (.379/.468/.690 hitter) or slugging 25-year-old Carlos Santana. Napoli will have his fans; they'll be the ones talking up his ballpark and the lineup surrounding him. That the Texas Rangers have finally figured out what they have in Napoli -- he has started 39 of their past 42 games between catcher (20 starts), designated hitter (13) and first base (6) -- bodes well for his 2012 potential, but at the same time, his .333 BABIP hints that his .310 batting average is bound to drop.
Count on there being a groundswell of support for Santana once we reach the "winter analysis" period -- the time when us stat geeks hole up in our basements and pore over stacks of data looking for an edge -- but I'm prepared to hop his bandwagon well before that. These stats stand out: Santana has 125 walks in 186 career games; only eight players since World War I had more. He also has .208 isolated power, the fifth-best number by any catcher in one of his first two big league seasons in baseball history. Santana has more untapped power at this stage of his career than Napoli ever did; bank on 30 homers next season.
Questions: Buster Posey's recovery from three torn ligaments in his leg will not only be one of the most significant questions of 2012 spring training, but perhaps of the decade or -- gasp -- century. His injury spawned countless headlines, and there are enough naysayers out there who believe Posey will never return to form. That's why it's a pleasant development to hear that his rehabilitation is progressing, and that he'll be working at the San Francisco Giants' spring-training complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., though October, meaning further updates should be upcoming. Remember, all it takes is for Posey's bat to return to form for him to recapture his spot as one of fantasy's most valuable catchers, though since the Giants have Aubrey Huff and Brandon Belt at first base, Posey's glove does need to return to form as well in order for him to receive enough at-bats to get there.
Unranked value pick: Wilson Ramos' apprenticeship under probable Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez ends in 13 days, and he showed enough with the bat this season that there's every reason to believe he could make a run at the top 10 as a full-timer in 2012. Ramos only continues to improve with experience; he's a .282/.339/.466 hitter in 46 games since July 1. He was a .285 hitter during his minor league career and he's pacing at 17 homers per 500 at-bats this year.
Hot stove impact: Rodriguez and Jorge Posada are the only "names" on the free-agent market, but as both are well past their prime, the free agent to watch might be Ryan Doumit. Doumit might be a terrible catcher, but like Posada or the aforementioned Napoli, he could be of service to an American League team as a combination first baseman/right fielder/DH. Since 2007, a span of five seasons, Doumit is a .279/.337/.455 hitter, numbers that put him in the class of Miguel Montero. If you're a fantasy veteran you know the drill: Root for Doumit to score an everyday job at a position other than catcher, because he'd retain catcher eligibility in most leagues; a spot with, say, the Tampa Bay Rays would be welcomed.
Top 10 first basemen
Early buzz: First base remains ridiculously deep, and you can count on at least half these top 10-ranked first basemen to be gone no later than the second round of any fantasy draft you're in next spring. Every one of the top seven will begin the 2012 season aged between 27 (Prince Fielder) and 32 (Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard), so calling them "buzzworthy" is an effective cop-out, being that buzz has surrounded them for years. Look at it this way: Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Fielder, Mark Teixeira and Howard were buzzworthy in the past, remain buzzworthy and will remain buzzworthy in 2012.
But the player for whom the buzz should ramp up to absurd levels next season is the surprise entrant to my top 10, Eric Hosmer. That's right, a (soon-to-be) 22-year-old first baseman with all of 116 games' big league experience was worthy enough to crack the top 10 at easily the deepest position in fantasy baseball. The rationale is simple: Since July 1, he's a .299/.345/.498 hitter in 68 games, and among players with 250-plus plate appearances during that span, he ranks 31st in batting average and 28th in slugging percentage. His 86.3 percent contact rate ranks 20th among that group, his .199 isolated power ranks 35th, his .295 well-hit average ranks 14th and his .311 BABIP (55th) shows that his performance is hardly luck-driven. Plus, he has done it at the age of 21; his .312 career minor league batting average shows that he has room to grow; he can steal bases, a rarity among first basemen; and he has arguably endured his adjustment period already at the big league level. There's good reason to think he might be a .300-20-100 hitter as soon as 2012.
Questions: There are plenty, but perhaps none will ring louder than, "Is Adam Dunn done?" (No cheap puns here.) Normally a player coming off a season like his -- with two more plate appearances he'll be in position to assume the throne of lowest single-season batting average of all-time (.162), among those with 450-plus PAs -- is an easy write-off the following year, but Dunn's three years and $44 million remaining on his contract alone might be enough to convince the Chicago White Sox to give him another shot. Cop-out or not, if Dunn receives another 450 PAs in 2012, he cannot possibly be this bad, being that his BABIP of .242 is 50 points beneath his career number (.292). That said, "regression to the mean" for a player with a 42.6 percent strikeout rate might mean a .200 batting average and 20 homers, not career-averages .244 and 38, and performance like that A) might not keep him in the lineup, and B) won't help fantasy owners. Dunn can no longer hit the fastball -- after hitting .304 and .314 against the pitch the past two seasons, he has a .170 mark against it in 2011 -- and without proof that his bat speed has returned in the spring, he's a total no-go in fantasy.
Unranked value pick: You can take your pick from any of the promising rookies of 2011, and the popular choices will either be to chase Paul Goldschmidt's power or Mark Trumbo's 2011 statistics. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the first baseman who might truly fly beneath the radar is Freddie Freeman, especially if he falls short in the Rookie of the Year balloting as expected. Facts to consider: Among rookies with at least 250 PAs, Freeman ranks fourth in batting average (.292), third in on-base percentage (.353) and eighth in slugging percentage (.458) -- and 23 rookies did qualify -- and his .252 well-hit average ranks 49th out of all 148 qualified hitters. This kid can hit, evidenced by his .318 second-half batting average, and if you'd like a neat little stunt to pull on your competition next spring, consider reminding people that Adam LaRoche was also a .302 hitter after the All-Star break during his rookie season. Then, snatch up Freeman for yourself; he has more power potential and did it when he was two years younger.
Hot stove impact: Two of the top five first basemen, Pujols and Prince Fielder, are free agents this winter, and the early indications are that Pujols might stay in St. Louis, but Fielder probably won't return to the Milwaukee Brewers. Not many teams have the cash to land either megastud; though it's interesting to note that the New York Yankees technically have a wide-open designated hitter role for 2012. Imagine Fielder's powerful left-handed bat in Yankee Stadium? Ultimately, neither of these two players is going to suffer in terms of fantasy value wherever he plays, but it's understandable if today we dream about their potentially gaudy statistics if Pujols moved to Coors Field and Fielder to New York.
Position eligibility: Michael Young would have cracked the top 10 had he played more games at first base than third base, so look for him in those rankings. He'd have placed ninth on this list, but what fantasy owners truly wish is for the Texas Rangers to give him the seven games he needs for second-base eligibility. (Don't count on it; Ian Kinsler isn't about to sit.)
Top 10 second basemen
Early buzz: If you're not impressed by the rookie performance of Dustin Ackley, it probably means you checked out and focused on your fantasy football team the day the lockout ended. Shame on you! Even I'm stunned by Ackley's instant success; I firmly believed he'd be a .265-.270 hitting, little power (single-digit homers given a full year's at-bats) rookie performer as he adapted to big league pitching, but if you project his numbers to a full 162-game Seattle Mariners schedule he'd have a .286 batting average, 12 home runs, 69 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and 73 runs scored, plenty to get him into the top-10 discussion. Counting numbers, specifically runs and RBIs, are going to remain a problem as the Mariners work to rebuild their offense, but Ackley provides an outstanding start and his standing at one of fantasy's weaker positions brings him added value.
Questions: There are plenty of them, with the position as a whole experiencing a host of ups and downs; five of the top 15 second basemen on average on Draft Day 2011 are complete non-candidates for that group entering 2012. One of this year's popular late-round sleepers, Danny Espinosa, might warrant the biggest question: Is he the rookie sensation who managed 15 homers, nine stolen bases and a .788 OPS the first three months of the year, or the strikeout-prone, streaky youngster who has just four homers and five steals to go along with a .223 batting average and 33.2 percent strikeout rate since? The answer might be somewhere in the middle, but that's only because he has historically shown a tendency to vary wildly in his week-to-week performance. Espinosa is the kind of player you'll be thrilled to own for noticeable chunks of time, but want nowhere near your lineup for others, and it's probably not going to change during his sophomore year. The sum total is a player just outside the top 10.
Unranked value pick: Before you ask the question, "Where is Jason Kipnis?" let me answer it by making him my unranked value pick. There's an obvious rationale for why it's dangerous to put him in the "buzzworthy" class entering next season: His 28.6 home run/fly ball percentage, which completely explains his one home run-per-13.7 at-bat (37 homers per 500) rate in his first 22 big league games. Yes, Kipnis has pop -- he had 12 homers in 343 at-bats in Triple-A ball to begin the year and 10 in 315 in Double-A in 2010 -- but the 30-homer power is a total mirage. That said, if you set your expectations at something closer to 15 than to 30 homers, you're going to like what you get: A .297/.378/.486 career minor league hitter with some pop and some speed who has managed a 22.8 percent line drive rate and .268 well-hit average so far in the majors. This kid can hit, and could make a run at top-10 status.
Hot stove impact: For the second consecutive winter, the free-agent market at second base is bone dry, assuming, of course, the Yankees and Cincinnati Reds don't sleep through the deadline to pick up their 2012 options on Robinson Cano and Brandon Phillips, respectively. Aaron Hill is one interesting name on the market, but he's going to need to land with a team with a hitting coach who can fix his swing before he'd be an attractive bounce-back candidate. Among the other pending free agents who could score regular at-bats in 2012: Mark Ellis, Omar Infante, Kelly Johnson.
Top 10 third basemen
Early buzz: The topic of future third basemen has come up several times during my podcast appearances this season, and I'll stress the same opinion I had the last time we discussed it, that for all the young talent at the position, I don't see a single one of these up-and-coming third sackers cracking the 2012 top 10 on the Player Rater. Not that I have anything against players like Mike Moustakas or Lonnie Chisenhall, but look at that top 10 and tell me you see either of them outperforming anyone on the list. But I'm burying the lede: It's Brett Lawrie who stands the best chance at making the cut-off next season, and certainly the buzz surrounding him will be significant enough that he very well might be drafted among the first 10 third basemen off the board. (Lawrie, for the record, is 11th in my rankings.) I'm discussing him as a word of caution more than an endorsement of that buzz; let's not forget that Lawrie's .347 batting average in the minors to begin the season came in a mere 69 games, it was probably fueled by the hitting-friendly environments of both Las Vegas' Cashman Field as well as the Pacific Coast League as a whole, and it was the first time in his professional career he had batted above .285. In addition, injuries did cost Lawrie some time midseason, and it'd be foolish of us to assume that it was a one-time thing and that he's a lock to play all 162 games. Lawrie's speed -- he managed double-digit steals in each of his three full seasons in the minors and has seven so far in the majors -- fuels quite a bit of his fantasy value, but I still see him being more of a .285-18 homer performer in 2012.
Questions: They surround the aging Alex Rodriguez, now 36 years old, after the surefire Hall of Famer snapped -- or inevitably will snap -- his record of consecutive 30-homer and 100-RBI seasons due to persistent injury issues. A-Rod has now failed to play even 140 games in each of the past four years, his OPS has declined in each of those four years and his isolated power this season (.191) is his lowest since his 48-game 1995. Last year at this time, I strongly urged fantasy owners to resist the instinct to describe Rodriguez as a first-round talent. Entering 2012, there's no question he doesn't belong in the top 25 overall.
Unranked value pick: Lawrie already got some press above, but the utterly forgotten player who might yet make a dark horse run at the top 10 is one who hasn't played in a single game since Aug. 6, Chase Headley. While there's a chance his fractured pinkie finger might heal in time for him to make a couple of spot appearances before season's end, more likely we'll enter spring training having completely forgotten he exists, his being a member of the San Diego Padres primarily responsible for that. Headley, however, brings two tremendous assets to the table: He's capable of batting close to .300 -- .292 this season and .301 lifetime in the minors -- and he's capable of stealing a base, evidenced by his double-digit steals totals in each of his past three big league seasons. Headley also has one other thing going for him: His status as a middle-of-the-order Padres hitter, bolstering his counting numbers (runs, RBIs), mostly because the Padres lack much better.
Hot stove impact: Aramis Ramirez could be the most significant name on the winter market -- his $16 million option is mutual and would need his approval to be exercised -- and the importance of that is the understanding of the comfort zone he has reached during his time with the Chicago Cubs. For instance, since 2007, a span of now nearly five full seasons, Ramirez is a .330/.404/.587 hitter at Wrigley Field … but .254/.310/.435 everywhere else. He also hasn't had a batting average beneath .283 or an OPS under .838 at home in any full season as a Cub, so keep it in mind in the event he departs for greener pastures.
Top 10 shortstops
Early buzz: He might not be the most "buzzworthy" -- that honor probably belongs to Starlin Castro -- but Asdrubal Cabrera's prospects for a repeat of his breakout 2011 is perhaps the most important question facing the fantasy shortstops entering 2012. This is the disconcerting fact: After a .293/.347/.489 first half with 14 homers and 12 steals, Cabrera has seen those numbers slip to .224/.297/.381 with eight and five since the All-Star break. If you look closer, however, you'll notice that his home run/fly ball percentage has dropped only from 13.0 to 10.4, still a healthy number; and his isolated power from .196 to .157, still noticeably north of his career rate (.130); but his BABIP has slipped from .326 to .248. There's a good chance that Cabrera was somewhat fortunate during the first half and somewhat unfortunate the second, and that in 2012 he'll regress to still-pleasant .275-average, 18-homer, 20-steal numbers.
Questions/hot stove impact: It's all about Jose Reyes, the free-agent-to-be who has battled a variety of hamstring problems in recent seasons that threaten to pull him down from the elite tier of fantasy players. Reyes was one of fantasy's clear-cut first-round talents before landing on the disabled list on Aug. 8, and you can be sure that if he had any chance of playing through the injury, knowing he was mere weeks away from a potentially Carl Crawford-esque payday, he would have. (On an aside, how much can interested parties like hearing Crawford's name as comparison for Reyes' probable price tag, knowing how poorly Crawford has performed this season?) All signs point to Reyes remaining with the New York Mets, at least as things currently stand, but is that necessarily a good thing? They might not have the cash to surround him with the talent necessary to bolster his counting numbers, though a player with Reyes' speed can help pad his runs-scored total with his legs alone. The greater question is how often he might steal bases looking forward; while he's 28 years old and therefore still capable of a .300-average, 10-homer, 100-run season, we might have already seen his final 50-steal campaign.
Unranked value pick: It's Dee Gordon, and I admit up front that I'm not even much of a fan. He's all legs and no bat, but oh, what legs he has. In four professional seasons these are his stolen-base totals: 18 (albeit in 60 games), 73, 53 and 50. So far with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he has 18 steals in 43 games, and you can be sure he'll be in their starting lineup come next Opening Day, being that the Dodgers, like the Mets, are seeking cost-effective options. Gordon might not help you in a single other prominent Rotisserie category -- runs, perhaps -- as his 1.7 percent walk rate and .053 isolated power so far in the majors make fellow speedy shortstop Elvis Andrus look like an in-his-prime Derek Jeter as a hitter, by comparison, but if Gordon can merely hit .250 or better and keep himself in the lineup, his steals alone might be enough to propel him into the top 10.
(More) hot stove impact: Besides Reyes, Jimmy Rollins hits the free-agent market this winter, though in his case the aging process has already had a noticeable impact upon his statistics. The Philadelphia Phillies might have no other choice but to bring him back -- barring them making a run at division rival Reyes -- but in the event that they don't, the worry is that Rollins might have to settle for a much less attractive role in fantasy than the one in which he currently resides. Granted, Rollins' home/road splits aren't significant, but be aware that during the past five seasons, he has accrued 2,739 of his 2,797 at-bats (97.9 percent) at either the Nos. 1 or 3 lineup spots. Point one: The Phillies' lineup is quite stacked at the top. Point two: What if a new team wants him to be a No. 7 hitter?
Top 30 outfielders
Early buzz: There'll be plenty of buzz surrounding Jacoby Ellsbury's prospects for an encore, but there's no question whatsoever that the most buzzworthy member of the top 30 entering next spring will be Desmond Jennings. Despite the Rays suppressing his service time as long as possible -- something that might very well be what keeps them just shy of the wild card in the end -- Jennings has thrived in 49 games since his midseason call-up, looking very much like an early-years version of the man he effectively replaced, Carl Crawford. Interestingly enough, I've ranked Jennings five spots behind Crawford, but I could completely envision a scenario where the two finish in reverse on the 2012 Player Rater. The most compelling case for their current rankings: Both experience and lineup depth favor Crawford. But let's point out that Jennings has impressive speed, with 15 steals in those 49 games and four instances of 30-plus steals during his minor league career; he draws walks, with a 10.8 percent rate in the minors and 9.9 for the Rays this season; and he's developing power, having belted 21 homers in 138 games between the majors and minors at age 24.
Questions: Crawford faces questions following his poor debut year in Boston, but expect the questions surrounding Andre Ethier and Jason Heyward to ring louder. Knee surgery cut Ethier's 2011 short, and after back-to-back years in which he was barely better than a league-average outfielder, it's fair to question whether he even has the upside to return to top-30 fantasy status. Heyward, meanwhile, suffered as significant a sophomore slump as anyone in history, and his swing needs major overhaul after he hit 372 ground balls out of 679 balls in play (54.8 percent rate) in his first two seasons combined. We're not going to have any sense of how quickly -- or to what extent -- Heyward might be able to get his career on track until spring training, and that makes him a high-risk bet entering 2012. That said, he is not one entirely without appeal.
Unranked value pick: I'm picking Logan Morrison who, despite all the Twitter controversy this season, still has one of the better swings among under-25 hitters in baseball. One reason Morrison might fly beneath the radar in 2012 drafts: It's almost certain that he'll be rumored on the trade market, and many tend to regard that as a black mark for a young hitter. But getting out of Florida could be good for him; they're changing ballparks, yes, but until we know how the team's new venue plays for hitters, it'd be better to see him in a more hitter-friendly environment where there are historical stats to demonstrate his potential impact.
Hot stove impact: The big-ticket items this season remain in the infield, but that doesn't mean the winter market is devoid of outfielders. Two names stand out as intriguing fantasy bargains: Carlos Beltran, who has struggled during his time with the San Francisco Giants, and Michael Cuddyer, who would be all the more attractive fantasy pick if he had only played the three more games he needed to acquire second-base eligibility for 2012. Cuddyer could be particularly intriguing if rumors that the Colorado Rockies are interested in his services come to fruition; he has the kind of underrated pop and run-producing ability to be a sneaky 30-100 performer if he had Coors Field helping his cause.
Top five designated hitters
Early buzz: These days, designated hitter is more a matter of "who didn't qualify anywhere else" than "who's the best among the past-the-age-of-30" crop, as you've still got those aging veterans, David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, but outside of them, precious few DHs played fewer than 20 games anywhere else. There were really only five viable candidates for my top five, and you see them to the right; Travis Hafner, Jorge Posada and Jim Thome are really the only other ones with a reasonable case at a ranking, and the latter two might not even play in 2012.
Jesus Montero is the buzzworthy "DH," and that position gets quotation marks because he's a catcher who has practically no chance of accruing the games behind the plate to avoid being a DH-only come draft day. One thing to like about Montero's brief, recent audition to be the Yankees' postseason DH is that he is flashing the untapped power that he didn't in the minors this season; he has three homers and a double in 35 at-bats (.285 isolated power), after swatting just 18 homers with 19 doubles in 420 at-bats for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (.179 ISO). The Yankees do have a wide-open DH role for Montero come 2012 … or they could install him behind the plate and consider trading Russell Martin … or they could sign a more proven free agent to DH (Fielder? Pujols?) and use Montero as a trade chip for starting-pitching help. But it's clear that Montero's time to play has arrived, and while he'll need to be drafted as a DH, there's a good chance that he'll get enough time behind the plate to qualify at catcher by Memorial Day.
Questions/Hot stove impact: I've already asked a few of them, but the biggest questions tend to be, who's coming back in 2012? Do Guerrero, Posada and Thome return for one more season? (My guess: Yes, yes and no.) The biggest question, however, might be this: Will David Ortiz return to the Boston Red Sox, or might we have to worry about his numbers suffering with a weaker supporting cast on another team? Ortiz and the Red Sox seem like natural partners, but don't underestimate the value of that partnership to his counting numbers.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.