Preliminary 2011 hitter rankings
Where will breakout stars like Joey Votto and Carlos Gonzalez open next year?
There is no such thing as a fantasy baseball offseason. (Lazy ballplayers. Who's with me that we should extend the season to a full 365 days?)
I don't care that five of my fantasy football teams are 1-1, and that the natural instinct at this time of year is to shift the focus of my attention to upgrading those rosters. I'll find time. Who needs sleep? Besides, I've got two young kids, so it's not like I was getting much sleep anyway.
No, fantasy baseball is a year-round endeavor, and if you agree with me you've got a significant advantage over the people who don't. Championship-caliber owners are always paying heed to the news, stats and trends in this game, be it in March, July or November, and while many people have already shut off the lights, put a hold on their mail and turned down the water heater for their winter vacations, my advice to you would be this: Skip it. Stay home. Sit by the fire, and occupy your time perusing piles and piles of baseball statistics.
Or, failing that, print a copy of this column, and take it with you while you're lying on some sunny beach in the tropics. At least then you'll be ahead of the game on your 2011 preparations. Just make sure to send me a postcard.
Consider this week's "Hit Parade" -- our final edition of 2010 -- your head start for 2011. Listed below are preliminary rankings for next season and next season alone. Player value encompasses standard ESPN rules like rotisserie 5x5 scoring, traditional rosters. Included under each position are some "quick picks," or early predictions, on some expected 2011 trends.
"Early buzz": A player most likely to spend the winter riding the hype machine, whether he's a top pick at his position or one primed to rise the ranks.
"Questions": Somewhat self-explanatory, but this is a player I see potentially disappointing in 2011, even comparative to my ranking of him.
"Unranked value pick": Also self-explanatory.
"Hot stove impact": Players whose projected 2011 draft-day price tag might be significantly affected by winter transactions.
"Position eligibility": Any important nugget or shift in a player's eligibility that might have an impact on the rankings.
Let's get started
Top 10 catchers
Early buzz: Carlos Santana's knee surgery probably keeps him beneath Buster Posey on the "buzz-worthy" scale, being that Santana's recovery timetable was 4-6 months from Aug. 6, the date of his operation. That means there is the possibility his rehabilitation bleeds into the early weeks of spring training. That said, the two could be equally tantalizing come 2011 drafts, but how can you not look at Posey's .324-15-62 rookie numbers in 97 games (projects to 20 homers, 83 RBIs over what is reasonably expected from a catcher over a 130-game full season), his No. 5-overall-in-2008 draft status, No. 7 overall prospect ranking by Baseball America (No. 4 by ESPN's Keith Law) before the season and the oodles of glowing reports by scouts over the past three years and not be most excited about him? Everyone seems tempted to compare Posey to a young Joe Mauer, except Posey has more power and is right-handed. I often wonder why people press themselves to make such comparisons when the truth is talents like Posey are special enough to not make a logical comparison. Players like Posey are, simply put, that special.
Questions: Geovany Soto will be recovering from shoulder surgery come spring training, so keep tabs on him once camps open because his rehabilitation timetable is a mere three months from his Sept. 20 operation date. It's Jorge Posada with whom I have the most questions. He'll turn 40 next August, has spent 149 days on the disabled list the past three seasons combined, has battled various bumps and bruises on a day-to-day basis and has been able to give the New York Yankees only 624 1/3 innings behind the plate in 2010, slightly more than half of his workload in his prime. At this stage of his career, with some pop still left in his bat, he's better served as a full-time designated hitter, except that the Yankees have several other aging sluggers who need an occasional "rest" at DH. The Yankees top catching prospect, Jesus Montero, is probably also better suited to DH than catch. I don't doubt Posada's bat. It's the playing-time concerns that kept him beneath the cut. (Think a Mike Napoli-type role, but shift the first-base at-bats to DH and sprinkle in more injury risk.)
Unranked value pick: There isn't a lot to love outside the top 10, being that catcher is so thin that those with even a shred of talent are probably already in the top 10. That said, Ryan Doumit continues to show he's an underrated offensive resource (.267 AVG/.376 OBP/.465 SLG in his past 29 games), and could get a chance to steal a significant chunk of at-bats at catcher, first base or right field, if not for the Pittsburgh Pirates then with another team. John Jaso has a keen batting eye that might lead to better than his current .265 batting average in future seasons, not to mention his high on-base percentage could make him a sleeper in runs scored. I see a lot of John Baker in Jaso, and while you might remember the bad with Baker (2010) he has also experienced some good (2009), too.
Hot stove impact: Victor Martinez is the highest-profile free-agent catcher, but it's hard to imagine the Boston Red Sox letting him go with few reliable alternatives behind the plate. Change might bear the most watching up north, where the Toronto Blue Jays might let John Buck walk to pave the way for top prospect and minor league slugger J.P. Arencibia. If that happens, Arencibia would shoot up the rankings probably to the mid-teens, but I'd hesitate to put him in my top 10, being that despite his 30-homer power, he's still as much of a free swinger as prospects come, meaning increased risk of slumps and a low batting average. The Blue Jays might very well exercise Jose Molina's $1-million option and ease Arencibia in slowly, especially being that some of their young pitchers (Brandon Morrow most notably) threw so much better to Molina than Buck.
Position eligibility: Doumit already qualifies in the outfield and Napoli and Posey qualify at catcher and first base, but would you really use any of the three at those other positions? Jake Fox needs two more games to qualify behind the plate, which would present his best chance at 2011 sleeper potential.
Top 10 first basemen
Early buzz: Over the winter you're going to hear a lot of buzz about how Joey Votto is a potential first-round pick and a possible threat to Albert Pujols' status as the No. 1 option at this deep position. It's with good reason; it's because Votto is both of those things. He's currently atop the Player Rater at first base and No. 3 overall, he's 27 years old and he's one of only 11 first basemen in history to manage at least 35 home runs and 15 stolen bases in a season, and the only one other than Pujols to have done it in the past five years (Pujols did it twice, in 2005 and 2009). And if you're worried about some of those advanced metrics that might hint he has had a "lucky" season: Votto's BABIP is .358, but that's just six points above his career number (.352). His home run/fly ball percentage is a somewhat bloated 24.5, but his career number is still a healthy 19.6, which means only about a 6-7 homer difference, plus let's not forget that he plays in one of the most homer-friendly ballparks for left-handed sluggers. Even if you claim Votto's "true" value is a .320-30-100-15 (SBs)-100 runs player, with the way the game is shifting towards pitching, that's still a first round-caliber talent.
Questions: They're all about the players whose seasons were cut short by injury, and if I'm ranking them from least to most concerned, I'll go Kevin Youkilis, Kendry Morales and Justin Morneau, which not coincidentally is the order in which I ranked them overall. Morneau barely misses my top 10, being that he's recovering from the second concussion of his career, and that's such an unpredictable injury. He's also a terrible second-half player historically, a signal that he's a player with fatigue concerns over the long haul, and from that angle, I wouldn't be surprised to hear people call him an "old 30" at some point next year.
Unranked value pick: Billy Butler did spin his wheels in terms of career development this season, but everything we liked about him entering 2010 remains the case heading into 2011, except that he'll be even closer to his prime (he turns 25 next April). His plate discipline has improved, he's still hitting a ton of doubles and I can't imagine that a player who kills fastballs to the levels he does won't get more elevation on his drives in coming seasons. Maybe we were a year early?
Hot stove impact: There are plenty of free-agent first basemen on the winter market, including Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena, and all four might very well be playing for new teams in 2011. But the player who would be most affected by a possible move is Adrian Gonzalez, who might yet be on the trade market because he'll be a free agent after next season and his San Diego Padres might be unable to afford him. A change in uniform might be huge for his fantasy value, especially if he lands either with a team that plays in a bandbox or has a loaded lineup; he's a .306/.381/.591 road hitter who since 2007, compared to .263/.375/.440 at Petco, and he has averaged one homer per 14.1 at-bats on the road compared to one per 14.1 at-bats at Petco. Konerko might suffer the opposite effect; his .278/.379/.523 road rates this season are good, but not necessarily top-10-wherever-he-lands-in-2011 good.
Position eligibility: This position is almost the reverse of catcher; if a first baseman qualifies elsewhere, you're probably going to use him at that other spot because it's not nearly as difficult to find another first baseman than, say, a second baseman. Ty Wigginton is a great example; he's also second base-eligible, and you'd surely use him there instead. Michael Cuddyer, Aubrey Huff and Garrett Jones are also outfield-eligible, and Cuddyer is six games from qualifying at third base, too.
Top 10 second basemen
Early buzz: I don't really see any "hype machines" here, necessarily, but Gordon Beckham has a chance at it, especially after managing the second-best batting average (.310) and third-best OPS (.877) since the All-Star break among second basemen with 175-plus plate appearances. Beckham's 2010 has a perception of having been so bad -- partly fueled by the fact that many of his owners in redraft leagues might have dropped him in May or June, before he heated up -- that he might have a lot of critics by now. Still, you're probably going to see a lot of "Beckham's a sleeper" blurbs and/or full columns all over the Web in the next six months, so by March, my No. 10 ranking might be conceived as too low.
Questions: Ian Kinsler is overrated. There, I said it. He has made six trips to the disabled list in his five-year career, two this season; has spent 203 total days on the DL, 69 this season; and has turned in each of the following numbers in a single season in his big league career: .319 AVG, 31 HRs, 86 RBIs, 31 SBs, 101 runs, 144 games. The problem is that people seem to think he has done all of those in the same year, and perhaps on multiple occasions. Yes, the homers, RBIs, steals and runs all came in the same year, in 2009. But so did the games played, and more games played typically means more counting statistics, and let's not overlook that, in that year, he batted .253, 14 points beneath the American League average. He's a potential category filler with oodles of upside who calls a bandbox his home, but he's also as much of a health risk as anyone. Want a great stat? Since 2006, Kinsler has spent only 40 fewer days on the DL than Rickie Weeks, who has a reputation for being brittle as a piece of fine china. These two belong ranked side by side.
Unranked value pick: There are several, but Chone Figgins might be taking the hardest hit of anyone off my list in terms of perceived value. He's right beneath the cut but could crack the top 10, especially given that, by 2011, he'll have had a year's experience at second base and with the Seattle Mariners, eliminating the "adjustment period" excuses. Actually, Figgins has looked completely comfortable since mid-May; he's a .284 hitter with a .354 on-base percentage and 32 stolen bases in 112 games since May 17, and to compare, from 2004 to '09 he was a .292 hitter with a .365 on-base percentage who averaged 35 steals per 112 games played.
Hot stove impact: The free-agent list is terribly bland, but perhaps the Florida Marlins might shop Dan Uggla? By the way, after spending each of his first five big league seasons as one of the least trusted fantasy second basemen, has Uggla not done enough to prove that he's a clear top-five option at his position? He has managed no fewer than 27 home runs and 88 RBIs, and no more than 32 and 96, in any full season. Now that's consistency.
Position eligibility: Martin Prado will also qualify at third base, Clint Barmes at shortstop, Sean Rodriguez in the outfield, and Omar Infante at third base and the outfield. Placido Polanco, a second baseman in recent years, needs eight more games there to earn second-and-third eligibility in 2011. Figgins hasn't played a single game at third base this season. But it's Ben Zobrist who is of greatest significance; he has played more than twice as many games in the outfield (115) as at second base (47), but this is where most of his 2011 owners will play him.
Top 10 third basemen
Note: The No. 1 third baseman on this year's Player Rater, Jose Bautista, played more games in the outfield this season and therefore is ranked there. He would have ranked fifth on this list if included.
Early buzz/Hot stove impact: I think I've figured it out, Adrian Beltre is an exceptional player when he's playing the final year of his contract for a team that's in the playoff race! Oh, how silly of us to assume he was a mere contract-year player regardless of his team's standing, right? All kidding aside, Beltre's 2010 was easily his second-most valuable campaign to his 2004 walk year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and where he winds up in 2011 will be a hot topic of the winter. Hopefully he'll recall what happened the last time he "took the money," signing into a situation that wasn't that conducive to elite hitting numbers. Remaining with the Boston Red Sox might be a smart decision. Leaving, depending where he winds up, could cost him a couple of spots on these rankings.
Questions: Alex Rodriguez, Alex Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez (though questions about Pablo Sandoval and Mark Reynolds are fair). A-Rod still has this perception of being a first-round talent, but I'll say this: There's no way he'll be in my top 10 players of 2011, not today and not next Opening Day. He's starting to miss more and more time with bumps and bruises, which is to be expected of a player whose 35th birthday has passed (his did this past July 27), and he's hitting fewer line drives and more ground balls and isn't quite as lethal against breaking pitches as in the past. A-Rod's days of .300 batting averages, as well as 40-homer seasons, might be behind him, and that means more and more of his value is being driven by his status as the New York Yankees' cleanup hitter. If you believe he's still a top-25 player overall, I would agree with that. Top 10? No can do.
Unranked value pick: Between the majors and minors this season, Pedro Alvarez has struck out 175 times, but he also has 24 home runs and 97 RBIs and has earned valuable experience in a low-pressure environment. He's a slumps/batting-average risk for sure, but he's also a legitimate 30-homer candidate as early as 2011.
Position eligibility: Chase Headley will lose outfield eligibility, and Jose Lopez and Placido Polanco will have their eligibility shift from second base to third. Jhonny Peralta and Miguel Tejada also will qualify at shortstop, if either is of interest to you (neither should be to any significant degree), and Bautista will still qualify at the position as well as in the outfield.
Top 10 shortstops
Early buzz: Wow. Troy Tulowitzki is the 15th-best hitter for the entire 2010 season as judged by our Player Rater despite having spent 39 days on the disabled list with a broken wrist in June-July. An astonishing, MVP-caliber September is part of the reason; he has .351/.412/.974 rates, 14 home runs and 34 RBIs -- 34 RBIs! -- in 19 games in the month so far. Even with the occasional DL stint, he's one of the most reliable at this thin position, and he'll be 26 years old come next Opening Day, or in the midst of his prime. Tulowitzki was a second-round pick in many drafts this year and will be a second-round pick in many drafts next year, and if there's any caution I'd offer, it's this: He's such an overwhelming second-half player, remember to be patient if, at the All-Star break, he's only fifth at his position rather than the clear No. 2.
Questions: The last time Derek Jeter had a "down" year (by his standards), in 2008, he roared back with an MVP-caliber campaign the very next season. Of course, never before in his career has Jeter finished with such a low batting average (.265), on-base percentage (.333), slugging percentage (.371), OPS+ (88), wins above replacement (0.9), runs created per game (4.2) need I go on? And he's now 36 years old, so an argument that he's in the declining years of his career has substance. So why is he fifth in the rankings, then? A bounce-back cannot be completely ruled out; his role as the leader of the Yankees' offense means he'll remain productive in runs scored; and he's fortunate in that there's a lack of star-caliber alternatives breathing down his neck.
Unranked value pick: For Starlin Castro to do what he has done as a 20-year-old manning shortstop on an everyday basis for a team as prominent as the Chicago Cubs is remarkable. If he gets the 39 plate appearances needed to qualify for the batting title and can keep his batting average north of .300 -- it's currently .305 -- he'll become only the fifth shortstop in baseball history to bat .300-plus while qualifying at the age of 20 or younger. His defense is rusty and he could improve his base-stealing skills, but Castro appears to have arrived as an everyday No. 2 hitter. We might be talking about a .280-hitting, 20-steal, 90-run candidate, and that's only scraping the surface of his immense long-term potential.
Hot stove impact: Jeter's contract is up and the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies face decisions on options for Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, but expect all three to remain with their teams this winter. Alex Gonzalez could be on the move, and if he lands in another hitter-friendly ballpark, it's possible he could hand in the low-teens range at the position.
Position eligibility: Juan Uribe will qualify all over the infield -- at second base, third base and shortstop, specifically -- which could be as useful in NL-only leagues as it has been for the San Francisco Giants the past two years. The aforementioned Peralta and Tejada, who played more often at third base than shortstop, will qualify here, as well.
Top 30 outfielders
Early buzz: Uh, Carlos Gonzalez. He's going to be a huge target in most every league next spring, and you can be sure there will be countless cases made for his being a clear-cut first-rounder. After all, the guy will finish with no worse than a .330 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and 100 runs scored. Joey Votto is the only other player with even a chance at matching that feat. Without a doubt, Gonzalez is a special talent, and with the thin air at Coors Field helping his cause, he's a near lock for another 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs. It's the batting average I question, as his year has been so good, some regression must be expected; none of the eight previous players to have a .330-30-100-20-100 campaign repeated, and two of those players were Colorado Rockies (Ellis Burks in 1996, Larry Walker in 1997). Gonzalez is also on pace for 137 strikeouts, and his current .339 batting average would be the highest in history of anyone who had at least that many. Consider this: Only five players have followed up a season with at least a .300 batting average and 130 K's with another season with at least those numbers. In other words, it's not that easy to do. I'm game for Gonzalez as an unquestioned top-20 player overall. Once you get to the top-10 cut-off, though, I think it should be open to debate.
Questions: Ryan Braun's isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) has declined in each of his four big league campaigns, and it has coincided with a drop in his fly-ball rate and an increase in his ground-ball rate. It's not enough to condemn him as a significant bust candidate, but it might stamp him as an overrated potential first-rounder. Grady Sizemore and Jacoby Ellsbury are coming off seasons ruined by injuries, and although each has the skills to rebound to top-20 outfielder numbers, they'll be among the players who must be most closely tracked once spring training begins. Sizemore has had each of his past two seasons ended prematurely by surgery, and microfracture knee surgery puts him at substantial risk to lose one of his most valuable assets: his speed. (For a good example of why you should worry, look at Carlos Beltran's steals total this year.)
Unranked value pick: Speaking of Beltran, let's not forget about him in the final year of his contract. It seems people were way too optimistic about him entering this season, and our tendency is to shift our opinion too far in the opposite direction when a player disappoints to the level that he did. Beltran is no longer the 30/30 candidate he was in his prime, but, in his past 35 games, he's a .273 hitter with three home runs, 16 RBIs and three stolen bases, and the winter's rest might do him some good after a lengthy recovery from microfracture surgery. I won't pick him among my top 30 outfielders, as the rankings reflect, but once we get past that point, I'll seriously consider him if the early spring reports are positive.
Hot stove impact: Carl Crawford is one of the headliners to this winter's free-agent market, but do you really think it matters where he signs? Oh, landing in a bandbox ballpark might get him to that elusive 20-homer club, but, at 29 years old, Crawford looked destined for a few more .300-15-80-50 campaigns anyway. Nothing wrong with that. Fellow free agent Jayson Werth is the one you should be more concerned about; since the beginning of last season, he's a .298/.383/.581 hitter at Citizens Bank Park and .263/.373/.452 everywhere else. Signing in the wrong place might make him surprisingly more ordinary.
Position eligibility: Players such as Ben Zobrist and Jose Bautista might be more attractive fantasy options at second and third base, respectively, where the talent pools tend to dry up a little more quickly than in the outfield. One-time future MVP candidate Alex Gordon now qualifies only as an outfielder, as does Logan Morrison of the Florida Marlins.
Top five designated hitters
Early buzz: Is there such a thing as a "buzz-worthy" designated hitter? Not one was picked within the top 100 players in 2010 -- Vladimir Guerrero had the highest average draft position, at 151.9 (145th) -- and David Ortiz is the highest-ranked DH-only, 65th among hitters on our Player Rater. Guerrero will be 36 years old, Ortiz 35, next Opening Day, and neither ranks among the top 30 hitters in any of the "triple-slash" categories since the All-Star break.
Questions/Hot stove impact: Didn't I just ask them? Seriously, Guerrero and Ortiz are productive enough even at their advanced ages that they should remain fantasy-worthy picks in 2011, but, even in Guerrero's case, there's no 100 percent guarantee the Texas Rangers will exercise their half of his $9 million mutual option (though all signs point to them doing so). Guerrero is a .289/.339/.462 hitter on the road this season, eerily close to his .295/.334/.460 rates of 2009, so it's possible that it's merely the ballpark preventing a career regression. Hideki Matsui is another big question mark: Where will he sign, will he retire or might he return to Japan? Plus, how much does he have left at age 36 (37 by June)? Matsui has never struck out as frequently as he has this season and he has regressed terribly versus left-handers (from a .976 OPS against them in 2009 to .674 this season), neither of which is a promising sign.
Position eligibility: Outfield eligibles (from this season) Jack Cust, Adam Lind and Luke Scott are all within five games of qualifying at positions in the field -- in leagues with 20-game qualification rules -- with a little more than a week to play, and the aforementioned Guerrero is three games shy of outfield qualification, which could have a major impact on his fantasy appeal. Hideki Matsui is also three games shy of outfield qualification.
Top 50 overall
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.