The process of building a Top 350 is a laborious one, so consider this a progress update and a way of sharing thoughts at the top of the list where the debates are generally more intense.
A few things to keep in mind as you consume this list, and subsequent rankings from me:
* I care much less about position scarcity than most.
* One very good piece of information that I do not currently possess can significantly alter a ranking in either direction.
* Players are human. In some instances, that means they take PEDs. Others get a divorce and simply don't play as well around that. Those are hardly the limitations of the concept, but often times we expect things to repeat because they happened last season, and in other instances we simply forget that players are not stat-generating robots built for our entertainment and profit.
I also want to preface this list by adding more context to my unwillingness to consider Mike Trout as a top-three player for 2013. The safety in Trout, if there can be any for a player with 774 big league plate appearances, is in his plus-plus speed. The risk is all over the place, including Trout's contact rate, and the rapid spike in his power. The latter might be as surprising as Jacoby Ellsbury's home-run outburst in 2011.
What Trout accomplished last season was historic on many different levels. He became the fourth player in MLB history to log a season with 20+ HR, 20+ SB, 100+ runs and 80+ RBI at age 21 or younger. Perhaps Alex Rodriguez is a reasonable comp, if only because he had an insane age-20 season: .358 AVG, 36 HR, 123 RBI, 15 SB, 141 R (677 PA) before understandably regressing to a still impressive line in 1997 at age-21: .300 AVG, 23 HR, 84 RBI, 29 SB, 100 R (638 PA).
The question is not merely regression, but as Jeff Erickson always says: regression to what? Considering his advanced skill set, the team he plays for (and subsequently, the lineup around him) and the typical adjustments players are forced to make over time as the league finds ways to get them out, you must lay out expectations accordingly to avoid colossal failure and disappointment.
Yes, he's going to have the chance to play in more games this year, but if you are so sure that Trout can come within 80 percent of his 2012 numbers, you must have been on him this time last year when the acquisition cost was minimal. Or, you were wondering why he didn't hit in his first exposure to the big leagues in 2011, and why the numbers in the AFL that fall weren't great either. You were also wondering how Trout would displace albatross Vernon Wells for at-bats on a crowded roster that had Peter Bourjos, Torii Hunter, Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales to cover three regular spots after the addition of Albert Pujols.
I'm hardly alone in my stance on Trout, but it's an overwhelming majority that seems perfectly content to lump in a group with Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera as one of the first players off the board in 2013. Perry Van Hook, an excellent player in our industry and someone with experience playing fantasy baseball that likely exceeds my time on this planet, took Trout first overall in a 15-team mixer we were in back in November. How happy do you think I was sitting at No. 2 to walk away Braun?
Ron Shandler covered this concept in the intro of his Baseball Forecaster and joined Jeff and I on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today to discuss it last week. It's called Gravity. Another industry mogul, Todd Zola quantified it with research a few years back. Players regress -- more often than not, and typically it's 70 percent of the player pool that takes a step in the wrong direction in any given year.
I'm a bit more optimistic about Trout than Ron is, but it's still a pretty significant shift from last season's results. Even with 150-155 games, I'm expecting the following from Trout:
.279 AVG, 17 HR, 82 RBI, 103 R, 48 SB
Depending on the breaks, it would translate to something around an .825 OPS with a still strong combo of power and speed.
Long term, there's plenty to be excited about here. If we're talking next 3-5 seasons in a keeper format, I see what everyone else does as far as pushing him into the elite conversation already.
Nevertheless, my first Top-50 of the season is below:
|1||Ryan Braun||OF||MIL||It's amazing how little attention Braun's 2012 results received after the offseason he had.|
|2||Miguel Cabrera||3B||DET||Hard to believe Miggy will only turn 30 in April.|
|3||Matt Kemp||OF||LA||I was wrong about him last year before the hamstring injuries started. Monitor him closely this spring.|
|4||Joey Votto||1B||CIN||Top-12 among qualified hitters in ISO since 2010, never wastes at-bats, and has a great home park.|
|5||Carlos Gonzalez||OF||COL||Peak age, ideal park and look at what he did last time he played 145 games (2010).|
|6||Robinson Cano||2B||NY-A||Vottoesque consistency, but from depleted second-base position. Think 25-30 HR are more likely.|
|7||Mike Trout||OF||ANA||His contact rate alone should be reason to give pause as top-three. #Gravity|
|8||Andrew McCutchen||OF||PIT||Power speed combo is elite, but .379 BABIP last season well above his career norms.|
|9||Prince Fielder||1B||DET||40 HR may be the ceiling with half of his games at Comerica, but rare BA rock with excellent power.|
|10||Giancarlo Stanton||OF||MIA||Sure, his 68% contact rate is a concern, but Stanton gets more out of his contact than any hitter in the league.|
|11||Stephen Strasburg||SP||WAS||With the Nats removing the Kid Gloves, the sky is the limit. This is truly Strasmas.|
|12||Albert Pujols||1B||ANA||Not a bad consolation prize near the back of Round 1 – rebounded in a big way after slow start in 2012.|
|13||Justin Upton||OF||ATL||2,663 career AB, and he's only 25. Already has three seasons of 25+ HR, 20+ SB under his belt.|
|14||Troy Tulowitzki||SS||COL||Avoiding the WBC is a good thing for him, would be elite even if he didn't play SS.|
|15||Bryce Harper||OF||WAS||Still needs to figure out LHP, but how do you think he felt about getting upstaged by Trout's historic season?|
|16||Jose Bautista||OF||TOR||This ranking is due to concern about the health of his wrists, could rise as high as No. 3 overall if he's 100 percent.|
|17||Clayton Kershaw||SP||LA||Hip issue that bothered him down the stretch is a non-factor now, look for more of the same from him.|
|18||Justin Verlander||SP||DET||FB Velocity dipped for third straight season, but I'm nitpicking. Dates my favorite Upton.|
|19||Jason Heyward||OF||ATL||One of few players capable of rivaling Stanton's raw power, Heyward shaved his GB% significantly last season.|
|20||Evan Longoria||3B||TB||Most likely, you can get him cheaper. Longoria has an elite skill set, even if stolen bases aren't coming back.|
|21||Buster Posey||C||SF||Benefits from time at first base rather than steady days off and slaughters LHP, health risk because of position.|
|22||Adrian Beltre||3B||TEX||As long as his plate coverage remains this good, 30 HR, 100 RBI seasons will continue.|
|23||David Price||SP||TB||Closing the gap with Strasburg, Kershaw and Verlander, and has outstanding defense behind him.|
|24||Jose Reyes||SS||TOR||If the Toronto turf doesn't bring back his hamstring woes, Reyes should have a monster year as the Jays' tablesetter.|
|25||Josh Hamilton||OF||ANA||It's the same risk story with Hamilton, change in parks doesn't hurt him as much as K% and injury history.|
|26||Ryan Zimmerman||3B||WAS||Imagining something closer to his second-half numbers over the course of 150 games.|
|27||Paul Goldschmidt||1B||AZ||Even if he cuts SB total in half, .285-.290 with 30 HR are on tap. Does what Buster Posey does to LHP.|
|28||Yoenis Cespedes||OF||OAK||Got better as 2012 progressed, and now benefits from fewer off-field concerns. What's the encore?|
|29||Edwin Encarnacion||1B||TOR||Improved lineup should stabilize RBI from last season, but can he sustain 100+ point SLG gain?|
|30||Jay Bruce||OF||CIN||If he can hit more FB, Bruce could yield numbers similar to Giancarlo Stanton|
|31||David Wright||3B||NY-N||When will the steals disappear? 15-of-25 mark from last season says sooner rather than later.|
|32||Dustin Pedroia||2B||BOS||How many of Pedroia's 563 at-bats last season came with full health?|
|33||Jacoby Ellsbury||OF||BOS||Same question, lower number. Still thinking about his 2011 and believing he can move back in that direction.|
|34||B.J. Upton||OF||ATL||Even without BA, consistently finishes among top-20 hitters because of power-speed combo.|
|35||Aramis Ramirez||3B||MIL||In a word: underrated.|
|36||Craig Kimbrel||RP||ATL||By far the best closer in the league with his elite K/9, dominant ratios.|
|37||Billy Butler||1B||KC||Squeezing into eligibility at first base is a nice boost to Butler's value for 2013, but not expecting more than 2012 line.|
|38||Ian Kinsler||2B||TEX||Last season, Kinsler's BB/K flip-flopped the wrong way, and his IFBB% spiked. ISO dropped as well. Slight rebound?|
|39||Adrian Gonzalez||1B||LA||A more familiar stomping ground could help, but how healthy is Gonzalez's shoulder?|
|40||Starlin Castro||SS||CHI-N||Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by Castro's propensity for mental lapses, he only turns 23 in March.|
|41||Adam Jones||OF||BAL||Jones takes a hit in leagues that use OBP instead of AVG, but stable skill set should make him a Top 15-20 OF again.|
|42||Hanley Ramirez||SS||LA||Perhaps entering the season on a team with World Series aspirations will motivate him, but vintage Hanley is gone.|
|43||Carlos Santana||C||CLE||Elite 2H: .281/.389/.498, 13 HR, 46 RBI and 45:41 BB:K. Time at 1B or DH gives him more AB than typical catcher.|
|44||Felix Hernandez||SP||SEA||Workhorse with skills still on par with elite (see 2H splits), continues to get dogged by his offense.|
|45||Melky Cabrera||OF||TOR||Has a better home park to hit in now, great lineup around him, and this price is good even if he “just” matches KC numbers.|
|46||Cole Hamels||SP||PHI||This is assuming the shoulder issues he's dealt with this offseason are minor, or even a non-factor.|
|47||Allen Craig||1B||STL||I've always liked the pop, and he's hardly a BA liability. Perfectly capable of .290-25-100 if he avoids the DL.|
|48||Freddie Freeman||1B||ATL||Two impressive campaigns under his belt, especially given his age. The lineup around him keeps getting better.|
|49||Brett Lawrie||3B||TOR||CT rate improved in 2012, while his walk rate increased in the second half. This is 20-25 picks later than this time last year.|
|50||Curtis Granderson||OF||NY-A||Dropped to 10 steals last season, and BA risk becoming tougher to stomach. Lineup around him has taken a hit as well.|