CC Sabathia hit 90 mph in a recent start, and though that's down three-plus mph from his prime, it's an improvement over what we saw from him at the end of last year. Sabathia underwent minor elbow surgery in the offseason, and there is some optimism that the surgery will fix what ailed him last year. After tossing 230 or more innings in each of the previous five seasons, the elbow limited him to 200 last year. It would be easy to say that at age 32, the innings have caught up to him, but while I'm fairly certain he's no longer a top-10 guy, perhaps I was remiss in ranking him as the 22nd best fantasy starter.
The lack of Sabathia on my fantasy teams aside, here are a handful of guys who seem to keep either ending up on my teams or whom I found myself being upset about missing out on:
Aaron Hicks (OF-MIN) Hicks has all the qualities that I look for in a prospect. He was highly regarded by scouts in that he went in the first round of the 2008 draft. He's extremely athletic, and is starting to show that his tools are capable of production. Hicks has also had his struggles, but in his five minor league seasons, he never had an OBP less than .353 nor a walk rate less than 13.5%. The Twins expressed their confidence in Hicks after last year's .285/.382/.459 season in Double-A that included 32 stolen bases, by dealing not one, but two center fielders this offseason in Denard Span and Ben Revere. Hicks though wasn't going to be handed the job, but to his credit he's come out swinging with a .306/.352/.633 line with four home runs and three steals. Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson remain in the mix for the job, but Hicks has to be considered the frontrunner at this point.
Yasiel Puig (OF-LAD) Puig is unlikely to break camp with the club, but from what I've seen of him this week in Arizona, he has all the tools to be a star, and sooner rather than later. Last year's small 82 at-bat sample that yielded a 1.076 OPS was apparently a sign of things to come. Puig has yet to draw a walk, which is somewhat of a concern, but he's also batting .452/.442/.667 with a couple homers. I've seen him twice, and not only does the ball jump off his bat, he looks very athletic, particularly running the bases. He's swiped three bags, and while he isn't as big as Matt Kemp, he has some of the same qualities. I've seen Carl Crawford play the last couple days, and though he's yet to play the field, it appears he's going to be ready to hit come Opening Day. That leaves Puig without an obvious long-term position if he sticks with the Dodgers. The Dodgers won't be dealing Kemp anytime soon, and no one would take Crawford off their hands, so the clearest path for Puig could come via a trade either himself or Andre Ethier. It should be interesting to see how Puig develops versus Yoenis Cespedes.
Edit: So I was at the Dodger game Tuesday and the team had Puig hitting cleanup with Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp getting the day off. Who needs those guys? Puig went 4-for-4 with a long home run, a stolen base, and a triple to the deepest part of the ballpark. He's been even more impressive than the scouting reports. He also carries himself like a star if that makes sense, but he was also signing autographs and posing for pictures with anyone who would ask. The Dodgers look to have hit a home run here. That said, he probably still opens in the minors to await regular playing time at the big league level.
Brian Roberts (2B-BAL) I'm often asked for $1 sleeper-type picks, guys you can grab late that are going to outperform their draft position, ideally significantly outperform. Roberts has already had his career year, but even though he's 35 and has played in just 115 games over the past three years combined, there may yet be some gas in the tank. Roberts appears to be the healthiest he's been in years, and through Tuesday, he's batting an encouraging .333/.389/.485 this spring. If you miss out on Robinson Cano and second-tier guys like Brandon Phillips, you can probably wait a bit and grab a guy like Roberts. As long as you're not expecting more than .270-10-50 with double-digit steals, you should be happy with your return.
Lonnie Chisenhall (3B-CLE) I'm a sucker for guys who were top prospects, didn't have immediate success, and are now getting another chance. These guys can either flame out or rise to the level of their previous potential. I'm betting on the latter for Chisenhall. He's hitting very well this spring - .389/.452/.750 with three homers, and there's nothing to suggest he won't be the starter come Opening Day. Chisenhall has yet to really get time to establish himself at the plate, as he dealt with concussion issues in 2011 and a broken forearm last year. If the Indians simply put him at third and leave him there, I think the results will be very nice.
Dexter Fowler (OF-COL) Fowler turned in his best season last year, batting .300/.389/.474 with 13 home runs and 12 stolen bases. The 24.2% strikeout rate is a bit high for a leadoff man, but you don't find too many No. 1 hitters with a .389 OBP. Fowler didn't show much in the way of power in the minors, so we can't forecast a huge step forward in his power, though he has seen his GB% decline in each of the last two years. Fowler's .390 BABIP is leading most forecasts for his batting average to fall in the .280 range, but if he's hitting leadoff all year, the fantasy payoff should be quite nice.
Homer Bailey (SP-CIN) We all have our guys, players that seem to wind up on our roster on multiple teams for multiple years. For years, that guy for me was Bailey, but of course I gave up prior to last year out of frustration, only to see Bailey finally stay completely healthy and post a career year. Because of that, he's back in my good graces and winding up on more than one of my teams so far. One thing that worries me is that although Bailey did increase his GB% from 39.5% to 44.9% last year, that's still not a lot of groundballs, and with the Reds set to field what looks to be a subpar defensive outfield, that could hurt Bailey's stock a bit. That said, he turns 27 in May, so another step forward is certainly possible. Bailey has posted K/9 rates of 7.2 and 7.3 the last two seasons with good control. If he can continue to develop, 200 strikeouts in a season could be in his very near future.
Domonic Brown (OF-PHI) Sure, we shouldn't put too much stock in spring training numbers, but Brown just looks like a different, more confident player the more you watch him. He's hitting a robust .400/.471/.683 with five homers to put him in the lead for the starting right field job according to Charlie Manuel. Brown has had some issues with knees that have limited him to five stolen bases to 492 big league at-bats, but if they are healthy, we saw 15 stolen base ability in the minors. Brown hit just .235/.316/.396 in 212 big league at-bats last year, but his 9.9% walk rate was fine, and a .264 BABIP could help his batting average rebound to at least the .270s. If the price is right, he looks like a solid sleeper candidate.
Nolan Arenado (3B-COL) Given the hype, Arenado's 2012 season was a big disappointment, but as he's showed so far this spring, it's far too early to write him off. Arenado is battling Chris Nelson for the starting third base job, and though we won't know the outcome for another week or so, it's close. Arenado is leading the team with four homers (no one else has more than two), and he's batting .276/.276/.793 overall, with seven of his eight hits going for extra bases. Arenado has yet to draw a walk, but while his walk rates haven't been high the last couple years (8.1% and 6.8%), Arenado has always made very good contact, posting contact rates in the 86%-91% area in his four minor league seasons. Nelson has just a .517 OPS this spring, but Nelson hit .344 in 180 at-bats after last year's All-Star break, and that carries a lot of weight. Expect this one to go down to the wire.
Rick Porcello (SP-DET) I was on the Porcello bandwagon before his impressive outings this spring, but an 18:0 K:BB in 18 innings has upped the ante on the Porcello hype. He's always had very good control with a career 2.3 BB/9 rate and his groundball rate is better than 50 percent (though with that infield defense, is that a good thing?), but Porcello is forced to battle Drew Smyly for a rotation spot. Smyly has a solid 12:3 K:BB in 16.1 innings, making both guys worthy of a spot. One could be traded, one could be sent to the bullpen, or one could head to Triple-A, but Porcello seems to be winding up on several of my teams. I also like the increase in velocity he showed last year with his average fastball increasing from 90.1 mph to 92.0 mph.
Howie Kendrick (2B-LAA) Five years ago, I thought enough of Kendrick to project him as a future batting champ. His .292 career average is fine, but given his ISO is just .136, his career to date has been a bit disappointing. His home run total also dropped from 18 to eight last year, but that's what happens when a somewhat-inflated 16.5% HR/FB rate is cut nearly in half. Kendrick is probably a 10-12 HR guy most years. So why is he on that list with all that negativity? First, it appears that he may be the top candidate to hit second in a stacked Angels lineup. That's not a given yet, as Mike Scioscia has trotted out lineups with Peter Bourjos and Alberto Callaspo in the two-hole recently as well. Kendrick though is having a great spring, batting .513/.513/.923 with 40 percent of his 20 hits going for extra bases. Hitting behind Mike Trout and ahead of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton can't hurt a guy's value, regardless of how much stock you put in lineup protection.
Jason Grilli (RP-PIT) I rarely find myself in on the top closers, as I prefer to spend early picks / auction dollars on hitters and starting pitching. That means I'm buying the lower-tier closers and top setup men while trolling the waiver wire early and often for saves. This year I have Grilli on two teams so far, with a couple more auctions to go. That includes the $21 I got him for in the Staff Keeper League (18 teams, so closers aren't cheap), and while I don't feel great about the price, I like his prospects for providing a profit this year. Grilli is a late-bloomer at age 36, but his 13.8 K/9 suggests he'll be able to handle the job. The key to Grilli's late-career resurgence has been his ability to command and control his fastball at a level that we didn't see earlier in his career. The Pirates may not be a great team this year, but we've seen closers on bad teams be great fantasy closers before. Remember Jose Mesa saving 42 of the Pirates' 72 wins in 2004?
Justin Masterson (SP-CLE) I have probably had Masterson on these types of lists before, as he somehow keeps ending up on my roster despite his maddening inconsistency. Three years does not a trend necessarily make, but perhaps Masterson is the AL version of Josh Beckett with ERAs the last three years of 4.70, 3.21, and 4.93. He's due, right? Well I'm not saying that, but I still think he has another very good year in that right arm. Masterson's 4.15 xFIP is right there in line with a 3.94 career mark, so consider that his 2013 baseline. If he can get last year's 3.8 BB/9 back closer to 2011's 2.7, his elite groundball rate (55.7% in 2012 sixth in all of baseball) will help Masterson justify being anointed the Tribe's Opening Day starter.