This is it, the last Bats and Balls for the 2013 season. Hopefully you've found it a good read and picked up a nugget of advice here and there. There really isn't much I can tell you at this point that is going to propel you to a championship, though I am sure that some league races are yet to be determined. I thought I'd close out the year by covering five key things I do between now and the time the award-winning RotoWire fantasy baseball magazine hits the newsstands in February.
Keep current on the news. Not that I'm biased or anything, but checking RotoWire each day during the offseason makes sense to me. We cover free agency and trades in the context of 2014 fantasy impact. Should Robinson Cano leave the Yankees, you'll want to know what Brian Cashman and company are going to do with second base and how that might impact the rest of the lineup. The MLB Network also does a fantastic job covering the Hot Stove.
Study your prospects. If, for example, you don't know the names George Springer and Archie Bradley, you're already at a disadvantage compared to some of your league mates. I'd highly recommend a Baseball America subscription. You can even get it on your iPad, which is quite convenient.
Advanced metrics. If you haven't had time to dive into why things such as xFIP, GB%, WAR and even K/9 and BB/9 are that important when setting your draft lists, take the time to do so during the offseason. There are some great books out there as well as the invaluable site FanGraphs, with which RotoWire also has a partnership. If, for example, you can create your starting pitcher cheat sheets based on K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 instead of wins and ERA, you're ahead of the game.
Buy the annual season-in-review guides. I read just about all of these each year. Books by Bill James, Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus dominate my bookshelves. There's always information to glean from those sources.
Watch some baseball. While the MLB season is on hiatus, that doesn't mean baseball isn't being played. I'm not a big college baseball guy, but I do catch some fall league games on MILB.COM and occasionally I'll get out to Arizona to see a few in person. Not only is it great to watch baseball in November, you might actually obtain some valuable fantasy information just by watching the games.
I thought it would be fun to close this column by covering my Top 10 baseball stories this year (with a fantasy twist). Not everyone's list will look the same by any means, but that's OK.
1. Chris Davis' monster season
The last guy to hit 50 home runs was Jose Bautista in 2010, and Bautista followed that up with 43 the next year before tailing off considerably the last couple seasons. Davis could follow a similar career arc, but this power is real. When Davis hits the ball in the air, it usually goes very, very far. He's just 27, so a few more 40-plus homer seasons appear likely. With a still-high 29.7-percent strikeout rate, I still see him as more of a .270 hitter than a .286 guy, but if you offered the Orioles .270-43-118 as his 2014 numbers, I venture to guess that they'd take that.
2. Another 10-WAR season from Mike Trout
Miguel Cabrera is probably headed toward another MVP, but Trout has somehow followed an off-the-charts rookie year with an even better sophomore campaign. A few comparisons:
BB% - 2013: 10.5%, 2014: 15.0%
K% - 2013: 21.8%, 2014: 18.7%
He's once again showed good power with 26 home runs, though his SB total has dipped from 49 to 33 in 13 more games. That is a fairly sizeable drop, but it still doesn't affect my thought that he should be easily the No. 1-ranked player on 2014 draft boards. As Trout fills out, we could see the 25-30 homer power turn into 35-40, with a corresponding drop in stolen bases. Still, it's unbelievable to think that Trout just turned 22 last month.
3. Josh Donaldson, MVP candidate?
Think the A's knew what they were getting when they pulled off this deal with the Cubs: Cubs trade Josh Donaldson, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson and Sean Gallagher to the A's for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Gallagher was probably the centerpiece of that deal at the time. Harden went on to pitch 212 innings of 3.31 ERA ball for the Cubs over two seasons before succumbing to a litany of arm injuries. His last big league appearance came in 2011.
Then there's Donaldson. The 27-year old (there's that age again) put up a .687 OPS in nearly 300 plate appearances for the A's last year, so there was really nothing to suggest that anything like this was coming. Batting .307/.388/.510 and playing excellent defense, the only two big leaguers with a higher WAR than Donaldson's 7.8 (tied with Miguel Cabrera) are Andrew McCutchen (7.9) and Mike Trout (10.2). He won't win the AL MVP given the aforementioned Trout and Cabrera, but there's a fairly easy case that he's the fantasy pick that has provided the highest return on investment this year given that he was drafted well after those guys. I'd expect a dip in his average to perhaps the .290 range next year, considering his BABIP is a bit inflated at .342 (.279 in 2012), but he'll deservedly move way up draft boards next year.
4. Matt Carpenter leads the league in runs ... and it isn't close
Runs scored leaders (entering Wednesday):
Carpenter - 124
Trout - 108
That Carpenter could score 16 more runs with 30 fewer stolen bases and 15 fewer home runs is a nice testament to the rest of the St. Louis lineup, but Carpenter deserves a lot of that credit given his surprising .397 OBP. Carpenter posted .412 and .419 OBPs in Double-A and Triple-A, respectively, in past years before batting .294/.365/.463 in 340 plate appearances for the Cardinals last year. He's taken his game up a notch in 2013 even though the 11 home runs and three steals aren't eye-popping fantasy totals. My guess is he settles in at third base (with Kolten Wong at second and David Freese on another team). He'd probably be slightly above average as a fantasy third baseman given the lack of pop and steals, but in OBP leagues, his value goes up. Either way, you're probably using him at second base next year, and right now my second base top-five looks like this:
5. Clayton Kershaw's sub-2.00 ERA
Kershaw is about to lead the majors in ERA for the third consecutive year, making him the first since Greg Maddux (1993-1995) to accomplish that feat. The last sub-2.00 ERA by a starter was Roger Clemens (1.87) in 2005, so this has been a pretty historic year for Kershaw, who appears in line to capture NL Cy Young trophy No. 2. His K/9 rate has actually dropped in each of the last two years: 9.6, 9.1, 8.8, but the control and velocity have remained steady. He's inducing more ground balls, and Kershaw's 11.4-percent swinging strike rate is the highest mark of his career, so no drop-off here just yet. The Dodgers control Kershaw's rights for one more year via the arbitration process, but it would be a huge upset if he and the organization didn't reach agreement on a long-term deal this winter. What might that extension look like? Guess here is that the club starts at seven years $175 million and settles at eight years $200 million, and that might be on the low side.
6. Jose Fernandez and why the Marlins are now watchable 20 percent of the time
When the Marlins announced that Fernandez would open the season on the 25-man roster, they were widely ridiculed around the league. Why burn a year of service time with a top prospect when it was certain that the club was not going to be competitive? I still question why they wouldn't promote Fernandez in May or June to push his clock back a year, but regardless, he's sure fun to watch. Fernandez's 2.19 ERA ranks second behind Clayton Kershaw's 1.88, and he supports it with solid ratios - 9.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9. It's going to be tough for Fernandez to duplicate this in 2014, but his stuff is electric (four plus pitches, including a mid-90s fastball) and there's still room for improvement in his control. I can't wait to see what he does for an encore, and I wouldn't hesitate to put him in your top-10 starters list. The Marlins will probably be better offensively next year with a full season of Christian Yelich, and who knows, maybe Jeffrey Loria will spend some money.
7. Big-name pitchers disappoint
Verlander, Sabathia, Haren, Kennedy. Those are just a few of the names who have failed to live up to expectations this season. Since giving Clayton Kershaw a run for the Cy Young in 2011, Ian Kennedy has regressed to a 4.02 ERA last year and a 5.06 mark in 2013. He's been predictably better since the trade to San Diego, but even then, his San Diego ERA sits at 4.65 with Kennedy having allowed five or more runs three times in nine starts. As for CC Sabathia, it sure looks as if a huge number of innings has caught up with him, though perhaps an offseason of rest will help.
As for Dan Haren, I still have to think that his chronic back issues are to blame there.
Justin Verlander is a tough one. A spike in his BB/9 from 2.3 to 3.1 year-over-year has probably been the primary culprit, but Verlander's velocity is down well over two mph compared to his peak years a couple seasons ago. A 23-percent line drive rate also indicates that hitters are getting better wood on the ball. So what is in store for Verlander in 2014? In the AL, I'm just not sure he's a lock to return to being a sub-3.00 Cy Young contender. I'd probably rank him toward the back end of my top 10-15 starters list.
8. The emergence of Yasiel Puig
There are several factors that we can attribute to the Dodgers' resurgence:
Hanley Ramirez's hot bat
Zack Greinke's huge second half
Clayton Kershaw's consistency
But ... Mr. Puig has something to do with this as well. With Matt Kemp's health issues and the struggles of Andre Ethier, Puig brought energy, excitement and simple production to the lineup, and the scary thing is that he's just getting started. I was at a Dodgers-Brewers game this spring and while I knew the name because of his huge contract, I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't expect this:
A monster home run to left field
A single and stolen base
A 400-foot triple to dead center
So I can't say I'm too surprised by his success, a season that's left me wondering when the Dodgers would have clinched had Puig been in the lineup from day one.
So what about 2014? Where can we expect Puig to be drafted? I'd bet on 30 home runs and 20 steals. With his speed, I think he's a .300 hitter annually with RBI predicated upon where he ultimately settles in the lineup. The 41 RBI this year are a bit low, but that's a function of 81 percent of Puig's at-bats coming in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the lineup. I see him as a late second-round pick in 12-team mixed leagues.
9. A new wave of young pitching
We've already talked about Jose Fernandez, but the number of impressive young arms I've seen this year has been seemingly far more than normal. Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha in St. Louis. The emergence of Julio Teheran in Atlanta. Patrick Corbin tailed off a bit in the second half, but he appears to have a bright future. Andrew Cashner emerged as San Diego's likely Opening Day 2014 starter, and the Dodgers' latest import, Korean Hyun-Jin Ryu provided needed stability in the middle of that rotation.
That all said, can we expect the same in 2014? I think so. We've seen a glimpse of Taijuan Walker, who could very well be the second best pitcher in the Seattle organization. Baseball's No. 1 pitching prospect, Archie Bradley, is a candidate to break camp with the Diamondbacks and is an early favorite for the NL Rookie of the Year. Jameson Taillon will soon join Gerrit Cole to give the Pirates potentially their best 1-2 combo since Doug Drabek and John Smiley. We should see Dylan Bundy return from Tommy John surgery. Those are the big names. Sleepers for me would include Anthony Ranaudo, Rafael Montero and diminutive but powerful Yordano Ventura.
10. Trevor Rosenthal, the next dominant closer
With an upper-90s fastball and an early lead in the 2014 closer race, Rosenthal may very well be the next power closer along the lines of Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. Rosenthal recorded his first save of the season Monday, and in 73.1 innings, the fire-baller has a 2.70 ERA and eye-popping 104:20 K:BB. I do wonder whether the Cardinals will put him back in the rotation where he spent most of his minor league time, but with guys like Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez as 2014 rotation options, Rosenthal seems likely to remain in the bullpen given his 2014 numbers. Assuming he enters 2014 as a closer, he'll be in my top five.
As I finish this, the Cardinals game just wrapped up. That's a depressing finish for Michael Wacha, who lost a no-hit bid on an infield single with two outs in the ninth inning. But let's just say that Wacha rose a bit on my 2014 draft board.