The league-wide decline in offense is real.
I warned about it as many as five years ago. Pitchers are bigger and stronger, and a greater number of them now throw in the high-90s with movement on the ball. Many also throw a cutter -- a tough pitch to pick up.
Additionally, the growing use of defensive shifts has made it more difficult for hitters to produce. The data is so convincing on hitter tendencies that the genius of Joe Maddon and the Rays' front office regarding defensive positioning has spread. Consider those shifts when buying players.
Regardless of the changes in pitching and defense, there are fewer power hitting corner infielders and outfielders in the game. Therefore, power bats in fantasy will be at a premium. The use of unauthorized substances to assist in performance has been reduced, and that has clearly had an impact.
In this changing environment, there were many players that showed significant improvement in 2013. At a time when fabulous pitching, great defense and situational baseball seemed to take hold of the game, several players stood out to me as candidates that should be reviewed carefully heading into 2014.
I look for improvement over multiple categories Ė thatís the key, multiple rotisserie categories. If a player shows improvement in at least three of the usual five categories, I want to consider him for my team. The operative word of course is "consider.Ē Price makes a difference, and each of these players will fetch an increased price.
What are you willing to pay for their increased production? Those who know my work have heard me use the phrase "Show me it again. And then again." I want to see a player repeat a skill before I jump in head-first.
Carlos Gomez, OF, MIL
At one point I felt that Gomez would be fighting for his center field job in Milwaukee. There really isnít much question about who is in center now though. The questions have shifted to the Brewers' corner-outfield spots.
Gomez improved in every major rotisserie category last season, gains that included an increase in his batting average from .260 to .284, five additional homers, eight runs, 22 RBI and three steals. That said, I believe Gomezís career year in 2013 will be an outlier. I donít think he can repeat, but he can come close.
Here are the caution signs: Gomez struck out a whopping 146 times in 590 plate appearances. Does he now consider himself to be a power hitter? If so, heís in trouble. His batting average declined 30 points, from .295 to .265 in the second half, while his strikeout rate jumped from 23.5 to 27.5%.
Prediction: Slight decline in every category (watch the price carefully)
My Projection: .271 AVG, 20 HR, 70 RBI, 77 R, 38 SB
2013 Results: .284 AVG, 24 HR, 73 RBI, 80 R, 40 SB
Josh Donaldson, 3B, OAK
Looking for an improved player? Try Donaldson on for size. Who knew? Iím not sure that the Athletics had the sense that Donaldson could solve their annual third-base issues. He not only hit, he also played great defense and showed real leadership.
He hit .301 for the season, an increase of 60 points from 2012, swatting 15 additional home runs, driving in 60 more runs, and scoring 55 more. He overall value ranked among the game's elite, as his bWAR increased from 1.5 to 8.0, while the opportunity to play regularly provided him with an additional 374 plate appearances last season.
Previously, Donaldson had never really shown that hitting tool for a sustained 500 at-bats. Thatís what concerns me. To his credit, Donaldson hit in both halves last season. He was consistent at home and away, and he hit righties and lefties well Ė I look for all three of those factors.
Prediction: Slight decline (price should show inflation - donít overpay)
My Projection: .289 AVG, 22 HR, 90 RBI, 90 R, 8 SB
2013 Results: .301 AVG, 24 HR, 93 RBI, 89 R, 5 SB
Matt Carpenter, 2B, STL
While I wouldnít say he "broke out" last season, I would say that Carpenter hit more than most observers and fantasy players expected. Eventually landing in the Cards' leadoff spot, Carpenter racked up 55 doubles, while his 126 runs scored in a category that is often forgotten blew most people away.
What makes Carpenter exciting is that he is only 28 years old. I want a piece of Carpenter in any format I can grab him. However, I feel there are three categories in some jeopardy and one that could improve. Without Carlos Beltran and David Freese, it's my opinion that the Cards' offense is a bit weaker. I really like Peter Bourjos, but he wonít help Carpenter that much, and I donít think Carpenter will see many great pitches to hit. But I think Bourjos might be on base for him to drive in. Jhonny Peralta doesnít factor that greatly in my opinion. Heíll help, but he isn't Beltran.
Prediction: Similar overall value, fewer runs scored (worth the price of inflation, to a degree)
My projection: .305 AVG, 12 HR, 82 RBI, 100 R, 3 SB
2013 Results: .318 AVG, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 126 R, 3 SB
Hisashi Iwakuma, SP, SEA
I believe Iwakuma is for real, and I think heís an All-Star caliber pitcher. He knows how to pitch and not just throw, and he's proven to be durable. His 14-6 record last season could have been better, of course, had he been on a winning team, although that could change with the number of additions the Mariners made during the offseason to improve their offense.
His value increased last season thanks to five additional wins, a drop in ERA from 3.16 to a dazzling 2.66, and that he also struck out a surprising 185 hitters and walked only 42 (1.00 WHIP) while pitching 219.2 innings (an increase of 94.1 from 2012).
Iwakuma is going to be 33 when the season begins in April. His fastball held velocity throughout last season and actually increased in September, but Iím a bit concerned about his age. Not alarmingly so, just a little.
Prediction: Decline (still worth targeting if priced fairly)
My projection: 12-8, 188 K, 2.79 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
2013 Results: 14-6, 185 K, 2.66 ERA, 1.01 WHIP
Prince Fielder, 1B, TEX
What happened to Prince? The numbers he delivered were not horrible, but they fell short of his typically lofty levels of production. Fielder's batting average dropped from .313 to .279, and he finished the season with 25 home runs, five fewer than in 2012.
Can he come back? For me - itís all related to conditioning and his mental state. If his divorce and off-field issues were a distraction, perhaps they will be gone as the new season begins. If he gets in better playing shape, maybe he can endure the rigors of 162 games with better results. He is one of few starters that played every single game last season, and he did it for the third year in a row.
The big differences should be in an improved batting average - an important component of fantasy success - and more home runs thanks to playing half of his games in Texas. The Ballpark in Arlington will be great for his bat. I look for a huge rebound, and an even better year than last for Adrian Beltre hitting behind Fielder in the cleanup position.
Prediction: Improvement (pay the price)
My projection: .298 AVG, 33 HR, 113 RBI, 99 R, 0 SB
2013 Results: .279 AVG, 25 HR, 106 RBI, 82 R, 1 SB
B.J. Upton, OF, ATL
Upton is a player I have never owned on a fantasy team. It is unlikely that will change anytime soon.
It's simple. He's undisciplined at the plate, he swings too hard, and he can't hit breaking balls. His best tool is his speed, but he hasn't figured out how to get on base. With a drop in stolen bases from 31 to 12, and a reduction in runs scored from 79 to 30, how can we justify paying anything better than lower-tier prices for him?
Upton was so bad he spent considerable time on the bench last season.
Here's the thing. Upton was an easy out and was fooled or overwhelmed by even mediocre pitching. The Braves don't have much depth in the outfield, however, and he has a huge contract written in cement. As a result, they will likely stick with him in 2014. To make matters worse, the long-term deal with Upton cost the Braves the money they needed to pay Brian McCann.
Again, it will all depend on the price. For some, he's a great buy-low candidate. Very low. Good luck.
Prediction: Improvement (let him fall to you)
My Projection: .237 AVG, 14 HR, 47 RBI, 44 R, 19 SB
2013 Results: .184 AVG, 9 HR, 26 RBI, 30 R, 12 SB
CC Sabathia, SP, NYY
Sabathia was in a free fall in almost every category last season, his 13th in the big leagues. His ERA increased by nearly a run-and-a-half to 4.78, while his WHIP escalated from 1.14 to 1.37. Amazingly, he managed to pile up 14 wins, even though his record dipped from 15-6 to 14-13.
The problem appears to be that Sabathia has gained weight, and he has not looked healthy at all. With knees that bark and another year of age, I don't see him landing in the top-50 starting pitchers in 2014.
The ray of hope I see is the presence of Brian McCann. I think he will be a great handler of pitchers, but especially Sabathia. His presence will have a positive influence and help avert an even more massive decline. Keep in mind that Sabathia will turn 34 in July. He's certainly not old, but he's not getting any younger.
Prediction: Mixed results (let him fall to you)
My Projection: 14-11, 166 K, 4.10 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
2013 Results: 14-33, 175 K, 4.78 ERA, 1.37 WHIP
Yovani Gallardo, SP, MIL
Gallardo delivered a mixed message to fantasy owners as well as to his team last season. He pitched in 24 fewer innings, dropping from 204 to 180, but his yield of home runs also dropped - which is good news, as he went from 26 to 18.
The problem, however, is that Gallardo pitched to a 4.18 ERA compared to 3.66 in 2012. In fewer innings, he gave up six more runs. And here's the big one Ė he struck out 60 fewer hitters, going from 9.0 K/9 to 7.2 last season Ė while his WHIP shot up from 1.30 to 1.36.
I don't like the trends. Gallardo is only 28 and should be coming into his prime seasons, but his future with the Brewers is in doubt. I see Gallardo dropping as low as the top-60 among starting pitchers. His numbers are not something that I'm paying for with significant auction dollars or a high draft pick.
Prediction: Slight improvement (be cautious on the price)
My projection: 11-11, 167 K, 4.08 ERA, 1.33 WHIP
2013 Results: 12-10, 144 K, 4.18 ERA, 1.36 WHIP
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, BOS
Middlebrooks completed only his second year with Boston in 2013, but it was really pretty awful. We bought in after Middlebrooks hit .288/.325/.509 with 15 homers and 286 plate appearances as a rookie.
Last season, the batting average plummeted to .227. His counting stats were largely unchanged, despite the fact that he played in 19 additional games. A demotion back to Triple-A removed Middlebrooks from the picture at one point, and while his strikeout and walk rates improved in the International League, he showed only moderate growth in the second half during his return to Boston.
Here's the troubling part of the equation. Xander Bogaerts did very well playing third base, giving the Red Sox flexibility on the left side of their infield. Assuming that he remains with the Red Sox, Middlebrooks will likely have competition for playing time during spring training, and there is no guarantee that he will even have a path to an everyday job. It's risky, as he might implode at any time and be replaced. Middlebrooks still has value on the trade front, but he will likely end up in a less hitter-friendly environment than Fenway if the Red Sox deal him.
Prediction: Improvement (he could be available at a fair price - be careful)
My Projection: .258 AVG, 18 HR, 55 RBI, 50 R, 6 SB
2013 Results: .227 AVG, 17 HR, 49 RBI, 41 R, 3 SB