Eric Mack
Monday June 27th, 2011

With Albert Pujols finally succumbing to a long-term injury and Hanley Ramirez just now proving healthy and starting a hitting streak, fantasy has a worthwhile question to ask at its midway point: Who is No. 1?

It's a question that will linger until next spring. The second-half of the season might not even answer it.

What we can do now, though, is ponder the possibilities:

Matt Kemp, SI.com's first-half MVP looks like the real deal. He is on pace for .300-40-120-100-40 season, stuff of legend. He has put stretches close to this together, but he needs to do it for a full season.

Jose Reyes is a contract-year monster, on pace for .340-6-70-130-60. He just doesn't have a great supporting cast or power numbers to be worth going No. 1 overall. Also, free-agent hype tends to make fantasy players vastly overrated the following year.

Adrian Gonzalez is the trendy power guy in a monster lineup and a great hitter's park. The question is can he possibly maintain this .360-35-150-120 pace he is on? History suggests not, but we shouldn't put anything past him, finally having gotten away from that cavernous park in San Diego.

Jose Beastista is the new Pujols, roughly on pace for .325-50-100-120-10. But it will be just his second monster season after many years of mediocrity.

Ryan Braun, like Reyes, is in his age-27 season and enjoying a banner year. He looks like he could finish .305-35-125-120-35. Among this top five, he is probably the safest pick. He was the only one of these that definitely went in your first round this spring.

Forget about the pitchers. Sure, they score more in CBSSports.com's standard head-to-head scoring format. But there are far more of them to choose from (Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and Tim Lincecum), and the most consistent of the lot, Halladay will be too deep into his 30s.

These are the very reasons we will miss Pujols this next month-plus. He removed all debate about the No. 1 player in fantasy.

Here is an early projection for what the first round of 2012 might look like, with the caveat that the second half could shuffle things all around like it did in this first half. You will notice expectations of regression and career levels guide the ordering of the top:

1. OF Braun, Brewers -- The most consistent of the lot. He replaces Pujols in that regard and is smack dab in his prime.

2. OF Kemp, Dodgers -- Like Braun, he turns 27 this year. If he has a second half close to his first, he will be the No. 1. Our placement of him second here, portends some measure of doubt that will happen.

3. 1B Gonzalez, Red Sox -- He proved his offseason shoulder issue was really no issue at all. Our only question is if he can really hit .360 for a full season? If he does, he flips to No. 1, no matter what Braun and Kemp do.

4. 1B Pujols, Cardinals -- He shouldn't slip too far, considering how productive he was before injury and how he could still finish .300-30-100-100-10 having missed as much as six weeks of baseball.

5. OF Bautista, Blue Jays -- He slots right behind this quartet only because he was a late bloomer. Clearly, he belongs in the top half of the first round now.

6. SS Reyes, Mets -- His free agency will leave some questions, the most notable of which is whether this breakthrough was merely contract-induced. His ranking should be far lower in head-to-head than Rotisserie. In fact, the No. 1 pitcher might be a better pick in the former.

7. 1B Miguel Cabrera, Tigers -- This slide in ranking is no fault of his own, really. He is as steady as they come. He is on pace for another monster season at .330-30-110-120. Perhaps his home ballpark, supporting cast and lack of steals are all that keep him from making a case for No. 1. None of those should keep him from remaining smack dab in the middle of Round 1.

8. SP Halladay, Phillies -- He might not finish the No. 1 pitcher, because of the first-half fantasy Cy Young Justin Verlander, but he could set career bests across the board. His age keeps him out of the top half, but his steadiness keeps him No. 1 at the position.

9. SS Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies -- He has had huge second halves before, so he could very well rise on this list. He hasn't been disappointing, really; there are just a few more first-round newcomers having better years -- including Reyes stealing (often literally) his thunder at the thin shortstop position.

10. 1B Prince Fielder, Brewers -- We figured it was going to be a huge year for the Brewers' monster sticks. Fielder does it in a contract year and returns to the back-end of the first round with a pace of .305-45-145-100. Oh, he just happens to be 27, too.

11. 1B Joey Votto, Reds -- His numbers remain strong, but he slides down a bit in the first round because the novelty of his age-27 breakthrough has worn off and his homer total is down a bit. A .318-20-100-110-10 hitter is noting to scoff at -- or pass on -- in the first round. He should pick up the homer pace to the 25- to 30-range, too, this summer.

12. SS Ramirez, Marlins -- He should slip too far, considering his talent. He has a lot to prove in the second half, though. The bet here is he will wind up far closer to the middle or even top half of Round 1 when things are all said and done.

Honorable mention: SP Verlander, Tigers -- It is rare a fantasy baseball first-round projection includes a second starting pitcher. Verlander is a rare one, though. He might be one of the few pitchers with a chance to return the era of the 300-strikeout season. The days of Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens appear long gone. Strikeout totals are as high as ever, though, and Verlander looks like a 250-plus innings beast who could challenge for 300 strikeouts next season, maybe even this one. Too bad Verlander wasn't pitching in the NL.

This is a fairly safe projection of how things might go next March. Things should level out in the second half, so you might want to buy low into some of those who have fallen out, including: 2B Robinson Cano, Yankees; OF Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies; OF Carl Crawford, Red Sox; 3B Evan Longoria, Rays; and maybe SPs Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee in some head-to-head points leagues.

Now on to the rest of out weekly look at the fantasy trends:

Is there any doubt Clayton Kershaw has entered fantasy ace-dom? There shouldn't be. A pair of 11-strikeout, complete-game victories make the Dodgers' lefty yet another starting pitcher player of the week honoree. Seven of 12 weeks, SI.com's top player is a pitcher. No wonder there are so many teams hitting under .250 this season. Kershaw is on pace for career bests in wins (16), ERA (2.90), WHIP (1.025), Ks (262) and innings (239). The 23-year old has been outscored by only five pitchers and one hitting in fantasy, three of which have already won player of the week honors.

Past players of the week: 11. SP Justin Verlander, DET; 10. 1B Prince Fielder, MIL; 9. 1B Albert Pujols, Cardinals; 8. SP Yovani Gallardo, MIL; 7. SP Michael Pineda, SEA; 6. OF Jose Bautista, TOR; 5. SP Francisco Liriano, MIN; 4. 2B Ben Zobrist, TB; 3. SP James Shields, TB; 2. SP Dan Haren, LAA; 1. SP Jered Weaver, LAA.

OF Carl Crawford (hamstring), Red Sox -- He is hoping to return when first eligible Sunday. He should go back to being active in all leagues for Fantasy Week 14 (July 4-10). Josh Reddick or Mike Cameron won't be missed outside of deeper AL-only formats.

3B David Wright (back), Mets -- He is hoping to start swinging a bat soon, which could make him a candidate to return right after the All-Star break. It could mean less at-bats for Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada, perhaps, but it won't change the fantasy fortunes of anyone but those owners getting Wright back.

SP Tommy Hanson (shoulder), Braves -- Mike Minor's demotion to the minors signals a return this week for Hanson. He gets a favorable matchup at Seattle, too. He should be active in all formats and cross your figures this was just a minor hiccup with his shoulder. Julio Teheran and Minor are the stopgap options if Hanson relapses, although Minor cannot be called back up unless someone from the Braves goes on the DL in the next week.

SP Josh Johnson (shoulder), Marlins -- How much has he meant to the Marlins? Without him, the Marlins have been one of the worst teams in baseball in the month of June -- no, the worst. Johnson is hoping to begin a three-start rehab assignment this weekend, which could put him on track to return after the All-Star break. This is great news, but three starts in the minors suggest the team isn't overly confident in the health of that shoulder yet.

SP Clay Buchholz (back), Red Sox -- He is targeting a July 4 return from his cautionary DL stint. He should come back refreshed and just plain fresh with his shoulder. That will make him a potential beast in all fantasy leagues there on out, especially with that contender. Andrew Miller is pitching against Tim Wakefield in their next start(s) to see who gets ushered to the bullpen.

OF Shin Soo-Choo (broken thumb), Indians -- This is adding injury to insult. Choo had been a huge bust before breaking his thumb and now should be out until August. The only saving grace for fantasy owners is that outfield might be the easiest position to find a replacement for mixed leagues. Austin Kearns and Travis Buck immediately become more intriguing in AL-only formats.

SS Derek Jeter (calf), Yankees -- The fact he has yet to start running will delay his return further away than originally believed. How was he going to avoid a DL stint? No one will miss his replacement. Heck, no one has missed his disappointing production either.

SP Jonathan Sanchez (biceps), Giants -- He has struggled with his command, and the Giants are turning to Barry Zito (4-0, 2.20 ERA in four rehab starts) in the back of their rotation. Zito's complete-game shutout last time out makes him a viable sleeper immediately in deeper fantasy leagues. Zito has always been a streaky pitcher, like Sanchez. Zito is a nice fill-in if you have lost Sanchez to a temporary DL stint.

SP Roy Oswalt (back), Phillies -- Those chronic back issues are back, literally. A back injury for a pitcher tends to be one that just doesn't go away. Oswalt is going to go away for 3-to-5 weeks. Vance Worley is the Phillies' stopgap, and useful only because of the contender he pitches for. Joe Blanton could be back after the All-Star break to fill that rotation spot.

1B Justin Morneau (neck), Twins -- It was supposed to be a concussion from a season ago that nagged him. Then it was a wrist injury. Finally, it is neck surgery that will keep him out until August now. Nothing is right with Morneau. His injury-plagued career is reaching its lowest point and he is squarely in the high-risk pool going forward. If it is not one thing, it will be another -- Jake Peavy-style.

SP Bartolo Colon (hamstring), Yankees -- He will throw a sim game with the hopes of returning in a couple of weeks. He could be back with Phil Hughes (shoulder) before the All-Star break. That will send Brian Gordon to Triple-A, or the bullpen. It will be interesting to see who else gets the boot. CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are the well-paid vets, Freddy Garcia is holding his own and Ivan Nova has earned his place. The Yankees just might have a starting pitching surplus after all.

The most-added players:

1. 2B Jemile Weeks, OAK 2. SP John Lannan, WAS 3. 3B Ty Wigginton, COL 4. SP Brandon Beachy, ATL 5. OF Roger Bernandina, WAS

Weeks has been every bit as advertised: A slap-hitting, base-stealer viable for all Rotisserie leagues. He will rely on average more because of his lack of pop initially, though, so he figures to be a streaky option. This is one of the times to jump on board. Lannan is pitching lights out, heading into this two-start week against two weaker offenses, while Beachy was lights out in his return from the DL. Wigginton and Bernandina are streaking and have earned full-time at-bats, proving to be great stopgaps in mixed formats.

The most-dropped players:

1. SP Charlie Morton, PIT 2. SP Travis Wood, CIN 3. 1B Ike Davis, NYM 4. SP Josh Collmenter, ARI 5. SS Dee Gordon, LAD

We warned of the regression of Pirates pitchers and Collmenter, so their struggles and declining ownership is not a surprise. Davis could be out for the season if he requires surgery, while Wood will remake himself back in Triple-A. Gordon has gone ice cold, but he should be watched closely -- especially if you missed out on Weeks above. Gordon is J-Weeks-good and should get hot again. It is a telling sign the Dodgers have already spoken to veteran Rafael Furcal about a move to second base for the second half. Gordon should -- could -- be here to stay. He just needs to kick this funk.

The most-scouted players:

1. 3B Wigginton, COL 2. SP Mike Leake, CIN 3. 3B Pablo Sandoval, SF| 4. OF Seth Smith, COL 5. 2B Weeks, OAK 6. OF Alex Presley, PIT 7. OF Jay Bruce, CIN 8. OF Matt Joyce, TB 9. SP Lannan, WAS 10. SS Elvis Andrus, TEX

Wigginton, Smith, Weeks, Leake (remember him? Thanks for getting out of the way Wood (above)) and Lannan are popular stopgaps in mixed leagues this week. Sandoval, Bruce and Andrus are nursing injuries that shouldn't require a DL stint. Presley is a call-up but more as a part-time Rotisserie option. Joyce might finally be out of his funk, so consider activating him again in the some 50 percent of leagues he is sitting in now.

Eric Mack rounds up the fantasy baseball movers and shakers every Monday of the season at SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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