Carlos Beltran: Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI
For the past few days I've been putting the finishing touches on the 14th annual installment of Sports Illustrated's Player Value Rankings, to be published in the upcoming baseball preview issue. Although it's not a state secret and there are no plans to reveal this season's No. 1 PVR on the Late Show with David Letterman, a la SI's Swimsuit cover model, you'll have to wait a few weeks for the entire list. However that doesn't stop us from taking a quick glimpse into this season's top ranked player at each position in each league.
Entering last season, Pujols' status as king of the fantasy hill was challenged both by the emergence of Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder, and by questions about an elbow injury that proved to be no problem at all. The two-time NL MVP is the most consistent superstar of this generation, and therefore, fantasy gold.
Now a perennial MVP candidate (he's finished in the top 14 in each of the last four seasons), he's an integral part of the most fantasy-friendly top of any batting order in the majors.
Widely regarded as the No.1 overall player, Ramirez has developed into an all around star. A shift to third in the order would normally sap some steals (137 over the last three seasons) but his RBIs should rise considerably from the 67 he had last season, which made him the first player in baseball history to hit as many as 33 home runs yet drive in 67 runs or less.
Wright and the Mets are one huge season away from at least sharing the New York baseball spotlight with A-Rod and the Yankeees, and the first season in CitiField could be it. Wright is the anchor of what should prove to be a much-improved team that has new energy after exorcising the demons of the last two Septembers at Shea. He's a virtual lock for a fifth straight season of .300/30HR/100RBI/15 steals.
The fifth-year backstop gets the nod over Chicago's Geovany Soto solely for consistency's sake. The two premier fantasy catchers in baseball this season have eerily similar numbers (McCann: 23 HR, 87 RBIs, .301 avg 68 runs; Soto: 23 HR, 86 RBIs, .285 avg., 66 runs) last season, and since they're both being counted on for similar numbers by their big league teams, you really can't go wrong with either.
Over the past three seasons only two players have had seasons in which they hit 25 home runs, stole 25 bases and drove in 100 runs or more. One was David Wright in 2007 and the other was Beltran last season. Overshadowed by Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes, Beltran is an iron-clad first-round pick in any fantasy league.
Nobody was happier to see the Mets acquire Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz than Santana, who was repeatedly victimized by poor support behind him last year. Santana allowed two runs or fewer in eight of the Mets losses last season yet his 16-7 record was saddled with only three of those L's. With a competent and confident bullpen behind him, Santana, who enters the '09 season riding a major-league-best nine game winning streak, should post dominant numbers across the board again
Fresh off setting the major league record for saves with 62, K-Rod treks across the country to settle down the Mets troublesome pen. While you shouldn't expect anywhere near the same number of saves, 45 isn't out of the question, especially while playing in a very competitive NL East that promises close games all year.
Is there anyone this side of A-Rod and Pujols who has a better shot at a Triple Crown at some point in his career than Cabrera? He led the A.L. in home runs, trailed Josh Hamilton by just three RBIs for the top honor and batted .292 (or 17-points below his career average) in his first season in the junior circuit, all while enduring a position change. A bounce back by Curtis Granderson at the top of the Tigers order and some added protection from Magglio Ordoñez and Gary Sheffield should translate into even bigger production.
The 2008 AL MVP doesn't crack the overall Top 25, but he certainly is the most deserving of the top spot in his league with a .493 slugging percentage, 83 RBIs, 118 runs scored and 20 steals. A preseason abdominal strain that forced him out of the World Baseball Classic is of no concern.
The Cuban Missile qualifies at second base, too, but the PVR has always listed players at the positions they're going to play in the upcoming season. That said, Ramirez moved to the head of the class on the heels of a 21 HR, .290 rookie season. The only A.L. shortstop with better power than Ramirez is Cleveland's Jhonny Peralta, but Ramirez's speed (13 steals) gets him the nod.
A hip injury will sideline him into May, but even 75 percent of an average season from Rodriguez since he got to New York would result in 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 89 runs scored and 16 steals. Only one other third baseman in the league, Evan Longoria, could expect to reach those numbers even in a great year.
For the time being we're assuming that Mauer's back injury isn't of the catastrophic variety and he'll be at full strength soon. In Mauer's case, full strength means the A.L.'s best batting average to go along with a bushel of RBIs and runs scored. Should the news turn out to be worse than expected between now and press time, the top spot would go to another player dealing with an injury, Mike Napoli of the Angels, who will get at bats at DH if he's unable to get behind the mask.
Another close call,but Sizemore's combination of speed (71 steals over the last two seasons) and power (33 HRs) puts him in the top slot ahead of Texas' sweet-swinging Josh Hamilton. A rebound season by Victor Martinez and (less likely) Travis Hafner should mean a return to an elite level in runs scored (AL-leading 134 in '06).
It's not usually the best policy to follow the big money in fantasy baseball, but in this case Sabathia's past two years, coupled with the Yankees' improved lineup and defense, he's the AL pitcher most likely to have a dominant season in wins, strikeouts and WHIP.
The only pitcher to save at least 35 games in each of the last five seasons, Nathan has been a model of consistency on a team that is always in the hunt. Since he became a full-time closer in '04 he's converted 90.9 percent of his save opportunities, second only to Mariano Rivera over that span. That gives him a slight edge over Boston's Jonathan Papelbon.
Justin Upton: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
These youngsters still have some growing to do as big leaguers but are on the cusp of stardom. One more year of seasoning and they'll be huge. They're the players to be targeting for in-season trades in keeper leagues.
Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks
Cameron Maybin, CF, Marlins
Ian Stewart, 3B/OF, Rockies
Brandon Wood, 3B, Angels
Colby Rasmus, LF, Cardinals
1. Brett Gardner, Yankees
The speedster has seized the starting CF job from Melky Cabrera and will serve essentially as a second leadoff man out of the ninth spot. He's got 40 to 50 steal potential and has silenced his critics who claim he has no power with a three Grapefruit League home runs.
2. Pablo Sandoval, Giants
His lack of eligibility behind the plate in most leagues has soured many on his potential for the season, but as a projected third-place hitter in a much improved Giants lineup, Sandoval is someone who'll easily outperform his draft position.
3. Jose Arredondo, Angels
Fine, the Angels ruined your offseason strategy by inking Brian Fuentes to a big free agent deal, but don't fret. Fuentes has proven in Colorado that he's far from a sure thing, and even if he keeps the job, Arredondo produced two more vulture wins (10) than anyone else in the big leagues last season and remains valuable just for those and his 1.62 ERA.
4. Russell Branyan, Mariners
After coming off a season during which he popped a home run every 12 at-bats the journeyman slugger has a full-time gig for the first time in a while as the first baseman for Seattle. Given 400 at-bats, 20 home runs are a slam dunk, and he'll be someone you can get on the cheap to fill your corner slot.
5. Bill Hall, Brewers
You always have to pay attention to a player coming off a poor season who undergoes offseason Lasik surgery. Hall could be a major steal late as everybody is scared away by his .225 average.
Most owners go overboard for the hot player, the one who has through-the-roof potential, however it's much more common for those players to flame out than to pan out. Since it's as important to avoid holes on your roster as it is to have stars, these players represent the complete opposite, players who will give you exactly what you expect therefore making them ideal placeholders if you find yourself in a positional bind.