Chase Utley, Phillies: When healthy he's one of the top three second-sackers in the game but the perennial MVP candidate was limited to just 103 games last year after missing the first month of '11 with a knee injury. That came on the heels of a '10 when he suffered a sprained thumb and played only 115 games. This year he's healthy and crucial to a potent lineup temporarily weakened by the loss of first baseman Ryan Howard for at least a month. Look for Utley to reverse his current career trend of drops in batting average and slugging percentage each season since '07 with another 30 home run, 100 RBI campaign.
Josh Johnson, Marlins: In the midst of a fantastic start (1.64 ERA, .185 OBA), Johnson was sidelined for the year in late May with a sore shoulder. Now potentially back at full strength, the 6-foot-7, 250-pound right-hander with a career 2.98 ERA and 60.7 percent ground ball rate is set to resume his role as one of baseball's most underrated aces. But now pitching in a new stadium with a buzz around the now-Miami Marlins, Johnson will capture some of the accolades generally reserved for others.
Buster Posey, Giants: Easily the most valuable Giant both offensively and defensively, in hopes of maximizing his time on the field Posey has been ordered by manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher himself, to avoid blocking home plate at all costs. That's good advice following last May's collision at the dish with Florida's Scott Cousins, a pile-up that wrecked the Giants postseason chances and many fantasy squads by breaking the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year's leg while also tearing ligaments in his ankle. He's on track to reprise his role as San Francisco's cleanup hitter and the NL's top young catcher.
Shin-Soo Choo, Indians: Few fantasy outfielders are more useful than a healthy Choo. Relegated to just 85 games last year due to a broken thumb and oblique strain, he's healthy and ready to recapture right field duties for the Tribe. Although he slumped badly before the injuries, Choo is just one year removed from back-to-back .300/20 HR/20 SB campaigns.
Kendrys Morales, Angels: The Halos made the biggest splash in free agency by adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to an already-formidable squad. An equally sizable addition is the return of Morales, who has not appeared in a big league games since tearing his Achilles while celebrating a walk-off grand slam on May 29, 2010. Mike Scioscia has Morales penciled in primarily at DH, a luxury the Angels have with Mark Trumbo, Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter all around. A healthy Morales and his .502 career slugging percentage in the cleanup spot is the perfect protection for Pujols and would give the Angels one of the game's more dangerous three-four lineup combinations.
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals: Much is being said about what the Cardinals lost in the offseason with the free agent defection of Pujols and retirements of manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. While it's not realistic to expect Wainwright, who is coming off Tommy John surgery at age 30, to immediately snap back to the pitcher who went 39-19 with 425 strikeouts in '09-10, he's still someone to target in fantasy drafts as he slots into the No. 2 spot in a deep Cardinals rotation playing in a dramatically weakened division.
Joe Mauer, Twins: After two subpar injury-plagued seasons, Mauer is no longer an automatic mention when it comes to the "best fantasy catcher" argument, especially after being limited to 52 games behind the plate in '11. Now supposedly healthy, the Twins expect to see their MVP-caliber backstop again when the season opens at Camden Yards on April 6. While 28 home runs during his MVP '08 season may be an anomaly, his career .323 batting average and .403 on base percentages aren't.
Ike Davis, Mets: One of the main beneficiaries of moving the fences in at Citi Field will be Davis, who lost all but 36 games of his sophomore big league season due to ligament damage and a bone bruise in his left ankle. He's been fully recovered for most of the offseason and ready to go, anchoring a lineup that, though depleted, still has David Wright, Lucas Duda and Jason Bay, all of whom should see a rise in power production. Given a full season's worth of at-bats, he could match his current career numbers (.271/.357/.460, 26 HR, 96 RBI) in 2012 alone.
Joe Nathan, Rangers: There may not have been a more symbiotic signing this winter than the Rangers inking Nathan to a guaranteed two-year, $14 million deal. In Nathan, Nolan Ryan's team gets a closer with 260 saves over his last seven seasons but just 14 in '11, due to a month spent on the DL with a right flexor muscle strain and a slow return from Tommy John surgery in '10. In the Rangers, Nathan, 37, gets to pitch at the end of a great bullpen, with a deep rotation and one of the best lineups in baseball. Texas' last closer, Neftali Feliz (now in the rotation), averaged 42 save opportunities the past two years. Nathan should easily re-take his position among baseball's top firemen.
Johan Santana, Mets: Opening Day 2012 will mark a full year-and-a half since the once-dominant southpaw had shoulder surgery that sidelined him for all of '11. Each year from '04 through '08 Santana threw over 200 innings, won at least 15 games and had an ERA of 3.33 or below. He was solid in '10 (2.98 ERA) before succumbing to the injury. Now it's looking increasingly possible he'll be a member of New York's rotation from Opening Day. With the Mets in financial shambles, the best they could hope for from Santana is a strong start and then some relief from the more than $50 million left on his contract in a trade. That possibility makes him a one of the more intriguing high-risk, high-reward players in NL-only leagues.