For the 17th year in a row I was assigned the task of compiling the projected starting lineups and statistics for the SI Baseball Preview issue. It's pretty much my bread and butter, figuring out who fits where in each batting order, rotation and bullpen for the quickly approaching season. A time consuming task, it's also fluid, changing with every spring game as jobs are won and lost, injuries arise or are put to bed or adventurous managers toy with lineups.
For all of the time and effort that goes into the process, starting lineups are among the least stable entities in sports. Perhaps the most famous batting order of all time, the 1927 Murderers Row Yankees, used 37 different lineups over 154 games. That may seem high, but it's incredibly low compared to today's standards. On average, not including the different pitchers, teams used 124.4 lineups in 2011 (123.4 in the AL, 125.3 in the NL). The least stable lineups in the AL were no surprise as the Twins (150 out of 162) were ravaged by injuries all season while the Mariners' (152) offense was so bad that they needed to keep trying different combinations to see if anything would work. The NL's leader in most lineups used was Dusty Baker, who wrote down his batting order in 142 different combinations.
The two most stable teams? In the NL, Charlie Manuel's Phillies were an offensive force yet still needed 105 separate iterations. And in the AL it wasn't the offensive juggernauts of the Red Sox, Yankees or Rangers that took the prize. It was Ned Yost's young Royals, who lined up only 87 different ways.
The lesson in this is that some fantasy owners get too caught up in who's starting and who's not, who makes the team out of camp and who doesn't, and who is batting one place in the order as compared to another. In reality, elite players remain stable while everyone else is always in flux. It's more important to make sure that you pick quality players, regardless of current situation. Talent will always prevail.
The biggest benefit of sifting through all of the possible lineup combinations is that by the end of the preview process, I'm well-versed on most position battles and the situations of every player on every team. So instead of cluttering the already overloaded stat-o-sphere with more numbers, I'm simply sharing with you who I have come to believe are the top players to own at every position in each league based on my weeks of research.
Unlike most seasons, when there aren't as many catchers as needed in AL-only leagues, this season will be different with players like Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli, Jesus Montero and Ryan Doumit all due to see serious time at other positions.
As I talked about a few weeks ago, the depth at first base is historic in the AL and awfully thin in the NL, making Joey Votto even more valuable than usual.
Traditionally an offensive afterthought, second base has developed into a premium offensive position chock full of middle of the order talent.
The glamour position of the past two decades has turned into a glove-first, offense-challenged spot as the top talent has relocated to other spots on the diamond.
Already deep last year, the hot corner is now blazing with the additions of Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez. Is it possible that A-Rod and his megabucks deal isn't in the Top 5 at his position anymore?
The quest for the elusive speed-power combination that fantasy players crave leads to the outfield, where much of the game's elite talent is stored. This is the final season of natural disparity between the leagues -- there's plenty of talent to go around in 12-team NL-only leagues, it's scarce in AL-only circuits of the same size -- as the Astros move to the AL evens things out for 2013.
For those who use a DH-only spot.
After an era of offensive superiority, pitching has made a successful comeback, and now there are more than enough aces to go around.
The most volatile fantasy position usually undergoes at least 40 percent turnover from those who start the season pitching in the ninth inning to those who finish it. It's vital to get at least one lock, but it's also a good idea to take a chance on a couple of reaches because in doing so you could easily stumble upon the next great closer.