In this game, there's no such thing as an offseason.
Fantasy baseball champions -- consistent, year-to-year ones -- recognize this is a 365-days-a-year sport, and while many of you, especially those no longer in the 2012 race, might have turned your focus to your fantasy football teams, I remind you how foolish that choice can be. Ignore fantasy baseball for the next four months and those who don't will school you come next spring.
I say it's never too early to get a head start on your scouting for next season. Today, let's provide you that head start. In this, our final 2012 edition of the "Hit Parade," I provide my preliminary rankings for next season and next season alone. Player value is based upon standard ESPN rules: Rotisserie 5x5 scoring, traditional rosters. In addition, at each position are also some "quick picks," early predictions for 2013. These categories include:
"Who's No. 1": Self-explanatory.
"Early buzz": A player most likely to spend the winter riding the hype machine, whether it's a top pick at his position or one primed to move up the ranks.
"Unranked value pick": Also self-explanatory.
"Hot stove impact": Players whose projected 2013 draft-day price tag might be significantly affected by winter transactions.
Now, let's get to the rankings!
Top 10 catchers
Who's No. 1: To think, a year ago at this time, there were serious questions as to whether Buster Posey's ankle, busted in a nasty collision at the plate on May 26, 2011, would heal to the point that he'd be able to ever again handle the chores of being a full-time catcher. Today, he has a 2012 stat line of 106 games and 914 innings played at the position, those seventh and eighth most in the majors and has become an even better hitter than he was before getting hurt. There's no question that Posey belongs at the top of anyone's catcher ranking list for 2013, as a 26-year-old (he'll turn that a week before Opening Day) with the best odds of leading the position in three of the five most prominent Rotisserie categories: Batting average, home runs and RBIs.
Early buzz: You can count on there being plenty of chatter surrounding Salvador Perez, whose roller coaster of a season began with him in February signing a five-year, $7 million deal including three club option years, in March tearing the lateral meniscus in his left knee and requiring surgery, then in June returning to the tune of .305/.331/.502 rates plus 11 home runs in 65 games that answered any questions about "fluky" rookie-year 2011 stats or his ability to quickly recover from surgery. The Royals sure look like they were right to lock up Perez for the long haul; he might even be ranked too low at No. 9.
Unranked value pick: Jesus Montero's rookie season didn't entirely follow the script, but there were three important takeaways nonetheless. First, he managed the requisite 20 games behind the plate to qualify at catcher for 2013. Second, he actually played 52 games there, his 452⅔ innings behind the plate more than a third of the team's total, providing him valuable experience going forward. (Remember, the learning curve for a catcher tends to be longer than it is for players at other positions.) Third, he has managed .283/.321/.415 rates and seven home runs in 52 games since the All-Star break, paces that look eerily similar to our preseason projected .278/.333/.453 rates and 20 homers. Montero's 2012 can be written off as a developmental season, but might that mean he arrives in 2013?
Hot stove impact: There was a point earlier this year at which there appeared a huge winter for free-agent catchers on the horizon then the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks signed theirs to five-year extensions and took some of the excitement out of the 2012-13 class. That said, Yadier Molina's $75 million and Miguel Montero's $60 million deals raised the bar for the remaining prospective free-agent backstops, and that puts the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Texas Rangers in the difficult position of anteing up for A.J. Pierzynski, Russell Martin and Mike Napoli, respectively. The significance is that all three players call hitting-friendly environments their homes; Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field ranks second in runs and fourth in home runs on our Park Factor page, Texas' Rangers Ballpark ranks seventh in runs, New York's Yankee Stadium ranks eighth in home runs, and the Rangers, Yankees and White Sox rank first, fourth and eighth in the majors in runs scored as a team. What if any of those teams decides to let them walk? That possibility alone is justification for all three falling outside my top-10 rankings at the position, though Napoli was certainly close.
Top 10 first basemen
Who's No. 1: With Miguel Cabrera third base-only for 2013, next year might be the first season in years in which no first baseman makes a compelling case for top-five overall status. My pick for tops merely at the position, Joey Votto, missed 49 games following an unexpected knee surgery, the obstacle that presents the most damning case against his challenging for the top five. Still, while he has nary a home run nor an RBI in 11 games since activation, Votto remains a prime-of-career slugger, entering 2013 at the age of 29, and a winter's rest should only further restore him to full health. Few players possess as balanced splits as his: Since 2009 he's a .310/.407/.515 hitter against left-handers, his .921 OPS against them tops by any qualified left-handed hitter and fourth best by any player against the traditionally "weaker" side, and .321/.427/.567 in road games, his .995 OPS second best among qualifiers (only Cabrera's 1.006 is better).
Early buzz: It might take a chunk of the winter to happen, but once fantasy owners catch on to the subtle improvements Freddie Freeman has made this season, they'll understand this generous ranking, especially being that he's already one of the most valuable at his position in NL-only formats. Freeman's traditional Rotisserie statistics might appear to have stagnated, but he has improved both his walk and strikeout rates, boosted his isolated power by 28 points, lowered his swing-and-miss rate, increased his fly ball rate by 7 percent and lowered his ground ball rate by 8 percent. Plus, remember this: He endured a rocky spell in late May/early June related to an eye problem, providing somewhat an explanation for his having not taken an even more substantial step forward.
Unranked value pick: Ike Davis' .225 seasonal batting average will disturb some fantasy owners who return to their analysis following an offseason's rest, but anyone labeling him an all-or-nothing slugger accordingly is mistaken. Batting average might never be Davis' strong point, but let's not be too harsh on him for what was a horrible start in the wake of his preseason diagnosis of Valley Fever, as through his first 56 games he was batting .156 with only five home runs. It was right around that point, coinciding with a mid-June Subway Series, that Davis was surrounded by rumors of a possible demotion to the minors, and since that point he's a .267/.346/.551 hitter with 22 homers and 60 RBIs in 86 games. He remains an integral, heart-of-the-order hitter for the New York Mets, and he might be a cheap top-10 candidate due to the poor-looking seasonal stat line.
Hot stove impact: Napoli, discussed in the catcher section, might be an option for teams here, too, but otherwise the most attractive options include two 36-year-olds, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, and a player on track to manage his second sub-.200 batting title-eligible season in the past three, Carlos Pena. Berkman might retire, Lee might have to settle for a designated hitter role with an American League team, perhaps a part-time one at that, and Pena might find it difficult to land a starting gig after posting a career-worst .673 OPS.
Top 10 second basemen
Who's No. 1: The New York Yankees might dread Robinson Cano's upcoming free agency -- I'm assuming they'll pick up his $15 million option for 2013, so he'll hit the open market a year from now -- but if they don't sign him to an extension before Opening Day, it might actually be a plus for his fantasy owners. "Contract year" motivational factors might be largely overstated in fantasy circles, but at the same time there's sufficient evidence supporting it in select examples. Cano fits: His effort has, during the course of his Yankees career, been questioned, be it for his unexpectedly miserable 2008, his occasional failure to run out grounders or even a possible lack of effort in the field. Watching Cano play, I'm not so sure he's as lackadaisical as people make him out to be. But he does look like a player who might possess an ability to, for one season, "turn it up to 11," if he knows a nine-digit free-agent contract is the reward. And if Cano playing at 10 or beneath this season is the No. 1 second baseman in fantasy
Early buzz: After the kind of 2012 first half that Jason Kipnis had, his supporters are certain to assume he takes another significant step forward, perhaps making a run at the No. 1 spot at his position a spot he held for a good chunk of the season's early weeks. His second half, however, has instilled nothing but concern in his fantasy owners, as he's a .222/.300/.316 hitter whose 5.7 home run/fly ball percentage during that span -- not to mention elevated 52.0 percent ground ball rate -- largely explains his struggles. Kipnis was due some correction in the category and the truth is that he's more a 15-20 than a 25-plus homer hitter -- he hit 18 in 120 games between the 2011 and 2012 All-Star breaks -- but he has also shown the ability to manage 20 steals, that 15/20 potential capable of propelling him into the top five at the position. Don't be overzealous with your bidding, but this is a solid, long-term fantasy second baseman.
Unranked value pick: I'm not an especially big fan of Dustin Ackley's for 2013, feeling that he's in a somewhat lengthy adjustment phase of his career if he's to ever realize his full potential. But looking at the lower tiers at second base, this is not an exciting position outside the top 10. Case in point: Despite what has largely been a disappointing year for him, Ackley is still the No. 19 second baseman on our Player Rater. The Seattle Mariners are likely to grant him everyday at-bats again in 2013 as they examine exactly what they have in him, and that alone should be able to drive his stats in the counting categories to the high teens in homers and stolen bases, plus as many as 90 runs scored.
Hot stove impact: If the Yankees indeed exercise Cano's 2013 option -- it'd be shocking if they didn't -- the most attractive free-agent second baseman might be Kelly Johnson, who has a .201/.287/.306 triple-slash line in 86 games since June 1.
Top 10 third basemen
Who's No. 1: Miguel Cabrera would've been tops at first base, so naturally he's tops at third base, the debate centering upon him versus Mike Trout for American League MVP in 2012 equally compelling as which is the No. 1 overall fantasy player entering 2013. Cabrera can be as much of a butcher in the field as he wants; we want his Triple Crown-worthy hitting statistics and generally don't care about such fielding metrics as Ultimate Zone Rating or defensive runs saved. In an era when pitchers are increasingly capturing an advantage, Cabrera has put forth arguably the three best offensive seasons of his career from 2010 to 2012 -- 2006 is the only other one close -- and he'll be merely 30 years old next April 18. At 30 years old, Albert Pujols, one of the most similar statistical examples in history to Cabrera, batted .312 and led the National League with 42 homers and 118 RBIs.
Early buzz: Start up the rumor mills now, "Chase Headley might be traded!!!" I'll cite the stats everyone is going to all winter: .307/.379/.585 triple-slash rates and 20 of his 28 home runs on the road this season, .303/.371/.463 rates and 38 of his 64 career home runs on the road. Everyone will instantly warm to Headley if he's traded this winter but shouldn't they have already? He managed respectable .265/.350/.434 rates at Petco this season, boosting his OPS there for the second consecutive year (career-best .784 in 2012), and he's the No. 4 third baseman on our Player Rater for the year. Sure, Headley's fantasy value would be helped by a trade practically anywhere else, but let's also remember that it might most serve to minimize any potential 2013 regression. In other words, if he's traded, his likely scenario might be a dead-set repeat of this.
Unranked value pick: There was never any question about Pedro Alvarez's power. The question was always about his ability to make consistent contact, which has a bearing upon his performance in the batting average category. Still, he appears to have made slight enough adjustments to suggest his 29-homer number is repeatable, so long as you understand that his 25.9 home run/fly ball percentage does identify it as somewhat fluky. He hit .072 with no homers in any of his 74 plate appearances that ended with a breaking pitch (curveball or slider) last season; this year, he batted .215 and swatted nine of his 29 homers against those pitch types. The case can be made that he's not that far off from a Mark Reynolds-like, .230-hitting, 35-homer season.
Hot stove impact: Among surefire free agents, Scott Rolen's impending eligibility presents a fantasy storyline, being that the Cincinnati Reds could and should let him go to clear third base for 2012 Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier. Incredibly, despite an OPS 153 points higher, Frazier (.862) has started only two of the Reds' past seven games ahead of Rolen (.709).
It's the decisions about 2013 options that might spawn winter fantasy headlines, as the New York Mets hold a $16 million option on David Wright and the White Sox a $13 million option on Kevin Youkilis. The likely result has both teams exercising them, but in the event they don't, Wright's prospects of a homers-RBIs-runs bump increase if he lands with either/or a more productive lineup or in a more hitting-friendly home environment, while Youkilis' could take a hit without the benefit of U.S. Cellular Field, where he's a .324/.467/.686 hitter in 32 games this season.
Top 10 shortstops
Who's No. 1: This is the most difficult of the hitting positions to rank in the upper tiers, and I'm going out on a limb and picking Starlin Castro to take the honor. He has a considerable advantage over his brethren: He'll be 23 years old next season, six years younger than either Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes, and since his May 7, 2010, major league debut has appeared in 432 games, 49 more than Reyes and 82 more than Ramirez during that span. Castro has also done some phenomenal things at a young age from a historical perspective, including being one of only eight players all-time to boast at least a .290 batting average, 25 home runs and 50 stolen bases before their 23rd birthdays. Even better: His ground ball rate is in a three-year downward trend (52.5 percent in 2010, 47.9 percent in 2011, 45.7 percent in 2012), as his fly ball rate is in a similar upward trend (28.8 percent to 32.3 percent to 34.8 percent). That could portend a power surge in a not-too-distant-future season.
Early buzz: After the kind of season that Ian Desmond has had, he'll receive support for a higher ranking than this, and the one thing I'll state today as a caution is do not invest in ridiculous, "oh-it's-his-age-27-season" (he turned that age on Thursday), chatter. The real reason to love Desmond is the substantial improvement he made against right-handed pitching, previously his greatest weakness: He's a .289/.332/.492 hitter with 16 of his 23 home runs against them in 2012. Desmond has become more aggressive against righties on pitches on the inner half of the plate; he has swung at them 11 percent more often than he did in 2011 and has .337/.377/.681 rates plus more than half of his homers (13 of 23) against them. Read that as improved ability to turn on inside fastballs, a skills improvement that indeed justifies a position at least as high as where I have him.
Unranked value pick: Take your pick of any of the kids, and for an even more in-depth look at the names Jurickson Profar, Manny Machado (initially only third base-eligible for 2013) and Jean Segura, I recommend reading Dan Szymborski's preview of their 2013 projections (Insider link). Profar stands out; though remember that I'm only picking players actually eligible at the listed position. He's an immensely talented, soon-to-be-20-year-old, 2013 Rookie of the Year candidate who, at the minimum, has both glove and legs to succeed immediately in the majors. The Texas Rangers have a difficult decision to make this winter, what with 24-year-old Elvis Andrus currently occupying shortstop, but the chances that either is traded or shifted to another position are good. Don't count on Profar excelling in terms of batting average, meaning he shouldn't repeat the kind of 20-year-old season that Starlin Castro had. But Profar could crack double-digit homers while swiping 20 bags, making his impact somewhat similar.
Hot stove impact: Putting aside the aforementioned dilemma the Rangers face with their shortstops, boy, is this free-agent class bereft of middle infielders or what? Marco Scutaro is the most obvious candidate, practically guaranteed of landing a starter's gig as he did this past winter, but we might also see Stephen Drew ($10 million option) and/or Jhonny Peralta ($6 million option) dumped into the market after so-so seasons. Unfortunately, none of the three has especially good odds of landing in an extremely fantasy-friendly environment. Only Boston or Colorado looks like a viable such destination, and in the latter, the Colorado Rockies would again be signing a shortstop to convert to second base.
Top 30 outfielders
Who's No. 1: Mike Trout. There, was that so hard? Oh, there might be a groundswell of support for Andrew McCutchen for the spot this winter, but Trout has the advantage of lineup support that McCutchen does not. Simply put, Trout's presence atop the Los Angeles Angels lineup provides him the greater counting-number (runs, RBIs) potential of the two. Trout has also made every scout's wildest dreams come true, realizing their projected ceilings for him at the age of 20 (feel free to call it 21, the age he turned on Aug. 7, if you wish, but it makes his performance no less impressive). He is only the 17th different player in history to manage a season with at least a .300 batting average, 20 homers and 40 stolen bases, he's only the fourth to have done it while leading his respective league in steals, and he is the youngest 20/40 player in baseball history. Scouts have long said he's a player with future 20/40 potential, and he has already proven himself capable.
Early buzz: Three under-age-24s are sure to soar up most ranking sets this winter, two of them exactly 23 at the dawn of 2013, Giancarlo Stanton and Jason Heyward, and the third only 20 years and 5½ months, Bryce Harper. At this point, Stanton's power cannot be questioned, only his injury track record can. Per 162 games played in the majors thus far, he has averaged 40 home runs and 100 RBIs. At the same time, he has missed 49 of 416 Miami Marlins games (11.8 percent) during that span, a bit disconcerting for a player so young. Assuming full health, he'd probably be one of only two popular candidates to lead the majors in home runs in 2013 (outfield-only eligible Jose Bautista being the other), and in today's more pitching-oriented game that might drive him into the top five at his position and the first round in mixed-league drafts overall. But can he stay fully healthy?
Heyward and Harper, meanwhile, have been two of the National League East's more compelling breakout stories. Heyward, whose 2011 was ruined by shoulder issues, has rebounded with the 30-homer, 20-steal potential scouts always anticipated when he was a minor league phenom rising the ranks, and another winter's rest should only improve his physical strength. Harper, meanwhile, on Wednesday set a major league record for extra-base hits by a teenager (49), and at such a young age has shown a Harper-line penchant for homers and steals that bodes well for his 2013. Perhaps a 20-year-old Harper won't explode for the MVP-caliber stat lines scouts eventually project but didn't Trout just do exactly that?
Unranked value pick: Among the just-missed group, Colby Rasmus is a player who might again take a small step forward statistically as he continues to adapt at the big league level. Big league breaking pitches (curveballs and sliders) might always fluster him, but in his defense, he improved in terms of both patience (swung 6.5 percent less often) and pitch selection against them (1.3 percent improvement in his chase rate), and at times this season attacked them with greater authority than he had in years past. The Toronto Blue Jays are wrapping up a miserable season on the injury front, but 2013 might bring with it greater luck in that department, restoring the kind of lineup depth that might spawn a counting-number bump from Rasmus.
In the lower tiers, Lorenzo Cain might warrant a look even in shallow mixed leagues. A key piece in the Kansas City Royals' Zack Greinke trade to the Milwaukee Brewers of two winters ago, Cain has shown in limited action a capability to perform at a 20/20 pace given the playing time, and merely needs to avoid injuries to achieve it.
Hot stove impact: This is the position with the greatest abundance of free-agent prizes, as five of the top 20 outfielders on our Player Rater are set to test this winter's market. It's the Nos. 4 (Josh Hamilton) and 10 (Melky Cabrera) names that warrant the most attention. Hamilton faces the prospect of departing Rangers Ballpark, where he has .316/.373/.594 career rates and has hit 82 of his 160 home runs, and a Rangers lineup that has averaged 5.13 runs per game since his arrival in 2008. There are so many risk factors in his agreeing to a big payday elsewhere.
At least Hamilton faces fewer questions than Cabrera, who unless he returns to action for the San Francisco Giants during a potential NLCS or World Series appearance, will head into the winter needing to serve five additional games on a 50-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. Cabrera might find securing a free-agent payday considerably more difficult in the latter scenario, and fantasy owners will most certainly question his skills in their 2013 draft preparation. Consider that during his age-24 season, he was a .274/.336/.416 hitter, while in his ages 26-27 seasons he managed .322/.360/.489 combined rates. Which do you think is the more likely projected stat line for his 2013?
The free-agent outfielder market will also feature several speed demons: Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan, Juan Pierre and Ichiro Suzuki. Their destinations might have an impact upon their stolen-base contributions, being that certain managers more regularly give their players the green light than others.
The Yankees face decisions on three outfielders, the aforementioned Ichiro, Nick Swisher and Raul Ibanez. With massive pay increases due for Cano and Curtis Granderson -- the team holds a $13 million option on him for 2013 -- and the Yankees expressing a desire to get beneath the luxury-tax threshold for the 2014 season, there's an excellent chance that none of the three will be back with the team. That's a huge hit to the fantasy values of Swisher specifically, but also Ibanez, being that neither would have the benefit of Yankee Stadium's short right-field fence or the potent lineup padding his counting numbers.
Early buzz: The DH as we know it is becoming extinct, and it might become increasingly so, as in 2013 we'll have a 15th team in the American League in the Houston Astros, and with it 300 interleague games, up from 252 this season. It's therefore becoming all the more important for traditional DHs to be able to occasionally field a defensive position, and to that point, of the 30 players to have made at least 20 appearances at DH in 2012, 24 played at least 20 games at another defensive position. Managers increasingly regard the DH as a "half-day" arrangement for veteran players, which is why players like Raul Ibanez, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Albert Pujols and Josh Willingham all made at least 25 appearances in the DH spot, despite having played at least half the season's schedule, or 81-plus games, at a specific position in the field.
There are really only two fantasy-relevant, DH-only players for 2013: Billy Butler and David Ortiz, and in Butler's case, he'll qualify at first base if your league has a 10-game position requirement (he has played there 14 times). It is for that reason that there are no "2013 rankings" for this position, because they're simple: It's Butler, then it's Ortiz, then you don't want any other DH-only player.
But the Butler and Ortiz storylines remain compelling. Butler, who turns 27 next April 18, set personal bests this season with 27 home runs and 97 RBIs, and it's highly likely that he'll also set new highs in batting average (.309) and slugging percentage (.509). As is often the case with up-and-coming sluggers, Butler finally converted some of those early-career doubles -- he averaged 47 per year from 2009 to 2011 -- into home runs, and he's now deep in his prime years. Best yet: If you play in a league with a low in-season position eligibility requirement, consider that five of the Kansas City Royals' 14 games and 10 of their first 53 games of 2013 will be played in National League parks, where they might consider using him at first base.
Ortiz, meanwhile, is a free agent this winter for a team that is in flux. Logically speaking the Boston Red Sox will open their wallet and re-sign him, but this team did unload $250 million in contracts during the waiver period, and could be hesitant to pay in the ballpark of $14.575 million (Ortiz's 2012 salary) to a player who appeared in 90 games, his fewest since 2001. There's no question that Ortiz as a 36-year-old in 2012 was nearly as productive on a per-game basis as he was as a 31-year-old, but the Achilles injury that prematurely ended his season as well as the prospect he'll be seeking a free-agent deal in a field of only 15 teams afforded a DH are legitimate worries to his keeper-league owners. I expect the Red Sox to re-sign him. I do not, however, call him a clear top-50 hitter for 2013.