Injuries are the great fantasy baseball equalizer.
We can project players' statistics in healthy games, and we can estimate both length and impact of their ailments, but neither process will produce a perfect result. Injuries are simply one of the unpredictable parts of the game, and they aggravate us, confuse us and force us to constantly adjust our expectations.
To think, one month ago, Braun appeared headed for a healthy campaign, the thumb issue that contributed to derail his 2013 scarcely an issue, his three home runs and .806 slugging percentage in 16 Cactus League games evidence that he might return to first-round levels. Kemp, meanwhile, was slow in recovering from October ankle surgery, yet to appear even in intrasquad spring games and a virtual certainty to begin the regular season on the disabled list.
Twenty-four hours ago, Braun was once again the subject of questions about his thumb, having missed a Saturday game with the injury and gone just 3-for-20 without an extra-base hit. But Kemp had appeared in three consecutive Los Angeles Dodgers games since his April 4 activation from the disabled list, and he had hit two home runs in his most recent contest on Sunday.
And then, of course, Braun hit three home runs with seven RBIs at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, the virtual pingpong game that is projecting his going-forward value continuing.
Both players have been first-round talents in the past -- Kemp was actually the No. 1 name on our 2011 Player Rater, while Braun earned top-three finishes in both 2011 and 2012 -- so extracting whatever value either might provide between injuries is key. Kemp, after all, averaged a .306-33 homers-109 RBIs-28 stolen bases-107 runs stat line per 162 games played from 2011 to 2013; Braun averaged a .321-37-116-30-110 line of his own during that time. But Kemp missed 146 team games during that time span, Braun 121.
Given the choice, however, today I'd prefer Kemp, reflected below in my going-forward 2014 rankings.
That might seem too reactionary, or too extreme an adjustment so early in the season, but such is the way with injured players. Evaluating the reports on Kemp and Braun, there's simply more reason to believe Kemp is the one closer to peak performance.
Braun's thumb issues, which cost him 38 of 97 Milwaukee Brewers games in 2013 before his season-ending suspension, sound something between a daily-maintenance and eventual surgery thing, meaning occasional off days, designated-hitter days (in American League parks, such as the June 4-5 series in Minnesota or July 1-2 in Toronto) or possibly a DL stint if it worsens. There's every reason to believe he won't log his usual-pre-2013 total of 150-plus games played, and that diminishes his prospects of another .300-30-100 campaign. Playing time matters: Of the top 25 hitters on the 2013 Player Rater, only five appeared in fewer than 140 games (David Ortiz 137, Jacoby Ellsbury 134, Michael Cuddyer 130, Jayson Werth 129 and Carlos Gonzalez 110).
Kemp, however, doesn't have the hitting-related injury concerns that Braun does; his entering this season were related to his ankle, and all indications were that his hitting wasn't an issue during spring training. In his case, the risk is that leg injuries could resurface, though as I argued several times during the preseason, I expect he'll take a more conservative approach on the basepaths to alleviate those worries.
If Kemp is truly back, it's not difficult envisioning him batting .300 or close to it with 25-30 home runs. It'd be dangerous, however, to expect him to steal much more than 10-15 bases. Grant him a .300-28-90-10 stat line in, say, 145 games played and he'd have statistics not far removed from those of Jayson Werth in 2013 (.318-25-82-10 in 129 games). It's for that reason that he vaulted 20 spots in my rankings this week.
Braun could be a more maddening player to own due to the required day-to-day maintenance. With some luck, he could play in his usual 150-plus games and manage .300-30-100-20 numbers. More likely, however, he'll appear in between 135-140, possibly have a DL stint and could struggle to bat as high as .300 or hit as many as 30 homers. Considering the risk, I'd call a .290-25-90-12 stat line a more reasonable expectation; those look like numbers somewhere in between the 2013 performances of Werth and No. 71 finisher Justin Upton (.263-27-70-8).
Yes, I've made the case in the past that the "per-game" player -- a risky individual who performs at a high level when healthy -- is well worth more credit than his final seasonal stat line. In both of these examples, however, the worst-case scenario must be considered. And that was 2013 for each: Braun finished 369th overall on the Player Rater (89th among outfielders), Kemp 17 spots lower at No. 388 (94th among outfielders). That risk must be considered in the rankings below, and it's why if you have a chance to deal either -- Braun more so of the two -- for a player listed higher, by all means you should take it.
Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 "going-forward" rankings
For a detailed rankings breakdown by position, click here.