Fantasy Baseball

Beall: Players to watch in 2014

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp (27)
Kemp will make or break many a fantasy team in 2014.
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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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Click here for player evaluations from John Halpin and Adam Meyer.

Starlin Castro, Cubs
The sight of Castro just instigated a collective grumbling from the fantasy community, if not downright profanity. One of the game’s rising performers, Castro entered 2013 off consecutive All-Star appearances thanks to two-year averages of 12 jacks, 72 ribbies, 84 runs, 24 steals and a .295 batting mark. Due to the offensively-starved nature of shortstop and the fragile dispositions of Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, Castro shot up draft boards, inserting himself as a top-25 pick.

Castro proceeded to reward this conviction by taking a flamethrower to his rotisserie rosters, turning in a .245 average with just 59 runs, 44 RBI, nine steals and pitiful .284 OBP. Even for a Cub, this was low.

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There’s plenty of hope for a revival in 2014: kid’s only 23 years old, and, aside from a heightened strikeout rate, the advanced metrics don’t raise any major red flags. (Note: it feels weird as a 27-year-old calling a 23-year-old “kid.” Then again, my friend's son thought I was 40 the other day, so I guess it’s not too off.) Finding a potent bat at shortstop remains a commodity, making Castro one to watch this campaign.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Two years ago this cat led off many a fantasy draft. Now he’s falling outside the Top 75 in a majority of preseason lists. Missing over 140 games the past two summers will do that to a man’s draft stock.

That won’t keep cavalier owners from placing a wager on Kemp, and with good reason. When the man’s healthy, as evidenced in 2011 (.324/.399/.586, 39 homers, 126 RBI, 115 runs), few are better. Alas, his well-being is already in question, as agent Dave Stewart recently announced Kemp is unlikely to be 100 percent for Opening Day following ankle and shoulder surgeries in October. Given the Dodgers’ depth at the outfield positions, Kemp’s return won’t be rushed, meaning proprietors could be shafted at the start of the spring.

Said depth might also print a departure ticket from Chavez Ravine for Kemp. In only four months with the big league club Yasiel Puig has snatched franchise-star status from Kemp, transforming into one of baseball’s most dynamic and captivating stars. With Puig inserting his roots just two spots remain in the Los Angles outfield. Although Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier are not in the same echelon in terms of production as Kemp, their opulent contracts make dealing these two entities a dubious proposition. As a corollary, a clean bill of health for Kemp will have many around the league interested in his services. And though the Dodgers have been far from frugal under their new ownership regime, I’m sure the organization would prefer not to pay $15 million a season for a fourth outfielder. Perhaps a new landscape is all Kemp needs to get back on track.

Either way, if Kemp can rekindle a semblance of his prior magic, his current draft ranking makes him one of the more intriguing and valued assets in fantasy.

Justin Verlander, Tigers
Could the Arm of Zeus be losing its thunder? Granted, Verlander didn’t have a terrible year, per se, finishing 2013 with 217 Ks and a 3.46 ERA, but relatively speaking, it was a down season for the former AL MVP. His 1.32 WHIP was the highest it’s been since 2008. Worse, it seems that Verlander’s workload – an average of 234 innings per season in the last five years - is taking its toll on his velocity:

Verlander Pitch Speed

 
Year vFastball vTwo-Seam vSinker vCurve vChangeup
2011 95.0 95.1 85.9 79.4 86.8
2012 94.7 94.3 84.6 79.4 86.7
2013 94.0 93.1 85.9 78.9 86.4

 

This drop might see miniscule, but in truth, it serves as a casus belli for concern. Verlander turns 31 in February and is in the midst of rehab after undergoing core muscle surgery. Although his recovery is going well, the ailment adds to the trepidation on his upcoming forecast.

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The Detroit offense will shower him with enough run support to make him a candidate for wins, and moving Miguel Cabrera to first will improve the defense. Nevertheless, his waning control (3.09 BB/9, the second-highest mark in his eight-year career) negates this benefit, meaning Verlander could be on the precipice of a Lincecum-like tumble in 2014.

Michael Wacha, Cardinals/Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Usually I’m apprehensive on drafting hyped neophytes, but this pair’s bark lives up to the bite. Cole gets the benefit of working in the pitcher’s paradise of PNC Park while Wacha has the Senior Circuit’s best offense at his aid. Wacha is slightly more advanced in his repertoire than Cole, as the Pirates’ ace relied too much on his natural blessings last season. Then again, he’s also just 23 years old. Don’t be surprised to see both at the Midsummer Classic in July.

Billy Hamilton, Reds
Experts are all over the spectrum on this speedster’s projection. A contingent believes Hamilton is capable of swiping 80-plus bags, 100 runs and a solid average in his first full-time season; others foresee problems at the plate sending him back to the minors by May. Cincinnati has enough faith in the former coming to fruition, letting Shin-Soo Choo walk to bequeath the leadoff spot to Hamilton. (Although that $130 million contract probably had something to do with it as well. Lot of cabbage for a guy that’s never made an All-Star team, right?) Hamilton took a step back with the stick at Triple-A last season, hitting just .256 in 123 games. Yet there’s no doubting the man’s electricity on the base paths, notching 13 steals in only 13 contests as a September call-up. If he can find his way to first base, watch out.

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall

Tagged: Orioles, Tigers, Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, Matt Kemp, Matt Wieters, Starlin Castro

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