The 2011 draft season was seen as one of transition for the upper tier of players as there wasn’t much agreement beyond the top two players on how the rest of the first round should play out. Hell, there was even some dissent against Hanley Ramirez as the #2 (some had him #1, others had him #3 or #4), though that was more of a vocal minority. He and Albert Pujols were pretty clearly the first two picks in most drafts.
After those two, any combination of about 15-18 names could make up the remaining 10 picks in the first round of a 12-team mixed league. Expanding it to a 15-team league opens the pool up to about 20-24 names depending on the preference of the drafters in that league. Now there is always going to be some shifting from draft to draft, but in 2011 you could see someone taken sixth overall in one league who wouldn’t crack the first round of another.
And the 2011 season isn’t likely to change things for the 2012 season. Just as the MLB as a whole has tightened up with fewer great teams, so, too, has the player pool as there are now several guys in contention for the #1 spot with Pujols looking mortal throughout 2011 and now shelved for at least month, likely two. Several contenders for #1 means a lot of uncertainty after that as you could feasibly have a draft where the top five teams all get their #1 guy; that certainly hasn’t been the case for several years.
Despite the clutter at the top, I am going to do my best to outline the top 15 as I see it for 2012 at this point. This isn’t just going to be a ranking of the best players through nearly three months of 2011, that does us no good. We have to take what we have seen so far and properly weigh it into the thoughts we had coming into the season about these players. You have to be careful not to overrate or underrate the most recent season.
Jacoby Ellsbury was at worst a 2nd-round pick heading into 2010 after a pair of excellent seasons. He sat out through most of an injury-riddled season during which he played just 18 games hitting .192 with a .485 OPS. His skills hadn’t eroded, it was all injury. I always say you can’t put a lot (any?) stock into Spring Training stats with the lone caveat being guys returning from injury.
The hard numbers still don’t mean a lot even in these cases, but you want to see that they are playing and appear as healthy as is being reported. Ellsbury led the team in ST at-bats with 62 and performed really well suggesting he was ready to go. Even still, he was going no earlier than the 4th round in most drafts. Of course, Jose Bautista had a season for the ages in 2010 and he was going just a handful of picks before Ellsbury.
I understand the skepticism with Bautista and while I did believe he would remain a major force, I never saw him doing this. I thought he could be a 37-42 HR hitter with a great on-base percentage and decent batting average. I found the Ellsbury skepticism a little more peculiar. He had a track record of excellence, he had crept into first round consideration just a year ago and while he was injured throughout most of 2010, all signs pointed to a full rebound for 2011.
Those are two clear cases on each end of the spectrum, one overrating the most recent season and another underrating it. If I had to do one, I would rather underrate the previous season as with someone like Bautista. I don’t want to be in a position where I ignore or at least diminish a guy’s track record (whether it be Ellsbury, Matt Kemp or Jose Reyes) just because he didn’t exactly display those skills at their peak in the most recent season.
Let’s start with some honorable mentions. I think it so tightly packed with the top 25 or so that you could reasonably make a case for any of these guys to be in the list of 15, alas they were just out of mine:
Rickie Weeks (MIL, 2B) – It has never really been a question of talent with Weeks, rather health and he is en route to a second straight healthy season which are producing the kind of numbers we had hoped to see in his early-to-mid 20s. He might almost be a bit underrated at this point as people are still afraid of his given the health issues that plagued the early part of his career.
Drew Stubbs (CIN, OF) – He was one of those sleepers who got so much run that it almost sapped his sleeper value. He will be a batting average black hole as long as he continues to pile up the strikeouts and this year’s pace is even crazier than last year’s 168 (tracking toward 214). As such that puts his AVG & OBP at risk which in turn could cut into his runs scored and stolen bases adding risk despite the juicy fantasy numbers. See also: Young, Chris B.
Nelson Cruz (TEX, OF) – He has top 10 talent when performing at his peak potential, but injuries have undercut that potential significantly and he just can’t be trusted for a full season of production. He may also be running less as a means of body conservation (4 SB in ’11 after 20 & 17 the last two years).
Kevin Youkilis (BOS, 3B) – Another season in line with his 2008 & 2009 (his 2010 was injury-shortened) seasons with good power and excellent run-based stats thanks to being a part of that elite offense in Boston. The dearth at 3B would probably be enough to boost him into the top 15 of OBP-leagues.
Curtis Granderson (NYY, OF) – As my favorite Tiger who has now become my favorite non-Tiger, I would love to believe blindly in this surge in performance, but I have to be realistic. Many predicted a power spike for him in his new home environs last year, but injuries cut his season short for a career-low in games played. He is making up for the lost time with a 45-home run pace in 2011. I am not sure he will make that this year or become a consistent 40+ HR guy if he does keep this dream season going. So while he does get elevated as compared to his 2010 preseason value, he’s not quite first round material even as a power-speed combo with plenty of lineup support for R and RBI.
Mark Teixeira (NYY, 1B) – The dissipation of the batting average that was present in his mid-to-late 20s pushes his value down a bit especially in the fantastically deep first base pool. He hit .295 from 2004-2009 before hitting .256 a year ago and following it with a .244 mark so far this year. Still, a lengthy track record 100+ runs scored and driven in with 30+ home run power (including a 48 HR pace so far this year) earn him consideration for an early round pick in any draft.
Mike Stanton (FLO, OF) – Sometimes I forgot that this guy is just 21 years old. That’s insane when you consider his talent. The growth of players this young is not linear so we can’t guarantee he will show more development year over year, just ask Justin Upton, but still it is nice to see incremental improvement in strikeout (down 3% to 31%) and walk (up slightly from 8.6% to 9.3%) rates this year. He will be a high draft pick throughout 2012, but he’s not quite first rounder for me.
Andrew McCutchen (PIT, OF) – He’s a better Drew Stubbs, way better in fact, trading a bit of speed for stronger foundational skills (strikeout & walk rates). He is also hitting in the middle of the lineup for the Pirates so his RBI opportunities are much greater than Stubbs and as the Pirates continue to improve he will has some 100-RBI seasons. Until that point, he is just outside the top 15, but another big season jumps him up from the 35-45 range he occupied this preseason.
Jay Bruce (CIN, OF) – Another player on the rise, Bruce offers incredible power potential and should see his value come up from the 65-75 range he was in this past year. Some wonder if his .281 batting average from 2010 is a peak, while others believe he can be a .300 hitter one day without affecting his power. Though it will be his fifth season, he will be just 25 years old next year and the best of Bruce may still be on the way.
Joey Votto (CIN, 1B) – This is less an indictment on Votto and more a commentary on the depth of quality players. I was really high on him for 2010 and it paid off even more than I expected with the 37 home runs which were propped up by an unsustainable HR/FB of 25%. Given that, I couldn’t understand why people saw him as high as the 3rd or 4th overall pick. His ADP ended up in the 7-10 area, but I think he is a bit lower than that for 2012. Barring unpredictable HR/FB surges, he is a high-20s/low-30s home run hitter. He makes up for the power deficiency with a great batting average (career .314) and the chance of some speed (which could dry up if he doesn’t improve his 60% success rate this year). That is still worth an early round pick, but not a first rounder.
Justin Upton (ARI, OF) – Upton has an absurd amount of talent, but we have yet to see it all come together. We could be seeing most of it this year, but if he stays healthy for the whole year, it will be a first. He has played 108, 138 and 133 games in his first three full seasons with varying degrees of success yielding 106, 129 and 110 OPS+ marks. He has a .300-20-20 season in there, but he has yet to top 90 runs scored or driven in (which isn’t all his fault as those are team-dependent) and he is only pace to check the runs scored one off of his list this year. He is a huge name, a great centerpiece for a dynasty team (23 years old) and loaded with potential, but he hasn’t yet earned my trust as a bona fide first round fantasy pick.
Those are the guys who just missed. I’ll break this up into two parts to keep the length reasonable. Up next is the top 15 for 2012… at this point. Subject to change before the 2012 season starts.