Top 24 for 2011 – Part 1

With the MLB season officially completed on Monday night, we can start looking ahead to the 2011 season and how the top players line up. This season was as interesting as any in recent history because the movement among the top players was heavy. A lot of young players had excellent seasons while some of the old guard faltered just a bit creating openings within the top 24.

How much stock can you put into any one season for better or worse? Obviously a lot of players will make many of their decisions off of the 2010 season which is dangerous game. I fell into that trap last year when overrating both Matt Kemp & Joe Mauer, who both fell flat on their faces in 2010. Though I will consider 2010 a lot in making my decisions about who belongs in the top 24, I will also strongly consider a player’s track record & career trajectory based on age and health.

Make no mistake that my process has always combined the previous season with the track record & career trajectory analysis of a player when deciding where they should go in the following season, but I fell in love with Mauer’s excellent season leading me to put him in the first round in the initial iteration of this article last year. As spring approached and drafts/auctions began, I tempered my Mauer love realizing the error of my ways with respect to him as a first rounder.

With Kemp, I expected improvement on his stellar 2009 season, but instead he regressed back to a slightly lesser version his 2008 line which is still pretty good, but most certainly a face plant considering where he went in most drafts. Neither he nor Mauer truly tanked the teams of fantasy owners who drafted them, though they did severely disappoint given the cost to said owners. Kemp will actually just be entering his prime in 2011 so if the .249 average and 19 stolen bases (after back-to-back years with 30+) tank his value then he could be something of a sleeper of the early rounds a la Josh Hamilton in 2010.

The uncertainty at the top given the surging results of the new guard combined with the lagging results of the old guard create the potential for Kemp/Mauer situations in a list looking at next year’s top 24, but I will be cognizant of that and you will see it with the ranking of a few such players. With all of that said, let’s get to the double dozen.

24. Alex Rios, OF, CWS/Shin-Soo Choo, OF, CLE – There just isn’t much difference between these two so I decided to slot both of them in at the 24th spot, but I could have just as easily expanding the list to 25 players. Looking at their 2010 lines shows Rios with a stolen base edge and Choo with a batting average edge. Personally, I’d take the former, but in terms of overall value it’s splitting hairs. Choo is also a little younger, though, so there may be a shred more upside with him. On the whole, there isn’t much separating these two AL Central outfielders so I’ve got them tied for the end of the 2nd round.

23. Matt Kemp, OF, LAD – No, Kemp did not live up to his draft slot this year and yes, he did hit a dismal .249, but he wasn’t waiver wire fodder. He ripped a career high 28 home runs. His runs scored, driven in and stolen bases all fell precipitously, but his totals of 82, 89 and 19 in those categories didn’t kill anyone’s team. And he has been as reliable as any player in recent memory in terms of playing time logging 155, 159 and 162 games the last three years. To top it all off, he will be 26 this year and could finally put up the monster 30-30 year everyone was looking for this year.

22. Felix Hernandez, SP, SEA – Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t take starting pitchers in the first two rounds. However, just because I personally avoid the risk associated with them doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and I will cover them in this list because there are a few who deserve to be mentioned. King Felix is a workhorse superstar with five straight seasons of 30+ starts including back-to-back Cy Young worthy seasons. Now here’s the jaw-dropper: he will be 25 years old next year. With a 2.25 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 250 innings, Hernandez likely won’t improve his numbers next year, but taking a pitcher this early is in an investment in stability in a ridiculously unstable market.

21. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, SDP – I realize first base is deep, everyone realizes it, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be taken early. A handful of first basemen made this list starting with Gonzalez. A lot of his presence on this list has to do with consistency. He’s .280-30-100 in the bank with ceiling for more, as evidenced by his 40-home run season back in 2009. The lineup around him stifles the runs scored and even the runs driven in to a point given his incredible power should probably be yielding closer to 110 RBIs or more. The fact that San Diego was in contention right down to the wire last year could compel them to go out and make stark improvements to their lineup which would only help A-Gonz and of course if their fortunes go the other way, he could be dealt.

20. Kevin Youkilis, 3B/1B, BOS – He managed just 102 games in 2010 thanks to a thumb injury that eventually required surgery, but the injury should have no lasting effects in 2011 and thus he makes the list with ease. He might not quite make it with 1B-only on his resume, but the 3B eligibility for Youk is a prime asset. High 20s power and a .300 average go well together and they go even better with 90+ runs scored and driven in on a potent team like the Red Sox. Youkilis is going to miss games at various points in the season which hurts his value in a head-to-head formats, but as long as he keeps putting up a full season’s line in his 140-145 games, then he has at least another year or two among the elite.

Next: 19-13

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