Nobody had ever accomplished quite what Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout did statistically during the 2012 season. So it's not merely reasonable, but expected, that some regression is coming in 2013. I mean, let's get real. Trout was incredible, we'll never forget it. The question when judging his immediate future value is figuring out to what degree a few of his numbers will fall -- most likely home runs, batting average and runs scored -- and whether it's still enough to make him the first pick in 2013 fantasy drafts.
But in my book, he's still No. 1.
There are three clear candidates for the first overall pick, and the fact is, fantasy owners can't go wrong with any of them. Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun were pretty awesome in 2012 as well. But why can't those fellows regress some, too? Cabrera reached career highs in home runs and RBIs. I don't think he'll turn into Ty Wigginton anytime soon, but we think he's going to improve? Braun also hit a career mark in home runs. I said and wrote it a year ago and will again that I'd take Braun over Cabrera because of the stolen bases. It's a big difference, and life is much easier when your power guys supply steals, too, so you don't have to overdraft the Michael Bourn types. I have Braun at No. 2.
Trout keeps my top spot because even with some regression, perhaps to "merely" a .300 batting average and 20 home runs, I don't see many people viewing the 49 stolen bases as flukish. In fact, I see more steals coming. Trout's high strikeout rate, which he could certainly improve since he's all of 21 years old, as well as his high BABIP seem to suggest him hitting .326 again will be difficult. The 30 home runs in five months was another delightful surprise. Lop Trout's batting average to .300 and the home runs to 20 and he still would have finished third on the Player Rater, behind Braun and Cabrera, a tick ahead of Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen. If Trout hits .300 with 20 home runs, 49 steals and 129 runs scored, I certainly wouldn't be disappointed in taking him first, even if another Braun 30/30 season and another Cabrera Triple Crown makes them worth a tad more on the Rater. I want the extra steals, the potentially league-leading steals.
Ultimately, we're splitting hairs here. In many seasons, there's an obvious No. 1 choice, including Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols in many of the past 10-plus seasons. But I don't think it's so obvious in 2013; you can't go wrong with any of those three.
With that, here is my top 10 for 2013. Baseball will return soon, with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in a matter of weeks. I can't wait.
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
He wouldn't be in this spot if I thought he was going to steal "only" 30 bases. Anyone else remember those incredible Eric Davis seasons, including the one with 27 home runs and 80 stolen bases, and another with 37 homers and 50 steals? Wouldn't it be awesome if Trout, even sacrificing some batting average, did that? Frankly, Trout doesn't need to contend for a batting title to earn this top spot.
2. Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Braun was my top choice this time last year, and people thought I was nuts, citing a certain scandal and trying to glean how it would torch Braun's stats. I don't think people are concerned anymore. Look, I'm fine with Cabrera, too, and the third base eligibility is nice, but when you lock up a big power/speed guy early, it changes the rest of your draft.
3. Miguel Cabrera, 3BDetroit Tigers
Cabrera hit 44 home runs with 139 RBIs and 4 steals in 2012. From 2009 to 2011, he averaged 34 home runs, 111 RBIs and 4 steals from 2009 to 2011, and in 2011 he finished seventh on the Player Rater. Yeah, I know, he didn't have Prince Fielder batting behind him then, and now he does, but there could be regression coming here as well.
4. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
The mild concern with McCutchen is that his batting average (.327 in 2012) will take a hit and that his terrible stolen base percentage -- he was 20-for-32 on steal attempts -- will result in fewer tries, but since I can't be sure the next guy will be healthy (or stay that way), McCutchen checks in at No. 4.
5. Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The first four guys just seem more reliable, even a guy entering his second full season (Trout). Kemp dealt with injuries for the first time in 2012, and it shortened his season and impacted his swing as well as his ability to run. Offseason shoulder surgery is not expected to linger into this season, and certainly he's a potential 30-homer/30-steal guy, though I'd bet it'll be more like 35/25.
6. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees
No middle infielder can be counted on to play every day, hit for power and bat .300 every season, except this one. In this case, the reliability -- he finished 17th overall on the Player Rater in 2012 and 18th in 2011 -- from such a miserable fantasy position trumps the relative lack of stolen bases.
7. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
I don't think it's living in the past to continue believing in this guy. His 2012 season was the worst of his career, and it still netted 30 home runs, 105 RBIs, eight steals and a .285 batting average. And his April was abysmal (.217, 0 HR, 4 RBI). If you believe in lineup protection, which I usually don't put much stock in, then the Josh Hamilton addition should vault Pujols, as it did for Cabrera. Ultimately, this remains the safest first baseman in the game, and he's not too old to get back to producing MVP-type stats.
8. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies
I realize this choice goes against the grain, so to speak -- my wise colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft ranks Tulowitzki third at his position and 37th overall -- but a year ago, Tulo was the sixth pick in ESPN live drafts (ADP). He battled injuries in 2012, but I don't see why he can't go right back to hitting .300 with 30 home runs. How many shortstops can do this? Tulo's durability is a concern, of course, but from 2009 to 2011, in an average of 139 games per season, he averaged 30 home runs, 97 RBIs and a .304 batting average. I'm still buying, obviously.
9. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
Yes, I'm buying on Tulo's teammate as well. Who cares if a major portion of his numbers came in home games? That might be an issue in head-to-head formats, but not in standard leagues. His line the past three seasons: .313, 27 home runs, 98 RBIs, 22 steals. That works just fine for me.
10. Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
Bautista beats out Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Buster Posey and Justin Verlander, names you'll found in other top-10 rankings, because, as with Tulo, I don't see why Joey Bats can't lead the majors in home runs again, just as he did in 2010 and 2011. Word is he's healthy again, and there was little wrong with his power and plate discipline last season. Might he hit .250? Perhaps, but he might also hit 50 home runs. I'm expecting 40 blasts and a .280 batting average.
So who just misses? With Fielder, you get durability, consistent power and batting average, but a three-year average of 33-104 and .291 isn't so noteworthy at fantasy baseball's deepest position. ... Votto seems a tad overrated. He hit for average in his injury-shortened 2012, and if your league counts OBP he's a top-5 guy, but the home runs were way down. In fact, he has hit 30 home runs just once, and the difference-maker, his stolen bases, has dwindled. ... I don't think I've taken a catcher in the first round since Mike Piazza was in his prime. Posey was awesome, but catchers get hurt way too much to invest in one this early. I'll take Yadier Molina in Round 13 instead. ... And I continue to avoid pitchers in Round 1. Verlander is my top starter, but there's not enough offense out there, particularly in relation to starting pitching depth, to invest in a pitcher that early.