2017 Projections

1. M. Trout, LAA OF
Take a step back and savor it: What we're witnessing is the mere beginning of the career prime of a potential all-time great. Just 25 and with five full major-league seasons on his résumé, Trout has significantly more WAR than anyone in baseball during that five-year span (47.8), and is top-10 ranked in most every measurable category one could pick for fantasy baseball: Batting average (6th), home runs (5th), RBIs (7th), runs scored (1st), stolen bases (10th), on-base percentage (2nd), slugging percentage (3rd)… the list has no end. Those who enjoy picking nits can claim, "But only one of those rankings was first place," or cavil that Trout's Angels are an uncompetitive team that might sap his runs, RBIs and perhaps cost a handful of trips to the plate. Still, if there's a poster boy for "sure thing," it's Trout in any format, as his statistical floor is higher than anyone's. And isn't that what your team's leading investment is all about?
2. J. Altuve, Hou 2B
Few players possess such outstanding batting-title odds -- leading both leagues, that is -- as Altuve, but don't mistake him for a mere speed-and-average type. He made noticeable improvements in the power department last season, setting personal bests with 24 home runs, a .531 slugging percentage, .194 isolated power and .196 well-hit average, as well as against right-handed pitching, his .348/.398/.544 triple-slash rates against that side all career bests, and he did it while also improving his walk rate to a career-high 8.4 percent. Only his declining stolen-base total is a valid criticism, and one explained by team decision rather than slowing speed, as the Astros have been slightly less apt to give Altuve the green light as they've acknowledged his increasing offensive value by moving him from leadoff to the No. 3 spot in the order. Ultimately, he's the same premium pick in Rotisserie leagues that he was last year; it's points-based leagues in which he must now be recognized as such. To that point, he gained a whopping 115 points in 2016 compared to 2015 using our standard scoring system, finishing the year as the third highest-scoring hitter.
3. M. Betts, Bos OF
The reigning Player Rater champion as well as the top-scoring hitter in points-based leagues, Betts accomplished both thanks to the 35th season in baseball history with at least a .300 batting average, 25 home runs and stolen bases apiece, and 100 runs and RBIs apiece. Always known as a speedster with good contact skills in the minors, Betts got greater lift on the ball along with increasingly harder contact as his near-MVP campaign progressed, and his .338 batting average and 91.3 percent contact rates after the All-Star break were his best in any half-season in his career to date. Most remarkably, it was announced in November that he had played the second half through right knee soreness that required a surgical cleanup; Betts is expected to be fine for spring training. If all's indeed well, his repeat prospects are excellent, with potential regression likely pointing towards his 26 stolen bases, should the Red Sox determine his bat too valuable to risk an aggressive approach on the base paths. It's a minimal concern for a 24-year-old, however, making Betts again a top hitter target in all formats.
4. N. Arenado, Col 3B
For the second consecutive season, Arenado managed at least 40 home runs and 130 RBIs, pacing the majors in the latter category in each. Don't downplay the feat as a product of Coors Field's thin air, either; he hit a combined 38 home runs with 104 RBIs in his road games in those two seasons, both ranking among the majors' top 10. What's more, Arenado boosted his walk rate to a career-best 9.8 percent in 2016, not to mention he'll 2017 at a prime-of-his-career 26 years old. As a heart-of-the-order hitter in an underappreciated lineup, he's as good a bet to repeat (or at least approach) his 2016 numbers as anyone, making him a first-round, building-block pick regardless of format.
5. K. Bryant, ChC 3B, OF
After securing National League Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in consecutive years to begin his big-league career, plus helping his Cubs snap a 108-year World Series championship drought, Bryant might seem to have already peaked at the age of 25. Now look closer: He significantly boosted his contact rate last season, from 64 to 75 percent, while adding 49 points to his isolated power and increasing both his fly-ball and hard-contact rates in the process. Scouts gave Bryant's future power an 80 grade, tops on the 20-80 scale, and his keen sense of the strike zone hints that he might reach that ceiling, with minimal adverse impact upon his batting average. A "championship hangover" (or, as we'd call it, natural regression to the mean) is possible, but with a skill set like Bryant's, a repeat or even a small step forward -- which would probably manifest itself best in points-based leagues that penalize for strikeouts -- is at least as likely.
6. P. Goldschmidt, Ari 1B
He's a rare five-category, first-base talent, as Goldschmidt is one of only three first basemen in history to have managed multiple seasons with at least 20 home runs and stolen bases, and he and newly elected Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell are the only ones with multiple such years including a .290 batting average or better. While Goldschmidt's power numbers did appear to tumble last year, his batting eye is as keen as ever -- he has consecutive years of 110-plus walks and a .410-plus on-base percentage -- fueling a high batting average. He might no longer be a slam dunk in the first round or as the top-priced first baseman in a points-based league, but he'll fit the description once again in Rotisserie-based scoring, where his speed makes him one of the most balanced contributors.
7. M. Machado, Bal SS, 3B
Where did the steals go?! A summer after he swiped a career-best 20 bags, at the time tripling his big-league total, Machado was held without a single steal in 2016. No matter, as he was an exceptional performer in practically every other facet of the game, and fantasy owners gained an unexpected piece of flexibility when Machado appeared in 45 games at shortstop -- that thanks to an injury to J.J. Hardy -- to capture eligibility there for 2017. Machado was one of eight players to hit 35 or more home runs in each of the past two seasons, and he's one of only six in history to do it in both his ages 22 and 23 seasons. He has the prime of his career ahead of him, showed enough growth in the quality of his contact last season that further improvement is a reasonable assumption, and he has shown us in the past that he's capable of stealing a base when he wants to. Machado is a compelling a first-round candidate in any format.
8. J. Donaldson, Tor 3B
After capturing American League MVP honors in 2015, Donaldson followed it up with a season that was every bit as good using points-based scoring -- just eight fewer points, to be exact -- and only marginally less valuable in Rotisserie -- top-30 rather than top-10. In the process, he improved his play against right-handed pitching, posting a career-best .960 against that side, as well as his walk rate, registering a career-high 15.6 percent mark that was mostly fueled by greater pitch recognition deeper in the count. Those quick to doubt Donaldson's repeat prospects following the offseason departure of Edwin Encarnacion, the man who immediately succeeded him in the lineup, could cause his draft stock to slip slightly, to the point that he's a relative value; anything outside of the top 10 picks would qualify.
9. C. Kershaw, LAD SP
When a pitcher can miss 74 days, make just 21 starts, yet manage to finish third in Rotisserie-based scoring and 19th in points-based among all players, you know he's something special. Kershaw's back became an issue around midseason, casting shadow upon his value for the first time in more than a half-decade, but he rebounded to the tune of a 1.29 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in five regular season-ending starts, not to mention had his productive moments (some of which were on short rest) during the postseason to quell some of the doubt. The Dodgers, too, have managed his workload brilliantly throughout his career, and he'll play the 2017 season at a not-too-old 29. Kershaw is the only player in baseball to manage a top-10 overall Player Rater finish in each of the past six seasons, and during that six-year time span, his 2.06 ERA is more than a half-run better and 0.91 WHIP more than one-tenth of a point better than any other pitcher who has made at least 10 starts. He's a Hall of Fame talent pitching at peak levels, so while there's risk he won't give you a full, 30-plus starts, he's still the wisest pick as your first pitcher off the board, and perhaps first player off the board in a points league.
10. B. Harper, Wsh OF
Just as he was voted unanimous National League Most Valuable Player in 2015, Harper's follow-up campaign might be unanimously declared the year's greatest disappointment. That's how high a bar he set when he tallied 9.9 Wins Above Replacement, third-most in history by a player aged 22 or younger, the most fantasy points among hitters and the fourth-best Rotisserie campaign among hitters in 2015, and it's why his prospective owners remain so optimistic about his return to glory. Despite those accomplishments, however, Harper's name brand has exceeded his results through this stage of his career, as 2015 was the only one of his five big-league seasons in which he appeared in as many as 150 games or had as many as four WAR. At the same time, he's still 24 years old with plenty of time to pad his résumé, and if a 2016 season during which he was the 65th-best overall player using points scoring and 93rd-best using Rotisserie constitutes a worst-case scenario, what does that say about his ceiling? He's one of a handful of candidates for "best player in real and fantasy baseball," and the longer he lingers in drafts -- preferably not much beyond the first round -- the greater the value.
* - Projected