It's that time again, as fantasy owners try to predict which players will take the next step to become fantasy superstars. Here are my picks, by position, of the players with the best chance to take their game to the next level and emerge as elite fantasy producers.
Without further ado, here are my top picks to click for this season. Just about all of them are young players who disappointed last year, but I'd bet good money on at least a few of them becoming stars.
The Mariners looked like they had themselves quite a steal when they traded Michael Pineda's fragged arm for Montero last offseason, but Montero suffered through a pretty crummy year, and was a disappointment for his fantasy owners (including yours truly). I still believe, though. Most of that belief comes from lingering memories of Montero ripping opposite field home run as a 21-year-old in September of 2011, but it's also because he's still very young and we shouldn't be giving up on hitters in their early-20's after one crappy year. Another year of development and some shorter dimensions at Safeco Field (namely, a shorter right field, which should aid his opposite-field power stroke) should help him look more like the hitting savant that he was in the minor leagues.
1B: Anthony Rizzo
Big time power plus a move to a much friendlier home park equals fantasy owners, start your drooling. Rizzo seemed doomed to a career in Petco Park-induced number-squashing hell before Jed Hoyer rescued him and brought him to the Friendly Confines. Now, if he fails to reach 30 home runs, it'll probably be seen as a disappointment. Rizzo has mammoth power and should develop into an NL-only star as soon as this year. Last year he coupled his power stroke with the ability to hit for contact, which is an encouraging sign. There are big power numbers coming this season, and if he ever figures out lefties, look out.
2B: Dustin Ackley
Along with Montero and Justin Smoak, the Mariners had themselves quite a collection of busts in 2012. Ackley figured to be a good walks-and-average play at second base, but the hitting slump that started in September of 2011 didn't really stop until 2012 was over. Two indicators that he's bound for a rebound in 2012: he maintained his good eye at the plate, and he maintained the double-digit power that scouts had projected for him. His BABIP was also a lowly .265, despite a line drive rate that was right at league average. A confluence of better luck and friendlier ballpark dimensions should put Ackley back on track.
SS: Starlin Castro
Castro was supposed to take the next step toward realizing his fantasy superstar potential in 2012, but instead he stagnated. He lost 20 points of OPS and 24 points of batting average but, luckily, he improved his isolated slugging. Castro hits a ton of fly balls, and as he gets older and stronger, more and more of those fly balls should become souvenirs. He'll turn 23 this year and should become a 25/25 player and an elite fantasy player in short order. He could be in the argument for best overall fantasy player in a few years. His ceiling is that high.
3B: Brett Lawrie
Many fantasy owners deified Lawrie after he tore apart the American League in 43 games in 2011, but AL pitchers had their retribution last year, and Lawrie ended up as one of the year's bigger fantasy disappointments. This would hardly be the first time a young player struggled to adjust in his first full big league season, however. Lawrie is just 23 and the power/speed potential is through the roof. Per Baseball Reference, his most similar player by age is Scott Rolen, just to give you an idea of how good Lawrie could be. And wouldn't you know it? At age 23, Rolen busted out for 30 home runs. The price tag might be lower on Lawrie after a letdown of a season, and if it is, pounce.
OF: Desmond Jennings
I used more than a few keystrokes in fawning over Jennings before the season, only to watch him get hurt and then struggle for most of the season. Jennings was a bitter disappointment for many owners, but the potential is still there for a 40-steal guy with a dash of pop. His number one flaw is his penchant for hitting the ball in the air, which makes it kinda hard for him to take advantage of his speed. If he can make some adjustments and hit some more line drives and leg out more ground balls, his average will go up and he'll be a substantially more valuable player. Call me stubborn, but I still believe he can make those changes and become a top fantasy outfielder.
SP: Matt Moore
Moore's career trajectory has been eerily similar to teammate David Price, and I think this year he'll continue the mimicry. Like Price, Moore struggled in the first few months of his rookie season before righting the ship a bit in the second half. In Moore's case, he struggled with poor control and gave up a ton of home runs, which is always a brutal combination.
After the All-Star Break, though, Moore kept the ball in the park and looked a lot more like the guy whom Joe Maddon entrusted to start Game One of the 2011 ALDS. Price broke out and won 19 games in his second full season, and became the awesome dude you know now. Expect Moore to follow in his footsteps and put up a superlative season of 15 wins and 200 strikeouts, well on the way to becoming one of fantasy baseball's elite pitchers.
RP: Greg Holland
Holland is one of the most underrated relievers in the league and I think I'm developing a man crush on the guy that is leaning toward the unhealthy. He is just awesome. He strikes out a ton of batters, and his already-stellar strikeout rate continues to climb (12.2 K/9 in 2012). The 91 Ks alone help fantasy owners, but the reason I believe Holland is destined to be one of 2013's best closer options is that he just never, ever gives up the long ball.
In 2012, Holland surrendered just two home runs in 67 innings. In 145 career major league innings, he's given up a total of eight. This isn't just a fluke, either. In 252 minor league innings he gave up just thirteen. Relievers who keep the ball in the park limit the risk of surrendering game-altering hits and having their ERA balloon, and that's why I like to target relievers with low home run rates. Holland struggled with the walks last year, but most of the free passes came in the first half. Once he took over as closer, he got it all under control. He isn't a name value because he toils in Kansas City, but I pick Holland as the year's breakout closer star.