I'm marginally intrigued by the 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers. Not many teams have a wider range in potential outcomes, as I could believe 105-57 as easily as I could 78-84.
I am significantly intrigued by the, say, 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers. Barring trades (which, yeah, there'll be trades), the Dodgers already know their 2017 first baseman (Adrian Gonzalez), a middle infielder (Alexander Guerrero), outfield (Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford), their first bat off the bench (Andre Ethier), and some of their starting pitchers (Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu). If Clayton Kershaw and/or Hanley Ramirez agree to long-discussed (and rumored) contract extension in the days to come, there are a couple more roster slots already filled. In 2017, Crawford is 36. Ethier and Gonzalez are 35. Puig and Kershaw will still be young, but overall it will be an aging team.
In and of itself, that's not guaranteed to be good or bad. What it is is a new data point. We've seen teams like the Yankees, Orioles, Mets, and Phillies make significant down-the-road investments in players mainly to capitalize on their current status, and it almost always ends up blowing up when "down the road" becomes the present. That's why we all look at contracts like Vernon Wells', Ryan Howard's, and Mark Teixeira's and shake our heads, and it's why those guys, and others like Alfonso Soriano and Josh Beckett, end up on the rosters of the spend-wild-and-free teams.
"But there will be trades," you say, and yes. But the Dodgers aren't going to get someone to take Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier away without taking on some return salary. It will be the same puzzle, just different pieces. As many questionable moves as general manager Ned Colletti has made (Brandon League, Brian Wilson, GIVE MONEY TO RELIEVERS), we know he has a veritable blank check, and that can go multiple ways. So watching how the Dodgers work with their huge bankroll will be a really interesting barometer into how the next uber-rich team deals with its wallet.
But that's not why we're here. This is to discuss the top five fantasy Los Angeles Dodgers for 2014, and the aging contracts aren't a big factor quite yet. It's just interesting to think about. But now I've thought it, so let's move on:
1. Clayton Kershaw, SP
Kershaw has pitched 100-plus innings six times in six years, and has topped 200 in his last four. Basically, he came up as a 20-year-old rookie, and was less than a full-time pitcher. He moved to quasi-full-time in 2009, then slipped right into his dominant role in 2010 as a 22-year-old and hasn't looked back, leading the league in ERA in the last three and winning two out of three Cy Youngs. As much as you can never ever ever count on pitchers (I'm writing this only a couple hours after Roy Halladay's retirement press conference, and 2011 was his sixth straight year of 220-plus innings, which makes a 2013 retirement oh-so-very-sad), it certainly seems like Kershaw is the most rely-on-able. Kershaw ran away with the top spot among pitchers in 2013, and you have to get down to guys like Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey and Chris Sale to find guys who are younger than Kershaw. As hard as it is to recommend a pitcher as a first-round fantasy draft pick, Kershaw is one. And there's not much doubt there.
2. Hanley Ramirez, SS
On a per-appearance basis, Ramirez was insanely good in 2013. His slash line was .345/.402/.638, which would be crazy-good for a first baseman; for a shortstop it's other-worldly. But Ramirez has also been held to below 100 games in two of his last three years. To be fair, he's played 140-plus in all of his other six MLB seasons. But recency is a huge factor in injuries, and as good as Ramirez is, if you're drafting him in fantasy, you're doing it with a wince and some crossed fingers. That's the thing with the injury-risk guys, the Hanley Ramirezes and Troy Tulowitzkis and Carlos Gonzalezes - you use a first-round pick on them, and you've locked yourself into using a later pick - say 12th, 13th round - on a higher-quality backup like Andrelton Simmons or Norichika Aoki or Jed Lowrie that you wouldn't otherwise normally spring for. Drafting an injury-prone guy is committing two draft picks to a single slot, and that has to ding overall value a bit. Ramirez is still a late-first-, early-second-round pick, but buyer beware.
3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
The complete flip side of the injury-prone coin is Gonzalez, who has played at least 156 games every year since he went from Texas to San Diego. That's eight straight seasons of missing essentially no time, and he's posted a .296/.375/.595 slash line in that time, playing six-and-a-half of those eight seasons in the caverns of San Diego and Los Angeles. There is a big drop-off at first base in fantasy; it goes from guys like Gonzalez, Allen Craig and if-he's-him-again Albert Pujols to question marks like Brandon Belt, Anthony Rizzo, and Matt Adams in a big hurry. If you haven't grabbed someone like Paul Goldschmidt or Edwin Encarnacion or Joey Votto, and you're looking at grabbing Gonzalez or waiting, grab Gonzalez. Even if it means taking him a handful of picks earlier than his ideal value, if you're stuck with, say, Chris Carter as your fantasy first baseman, you're not going to be as happy as you want.
4. Zack Greinke, SP
After years of everyone wishing and hoping and what-might-be-ing about Greinke, as, since his put-it-all-together 2009, he has looked like his results weren't matching the underlying skills, it went the other way in 2013, with his ERA diving way below his FIP and xFIP. On the other hand, even if you regress his 2013 ERA to one of those other numbers, it still ranks as his best ERA since his 2009 Cy Young season. He'd be a No. 1 pitcher on, what, 20 big-league clubs? And even with his missed time because of the broken collarbone in 2013, he's pitched at least 170 innings in six straight years, with 200-plus four times. I'd be fully comfortable with Greinke in the late fourth, early fifth round, and I wouldn't even be sad if he were my first starter.
5. Yasiel Puig, OF
In the Fake Teams mock with the guys at Fantasy Assembly, Puig went in the second round. I don't get it. The next few outfields off the board were Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gomez, Jay Bruce, and Shin-Soo Choo. If you think Puig is above all those guys (heck, any of them), then this paragraph is not for you. Because I'm sorry, I don't see it. This is a guy who, in 40 games at AA, had a .339 BABIP and a .383 OBP. Both numbers rose in the big leagues (in the case of BABIP, dramatically) while his strikeout and walk percentages both got worse. I'll concede that 104 games is too large to be dismissed as "small-sample size" if you'll concede that we can't exactly say it's a guaranteed blueprint for his future. I am all in on drafting for upside in fantasy drafts, but I'm much less enthusiastic about doing it in the second, third rounds. Even if you're the biggest Puig fan out there, you can't say that you are sure of what he'll do next year, that there's no chance he regresses mightily. It's impossible. I prefer higher floors with my high draft picks.
Matt Kemp still has the ability to be a top fantasy outfielder, but drafting him is taking the injury concerns of Hanley Ramirez and ramping them up to 100.
Kenley Jansen is already a top-five fantasy closer, and could end up as the No. 1 sooner than later. On the other hand, he's a closer. Even the best ones have their values tempered just by their position.
Alexander Guerrero is intriguing, to be sure. He slots in right now as the team's second baseman for next season. If I can get him late in drafts, I'll love it. But he's also a wild card.