Who’s the number one pick in fantasy baseball this season?

Fantasy baseball spotlight on Ryan Braun, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera
Who will be the number-one pick in your 2013 fantasy baseball draft? (Getty Images)

Mike TroutRyan Braun, and Miguel Cabrera (in that order) were the top three fantasy baseball players in 2012 according to ESPN’s Player Rater. Which one deserves to be the first name off the board in your fantasy baseball draft?

The case for Braun

  • A true five-category stud, Braun’s average season yields 102 runs scored, 34 home runs, 107 RBI, 21 steals and a .313 batting average.
  • Braun’s batted over .300 in five of his six big league seasons and owns a .313 career average.
  • Few can match his combination of power and speed: Braun was the only player to go 30/30 in both 2011 and 2012.
  • Milwaukee’s offense paced the National League in runs scored last year, meaning Braun should have plenty of opportunities to score and drive in runs.
  • Fantasy baseball owners need not worry about injury risk. Braun’s averaged 154 games per season over the past five and is one of the safest investments around.

Reasons to think twice:

  • Braun’s name has been linked to baseball’s latest PED scandal, and he once again finds himself embroiled in controversy. While it’s highly unlikely Braun gets suspended, his performance will once again endure intense scrutiny from fans and media alike.
  • After trimming his strikeout rate every year from 2008-2011, in 2012 Braun posted the worst whiff rate since his sophomore season.
  • The spike in strikeouts may have something to do with the fact he offered at 36.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, easily the highest mark of his career.

My Projections: 104 runs, 36 home runs, 110 RBI, 31 steals, .318 batting average

The case for Cabrera

  • Whereas outfield is the deepest position in fantasy baseball for hitters, third base tends to be more volatile. It’s not as thin as in years past, but many players (Pablo SandovalKevin YoukilisChase Headley) have question marks.
  • Starting in 2004, Cabrera’s average season has produced 102 runs scored, 34 home runs, 118 RBI, 4 steals and a .321 batting average.
  • A career .318 hitter and two-time batting champ, Cabrera has batted below .320 just once in his past eight seasons.
  • He has Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, two of baseball’s top RBI men, protecting him in Detroit’s lineup.
  • Surprisingly durable for his size, Cabrera has appeared in at least 157 games each year since 2004. He’s one of those players you pencil in on opening day and don’t touch for the rest of the season.

Reasons to think twice:

  • Cabrera turns 30 in April, and his weight has been an issue throughout his career. Let’s just say he won’t be posing shirtless on magazine covers anytime soon.
  • His OPS has declined in consecutive seasons.
  • His walk rate plummeted from a career-best 15.7 percent in 2011 to 9.5 percent last year, probably because he adopted a more aggressive approach with Fielder batting behind him.
  • With just 33 stolen bases to his name, Cabrera is a not a five-category monster like Trout and Braun. Fantasy baseball owners seeking speed will have to look elsewhere.

My Projections: 112 runs, 37 home runs, 124 RBI, 2 steals, .333 batting average

The case for Trout

  • At the tender age of 20, Trout delivered one of the greatest all-around seasons in baseball history. Assuming he follows a normal aging curve, he should only get better.
  • Despite spending the season’s first 20 games in triple-A, he went on to lead the major leagues with 129 runs, 49 stolen bases, and 10.7 bWAR last year. In addition, the Millville Meteor slugged 30 home runs, finished runner-up to Cabrera for the batting title and posted the AL’s highest OPS+.
  • If Mike Scoscia continues to bat him leadoff, he’s going to score a truckload of runs setting the table for Albert PujolsJosh Hamilton, and Mark Trumbo.

Fantasy baseball leagues for 2013 MLB draft fans.Reasons to think twice:

  • Trout cooled off considerably in the season’s final third. From August 1 forward, he batted .287/.383/.500 while striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances. Perhaps pitchers adjusted. Maybe he wore down over the course of his first full major-league campaign. Perhaps it was simple regression to the mean. Most likely, all three factors played a role in his late-season slide.
  • Batting leadoff limits a batter’s RBI opportunities, so Trout is going to be hard-pressed to reach the century mark in ribbies no matter how successful he is with men on base.
  • Trout lacks the distinguished track records of Braun and Cabrera. The sample size is too small to make confident predictions about how he’s going to perform in 2013 and beyond.
  • His .383 BABiP ranked third behind Dexter Fowler and Torii Hunter last year. Trout’s fast, but he’ll probably bat closer to .300 than the .326 mark he posted last year.
  • Is the power legit? After all, we are talking about a guy who managed just 23 home runs in more than 1,300 minor-league plate appearances.
  • Could he possibly be any better than he was last year? Can he avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump” that plagues many of the sport’s best young talents? Eric HosmerBrett Lawrie and Jason Heyward, all billed as superstars-in-the-making, struggled mightily in their second seasons. While they weren’t anywhere close to Trout’s level, they displayed how growing pains are part of the game. He won’t fall off a cliff, but he’ll probably dip a bit the same way Alex RodriguezTed Williams and Pujols (already Cooperstown-caliber players at Trout’s age) did.

My Projections: 123 runs, 24 home runs, 79 RBI, 52 steals, .306 batting average

The bottom line: If you score one of the first three picks in your fantasy baseball draft, you’re sitting pretty. Don’t agonize over the decision too much, because you can’t go wrong. Cabrera and Braun are money in the bank. Taking Trout is more of a calculated risk, albeit one that could also reap the biggest rewards. If the 21 year-old wunderkind somehow improves upon his historic rookie year, watch out.

I prefer to play it safe, so I’d put Braun at number one, Cabrera second and Trout third. How about you?

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