Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Maybe it's because I've had to endure the seemingly endless winter here in the Northeast, because the NBA has been incredibly uninteresting in March or because two of my Final Four teams were eliminated this past weekend, but I'm more excited about the 2014 baseball season than I have been about any baseball season in a few years.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks played in Australia more than a week ago, but most fantasy leagues hadn't drafted yet so that still felt like spring training.
But the real start to the season is here.
Below, I ask (and attempt to answer) eight fantasy questions I have going into the 2014 campaign.
Who is Ryan Braun without PEDs?
Braun has hit .312 with 211 home runs, 681 RBI, 644 runs, 130 stolen bases and a .938 OPS in his first seven seasons, but we have no idea which of those statistics were achieved while Braun was using performance-enhancers. Braun also struggled with a thumb injury last year and hit just nine home runs in 61 games before the MLB cracked down on players involved in the Biogenesis scandal and suspended him for the rest of the season. Because Braun hit .306 with eight home runs and 26 RBI in 32 games prior to the thumb injury last season and because the outfielder still is a talented hitter -- PEDs don't turn a stiff into a star -- I think he'll be able to post top-20 fantasy numbers again in 2014. He has eased concerns with a .417 average and three homers in 36 at-bats this spring.
Can Matt Kemp get back on track?
Obviously, fantasy owners have to wonder if Kemp can stay on the field after he missed 145 games the last two years due to hamstring, shoulder and ankle injuries, but his production when healthy is also a concern. He batted .270 with six home runs and a .723 OPS in 73 games last season. Kemp's shoulder was probably the biggest detriment to his performance at the plate last season, but it should be 100 percent healthy at this point; he had a clean-up procedure last October but his major shoulder surgery came back during the 2012 offseason. Kemp also said this week that his ankle is completely healthy. You have to figure Kemp will spend at least one stint on the disabled list in 2014, but with the shoulder injury likely behind him he should be able to return to his pre-2013 level of production.
How will Chris Davis follow up his 2013 breakout?
The years after Jose Bautista hit 54 home runs and Edwin Encarnacion blasted 42, fantasy owners showed some skepticism that they could do it again. There hasn't been much of that with Davis this spring; he was drafted in the first round in many leagues. There should be some concern after Davis hit just .245 with 16 home runs, 45 RBI and an .854 OPS over 65 games after the All- Star break, but don't go overboard. His batting average decline was largely caused by a drop in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) from .355 before the break to .309 after. Davis' career BABIP is .335 so we can't expect him to put up a BABIP lower than .310 for an entire season. However, we also can't expect another 50-homer season because it will be very difficult for Davis to put up both a fly-ball rate above 45 percent and a HR/FB rate above 29 percent again. "Crush" should be able to attain a .275 average and 40 bombs, though.
What will we get from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton?
The Los Angeles Angels paid Pujols and Hamilton more than $33 million combined last season and they hit .253 with 38 HR collectively. Because plantar fasciitis made Pujols more immobile than former Angels first baseman Mo Vaughn circa 2003, I'm willing to mostly disregard last season's results. He's fully recovered from foot surgery and should approach his 2012 statistics (.285, 30 HR, 105 RBI, 85 R, .859 OPS). Meanwhile, Hamilton packed on 20-plus pounds of muscle in the offseason after a new diet caused him to drop weight last year. Because he actually had a better strikeout rate, contact rate and line-drive rate in 2013 than 2012, I'm buying that his weight loss was the main issue.
Will Bryce Harper return first-round value?
Harper had 12 home runs and a .994 OPS in his first 41 games last season but slammed into the right field wall and developed knee bursitis in May. He batted .266 with eight home runs and a .789 OPS in his last 74 games. In order for Harper to make the leap from 20 round-trippers to the 35-40 range, he'll have to increase his fly-ball rate from 33.4 percent and his HR/FB from 18 percent. He had a 36.9 percent fly-ball rate and a 29.3 percent HR/FB before his knee injury last year, so we should see him increase both in 2014 and hit 30 home runs for the first time.
How will Robinson Cano's statistics be affected by relocating from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field?
You may have heard that Cano has hit just four home runs in 40 games at Safeco Field, but that sample size is also spread over many seasons. Playing there every day will allow the second baseman to get more comfortable with Seattle's home ballpark. He also has hit .309 at Safeco, so it's not like he has struggled massively. Cano will probably lose a few home runs by leaving New York for Seattle -- he has hit one homer per every 6.2 games at Yankee Stadium and one per every 7.4 games on the road in his career -- but he was not a product of Yankee Stadium. He's recorded a career .312 average and .862 OPS on the road, compared to .305 and .858 at home. Cano also has played at least 159 games in seven straight years and should once again be fantasy's top second baseman.
Will the Lone Star State reverse Prince Fielder's decline?
Globe Life Park in Arlington is favorable to left-handed power hitters, much more so than Comerica Park, but Fielder's power dip was universal last season (13.6 percent HR/FB on the road, 13.4 percent HR/FB at home). The first baseman had his worst walk rate since 2006 and his worst strikeout rate since 2010 last year, his chase rate rose and his contact rate on pitches in the zone was one of the worst of his career. So no, moving from Detroit to Texas won't immediately help Fielder regain his .300-, 40-homer form any more than it will help him drop 40 pounds.
What can we expect from Puig-mania, Part II?
Puig was so good over his first 27 games last season after the Dodgers called him up on June 3 that he nearly made the NL All-Star team. He hit .443 with eight home runs, 17 RBI, 21 runs and four steals in that span. The Cuban returned to Earth over his last 68 games, batting .271, though he still had 11 home runs, 39 runs and six steals during that stretch. Puig's .319 average was boosted by a .383 BABIP, and he hit .331 on ground balls. The free-swinger won't have that many grounders find holes this season so he likely won't bat .300, but there's no reason to think he won't hit 27-30 home runs, steal 15-20 bases and score 90-100 runs.