Finally. The days are getting warmer, it’s still light at 5 PM, and I’m starting consider whether or not my madras shorts are still in style. We’re moving toward my favorite fantasy season of them all – it’s baseball time baby! The boys of summer are already in spring training, and it’s time to for us fantasy gamers to get in some training of our own.

It seems logical to begin our discussion where every draft begins – the first round. You can’t win your league with a strong #1 pick, but you sure can put yourself in a hole by making a bad one. Guys taken in the top 12 are generally either a model of elite consistency, or have such tremendous upside that despite their lack of experience, they simply cannot be ignored. I love discussing these rankings and analysis, so be sure to bring your opinions, strategies, and thoughts to the fantasy baseball forum or the comment section below.

We’re going to review the consensus Top 12 picks today, and make the case for drafting each. We’ll follow each with their projected 5 x 5 2013 stats via FanGraphs. Lets do this!

Note: I consider the top 3 picks interchangeable. You can make an argument for any of them at the top spot, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

1. Miguel Cabrera DET | 3B

Swingin’ Swiggy won the Triple Crown in 2013, a feat not accomplished since 1967 by Carl Yastrzemski, and interestingly, each man hit 44 home runs exactly. Cabrera also managed to bat .330 and drive in 139 runs, while crossing the plate himself 109 times. His BABIP of .331(batting average on balls in play – league average is around .300) was fairly high. That being said, it was also his lowest BABIP in 4 years. The man can flat out crush the ball. Assuming he can stay away from the bottle in 2013, in the middle of a loaded lineup in a poor division, there’s no reason to program much regression into his totals. A beastly #1 pick.
2013 Projections: 38 HR 107 Runs 126 RBI 3 SB .331 AVG

2. Ryan Braun MIL | OF

All eyes were on Braun as he embarked on his 2012 campaign following his very public, and polarizing, overturned suspension for PEDs. Anything less than a typical Braun-like campaign would have given skeptics enough ammunition to declare him guilty in the court of public opinion. 41 bombs, 30 steals, 108 runs, and 112 RBI later (along with a .319 average) his critics have more or less fallen silent. He’s 29, in the prime of his career, and has proven that he doesn’t need Prince Fielder in the lineup to produce at an elite level. The 30 steals are just icing on the cake. Draft the Hebrew Hammer at #1 or 2 without hesitation.
2013 Projections: 36 HR 108 Runs 112 RBI 24 SB .314 AVG

3. Mike Trout LAA | OF

Trout had such a breakout 2012 season that it seems likely all future fantasy breakout campaigns will use it as the benchmark. He played a total of 139 games, amassing 30 jacks, 49 steals, 129 runs, 83 RBI, and a .326 average. He’s playing in an insanely loaded Angels lineup, on a team built to win now, in a hitters league. He won’t be 22 until August 7th. He’s at 9% body fat despite measuring 6 foot 1, 240 pounds. I can’t imagine you need any more evidence that he’s a top 3 pick, but if you do, consider this: his numbers from last year were produced in 25 games less than a full season, and if there’s any upside to be had from a top 3 pick, you’ll find it here.
2013 Projections: 30 HR 122 Runs 87 RBI 53 SB .325 AVG

Note: Pick #4 is where it gets interesting. Many of the remaining 8 picks are based on personal likes / dislikes, draft strategy, and positional scarcity.

4. Robinson Cano NYY | 2B

Cano is the cream of a weak second base crop, and it isn’t remotely close. He’s been an elite talent for 6 years, and is still only 30. He hits in Yankee Stadium, where even Ichiro can hit jacks, and he’s a lefty who gets the benefit of the short porch in right. He hits dead in the middle of a perennially ridiculous Yankees lineup, and he’s improved his overall numbers every year, including an uptick in power in 2012. Second base is very top heavy for 2013, and if you love offensively useful infielders, Cano’s elite .314 average, 33 homers, 105 runs, and 94 RBI in 2012 will be sweet music to your ears. He doesn’t steal bases, but who cares? He’s as solid a first round pick as you can find anywhere outside the top 3.
2013 Projections: 27 HR 100 Runs 99 RBI 3 SB .306 AVG

5. Matt Kemp LAD | OF

Kemp looked like a surefire MVP candidate for the first month or so of 2012. He sustained his first injury May 13th, and didn’t return until May 29th. He lasted exactly two games before reinjuring his hamstring. This time the DL stint lasted until July 30th. And thus was a promising, MVP type season wiped out. Not that 23 homers, 69 RBI, and 74 Runs is league average by any means, but Kemp was certainly in line for much bigger things. And that’s why he’s going at pick number 5 in 2013 – the 30/30 potential and massive upside he was showing the first two months of the season. The Dodgers lineup looks insanely good (on paper anyway), after their offseason spending spree, meaning that Kemp should have good protection en route to plenty of Runs / RBI. There’s a certain amount of risk involved with taking Kemp in the top 5, but assuming he’s fully healed in 2013, we should look forward to a truly monster Kempaign.
2013 Projections: 31 HR 103 Runs 101 RBI 21 SB .298 AVG

6. Albert Pujols LAA | 1B

Pujols started out slowly in 2012. So slowly, in fact, that in the early part of the season, I was able to nab him from a frustrated owner for a package centered around Cameron Maybin and Brandon League. Seriously. He was that bad, and someone was that impatient. He should have known better than to bet against Phat Albert, the King of Consistency. What did he end up with? 30 homers, 105 RBI, 85 Runs, .285 batting average. His worst year in his last 10 would still be a career year for anyone else. He’s getting older, and is now more of a 30 homer guy than a 40 or 50, but here is what’s true: You can use his stat line last year as his floor. And that’s why you take him at number six, despite his age and his knee injury, despite the fact that he doesn’t run; he is a machine. They say there are few certainties in life, but I’d put Pujols getting to 30 bombs and 100 RBI right up there alongside death and taxes.
2013 Projections: 38 HR 105 Runs 117 RBI 9 SB .305 AVG

7. Joey Votto CIN | 1B

Votto is another top ten pick that will be returning from what was, by his standards, a season lost to injury. He started slowly in April, but by late May was hitting well, and was white-hot by June. He missed most of July and all of August with a knee injury that ultimately required two surgeries. Like Kemp, he was playing at an MVP level before the injury, and also like Kemp, was well below his standard upon returning. You’re drafting Votto this year for his consistency, his upside, and the fact that he registered a .474 OBP last year, which is beyond elite. To give you some perspective on how good he is, he struck out 85 total times, and walked 94. When he returned to the field, however, his power didn’t return with him, as he registered 0 HR’s after the All-Star break. This is a tough pick to make – you have to decide if you’re going to get pre-injury Votto, a perennial MVP contender, or post-injury Votto, lacking pop. Like Kemp, high risk, high reward.
2013 Projections: 27HR 93 Runs 97 RBI 8 SB .312 AVG

8. Andrew McCutchen PIT | OF

Cutch-22 has no real downside, just a simple lack of multiple truly elite seasons (2012 being his first). He went 31 HR /20 SB last year with an average climbing towards .330, 107 runs scored, and 96 RBI. A tremendous campaign for a Pittsburgh team that flirted with postseason hopes for the first half before fading down the stretch. Unfortunately, McCutchen faded with them, his average dropping nearly 70 points after the midsummer classic. But he’s only 26 and is just now hitting his prime. His home runs have increased every year, he gets on base at an excellent rate, and he’s never had to deal with a major injury – the most games he’s missed in the last three years is a total of 8. He’s an 8th pick with room for upside and makes a fine start for any fantasy outfield.
2013 Projections: 24 HR 101 Runs 81 RBI 22 SB .286 AVG

9. Carlos Gonzalez COL | OF

CarGo is yet another top ten pick who is coming off an injury-marred season. Are we tired of this theme yet? He missed a total of 29 games due to various injuries, but still managed to hit 22 HR, steal 20 bases, and bat .303 with 89 runs and 85 RBI. Outside of injury, some make points against Gonzalez; He plays half his games in Colorado, and the thin air certainly does seem to pad his stats – would you believe that his average at home last year was .368, while away it was merely .234? He destroyed right-handers (.325, 16 HR) but was merely mortal against lefties (.266, 6 HR). That’s all well and good, but we’re in a numbers game, and CarGo always delivers the mail at year’s end. He’s an elite OF, and will be gone by pick 12 in all drafts. Outfield is very top-heavy this year, and we’ve got at least three OF spots to fill. Plug Cargo into one of them, book him for 20+ HR and SB, and continue dominating your draft.
2013 Projections: 25 HR 98 Runs 96 RBI 20 SB .298 AVG

10. Prince Fielder DET | 1B

Your first pick is all about minimizing risk, and maximizing the floor stats of whomever you pick. Prince at the 10 spot is a perfect example of this. Over the last 6 seasons, if we pick his lowest output in each major category, the line reads like this: 30 HR, 83 Runs, 83 RBI, .261 AVG (and that AVG was an aberration). That’s a hell of a floor for a guy you can take at 10. He’s missed just 8 games over the last 6 seasons. He plays in a lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, and Victor Martinez. Fielder is still just 28, dead locked in his prime. If you’re at 10, and don’t like taking round one pitching, you’d be wise to make a kingly move and select the Prince.
2013 Projections: 31 HR 97 Runs 103 RBI 1 SB .292 AVG

11. Justin Verlander DET | SP

What’s not to like about Verlander? He has no injury history, plays on a World Series contender, punches out almost 9K / 9, and doesn’t give up homers or walks. Only once since 2006 has his ERA been over 3.00, only once has he failed to top 200 innings pitched, and only once has he failed to top 17 wins. Years he’s failed to make 30 or more starts? Zero. He’s a beast, and it’s a rare day when the Tigers lose when Verlander is on the hill. The most impressive thing is his dominance while pitching in the hitting-heavy AL. If you want to start your staff in dominating fashion, draft the very best.
2013 Projections: 18 Wins 220 K 0 SV 3.00 ERA 1.10 WHIP

12. Stephen Strasburg WAS | SP

If Verlander is the very best, Strasburg is the second coming. In his first year after Tommy John surgery, on an innings limit and still mastering a new motion while dealing with an arduous recovery, his K / 9 was an astounding 11.13. That’s 11 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. Just…absurd. Other notable pitchers to accomplish that feat are Sandy Koufax, Herb Score, Scott Kazmir, and Mark Prior, to name a few. That entire group had careers cut short due to arm problems. Fortunately, medical science has come a long way, thankfully, and Tommy John surgery is now a year-long inconvenience instead of a career-threatening injury. The data shows that pitchers coming off that type of surgery generally struggle the first year back, and are fully all-systems-go by the second year. He could be better this year, without an innings limit. He plays for a team that will be in the mix for another NL East title, and he gets to pitch a bunch against the Marlins! The kid is 24. He’s insanely good, and the sky is the limit. Draft him with confidence, and be happy you’ve added a once-in-a-generation talent to your roster.
2013 Projections: 17 Wins 234 K 0 SV 2.68 ERA 1.12 WHIP