D.J. Short

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Fantasy Risers: NL East

Friday, December 06, 2013


In the coming weeks, the Rotoworld staff will take a look at some players whose arrows are pointing up for the 2014 season. We'll break them down by division. Ryan Boyer got us started last month with the AL East, so now it's the NL East's turn.

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Freddie Freeman 1B, Braves

Freeman established himself as a useful fantasy first baseman over his first two seasons in the majors, but he took things to a new level in 2013, batting .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and 109 RBI in 147 games. While his home run output was unchanged from 2012, he added 60 points in batting average, 101 points in OPS and tallied 15 more RBI as the Braves' primary cleanup hitter. He really turned things on during the second half, hitting .335 with a .952 OPS while amassing 14 homers in 66 games.

It's worth noting that Freeman accomplished his huge season on the strength of a .371 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), so it's fair to expect his batting average to come down a bit in 2014. Still, with his traditionally high line drive rate, we're probably not talking about a major decrease. Freeman will certainly be selected among the top-10 first baseman in the spring and potentially as high as the top-five, but I think he needs to show more power before he's considered truly elite. The good news is that he's still just 24 years old, so there's still time for him to take another step forward.

Jose Fernandez RHP, Marlins

Fernandez wasn't even on the radar of most fantasy owners this time last year, but he dominated in his rookie season after the Marlins surprisingly included him on their Opening Day roster. Despite never pitching above High-A coming into the year, the 21-year-old right-hander compiled a 2.19 ERA and 187/58 K/BB ratio over 172 2/3 innings. He ran away with the National League Rookie of the Year Award and finished third in the balloting for the National League Cy Young Award.

Fernandez got better as he adjusted to major league hitters, posting a 1.50 ERA over his final 18 starts. His .182 BAA (batting average against) was the lowest in the majors while he ranked fourth in WHIP (0.98) and fifth with 9.75 K/9. The Marlins shut him down in September, but he should be good for go for 200 innings in 2014. Miami's weak offense holds him back a bit and there's some risk involved since he's only pitched one year in the bigs, but I suspect he'll be on the fringe of the top-10 starting pitchers selected on draft day in the spring.  

Julio Teheran RHP, Braves

I could have gone with Mike Minor here, as he continues to make some healthy strides, but Teheran is the one who has made the bigger jump in the eyes of fantasy owners over the past year. Coming off a confounding and discouraging 2012 season, Teheran looked like a new man during spring training and ultimately won over his critics by compiling an impressive 3.20 ERA and 170/45 K/BB ratio over 185 2/3 innings en route to finishing fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting. He ranked 25th among qualified starting pitchers in both strikeout percentage (22 percent) and walk percentage (5.8 percent).

While Teheran was highly-regarded for his fastball/changeup combo as a prospect, he barely threw his changeup in 2013. It worked for him, as his slider developed into a significant weapon. The pitch induced whiffs 18 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball data. Rounding out his arsenal also helped his curveball become a more effective pitch. It's worth noting that left-handed batters hit him to the tune of a .289/.340/.483 batting line, so the platoon issue is slightly concerning, but he should enter his age-23 season as a top-25 starting pitcher in most mixed leagues.

Domonic Brown OF, Phillies

Once regarded as one of the game's top position prospects, Brown scuffled in sporadic opportunities over his first three seasons in the majors, but he enjoyed a healthy post-hype breakout in 2013. Finally given the chance at everyday playing time, the 26-year-old outfielder batted .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs and 83 RBI in 139 games.

While there's reason to feel good about Brown's production, injuries likely robbed him of what could have been a monster year. He only hit four home runs over his final 51 games, which could be explained in part by a concussion and a lingering heel injury. Some skepticism about his ability to duplicate his 2013 output is understandable and there's still some question about where he'll hit in the Phillies' lineup, but his power and speed potential make him plenty intriguing going into 2014.

Zack Wheeler RHP, Mets

Mets fans had to wait nearly two years after the Carlos Beltran trade to see Wheeler make his major league debut, but he didn't disappoint after his much-anticipated call-up in June. The 23-year-old right-hander posted a 3.42 ERA and 84/46 K/BB ratio in 100 innings across 17 starts. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in 13 of his outings.

Wheeler amassed 168 2/3 innings between the majors and minors before being shut down in late September, but he should be cleared to approach the 200-inning mark in 2014. His control has room for improvement and his swinging-strike rate was more league-average than elite -- a minor surprise given his electric, raw stuff -- but there's obvious breakout potential here as he continues to mature. Pitching half of his games in Citi Field should help his chances. Matt Harvey's early success probably sets an unfair bar, so I could see Wheeler being overvalued on draft day, but he's already a top-50 starting pitcher in mixed leagues.

Alex Wood LHP, Braves

Often overlooked in prospect circles because of his funky delivery, Wood dominated his way through the minors before making his major league debut this past June. The 2012 second-round pick was very effective between the rotation and the bullpen, putting up a 3.13 ERA and 77/27 K/BB ratio in 77 2/3 innings over 11 starts and 20 relief appearances. While his control was better out of the bullpen, the 22-year-old southpaw managed a similar strikeout rate in both roles.

The Braves let Tim Hudson walk this winter and Paul Maholm is a free agent, so Wood is expected to get a chance at a rotation spot in 2014. With a potent three-pitch mix and his ability to induce whiffs and grounders, he's a very enticing sleeper candidate. There's still the long-term concern about his unorthodox delivery catching up with him, but hey, pitching is a risky occupation by default. He's definitely someone I'll be eyeing in the late rounds of mixed league drafts in the spring.

Wilson Ramos C, Nationals

Ramos only appeared in 78 games this past season due to a pair of hamstring injuries, but he still managed to establish new career-highs with 16 home runs and 59 RBI. Project that out over a full season and we're talking about the potential for him to approach 30 homers and 100 RBI. Of course, things don't work that way, especially with catchers. Besides, that would assume that Ramos would be able to repeat his 27.8 percent HR/FB rate from this past season, which would put him in elite slugger territory. And I don't think he belongs there.

Ramos still has some holes in his game, as he doesn't take a lot of pitches, but his high contact rate won't make him a zero in the batting average department. And even if there's natural regression in his HR/FB rate, there's still a legitimate chance for 20-plus homers if he can finally stay healthy for a full season. I'd have more confidence in him if he didn't hit so many ground balls, but he is clearly a top-12 catcher at this point. My guess is he'll be a bit undervalued on draft day.

Honorable Mentions

Evan Gattis C/OF/1B, Braves

Gattis socked 21 home runs in 382 plate appearances with the Braves this year and should get the majority of the playing time behind the plate in 2014 now that Brian McCann is a Yankee.

Christian Yelich OF, Marlins

The sweet-swinging rookie held his own during his first taste of the majors this year and should have a legitimate chance at double-digits in homers and steals during his first full season in 2014. His long-term potential is immense.

Vic Black RP, Mets

Acquired from the Pirates in the Marlon Byrd deal last August, the hard-throwing Black could be first in line for save chances for the Mets if Bobby Parnell has a setback following neck surgery.

Anthony Rendon 2B/3B, Nationals

Rendon replaced Danny Espinosa as the Nationals' starting second baseman in June and finished with a .265/.329/.396 batting line over 98 games. Still just 23 years old, there's plenty of room for growth.

Travis d'Arnaud C, Mets

D'Arnaud struggled in his first taste of the majors this past season, batting .202/.286/.263 with one homer and five RBI over 112 plate appearances. Still, he hit for average and modest pop at nearly every level in the minors and will be given every chance to run away with the starting catcher job this year.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez RHP, Phillies

Gonzalez is a bit of an unknown quantity after he had to agree to a revised three-year, $12 million contract with the Phillies due to some concerns during his physical, but he's healthy now and should have a chance to win a rotation spot out of spring training. Keep an eye on him.

 

Andrelton Simmons SS, Braves

Simmons amassed 17 homers and 59 RBI in his first full season in the majors, but he hit just .249 and had a poor success rate (6-for-11) on stolen bases. I'd gladly trade some of that power for more speed. With his ability to make contact, I'm optimistic that his batting average will rise in time. Remember, he's just 24 years old.



D.J. Short is a Rotoworld baseball editor and contributes to NBCSports.com's Hardball Talk blog. You can also find him on Twitter.
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