As we trudge through another long winter, the Rotoworld staff is giving close examination to players whose arrows appear to be pointing up for the 2014 fantasy baseball season. We'll break them down by division. Ryan Boyer got us started in the American League East and then D.J. Short took us through the National League East. Now it’s time for the American League Central.
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American League Central Fantasy Risers
Drew Smyly, SP, Tigers
Smyly was so impressive in middle-to-long relief this past summer for the Tigers that they felt comfortable trading starting pitcher Doug Fister this winter to the Nationals -- a risky move that returned utilityman Stephen Lombardozzi and two left-handed pitching prospects. Fister was outstanding in his two-plus years with the Tigers, posting a 3.29 ERA (128 ERA+) and 1.19 WHIP in 440 2/3 frames. But there is reason to believe that Smyly can be even better. The 24-year-old left-hander finished the 2013 campaign with a 2.37 ERA (178 ERA+) and 1.04 WHIP in 63 relief appearances. He struck out 81 batters across 76 innings for a near-dominant K/9 of 9.6. Fister’s K/9 in his time with Detroit was 6.3. Smyly, a second-round pick of the Tigers in 2010, could be a front-line fantasy starter by early 2014.
Jose Dariel Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Given the recent run of high-impact Cuban defectors -- think Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman and Yasiel Puig -- hardcore fantasy players probably aren’t going to let Abreu slip through the cracks this year in drafts. Like his fellow Cuba natives, the 26-year-old’s exact abilities and attributes are largely a mystery. But what we do know is that he hit .382/.535/.735 with 13 homers, 37 runs scored, 36 RBI and 37 walks in 42 games this past season in Cuba's Serie Nacional and the White Sox deemed him worthy of a six-year, $68 million fully-guaranteed contract this winter. With 81 scheduled home games in one of Major League Baseball’s most slugger-friendly stadiums, he’s set up to produce big-time power numbers right out of the gate.
Yan Gomes, C, Indians
Gomes was a legitimate breakout star in 2013, batting .294/.345/.481 with 11 home runs and 38 RBI in 88 major league games while converting former everyday catcher Carlos Santana into more of a first baseman and DH. Santana has even been experimenting at third base with his winter ball team. Some might project offensive regression for Gomes in 2014 -- what will be his first full-season big-league slate -- but the 26-year-old Brazilian was a .322/.378/.543 hitter in 373 plate appearances at Triple-A so a step forward is just as likely as a step backward. There are two fantasy-eligible backstops from Cleveland worth selecting high in drafts next year.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals
If you’re an experienced fantasy baseball enthusiast, you know the drill on post-hype sleepers. Their potential still sky-high, they often come cheap (or go late) in drafts because they failed to meet the early, often-too-lofty expectations placed upon their playing career. Hosmer is one of these guys. The third overall pick in the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft, he bolted through the Royals’ farm system with a set of tools that made him a can’t-miss prospect. Hosmer was only mediocre in his first two major league seasons, posting a .730 OPS (99 OPS+) in his first 280 big league games. But something clicked this past summer. Hosmer, who turned 25 years old in October, batted .329/.379/.506 with 13 homers and 50 RBI in 85 games after June 27. We’re expecting a full season of that in 2014.
Danny Salazar, SP, Indians
The baseball world got a small taste of Salazar’s potential in 2013, when he registered a 3.12 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 10 major league starts -- his first 10 ever -- while fanning 65 batters in 52 innings. Salazar is known mostly for his high-octane fastball, which he threw on 68.5 percent of his deliveries in 2013, but his split-change is also a very effective pitch and he is working to improve his slider. When it all comes together -- if it hasn’t already -- the young Dominican right-hander could be a long-term ace for the Indians. Salazar had a dominant 2.26 ERA and 9.8 K/9 at the Double-A level and a 2.73 ERA and 11.8 K/9 at the Triple-A level. Cleveland selected him to start the 2013 American League Wild Card Game against the Rays.
Avisail Garcia, OF, White Sox
Garcia arrived in Chicago in July 2013 as part of the three-team, seven-player blockbuster trade that sent starting pitcher Jake Peavy to the Red Sox and slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias to Detroit. The White Sox also got three low-level prospects out of that deal: infielder Cleuluis Rondon and right-handers Francellis Montas and Jeffrey Wendelken. There’s no escaping the fact that Garcia has largely struggled at the major league level, batting .289/.319/.405 in 307 plate appearances since his late-2012 debut. But the hope is that his true talent will shine through with a stable full-time role in 2014. Garcia, a 22-year-old native of Venezuela, owns a .960 career OPS at the Triple-A level and once stole 23 bases in a minor league season.
Cody Allen, RP, Indians
The Indians recently signed veteran reliever John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million free agent contract and plan to make him their primary closer in 2014. But he hasn’t been a dominant pitcher since 2011 and we’re already plotting out a bullpen role change in Cleveland. Allen, a 25-year-old right-hander, registered a spectacular 2.43 ERA in 77 relief appearances this past season for the Tribe while striking out 88 batters in 70 1/3 innings. He boasts a high-90s fastball and a mid-80s curveball that can both work as effective out pitches. If there should be an early Axford slip-up, look for Allen to get the first shot at providing ninth-inning stability. Bryan Shaw, 26, is another riser to watch at the back end of that Indians ‘pen.
Ryan Raburn, OF, Indians
Raburn was a monster in limited action this past season for the Tribe, hitting .272/.357/.543 with 16 home runs and 55 RBI in 87 games played. His past stat lines suggest that regression is afoot in 2014, but those types of prognostications have been wrong before.
Alejandro De Aza, OF, White Sox
De Aza is typically a disappointment in the rate stats department -- he batted just .264 with a .323 OBP in 2013 while being used regularly at leadoff -- but the counting stats are what most fantasy leagues care about and the 29-year-old center fielder finished the summer with 17 homers and 20 steals.
Nick Castellanos, 3B/OF, Tigers
The Tigers are moving Miguel Cabrera to first base in 2014 and will turn full-time hot corner duties over to Castellanos, the organization’s top prospect by far. Castellanos is a .303/.359/.445 career hitter in the minor leagues with good athleticism and a burgeoning power swing.
Greg Holland, RP, Royals
Fantasy enthusiasts know all about Holland, but he’s still far from a household name across the baseball landscape. The 28-year-old Kansas City closer saved 47 games in 2013 alongside an outrageous 1.21 ERA. He struck out 103 batters in 67 innings. The Royals have made upgrades this offseason and should be able to hand him leads regularly in 2014.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins
This is more of a one-to-watch-for recommendation. Sano, one of the top position player prospects in the sport, batted .280/.382/.610 with 35 home runs and 103 RBI in 123 games this past season between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain. He’s the only member of the Twins mentioned in this column, but the 20-year-old Dominican is going be a legitimate star.