Well, now that most of our NCAA brackets resemble the Libyan Air Force, we can move onto something that can provide some much needed optimism: fantasy baseball. What would the start of the season be without a rankings list?

There will be some familiar faces, but also some surprises. In the interest of brevity and fairness, the list will include just 20 players, (10 position, 10 pitchers) in rank order. That will probably only account for the first two rounds in most leagues, but this list will aim to help you avoid becoming message board fodder.

(Those dismayed by the absence of their favorite players on the, please contact your state legislator or Devan McClaine at devo1d@yahoo.com. We can talk/hug this thing out…) On to the list.

1. Albert Pujols, 1B St. Louis Cardinals

Shocker. I’m sure collective minds have just been blown. It isn’t a sexy pick, but how can you go wrong with the three-time N.L. MVP? Not only is he durable, but remarkably consistent. Take a look at Pujols’ stats over his career. He has had an OPS over 1.000 in all but two of his 10 major league seasons, (when he managed a woeful .955 and .997 in 2002 and 2007 respectively), has averaged 40 home runs and 123 RBI over that span.

If that isn’t enough, we’re talking about a guy who has never missed more than 20 games in a season, had 30 steals over the last two years, is in a contract year, and just turned 31 years old.

Again, sexy like Will Ferrell’s body, but easily the most reliable and consistent player available. The Machine is a bona fide number one pick. Don’t downplay the contract year. We have never seen Pujols in this situation and weird things (like 50 bombs and 140-plus RBIs) happen when people feel like they have something to prove. I wonder what Charlie Sheen would do in a contract year? Wait…

2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B Boston Red Sox

Gonzalez moves from cavernous Petco to a park that is tailored for his opposite field power. Gonzalez relied on the likes of Will Venable and Scott Hairston to drive in and Yorvit Torrealba to protect him. In 2011, those names will be replaced by Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youiklis in front of him and a revitalized David Ortiz protecting him. This should add up to a monstrous 2011 for Gonzalez.

In his five-year career, Gonzalez has never missed more than six games in a full season and, despite playing home games in a park that could host a NASCAR race, managed more than 100 HRs over his last three seasons. The 27-year-old’s patient approach (93 BBs, .393 OBP in 2010) is a perfect fit for the Sox and could spell trouble for A.L. pitching staffs. While he is an unproven commodity in his new league, moving from Petco to Fenway and the surrounding talent should pay dividends for fantasy owners.

3. Hanley Ramirez, SS Florida Marlins

Probably the most gifted of any player in the top 10, Ramirez can do anything on the field. Although he ran into questions about his attitude and desire last season, the 27-year-old has a 30-30 season and a batting title in his five year career.

Ramirez will be asked to carry the offensive load in Miami, the fish lost slugging double-play partner Dan Uggla to division rival Atlanta. It remains to be seen how much help phenom Mike Stanton will provide in the middle of the order. In any case, the only thing stopping Ramirez is himself. Despite the questions, Ramirez is good for an average above .300, 25-30 HRs, 100-plus RBIs, 100 runs and 25-30 steals. Nothing wrong with that.

4. Joey Votto, 1B Cincinnati Reds

Votto realized his full potential last year, capturing the NL MVP with a fantastic season. The Reds first baseman posted a .324 BA, 37 HRs, 113 RBIs, 1.024 OPS and a surprising 16 stolen bases at first base. While Votto plays in a hitter-friendly park, some may be surprised to find that the Canadian hit 52 points higher and slugged 19 of his 37 home runs on the road in 2010.

Votto still has protection in the lineup, and could receive more if talented Jay Bruce continues the pace he set after the break last year. If Votto can maintain the stolen bases and improve his already impressive patience at the plate, he could vault even higher on the list. The 27-year-old has entered his prime and should stay there for a while. Draft high and enjoy.

5. Carlos Gonzalez, OF Colorado Rockies

Gonzalez exploded last year, much like the head of every Oakland A’s fan after reviewing the trade that brought him to Colorado. Whether it is Coors Field or not, Gonzalez flirted with the N.L. Triple Crown last year with a .336 BA, .974 OPS, 34 HRs, and 113 RBI. Oh, he also swiped 26 bases, all while missing 17 games.

Some prospective owners may be scared off by Cargo’s road splits, which would be totally understandable, if he didn’t hit .380 with 26 HRs with a 1.161 OPS at Coors, where he still plays 81 games. Well, hopefully.

The biggest concern for Cargo may not be his record away from Coors, but his all-out style of play, which cost him some time last year. That said, Cargo’s massive upside still makes him a top 10 pick.

6. Miguel Cabrera, 1B Detroit Tigers

You drink, you drive, you lose…unless you can hit 30-plus bombs and drive in 100-plus runs perennially. Despite a Lohanian spring training, Cabrera still ranks in the top 10 because of his age (27, there seems to be a theme developing…) and consistency.

Let’s get real, it’s not like Cabrera’s drinking problem has hindered him in the past. Since breaking into the bigs in 2003 and helping the Marlins to a World Series, Cabrera has averaged 30 HRs, 109 RBIs and a .939 OPS. In 2010, Cabrera posted career highs in HRs (38), RBI (126), BBs (89), OBP (an A.L. leading .420) and OPS (1.042).

Cabrera is still the main cog in Detroit’s lineup, which now features Victor Martinez and uber-talented Austin Jackson in his second season.  If he continues to produce the way he did last year, Cabrera will have fantasy owners volunteering as designated drivers. It’s a win-win for everyone!

7. Troy Tulowitzki, SS Colorado Rockies

Tulo is a reluctant addition to the list. Like his teammate in Colorado, Tulo is a streaky hitter, injury prone, and has limitless potential. A notoriously slow starter, Tulowitzki caught fire in September, mashing 15 of his 27 HRs in the last month of the season. The downside? He also missed 40 games. However, it’s that September performance, and his second half splits in general that will keep the former Long Beach State star in the top 10 of most drafts.

If he can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, who knows what Tulo is capable of. In 2009, one of two seasons he has played at least 150 games, the 26-year-old shortstop had 32 HRs and 20 SBs with a .930 OPS. If anything, try to trade for him in the second half, he can be invaluable to a championship push. If you can stomach the streakiness, injury risk and propensity for mullets (for the kids), Tulo is the man for you.

8. Carl Crawford, OF Boston Red Sox

Crawford isn’t exactly a stranger to most fantasy owners, but his new perch at the top of the Sox lineup will undoubtedly raise his profile and fantasy value. Crawford has always been a speed demon and should continue that role in Boston’s stacked lineup.

In addition to stealing 45-plus bases in seven of his eight full major league seasons, Crawford has managed over 200 doubles, 100 triples and 100 HRs over that span. Expect Crawford’s power numbers to rise in Fenway. Couple the power surge with his stolen bases, and you have a premium player batting second in one of the most potent lineups in baseball.

As stated before, Crawford’s new teammates will help him anchor a spot on this list. No disrespect to Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, but I will take the likes of Youkilis, Gonzalez and Big Papi behind the 29-year-old left fielder. Barring injury, you can sign Crawford up for a .300-plus BA, 120-plus runs, 45-50 SBs and an OPS in the .850 range. 

9. David Wright, 3B New York Mets

The face of the franchise adjusted nicely to the dimensions of Citi Field last year. After a punchless 2009, in which Wright hit 10 home runs in 144 games, the 29-year-old third baseman matched his age in dingers last year. Add to the fact that Wright is usually good for about 20-25 stolen bases as a corner infielder, and there is no reason this side of Jason Bay missing 57 games, to keep Wright out of the top 10.

If Wright can get any help his teammates, particularly the overpaid Bay, he should have similar numbers this year. If not, Wright may press like he did in 2009, when he posted career lows in slugging (.447) and OPS (.837). Jose Reyes’ return to health should also spell more RBI opportunities for Wright. In any event, the fact that Wright hit more home runs (12) at home last year than he did in all of 2009 is encouraging.

10. Ryan Braun, OF Milwaukee Brewers

Braun gets the nod over Rays‘ third baseman Evan Longoria and Yanks’ second baseman Robinson Cano because a) his track record, b) we already have a mullet aficionado on the list and, c) anytime you can take a swipe at the Yankees, you do it.

The Hebrew Hammer has had a DiMaggio-like beginning to his career. In four seasons, the 27-year-old (there it is again!) has hit 128 home runs with a .918 OPS. Braun will also be locked in because he knows friend and celebratory sparring partner Prince Fielder may be gone at the break.

There is an incentive for both to keep the train rolling as long as possible. Fielder is looking for a big contract before he eats his way out of baseball and Braun wants to keep the only help he has around until he can ditch Milwaukee in 2016. Isn’t it weird how 2016 still looks like it belongs in Blade Runner or a Terminator sequel? I digress…

Bottom line, Braun had an “off year” last year and still managed a .304 BA, 25 HRs, 14 SBs, 100-plus RBIs and an OPS of .866. Expect him to return to 2007-2009 form. His patience at the plate has steadily improved and he has cut down his strikeout rate in each of his four seasons.

1. Roy Halladay, SP Philadelphia Phillies

If you like pitchers that throw 220-plus innings with 200 Ks and an ERA below 3.00, then Doc is your Huckleberry. After a stellar 2010, in which Halladay captured the NL Cy Young and threw a perfect game, Halladay anchors the best rotation ever put on paper in 2011.

Although Halladay is entering his 14th season, he is only 33. Despite the wear and tear of nearly 2300 innings, Doc appeared to be getting stronger last season, posting an otherworldly 8-to1 K/BB ratio and a WHIP just above 1.0. Halladay had the best season of his career despite playing in Philly. His approach has remained the same; dominating hitters with pinpoint control of a nasty two-seam sinker, four-seamer, cutter and knuckle-curve.

It’s no secret that Halladay doesn’t beat himself (30 BBs in 33 starts), however, his win total could be hurt by the Phillies offense, which is past its prime and struggled last year. Needless to say, we know Doc will be among the league leaders in nearly every peripheral stat across the board.

2. Tim Lincecum, SP San Francisco Giants

After the first rough spell of his career last year, The Freak was lights out in October, helping the Giants to their first World Series title in 56 years. Although his velocity has dropped, Lincecum has learned how to pitch. When he entered the league in 2007, Lincecum relied heavily on a 95-plus mph fastball and power curve. Since, he has added a lethal changeup, (maybe the best out pitch in baseball), and an above average slider that vacillates between mimicking a slurve and a cutter.

He still throws the curve to keep hitters off balance, which he has done well, leading the league in strikeouts the last three seasons. The 26-year-old righty can throw four legitimate pitches in any count and get you out with all of them.

While some may point to Lincecum’s regression last year as a true indication of where his abilities lie. Let’s keep in mind he had half a year with rookie catcher Buster Posey, added a slider and showed up to spring training  this year with some added muscle.

Any pitcher listed at a generous 5’11” and 170 lbs. needs all the bulk he can get. Despite his diminutive stature, Tiny Tim has pitched over 210 innings in each of his three full seasons.

The league finally adjusted to the two-time N.L. Cy Young Award winner last year, and he adjusted right back. We know Lincecum is good for 230-plus Ks, but look for his ERA and WHIP to return to 2008-2009 form, when he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

3. Felix Hernandez, SP Seattle Mariners

While there was some debate (Read: MLB Network) about handing the 2010 AL Cy Young to a pitcher with 13 wins, there was no argument about the season King Felix had last year. The 24-year-old right hander led the league in ERA (2.24), innings pitched (249.2), while finishing second in WHIP (1.05) and one strikeout (232) from the American League lead.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Harold Reynolds, but if you have a season like Hernandez’ 2010 campaign, I don’t care if you go winless, you still deserve the Cy Young. I can actually feel myself digressing…gross.

Everyone knew that Hernandez had great stuff; an electric fastball in the 94-96 mph range, a plus curve, slider and changeup. What people forget is that The King is only 24. He could claim the number one spot on the list if “he learns how to win,” or if his team “learns” how to put up more than 0-2 runs in nearly half of his starts, as the sagging M’s did last year. Remember that this is a guy who went 19-5 in 2009, maybe he forgot how to win, Harold.

Hernandez is as durable as he is nasty, making at least 30 starts in each of his five complete campaigns. King Felix is hopeful that the M’s offense won’t be as bad as they were last year. One thing you can count on is the strength of Hernandez’ peripherals, along with the statistical ineptitude of a former Seattle second baseman.

4. Jon Lester, SP Boston Red Sox

While pitchers are as comfortable at Fenway as Newt Gingrich at a transgender cabaret, Lester managed an excellent 2010. The 6’4″ 240-pounder matched his career best in strikeouts (225), WHIP (1.20) and led the A.L. in K/9 (9.7). Lester also surrendered a paltry 14 bombs to opposing batters. We know his win total will be bolstered by a speedy outfield and solid infield who are equally capable at the plate, making him an early favorite for the 2011 Harol…A.L. Cy Young.

The 27-year-old southpaw has already overcome lymphoma, endearing him to The Nation forever, but he came into his own as a dominant frontline starter last year. The scary thing is he could get even better. Lester improved his K/9 ratio and WHIP in the past couple of seasons. The only concern may be Lester’s increased walk total (83) compared to the previous two seasons (130 combined). Lester works off his four-seam fastball and features a plus curve and cutter, all of which can be swing-and-miss type pitches.

5. Cliff Lee, SP Philadelphia Phillies

Lee was dominant in the 2010 postseason until his ERA ballooned to nearly seven in the Fall Classic. Prospective owners should not be scared off by the postseason performance. Keep in mind that Lee surrendered a total of 18 walks between Seattle and Texas last season. The strike throwing machine also led the A.L. in WHIP (1.00), BB/9 (0.8) and K/BB per 9 (10.28). The latter stat may be more indicative of Lee’s control than strikeout ability, but the 32-year-old lefty also set a career high with 185 stakeouts last year.

Lee joins Roy Halladay at the top of The Phils’ formidable rotation, but the concerns are the same for both: support from the Phillies position players, both at the plate and in the field. Lee attacks the strike zone with an array of six pitches, but works predominately off his two-seam fastball. He also has a filthy cutter, and mixes in a curve and changeup, a plethora that even El Guapo would appreciate.

6. Clayton Kershaw, SP Los Angeles Dodgers

Kershaw is coming off breakout season, in which the 23-year-old lefty posted career bests in innings pitched (204.1), strikeouts (212) and WHIP (1.17).  Kershaw’s walk total remained relatively high (81), but opposing batters only managed to hit .214, while he surrendered only 13 home runs.

The Claw will again seek to grab the spotlight in the pitching-heavy N.L. West and will do so with a repertoire that features a fastball in the mid-90s and a devastating 1-to-7 curve. Kershaw lived up to the hype last year and there is no reason he can’t build on it this year.

7. Josh Johnson, SP Florida Marlins

Johnson just looks like a pitcher. Last year, he acted like one. Johnson missed the last month of the season due to back problems, but finished with an N.L. best 2.30 ERA. Johnson also compiled 186 strikeouts, a 1.10 WHIP and allowed just seven home runs. The 6’7″ 250-pound horse has improved his ERA and WHIP each of the last four seasons.

The primary concern for the 27-year-old righty has always been health. Johnson has only made 30 starts twice (28 last year) in the last five seasons. However, it’s Johnson’s upside and overpowering four-seamer, (94.9 mph on average), improving slider and changeup make him worth the gamble. If you can bolster a staff with other reliable starters in later rounds, Johnson may be worth the reach.

8. C.C. Sabathia, SP New York Yankees

If Johnson presents an injury risk, then Heavy-C is anything but. Both are 6’7″ (with slightly different dimensions), but the similarities end there. The 30-year-old lefty has made at least 30 starts in nine of his ten seasons, his career-low is 28.

While C.C. may never recapture the strikeout form he had in 2008, when he had 251, he will log innings and give you around 200 punch outs every year. Sabathia can also help you in the Harold Reynolds Win Metric (the best around for judging the true performance of pitchers). Sabathia is backed up by a lineup that puts runs on the board, so 20-plus wins are never out of the question.

Sabathia tied his career-high in home runs allowed (20) last year, but that may be due more to Yankee Stadium and the A.L. East than a decline in stuff. C.C.’s durability and consistency make him worthy of a top spot on any fantasy staff.

9. Justin Verlander, SP Detroit Tigers

Although Verlander wasn’t as strong as he was in his previous season, 219 strikeouts and a 1.16 WHIP are nothing to sneeze at. Verlander is one of the game’s true power arms, throwing a four-seam fastball that can reach triple digits and averages 95 mph. The return to form erased all concerns of arm trouble when Verlander’s velocity dropped in 2008.

Despite the overwhelming fastball, Verlander has remained remarkably healthy, logging at least 30 starts in every one of his five complete seasons. Despite the dip in strikeouts, Verlander lowered his home run total and improved his WHIP over 2009, when he finished third in the A.L. Cy Young vote.

Verlander works primarily off the four-seamer, but can also come at hitters with a solid curveball and changeup. Verlander also added a slider in 2009.

10. Ubaldo Jimenez, SP Colorado Rockies

There is no denying that Jimenez’ second-half regression last year is a concern. But if you start the season 15-1, with a 2.20 ERA and, most importantly, a .252 BABIP, there is nowhere to go but down. Jimenez fell in love with his fastball in after the break, which is understandable, anything that reaches 100 mph and averages 96.1 is very likeable. You could easily be “more than friends” with such a fastball.

As a result, Jimenez actually upped his K/9 (8.0 to 9.6), but became more predictable in the process. The return to the league norm in BABIP didn’t help either. However, it’s that strikeout rate and velocity that kept the likes of David Price, Chris Carpenter and Roy Oswalt from this spot.

The truth is that Jimenez is probably somewhere in between his pre and post-break performances last year, and that’s fine. If he trusts his secondary stuff, he could resemble the guy we saw in the first half of 2010. Those secondary pitches include a splitter that falls off the table and a changeup that resembles most pitchers’ fastball. The guy has no-hit stuff, literally.  If he can mix his pitches better, Jimenez could easily rise on this list.

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