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Draft Round Battles: Stanton Vs. Harper

Fantasy baseball is very much an expectations game, which is why both Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper were considered by several owners to be disappointments in 2013 despite putting up solid numbers.  "Solid" doesn't cut it when you're a young burgeoning superstar tasked with carrying the hopes untold fantasy franchises --- anything short of a Trout-ian season will be seen as coming up short.

This logic, of course, is nonsense.  Stanton and Harper both performed quite well in 2013, with one big caveat.  Stanton was ice-cold in April, then went on the DL until mid-June, and after that resumed his usual course of destroying baseballs.  Stanton's .870 OPS and 21 homers from June 10 to the end of the season helped him end up with a final tally of 24 homers and a .249/.365/.480 slash line.  It's a big comedown from his absurd .969 OPS season in 2012 but still, The Man They Used To Call Mike was hardly a bust.

Harper, if anything, was even better.  Despite making only 497 plate appearances due to a variety of ailments (chief amongst them knee and hip injuries), Harper still hit 20 homers, scored 71 runs, stole 11 bases and hit .274/.368/.486.  That's a good season for anyone; for a 20-year-old, that's a ridiculous season that proves Harper is still very much deserving of his "phenom" tag. 

I can't help but think that our perception of both players' seasons was impacted by the overall downcast fortunes of their teams.  The Marlins, of course, hit the reset button after their offseason fire sale and were a miserable 62-100 last season, with Stanton himself openly upset about how the team had so quickly reverted back to rebuilding mode.  Stanton's discontent was public enough that he's been the subject of a thousand trade rumors himself, though Miami seems firm about keeping him in the fold.  The Nationals, meanwhile, were preseason darlings and World Series favorites, but they got off to a poor start and simply couldn't catch up enough despite playing some good ball down the stretch.  Washington still finished 86-76, which is a pretty good record for a team that considered the season to be an epic failure.

That caveat I mentioned?  This was the real problem with both players last season --- they fell victim to the injury bug.  Stanton only played in 116 games, and at least he had the fantasy team decency to restrict his hamstring pull to one specific month.  Harper's various injuries nagged him and cropped up all season long, taking him out of your lineup for a game here, a few games there, and more than one DL stint, ultimately limiting him to 118 games.  It's easy for me to point out that the two outfielders posted numbers worth of a second-round pick when they played, but obviously it doesn't help your team when one of your so-called cornerstone players missed a quarter of the season.

We've established that Stanton and Harper were both very good (when they weren't on the DL) in 2013, and now the question remains, who will be the better option in 2014?  Trust me, neither player's reputation was tarnished enough to lower their fantasy value; it'd be shocking to see either man still be on the board by the third round of any 12-team league draft.  Expectations will still be high and the question is, which player will come closest to achieving them?

In a vacuum, I would favor Harper.  He topped Stanton in every 5x5 and slash line category last season save for one (Stanton had 62 RBI to Harper's 58) and he's still only going into his age-21 season.  Consider that Harper did all this while playing in pain for most of the year and you have to wonder if Harper is simply just one of those truly special players. 

It also helps that Harper will get a lot more RBI and run-scoring opporunties hitting amidst the solid Nationals lineup, whereas Stanton is still far and away the biggest (only?) threat in Miami.  The Marlins' travesty of an offense posted a cumulative -0.7 offensive WAR in 2013, according to Fangraphs.  While a full season from Stanton, growth from young stars like Christian Yelich and offseason additions like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Rafael Furcal will add a bit of batting potency next season, it's still one of the league's worst lineups.  If your league tracks walks, then hey, Stanton might be a better bet than Harper after all given that Stanton will be getting intentional walks by the boatload.

Given how both men are coming off shortened seasons, health is perhaps the biggest draft question.  Much has been written about whether Harper's intense playing style will lead to further injuries, though I'd argue that getting hurt from crashing into walls is the type of "intensity" that Harper will eventually grow out of as he learns more about fielding and positioning.  Also, let's not forget that Stanton is actually coming off back-to-back shortened seasons; he played in only 123 games in 2012 thanks in large part to midseason arthroscopic knee surgery.  You can't knock Harper for being a potential injury risk and overlook the fact that Stanton has much more documented injury history.

It wouldn't shock me at all if both players make the proverbial leap in 2014 and deliver the kind of powerhouse seasons that make them first-round picks in 2015 fantasy drafts.  In terms of who I think is better prepared to make that leap (or who will leap just a little bit higher), I'll recommend drafting Harper.  If he plays a whole season and still posts "only" an .854 OPS, however, hopefully you won't be too disappointed.

Let us know in the comments: Stanton or Harper in the first round this year?

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