By Steve Gardner
The story of the 2013 baseball season can't be told without mentioning the Biogenesis scandal that resulted in suspensions for 13 players, including two league MVPs.
Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was a consensus top-three overall fantasy player to start the year, so a subpar season with nine home runs and 38 RBI ended abruptly and shockingly in July with his 65-game ban.
Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees missed the first four months of the season after having hip surgery only to play the rest of it while appealing his 216-game suspension. An arbitrator's decision will determine whether he'll play at all in 2014.
Between those extremes, the scandal also cost owners the services of shortstops Jhonny Peralta and Everth Cabrera and outfielder Nelson Cruz - all of whom were having excellent fantasy seasons.
As we look back at some of this season's highlights and lowlights, here's hoping we don't have to discuss steroids, investigations and suspensions next year:
Just what does "valuable" really mean? The debate among fans, writers and those in the game about the MVP award seems to have escalated to an even greater level recently. There was no unanimity among fantasy owners either when I posed the question of this year's fantasy MVP on Twitter last week.
Mike Trout deserves consideration because of his superior all-around skills. After an amazing rookie year, Trout was even better in 2013.
At a time when pitchers seem to have the upper hand, Chris Davis topped the 50-homer mark and kept Miguel Cabrera (another worthy candidate) from winning a second consecutive American League Triple Crown.
Trout, Davis and Cabrera garnered the most support in our online poll, but the price a fantasy owner had to pay on draft day has to play a role in determining who was the season's most valuable fantasy player. For that reason, the St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Carpenter gets the nod.
The major league leader in runs (123 through Sunday), Carpenter hit .324 with 11 homers and 77 RBI. The power numbers aren't in the same ballpark as those of Davis and Cabrera, but the RBI total hitting primarily out of the leadoff spot is extremely impressive.
Carpenter also provided fantasy owners with the kind of value that can't be calculated by having eligibility at four positions. Especially in deep, single-league formats, being able to slot him in at first, second or third base or in the outfield gave fantasy owners incredible roster flexibility when injuries or slumps hit.
Carpenter rarely missed a game, and his $30 Rotisserie value in 5x5 National League-only leagues puts him among the NL's top 10 hitters.
But the MVP clincher is the fact that he wasn't even projected to be an everyday starter at the beginning of the season, so most fantasy owners were able to get him at a bargain price on draft day - if he was even drafted at all.
Fantasy pitcher of the year
The stock of the Miami Marlins' Jose Fernandez in keeper leagues was high after he breezed through Class A ball at 19, but no one expected him to make the jump to the majors this soon.
Fernandez not only made the Marlins rotation out of spring training, he also made the NL All-Star team. When Miami shut him down after 1722/3 innings, the numbers were truly outstanding: a 12-6 record, a 2.19 ERA and the lowest opponents' batting average of any starter in the majors (.182). Only two-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was a more valuable fantasy pitcher.
Waiver pickup of the year
Seasons are often won and lost on the waiver wire. Those owners fortunate enough to grab the Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig when he arrived in June received a huge offensive boost in every category. In that respect, Puig deserved consideration for fantasy MVP as well.
The Cuban sensation fueled many a fantasy team's resurgence in the same way he energized the Dodgers. His stats through 98 games - .327, 18 home runs, 41 RBI, 63 runs, 11 steals - were decent full-season totals for a waiver pickup. Projected over a full season, those numbers (30 homers, 68 RBI, 104 runs, 18 steals) would put him squarely in the middle of any MVP discussion.
Hitting line of the year
Playing in the American League for the first time, Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino looked like he could be entering the decline phase of his career. His speed was still intact, but after he hit a career-low .255 in 2012 and saw his slugging percentage dip below .400 for the first time, the Flyin' Hawaiian's fantasy value seemed permanently grounded. Instead, he flourished at Fenway Park - and the 32-year-old had a day to remember Aug. 27. He went 3-for-3 with two home runs, a double, four runs and seven RBI. For owners in leagues that count on-base percentage, he also walked and was hit by a pitch.
Pitching line of the year
There were two no-hitters thrown in 2013, but neither Homer Bailey's gem July 2 nor Tim Lincecum's 148-pitch performance 11 days later could top Shelby Miller's near-perfecto in mid-May.
After allowing a leadoff single to the Colorado Rockies' Eric Young Jr., the Cardinals pitcher retired the next 27 batters to complete a one-hit shutout. Along the way, he struck out a career-high 13, which tied him for the 10th-best total of the year.
Worst pitching line
While we like to celebrate the best performances of the year, we also have to mention those days fantasy owners would rather forget. In this case, a late-season start from an ace in the middle of the playoff chase provided perhaps the most painful moment of the year.
"Big Game" James Shields of the Kansas City Royals was anything but that Sept. 6 when the Detroit Tigers blasted him for 10 runs and 14 hits in 32/3 innings. Although he did manage six strikeouts, the damage to his fantasy owners' ERA and WHIP - at a time when many head-to-head leagues were just starting their playoffs - was a potentially season-crushing blow.
Worst batting line
One bad day at the plate doesn't carry the same impact as a disastrous pitching performance does, but try telling that to Brandon Belt owners on July 8. In a 16-inning loss to the Mets, Belt was hitless in eight at-bats with five strikeouts.
Dishonorable mention: The Los Angeles Angels' Josh Hamilton went 0-for-5 on June 18, but what made it stand out is that he became the first player since 1916 to strike out twice and ground into three double plays. The second K came with two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Hamilton's Win Probability Added for the game: -.477.
Comeback players of the year
It seems fitting that the comeback hitter and pitcher of the year are both wearing the uniform of the comeback team of the year.
Marlon Byrd's career seemed all but over after he hit .210 in a season that saw him traded, suspended and released. After the New York Mets gave him what looked like one last chance at 35, Byrd played his way into an everyday job.
Traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in late August, Byrd began the season's final week with a career-high 23 home runs to go with a .285 average and 84 RBI.
Francisco Liriano was signed as a free agent with little fanfare after posting ERAs above 5.00 in each of the previous two seasons. However, he ended up becoming the ace of the Pittsburgh rotation, posting a 16-7 record and a stellar 2.88 ERA.
Ubaldo Jimenez once looked like a budding star, but troubles with injuries and his mechanics relegated him to borderline starter status, even in deep AL-only leagues. A 4.56 ERA and 1.49 WHIP over the first half of the season gave no indication that things would get any better.
But since the All-Star break, Jimenez has the AL's lowest ERA at 1.77. Those mechanical issues also seem to be resolved, cutting his walk rate nearly in half - from 5.6 per nine innings before the break to 2.9 after it.
Top 10 for 2014
Finally, let's take a quick look at some of the players who will be fueling the conversation over the offseason as fantasy owners start working on 2014 draft prep:
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Robinson Cano, free agent
5. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
6. Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
7. ClaytonKershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
8. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
9. Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
10. Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers