In 2011, the South was the most competitive division in the SFRRC Fantasy Baseball League. That's not likely to change in 2012, which means rebuilding isn't an option. Teams must reload if they hope to win the pennant.
Ten of last year's 17 division All-Stars will return to their teams in 2012, including the entire infield, three of the game's top starting pitchers, and a closer. Here's a look at the players that will be counted on to lead their clubs in what could be the league's most competitive pennant race.
Two corner infielders supply the power for HUMA. First baseman Joey Votto is the team's leader, smacking 29 home runs and driving in 103 runs in 2011. At 28, he's entering his prime and his numbers could improve. He finished last season as the 18th best player in the league. At third base, Adrian Beltre hit 32 home runs and drove in 105 RBI. Only Jose Bautista and Alex Gordon ranked higher at the position.
Josh Hamilton and Peter Bourjos will return in the outfield. Both represent some risk but have high upside. Hamilton had 25 home runs in 2011 but continues to battle substance abuse. If he stays on the field, he has MVP-type talent. Bourjos is just 24-years-old and will be counted on to give the team speed. He stole 22 bases last year and could reach 30 in a revamped Angels lineup.
Jon Lester struck out 182 batters in 2011, more than any other pitcher on the staff. The team allowed Doug Fister, an important member of the staff during last year's pennant race, to become a free agent.
The starting rotation will be led by Jered Weaver and Gio Gonzalez. Weaver was a South Division All-Star in 2011 and was the team's best player, posting 28 quality starts and striking out 198 batters. Gonzalez was selected over Jordan Zimmerman, who ranked higher in 2011, but Gonzalez struck out 197 batters, second only to Weaver.
The bullpen will be led by John Axford, a key free-agent acquisition last year. Axford finished the season as a division All-Star. He had 46 saves and was the team's third highest rated player.
Offensively, High Cheese kept shortstop Hanley Ramirez and outfielder Jay Bruce. Ramirez entered 2011 as one of baseball's best players but injuries and a bad attitude led to a disappointing campaign that saw him play in just 92 games. Bruce, 24, is a young slugger who should improve. He finished 2011 with 32 home runs.
The team will be without All-Star catcher Victor Martinez, who will miss the season due to injury, and they allowed base stealer Michael Bourn to become a free-agent.
Three infielders were kept to form the nucleus of the 2012 team. First baseman Miguel Cabrera was a South Division All-Star last year and the team's MVP. He belted 30 home runs and drove in 105 runs in 2011. Second baseman Robinson Cano was also a division All-Star and hit 28 home runs. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval was injured last year and played in just 117 games. If he stays healthy, and doesn't gain weight, he could hit 30 home runs.
Outfielder Andrew McCutchen was also a South Division All-Star, hitting 23 home runs and stealing 23 bases. The team allowed another All-Star outfielder, Shane Victorino, to become a free-agent. He should be drafted early in March.
Starting pitcher Brandon Beachy, a 25-year-old who struck out 169 in 2011, was the only pitcher kept and will be the foundation of the staff.
The pitching staff will be led by All-Stars CC Sabathia and C.J. Wilson. Both had 200+ strikeouts and 20+ quality starts in 2011.
All-Star catcher Carlos Santana is just 25-years-old but he may be the top offensive catcher in the game. He hit 27 home runs in 2011, his first full season in the league. Shortstop Elvis Andrus stole 37 bases and scored 96 runs last year to earn division All-Star status.
The Cys gambled when they allowed first baseman and team MVP Mark Teixeira to become a free agent. He hit 39 home runs and drove in 111 runs in 2011 and will likely be one of the first players chosen in the March draft. In his place, the Cys kept young Brandon Belt, a 23-year-old top prospect, who finished last season as the league's 870th-ranked player. Belt is considered one of the game's top hitting prospects but he isn't guaranteed a starting spot with the Giants entering spring training. If Belt does earn a starting job, it will be a victory for the Cys before the season begins.