Previous articles in this series:
- Three-Year Rankings: Catcher
- Three-Year Rankings: First Base
- Three-Year Rankings: Second Base
- Three-Year Rankings: Third Base
- Three-Year Rankings: Shortstop
Let's get right to it…
They are arguably the three best players from an offensive standpoint in baseball, and they are heading into their age-23, -28, and -25 seasons, respectively. The gap between McCutchen and Stanton is much smaller for me than the gap between Trout and the other two. While McCutchen lacks the ceiling of the other two (sans a crazy BABIP or HR:FB season), he gets the nod over Stanton because his past consistency gives us reason to expect that he’ll be more consistent going forward.
Gomez has ultimately become the pinnacle of “consistent, top-level performer” who is just not quite in the same group as the top three. While each member of the holy trinity is likely to be a plus factor in four or five categories, Gomez is constrained in RBI and AVG. The reason Gomez gets ranked behind the 22-year-old Harper is because no one in baseball sans Trout has as much upside as Harper. While it is certainly not a sure bet, Harper possesses the highest chances of making the leap to join the top group. There is a good enough chance that Harper gives us two healthy seasons over the next three years (and a percentage chance he gives us three, but don’t tell the internet that) that the risk becomes more than worth the reward.
Given current ADPs, this group is dripping with value. Puig, for me, is Harper-lite, having less upside in the power and stolen-base departments (eventually they are going to limit his ineffective steal attempts), but gets some back in his superior ability to stay on the field thus far. Adam Jones is again being discounted for his boring consistency and the fact that he ain’t perfect (has never walked in his life), but he sure is productive and he sure is playing in Camden Yards. The boss, Bret Sayre, pointed out on one of his podcasts that CarGo has also become a great value pick (J.P. Breen wrote likewise in his 2015 rankings) and I agree. CarGo is being dinged for missed playing time due to a tumor being removed from his thumb, which is definitely an injury that we can categorize as a fluke.
Do not discount Upton or Bautista either. Yes, Upton gets dinged for having to play 2015 in Petco, but he is a free agent after the season and seems unlikely to end up back with the Padres. Bautista finally gave us his first healthy season since 2012 and even managed to lower his strikeout rate. Lastly, Springer joins this much more established group because he flashed the potential at the major-league level last year, while possessing the tools to be a top-10 outfielder.
Ellsbury, Braun, and Kemp headline a less prestigious group than they have probably ever been in before. Braun has not been productive in two years post-PED suspension, Kemp flashed greatness in the second half of 2014 only to get moved to Petco for 2015, and Ellsbury’s decreased steal attempts (he was still an incredibly efficient base stealer in 2014) and lowered BABIP show signs of a 31 year old speedster slowing down. Ellsbury’s consistency puts him on top for me (2012 is looking more and more like an outlier), but the other two would profile to age better if they could show some consistency.
Yelich and Marte give us two players that have given us solid, but not elite seasons ($19 and $21 mixed league values in 2014 respectively). While Marte stands to be more productive this year, Yelich gets the higher ranking because of the AVG, RBI, and home-run upside/potential in his game. Soler, meanwhile, has only given us a small sample, but boy what a small sample it was. He slashed .292/.330/.573 in 97 plate appearances, while (more importantly) improving his walk and strikeout rates in both Double-A and Triple-A in 2014. If it had not been for some work ethic issues earlier in his minor league career, then this ranking would not be as surprising as it may seem.
Pence, entering his age 32 season, has been a model of consistency and while it is probably wise to not expect more than a dozen stolen bases per season going forward, it would certainly be unwise to knock his next three years anything more than slightly because of his age. There is some maybe-bad directional stuff in his O- and Z-Contact%, but it is very slight and it is currently unclear if it is variation or a trend. Given his consistency, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Lastly, and most interestingly, is Heyward, who is amazingly still 25 years old (10 months younger than Marte). While his 27-home-run 2012 is looking more and more like an outlier, he is still too young for it to be categorized as a complete fluke. The key for a player like Heyward is to place some value on the upside without going overboard.
20. Byron Buxton
Buxton has more raw talent than almost anyone in the 14 slots ahead of him, but he only has three plate appearances above A-ball. Yes, he is likely to reach the majors later this season, but a full year of near-zero production, especially when that year is 2015 (the one with the highest forecast accuracy in the timeframe we are looking at), makes it very hard to place him over players who are going to have near-definite production next year. In other words, Buxton plus whatever placeholder you can find is going to have to outperform what these other players do in three seasons. Given that he possesses the talent and thus a percentage chance at being a top-10 outfielder in 2016 and 2017 he gets this ranking above more established players. That said, given his injury history and the general uncertainty in prospects, I am unwilling place him any higher.
(One scary question mark, a down season, and two breakouts.)
Billy Hamilton would be higher on the list if there was not as much of a chance that he does not hit enough at some point to lose playing time or get moved down the lineup (to go along with injury concerns). Bruce is coming off a terrible year. He was thrown less strikes and he responded poorly by swinging more at pitches outside the zone, which led to more groundballs and less home runs. That said, one year does not make a trend and there is likely some profit to be had by grabbing a player when everyone is down on him (a player that a lot of people reached for last season), even if he does not get back to 30-plus home runs.
Dickerson finally got his shot and he broke out with a 24/74/74/8/.312 roto-slash in 131 games. While it may be tempting to dock his AVG, the hit tool has always been there and he plays at Coors. Put differently, nothing Dickerson did last year was very out of line with anything he had done before. Conversely, Brantley—the highest-earning AL outfielder in 2014—started doing things that he had never done before in 2014. His 2014 12.7 percent HR:FB rate destroyed his next-best rate of 6.8 percent; and while the .327 AVG he posted is still within the realm of possibilities going forward, it is not an outcome I would bet on. Brantley is still valuable if he regresses; just keep in mind that regression looks like a greater possibility than this being a new normal right now.
This from J.P. Breen on Choo is perfect: “Choo has fallen because many fantasy owners apparently believe that he suddenly forgot how to play baseball in a year. Take advantage of the recency bias.” I would say the same applies for Myers, unless a league-mate is undervaluing him due to a Padres-induced hysteria.
Gordon and Holliday continue to be relatively cheap R+RBI machines. By the time you are taking either of these two, you have already taken the headliners for your squad and these guys tend to be perfect compliments. While Cespedes has not been doing it for as long and while his batting average is more of an issue, he too also fills this role nicely.
While Betts gets the better ballpark and had the near-perfect call up last year, do not sleep on Polanco who has the higher prospect pedigree. While his power has not shown up yet, and while it will be suppressed by PNC, scouts always projected him to grow into some game power, and right now might be the perfect time to get him pre-breakout. This is not to discount Betts either, a very interesting player in his own right (and one who will score a ton of runs at the top of the Red Sox lineup), but given the current hype, he certainly is not being had below cost.
Young Joc is a real 20/20 threat, but he also poses a negative threat in AVG. Thankfully, he has on base skills that should make him an asset in runs scored unless a low AVG drags him way down in the order. Castillo also offers home run and steals (more steals and fewer home runs most likely), and while the batting averaged should best Peterson’s, Castillo gets dinged for having less of a track record. Strangely, the other power-speed combo on this list is now Gardner. Double digit home runs and 20-30 steals with mediocre stats elsewhere is not making anyone salivate, but it should be welcomed, steady production even with his past, some-what-fluky injury history.
Ozuna, who put up a 23/72/85/3/.269 roto-slash as a 23 year old last year, broke out while still being overshadowed by his outfielder teammates. While the approach suggests downside for his future batting averages, the power looks to definitely be for real. Given his age, Ozuna looks to be like a plus home run and RBI play for the next three years. The other slugger in a bad park entering his age 24 season is Arcia, who actually has the potential for more power (20 home runs in 103 games last year), but an even worse AVG than Ozuna. After showing a strong hit tool in the minors, Arcia has struggled to make contact over the last two seasons in the majors. Consequently, Arcia has the potential for a monster season or two if he can start making more contact; unfortunately, right now, it is not a high-percentage shot.
Now in Seattle, Cruz should be looking at annual home run totals around the 30 home run mark. If I thought Cruz was a good bet to play 150-plus games, I would project him in the low to mid thirties, but the 34 year old has only given two such healthy seasons in his career. Werth, the only player older than Cruz in this group, also faces the same dilemma in that he is good when healthy. Unlike Cruz, who has had some of his healthier years more recently, Werth’s 150-plus-game seasons appear to be behind him. The last 30-or-older player in this group, Melky Cabrera, has also dealt with injuries of late. Luckily for the world, these injuries have been of the non-predictive-of-future-injuries kind. If you do not want to take my word for it, here are the causes of his injuries over the past two seasons: Benign Tumor Caused Lower Leg Pain & Weakness, Shin HBP, HBP, Avulsion Fracture Extensor Tendon Little Finger Sliding Back To First Base. Melky therefore should be able to continue to give us solid four-category production with plus AVG and some steals sprinkled in for fun and delight.
Lastly, we have J.D. Martinez. After disappointing for some years, Martinez was able to break out with a use-the-entire-field approach. The walk and strikeout percentages still leave something to be desired and I would certainly advocate betting on significant AVG regression, but the home-run and extra base-power seem to have a good chance of being real. My guess is that someone will overpay to see just how real 2014 was, but if not, you all know what to do.
Thanks to Craig for taking the lead in creating this list and look for that very Craig to take this figurative ship to port tomorrow.