For the earlier articles in this series, click below:
- State of the Catcher
- State of First Base
- State of Second Base
- State of Third Base
- State of Shortstop
NEWMAN: Boy, that’s the full size.
JERRY: That’s your big boy.
—Seinfeld, “The Suicide," Season 3, Episode 15
At nearly every position on the diamond, fantasy managers go through the same hand-wringing exercise every year, where they wonder if there will be enough value to go around, and if they will need to adjust their draft slots or bid limits for position scarcity. The one position where this shouldn’t happen is in the outfield. According to the PFM, in 2015, 40 percent of hitting earnings in 15 team leagues and 41 percent of hitting earnings in 12-team leagues came from outfielders (this includes 1B/OF but does not include other players with dual eligibility who are also outfield eligible). It is fine to focus on making sure that you pick up enough stats at other positions by drafting a player a little bit over his estimated value, but outfield is the one place where you can simply draft for value and do okay.
2016 has two young superstars representing the position ably in Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Trout is currently being drafted first overall in NFBC leagues while Harper is going third, but you could make a case for either player at the top slot. There is a bit of a drop-off to the other outfielders being taken in the first round. Giancarlo Stanton is looking to bounce back from yet another injury while Andrew McCutchen needs to run like he did prior than 2015 to maintain his previous high-end value. A.J. Pollock was better than both of these guys last year, but it is fair to wonder if he can repeat.
Don’t worry if you don’t land an outfielder in the first round; there are still plenty of chances to grab stats. Mookie Betts, George Springer, and Starling Marte all offer potent power/speed combinations with varying degrees of power or speed while Chris Davis is the kind of straight-up power stud you don’t see very often these days. Even with the bad batting average, he may very well be worth the risk. If you don’t like Davis—or would prefer to slot him in at first basethe drop off to Jose Bautista, Charlie Blackmon, and J.D. Martinez is negligible. Yoenis Cespedes’ overall numbers were boosted by a ridiculous 31 game stretch, but those stats counted just as much as the rest of his season did. Ryan Braun’s thumb will likely always be a concern, but his 20/20 season last year cannot be ignored. Nelson Cruz was discounted in 2015 because of Safeco and age; few will make the same mistake this season.
Justin Upton always seems to fly under the radar, and this year’s ADP reinforces this perception. For the past two years, Upton has been taken a round or so under what his value was the previous season. He doesn’t do anything in fantasy extremely well but Upton fills up the stat sheet across the board. Lorenzo Cain is going well below his earnings potential, in part because speed is undervalued. Carlos Gomez and Carlos Gonzalez aren’t completely trusted because of health. Gomez can return second-round value when he is 100 percent, but it will be hard for Gonzalez to do the same if he isn’t stealing bases anymore.
Adam Jones had a down year in 2015, but he sure looks like a bargain in the early going. Jason Heyward gets knocked as being overrated in fantasy, but is being drafted slightly below what he earned last year. The risk factor increases once you get past the fifth round of 15-team drafts. Billy Hamilton, Matt Kemp, Corey Dickerson, and Yasiel Puig all could be bargains in deep mixed, but all of them have a lower floor than the players profiled above, which is why they’re not being taken earlier.
The League Breakout
Between leagues, it was nearly a dead heat among the elite and near-elite outfielders last year. Eighteen NL outfielders earned $20 or more in only formats compared to 17 in AL-only. Pollock was the new leader in the clubhouse, earning $40 on the nose, while Cain at $35 edged out Trout by decimals in the speed-starved AL.
The big drop off in speed pushed a number of outfielders like Billy Burns, Kevin Pillar, Betts, and Brett Gardner into the top 25 overall. Not a single outfielder in the AL cracked the 20/20 barrier last year, making it more difficult to avoid purchasing players who only contribute in two or three categories. Michael Brantley could be a bargain if his recovery timetable takes an aggressive path, while Kevin Pillar offers the opportunity for a bargain but a good deal of risk as well.
If the top of the AL outfield pool looks soft compared to previous years, there is a wide array of choices among outfielders who earned $10-19 in 2015. However, there isn’t much more room for growth with players like Kevin Kiermaier or—on the other end of the age spectrum—Carlos Beltran. Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera are the kind of plays you can try to make if you’re looking for bargains, but you will still have to pay more than what they earned last year.
Pollock and Harper were the big superstars among NL outfielders last year, but Blackmon and Cespedes (if you include his AL stats) weren’t that far behind. Nearly half of the best hitters in the NL were outfielders, as 19 of the top 40 players were outfield-eligible. There is more power to be had at the top at the heap in the NL, so if you’re skittish on spending $25-plus on a player whose value mostly derives from speed, you don’t need to worry nearly as much about getting stuck in NL-only as you would in the AL.
There weren’t performance breakouts in the NL last year as much as there were players like Braun and Gonzalez bouncing back a great deal and Jason Heyward using his wheels to push past $25 for the second time in his career and the first time since 2012. There are some promising growth candidates who earned $20-24 in 2015. David Peralta could shoot up to $30 if he gets a full season of at bats and can maintain most of his batting average while Christian Yelich is in that nice post-hype sweet spot. Gregory Polanco is going to be on so many lazy people’s sleeper lists that it is going to make you scream.
Below this group is a meaty chunk of players who will produce some bargains simply because there are so many choices and differences of opinion. Jay Bruce can’t drop any lower and earned $17 in a down year. While I’m not a big fan of Gerardo Parra’s acquisition in real life, the Coors bump is legit. Don’t discount Parra because he isn’t a real life stud.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
The same advice applies every year. In standard mixed leagues, don’t push too hard for value after you pick up two outfielders. There is a much bigger drop between the fifth best shortstop and the 13th–best shortstop in 12-team mixed leagues than there is between the 31st-best outfielder and the 61st. Nothing feels worse than watching your opponent get Curtis Granderson while you get stuck with Marcus Semien. In 15-team leagues, while you shouldn’t ignore scarcity entirely it is a far different proposition. Unless you pick three outfielders in the first 5-6 rounds, you can simply play the value game across the board.
The Long-Term Outlook
If you guessed that outfield was a young position, you guessed correctly. Of the 126 position players who were 25 and under and played 20 or more games at a position, 44 of them (or 35 percent) were outfielders. It is tempting to write off players coming off of disappointing seasons like Joc Pederson, Marcell Ozuna, or Avisail Garcia, but players at this point in the age curve still can develop or bounce back. This isn’t to say that any of these players definitely will do so, but the broad base of skills in the outfield make this a good place to bet on a resurgence or return to career norms.
In terms of youth, Byron Buxton is the lone top outfield prospect who is projected to start 2016 in the majors, but there are a number of top outfield prospects who could be joining him in the big leagues. Nomar Mazara, Manuel Margot, and Lewis Brinson could all make their debuts at some point this year (although 2017 may be a more realistic target), but in keeper and dynasty leagues the long term prospects of players like Aaron Judge, Austin Meadows, Bradley Zimmer, and Nick Williams will give fantasy managers many happy dreams.
Barring a seismic change in the way the game is played, outfield will always be a cornerstone of value for our fantasy teams. Players like Harper and Trout are most likely generational superstars, but of the 30 outfielders currently on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects list, many of them are likely to produce $20 or more of value at some point in their careers.
A Closing Haiku
Never should override the
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