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There is profit to be had in AL-only outfields, but not as much as you would think if you only played in mixed league formats. In 2015, outfielders purchased in AL-only auctions cost $783 and earned $811. Profit or loss aside, outfield is where a big chunk of your value is going to come from in AL-only. Seventeen of the 42 players who earned $20 or more in 2015 were outfielders, which is consistent with 2014, when 38 players earned $20 or more and 17 of them were outfielders. Justin Upton is the big import from the National League, while Ben Revere’s short lived tenure in Toronto came to an end this winter. More than at any other position, it is worth leaving at least one slot open in the endgame. Twenty-one AL outfielders cost $3 or less last year; they earned $125 combined and returned a $99 profit to their fantasy squads.

Last year’s top three AL outfielders were as diverse a group in terms of expectations as you could get. Lorenzo Cain, Mike Trout, and Nelson Cruz led the way, with both Cain and Trout putting up $35 seasons while Cruz lagged slightly behind at $32. Only Trout is being treated like an elite player in NFBC drafts, going as the #1 overall pick. Cruz is being drafted 45th overall, while Cain is sliding all the way back to 52nd. To be sure, Trout is by far the safest bet of the trio, but the built in discounts for Cruz’s age and Cain’s speed do seem fairly excessive.

As great as Trout has already been, 2015 marked the first season in his career that he led the AL in SLG (.590) and OPS (.991). He is the only hitter in baseball (minimum 500 plate appearances) with a .280 BA, .370 OBP, and a .550 SLG or higher in each of the last three seasons. Since his first full season in 2012, Trout has earned a combined $161 in AL-only. While Trout is a great player in both real life and fantasy, his fall off in stolen bases the last few years is worth watching, and a reason why it may be worth exercising caution when the bidding passes $40. There are certainly other outfielders you can make a case for besides Cain as no. 2, but even if you believe last year’s power was a fluke, Cain hit .301 or higher and stole 28 bases for the second year in a row. With a clean bill of health for two consecutive seasons, Cain has finally been able to show all that he is capable of on the field. Cruz is another player whose perceived health issues have kept his value down in fantasy but he has now played 152 games or more in three of the last four seasons. It is impossible to put down any hitter as a lock for 40 home runs, but Cruz seems like a terrific bet to at least match his age (35) in dingers this season.

As fun as it is to look back at last year’s best outfielders, sometimes it is more instructive to take a look at back at the players we believed were going to be the best at their position entering the 2015 campaign and assess our expectations versus the results.

Table 1: 15 Most Expensive AL Outfielders, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Salary

+/-

1

Mike Trout

$35

45

-10

2

Jose Bautista

$29

34

-5

3

Jacoby Ellsbury

$18

31

-14

4

George Springer

$20

29

-9

5

Michael Brantley

$28

29

-1

6

Hanley Ramirez (SS)

$15

29

-14

7

Adam Jones

$21

28

-7

8

Yoenis Cespedes

$19

24

-5

9

Kole Calhoun

$20

23

-3

10

Leonys Martin

$8

22

-14

11

Mookie Betts

$31

22

9

12

Nelson Cruz

$32

22

10

13

J.D. Martinez

$29

21

8

14

Alex Gordon

$12

20

-8

15 (tie)

Rusney Castillo

$7

20

-13

Shin-Soo Choo

$23

20

3

Brett Gardner

$25

20

5

Alex Rios

$10

20

-10

Average

$26

21

-4

The valuations in the table above (and throughout this article) are for “standard” 5×5 Rotisserie format fantasy leagues and can be found here. Average salaries are from the expert CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars AL-only auctions from 2015.

It’s easy to focus on the fact that the 18 most expensive outfielders lost their fantasy managers money in 2015. However, it is more instructive to note that their average earnings were the same as Mike Moustakas’, who was the 38th best hitter in the American League. This makes missing on a hitter like Jacoby Ellsbury all the more painful. Ellsbury is often painted as a complete flop, but the more accurate assessment is that he is hit or miss. Ellsbury earned $65 in 2013-2014, making his $31 price tag in 2015 seem reasonable. What is worrisome about his 2015 is that Ellsbury’s earnings per plate appearance dropped significantly from 2013-2014 to 2015. Ellsbury’s current ADP of 98 could make him a significant bargain on Auction Day, but he obviously has to both stay on the field and produce at his 2013-2014 levels of performance when he is healthy. He is right behind Adam Eaton in ADP, and while Eaton did have the better season last year, Ellsbury has a much higher ceiling based on past performance. There is a significant gap in ADP between Eaton and Ellsbury and the next highest rung of AL outfielders in Upton, Carlos Gomez, and Jones. Translating ADP into AL auction dollars, Ellsbury is probably going to get paid in the low $20s this year while Jones, Upton, and Gomez all go in the high $20s. Jones, Gomez, and Ellsbury can all earn $30 or more, but Ellsbury is going to come at a potential discount

Hanley Ramirez loses his shortstop eligibility this year and will be outfield only in drafts until he builds up eligibility at first base. His year-to-year trajectory has been so bizarre that it is impossible to try and attempt and guess what he will do this year. Ramirez has averaged a mere 106 games per season since 2013. If Ramirez could be as productive as he was during his 2013 campaign, we would gladly bid $25-30 and take the risk on half a season’s worth of stats (Ramirez earned $26 that year in 336 plate appearances). The best case for Ramirez feels like 130 games with 20-25 home runs and a .260-.270 batting average. I prefer gambling on Hanley’s upside in a mixed league where the replacement-level talent is better.

Jones had his worst season in fantasy since 2010. The perception is that he tailed off significantly, but at bat for at bat most of Jones’ numbers were fairly consistent. Nagging shoulder, neck, and back injuries kept Jones off of the field for 25 games and possibly diminished his performance when he was on the field. It’s likely that there is another solid, 160-game season of $28-32 earnings looming, but the injuries are enough to at least knock Jones down a couple of bucks.

If there is a player on Table 1 who has the potential to break out and enter the $35+ stratosphere, it is Springer. Springer’s monster season in the minors in 2013, when he hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases, still tantalizes many who believe that he could be that modern-day unicorn: the 30/30 player. The best news about Springer is that his strikeout rate dropped almost nine percent last year while his walk rate held steady. Springer’s .342 BABIP could be an anomaly, but given how hard he hits the ball, how strong his BABIP rates were in the minors, and how much speed is a factor in his game when he is healthy, it is more likely that 2014’s .294 BABIP was the outlier. Health will be a big factor in determining if Springer can or will make the leap this year into fantasy superstardom in 2016. He missed slightly over two months with a fractured right wrist, costing him 60 games. Springer’s ISO took a plunge but it is possible some of this had to do with some lost power immediately upon his return. If the power comes back completely in 2016, that 30/30 unicorn might rear its majestic head in Houston.

How much overlap was there in 2015 with the most expensive outfielders versus the best ones?

Table 2: Top 15 AL Outfielders, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Salary

+/-

1

Lorenzo Cain

$35

15

20

2

Mike Trout

$35

45

-10

3

Nelson Cruz

$32

22

10

4

Mookie Betts

$31

22

9

5

Jose Bautista

$29

34

-5

6

J.D. Martinez

$29

21

8

7

Michael Brantley

$28

29

-1

8

Adam Eaton

$27

18

9

9

Kevin Pillar

$26

1

26

10

Billy Burns

$25

11

Brett Gardner

$25

20

5

12

Shin-Soo Choo

$23

20

3

13

Josh Reddick

$22

10

11

14

Adam Jones

$21

28

-7

15

Delino Deshields

$20

0

20

Average

$27

20

7

Whether you believe this chart proves that you can get a top outfielder on the cheap or that you have to pay for one likely depends upon your perspective. Burns, Deshields, and Pillar were the big bargains and all three of them had a sizeable chunk of their fantasy value tied up in steals. The days of getting 40-50 steals for a dollar or from the free agent pool are gone, but because there are fewer steals overall, the impact of 25-30 steals is far more significant than it used to be. Burns was such a big surprise that not a single expert believed he was worth even a mere dollar in CBS, LABR, or Tout Wars AL-only. Burns’ route to playing time was blocked entering 2015, but it is still surprising that no one gambled on him as a source of bench speed. Fantasy owners understandably worry about speed-only players but Burns’ sky high infield hit rate (fourth in the majors) and high groundball rate make him less volatile than his NL counterpart Billy Hamilton is (even if the stolen base ceiling isn’t nearly as high). Delino Deshields’ infield-hit rate isn’t quite as good as Burns’, but Deshields is less of a slap hitter overall and likely to provide value with more than just his legs.

Bautista and Pillar make for one of the more unlikely pairings in Table 2. The established superstar and the unlikely late bloomer were the only pair of AL-only outfielders to earn $25 or more for the same big league team. Bautista is much more of an asset in OBP leagues, but he is still a near-elite option in AVG leagues. Only Bautista, Cruz, Trout, and Jose Altuve earned $29 or more in both 2014 and 2015 in AL-only. If you can stomach the batting average hit, Bautista is a near lock for 35 home runs, 100 runs, and 100 RBI. His age is a bit of a concern, but Toronto’s strong lineup will boost Bautista’s run and RBI potential. Pillar’s bat is slightly below average in real life, but his defense is going to keep him in the lineup and his speed and a moderate amount of power limits Pillar’s floor. Pillar doesn’t walk a lot, but as long as he can keep his contact rate as good as it was last year, he should at least be a 10/20 guy. Mookie Betts may have seemed like a reach to some in 2015 drafts, but all the Red Sox outfielder did in his sophomore season was produce, coming close to delivering on a 20/20 season while putting up a $31 in fantasy earnings. Betts’ power seemed to come out of nowhere, but his 42 percent flyball rate plays into the idea that he could be a consistent 20-25 home run force. Counteracting Betts’ batted-ball profile, is the presence of The Green Monster, which is likely to suppress Betts’ flyball rate, particularly as Betts played way more as a pull hitter in 2015 than he did during his rookie campaign.

Justin Upton (mentioned above) and Corey Dickerson are the imports from the NL with the most potential value in AL-only leagues, assuming Khris Davis loses playing time to right-handed pitchers in Oakland. Where Upton is a slightly undervalued asset in mixed leagues, he is typically a par player in mono formats, losing three dollars on his investment in 2015 and breaking even in 2014. Part of what you are paying for with Upton is in the plate appearances column, as he has played 149 games and garnered 620 plate appearances or more in every season since 2011. Because Upton is arguably the biggest name on the hitting side to come over from the NL, it is possible that AL-only owners may have to pay a luxury tax for his reputation. Upton has been incredibly consistent the last four years, earning $26, $24, $27, and $25 since 2012, but it is difficult to justify pushing him to $30 given the abundance of options available at auction. Dickerson takes a valuation hit after getting traded from the friendly confines of Coors to Tropicana Field, but a greater concern for Dickerson is the plantar fasciitis that limited him to 65 games and 234 plate appearances last year. Even if Dickerson can play 130-140 games, he didn’t run in 2015 and it is fairly likely that the Rays won’t give him the green light this year either. If you are considering purchasing Dickerson, make sure to closely monitor his health in spring training. He has never played more than 131 games in a season and betting on more than that this year is probably a mistake. As far as the Coors factor goes, it is difficult to overstate Dickerson’s career .695 OPS on the road. Less publicized than this are Dickerson’s poor career numbers against left-handed pitching. In addition to Davis, other NL imports include Nori Aoki and Cameron Maybin. Aoki should provide cheap steals and a .285 AVG. Maybin could be at least as valuable as Dickerson in 2016 if the playing time works out in his favor, but he has always been a very high risk proposition.

If you are rebuilding or in a redraft league on the lookout for rookies or second-year players, Byron Buxton, Hyun-Soo Kim, Rusney Castillo, or Preston Tucker all could fit the bill. On talent alone, Buxton is the player you want: a 22-year-old future stud who has the potential to be a perennial All-Star if everything breaks right. In the short term Buxton could be risky, as manager Paul Molitor has suggested that Buxton isn’t a lock to start 2016 in the Opening Day lineup. This does make some sense, as Buxton was underwhelming in his first taste of the majors and looked overmatched more often than not. Kim is a 28-year-old Korean import who is slated to lead off for the Orioles. Baseball Prospectus profiled Kim as a “poor man’s Nick Markakis” upon his signing. Castillo was highly touted entering 2015 but his results did not come close to matching expectations. Tucker is likely to start the year in a platoon, but his 13 home runs in 98 games suggest solid AL-only value unless you play in an OBP league. If you do play in a redraft league, Tucker is the most likely bargain of these four, as his current ADP is incredibly low. Buxton’s ADP of 168 puts him ahead of more established commodities like Alex Gordon, Mark Trumbo, Josh Reddick, and Melky Cabrera. Yes, Buxton’s ceiling is higher than all of these players’ ceilings are but then so is the risk.

One of the nicest things about outfield compared to other positions is that you don’t have to spend $30 or more and feel like you are missing out. Brantley, Eaton, Calhoun, Choo, Gardner, and Gordon all have the potential to earn $20-25 but because of the glut at the position probably will cost on the low end of this spectrum and perhaps even lower. Gordon is coming at a fairly deep discount thanks in part to a truncated season that saw him miss 58 games, but at bat for at bat his numbers in 2015 were comparable to what he did in 2012 and 2014 minus a few stolen bases. Gordon and Calhoun are similar players, yet Calhoun is being drafted 69 slots ahead of Gordon in NFBC drafts. Gordon earned $23 and $22 in 2014 and 2013 and even without the steals projects out to earnings in the upper teens if healthy. Even Choo, who looks like a bargain at the moment, isn’t projected to be as much of a potential bargain as Gordon. Trumbo finds himself back in a hitters’ park after about two-thirds of a season in purgatory at Safeco. After years of being overrated, Trumbo has entered the portion of his career where he is being discounted based on previous expectations. A 25-30 home run season is possible in the cozy confines of Camden Yards and while the average will never be great, Trumbo probably won’t crack $15-17 in AL auctions and could actually be a slight bargain.

In OBP leagues, the biggest gainers last year were Bautista ($9), Trout ($6), Choo ($5), Gordon ($4), Springer ($3), Gardner ($3), Upton ($3), Steven Souza ($3), and Brandon Guyer ($3). The biggest losers in the category were Eddie Rosario (-$4), Pillar (-$4), Cabrera (-$3), Kevin Kiermaier (-$3), Jones (-$3), and Burns (-$3).

Outfield is so rich and deep that it would be impossible to cover every single AL outfielder in this space. This is the position where you hope to fill your fifth outfield slot with a gem in the rough. Players like Anthony Gose (earned $18, cost four dollars), Jake Marisnick ($16/$3), Aaron Hicks ($14/$1), Kiermaier ($18/$6), David Murphy ($11/$0), and Chris Young ($11/$1), all cost under seven dollars and turned double-digit profits for their fantasy teams. The section below is an attempt to search for this year’s version of these 2015 gems in the rough. The players profiled below are for deep leagues, and will primarily be purchased in AL-only leagues or drafted very late in deeper mixed leagues.

Dalton Pompey, Blue Jays ($3)
In Baseball Prospectus’ 2015 Futures Guide, Pompey was ranked as the seventh best prospect in baseball for 2015 value only, one slot ahead of Noah Syndergaard. In retrospect, the jump across four levels in 2014 all the way to the majors was too much for Pompey. It’s a cliché, but the gap between minor and major league pitching is a chasm. For all of the refinement Pompey made to his swing, he still got the bat knocked out of his hands before being demoted, first to Triple-A in May then to Double-A in June. The Blue Jays worked again with Pompey to get him back where he was in 2014, and the fleet outfielder slashed .327/.414/.414 in 193 plate appearances after he was promoted back to Triple-A. Pompey is likely to start 2016 in the minors, but Michael Saunders shouldn’t be considered a significant roadblock. The 10/30 potential lurks.

Anthony Gose, Tigers ($18)
Based strictly off of Gose’s 2015 earnings, he doesn’t belong in the AL-only bargain bin. However, the acquisition of Maybin clouds Gose’s role and at a minimum puts him into a straight platoon with Maybin. The good news for AL-only owners is that Gose’s speed and defense (ignore the metrics; scouts have been raving about Gose’s athleticism for years) should give him plenty of opportunities to steal bases and provide low-end AL-only value. If Maybin’s presence pushes Gose’s price into single digits, it only increases Gose’s odds of turning into a bargain, regardless of his role.

Jake Marisnick/Preston Tucker, Astros ($16/$7)
In 2013, Marisnick tantalized fantasy players with a ridiculously great half a season in Double-A that made it seem that his tools were going to jump out of the box and come to life, just they do in that incredibly creepy cartoon, Handy Manny. Two and a half years later, Marisnick looks more like a fourth outfielder/platoon bat than a starter. Marisnick is a source for cheap speed if nothing else and his jump in ISO last year could boost his power and push him to double-digit value again quite easily. The other side of this potential platoon is Tucker, who was briefly profiled above. Tucker’s prodigious minor league power translated fairly well to the big leagues, even if the batting average did not. All 13 of Tucker’s major-league home runs came against right-handers, so if he is pressed into full-time duty, a 25-30 home-run campaign cannot be assumed.

Nomar Mazara, Rangers (minors)
Talent finds a way. This is the mantra in fantasy with players like Mazara, whose minor league numbers aren’t eye popping but whose talent suggests an elite fantasy player somewhere down the road. Bret Sayre suggests a range of long-term outcomes between Justin Upton without the steals and Jay Bruce. That’s well and good if you play in dynasty leagues and can hang onto Mazara forever. In redraft and more traditional keeper leagues with a contract clock, it is tougher to justify paying a high price for a 21-year-old whose 2015 minor league numbers “only” translate to $19 of AL-only fantasy value. Like everyone else, I love Mazara in the long term but a .240 batting average with 10-15 home run power if he does make it up this year shouldn’t shock anyone.

Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners ($10)
After losing all of the 2014 season to ankylosing spondylitis—an inflammatory disease that can cause vertebrae to fuse together—it’s a wonder that Gutierrez could even take the field in 2015. However, this was not a case of an injured player barely holding his own on the diamond. Gutierrez’s 15 home runs and .327 ISO put him right between Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper. Of course, this was in 189 plate appearances, and that’s the rub. A full, healthy season of Gutierrez would be tantalizing even without the steals but he probably…

(blue smoke appears. Five men dressed in 1970s period clothing materialize, carrying musical instruments).

What are you doing in my article? What’s going on here? You’re going to…sing a song? Um, OK…

Guti was slick in the field
But the injuries wouldn’t yield
Danger, danger when you keep missing time
It cuts into your fantasy appeal.
Hey man, a lot wrong with that.
Signature season, 2009
Wish Guti did that all the time
But when you bid double digits on Guti
It’s a misdemeanor fantasy crime.
Guti Guti Guti, Guti Guti Guti
Guti Guti Guti. Guti Guti we’re gonna cry.

Mikie Mahtook, Rays ($8)
While we’re on the subject of unexpected prodigious power displays, Mahtook exploded in a brief, 115 plate appearance cup of coffee, putting up a .324 ISO and socking nine home runs. Most of this production came in September, as the LSU product (you have to mention that Mahtook went to LSU when you write about him, it’s the law) hit six home runs in 73 PA with a .353/.397/.706 slash line. There is usually good reason to be skeptical of September performances that are out of line with career norms, but the competition in Tampa’s outfield isn’t stiff. Mahtook should get another opportunity in 2016, and even if the only thing he has in common with Mickey Mantle is an alliterative name, Mahtook could still be a fairly productive player.

Aaron Judge, Yankees (minor leagues)
Mazara is the superior prospect to Judge, and the guy you should place your bets on in keeper leagues, but if you’re looking for a 2016 flier only Judge is probably a better gamble. Judge stumbled somewhat in Triple-A after a midseason promotion but after another half season there he could be ready to man an outfield spot for the Yankees. Judge’s massive 6-foot-7 frame may lead to a large strike zone and adjustment problems initially but the power will play, especially at Yankees Stadium, and the ancient lineup in front of him will put Judge on the big stage sooner rather than later.

Michael Saunders, Blue Jays ($0)
Judging by their respective ADP, NFBC drafters believe a lot more in Pompey this year than they do in Saunders, but it is possible that it is Saunders who gets the Opening Day nod in left field for the Blue Jays. A series of setbacks from a torn meniscus in Saunders’ knee limited him to a mere 69 plate appearances in 2015, but a full offseason of rest and recovery means that he should be ready to go on Opening Day. It is risky to assume that the speed will return, and without that speed Saunders profiles as a fourth outfielder on AL-only squads at best even if he is playing every day.

Chris Young, Red Sox ($11)
In real life, Young has limited value as a pinch hitter, part-time outfielder/DH, and wrong side of the platoon player. In AL-only, finding hitters like this to plug into your fifth outfield/DH slot are great, especially since it is likely that Young won’t cost more than a buck or two but could easily earn $8-10, especially if Boston commits to limiting his at bats against righties. One thing to keep in mind is that the speed that was once part of Young’s game is gone; in this way at least he is no longer Young.

Abraham Almonte, Indians ($8)
Almonte is the kind of player who prospect mavens and shallow league fantasy players alike scoff at: a middling non-prospect who is likely stretched as a regular and is at best a placeholder for the next batch of stud prospects. But Almonte is the kind of hitter who could sneakily provide 5-10 home runs and 15-20 steals in an unsettled outfield where there is uncertainly due to Brantley’s injury. Don’t chase Almonte’s upside, but don’t ignore him entirely either.

Oswaldo Arcia, Twins ($2)
Coming off a season he entered with high expectations (including some idiot who said that Arcia could win a home run title), Arcia got off to a slow start, suffered a hip flexor strain, and never made it back to the majors after his hip healed and his rehab assignment was up in June. Arcia has some holes in his game, but he is also a 24-year-old who mashed 20 home runs in 410 plate appearances in 2014. He is not assured of anything, but Eddie Rosario should not be considered an insurmountable roadblock. Arcia will probably be a reserve pick, even in AL-only, and at that nominal cost is certainly worth a flier.