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The –Only League Landscape for National League outfielders will be split into two parts. This is the first of the two. In this article, I will focus on the deeper end of the pool: the expensive players, the reliable double-digit earners, and the potential values among the well-known players. In Part 2, which will be published tomorrow, I will focus on the less-expensive players, the players to target in the endgame, and the prospects who could make an impact this year.

Outfield might not be the most profitable position in the National League, but it certainly provides the most stats and takes the biggest chunk of the offensive budget. That isn’t just a product of the fact that standard roto teams have five outfielders compared to two catchers and 1.5 players at each infield position, either. (In case that 1.5 figure in the last sentence was confusing, note that on a standard roster, the Corner Infield (CI) position must be occupied by someone eligible at either 1B or 3B and the Middle Infield position (MI) must be occupied by someone eligible at either 2B or SS. That means 3 CI and 3 MI, or 1.5 players for each of the four infield positions.)

Going into the season, outfielders were responsible for six of the ten highest hitter salaries across expert league NL-only auctions. At the end of the season, five of the top ten hitters in NL-only leagues by earnings were outfielders. The outfield is where you’re going to spend a lot of your budget and the outfield is where you’ll find a huge chunk of your production.

First, let’s take a look at the top 15 outfielders in NL-only going into the 2015 season by salary. The three numeric fields are defined as follows:

  • Avg. Salary – the average salary paid in NL-only expert league auctions including CBS, Tout Wars, and LABR
  • Earnings – the value earned by these players in NL-only leagues using my BP colleague Mike Gianella’s valuations
  • Profit/Loss – the difference between Avg. Salary and Earnings for each player (a negative number indicates a loss while positive numbers are profits)

Table 1: Top 15 NL Outfielders by Avg. Salary, 2015

Rank

Player

Avg Salary

Earnings

Profit/Loss

1

Andrew McCutchen

39

29

-11

2

Giancarlo Stanton

37

18

-19

3

Carlos Gomez

34

11

-23

4

Starling Marte

30

31

1

5

Ryan Braun

29

31

1

6

Yasiel Puig

29

9

-21

7

Bryce Harper

28

39

11

8

Justin Upton

27

25

-3

9

Billy Hamilton

27

22

-5

10

Carlos Gonzalez

26

27

1

11

Matt Kemp

26

25

-1

12

Corey Dickerson

26

10

-16

13

Jason Heyward

24

26

1

14

Christian Yelich

24

20

-5

15

Jay Bruce

24

17

-6

As you can see, the three most-expensive outfielders in terms of salary earned significantly less than their owners paid for them. Andrew McCutchen’s knee didn’t land him on the DL but it did keep him from stealing as many bases as expected. His production in the other four standard roto categories, however, was right in line with his career numbers. By all accounts, Cutch is completely healthy going into spring training this year and could very well reclaim his spot as the game’s most reliable five-category contributor.

Giancarlo Stanton missed more than half the season due to a broken hamate bone. This is nothing new for him, unfortunately, as Stanton has missed at least 39 games in four of his six seasons in the big leagues. That’s the risk proposition with TMGS, and it’s significant. Everything else, though, points to Stanton as a four-category beast in roto. Despite missing more than half of the 2015 season, he managed to hit 27 HR, which would constitute a great season for several of the outfielders in this tier. He’s entering his age-26 season, so there is still room for growth, as hard as that might be to believe given his established level of excellence. The time that Stanton missed in 2015 and the impact of that lost time on his 2015 line might drive his price down on auction day enough to make him a potential source of profit. However, if someone in your league expects Stanton to play 150-plus games and is willing to pay for that kind of playing time, let them have him and look for profit elsewhere.

Carlos Gomez was slowed by injury before being traded out of the NL and into a pennant race with the Astros. Another player on this list who posted a double-digit loss in 2015 was Corey Dickerson, who only played 65 games for the Rockies due to plantar fasciitis. Like Gomez, Dickerson will be playing in the American League this year. After signing Gerardo Parra in January, Colorado decided to alleviate their outfield glut by moving Dickerson to the Rays for closer Jake McGee and a minor leaguer. Barring midsummer trades returning them to the senior circuit, neither will be relevant in NL-only leagues this year.

The fifth and final player on that list of the most expensive NL-only outfielders to post a double-digit loss in 2015 was Yasiel Puig. Like Gomez, Dickerson, and Stanton, Puig missed more than half the season. Puig also showed some deterioration in terms of his skills when he did play. Compared to 2014, his walk rate decreased from 10.5 percent to 8.4 percent and his strikeout rate increased from 19.4 percent to 21.2 percent. Consequently, his TAv decreased from .322 to .286. In the rate stats that matter for roto, his AVG decreased from .296 to .255 while his OBP decreased from .382 to .322. It’s impossible to unpack how much of that across-the-board decrease in performance is attributable to the lingering effects of his recurring hamstring problems and how much is attributable to his decline in BABIP from .356 to .296.

Puig’s attitude and personality might be problems, too, according to Twitter psychologists and curmudgeonly columnists. I don’t know enough about Puig (or psychology) to speculate on those issues or how they might impact his numbers with the Dodgers. What matters here for roto players is the open secret that these concerns are shared by some people within the Dodgers organization. That makes Puig more of a trade risk than most 25-year-olds with multiple years of cost-certainty at below-market salary. If players in your league do not continue to accumulate stats if they are traded to the other league, make sure to build this into your bid limit for Puig by knocking a dollar or two off his price tag.

Enough negativity. Let’s talk about the top-earning outfielders in the NL in 2015.

Table 2: Top 15 NL Outfielders by Earnings, 2015

Rank

Player

Earnings

Avg Salary

Profit/Loss

1

A.J. Pollock

40

19

21

2

Bryce Harper

39

28

11

3

Charlie Blackmon

34

22

12

4

Starling Marte

31

30

1

5

Ryan Braun

31

29

1

6

Andrew McCutchen

29

39

-11

7

Carlos Gonzalez

27

26

1

8

Jason Heyward

26

24

1

9

Justin Upton

25

27

-3

10

Matt Kemp

25

26

-1

11

David Peralta

24

9

15

12

Curtis Granderson

23

15

8

13

Ender Inciarte

23

5

18

14

Billy Hamilton

22

27

-5

15

Gregory Polanco

21

21

0

2015 was the kind of season that seemingly everyone has been predicting for Bryce Harper since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2009 at age 16. His talent is so immense that people seem almost disappointed that he didn’t win his first MVP award until age 22, his fourth season in the major leagues.

Harper was a four-category monster in roto, earning $39 according to Mike Gianella’s valuations in NL-only 5×5. His previous high in earnings had been $24, set back in his rookie season. Considering that he went for $30 or more in most standard NL-only leagues in each of the last three seasons, 2015 was also the first season since Harper’s rookie year that he broke even or earned a modest profit for his roto owners.

Still, Harper wasn’t the top earner in the NL last year among hitters. That distinction belongs to A.J. Pollock and his production across all five categories. Most roto owners, though, won’t be paying as much for Pollock as they will for Harper, and neither should you. To state the obvious, Harper should be the outfielder with the highest bid limit on your sheet going into your NL-only auction. He earned that pedigree, and his monstrous 2015 season was much less of a surprise than Pollock’s monstrous 2015 season.

That doesn’t mean you should do whatever it takes to get Harper in your auction, though. Outfield is a deep position in the National League, so there’s no need to chase the guy with the biggest number on your sheet past your bid limit. If the bidding for Harper stops at or below your sheet price, take him and enjoy the production. If someone else in your league gets him at or above your sheet price, let him go with no worries.

There are plenty of stats to buy in the OF, which means there is less reason to chase anyone past your bid limits in the outfield in NL-only leagues than there is at any other position. If you go past your bid limit for Harper, he would have to exceed his gargantuan 2015 numbers for you to break even. With a position this deep, you should be looking to profit on the players you buy, not just break even. Outfield is the spot in NL-only leagues for you to be an emotionless robot. Don’t have any favorites, don’t chase anyone past their bid limit. Let the market on auction day tell you what your outfield will look like. Chasing Harper or Pollock or McCutchen $2 or $3 past their bid limits will force you to settle for an $18 player instead of a $21 player later in the auction, or will prevent you from being able to use an extra dollar or two as a hammer at the end of the auction to take your pick of the $1-3 players who don’t have to do much to turn a handsome profit.

Speaking of profits, here are the 15 most-profitable outfielders in NL-only leagues in 2015:

Table 3: Top 15 NL Outfielders by Profit, 2015

Rank

Player

Profit/Loss

Earnings

Avg Salary

1

A.J. Pollock

21

40

19

2

Ender Inciarte

18

23

5

3

Cameron Maybin

18

20

2

4

David Peralta

15

24

9

5

Gerardo Parra

15

17

3

6

Randal Grichuk

14

14

1

7

Andre Ethier

13

16

3

8

Charlie Blackmon

12

34

22

9

Michael Taylor

12

14

1

10

Bryce Harper

11

39

28

11

Gregor Blanco

11

14

3

12

Chris Coghlan

10

15

5

13

Curtis Granderson

8

23

15

14

Nick Markakis

8

16

8

15

Will Venable

7

10

2

Of course the aforementioned A.J. Pollock and his stellar 2015 season top this list. A lot of NL-only league winners owe their titles to Pollock and the profit he delivered. David Peralta crafted his own version of the Rudy story with himself in the starring role, if Rudy was actually as good as the other D1 players and better than a lot of them. Cameron Maybin is back in the American League this year with the team that drafted him, the Detroit Tigers. Andre Ethier and Michael Taylor don’t have much in common as players, but neither is expected to have an everyday role in 2016. Neither will Chris Coghlan, although he has a couple of factors working in his favor. First, Joe Maddon is known for playing his reserves frequently. Second, two of the Cubs three starting outfielders have had injury issues in the past, especially Jorge Soler.

Curtis Granderson had an excellent bounce-back season for the surprise Mets. Despite suffering from an injury to a ligament in his left thumb in the NLCS against the Cubs, Granderson is expected to be completely healthy in spring training. Nick Markakis went at a discount going into the 2015 season due to concerns about his recovery from neck fusion surgery the previous season. He stayed healthy and managed to play in 156 games for the Braves in 2015, posting solid numbers in three categories, although with only three home runs and only two stolen bases. His newly acquired teammate in Atlanta, Ender Inciarte, was one of the biggest breakout roto stars in 2015, earning $23 after going for an average salary of $5. Yes, he’s moving from a friendly hitters’ park in Arizona to a neutral one in Atlanta, but that should be offset by the fact that he won’t have much competition for playing time with the rebuilding resetting Braves.

Two Rockies appear here, Charlie Blackmon and Gerardo Parra. Blackmon doesn’t have the name recognition that most $30-plus earners enjoy, so he might be available at a bit of a discount in your auction. That definitely won’t happen, though, if you’re in a league with either Mike Gianella or Bret Sayre, since their love for Blackmon knows no bounds. Parra will have a clear shot at an everyday role for a full season and he’ll have that shot in the best possible park for a hitter. Of course, everyone else in your league knows all of that, so he probably won’t be much of a profit center in 2016.

Part 2 of the NL-Only Landscape, Outfield Edition will be published tomorrow. It will cover the shallower end of the pool where the stats are smaller, the swings more volatile, and the profits are more likely to be found.