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Previously On Baseball Prospectus…

For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

The Big Question: How do we strike the correct balance between upside and stability?

No position group in fantasy baseball is more synonymous with the term “upside” than outfielders. The phrase entered the fantasy lexicon as a proxy to succinctly explain why a player might outperform his previous level of performance and it’s become an ingrained term for years now. Balancing potential upside and realistic floors is essential, if for no other reason, because there are only a handful of “sure things” at the position and an ocean of possibilities.

The five star tier of Baseball Prospectus tiered staff rankings features just five names. Mike Trout is the undisputed, unassailable, top overall selection in fantasy baseball this season. Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon and Starling Marte follow him as legitimate first or early second round picks.

The four star tier is 16 players deep, but the potential range of outcomes is even more expansive. For the purposes of this column, I’ll break them up into three unique pools of talent.

The Veterans (We’ve seen do it before): Ryan Braun, Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, J.D. Martinez, Ian Desmond, and Matt Kemp

The Young Popes: Kyle Schwarber, Christian Yelich, Gregory Polanco, and George Springer

The Volatile Ones: Giancarlo Stanton, A.J. Pollock, Justin Upton, and Billy Hamilton

I’ll be the first to concede that these groups are not perfect. They’re arbitrary, subject to my biases and preconceived notions. A prominent example of this is Upton. He’s the antithesis of volatile if you evaluate him on a per-year basis. The 29-year-old has mashed at least 25 taters in four straight seasons, but it’s his maddening inconsistency on a daily basis in-season that puts him in that group for me. While the vast majority of these outfielders going in the early rounds are safe investments, there are several like Stanton, Pollock, and Hamilton that personify the divide between upside and stability. Assuming no lingering long-term effects from previous injury, if Stanton and Pollock stay healthy, they have the potential to return first-round value. If Hamilton’s strong second half at the plate carries over into 2017, and he stays relatively healthy, he could threaten for 70-plus steals over a full-season.

Figuring out how to appropriately value those elite fantasy options and their range of outcomes is a massive challenge. I don’t have the answer. Aside from making a realistic projection and valuation in an auction or determining where you would be comfortable selecting them in a snake draft, there isn’t anything else fantasy owners can control. We haven’t even talked about the three or two star tiers yet, which are comprised of 46 names total. Granted, there is risk at every position in fantasy baseball, but it’s amplified in the outfield due to the increased range of options and outcomes. That’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s the truth.

Mixed League Strategy

Frankly, I’m not even sure where to start with this one. We’ve already covered some of the volatility and risk at the position, even among the consensus top 20-to-25 outfielders in BP’s staff ranks. Before we cobble together a sensible strategic approach, I think it’s important to look at the overall landscape of the position from a purely statistical perspective.

There’s compelling evidence that the league-wide uptick in home runs has impacted production in the outfield as well over the last two seasons. While production hasn’t quite fully rebounded to the levels we were accustomed to seeing five years ago, the only statistic that has seen dramatic fluctuation is home runs.

Major-league outfield positional splits, 2012-2016

Source: Baseball-Reference

Year

PA

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

2016

61,960

7,696

1,850

6,717

1,206

.259

.327

.422

.749

2015

61,819

7,504

1,732

6,504

1,297

.262

.327

.421

.747

2014

62,119

7,201

1,422

6,167

1,473

.261

.324

.402

.726

2013

62,630

7,520

1,665

6,446

1,454

.262

.326

.415

.741

2012

62,505

7,838

1,827

6,844

1,653

.263

.328

.428

.756

We’ve extensively covered the offensive renaissance on the infield dirt and the newfound depth at those positions, especially the middle infield spots, throughout this entire series. That shift means that fantasy owners can now afford to wait until the later rounds to address one (or more) of those positions, and still end up with a quality starter. Implementing that same strategic approach in the outfield becomes much more complicated, simply because there is far more risk associated with the lower tier talent. Shoring up at the bare minimum, one (or even two) spots in the first five or six rounds of a 15-team mixed league is essential.

We can gloss over the names in the lower tiers and talk about several options with the potential to provide massive “upside.” We’re going to discuss one of them in a moment. The problem with relying on several high ceiling/low floor types to produce is that it can be catastrophic if several go belly up. Eschewing upside in favor of stability isn’t a bad decision in the middle to late rounds, but you never want to draft a mixed-league roster utterly devoid of high-ceiling potential.

The Breakout Candidate: Keon Broxton, Brewers

I’m warning you right now. Whatever you do, please ignore Broxton’s batting average. His propensity to strikeout at a near 40 percent (36.2 percent, to be exact) clip makes him a major liability. Seriously, he posted a .373 BABIP last season, yet managed to hit only .242 in 244 major-league plate appearances. His contact skills, or rather lack thereof, are a clear deficiency that limits his potential ceiling. However, the power and speed combination platter that Broxton brings to the table makes him an intriguing fantasy proposition. The 27-year-old will be given an extended opportunity with regular at-bats in Milwaukee and a permanent green light on the bases, which led directly to 23 steals in just 75 games last season.

There’s a realistic scenario in which Broxton fails to make enough contact to survive against major-league pitching. That’s one potential outcome. However, the raw talent to hit double-digit home runs and steal 40-plus bases over a full season is there. If he puts it all together, he will easily exceed the 13th round investment on draft day. If you’re electing to roll the dice on pure unfiltered upside speculation, why not go big? There are plenty of safe, yet unspectacular, insurance policies available later on.

Long-Term Forecast

Of the top 21 names in the five- and four-star tiers at the position in BP’s consensus rankings, only eight have celebrated their 30th birthday. The volume of young talent concentrated in the upper echelon of the position is striking, especially considering that Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Nelson Cruz are the only ones over the age of 32. Before we profile the extensive list of prospects at the position, let’s not forget about several young, up-and-coming outfielders that are no longer prospect-eligible, yet have the potential to break into the top tiers in the next few seasons like Odubel Herrera, Nomar Mazara, Byron Buxton, Joc Pederson, Stephen Piscotty, Marcell Ozuna, or even Max Kepler.

There are two intriguing headlining prospects at the moment in Andrew Benintendi and David Dahl. Not only do they possess immense long-term value in dynasty leagues, but they are also poised to make an immediate impact this season. The dynamic duo graded out in the middle of the three star tier of our consensus staff rankings, just outside of the top 30 at the position overall. If you’re looking for a potential five-category power/speed combo superstar at some point in the near future, these two certainly fit the bill.

The seventh overall selection in the 2015 draft, Benintendi completed his rapid ascent to the major leagues, skipping Triple-A entirely, in a little over a year. The 22-year-old former Razorback proved that he belonged, hitting .295/.359/.476 with a pair of home runs and a stolen base in 118 plate appearances during the regular season. He was arguably the Red Sox best hitter during their brief playoff stint, going three-for-nine with a home run off Trevor Bauer in the series.

Over the past few days, my BP colleague Mike Gianella and I have had more discussions about Benintendi’s ceiling and floor (in a re-draft format) than a replacement-level interior designer. I’m optimistic that Benintendi’s stellar hit tool and approach at the plate will enable him to hit in the .280-to-.300 range while challenging for double-digit home runs and stolen bases. It’s entirely fair to wonder if those are realistic expectations for 2017. I’m expecting a lively debate on the subject in this week’s Flags Fly Forever podcast.

After racking up ungodly statistics (.314/.394/.596 with 18 home runs and 17 steals) in 92 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Dahl exploded onto the Rocky Mountain scene in August, hitting .315/.359/.500 with 23 extra-base hits (seven home runs) and five steals in just 237 plate appearances. Long-term, there are very few outfielders I would rather invest in than Dahl. However, the logjam of veteran talent in the Colorado outfield puts an everyday role in 2017 at risk. Talent usually wins out in these situations, but even if he beats out Gerardo Para for the starting job, he’s still going to lose some playing time. We haven’t even brought up the fact that the 22-year-old struck out in a quarter of his major-league plate appearances last season. Those contact issues expose fantasy owners to additional risk when selecting him in the sixth or seventh round of 15-team standard mixed leagues. Projecting Dahl for double-digit home runs and steals right out of the gate isn’t unrealistic, but there’s also some risk that he struggles initially, loses playing time to Parra (or even Desmond) and ends up back in Triple-A. Don’t blindly ignore the risk.

We haven’t even discussed the “elder statesmen” at the position like Jose Bautista, Hunter Pence, Adam Jones, Carlos Gomez, Dexter Fowler, Carlos Beltran and Alex Gordon that still have some mixed-league relevance for the next few seasons.

Finally, there is no bigger question mark than Michael Brantley. The 29-year-old has established himself as a surefire fantasy stud prior to offseason shoulder surgery that ended up sidelining him for virtually the entire 2016 campaign. I’m not going to speculate on his future value until we see how he looks in spring training, but we know the talent is there. It’s simply a matter of health. Over the last three seasons, Brantley is one of just four outfielders to record a .300 batting average while hitting 20 home runs and stealing 20 bases.

Prospect Pulse

A trio of impact prospects for 2017…

Austin Meadows, Pirates

A consensus top-10 prospect industry-wide, Meadows will begin the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, but it may be only a matter of time before the 22-year-old forces his way into the Pirates lineup. He’s suffered a number of bizarre (some would even call unlucky) injuries, most notably an orbital fracture and a strained hamstring last year. However, he hit an impressive .266/.333/.536 with 48 extra-base hits (12 home runs) and 17 stolen bases in just 308 at-bats last season. He’s a five-category contributor that could arrive on the major-league scene at any point in 2017. If you’re stashing one prospect in a re-draft league, it should be Meadows.

Manuel Margot, Padres

The Padres possess a plethora of outfield options, but the most enticing long-term solution in centerfield is Margot. Acquired in the Craig Kimbrel trade from Boston last offseason, the 22-year-old earned a September cup of coffee in San Diego after hitting .304/.351/.426 with 39 extra-base hits (six home runs) and 30 steals in 566 plate appearances at Triple-A. The stolen bases give him immediate fantasy value, but fantasy owners should be prepared for some batting-average fluctuation and playing-time risk early on in his career.

Raimel Tapia, Rockies

The Rockies outfield is more crowded than your local Whole Foods on a Sunday morning, but Tapia deserves an everyday opportunity. While there are legitimate questions about his power, the 23-year-old possesses an almost extraterrestrial ability to make contact, barreling pretty much everything within an area code of the plate. A lifetime .317 hitter across six seasons, Tapia hit .328/.361/.458 with eight home runs and 23 steals (he was also caught stealing an absurd 17 times) between Double-A and Triple-A before making his major-league debut last September. It remains to be seen whether his preternatural contact skills hold up against big-league pitching, but if it does, he will be a valuable fantasy commodity that could realistically challenge for a batting title in Coors.

Additional 2017 impact lineouts…

An adept righty-masher, Andrew Toles will garner enough platoon at-bats for the Dodgers to be useful in deeper formats with daily lineup changes…Fantasy owners looking for a boost in steals should keep Roman Quinn (five steals in 15 games for Philadelphia last September) on their radar… Mitch Haniger will get an everyday opportunity in Seattle to prove that last year’s production in Arizona wasn’t a desert mirage… Aaron Judge and Hunter Renfroe will have to overcome major contact issues against major-league pitching to make a fantasy impact, but there is no denying their tremendous raw power… Clint Frazier, Nick Williams, Bradley Zimmer, and Lewis Brinson still have wrinkles to iron out at Triple-A to begin the upcoming season, but are extremely close if the opportunity arises…

Names to know for the future…

Victor Robles, Nationals

If I had to put a considerable amount of jellybeans on a single player to emerge as the undisputed top one prospect in the game by the end of the upcoming season, it would be Robles. He’s still a hyperspace jump or two from the major leagues at this point, but the 20-year-old profiles as an everyday center fielder defensively with the potential to produce across five-categories at the plate. There’s a reason why the Nationals refused to part with him in trade negotiations this offseason. As Kanye West once said, “Damn, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”

Eloy Jimenez, Cubs

The Stanton comparisons are unfair to saddle Jimenez with, but it’s entirely possible that the 20-year-old increased his long-term fantasy stock more than any other prospect in the game with his performance last season, hitting .329/.369/.532 with a Midwest League-leading 40 doubles and 14 home runs in 464 plate appearances. He also stole the show at the Futures Game in San Diego, belting a mammoth dinger and making a circus catch in right field. The intoxicating combination of his massive frame, tremendous strength, and sheer athleticism will enable Jimenez to force his way into Chicago’s lineup someday in the future.

Additional top prospects on the horizon to know right now: Ronald Acuna, Kyle Tucker, Alex Verdugo, Tyler O’Neil, Corey Ray, Kyle Lewis, Mickey Moniak

The Final Stats

The One About Power…

Nelson Cruz is the only major-league outfielder to eclispse the 40-home-run plateau more than once in the last five seasons… He turns 37 years old in July and is currently being drafted in the third round (43rd overall) on average in 2017 NFBC drafts

The One About Speed…

Over the past five seasons, Starling Marte, Rajai Davis, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ben Revere are the lone outfielders to record 20-plus stolen bases in a single-season four times… Jarrod Dyson is the only one to accomplish the feat every year during that span… Billy Hamilton and Mike Trout have both done it three times… Trout is also one of just seven hitters to blast 20-plus home runs every season over the same period… The other six: Nelson Cruz, Jose Bautista, Yoenis Cespedes, Adam Jones, and Andrew McCutchen.