Michael Conforto, New York Mets
The 2016 season started about as good as a season could start for Conforto. Through the first month, he was hitting .365/.442/.676 with a .311 ISO. He was ready to take the crown as the next “guy” in New York. The 2016 season ended about as badly as a season could end for Conforto.
After posting video game numbers more reminiscent of Cecil Fielder from Sega’s Sportstalk Baseball (still my favorite baseball video game of all time, don’t @ me) in the season’s early days, Conforto cratered, hitting .167 (.597 OPS) the rest of the way. The remaining days were sprinkled with a wrist injury, two separate Triple-A demotions, and a role as the team’s fifth outfielder down the stretch. To say it was a slight fall from grace would be akin to saying the Falcons were mildly disappointed with their fourth quarter performance in the Super Bowl.
Despite the finish to the season, there is reason for optimism for Conforto’s long term future. During his time in Vegas last summer, he proved without much doubt that he was overly qualified for the level, hitting .422/.483/.727, and striking out in only 12.6 percent of his 143 plate appearances. Much has been made about Conforto’s terrible big league numbers against lefties, (and they are terrible: .129/.191/.145 in 34 PA), with many wondering whether he’s just a strong-side platoon bat. Well I’m not so sure that’s the case either. As a minor leaguer, Conforto actually raked against lefties to a tune of .327/.404/.510. Yes, it’s much weaker competition, but the numbers at least provide a glimmer of hope that if given the opportunity, he could produce something better than his previous marks.
As of now, the Mets’ outfield once again seems pretty crowded, but things typically have a way of working themselves out. The rumored reluctance to move Conforto in any trade talks is hopefully a sign that at least the front office has him penciled into the team’s future plans. Sure, he doesn’t have much to prove in Triple-A, but with some aging veteran outfielders coming off the books after the 2017 season, the 23-year-old Conforto should reclaim his spot as the team’s non-Cespedes hitter. –Mark Barry
Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
I still believe. Most of the shine is off the former number one prospect in baseball after he posted a .209/.250/.326 line in the majors in 2015 followed by a .225/.284/.430 line in the majors in 2016. He still has all the tools that made him a top prospect, though. He’s fantastic defensively, which should keep him in the lineup during slumps. He can still run, too, and looks like a lock for 20+ stolen bases in a full season in an environment where steals have become more valuable and harder to find.
A conservative projection for Buxton would peg him for a .220-ish batting average with 20+ stolen bases and 12-15 home runs this coming year. There’s a ton of upside there, however, as he showed real development in 2016, especially in the power department as he boosted his ISO from .117 in 2015 to .205 in 2016. It’s not the most likely outcome, but it’s not hard to see Buxton posting numbers in the neighborhood of a .250 average with 22-25 home runs and 30+ stolen bases. And that’s just for 2017.
In the long term, the 23-year-old is one of very few players offering a genuine power/speed combination. It looks like it might take him longer to get there than we thought it would a few years ago, and there’s still some legitimate doubt about whether he’ll actually get there. Still, given his age and potential as a five-category fantasy contributor, I still like Buxton as a long-term play for his ceiling and the fact that he could be available for a relatively low price after disappointing prospect chasers in roto leagues each of the last two seasons. —Scooter Hotz
Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox
In a dynasty format where we look at the long term rather than just 2017, there aren't many better, not-yet-established outfielders to have on your roster than Andrew Benintendi. Benintendi looks like he has a chance to compete for batting titles someday if everything goes right. Our BP prospect team, who had a lot of eyes on him in person in the Eastern League, evaluated Benintendi's future hit tool as potentially 70-grade, which translates to roughly a .300 batting average year to year.
Benintendi more than held his own in limited time against major-league pitching last year. In 120 PA, Benintendi hit .295/.359/.476 with a .181 ISO, 8.5% walk rate, and 21% strikeout rate. His 7.4% swinging strike rate was excellent, well below the major league average swinging strike rate of 10.1%. That doesn't mean it will continue, but it's an impressive first step.
Benintendi profiles as a potential no. 2-hole hitter. In fact, there is already talk early out of Red Sox camp that Benintendi might hit second in the lineup as early as this year, at least against right handed pitchers. That would put him either directly behind or in front of MVP candidate Mookie Betts, who will also be a staple in Boston's lineup for years to come. Benintendi is also in a great run scoring park and division. 108 of his games every year will be played in either Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Rogers Centre or Camden Yards.
Benintendi has a chance to be a .300 hitter with 15 HR, 10-15 SB, tons of doubles, and lots of runs scored for the foreseeable future. He’s one of the best targets for me at the position in a dynasty format. —Tim Finnegan
Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
Forget the name you just read. If you can’t do that, forget the off the field narratives that dominate the reporting. I couldn’t care less that a utility infielder dressed him down for showing up late, or that he posted a video of himself dancing on a party bus in Des Moines. He’s going to play in a full-time role regardless of the noise. Players with this much talent on teams with championship aspirations usually do.
When Puig has been on the field, he’s been an above-average offensive player. Yes, he missed significant time in each of the past two seasons with hamstring injuries and yes, his TAv has trended steadily downward since his electric 2013 debut. Puig still ended up with a .274 mark in 2016, a year in which you’d guess he was considerably worse based on the tone of the coverage. For some context, that .274 was tied with Jose Ramirez, a tick better than Jackie Bradley, a tick worse than Andrew McCutchen, two worse than Gregory Polanco, and so on. Puig was fine, and it bears repeating that was his worst performance to date.
2017 will be Puig’s age-26 season and he still has the physical tools to impact all five categories. Show me another player with this low an acquisition cost who you can describe that way. The current asking price doesn’t demand much more than competence. Even the worst version of Puig we’ve seen to date gave us that, and he has upside for much, much more. —Greg Wellemeyer
Nomar Mazara, Texas Rangers
As legendary college basketball coach John Wooden once wrote, “the only pressure that amounts to a hill of beans is the pressure you put on yourself.” It’s a hyperbolic phrase, but it’s one that perfectly encapsulates Mazara’s general demeanor on and off the field. Regardless of the moment or situation at the plate, he appears to be immune to pressure. While he wasn’t an immediate fantasy superstar last season, “The Big Chill” was the youngest everyday player in the major leagues, and became just the 13th hitter since 1998 to eclipse the 20-home run plateau prior to his 22nd birthday.
The six-foot-four specimen possesses one of the smoothest left-handed swings you’re going to see this millennium, and wasn’t completely overmatched in his first exposure to big-league pitching, hitting .266/.320/.419 with 59 runs scored, 36 extra-base hits, and 64 RBI. Long-term, it’s easy to envision the 22-year-old Mazara blossoming as an elite four-category fantasy contributor capable of challenging for a .300 average with 25-30 home run power in Texas for the next decade. No pressure, right?
Let’s be honest, Mazara’s immediate fantasy upside is extremely limited for several obvious reasons. For starters, he’s not a fast runner and doesn’t steal bases. That’s never going to change. He also possesses a clear deficiency versus left-handed pitching. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but after hitting just .234/.277/.270 against southpaws last year, he’s likely to be limited to a platoon role for the moment. If he can solve those issues against left-handers, which isn’t completely out of the question, then there is an everyday role in his future. Even if he’s only a righty-masher, it’s an appetizing high-floor fantasy profile in Arlington. —George Bissell