Previous articles in this series:
We, at Baseball Prospectus, have been talking about outfielders for a while now (over a week and change to be exact, depending on when you are reading this) and the party continues to rage on. Yet before we rage, we shall calibrate—since rankings aren’t useful without knowing what you’re reading. The list you are about to read here presupposes a 16-team standard (read: 5×5 roto) dynasty format, in which there are no contracts/salaries, players can be kept forever, and owners have minor-league farm systems in which to hoard prospects. So feel free to adjust this as necessary for your individual league, whether it’s moving non-elite prospects without 2016 ETAs down if you don’t have separate farm teams or moving lower-risk, lower-reward players up in deeper mixed or -only formats.
Outfield is once again a bastion of fantasy goodness towards the top, with high-end player after high-end player occupying the start of this list. And while it doesn’t reach a point of oversaturation, the continued usability of players as we even move towards triple-digits here does reinforce the depth at the position (which is second to only first base). The other fun part is that there’s no shortage of divisive players—whether they are for categorical or consistency reasons. Slotting those players in here makes for a challenge, along with finding the right place for the top group of non-elite prospects at the position. We’ve talked about how fantasy prospects as a whole are down and it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that only two prospect-eligible players made the top-30 at this position. And with the youth in that group, don’t expect that to change any time soon.
So let’s start by not overthinking the highest perch of this list:
1) Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
What else is there to say about Trout at this point? He has black ink on his Baseball Reference page in every fantasy category except batting average and he just happens to be a career .303 hitter to boot. The speed would have to be completely gone in order for me to justify a change at the top here, and I do not think that’s the case.
2) Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Of course, if there were to be a change at the top it would be to promote Harper to the perch. And frankly, you could convince me that the change should be made in OBP/SLG leagues—where Harper’s value ticks up. That said, comparing Harper to Trout diminishes what Harper is doing and he looks locked in as a .300 hitter with 40 bombs a year. Given that he’s only 23, this could last a while.
3) Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
4) Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
Putting anyone at third on this list is a little unfair given the epic dynasty league value of the first two names here, but someone has to go there. Betts will play the entire season at 23 and contributes everywhere, so even if I don’t think he’ll be a consistent 20-homer player at any point in his career, he’s a great bet to be either a first- or second-round pick in fantasy drafts for the next half-dozen years. McCutchen was his typical incredible self after overcoming an early-season knee injury in 2015, and while I’d absolutely want him over Betts in 2016, the six-year age gap is just a little to wide to cross. Especially with the questions about just how many bases McCutchen can steal over the next couple of years. (This ranking presupposes that his days of stealing 20-plus are likely over.)
5) Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
With 458 games played in the last four seasons, Stanton has missed more than an entire season of playing time in that span. Without the injury questions, he’d have been a clear no. 3 on this list. As is, despite the fact that I think he’s the most likely player on this entire list to hit 50 homers in a season, the health issues win out and keep him pressed here.
6) A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks
7) George Springer, Houston Astros
8) Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
This is the five-category stud grouping. Pollock just had one of the best non-Harper/Trout fantasy seasons from an outfielder in the last half-decade and given that this didn’t come out of nowhere, he remains a good bet to be very impactful during his prime, especially with Chase Field helping to prop up his power numbers. Springer took a key step forward in 2015, shrinking his strikeout rate from 33 to 24 percent and the stolen base ability from the minors began to show up. If he can stay healthy, he’s a strong candidate for a 25/25 season and his batting average may no longer be an issue. We just don’t know how healthy he can stay yet. Finally, Marte is like Pollock but without the ability to get on base at a similar clip. That will affect his runs scored, which is why he checks in at third in this tier, but despite having some real plate discipline issues, the overshadowed Pirate can continue to hit his way to OF1 production until those wheels start to slow down.
9) J.D. Martinez, Detroit Tigers
The funny thing is that now Houston actually does have outfield depth for days. Surely they’d still like to have back the slugger they let get away though, as Martinez continued to show doubters that he’s here to stay with dinger after dinger in 2015. The batting average from 2014 was never real, but it didn’t have to be. Honestly, he’s probably not even a .280 hitter, but 35-homer bats don’t grow on trees and Martinez is sitting in the middle of his prime.
10) Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers
Just four days younger than his new teammate and fellow right-handed slugger, Upton has had a career that only seems disappointing when you compare it to the impossibly high expectations from his early days in Arizona. He’s instead morphed into a consistently strong fantasy performer without elite potential. The move to the American League may take some adjusting (and hopefully free agent flopping doesn’t run in his family), but rostering Upton locks in baseline OF2 production as well as almost any name in this top 15.
11) Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
12) Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies
13) Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
14) Carlos Gomez, Houston Astros
14.5) Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
15) Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals
16) Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
Further proof that it’s good to be a five-category contributor. However, unlike the names that make up the Pollock/Springer/Marte tier above, there’s something holding each of these players back from the top-10. The most obvious is Buxton, who has the potential to crash the Betts/McCutchen group and just has not shown it at the major league level yet. Though with a starting job in hand for 2016, this looks like the year he will. Heyward and Puig both have the talent to do the same, but they’ve each underperformed expectations more often than met them. Heyward showed what he’s capable of in 2012, when he hit 27 homers and stole 21 bases, but he hasn’t topped 14 homers since. The power will eventually come, but there’s a chance it will be too late to pair with the 20-steal speed. Blackmon and Gomez both derive most of their value from their speed, but Gomez just turned 30 and Blackmon will follow this summer—which means their useful lives are getting smaller by the day. Blackmon has more current value, but he also has more long-term risk, as a trade out of Colorado could reduce him to an OF3. Then there’s Cain, who also turns 30 this season and has never played more than 140 games in a season. However, his contact ability makes him the best bet of this bunch to hit over .300 going forward. There are questions as to whether the power is real, but it’s real enough for him to hit 12-15 over the next few years. Also, hello Chris Davis and that glorious power. Nice to see you finally getting the recognition you deserve.
17) Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
Maybe it just feels like Bautista is ageless. There comes a point in all of these rankings where a player cements himself in front of much younger players with potential just because he’s that good now. Grabbing 24-year-old hitters who could be really good is a great idea, but grabbing a top-10 outfielder that can impact you right now is a better one. After all, Flags Fly Forever.
18) Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
19) Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
This is a weird duo here because one did exactly what was expected of him and is dropping on lists because of it, and the other did something completely different (but better) than what was expected of him and he’s holding steady. Gonzalez was brutal in April and May, but then hit .292 with 36 homers and 84 RBI after June 1st. No big deal. His days of being a five-category contributor are long gone, but he’s only 30 and was not the Rockies outfielder traded this off-season. Of course, if he were guaranteed to be in Colorado for another 3-4 years, he’d be higher on this list. Jones, on the other hand, had some injury issues in 2015, but when he was on the field, did precisely Adam Jones things—from his power to his contact rate to his “walk” rate. Is it just me or does every outfielder feel like they’re either 30 right now or about to turn 30?
20) Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds
You think I’d be tired of talking about Hamilton at this point, yet if you could see the texts flying back and forth between Mike Gianella and myself, you’d know that not to be true. There may not be a more divisive fantasy player right now than Hamilton, and for good reason. He’s an awful hitter. I’m certainly not here to argue that point. However, his speed is as elite as elite gets in the game today and his defense will continue to keep him in the lineup in Cincinnati (well, that and the fact that they don’t have anyone better). With a floor of 50 steals, there’s only so far down a list like this you can go. And considering the improvement he made on the basepaths last year, the 80-90 steal ceiling is still there, even if he can just get on base at a 30 percent clip. He can be our Vince Coleman in a low-SB environment.
Speaking of early-20s hitter, who could be really good, here’s a nice clump here (well, mostly). Yelich is a good fantasy outfielder right now, but you can’t legally mention him without saying that if he could start hitting more balls in the air, he’d be a high-end fantasy outfielder. Polanco is pretty much the exact same thing, but his lack of power is more due to the fact that he is still adding strength and figuring out how to let it play in game. Conforto was impressive in his debut last year, but it was just 174 at bats, and we’ve learned plenty of lessons based on small sample sizes. That said, he’s looking more and more like a solid OF3 who can hit for a little average and 20-homer power. Conforto’s teammate (yay!) sits in the middle of this group like an outlier, yet Cespedes has the power to continue his OF2 performance during the next few seasons—and he’s been more consistent than many give him credit for.
25) Nomar Mazara, Texas Rangers
The final member of the first portion of the list is the youngest. Mazara still won’t be able to legally drink until a month into the 2016 season and spent all of last year in the upper minors. With Josh Hamilton as a perpetual question mark in left field for the Rangers, there’s a good chance Mazara forces his way to the majors at some point this year, and he carries the potential to hit near .300 with 25-30 homers in time.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the final 100 names on this list (and shorter blurbs, thankfully).