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2014 Position Preview: Outfielders

2/20/2014 - MLB

On the surface, the outfield looks like a vast ocean filled with every type of player and skill set a successful fantasy roster requires. And in a sense, that's true. There are obviously more outfielders than players at any other position, so it's no surprise that there's so much talent to mine here. However, comparing outfield to any other position isn't exactly fair. In a standard 10-team league, a team is required to start only one first baseman, for instance, but must start five outfielders. This is why that "vast ocean" we referenced earlier is, in reality, more like a lake or pond.

Because so many outfielders are drafted in each league, it's a good idea to come away with at least two in the first seven or eight rounds. There are enough potential upside and value plays that it's OK to wait on some of them, but it can be risky to avoid the position for too long on draft day. Consider that Jon Jay, who batted .276 with just seven home runs and 67 RBIs last year, was a borderline starting outfielder in 10-team leagues, according to the ESPN Player Rater. Of course, there's nothing wrong with having a guy like that on your roster, but if you have too many low-production, low-upside types, you're going to be at a disadvantage at the position.

So the outfield isn't as deep as you thought. That's OK. While the outfield boasts plenty of sluggers and speedsters, it's the plethora of players who are both that make the position stand out. Nine players went 20/20 in 2013, and all but one came from the outfield (shortstop Ian Desmond was the lone outlier). And of the 41 players who reached double-digits in both homers and steals last season, 30 were outfielders. So if you're looking to put together a balanced roster on draft day (which is what most rotisserie players aim to do), loading up on these power/speed combo types is a great way to build a strong foundation.

Cream of the crop

Widely regarded as the No. 1 player in fantasy baseball, Mike Trout has undoubtedly earned that designation, establishing himself as the best all-around player in baseball at the age of 22. In his first two big league seasons, Trout's lows are a .323 batting average with 27 homers, 83 RBIs, 33 steals and 109 runs. And despite his home runs and steals dropping a bit last year, he actually improved at the plate, as his walk rate jumped from 10.5 percent to 15.4 percent and he cut down on his strikeouts, as well. In short, Trout is the best player in fantasy baseball right now, and he's still trending up.

The 2013 National League MVP, Andrew McCutchen is a perennially elite option in the outfield and is one of the safest overall bets in fantasy. He's played at least 154 games for four straight seasons, has gone 20/20 in three consecutive campaigns and has been a top-three fantasy outfielder the past two years. At age 27, McCutchen is still in his prime, so there's no reason to expect a drop-off in production anytime soon. In fact, there's possibly still more upside here. A 30/30 campaign, perhaps? Maybe a batting title? Bid confidently.

Carlos Gonzalez's talent makes him elite. The problem is that he's sometimes unreliable, as he's missed a combined 114 games over the past three seasons, including 52 in 2013 due to a sprained right middle finger. Amazingly, he still clubbed 26 dingers and stole 21 bases (his fourth straight 20/20 campaign) and finished as a top-12 outfielder despite missing a third of the season, which speaks to his monster upside. That monster upside is why he's drafted as a first-round pick year after year. Only once has CarGo played in at least 140 games (2010). But in that one season, he batted .336 with 34 homers, 117 RBIs, 26 steals and 111 runs and was the No. 1 overall player in fantasy.

Next best thing

Injuries limited Jacoby Ellsbury to just 74 games in 2012, but he returned to form last season, batting .298 with 52 stolen bases (his most since 2009) and a top-seven overall finish on the Player Rater. The unfortunate part is that he still missed nearly a month's worth of action due to multiple injuries. Had he stayed healthy, how high would he have finished? Top five? Top three? We know by now that Ellsbury's 32 homers in 2011 were an outlier (he's never hit more than nine in any other season), but moving to Yankee Stadium, which greatly aids left-handed power, could push him back into double digits again. That, combined with his elite speed and across-the-board production, makes him a good bet to finish in the top 10 yet again, even if he misses time.

The odds of Adam Jones erupting and finishing 2014 as a top-three or even top-five player are slim. But that's OK, because he's still a darn good fantasy outfielder who offers five-category production with relatively low risk. And those types of players are very hard to find. The 29-year-old Jones has hit between .280 and .287 in each of the past four seasons and has belted 25 or more homers with 12 or more stolen bases each of the past three. Sometimes it's a little more fun to shoot for the stars and roster the high-risk, high-upside guy (Yasiel Puig, anyone?), but a sure thing like Jones is often the better investment.

After hitting 19 homers with 37 steals in 2012, Carlos Gomez answered with 24 bombs and 40 swipes in 2013. He was the only player in baseball to go 20/40. Last year's .284 batting average could regress, as his subpar 74.1 percent contact rate is trending the wrong way and he benefited from a .344 BABIP, but that's more an annoyance than something that significantly drags down his value. Plus, the fact that his walk rate skyrocketed from 4.4 percent in the first half to 9.2 percent in the second is a good sign. It's taken a few years for things to finally click for Gomez, but now he offers one of the best power/speed combinations in fantasy.

Ryan Braun enters this season as one of fantasy's most divisive players following last year's 65-game PED suspension. According to early draft data, Braun's ADP is ranging from a top-five pick to the middle of the third round. As it stands now, we simply don't know how much PEDs affected Braun's past production. We also don't know how much his diminished power last season was the result of the right-thumb injury that forced him to the DL in mid-June. While those factors deserve consideration on draft day, it's also worth reminding that Braun was the No. 3 overall player in fantasy in 2011 and was No. 2 overall in 2012, going 30/30 with at least a .319 batting average in both. Don't ignore the risk, but don't ignore the massive upside, either.

Where's the ceiling?

Bryce Harper's sophomore season was ultimately a disappointment, as multiple injuries, including a knee issue that required offseason surgery, held him to just 118 games. That said, while his counting stats fell across the board, he actually took a step forward in his development in 2013, as his walk rate improved, his whiff rate declined and he swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone. With a full season of health in 2014, Harper should flirt with 20/20 and finish as a top-10 fantasy outfielder. And while he's not there quite yet, don't be surprised if he's garnering attention as a potential top-three overall pick in the next couple of years.

Snapshot

Position rankings: Roto | Points
Midround sleepers:
B.J. Upton, Christian Yelich
Late-round sleepers:
Adam Eaton, Norichika Aoki
Prospects: Oscar Taveras, George Springer
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Yasiel Puig
Player to trade at All-Star break: Carlos Beltran
Player to trade for at ASB: Jayson Werth
Home heroes: Michael Cuddyer, Jose Bautista
Road warriors: Marlon Byrd, Chris Carter
Player I inexplicably like: Desmond Jennings
Player I inexplicably dislike: Nelson Cruz

It's impossible to deny Puig's upside. In just 104 games, the 23-year-old batted .319/.391/.534 -- all numbers that would've ranked in the top 12 in baseball had he qualified -- with 19 homers and 11 stolen bases. Given a full season, it's easy to envision 20/20 potential -- or perhaps even 30/30 potential -- with a high average and loads of RBIs and runs. On the other hand, we're still talking about an awfully small sample size. Puig benefited from an absurdly high .472 BABIP and 28.6 HR/FB in the first half. His 75 percent contact rate is below average and not indicative of a .300 hitter, and the fact that he was just 11-for-19 (58 percent) on stolen base attempts could limit his opportunities going forward. In short, this is the type of risk/reward player who could help decide fantasy leagues in 2014.

Fantasy owners who stashed Wil Myers away on draft day were eventually rewarded, as he made an immediate impact once the Rays called him up in June, hitting .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers and 53 RBIs in 88 games. He even swiped a handful of bases for good measure. Myers' best tool is his power, and that could materialize as 25 to 30 home runs in his first full season (he belted 37 dingers between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012, and 27 homers between Triple-A and the majors last year). There is some batting average risk, as his .362 BABIP was likely a bit luck-driven, but the fact that he boosted his 5.4 percent first-half walk rate to 10.3 percent after the break is encouraging. Myers isn't a fantasy star yet, but he looks to be on his way.

Big things were expected for Jason Heyward last year after he went 20/20 and finished as a top-10 outfielder in 2012. Unfortunately, injuries got the best of the young slugger, as he underwent an emergency appendectomy in May, missed time with a hamstring injury in July and later missed a month of action after suffering a broken jaw. Still just 24 years old, Heyward remains a player who could soon make the jump into the elite at the outfield position. He retains that 20/20 potential we saw two years ago, and his improving plate discipline (his walk rate went from 8.9 percent in 2012 to 10.9 percent in 2013, and his whiff rate dropped from 23.3 percent to 16.6 percent) suggests the rest of the package is starting to come together.

Billy Hamilton has only one tool that really endears him to fantasy owners. But, my goodness, is it an amazing tool. Other-worldly, even. Of course, we're talking about Hamilton's jets. He twice stole 100-plus bases in the minors, including a mind-blowing 155 steals between High-A and Double-A in 2012, and he swiped 89 last season in 136 games between Triple-A and spot duty with the Reds. Will he get on base enough in the big leagues to use that speed? That's the question. Hamilton, who's in line to replace the departed Shin-Soo Choo as the Reds' starting center fielder, is a career .256 hitter in the minors and could struggle to consistently hit big league pitching, which could eventually lead to diminished playing time or possibly even a demotion back to the minors. That said, as we saw last year, even a part-time Hamilton can steal enough bases to have value. And if he hits well enough to play every day all season long? Then 70 steals would be his floor, not his ceiling.

Where's the basement?

There's still plenty to like about Jose Bautista. He posted a career-best 84.5 percent contact rate last year despite hitting just .259, and would've topped 30 homers the past two years had he stayed healthy. But fantasy owners should at least realize there's some increased risk here going forward. Bautista has now missed 119 games the past two seasons combined. That's worrisome for any player, but especially one nearing his mid-30s. At 33, Bautista is still playing at a high level, but the skills will likely start declining soon, so don't go overboard on draft day.

On one hand, Josh Hamilton will be pretty cheap on draft day compared to past seasons, so taking a shot on him after last season's tumble -- .250/.307/.432 with 21 homers and 73 RBIs -- might pay off. On the other hand, there are still warning signs here. Hamilton turns 33 in May, and some of his skills are in decline. Last year's 24.8 percent strikeout rate remains a concern, and the fact his absurdly high 25.6 percent HR/FB rate from 2012 regressed all the way to 12.7 percent last year as he went from Rangers Ballpark to Angels Stadium shouldn't have been unexpected. Hamilton did show some improvement as last year went on, even batting .323 in September, but this is no longer an elite skill set. It's OK to bet on a minor rebound, but at this point, the former MVP is looking more like a complementary player than someone who can help carry your team.

Curtis Granderson is entering his age-33 season, and it's fair to wonder whether 2013 was the beginning of the downfall. Yes, injuries deserve most of the blame for his poor season that consisted of only 61 games, but caution is warranted even if he stays fully healthy in 2014. Granderson's 69.5 percent contact rate last year -- which would've ranked bottom-10 in baseball had he qualified -- was a career worst and continued a year-by-year downward trend that started back in 2010, so it's hard to project a batting average north of .230. Plus, moving from Yankee Stadium to Citi Field, where the right- and right-center-field fences are significantly deeper, won't help his power numbers. Granderson might still have some productive years left, but don't project a return to his pinstripe production.

Carl Crawford played just 31 games in 2012 and underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in late August of that year, so the fact that he even managed to be ready for Opening Day 2013 was an accomplishment. He played well for the most part (.283-6-31 with 15 steals in 116 games), but he wasn't the same guy we saw back in his days with Tampa Bay. His power production has fallen off, and he no longer showcases the speed that once made him an annual 50-steal threat. Crawford turns 33 this year, and, including the time he missed last year with back and hamstring issues, he's missed a combined 209 games over the past three seasons. When healthy, Crawford can still be a nice player who scores some runs and swipes some bases, but hoping for a return to his elite days is wishful thinking.

By all accounts, B.J. Upton's first season in Atlanta was a disaster, as he batted just .184/.268/.289 in 126 games. From an offensive perspective, he was arguably the worst full-time player in baseball last year when healthy. We could simply write him off again, as last year's 33.9 percent strikeout rate is almost laughable, as is the fact that nearly 20 percent of his batted balls were infield pop-ups. But at 29, Upton should still be close to his prime, and he's just one year removed from nearly going 30/30 with the Rays. We've seen Upton's floor, and it's a dreadful, dreadful place. We can't know for sure that it won't happen again, which is why he's in this section. Then again, there's plenty of rebound potential here for what should be a heavily discounted price.

Steady as he goes

If you want year-to-year consistency, Matt Holliday is your guy. Since signing with the Cardinals in 2010, he's averaged a .301 batting clip with 25 dingers and 94 RBIs per season. During that time, he's finished worse than 13th on the Player Rater among outfielders only once (in 2011 when he played just 124 games), and three times he's finished eighth or better. At 34, there is some risk of decline, but we've yet to see any evidence of that. His skills are still strong, and he showed no sign of slowing down in the second half last year, hitting .348/.442/.552 with nine homers and 47 RBIs in 58 games.

Hunter Pence offers similar consistency as Holliday. The Giants outfielder has hit between 22 and 27 home runs the past six seasons, and over the past four, he's never collected fewer than 84 runs or 91 RBIs. He's also batted .282 or better four of the past five campaigns. It might be difficult for Pence to repeat 2013's career-high 22 stolen bases, but he's actually averaged 14 steals over his seven-year career, so he should remain a five-category contributor. There might not be much more, if any, upside here, but you know what you're getting, and that's extremely valuable.

While Holliday and Pence offer more all-around production, Jay Bruce is the one who brings the power. He's the only outfielder in baseball to top 30 dingers each of the past three years, and his stat lines from those three seasons -- .256-32-97, .252-34-99, .262-30-109 -- show his metronome-like consistency. Bruce turns 26 in April, so there's a good chance he hasn't peaked yet. But even if he's merely the same guy we've seen the past few years, that's still a top-20 fantasy outfielder.

It took Alex Gordon a few years to put everything together, but now he's one of the more reliable fantasy options in the outfield. He might not be great at any one thing, but he's batted .294 or higher two of the past three years, possesses 20-homer power and has the speed to swipe double-digit bags. Even if there's not big upside in any one category, Gordon remains a good bet to finish the year as a top-25 outfielder -- and keep in mind that he's not that far removed from a top-10 finish in 2011.

Talkin' prospects

Still regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball, Oscar Taveras is expected to start the season back at Triple-A after a high-ankle sprain limited him to just 46 games last year and eventually led to season-ending surgery. However, he should work his way into the Cardinals' outfield picture at some point in 2014 and could make an immediate fantasy impact. Of course, if the 21-year-old crushes this spring, he could convince the team to scrap that plan and put him on the Opening Day roster.

As far as tools go, George Springer has the kinds that make fantasy owners drool. He just missed going 40/40 last year, hitting .303 with 37 homers and 45 steals between Double-A and Triple-A. His swing-and-miss tendencies could lead to a low batting average at the big league level, but his other tools should more than make up for it. Don't be surprised if the Astros call him up sometime in the first half.

Following Ellsbury's offseason departure to the Bronx, Jackie Bradley Jr. will get another crack at an everyday gig in Boston after he failed to take advantage of the opportunity last April. He's likely the front-runner for the center field job, though Grady Sizemore was signed over the offseason and will provide competition. Bradley's calling card is his elite defense in center field, but he knows how to get on base and has double-digit homer and steal potential, so he could have some decent fantasy value, particularly in deeper formats, if he gets regular playing time.

Byron Buxton secured his spot as the No. 1 prospect in baseball last year, hitting .334/.424/.520 with 12 dingers and 55 stolen bases between Low-A and High-A as a 19-year-old. He has a very advanced approach for his age, and he should eventually develop 20-homer power, which, combined with his stolen base potential, would make him a fantasy monster. He likely won't make his big league debut until 2015, but he could conceivably make it to Minnesota at some point in the second half if he continues to build upon what he did last year.

Like McCutchen and Starling Marte, the two outfielders he'll eventually be joining in Pittsburgh, Gregory Polanco possesses an exciting combination of tools. In addition to his superb defense, he's a high-contact hitter with great wheels -- he's swiped 78 bases in the minors the past two years combined -- and is expected to develop 20- to 25-homer power as he matures. He might not make his big league debut until September, but Polanco is definitely a guy to keep tabs on in case an opportunity arises.

Points versus roto

Point-based leagues cater to players who post high OBPs but don't necessarily hit for high averages, so players such as Giancarlo Stanton, Andre Ethier and Bautista get a boost in those formats. All three ranked in the top 11 in OBP among outfielders last year, yet they all finished outside the top 25 in average. Choo is another example of a player who thrives in points leagues. He batted a solid .285 for the Reds last season, but his .432 OBP ranked fourth in baseball and was second behind only Mike Trout among outfielders, so he gets an uptick in value, as well. When determining points-league value, total bases are another important statistic to consider. While Ellsbury hit only nine home runs last season, his 48 extra-base hits were seventh-most in the American League, so his lack of home run power isn't a big negative in point leagues.

There were 21 outfielders who swiped 20 or more bags last season, and eight stole 30 or more. These elite base stealers don't have the same value in point-based formats as they do in rotisserie leagues. Players with power/speed combinations such as Mike Trout and Carlos Gomez are super-valuable in both formats. But guys such as Eric Young and Michael Bourn, who have blazing speed but next to no power, are best used in roto.

Bottom line

Because most leagues have five starting outfielder spots (and because many owners use outfielders in their utility spots), the player pool doesn't stretch as far as you might think. This means it's wise to grab at least a couple of outfielders in the first third of your draft to ensure you aren't left picking at table scraps. In 2013, more than half of the top 20 fantasy hitters were outfielders, so to eschew the position early on is to miss out on a lot of elite production.

The strength of the outfield lies in the variety of players and statistics it provides. If, for example, you're in the middle of your draft and realize your team is lacking batting average or home runs or stolen bases -- or perhaps a combination of the three -- there are outfielders who can fill those needs. The same can't be said for every position.