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February 18, 2014

State of the Position


by Paul Sporer

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For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

Unlike middle-infield positions, which are almost always viewed as thin, the default view on outfield is to see it as deep. While there are years when it is actually deep, the misperception often comes from a miscalculation of the toll that every team needing at least five will take on the pool. Add in a few teams taking some OF-eligible players for other positions including utility and, all of sudden, things really thin out, particularly in 2014.

The biggest factor in the lack of depth is the uncertainty surrounding the position. I apologize for Rick Reilly-ing myself and biting from a recent column of mine, but we have serious questions surrounding some middle tier options (taken in the 30-50 range of outfielders) who are being relied on as second and third outfielders:

And if you’re pairing them with some upper-tier guys who are far from certainties like Jacoby Ellsbury (health), Giancarlo Stanton (health), Yasiel Puig (track record), and Wil Myers (track record), then you could find yourself in some serious trouble at a very important position. This adds to the value of high-floor guys like Jay Bruce, Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, and even Alex Gordon.

The League Breakout
The American League may have the single best outfielder, but it dries up quickly. They did add some worthwhile names to their pool with the returns of Choo and Carlos Beltran, plus Norichika Aoki, Adam Eaton, and Dexter Fowler all coming over, though some of that is canceled out by the departures of power sources Mark Trumbo and Curtis Granderson.

The superstar tier in the junior circuit could fatten up it needs some big “ifs” to come through: if Myers essentially doubles up his 2013 debut, if Jose Bautista stays healthy, if Yoenis Cespedes stays healthy and runs much better than his 7-for-14 effort in 2013, and if Desmond Jennings goes from solid-but-unspectacular to game-changing 20 HR/40 SB stud.

The AL catches back up in the endgame with boring-but-useful guys like Nick Swisher, Colby Rasmus, and Matt Joyce, as well as the upside youngsters, Oswaldo Arcia, George Springer, and Dayan Viciedo, to name a few in each category.

The National League isn’t without its questions, but it has veteran stalwarts mitigating a lot of the risk. They have four bona-fide first-rounders in at least 15-team leagues with Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Braun, though all four have routinely found themselves in the top 12 overall, too. Guys like Pence, Matt Holliday, and Jayson Werth don’t draw the oohs and ahhs in the draft room, but all three are coming off of $30 seasons and yet none of them are among the top 10 NL outfielders taken in many drafts.

There is a lot of fun in some of the potential breakouts in the NL with Bryce Harper, a full season of Puig, and of course Billy Hamilton. It doesn’t take much to imagine all three with $35 seasons even though none of them have come close to that yet. You could realistically end up with all three on a team in a 10-team NL-only league, although it would probably take Puig falling a bit as he is currently the 10th NL-er off the board and he’d need to be 13th assuming Harper stays eighth.

Of course there are no guarantees of 2013 repeats, but the senior cirtcuit is shaping up with at least some depth in the upper ranges when you consider that a 20-20 Will Venable and NL batting champ Michael Cuddyer are going 20th or later among NL outfielders. The former had a 20 percent HR/FB ratio and the latter had a .382 BABIP, but they have plenty of utility even with planned regression.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
I’ve always preferred to build a studly outfield, whether the position has depth or is lacking as it is in 2014. You are most likely to find the power-speed combos in the outfield—a profile I favor—so spending early on the position gives you the opportunity to enter the middle and endgames with a balanced offense. I would strongly encourage entering the pool at least once in the first four rounds and if you enter the double-digit rounds with just one outfield, it will likely be a position you are trying to upgrade all year long.

The Long-Term Outlook
Despite the dearth right now, the future is bright—both the immediate and long term. The former could transform the position into one of depth by season’s end if some chic picks like Martin, Davis, Calhoun, Christian Yelich, Avisail Garcia, and A.J. Pollock pop in their second go in the majors. Plus, we have the aforementioned star potential looking to leave its mark as bona fide early-round picks in Harper, Stanton, Puig, and Myers.

On the prospect front, it seems the best of the best is either right on the cusp (Springer, Hamilton, Oscar Taveras, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Gregory Polanco) or a couple years out (Byron Buxton, Clint Frazier, Albert Almora, and Josh Bell), but either way it is all extremely exciting. Plus, the position could see an unexpected boost from prospects who have to move off their current positions and into the outfield, namely Kris Bryant and Miguel Sano; either of them would add filthy power to a corner outfield spot.

A Closing Haiku
Outfield is not deep
Leonys Martin is great
Allen Craig is too

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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Premium Article Transaction Analysis: ... (02/17)
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