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February 9, 2015

State of the Position


by Mike Gianella

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For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

Every year, in every mock draft room every February, it never fails. Toward the end of the draft, someone bemoans the notion that “outfield is thin” or “outfield isn’t as good as it used to be.” The reality is that outfield remains the strongest position on the diamond. In 2014, outfielders provided 44 percent of hitter earnings in 12-team mixed leagues and 45 percent in 15-team mixers. This doesn’t even include the players with multiple positional eligibility who are also eligible in the outfield (for the last time, no, Josh Harrison isn’t going to be profiled with the outfielders! Let it go!). While offense has dropped across the board, it hasn’t had any kind of magical, extra-special impact on the outfield; the position remains as relatively strong as ever.

The question you should be asking about the outfield isn’t whether the position is going to produce but who will be doing the heavy lifting. The position is headlined by a handful of obvious early first-round picks in Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, and Carlos Gomez, but after that there is a long list of players who could join them, settle into the mid-$20 earnings bracket, or be relative busts earning in the mid-to-high teens.

Past the top four, there is the potential for a philosophical debate about whether or not it is better to get a steady producer like Adam Jones or Hunter Pence, or if you should opt for the upside in players like Yasiel Puig or Bryce Harper. While the temptation to grab Puig or Harper is understandable, there is so much solid production coming from players like Jose Bautista, Michael Brantley, and Justin Upton that while it is fine to bet on some upside, banking stats is a difficult proposition to pass on in any format. Ryan Braun and Carlos Gonzalez offer yet two more examples of players who could sail into the $30s or fail to reach that level, as both former mega-studs hope to bounce back. Jacoby Ellsbury is underrated and miscast as a speed-only guy by some, but he belongs in this group as well.

After this level comes a young and exciting class of players, led by George Springer. If Springer’s legs are fine and he runs this year, he offers tantalizing 30/30 potential that we don’t see very much in today’s game. Springer isn’t alone, though. The Rockies give us two Coors-aided players in Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, and Billy Hamilton sits here because of the fantasy Holy Grail of 80+ steals if his bat can play and his body holds up.

The next set of choices in the outfield fall into a lesser version of the conundrum above. Nelson Cruz, Matt Holliday, and Jay Bruce (assuming a bounce back) profile as slow-and-steady-wins-the-race players, while Christian Yelich, Kole Calhoun, and Mookie Betts are players who could potentially shoot up the ranks or have a consolidation season. If you are not in a keeper league, you might want to hedge your Betts.


The League Breakout

Both leagues are filled with rich, creamy, categorical goodness, but while the AL had the best player in either league in Trout, there were actually fewer $20-plus earners in the junior circuit in 2014. Only 17 AL outfielders cracked the $20 barrier, and Chris Carter loses his OF eligibility in 2015 and slides over to DH only this year.

A surprising group of hitters provided core value in AL-only in 2014. Rajai Davis, J.D. Martinez, Melky Cabrera, and Lorenzo Cain all cracked $25 last year. Getting an all-around baseline of stats from players like Brett Gardner, Yoenis Cespedes, or Alex Gordon is wise, but players like Martinez and Cabrera show that even in mono formats, there is virtually no reason to pay par prices for good-but-not-great outfielders.

The AL doesn’t exactly dry up, but the earners in the $10-19 range weren’t the most exciting group. Oswaldo Arcia and Avisail Garcia are where people are going to bet on upside, while Austin Jackson, Alex Rios, and Desmond Jennings will be grabbed by fantasy owners hoping for a solid baseline of stats with a speed profile. Shin-Soo Choo is a tantalizing bounce back candidate with more question marks than the 1960s version of The Riddler.

As mentioned above, the NL is a little bit better at the top and was deeper in the $20-plus range last year. More of the best earners were in the outfield in the NL last year; 23 of the top 40 players in the NL were outfield-eligible. This is obvious, bottom-of-the-barrel advice, but grabbing Stanton, Cutch, or Gomez as an anchor is a solid play. If you’re squeamish about the price tag, players like Hamilton, Denard Span, and Ben Revere offer sneaky stolen base value that translates better to mono formats.

The breakouts seemed to come in droves last year, with Blackmon, Dickerson, Hamilton, and Starling Marte cracking the $25 barrier, with Yelich missing that group by a dollar. Marcell Ozuna quietly posted a $20-plus season as well. The guys I dig in this tier are the steady performers who somehow managed to crack $20 despite seasons that didn’t look that good on paper. Marlon Byrd defied the odds for the second year in a row, while Carl Crawford finally was a bargain after years of being a disappointment relative to his auction price.

As is the case in the AL, the $10-19 range isn’t quite as robust, which makes sense given how many $20 players there were. Jorge Soler and Gregory Polanco are going to be the popular breakout choices, but A.J. Pollock could be a little cheaper and provide a similar earnings base. Khris Davis and Curtis Granderson are the good relative discount choices; both earned $15 or more, but the perception is that they tanked in 2014.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues

I’m a big believer in taking the value where you can get it, but in standard mixed leagues, it is a mistake to fill up too early on your fourth and fifth outfielders, The differentiation in a 12-team mixed between the fortieth and sixtieth best outfielder is miniscule. If I get two outfielders early, I might take position over value instead of grabbing that third outfielder. In 15-team leagues, I have no problem grabbing three outfielders early. It dries up enough late that you won’t feel bad about missing out on better players at other positions later.

The Long-Term Outlook

Outfield typically profiles as a young and athletic position and last year was no exception. Forty-seven of the 188 players who played 20 games or more in the outfield in 2014 were 25 or younger. Fantasy owners are understandably a results-oriented group of people, but players like Wil Myers, Jake Marisnick, and Aaron Hicks shouldn’t be dismissed completely merely because of early failures or setbacks. If you are a believer in post-hype with experience candidates, outfield is often a good place to go bargain hunting.

2015 presents us with a group of outfield rookies who could produce dividends immediately in Rusney Castillo, Yasmany Tomas (outfield eligible in leagues that use foreign games played), Steven Souza, and Joc Pederson. For those in dynasty leagues or keeper leagues with farm systems, Byron Buxton is still the crown jewel of the minors, but Nick Williams, Josh Bell, Raimel Tapia, and David Dahl could all provide significant fantasy value down the line. This doesn’t even take into account players like Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara, who could eventually shift to the outfield.

Yes, the outfield was, is, and will always be a strong fantasy position, barring an alien invasion that leaves us in a world with no baseball because our slimy overlords have banned the sport and sent us to reeducation camps to learn how to mine their deletrium. We might get upset about disappointing players on an individual basis, but the state of the position once again is strong.

A Closing Haiku
Two position guy?
We covered him already.
Stop asking us this!

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

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Outfielders

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