June 1, 2017
Updating the Tiers
Welcome to Baseball Prospectus in-season rankings update to our preseason positional tiers article. As we did before Opening Day, players at each position will be divided into five tiers, represented by a “star” rating. In addition, unlike with the preseason “star” ratings, these lists can also be viewed as a straight ranking.
If you are wondering why a specific player isn’t listed, please note that in many cases players in the one-star tier and players who are not ranked are interchangeable.
The rankings above assume a 15-team, standard 5x5 Roto scoring format, with 23-man rosters and the following positions: C (2) 1B (1) 2B (1) 3B (1) SS (1) CI (1) MI (1) OF (5) UT (1) P (9). Position eligibility is based on either 20 games at the position last year or five games this year.
Here's the schedule:
Friday: Starting Pitcher, Relief Pitcher
The outfield is large and it takes many names to patrol the position in fantasy, so while we won’t cover every player in the article here, we can cover anyone you want in more detail in the comments. Without further ado…
There’s a large fish-shaped hole at the top of this list, but Harper fills in admirably for now. The power and plate discipline are back from his 2015 season, but unfortunately the steals are not. And while it’s true he doesn’t need them to be an elite outfielder, any increase would set him apart from the rest of this pack throughout the rest of the year as he marches towards 50 homers.
In no universe does it make sense for a leadoff hitter to be pacing the league in RBIs, yet here we are. Blackmon’s 40-steal campaign seems like an eyesore of an outlier at this point, and he’s likely going to be in the 10-15 range going forward, but the step forward in power is offsetting that very nicely.
There’s been no shortage of Hamilton talk on these pages in the last few seasons, but the value he brings is tough to overstate. He currently sits at 28 steals. The next two most-prolific stolen base artists in the National League are Dee Gordon and Eduardo Nuñez, and they have a combined (you guessed it) 28 steals. Hamilton is having categorical impact for fantasy that we have never seen before, as he’s been nearly three times as valuable in this one category as any other player in any other category this year. To top that off, he’s on pace for nearly 120 runs. He’s not a good hitter, but he’s an elite fantasy player.
Martinez has been straight up killing the ball since he returned from the disabled list and his uptick in fly-ball rate is something that gets bandied about too much with former has-beens like Yonder Alonso, but doesn’t get talked about enough with those who elevate themselves from star to superstar status with their launch angle.
Five-Star Trade Target: Betts
Betts was a consensus top-three pick this year, and he’s performed like one so far. Just not in terms of fantasy value yet. When you look at his raw numbers, which are causing him to be a barely-top-10 outfielder through May, some see a batting average under .300, homers and steals that sit in single-digits, and a pace for only around 100 runs. Instead, I see a hitter who is walking more and striking out less than 2016 with a higher isolated power. He not only will be great, he has been great. Buy with impunity.
It turns out that eight weeks of Trout and eight weeks of a replacement-level player is still a really damn good fantasy player. Conforto and Cespedes lead the Metropolitan contingent of this high-end tier, as the former has been one of the breakout fantasy players of 2017, but hits his first cold streak at the same time the latter is close to returning from injury. They both have the potential to perform like five-star players, but one has Terry Collins risk and one has Ray Ramirez risk. Speaking of injury issues, Braun is on the DL again, but he’s not as injury prone as his reputation suggests. He had missed around only 80 games due to injury during the first 10 years of his career heading into 2017, and while players only get more maladies as they age, there’s not a ton of risk to factor in comparatively.
The new class of star outfielders includes a Red Sox and a Yankee. Benintendi is the steady performer who will earn more than you might think due to his unsexy numbers. Judge is a dynamic talent to watch and will earn less than you might think due to his incredible feats of strength. It all comes out in the wash for the rest of 2017, but if you have either of them, you’re already a step ahead of the competition.
The old guard hangs around as well. While the overall numbers don’t show it yet, Bautista has been on an absolute tear over the last month, hitting .320/.417/.660 with nine homers in May and being, well, Bautista like. It hasn’t been a great start for Gonzalez, but we’ve learned not to worry about slow starts from him before. After all, his .240/.306/.372 line looks far better than his .219/.296/.331 line at this point in 2015 before he scorched everyone over the next four months on his way to 40 homers and a .270 average.
Four-Star Trade Target: Ozuna
It turns out that being more aggressive in the strike zone can do wonders for you when you’re a power hitter trying to tap into said power. Ozuna has jumped his swing rate on pitches in the zone over five percentage points from his previous career high, and seven for his career. And it’s not just fastballs he’s taking advantage of. He’s hit three changeups, three curveballs and one slider. The HR/FB rate will likely backslide a bit, but the nature of his contact has changed and his fantasy value needs to change with it.
There’s no fantasy player more attractive on the surface but ugly underneath than Broxton, who continues to strikeout at nearly a 40 percent clip and put up a .400 BABIP to the horror of regression analysts everywhere. However, even if the average is a mirage, the speed is enough to keep him on everyone’s good side.
The post-hype sleeper machine is in full effect here with Hicks and Garcia. The former Twin and current Yankee might be seven years removed from being a top-30 prospect, but is still only 27 years old and is finally tapping into the power-speed potential he long ago hinted at. He’s also walking more than he’s striking out to boot. Garcia, meanwhile, is somehow just 25 and is showing off the batting average and power potential from his prospect days. The speed might be long gone (as you would know in a second by watching him in action), but it’s a far cry from where he’s been so far in his career. Even with the rough plate discipline, a .290 average with 20-plus homers in that park is realistic.
Gardner the power hitter just makes me wholly uncomfortable, so it’s a good thing it’s unlikely to continue at this pace. Bruce not being a disaster in New York also makes me slightly uncomfortable, but he’s also been hitting .215 in May and he might not be spared that outfield crunch that will come when Cespedes returns. The fact that he’s a marble statue in right field won’t help his cause to stay in the lineup. There’s plenty of low-average power to go around at the bottom of the tier, and I’m excluding former resident Duvall in that group because his strikeout rate is down and he might actually be able to scrape .270 now.
Three-Star Trade Target: Ian Desmond
Let me tell you a story of a 20-20 hitter who goes to Coors. Wait. Where are you going? Sure, Desmond has had a tough start to the season, including 30 strikeouts to only two walks at the time of writing this. He also has a 60 percent ground-ball rate. These are not the selling points. Yet, he still plays in Coors and is still recovering from not having a real spring training. At some point, the pull-side grounders will turn into, well, not pull-side grounders, and his batting average should not be risky at elevation. This recommendation goes double if you’re a team in need of risk taking, as Desmond is a player who can go on a hot streak and help carry you.
What has gotten into the Yankees outfielders this year? Between Judge, Gardner, Hicks, Ellsbury and Holliday, they’ve all healthily outperformed preseason expectations, and even though those latter two are always poor bets to make it through a full season, there’s no questioning their production so far.
Reddick is doing his usual thing against right-handers (.275/.338/.479 with six homers in 142 at-bats). So is Peralta out in the desert with a .319/.362/.478 line of his own. In Texas, Choo is hitting .268/.375/.457 against right-handers with six homers and even three steals to boot. Meanwhile, Pederson’s .687 OPS with the platoon advantage is just not going to cut it when he’s nearly halving that against left-handers (.382). He surely has the talent to get back there with the others in this paragraph, but he also needs to get healthy first, which puts him at a further disadvantage.
If you told me that Dahl would play in 90 games the rest of the season, I’d put him in the three-star group. If you told me that he’d play in 30 games this year, I wouldn’t be surprised. Such is life in the glut. Buxton has been better in May than in April, but it would have been really hard for him not to, given his .693 May OPS is a 250-point upgrade. He’s stealing bases, but we need more from him either in the average or power departments (or stolen base department, honestly) to warrant a three-star tag.
Two-Star Trade Target: Kiermaier
Another week of the bounce back and he’d probably be a three-star guy, so this feels like slightly cheating, but this is the world we are living in. Since the start of May, the Rays uber centerfielder is hitting .274 with four homers and five steals. He’s almost a lock to get banged up at some point, which keeps him from elevating too high, but a potential 15-homer, 25-steal outfielder is a rarer breed than you think these days and the batting average won’t hurt you terribly if it sticks around .250.
Let’s just do this one in the comments. If you’re relying heavily on any of these guys outside of a mono league, I really hope you’re strong at those other positions.
One-Star Trade Target: Rajai Davis
Trying to find steals this year is like trying to find a joke about the orb that was funny. So yes we’re grasping at straws with a 36-year-old speedster with a .245 on-base percentage. He’s been successful in 60 percent of his steal attempts too! But this is Oakland, and their centerfield depth chart looks like this:
Jake Smolinski (60-day DL and no return date in sight)
Mark Canha (30 career innings in centerfield)
Coco Crisp, probably (retired)
So, yes, he’ll play as long as he’s an upright member of the Bay Area and he’ll try to steal as long as he’ll play. It’s a good combination if you can stomach his performance.