Fantasy baseball outfielder primer: Breakouts, rankings and more
Outfield, the deepest position in fantasy baseball, features everything an owner’s heart desires. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are the top two players in the game. Giancarlo Stanton could hit 50 homers if he stays healthy all season. Andrew McCutchen is one of the most reliable .300/.400/.500 threats in the league. A.J. Pollock was one steal shy of a 20–40 season last year, and George Springer could easily reach 30–30 in a full campaign.
It’s not just the players at the top of the position, either. Lorenzo Cain hit .307/.361/.477 with 16 homers, 28 steals and 101 runs last year. Carlos Gonzalez belted 40 homers and slugged .540—the sixth time in seven years his slugging percentage eclipsed the .500 mark. Carlos Gomez averaged 22 bombs and 37 steals for three years running, before injuries slowed him down in 2015. All three are just barely inside the top 20 outfielders by average draft position.
And there’s more: David Peralta, the No. 34 outfielder by ADP, slashed .312/.371/.522 with 17 homers last season, and is the cleanup man in a potent lineup that calls one of the league’s most hitter-friendly parks home. Byron Buxton, the top prospect in all of baseball, checks in at No. 40. Michael Conforto, who racked up an .841 OPS and nine homers in 194 plate appearances with the Mets last season, is No. 51 and isn’t hearing his name called until the middle of the 15th round in a typical 12-team draft. So, yes, it’s a deep position.
All told, six outfielders are off the board within the first 20 picks of a typical draft. By time 50 names are called, 17 outfielders have found homes. A quarter of the top 100 players by ADP roam the large patch of grass beyond the infield dirt. They have power, they have speed, they hit for average and they get on base. You can find whatever you’re looking for in the outfield.
Just because the position is deep, however, doesn’t mean you can afford to wait and trust that you can build a winning outfield thanks to the seemingly endless stream of options. Outfield is a position owners visit early and late in drafts. There’s value in the position early, because that’s where all the star power is. There’s value in the position late, because that’s where you can find a ton of bang for your buck (Peralta, Billy Burns, Delino DeShields, the list goes on and on). Last year, J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts and A.J. Pollock were all outside the top-30 outfielders by ADP.
If you end up with, say, Matt Kemp, Adam Eaton and Corey Dickerson, the Nos. 23, 26 and 32 outfielders by ADP, you haven’t actually used the position’s depth to your advantage. Rather, you’ve bought into the fat middle of the position where there isn’t much value, given that the players’ respective floors and ceilings just aren’t that different from one another.
Outfield is also a position where you can take some risks, knowing that you can fall back on the depth should those risks not pan out. That’s how you attack this position.
There’s just one final thing to note: Don’t let Michael Brantley’s shoulder rehab make you forget about him on draft day. In fact, he’s the perfect example of a risk you take, knowing you can cover it with the depth of the position. Brantley grew into his power two years ago, and has averaged .319/.382/.494 with 18 homers and 19 steals over the last two seasons. Even if he ends up missing a month or six weeks at the beginning of the year, he’s still well worth his 103.42 ADP, and there’s a real chance he’s back on the field in April.
We covered Peralta in a player profile. If you want the full treatment on his breakout candidacy, check it out here. We’ll cover another outfield breakout, but we would have been remiss had we not mentioned Peralta, our favorite breakout candidate, as well.
Andrew McCutchen in 2009. Starling Marte in ’13. Polanco was supposed to be the next star outfielder in what quickly was becoming a tradition in Pittsburgh, but he had to suffer through more fits and starts than did the two who came before him.
After tearing out of the gates in 2014, Polanco hit so bad a rough patch that the Pirates had to send him back to Triple-A Indianapolis for a brief spell. When he got off to a bad start in ’15, concern started to mount. All that changed, however, after the All-Star break. Polanco hit .276/.324/.425 with six homers, 20 doubles and 10 steals in 316 second-half plate appearances last season. He cut his strikeout rate to 18.6% while increasing his hard-hit rate to 29.9%.
There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest he was among the unluckiest players in the league last season. For one thing, his expected BABIP of .340 was 32 points higher than his actual BABIP. Given that he’s a lefty with speed who gets about 1.3 ground balls to every fly ball, he should, if anything, outperform his expected BABIP, not underperform it by 32 points. For another, his batted-ball profile, specifically the hard-hit rate, suggests that his HR/FB ratio should have been almost triple what it was. Polanco is in his age-24 season, and is likely naturally growing into more power. This could be the year he assumes the mantle of McCutchen and Marte, becoming a legitimate 20–40 threat.
Grichuk became a regular for the Cardinals last year, and was one of the stabilizing forces in the lineup when Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina went down with injuries. The 24-year-old hit .276/.329/.548 with 17 homers and 47 RBI in 350 plate appearances, and if not for an injury of his own, he would have pushed 25 homers. Grichuk posted a .272 isolated slugging percentage and 19.1% HR/FB ratio last year. The only other players to match or exceed both of those numbers were Bryce Harper, Chris Davis, Mike Trout, David Ortiz and Edwin Encarnacion, which is good company for a burgeoning power hitter.
Now, to be fair, there are some major red flags here. Grichuk struck out in 31.4% of his plate appearances last year while walking in just 6.3% of his trips to the plate. He swung at a ridiculous 35.1% of pitches that were outside the strike zone and, had he racked up enough at-bats to qualify, would have been tied for sixth in whiff rate (15.6%). Still, there’s so much to like here, especially since he can and will play center field for this team. In other words, his power and glove guarantee that he’ll have an everyday spot in the lineup. It’s possible more natural power is on the way, and if he couples that with improved plate discipline, he could hit 30 home runs this season.
Deep sleeper: Marcell Ozuna, Miami Marlins
Two seasons ago, Ozuna was a 23-year-old mashing his way to as many homers as full years he had lived on this planet in his first full season as a major leaguer. Given that he powered his way through the minors (23 homers in 2011, 24 in ’12), he appeared well on his way to becoming a perennial 30-homer threat in the majors. That was before everything took a surprisingly sharp and dramatic turn for the worse last season.
Ozuna never got going in 2015, hitting just .259/.308/.383 and spending more than a month at the Triple-A level. His ISO, which had been a strong .186 in ’14, plummeted to .124, and he halved his previously impressive HR/FB ratio. Despite all of that bad news—and believe me, as an Ozuna investor in 2015, there’s no positive way to spin his campaign—there were a few mildly encouraging signs. He cut his strikeout rate to 22.3% from 26.8%. His line-drive rate climbed to 21.1%, and while his hard-hit rate took a dip, it was still a robust 34.5%, better than Jose Abreu, Carlos Gonzalez and Manny Machado. The problem was he didn’t elevate those hard-hit balls, shaving three percentage points off his fly-ball rate.
Still, what do you suppose is more likely? That he needs to correct his swing path, or that he lost all his power at 25 years old? We think it’s the former. Ozuna doesn’t turn 26 until November and, at the absolute worse, should be a cheap source of power. If he can get back on the trajectory he set for himself in 2014, he could provide a significant return on investment.
Before I go any further, let’s not get this twisted. I think Schwarber is going to be very good this season. The power and plate discipline he showed as a rookie are legitimate, and guarantee a solid production floor. I trust Joe Maddon will figure out a way to get him plenty of at-bats on a crowded Cubs team. The issue isn’t with the player, but the price. Schwarber’s National Fantasy Baseball Championship ADP is 32.48, which places him in the middle of the third round of a 12-team draft. This is a guy who, for all the ability he showed last year, has 304 major league plate appearances under his belt (including the playoffs), struck out in 27.9% of those, and slashed .143/.213/.268 without the platoon advantage.
Again, while I trust Maddon to get Schwarber his fair share of at-bats, Jason Heyward is locked into an everyday spot in the lineup, with Schwarber, Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler all fighting for playing time in the outfield. That doesn’t even begin to factor in when Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant get time out there, as well. Schwarber will see some starts behind the plate, and there’s no doubt a lot of his fantasy value is tied up in being catcher-eligible, but the middle of the third round is simply far too early to draft him. If he were coming off the board, say, 30 picks later, I’d be all in on Schwarber. Unfortunately, there’s just no way for him to turn a profit at his ADP.
This is your more traditional bust. Jones is entering his age-30 season, and we all know exactly what to expect from him. He has well above-average power, and he should hit for a solid average. He’s Baltimore’s everyday No. 3 hitter, so he can’t help but post solid counting stats. There are, however, some troubling trends in his peripheral stats. Jones peaked at 127 weighted runs created plus in 2012 when he slashed .287/.334/.505 with 32 homers and 16 steals. His wRC+ has fallen each of the last three seasons, bottoming out at 109 last year. If that trend continues this season, we’re basically looking at a glorified Kole Calhoun. That’s not someone I want to spend a top-60 pick on, which is what you’ll have to pony up to secure Jones’s services.
Buxton made his major league debut last season, hitting .209/.250/.326 in 138 plate appearances with the Twins. Despite his struggles in the majors, the top prospect in all of baseball has nothing left to prove in the minors. He spent his most time last year at Double-A Chattanooga, slashing .283/.351/.489. In 13 games with Triple-A Rochester, he hit .400/.441/.545.
There’s no question he’s ready for the show, now he just has to bring that same bat to the top of Minnesota’s lineup. Buxton turned 22 in December, and while his fantasy owners should still expect some growing pains, he should be owned in 100% of redraft leagues (we’re making the safe assumption that he is already owned in all long-term formats). The real question, in fact, is whether or not he breaks spring training with the Twins. His glove is certainly ready for the majors, and if he does start the season with the Twins, he’ll instantly be one of the fastest players and most dangerous base-stealers in the league. Once his bat is ready, he’ll be a real-life and fantasy star.