There are a lot of ways to play fantasy baseball. In fact, the game has more possible formats than any other fantasy sport. You can play mixed league. You can play NL- or AL-only. You can play head-to-head with categories or points. You can play rotisserie. You can play with weekly or daily transactions. You can have a league with as few as 10 or as many as 16 teams. You can start as many as five outfielders. You can have corner and middle infielder spots in your starting lineup. It’s easily the most diverse fantasy sport we have.
Outfield is a unique position in fantasy baseball for one major reason. No matter if you play in a 14-team, head-to-head categories mixed league, a 15-team AL-only rotisserie league, a 12-team NL-only head-to-head points league, or any other combination, there is one constant across all formats: You will start multiple outfielders. That isn’t true of any other hitting position in fantasy baseball.
That fact, combined with the star power at the position, makes it another priority in drafts and auctions. The position may be deep, but you don’t want to wait too long to address it. If you do that, you won’t simply miss out on all the upper-crust talent in the outfield. You’ll also likely force dubious starters into your lineup every day.
Think of it this way. You have to start at least three outfielders, no matter your league’s format, and chances are most of you start five. Is it possible to build a successful outfield all with players selected after, say, pick No. 100? Of course it is. You could have waited until that part of the draft last year to grab an outfielder and ended up with a group of Khris Davis, Lorenzo Cain and Marcell Ozuna in a three-outfielder league. In a five-outfielder league, you could have added Domingo Santana and Andrew Benintendi to that core. However, the chances of you going 3-for-3, or 5-for-5, or even 3-for-5 on sub-100 outfielder picks are incredibly slim. You could have just as easily ended up with some combination of Jose Bautista, Odubel Herrera, Jackie Bradley Jr., Kole Calhoun and Nomar Mazara.
If you miss at second base or shortstop, it isn’t a huge deal. You only have to start one player at those positions, and going to the waiver wire at either spot isn’t going to torpedo your championship hopes. Even falling short at high-value, priority positions like first base and third base isn’t the end of the world in a fantasy baseball league. Screwing up in the outfield, though, can send ripple effects across your entire roster. The more players you have to start at a position, the more responsible it can be for your success or failure. I wouldn’t force myself to have X number of outfielders by Y round, but I would be sure to address the position with at least a player or two while the sure things remain on the board.
Five Big Questions
1. Other than Mike Trout, which first-round outfielder (Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, Mookie Betts, Giancarlo Stanton) would you be most excited to have on your team?
These four have roughly the same ADP, ranging from Harper at 7.59 to Stanton at 9.25. Even if you’re at the back end of the first round, you’re not likely to get two of these four players. That means if you pick one, you are necessarily eschewing the others who are still available.
It comes down to Harper and Betts for me. That’s not a disqualifying argument against Blackmon or Stanton. They’re worthy first-rounders for a reason, and I’d be happy to have either on my team. Rather, it’s a positive argument for Harper and Betts. The latter’s speed is tempting, especially the way the modern game is played, but I still lean toward the former.
Harper got over a disappointing 2016 season in a hurry, and was firmly in contention for his second MVP award in three years in the middle of August. That came to an end when he suffered an ugly knee injury after an awkward landing on first base. The injury cost him about six weeks, and effectively knocked him out of the MVP race. Still, he hit .319/.413/.595 with 29 homers, 87 RBI and 95 runs. Before the injury, he was on pace for 44 homers, 132 RBI and 140 runs. Had he stayed healthy, we might be having the Trout-Harper debate again.
This is the part of the column where I’m contractually obligated to point out that this is Harper’s age-25 season. He’s actually 19 days younger than Betts, even though he has about 900 more plate appearances. That isn’t some absurd argument that Harper has more room to grow than Betts because he has spent three fewer weeks on earth, but more just a reminder that, despite how long we’ve seen him in the majors, he may not be a fully formed just yet. Betts is a star in his own right, and last year’s .264/.344/.459 with 24 homers, 26 steals, 102 RBI and 101 runs could go down as the worst season of his career. It could, in fact, be what 2016 was to Harper. I wouldn’t argue too much with anyone who prefers Betts, but, for my money, the guy who was an injury away from winning his second MVP award by his 25th birthday is the pick here.
2. What should we make of Milwaukee’s new-look outfield?
The Brewers made a big splash in the final week of January, trading for Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain on the same day. Those two bring high-level on-base skills to a Milwaukee offense that hit for plenty of power last season, but too often struggled through team-wide malaise at the plate. The move to Milwaukee was a positive for both of them, as well.
Let’s start with Yelich. He has turned himself into one of the most consistent hitters in baseball, slashing .290/.369/.432 in his career. He has never had a batting average worse than .282 or an OBP worse than .362 in five seasons. The power, however, has been lacking, especially for a guy with his 6’3” frame. He did hit 21 homers in 2016 and 18 last year, and that’s enough pop given everything else he brings to the table. There’s reason to believe, however, that he’ll find more this season.
Marlins Park was one of the worst stadiums for power, especially left-handed power. Now, that doesn’t matter when you’re Giancarlo Stanton and can hit baseballs out of the Grand Canyon, but when you’re a regular human who needs to sprinkle in some 375-foot homers to get into the mid-20s, Marlins Park can make things challenging. Baseball Prospectus keeps track of park factors by handedness Among the 60 possible combinations of parks and handedness, the pairing of lefties and Marlins Park ranked 44th for home runs, producing 6% fewer than would be expected in a neutral environment. Miller Park, conversely, ranked 25th, producing 3% more homers than average. That doesn’t guarantee more homers for Yelich, but it certainly can’t hurt.
As for Cain, he’s joining a far superior offense to the one he left behind in Kansas City. His run-scoring upside is much higher with some combination of Yelich, Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw and Eric Thames behind him in the lineup. What’s more, the Brewers have been one of the most active teams on the basepaths since Craig Counsell took over as their manager. They didn’t steal a ton of bases in 2015, his first season as manager, but that owed more to personnel than anything. They led the majors with 181 steals in 2016, and were second last year with 128 swipes. Cain stole 26 bags a year ago, while Yelich thieved 16 of his own. Both should run more often this season.
One thing to watch this spring will be the play of Braun, Santana and Thames. Yelich and Cain are going to play mostly every day. Santana has earned that, too, after hitting .278/.371/.505 with 30 homers last season. To get the most out of this roster, at least one of Santana or Braun is going to have to learn to play first base. Thames cooled off considerably after a hot April, and slashed .182/.264/.394 against lefties. Put simply, there’s no reason to start him with a southpaw on the mound. That will force one of Santana or Braun to first. If they can pull it off, both will get enough plate appearances to justify their respective ADPs of 79.24 and 108.9.
3. This is the one hitting position where all fantasy owners, regardless of format, will need multiple starters. Who’s your favorite mid-round target?
Did everyone forget how about Adam Eaton? I know we haven’t seen him play very much after he tore his ACL just 23 games into the 2017 season, but he’s good. Really good. And there’s no reason to expect him to be anything but that this year.
Eaton first became an everyday player in 2014 with the White Sox. Beginning with that season, he has a career.290/.363/.424 slash line. He has never hit worse than .284, and his season-by-season OBPs were .362, .361 and .362. Before he tore his ACL last year, he was slashing .297/.393/.462. The rates are awfully safe.
Eaton hit 14 homers in both 2015 and 2016. He had two in his 23 games last year, right on that 14-homer pace. He stole 15, 18 and 14 bases the previous three seasons, and had three on four attempts before getting injured last year. Doubles by year? Twenty-six, 28 and 29. Triples by year? Ten, nine and nine. Eaton is a remarkably consistent player, and there’s no reason to expect the ACL tear from last year to slow him down at all now that it has healed.
On top of all that, Eaton will hit leadoff in one of the best offenses in the league. Immediately behind him in Washington’s lineup are Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman. If he plays a full season, it would be a significant disappointment if he didn’t score 100 runs. I’ll be doing what I can to get him on all my teams.
4. Just how deep is this position?
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t the most eloquently stated question. As I was looking at the list of outfielders by ADP, though, I was struck by the level of talent in the position’s non-elite tier. Specifically, it was the group of outfielders ranked eighth through 20th at the position in ADP, which, in a typical draft, takes us from pick No. 30 through No. 84.78, that caught my eye. Check it out.
George Springer, Andrew Benintendi, Marcell Ozuna, Justin Upton, Starling Marte, Byron Buxton, A.J. Pollock, Christian Yelich, Tommy Pham, Billy Hamilton, Khris Davis, Domingo Santana, Andrew McCutchen.
Look at those names. There isn’t one player I’d be disappointed to have on my fantasy team. Even players with obvious holes in their game, like Hamilton and Davis, do at least one thing extremely well. Everyone other than Hamilton is at least a three-category contributor, and the Reds center fielder has one elite skill that is in short supply around the league. Some of them are legitimately five-category players, and guys like Benintendi and Buxton are just getting started. There’s a shocking level of talent in the outfield across the league. It will be the most fun position to draft this season.
5. OK, any position that deep is going to force at least a few guys to go overlooked? Who’s the one that stands out the most?
I cut off the range of outfielders in the question above at No. 20 for a reason. The guy who’s 21st in outfielder ADP is the answer to this question. In reality, he is part of the group above, but including him there would have taken some of the punch out of this question and answer. So, with that I ask, where’s the love for Yoenis Cespedes?
Seriously, when I started taking a look at early ADPs in late January, I couldn’t believe where Cespedes was going in drafts. I figured that it would work itself out after a while, but, given where I stand on Cespedes, I don’t think it has. He’s coming off the board at an ADP of 92.36, in the same range as Travis Shaw and Chris Taylor. There is no world in which Cespedes should be valued that low in fantasy leagues.
Last year’s hamstring troubles are an issue that we shouldn’t gloss over, but it seems drafters are giving them too much weight. The bottom line is Cespedes has been doing everything we’d expect of a healthy player from the first day of spring training. He’s hitting. He’s running. He’s playing the field. In short, he’s healthy. And when he’s healthy, we know how dangerous he is.
It’s not as though Cespedes was playing poorly last year amidst the lingering hamstring problems. He played 81 games, hitting .292/.352/.540 with 17 homers, 17 doubles and 42 RBI in 321 plate appearances. Lest we forget, he hit .280/.354/.530 with 31 homers in 2016, and .291/.328/.542 with 35 homers in 2015. He was tracking toward another similar season last year before the hamstring finally forced him to the shelf for good. Along the way, he cut his strikeout and whiff rates to career-best marks of 19% and 9.4%, respectively, and posted a career-high 42.2% hard-hit rate.
Healthy once again, why should we project Cespedes for anything other than a floor season of .280/.340/.500 and 30 homers? There is no reason to do so, unless you are giving outsized, unjustifiable heft to injury concerns. Before last year, Cespedes played at least 129 games in every season of his career. If his ADP sticks around where it is now, he’s going to go down as one of the biggest bargains of the 2018 season.