Fantasy Baseball: Outfielder Primer
With fantasy baseball draft season beginning to pick up, this is a great time to survey the landscape at each position and figure out how we want to attack them this season. With the exception of the notoriously weak catcher group (yuck), position scarcity isn't something to be concerned with at other positions, but that doesn't mean there isn't value to be found by dissecting each one individually.
Our next stop is the vast outfield. To reflect the most recent draft market values, all ADP numbers are from National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts since March 1.
There's loads of high-end outfield talent in the first couple rounds, and whether you're looking for five-category balance or elite power, you really can't go wrong with any of these guys.
By now you've probably gathered Mike Trout and Mookie Betts are pretty much universally going first and second in drafts, and there's zero reason to argue with that. Both players are true five-category superstars, and if you're lucky enough to draw a top-two pick, thank the fantasy gods and don't overthink it. For as amazing as Betts was as the 2018 American League MVP, his 185 wRC+ was still second to Trout's 191, and Trout boasts a 172 wRC+ for his entire career.
As for the guy who finished third in wRC+ last year, J.D. Martinez (ADP 5), who posted an impressive 170 wRC+. Much like fellow first-rounder Nolan Arenado, Martinez's only knock is a lack of stolen bases, but his massive upside in the other four categories makes him worthy of considering in the top-five picks. Just check out all those glorious red marks on his Statcast page.
Christian Yelich (6) and Ronald Acuna (8) round out your standard first-round outfielder picks, with Yelich coming off a National League MVP campaign and Acuna earning NL Rookie of the Year honors. Despite slugging a career-high 36 bombs, Yelich's fly-ball rate actually went down to 23.5%, so expect him to drop down to home runs in the 20s. Even so, he's still capable of once again being a five-category beast. The same can be said for Acuna, who slashed a stellar .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs and 16 stolen bases in his first 487 major league plate appearances.
Following a disappointing 2018 campaign that can be at least partially blamed on a wrist injury, a lot of drafters seem to forget just how ridiculous Aaron Judge (14) was in 2017, as he sometimes drops deep into the second round. Now fully healthy, Judge is arguably worth taking toward the end of the first for his massive power upside. Don't overlook teammate Giancarlo Stanton (21), either, who felt somewhat underwhelming in his first year as a Yankee and yet still racked up 38 dingers with 102 runs and 100 RBIs.
You never know exactly what you're going to get out of Bryce Harper (15) from year to year, but you do know he's going to be great more often that not. Sometimes he hits over .300. Other times he drops below .250. Maybe he steals double-digit bases. Or maybe he won't. Whatever the case, we can still dream of another season like 2015, and a move to Philadelphia and Citizens Bank Park only ups his home-run potential.
Establishing a balanced core early on can go a long way in your draft, and Charlie Blackmon (28), Andrew Benintendi (29) and Starling Marte (38) are perfect for the job. Benintendi is already rock-solid across the board, and at just 24 years old, he's still capable of adding another level to his game. Marte is criminally undervalued at his draft cost and is well worth taking in the second round. In many ways, he's already what people hope Adalberto Mondesi to be, but with a better batting average and none of the risk.
Finally, much like Acuna, Juan Soto (34) also took the league by storm in his rookie campaign. He may not have the stealing upside of Acuna, but when a 19-year-old posts a .392 wOBA with a 16.0% walk rate over 494 plate appearances, that's going to turn some heads. Keep in mind he began the season in Single-A last season. Now age 20, it will be exciting to see what Soto can do for an encore over a full season.
The Best of the Rest
As always, the outfield is flush with upside and also remains a great position to find those ever elusive stolen bases. Here are some other names who deserve your attention in the early to middle rounds who could be poised to break out or provide nice values this season.
Rhys Hoskins (38): We always knew Hoskins wouldn't match his torrid home run pace from 2017, but a 51.7% fly-ball rate and 50.0% pull rate still helped him to a healthy 34 dingers. Regression included dips in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, but even if those marks don't improve, all those fly balls should keep the long balls coming. It also means we probably shouldn't expect his batting average go much above .250, though a 22.7% strikeout rate and 13.2% walk rate indicate he won't be a huge batting average liability, either.
Tommy Pham (60): Lighting it up on his Statcast page and ranking fifth overall in hard-hit rate last season (48.5%), Pham just needs to remain injury free. Last year's 137 games and 570 plate appearances were actually career-high clips, and seeing as he just turned 31 this month, age may not be on his side, too. Still, he's been plenty productive the past two seasons anyway, so with health, he could submit a truly glorious five-category campaign. A career 27.4% fly-ball rate does probably cap his home run ceiling, though.
George Springer (62): Drafting Springer won't elicit that feeling of something new and exciting but batting atop a mighty Astros lineup has its perks, and you pretty much know exactly what you're getting at this point. Like watching an old favorite movie, Springer won't surprise you anymore, but you'll still come away satisfied in the end.
Yasiel Puig (65): The primer cover boy has been skyrocketing up draft boards since his move to Cincinnati, and perhaps hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park will help Puig finally put together that dream campaign we've been waiting for since he burst onto the scene in 2013. No stranger to injuries, he appeared in just 125 games last year, but he still managed a solid 23 home runs and 15 stolen bases, displaying similar power to his encouraging 2017 season. With a healthy season, maybe at long last the final stat line matches the potential at age 28, but know that you might need to grab him early if you want in. The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational (TGFBI) industry drafts wrapped up last week, and Puig often went far earlier than his ADP, sometimes going inside the top 50.
David Dahl (69): Injuries have slowed Dahl's ascension to a big-league regular, but with a starting spot locked up, everything lines up for that long-awaited breakout season. Turning 25 in April, it's far too early for Dahl to don the "injury-prone" label, and do we really want to talk ourselves out of a former top prospect with power and speed at Coors Field? With a small sample size warning in effect, after recovering from a fractured foot, it can't hurt the outlook that Dahl went completely bonkers last September, mashing 9 home runs in 94 plate appearances with a .404 wOBA.
Victor Robles (98): For a while, it looked like 2018 might be Robles' time to shine, but an ill-timed elbow injury in April took him out for months while some guy named Juan Soto ultimately got all the glory. But with Bryce Harper off to Philly, the stage is set for Robles to finally get his shot as an MLB starter, and speed is the name of his game. In just 73 games between the majors and minors last year, he still stole 22 bases, and he nabbed 64 combined from 2016 to 2017. Throw in double-digit home run power and a solid batting average, and we could have a five-category contributor on the rise.
Michael Conforto (103): In 2017, Conforto had the look of a budding star, posting a .392 wOBA and .276 ISO over 440 plate appearances, but his season was cut short by September shoulder surgery. Rushing back earlier than expected seemed to take its toll his 2018 numbers, but a .377 wOBA and .266 ISO in the second half suggests those 2017 marks could return. Now fully healthy and still just 26 years old, it's likely that Conforto's best is yet to come, and he has a great chance of reaching 30-plus home runs for the first time.
A.J. Pollock (110): We keep chasing that monster 2015 campaign, but Pollock just keeps breaking hearts with injuries year after year. That 2015 season still marks the only time he's exceeded 500 plate appearances, and with him now entering his age-31 season, you can be forgiven if you're tired of waiting at this point. And while he still has an above average sprint speed, it has steadily declined since 2015, so he may not have quite the same stolen-base upside in him anymore, either. All that being said, last season he showed encouraging improvements in power with a 44.5% hard-hit rate and 38.4% fly-ball rate on his way to a career-high 21 home runs, and if Lady Luck would just cut him some slack one of these years, a healthy Pollock could easily go 20-20 with the possibility for more.
Eloy Jimenez (119): The guy everyone would be clamoring for in a world where Vladimir Guerrero Jr. didn't exist (although Guerrero is now dealing with an oblique strain), Jimenez also looks ready to take the league by storm after slashing .355/.399/.597 with a 13.2% strikeout rate over 228 plate appearances in Triple-A last year. Like Guerrero, he doesn't offer any speed but could otherwise jump right in and put up four-category goodness at a much cheaper price -- just factor in that he's expected to spend the first couple weeks in the minors for service-time reasons.
Andrew McCutchen (134): Now in the "boring" stage of his fantasy career, McCutchen can still be relied upon to put up solid across the board numbers, and the move to Philadelphia should boost his home run potential after spending most of last season in San Francisco. With an 88th percentile sprint speed, he's faster than you might think, and he cracked the top 25 in hard-hit rate in 2018 (43.4%). He's a high-floor value at this draft price.
Byron Buxton (144): A bust of epic proportions in 2018, Buxton's NFBC ADP has climbed in the month of March thanks to a hot start to the spring, and the people are starting to dream of that tantalizing ceiling again. A classic bounce-back candidate, the plate skills remain worrisome, so be cautious of reaching too early. But this is still a far more palatable price to take a shot on that power/speed combo that got everyone so excited a year ago.
Billy Hamilton (169): While you can certainly grab Mallex Smith (107) or Dee Gordon (113) if you've gone power heavy in the early rounds, why not wait roughly 50 picks later for Hamilton? Sure, his flaws are well established at this point, and he's expected to bat at the bottom of the order to begin the season for the Royals. But he's still one of the fastest dudes in the big leagues and has as good a shot as any of leading the league in stolen bases. You know Kansas City is going to run like crazy this year, and even if you don't love the player, this is Hamilton's lowest price in years. It's possible the hate has gone a bit too far.
Austin Meadows (187) and Ramon Laureano (189): Practically going back-to-back in ADP, Meadows and Laureano are both popular power/speed breakout candidates who have yet to see more than 200 plate appearance apiece at the major league level but have shown lots of promise. Injuries have slowed Meadows' rise, but he has elite prospect pedigree and between the majors and Triple-A, he posted 18 home runs and 17 stolen bases last season. The stage is set for regular playing time with Tampa Bay, albeit with some platoon competition from Avisail Garcia. Meanwhile, Laureano similarly racked up 19 homers and 18 swiped bags between those levels himself, and his Statcast numbers suggest the improved power could stick. Meadows is the more likely of the two to hit for average while Laureano is the more accomplished base stealer in the minors, but regardless of your preference, both are promising upside picks.
Five More to Remember
Some quick thoughts on five other notable names...
Ryan Braun (201): Braun isn't getting any younger at age 35, but he still managed to put up 20 dingers and 11 stolen bases in just 447 plate appearances last year. He ranked 35th in hard-hit rate among players with at least 400 plate appearances (43.0%), and his average exit velocity was in the 94th percentile. The fact is he can still bring it, and although missed time seems practically inevitable these days, you can take the hit at this juncture. With a little health luck, he could come through with solid all-around numbers.
Domingo Santana (203): Slated for a starting role in Seattle, Santana's ADP has been on the rise over the offseason as more and more folks remember he posted 88 runs, 30 home runs, 85 RBIs, and 15 stolen bases just a couple years ago. A massive career 31.9% strikeout rate signals a low batting average, but we have to be intrigued by the potential upside, and the 26-year-old doesn't have to match those marks to be a value here.
Jackie Bradley (217): Working with J.D. Martinez's private hitting coach this offseason, Bradley has reworked his swing and can hopefully build on last season's strong second half (118 wRC+). Remarkably, in a WEEI interview this offseason, Bradley admitted, "What I've been taught my whole life is completely wrong. It's scary to say that, but it's wrong. I feel fortunate enough to make it this far doing it wrong." While Bradley has never been the most consistent hitter, if he's gotten this far doing things "wrong," it's exciting to imagine the possibilities moving forward. Plus, even if you don't fully buy into all that, JBJ made boatloads of hard contact in 2018, and he stole a career-high 17 stolen bases under manager Alex Cora.
Randal Grichuk (241): It never hurts to find 30-plus home run power later in your draft, and that's exactly what Grichuk can provide. Yes, his career high is just 25, but he ranked top 10 in barrels per plate appearance last season and has never reached 500 plate appearances in a season. With improved health, a personal best could await in 2019.
Cedric Mullins (302): Sure, Mullins plays for the lowly Orioles and is technically still fighting for a starting job, but at the end of the day, he's the presumed favorite to bat leadoff and could get in the neighborhood of 15 homers and 15 stolen bases -- something we'll gladly take at this point in the draft. The O's poor offense lowers his ceiling, though barring a total disaster, it should ensure he stays in the lineup.