Fantasy baseball position primer: How to build a championship-caliber outfield
The top two players by both FantasyPros consensus ranking and NFBC ADP, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, are outfielders. Another top-four player, Kris Bryant, is outfield-eligible. Two more outfielders, Bryce Harper and Charlie Blackmon, will likely be off the board within your draft’s first 15 picks. There are about three times as many outfielders as any other position in the majors, other than pitcher, but this is not an important-by-default spot. The star power runs deep.
Fantasy owners can find anything their teams need patrolling the grass beyond the infield. Need some power? Eleven outfielders hit 30 homers, and five more hit 29. Looking for RBIs? Seven of the league’s 22 players who drove in 100 runs last year play the outfield. How about speed? Nine outfielders swiped at least 25 bags. Harper, who could steal zero bases and still be a top-five player, pilfered 21. Starling Marte, who was not mentioned as a potential top-15 pick, stole 47 to go along with a .311/.362/.456 slash line.
Maybe what you need is late-round value. Jackie Bradley hit.267/.349/.486 with 26 homers, 87 RBIs and 94 runs last year; he’s the No. 33 outfielder by ADP, coming off the board at pick No. 145.17 on average. About three rounds later, you’ll find Marcell Ozuna, who is coming off his second 23-homer, .450-slugging-percentage campaign in the last three years. Nomar Mazara hit .266/.320/.419 with 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie and is still on the board after 200 picks have passed in a typical draft. Same goes for Joc Pederson, who took a major step forward last season, slashing .246/.352/.495 with 25 jacks.
Then there are last year’s bums, like Jason Heyward, Yasiel Puig and Randal Grichuk. At their respective price tags—all of them have an ADP of 217.14 or later—there’s zero risk associated with their high upside. Michael Brantley and David Peralta were completely done in by injury last season. You can have either or both essentially for free, in terms of draft-day capital. Whatever your heart desires, you will get it in the outfield.
1. Who’s the position’s breakout star?
We know that there will be at least one outfielder who graduates to the superstar level this season. Last year, it was Betts. The season before that, it was Harper. In 2017, my bet on the player to make the leap will be Gregory Polanco.
If you’re a dedicated reader, this might sound familiar. I had Polanco as a breakout player last season, and he did not disappoint. In his second full season in the majors, the Pirates' leftfielder slashed .258/.323/.463 with 22 homers, 17 steals, 86 RBIs and 79 runs. He was a four-category player in his age-24 season, and there’s reason to believe he can be the player who finds that extra gear this season.
Polanco was an absolute monster in the first half, hitting .287/.362/.500 with 12 homers, nine steals and 50 RBIs and earning a spot on the All-Snub team. His production fell off dramatically in after the All-Star break, and while he missed just 18 games all year, two ailments were to blame: shoulder and knee issues. Polanco ended up slashing .220/.267/.414 from the middle of July through the end of the season, but even if it would have been a stretch for him to keep exactly on the trajectory he set in the first half, he likely would have put up a 25–20 season with attendant increases in all his slash rates had he stayed fully healthy.
Polanco eliminated his hole against lefties last year, upping his line to .245/.312/.469 against southpaws from .190/.250/.278 without the platoon advantage. If he can cut nagging injuries out of his game this year, he will realize his potential as a five-category player.
2. Why does everyone hate Justin Upton?
Upton didn’t become the superstar everyone expected him to be after his monster 2011 season, when he smashed 31 homers, swiped 21 bags and hit .289/.369/.529 as a 23-year-old and finished fourth in the NL MVP race. Back then, we all thought we were witnessing the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. We know that is not how things turned out. But it's time to get over that.
I can’t remember a player coming off a 31-homer, 89-RBI, 87-run season—like Upton is—being less popular in fantasy circles. Upton was, without question, an unmitigated disaster for the first two-thirds of the season, and he only turned it on long after most of his original owners cut bait on him or were eliminated from contention, slashing .292/.382/.750 with 13 homers in September. That month carried him to respectable numbers after he was essentially a replacement-level player for 120 games. Fantasy owners seem to want to focus on the latter, but the former is more predictive, especially given his track record heading into last season.
Upton may have fallen short of the level so many envisioned for him after 2011, but he was still plenty valuable in fantasy and real-life terms. From 2012 through '16, he hit .262/.339/.461 and averaged 28 homers, 88 RBIs, 96 runs and 14 steals per 162 games. He has been durable his whole career, racking up at least 620 plate appearances in all of the last six seasons. Run-scoring and RBI opportunities are, by their nature, partially dependent on a player’s teammates, and Upton still has a great group around him in Detroit. Before last season, Upton never had an on-base percentage worse than .336. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect his OBP to jump 20 or more points year over year, which would almost certainly mean an increase in runs, RBIs and steals.
As bad as much of last year was for Upton, he’s still a reliable top-20 outfielder. It doesn’t hurt that, despite this being his 10th full season in the majors, he’s still in his 20s. Don’t forget about this underappreciated player on draft day.
3. Can we trust Giancarlo Stanton?
Prodigious power, gaudy per-game numbers, and a near-lock to miss time because of injury: That’s what the baseball world has come to expect from Stanton. When should fantasy owners feel that the first two outweigh the third one, making it the right time to pull the trigger on Miami’s star outfielder?
Some people would say “never,” or at least never at a time that’s realistic. The point is well taken. Stanton has reached 600 plate appearances just twice in his career and 500 plate appearances—equal to about 120 games—four times, and he just barely reached the minimum in two of those, making 501 and 504 trips to the plate. Stanton’s injury history is a major concern.
But then there's his power. Despite playing fewer than 120 games in three of his six full seasons in the majors, Stanton has never hit fewer than 24 homers. He averages 41 homers per 162 games and is likely to push 50 one of these years; he likely would have done so in 2015, when he hit 27 in 74 games, but a broken bone in his left hand cost him the entire second half of the season. That’s what keeps fantasy owners coming back to Stanton: Injuries are a constant threat, but the allure of his power is mighty.
This season, Stanton has his lowest consensus ranking and ADP since early in his career, ranked 13th among outfielders and 36th overall on FantasyPros with an NFBC ADP of 39.11. All three of those are fair, but I’d be willing to jump in sooner. Remember, outfield is the deepest position on the board. It’s easier to replace a player here than anywhere else on the field. And while it isn’t an apples-to-apples replacement for a player like Stanton, the payoff makes him well worth that risk.
4. Which outfielder are you watching most closely in spring training?
I can’t remember the last time I was as excited to see a player in spring training as I am to see Keon Broxton this year. A late-bloomer, Broxton (who will be 27 in May) still does not have 300 career plate appearances under his belt. He first appeared in the majors with the Pirates in 2015 and spent most of the first half of last season in the minors before earning a permanent promotion to Milwaukee in late July.
From that point forward, Broxton was a fixture in the Brewers' lineup, hitting .294/.399/.538 with eight homers and stealing 16 bases in 19 attempts across 169 plate appearances after taking over as the team’s everyday centerfielder. Unfortunately, his season was cut short when he fractured his right wrist running into the wall at Wrigley Field while making a play in left-center, and he missed the last two weeks of the season. That injury should be completely behind him this spring.
A third-round pick of the Diamondbacks in the 2009 draft, Broxton never developed into a top prospect but progressed slowly through the minors, mostly because of his glove, and finally showed enough with the bat at Triple A last season. That it carried right over to his time with the Brewers should give fantasy owners confidence that his 75-game sample last year was not a fluke. Broxton is penciled in atop the Milwaukee lineup, right in front of Jonathan Villar and Ryan Braun, and has the ability to be a 15–30 player. With an ADP approaching 200, he could be a big-time bargain this season.
5. Can I live with Billy Hamilton's drawbacks considering he’s a one-man category winner?
Hamilton made noticeable strides last season, setting new career highs in walk rate (9.1%), batting average (.260), OBP (.321) and, unsurprisingly, stolen bases (58). His contact rate remained flat at 82.3%, and he seemed to gain a greater understanding of his own skill set, putting the ball on the ground 47.7% of the time, which was also a new career high. It was, unquestionably, his best season in the majors and also the most encouraging, given the substantive changes he made to his game.
It wasn’t entirely rosy, however. Hamilton struck out in one-fifth of his plate appearances and failed to reach 500 trips to the plate for the second straight season because of injury. He would have set a new career high in runs had he stayed healthy, but he crossed the plate just 69 times, which is simply too few for a player of his ilk. And yet, with the stolen base a disappearing art in the majors, Hamilton remains a sought-after fantasy commodity. But despite obvious growth from last season, he remains on my do-not-draft list.
Hamilton carries an NFBC ADP of 52.43 and a consensus ranking on FantasyPros of 84. His ADP is higher than that of Carlos Carrasco, Yoenis Cespedes and Andrew McCutchen, and while that is not likely to carry over to your league, my fellow rankers give him a better outlook than Jose Quintana, Bradley and Lorenzo Cain. For them, I have one question: Seriously?
Despite last year’s positive trends, Hamilton is still a one-category player. He may win that category single-handedly, but he’s a drag on batting average and OBP, a non-entity in homers and RBIs and a neutral contributor to runs. He has much more real-life value because of his defense, but in the fantasy world, he’s a gimmick. Moreover, the fact that steals are so scarce makes the position easier to punt, not harder. You won’t be the only person in your league who struggles in the category if you don’t have Hamilton or Villar or Marte. And while gaudy steals totals are rare, 31 players stole at least 15 bags last season. You’ll be able to piece together a team that’s competitive in the category with players who do not compromise other categories the way Hamilton does.