Draft a Stud Outfielder Early and Often

Outfielders! Finally! When I started writing for the assembly last month, my first column was on second basemen, a position with questionable options at the top and a combination of declining veterans, unproven young players, and general mediocrities. Last week, I wrote about shortstops, a position with questionable options at the top and a combination of declining veterans, unproven young players, and general mediocrities. So this must be the secure place to use our early picks and spend our auction dollars.

The owner who drafted Carlos Gonzalez last year in the top 5 was probably thinking that. So did the owner who was looking for a fourth straight 30+ home run season from Jay Bruce along with the owner who was certain of another season of reliable across-the-board production from Shin-Soo Choo. Ryan Braun, Bryce Harper, Alex Rios…these guys all went within the top 12 or so at the position last year and they all were obstacles to dreams of fantasy glory.

So while we want a top outfielder to be a prime source of stats, preferably in all five roto categories thank you very much, finding one who will not burn you is not a simple matter. That’s why Trout, Stanton, McCutchen, and Carlos Gomez are luxury items this year, worth the high price you will pay to get them. They give you big numbers everywhere (even Stanton got to double digits in steals, which was a cherry on top of his all world power) and they’ve never had a season we could call disappointing.

Part of what makes a luxury item desirable is that it is not readily available everyone. And while there may be any number of reasons why we’re not wearing a Rolex watch or alligator shoes, we will miss out on these players simply because we are slated to draft eleventh in our twelve-team mixed league.

Once the top 4 outfielders are gone, this becomes a tough position to get a handle on. Those early round bogeymen, risk, uncertainty, variance, rear their heads in the next group of players to varying degrees. Yet, it seems unwise to ignore the position entirely in the early going and head into battle with, I don’t know, Jason Heyward as your best outfielder.

So let’s tackle some of the players who, like it or not, may turn out to be the top outfielder on our fantasy team. And what the heck, let’s look at them in the order they were taken in this week’s LABR mixed-league draft. Looking at an expert league that actually counts may be informative. These are the guys who were taken after the top 4 up through the end of the third round.

Adam Jones – A couple of years ago I was watching a Yankees playoff game with my mom. It was a tight one and Joe Girardi went to the mound and called for a pitching change. The pitcher is running in from the bullpen and my mom goes “This guy makes me nervous.” Was it Boone Logan? Joba? Nope, it was Mariano Rivera.

This story came to mind when I was thinking of Adam Jones. There’s something about him that makes people anxious about drafting him as a first rounder, even though he has been a fantasy owner’s dream for about four years running. Every year he hits around .280, is in the neighborhood of 30 home runs and chips in some speed. What does he have to prove? I know some question his approach at the plate and his OPS is not pretty, but we don’t care about that in 5 x 5, or at least we shouldn’t let that override the track record. He went above his usual slot in LABR, but in my mind that’s about his proper value. Once we get to pick 9 or so, it’s time to pounce.

Jose Bautista – The counting stats were not as impressive in 2013, but that was a playing time issue for the most part. Plus, people were distracted by a decline in batting average. The power was still there, and savvy owners picked up a nice profit in 2014. I mention this so we don’t fall into some idea that Joey Bats is inconsistent. There is a little more risk as he ages but he’s a worthy pick around the turn.

Ryan Braun – I cannot believe this is happening but there is a belief slowly creeping into my mind that Braun is worth a shot this year. Now, I don’t know that he should be a second-round pick and the seventh outfielder off the board, but if he slips past that point, and he may, this could be someone to target.

Through gnashed teeth, here is my pro-Braun case: First of all, last year’s numbers were terrible for Braun, but 68/19/81/11/.266 is not a terrible line in today’s game. It also strikes me as one of those goofy lines where someone might write “Only 4 players put up at least 68 runs, etc. but I’m not looking it up and it’s not really meaningful. Now, keep in mind that he missed about 100 PA because of injury; I know that pro-rating is dangerous but we can nudge everything up to, what, 80/23/95/13. Remember my gushing about Adam Jones? I’d be just about satisfied with a line like that from Adam Jones this year. To quibble, I’d want about 5 more home runs. That brings me to the fact that Braun was playing with a hand injury that had to be bugging him and sapping some power. It’s looking like he is finally addressed it, so maybe there is some power lurking in there that we haven’t seen in a while.

Now there’s also the PEDs issue. It’s not a minus to me. Look at what Nelson Cruz did last year post-suspension. Melky Cabrera put up another good year as did Jhonny Peralta; from what I can see, there’s no reason to downgrade someone based on a PED suspension. Now, he also behaved like a jerk, but I don’t care about that and neither should you. There is room for a sociopathic douche drug user on my fantasy team. That covers Bonds, Clemens, and a host of other legends.

Billy Hamilton – Shocking second round pick. I’m sure the drafter had his reasons for drafting Hamilton here. In fact, they are apparent: the biggest stolen base upside in major league baseball. But in my mind, Hamilton didn’t show enough in the other categories to justify this pick. If he doesn’t hit, and he didn’t for decent stretches, that will kill his runs, especially if he gets bumped down the lineup. Also, taking Hamilton here severely hampers your ability to find value later in the draft. You need to cross off half of your cheat sheet if you want to have a balanced team that can compete in the offensive categories. I prefer to get my power while I can and get steals in a variety of baskets later. Plant your flag here if you’d like; I’m planting mine elsewhere.

Yasiel Puig – One question I ask myself when I’m drafting: “Is this player clearly the best available player at his position?” The question has a nice easy answer when, say Beltre has been drafted and you like Josh Donaldson. So say we have Donaldson and he is there along with a few other members of this murky outfield group. In most cases I’ll draft Donaldson. But then there’s another question I’ll ask myself. “Can this player be the second best player in fantasy?” And that’s why I’m looking long and hard at Yasiel Puig. Nonparallel physical gifts, youth, hasn’t shown it for a full season, but there have been stretches of absolute brilliance. There have been some rough stretches but he might have been playing through some nagging injuries that hampered his second half. Puig is a lightning rod, but a dependable batting average and speed (he could steal a few more bases) prevent him from being the all-or-nothing pick some people think he is. Love him in the end of the second round if I can have him.

Starling Marte – I thought you should know that everyone will be on to your “sleeper” pick by the time you draft. I thought I was going to get him in the fifth round too, but you are paying a pretty penny to get him. Can’t believe he was taken ahead of the next two guys on the list, but I’d say he is a safe bet to outrank them at the end of the year. Still I want more power bang for my second round OF1 fantasy buck.

Michael Brantley – Every year there’s an outfielder that comes out of nowhere and to put up an insane line. Everything comes together for him and we all know it’s a career year. And he graduates to the upper rounds the following year. And every year there are these wishy-washy write-ups about how the writer expects a step back, but even with that built in he’ll be worth what it takes to get him. Then he regresses even more than that and he’s not worth what you paid. That is Michael Brantley in 2015. A Hunter Pence type season is my best-case scenario for him. He is a nice player and can help your team but no one is taking Hunter Pence this high. Don’t pay for a career year!

Jacoby Ellsbury – We need to stop chasing dreams of a return to best player in fantasy form. He will not hit 30 home runs; you’ll be lucky to get 20, you’ll probably get 14. He will not steal 50 bases, you’re probably getting 25 or so. He is who he is and last year was actually as good as you can expect. That’s pretty good, but that’s not going to carry the offense.

Bryce Harper – See my entry about Puig. I don’t blame you for being impatient, injuries suck and so does seemingly untapped potential. But he is so young, on such a good team, and so gifted. We haven’t seen his best yet, not even close. I’d love to have Harper as my OF2. As an OF1, I don’t know who I would have on my team to make it worth the downside; I’d back him up with a second OF in the next round.

George Springer – Another talented guy, young with the power-speed Holy Grail in a better lineup than you think. But that strikeout rate worries me. I feel like you can’t just take him as the best player available, you kind of have to set up your team so that taking him won’t harm you. Too early for those kinds of machinations for me.

Carlos Gonzalez – Speaking of power-speed combos, what the hell happened here? We knew he’d get hurt, but we always thought we had stats when healthy. Last year the injuries sidelined him for longer and the production was putrid when he played. Now, anyone can have a crappy half a season, so maybe he deserves a mulligan. But this was the first time he was truly bad giving owners a nagging feeling that his numbers could be anywhere on the map this year. Boom or bust pick.

Matt Kemp – I don’t think the steals will be coming back, but when you take a look at his second half line it’s clear we gave up on him too quickly last year and the return to form seems legit. Petco squelches power, but maybe part of that is the Padres lineup was so bad. The Padres really haven’t had a guy like this in their lineup for a long time.

Justin Upton – And now they have two of them. I have even less of a concern about the home park with Upton, who hits moon shots. His inconsistency is overstated; even in his lesser years he’s never been a flat-out bust. I’m surprised so many others went ahead of him and if you can get him at the end of the third round I think you’ll be getting a bargain.

For those of you still waiting on an outfielder at this point (you shouldn’t be), the next five off the board are Cespedes, Pence, Dickerson, Heyward, and Yelich.

What to make of this mess? Well, there is a lot of risk in this bunch considering the price tag. Cargo and Braun need to bounce a long way back from where they were. Marte and Springer are relatively unproven at this level. I don’t believe in Ellsbury’s power upside or Brantley’s for that matter. I might play the sucker for Puig or Harper, but even I can see the argument against them.

Nevertheless, it looks to me like you might be able to put together the start of a good outfield even if you are screwed out of that pick in the top early part of the first round. I would look at reliability and prefer to steer clear of intrigue, controversy, and noise. The reliability of Jones and Batista is worth that late first-round pick. If you take one of them and back him up with Kemp or Upton, you are well on your way to matching the guy who has one of the big four and felt he could take a chance on a Braun or Cargo, or just ignore outfield altogether.

The second baseman or shortstop you take here at this point won’t match the stud outfielder. When you get to the later rounds you can find some decent values for the infield while your opponents are throwing darts in the outfield.  Of course, no draft is predictable and we may need a dart or two to throw in the outfield ourselves. Who are our undervalued outfielders to grab late? We’ll have to see about that when we dig a little deeper.