Saturday, March 15, 2014

2014 Draft Prep: Outfield profiles

Remember when outfield was a deep position?

The outfield pool does not lack for players with high-end potential, but don't let that bounty lull you into thinking you can wait to fill your outfield slots as you prioritize other needs. There are few sure things at the position, so as a result, you just may start to think that "boring" (e.g., Adam Jones, Hunter Pence) is the new "exciting" and pursue previously uninspiring players with some of your earliest picks.

Mike Trout is in a class by himself, and while Andrew McCutchen probably won't match Trout's power, he, too, should be among the very top picks due to his durability and well-rounded production. After those two are off the board, it's something of a free-for-all, with your options ranging from the steady Jones/Pence types to a much larger group of riskier players. Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and Giancarlo Stanton could all produce like first-rounders, but all have dealt with their share of injuries. Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig could both be among the elites, but given their limited track record, they pose their own risks. And Ryan Braun ... well, it's hard to know exactly what to expect from him in the post-suspension era.

Things don't get much easier in the quest for No. 2 and No. 3 outfielders. Reliable types like Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Holliday and Jay Bruce dot the landscape, but most of the options offer at least as much risk as reward. A few of the more enticing, but also more treacherous, outfielders from the middle tiers are the main focus of this set of projection profiles. Specifically, Domonic Brown's scorching first half of 2013, Alfonso Soriano's surprising resurgence, curtis granderson free agent-granderson">Curtis Granderson's migration to the National League and Yoenis Cespedes' deflating sophomore season all have the potential to give Fantasy owners fits this draft season. The projections for each are included here, as well as the explanations behind the numbers.

Because the outfield pool is so riddled with risk and uncertainty, it's important to target the ones you want -- whether it's because you trust them or because you can't resist their upside -- as early as possible. There may not be a way around feeling some Draft Day angst as you fill out your outfield slots, but the intent of providing these six profiles is to arm you with information that can help you make some of those picks with confidence.

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Puig set some unrealistic expectations for himself by hitting .391 in the first half last season, but just because he fell off his pace in the second half doesn't mean he can't be a top 10 outfielder. He managed to maintain his home run and doubles power after the All-Star break, thanks in part to an elevated flyball rate, and Puig's .373 post-break on-base percentage was built on a surging walk rate and a .323 BABIP that he is fast enough to maintain.

The projection assumes that Puig can come close to maintaining his 35 percent flyball rate (per from the second half, while moving closer to the elevated home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB) he exhibited in the first half. It also assumes some improvement in his strikeout rate, as he made much more frequent contact during his limited time in the minors. Perhaps the biggest question mark raised by Puig's projection is whether he will hit the target of 18 stolen bases. His 11 for 19 success rate on steals last year raises doubt as to whether he will be efficient enough to merit a projected increase, but with possibly a larger presence in the leadoff role this season, he may get more steal opportunities.

If he hits his projection, Puig will pay off as a top 30 pick overall, and there could be even more upside there. He's not the safest use of a second- or third-round pick, though, should he fall short on his potential for batting average or steals.

Brown's projection assumes that he can approximate last season's per-game power output, even though his 23-homer first half looks like an extreme outlier on his big league resume. Brown had hit for power in his minor league career, and after last season's resurgence, improved health plus a new batting grip sound like plausible explanations for a legit comeback. Though his end-of-season numbers were far less impressive than those he posted in the first half, it's important to note that Brown's numbers didn't tail off substantially until after his return from a concussion in August.

Not only can Brown pick up where he left off, toying with a 30-home run season, but he could improve on last year's .272 batting average. Brown has yet to post a BABIP above .300 in the majors, but the source of his subpar rates has varied from year to year, suggesting bad luck rather than a chronic problem. The Phillies' lineup may struggle to provide run production opportunities for Brown, but with a batting average closer to the .300-plus marks from his prospect heyday, he still has a good shot at a 90-RBI season.

Because of his limited and uneven track record, other owners may balk at taking Brown among the top 25 outfielders, but he could very well finish the 2014 season with that distinction.

After producing the first run of player projections in the fall, there is always a handful of players whose projected numbers force me to do a double-take. Soriano was a notable member of that group this offseason.

Inconsistency, questionable plate discipline, age ... there has been no shortage of reasons why I've distrusted Soriano in recent years, but a surprisingly favorable first-run projection had me taking a closer look at his trends. For the first time since 2005-06, Soriano has played in more than 150 games in back-to-back seasons, and that has gone a long way towards helping his counting stats. He has also been extremely consistent on a year-to-year basis in terms of power production, and he has actually increased his HR/FB ratio four years in a row.

Owners already know not to expect Soriano to hit much above .250, but even with some dropoff in his HR/FB ratio, another 30-homer season is attainable. Soriano probably won't come near last season's 84 runs or 18 stolen bases, but all that means is that he drops out of the top 12 outfielders, where virtually no one expects him to reside anyway.

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The days of Granderson hitting even .250 with 20 steals are probably behind him, but that doesn't mean he can't still be a top 25 outfielder. Prior to last season, Granderson had been on steady 30- plus home run paces, and who knows what he could have done last year if not for the broken forearm and pinky sustained on two separate plunkings? It's doubtful that Granderson will match the 40-homer power from 2011 and 2012, but he may not lose as much clout as some fear as a result of his crosstown move. Yankee Stadium is nearly unparalleled as a home run haven for lefty hitters, but even in his away games, Granderson managed to hit 37 homers over those two big power seasons. Citi Field, as a neutral homer park for lefties, shouldn't dampen Granderson's home run total too much.

Granderson may also not be completely done as a stolen base source, as he was 8 for 10 in steal attempts in only 61 games last year. Even with a .220s batting average, Granderson can do enough in the other categories to offer a reasonable return if you take him within the first 90 picks. Aside from a stolen base projection that could be optimistic, there is probably not much risk in drafting him based on his projected numbers.

Cespedes represents one of the toughest dilemmas to deal with when creating projections. He's a third-year player who has produced very different results in each of his first two seasons. Given that Cespedes is still only 28 and not facing age-related decline, there is a strong temptation to heavily discount last season and expect a return to his 2012 levels.

There's good reason to expect Cespedes to rebound, particularly in batting average and doubles, as he suffered from subpar -- and likely unlucky -- batting averages on flyballs (.050) and line drives (.659) in play. I don't have Cespedes making a full recovery to his .292 batting average from 2012 because he did have more trouble making contact with pitches in the strike zone last year, and that contributed to his strikeout per at bat rate shooting up from 21 to 26 percent. After missing out on half of his 14 stolen base attempts from a year ago, a rebound in the steals category looks even less likely.

Even with a partial rebound, Cespedes is a top 40 outfielder in Rotisserie leagues, and should he stay healthy enough to play in far more than 135 games, he will be one in Head-to-Head leagues, too. There's room for Cespedes to reach a higher ceiling than that, but there are enough danger signs that should keep owners from viewing him as the top 20 Roto outfielder that he was as a rookie.

With seven home runs in an abbreviated 49-game season in Double-A, Yelich showed a glimpse of his potential future power. Based on what Yelich did in his 62-game debut with the Marlins, that future may take awhile to get here.

Rather than dwell on some potentially bad news, let's get to the good news first. As a 21-year- old, Yelich hit a healthy .288 and got on base at a .370 clip. While I didn't project him to return to those levels, they do represent an achievable upside. Those marks were helped along by a .382 BABIP and 11 percent walk rate, and given his history of line drive power and patience, he could approach those levels again. Simply because a .380-plus BABIP is extremely hard to replicate, I have Yelich projected to hit .339 on balls in play, but as good as that would be, he could greatly exceed it.

Then there's that matter of his projected power numbers, which seem more befitting of a middle infielder. Aside from his brief foray into Double-A ball, Yelich has profiled as an extreme ground ball hitter, and last season's 11 percent flyball rate with the Marlins was lower than DJ LeMahieu's and Jamey Carroll's and barely higher than Jonathan Villar's (he of the 12 extra-base hits in 210 at-bats).

Maybe Yelich takes a step forward this year, but maybe it's a small one, and the Marlins' lineup probably won't help him much with run production. Because Yelich has some batting average and stolen base potential, he's worth having on your radar in standard mixed leagues, but because of his possible shortcomings, he should merely be considered as an endgame option.

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