A shot into the gap.
It was 1989 and an upstart outfielder was stepping up to the plate. He dug in, prepared for the pitch and roped a line drive double off the bottom of the 375-foot wall of the Oakland Coliseum, as pitcher Dave Stewart watched it sail. His first career at-bat, a beautifully hit double.
One week later, he did it again.
It was his first career at-bat in his new home, but this time, the ball didn’t hit the bottom of the wall–it cleared it. A home run for the talented rookie, and the beginning of one of the greatest careers in the history of baseball. Ken Griffey Jr. changed the game of baseball for myself, fans, analysts and aspiring outfielders everywhere. Griffey is who I think of every single time I hear the word baseball. My favorite athlete of all time, Griffey was the elite standard of outfielding, and whenever I talk about the position in fantasy baseball, his name is always in the back of my mind.I truly believe that if injuries hadn’t hindered his career, we’d be talking about Junior as the greatest player in the history of the game, but that’s for another time, another day. You came here for fantasy baseball news, which makes sense, considering spring training is less than 50 days away.
The outfield position is, once again, one of the deeper units in fantasy. A nice combination of young studs and safe veterans, there are always guys to grab, but the position is so important, considering you need to start at least three in most formats. So here at XN Sports, we’ll be providing folks with some early positional rankings to assist them on draft day. I love a ton of outfielders this season, and many will be very, very good. But none will be Ken Griffey Jr.
Okay. Maybe one…
Yeah… that Mike Trout guy is pretty damn good.
After finishing as the runner-up for the American League MVP, Trout took home the title in 2014, posting a career-high 36 home runs and 111 RBI. That gives him just under 100 home runs in 493 career plate appearances, and his 36 home run 2014 campaign was boosted by his ability to get under the ball more, as he posted a career-best 47.1 percent fly ball rate last year. Meanwhile, he put the ball on the ground about eight percent less often than last year, and his HR/FB rate of 17.8 was his highest since 2012. The only two knocks I can find on Trout are his lower stolen base total, as he swiped 17 less bags this past season, but it appears that manager Mike Scioscia may be limiting his superstar in that regard, which is a bummer, considering Trout is a legitimate 30-30 talent. Also, his strikeout rate climbed to 26.1 percent last year, easily the highest of his big league career. And during the second half of the year, he struck out a troubling 30 percent of the time. But still, this is the best player in baseball, batting at the top of a very strong lineup.
-Because he reminds me of Griffey, Andrew McCutchen is my favorite player in the game today. He can hit for average, hit for power, steal bases, field, you name it. A pure five-tool player, Cutch has been the NL MVP and led the Pirates to the postseason in two straight seasons after the franchise failed to make the playoffs since 1992. So why else do I love McCutchen? (without bias, of course). Well, he’s a smart player, only striking out 16 percent of the time in his career, while getting on base often. Call me Billy Beane, but I love guys who are on base a lot, and Cutch is sporting an OBP of at least .400 in three straight seasons now. And when a talented guy like him gets on base, he has chances to steal. McCutchen posted the best stolen base success rate of his career last year, swiping 18-of-21 bags (85.7%), while it was, however, the first year of his career where he posted less than 20 stolen bases.
-I’m not sure if I can find anything that Michael Brantley didn’t do last season. The Indians outfielder earned his first All-Star bid and finished third in AL MVP voting, thanks to an incredible .327 average, 20 home runs, 23 stolen bases, 45 doubles, 94 runs and an awesome 676 plate appearances. Only five players in all of baseball posted at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bags, and Brantley was one of them. A guy who can steal 25 or so bases needs to be on base a lot, and it helped that his 91.3 percent contact rate ranked second in the American League, while his walk rate went up and strikeout rate went down. I tend to gravitate towards five-tool fantasy players, and Brantley does it all for the Indians and owners. Only six players in the league both scored and drove in at least 90 runs last year, and Mr. Brantley was one of them. While some regression should be expected, Brantley is certainly no fluke.
-I’ve already expressed my love for Adam Jones, but in case you missed it, let’s recap, shall we? Jones has emerged as one of the safest players in all of fantasy baseball over the last three seasons.
2014: .281 AVG, 29 HR, 181 H, 644 AB.
2013: .285 AVG, 33 HR, 186 H, 653 AB.
2013: .287 AVG, 32 HR, 186 H, 648 AB.
Those 1,945 at-bats during that span are the most in all of baseball, by the way. A lock for a .280 average, 30 home runs and at least 90 RBI, Jones is one of my favorite players in the league, despite his comical walk rate. His walk rate dropped to just 2.9 percent last season, while still striking out around 20 percent of the time. He’s not the most patient hitter, by any means, but he improved against left-handed pitching, seeing his average against southpaws climb from .251 all the way t0 .344, hitting nine homers against lefties, too.
-Not many players in the game today have as much upside as Bryce Harper. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the most talented players in all of baseball. He smashed 11 home runs and batted .283 over the last two months of the season, but immediately after coming off surgery to repair a torn UCL in his thumb, he struggled, batting just .228 with two homers during the month of July. He also struck out 26 percent of the time last season and still swings at a large amount of pitches outside of the strike zone, but most fantasy owners are willing to give him another chance. When you can get a potential top-15 overall player at this much of a discount, it’s difficult to pass up.
-Speaking of health, why can’t Carlos Gonzalez stay healthy? During his first 10 games last year, Car-Go mashed four home runs, and appeared to be on track for another All-Star campaign. But then it happened. Gonzalez suffered knee tendinitis in April, an index finger injury in May, and finally, a season-ending patella tendon tear. He played a career-low 70 games, and in just under 300 at-bats, Gonzo only walked about six percent of the time, while striking out 25 percent of the time. It’s fair to question whether the bat speed is there, and, of course, the injury history is extensive and terrifying. The Rockies do have some options in the outfield, so it wouldn’t be crazy to consider them moving Gonzalez, which, away from Coors, would be a shot to his value.
-Because of the injuries to the Rockies’ outfield, it was Corey Dickerson who led the team in home runs in 2014 with 24. He also batted .312, which would have likely led the National League had he seen enough plate appearances. Of course, there’s the Coors factor, as it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to fantasy baseball.
62 percent of Dickerson’s 24 home runs from last year came at home, but he’s proven to be a very talented hitter, so the OF1 possibility is warranted. If he can improve against left-handed pitching and swing at a few less pitches, he could once again be among the top NL batters this season.
-Breakout, sleeper, whatever you want to call it, Mookie Betts is your guy for 2015. Assuming he bats leadoff for the Sox, Betts is a prime breakout candidate. After being called up last year, Betts was very impressive, batting .291 with five homers, 34 runs, 18 RBI and seven stolen bases during his 213 plate appearances. His position is still unclear, as he played second base for Boston last year, but moved to the outfield shortly afterwards. I love Betts as a player. He’s smart and patient, swinging at less than 20 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, and walking about 10 percent of the time. Batting at the top of a stacked Boston lineup with guys like David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, etc., Betts could score 100 runs and steal upwards of 30 bases this year, assuming he plays everyday. And as a terrific defender, he should.
-Staying in the breakout category, George Springer flirted with it and teased us all last year. After a very slow start, Springer got hot, hitting his stride during the month of May. He hit 10 home runs, drove in 25 runs and batted .294 during the month, finishing with 25 home runs in just 345 plate appearances. He has legitimate 30 home run power, as well as 15-20 stolen base speed. And if he can finish with a 20-20 season, it would be a rare feat, as only five players in all of baseball did so last year, while Carlos Gomez was the lone player to post a 20-30 campaign. Under new management, don’t be surprised if Houston lets Springer run more, too. The only concern I have is his propensity to strikeout, swinging and missing 33 percent of the time last year, but the second-year player should evolve more as a hitter, and I’m on board.
31) Christian Yelich
32) Jay Bruce
33) Billy Hamilton
34) Starling Marte
35) Brett Gardner
36) Gregory Polanco
37) Nick Markakis
38) Rusney Castillo
39) Alex Rios
40) Jayson Werth