If you are lucky enough to have one of the first two picks in your upcoming mixed league draft, you have already secured yourself a pretty nice first outfielder, should you be so inclined.
For the rest of us, life will likely have to go on without Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. That won't necessarily be an easy path to tread. There are seven outfielders who stand above the rest in terms of upside and reliability, but even the elites can give us some pangs of doubt. Giancarlo Stanton has unequaled power, but a sore knee may be making owners nervous. With Andrew McCutchen's steals on the wane, one has to wonder how much longer he will remain among the top outfield options. Jose Bautista isn't slowing down, but he is aging, and Chris Davis' streakiness is in turns exhilarating and maddening.
It seems odd that the safest top outfielder beyond Trout and Harper is A.J. Pollock, who was best known as a defense-first player up until just two years ago.
As risky as the high-end options are, if you don't draft one, you and your outfielders could be in for a bumpy ride this season.
As I mentioned in the first base landscape column, I am taking what I call a "7 & 7" approach to drafting outfielders and first basemen. I view the top seven players at each position as being significantly more valuable than the rest of the field, so I'm prioritizing getting one from each group. This is easier said than done, since all of these 13 players (and not 14, as I am double-counting the dual-eligible Davis) are typically off the board by sometime in the third round. Fortunately, the starting pitcher pool is deep at the top, so if you dedicate two of your first three picks to first base and outfield, the biggest risk is missing out on the elites in the middle infield and third base.
Given the uncertainty that lies just beyond the end of the first tier of outfielders, I'm fine with taking that gamble. Mookie Betts is being drafted as a top seven outfielder in many leagues, but his reliance on pull-field power and lopsided home/road splits could make him something less than elite. Other candidates to be No. 1 or No. 2 outfielders have less appeal due to histories of inconsistency (George Springer, Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig), injuries (Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez) or questionable plate discipline (Starling Marte, J.D. Martinez). At least age isn't a major concern for most players in this group, though Nelson Cruz is an exception.
At least the top 24 outfielders all share the potential to finish among the top 12, even if most of them come with a little too much risk. The ceiling is considerably lower for outfielders you would consider drafting as a No. 3. Some of the more popular choices at this point in the draft are veterans looking to rebound, such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Hunter Pence and Hanley Ramirez. If you'd rather go younger at this stage, there are plenty of alternatives, from Christian Yelich to David Peralta to Randal Grichuk to Joc Pederson. Given the wealth of young talent on the rise, it is unnecessary to reach for the highest players in your queue.
As would be expected with any position that includes numerous young players who have yet to settle into an established level of performance, there are several breakout candidates among this year's cohort of mixed league players. Owners have been drafting Betts as if he is due to surge beyond his 2015 numbers, but Springer looks the most primed to join the elite ranks. That should happen if Springer can couple last season's improved K-rate and steals total with 2014's 40-plus homer pace for a full season.
The two-thirds of the Dodgers outfield that are not Andre Ethier could take a step forward this year. In an otherwise disappointing 2015, Puig's home run rate rebounded, so he just needs to add average and steals back into the mix. Pederson needs to pick up where he left off last June and sustain a power groove for a larger portion of a whole season.
Yelich, Gregory Polanco, Khris Davis, Jackie Bradley and Delino DeShields are among those who have shown promise for extended stretches and are still young enough to build on their skill set and consistency.
There aren't many outfielders likely to be drafted in 12-team mixed leagues who appear to be in danger of losing their jobs. Based on how they were used last season, Joc Pederson and Marcell Ozuna seem to have a more tenuous grasp on their jobs than other outfielders in their respective cohorts. When Pederson struggled late, he was benched at times for Enrique Hernandez, while Ozuna was optioned to Triple-A for more than a month.
Steven Souza is a popular late-round option in Rotisserie leagues due to his 20-20 potential, but the Rays have a crowded first base/outfield/designated hitter situation. That could make it difficult for Souza to find steady at-bats. Rusney Castillo is also being drafted as a late-rounder, but he may need a strong spring just to break camp as a starter. Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told MassLive.com that Castillo needs to "show he can earn the job."
Despite similar-sounding names, Fantasy owners haven't been prone to confuse Byron Buxton with Keon Broxton, but the two outfielders could share something in common. Both could be starting center fielders on opening day, and they could be part of a tiny group of rookie outfielders to begin the season in a starting role. Hyun Soo Kim looks close to certain to be the Orioles' regular left fielder. With Aaron Altherr getting shelved by a wrist injury and subsequent surgery, Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel could get a shot as a starter with the Phillies.
As one of the top overall prospects, Buxton has as good of a chance to make an important contribution to Fantasy as any rookie this season, but there are several candidates for midseason callups who could be valuable as well. Rangers prospects Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson, the Yankees' Aaron Judge, the Reds' Jesse Winker, and the Braves' Mallex Smith, along with Buxton, are the most notable members of this year's rookie outfield class, and they should help to deepen the outfield pool for years to come.
The Big Picture
Outfield may appear to be unusually shallow on Draft Day, but unlike first base, it has the potential to get much deeper during the season. While the outfield pool for standard mixed leagues does include a few players who could fall off the map, for the most part, no one whom you would draft has a floor low enough to spell impending doom. The number of players who have the potential to break out or burst onto the scene outweighs that of the players who have a good chance of dragging down your team.
It should still pay to target your first outfielder by the second or third round. Should you invest those early picks in other positions, there may be enough outfielders with upside to afford you the opportunity to get away with it.