Top 5 Prospects in the Outfield (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
This series kicked off to start the new year with a look at the top five catching prospects in 2020 re-draft leagues, and the outfield is up next. While the catching prospects weren’t a particularly exciting group for this year’s fantasy purposes, the outfield features some intriguing players and is headlined by a legitimate 20/20 threat who raked his way from High-A to Triple-A last season. All five outfielders included in this piece reached at least the Triple-A level last year, with one having received a cup of major-league joe.
5. Monte Harrison (MIA)
In 2019, only 21 players stole 20 or more bases, 11 players stole 25 or more bases, and just eight players hit the 30-stolen base threshold or exceeded it. Harrison stole 20 bases in 56 games in Triple-A last year and added three in two games at the High-A level. Both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline grade his run tool as a 60 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. Harrison’s speed is his greatest asset for fantasy, but the old saying you can’t steal first base is apt for him.
Harrison’s propensity to swing and miss is a cause for concern. He struck out in a whopping 36.9% of his 583 plate appearances at the Double-A level in 2018, and changing his approach in 2019 allowed him to shave that down to a 29.9 K% in 244 plate appearances in Triple-A. The fact he cut his strikeout rate down while moving up a level is encouraging, but it’s still a high mark and portends to initial struggles against big-league pitchers.
In addition to being fast, Harrison has plus raw power that’s shown up in gaudy exit velocities according to the scouting reports at FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline. His speed and hard-hit balls should help him continue to post a high BABIP (.373 BABIP last year at Triple-A and .368 at Double-A in 2018), but his raw power won’t fully be put to use unless he hits the ball in the air more. He had only a 21.8 FB% in Triple-A last year though, he did smack nine homers.
Harrison missed out on some development time last year as a result of suffering a fractured wrist in June, but he returned before the end of the season and is playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason. FanGraphs, MLB Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus all offer a 2020 ETA for Harrison. He’ll almost certainly spend more time working at his craft in Triple-A to start the year, but the rebuilding Marlins don’t have much in the way of established talent blocking Harrison on the parent club. If he’s not completely overwhelmed by pitching in the majors, his stolen base contributions alone have a chance to help gamers in deeper leagues over the summer. If he’s able to cut his strikeout rate down a bit more and lift some more balls, however, he has a chance to be more than a one-trick pony who’s a liability in batting average.
4. Dylan Carlson (STL)
Marcell Ozuna declined the qualifying offer from the Cardinals, and that leaves the Red Birds with zero outfielders who accumulated more than two wins above replacement (WAR), per FanGraphs’ calculations. They do have a defensive star in the form of Harrison Bader in center field. In fact, FanGraphs ranked him as the best defensive center fielder last year. The corner outfield spots leave something to be desired. Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler sit atop the team’s depth chart with Jose Martinez listed as the backup in both corners. All three earned negative defense marks from FanGraphs, and Fowler’s 103 wRC+ was the high-water total with O’Neill’s 91 wRC+ in 2019 bringing up the rear and Martinez’s 101 wRC+ rounding things out.
This is all a winded way of saying Carlson should have a great deal of control of his timetable for helping the parent club with the unexciting options ahead of him. Carlson’s not on the 40-man roster, but the Cardinals were a playoff squad last year and would be foolish to quibble over who to jettison from the 40-man when Carlson demonstrates he’s ready to provide more value to them than the incumbents. The 21-year-old outfielder might not take too long showcasing he’s ready to help the Red Birds, either.
In 483 plate appearances in Double-A last year, he hit 21 homers with a .281/.364/.518 slash, 18 stolen bases, and a 142 wRC+. He also demonstrated plate discipline that belied his youth with a 10.8 BB% and 20.3 K%. He earned a promotion to Triple-A by the middle of August, and he concluded the year by hitting .361/.418/.681 with five homers, two stolen bases, and a 161 wRC+ in 79 plate appearances. His elite walk rate slipped to 7.6%, but his strikeout rate only crept up a couple of points to 22.8%. Those marks aren’t too shabby when contextualized for a 20-year-old hitter getting their first taste of the minor’s highest level. The sum of his work between the two levels resulted in 26 homers, 20 stolen bases, and a triple-slash line of .292/.372/.542.
Moving beyond the numbers, Carlson is a switch-hitter who MLB Pipeline describes as having “some serious offensive potential.” They currently grade his hit and run tools as 50 and his power as 55. Gamers aren’t completely sleeping on him in early drafts. He’s being selected as OF71 with an ADP of approximately 290 in Fantrax leagues.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in early December that the club intends on bringing Carlson to spring training to compete for playing time in the outfield. He also stated that the club is “open to him winning a spot on the opening day roster.” He immediately followed that up by stating, “the club is more likely to get Carlson regular playing time at Class AAA Memphis with an eye on him reaching the majors later in the summer — and sticking there.” A hot spring could turn Carlson into a helium man who steadily rises up draft boards, but his current ADP feels fair. Carlson’s upside is worth drafting and stashing on benches in leagues as shallow as 12-team mixers as long as the benches aren’t too small. He’s an even more attractive stash target in leagues with weekly lineup changes as opposed to daily lineup changes.
3. Sam Hilliard (COL)
Hilliard reached the majors in late August last year, and he should have a shot to compete for the third starting outfield spot that doesn’t already belong to Charlie Blackmon and David Dahl. The 25-year-old outfielder played all three outfield spots last year, and he raked upon his call-up.
In 87 plate appearances, he hit .273/.356/.649 with seven homers, a 10.3 BB%, and 26.4 K%. Even after adjusting for his work in his hitter-friendly home digs, he tallied a 138 wRC+, per FanGraphs. He also chipped in a couple of stolen bases. His stellar work for the Rockies followed up a big season at the Triple-A level in which he slugged 35 homers, stole 22 bases, and hit .262/.335/.558 with a 107 wRC+.
Hilliard’s power and speed combo are supported by above-average grades in power and run. His hit tool earns below-average grades, but Coors Field could artificially help his batting average. Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus describes him as a “long-side platoon outfielder,” and Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs also expect him to be on “the larger half of a platoon in any of the three outfield positions.”
Glancing over his splits at Baseball-Reference reveals that he struggled with lefties in 2018 to the tune of a .577 OPS in Double-A, but he bumped that up to a .899 OPS in 2019. In an admittedly tiny sample of 20 plate appearances against lefties for the Rockies last year, he acquitted himself well with a .267/.450/.667 slash, a pair of dingers, and identical 25% strikeout and walk rates. Given the scouting reports, it’s probably best to exercise caution extrapolating his success against southpaws, but he also probably shouldn’t be immediately pigeonholed as only a platoon option. Sitting him against tougher southpaws and starting right-handed hitting Ian Desmond against them does make sense, though.
Hilliard narrowly edged out the aforementioned Carlson for this spot, yet he’s being drafted roughly 70 picks later in Fantrax leagues, and he currently has an ADP of 360 and is checking in as OF82. At that cost, Hilliard is a drool-inducing lottery ticket who I strongly advise rolling the dice on.
2. Jo Adell (LAA)
Adell is one of the highest-ceiling prospects in all of baseball. He’s universally a top-five prospect checking in fifth at MLB Pipeline, third on the last FanGraphs top-100 prospect list in 2019, and he ranked second on the Baseball Prospectus 2019 midseason top 50 prospect list. As expected by his high ranking on top prospect lists, his tools are loud.
MLB Pipeline gives him tools grades of 55 hit, 60 power, and 65 run. He missed a good chunk of the early part of last year with hamstring and ankle injuries, but he reached Triple-A by year’s end. In 182 plate appearances and 43 games in Double-A, he hit .308/.390/.553 with eight homers, six stolen bases in six attempts, a 10.4 BB%, 22.5 K%, and 173 wRC+. Those are eye-popping numbers.
He scuffled a bit in Triple-A, hitting only .264/.321/.355 with zero homers, one stolen base, a 7.6 BB%, 32.6 K%, and 67 wRC+. The precocious talent did hike himself up by the bootstraps, though, and he closed the year hitting .314/.351/.443 with a 5.4 BB%, 29.7 K%, and 94 wRC+ in his last 15 games and 70 plate appearances. Adell also played in the Arizona Fall League, and in 111 plate appearances, ripped three homers with a .273/.351/.444 slash, 9.9 BB%, 26.1 K%, and three stolen bases in three attempts, according to Baseball-Reference.
His high-ish strikeout rate and lack of jaw-dropping numbers in Triple-A helped make the decision to slot him in behind the forthcoming outfielder easier. Although, Adell’s tools are special, and he could be the best rookie this year. He’s currently being drafted as OF40 with an ADP of approximately 158 in Fantrax leagues.
As much as I love Adell, that’s a little rich for my blood as I write this now. Perhaps I’ll be more convinced of that being a fair price as I dive deeper into rankings. As a reminder, I preached caution with Fernando Tatis Jr. last year, and that didn’t work out for me. The moral of that story is that elite prospects are sometimes capable of making massive production leaps. As the industry rankings and glowing scouting reports indicate, Adell’s an elite prospect.
1. Luis Robert (CHW)
Robert tops this list, and he’s third on MLB Pipeline’s top-100 prospects list. They give him scouting grades of 55 hit, 60 power, and 65 run. He actualized all of his tools in games last year, too. He quickly proved he was too much for High-A pitching by smacking eight homers and hitting .453/.512/.920 with eight stolen bases and a 305 wRC+ in 84 plate appearances. The Double-A level didn’t put up much resistance, either. In 244 plate appearances at that level, he hit .314/.362.518 with eight homers, 21 stolen bases, and a 155 wRC+. He finished the year with a scintillating 223 plate appearances at the Triple-A level in which he ripped 16 homers, stole seven bases, and slashed .297/.341/.634 with a 136 wRC+. Add it all up, and Robert generated a 32/36 season with a .328/.376/.624 slash line in 551 plate appearances across three levels of the minors.
Robert has nothing left to prove in the minors, and, thankfully, he won’t have to deal with the service time manipulation game. Robert and the organization agreed on a contract extension, so he should break camp with the team. Robert has a great shot at being on the roster for all or most of next year. After putting together a 30/30 season in the minors last year, it’s not crazy to think he has a 20/20 rookie season in him even if he has some hiccups in “The Show.”
He’s being selected as OF30 with an ADP of approximately 118 in Fantrax leagues, and he’s the earliest drafted prospect there. Even though he’s going about 40 picks earlier than Adell, I’d be much more comfortable pulling the trigger on Robert at his price thanks in large part to his high degree of success in the upper minors last year. Also, it’s not as if he lacks his own loud tools. I have zero qualms with where drafters are selecting Robert, and I’d be willing to take the plunge for a potential top-100 fantasy player at his current cost — and probably a round earlier depending on how my team looks at that point.