Last Updated: 3/26
A couple of things to note before reading:
- These rankings are for 10- and 12-team head-to-head category leagues with standard scoring and a starting lineup consisting of 1 C, 1 1B, 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 SS, 3 OF, 2 UTIL, and a shallow bench, and were created by me with input from Nick Pollack.
- Within the write-ups, I will call out individual players who would see value boosts or drops in alternative formats, such as rotisserie leagues, deeper leagues, or points leagues.
- Projected stat totals assume that teams each play at least 145 games unless specifically stated otherwise.
- I am more than happy to answer your questions, requests, and counter-points in the comments!
- Marcell Ozuna and Staring Marte switched places in Tier 2.
- Removed Eloy Jiménez.
- Added injury notes.
- Tier 2 reranked due to George Springer injury status.
Tier 1: Elite
No. 1: Ronald Acuña Jr. (Atlanta)
As far as I’m concerned, Acuña is the top player in fantasy in both standard and OBP formats. I’ve got him pegged for 40 home runs, 30 stolen bases, well over 210 combined runs and RBI, a solid batting average, and a high-end OBP.
Speaking of batting average, we did see his batting average dip to .250 in 2020 thanks to a slight increase in whiffs and pop ups, though he did more than enough to offset the change with an 18.8% walk rate. He also hit the ball considerably harder, adding close to two ticks to his average exit velocity.
It remains to be seen if those changes will continue, but as far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t matter. He’s an elite player with elite skills, and I can’t imagine passing up on him in any draft.
No. 2: Mookie Betts (Los Angeles Dodgers)
If there was going to be someone you considered over Acuña in drafts, I suppose it would probably be Betts. While Acuña has perhaps the highest ceiling in the game (from a fantasy perspective), Betts may have the highest floor when it comes to five category production.
Over his career, he has a 162 game average of 30 home runs, 26 stolen bases, 126 runs scored, 97 RBI, and a .301 batting average. His worst season on record, occurred in 2017, and even then he managed to hit 24 dingers and swipe 26 bags.
Betts is slated to bat at the top of a deep and strong Dodgers’ lineup, and 2020 showed us that moving to the west coast had no negative impacts on his ability to be a prolific producer at the plate.
No. 3: Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)
If you find yourself playing modern baseball trivia, and someone asks who the leader is in a certain stat over a period of time, there’s a very good chance that the answer is Mike Trout.
Whenever I’m looking at stats and leaderboards, I always check to see where Trout is. If he’s near the top, it’s probably a good stat. If he isn’t, I have to seriously question whether the stat is measuring something meaningful.
In all seriousness, the only reason Trout is third and not first like he has been for the better part of eight seasons is because I can’t project him for much more than 10 stolen bases. He can do everything else that Mookie and Acuña do, but he doesn’t steal.
That said, if he did start stealing early in the season, I’d be awfully tempted to put him at the top of this list. He would go to the top of my list if stolen bases didn’t count in your league (and there’s more than one good reason that they shouldn’t).
Just because Trout stats are fun, he has posted a wRC+ of at least 162. In other words, over the course of a full season, Trout has been at least 62% better than the average MLB player.
No. 4: Juan Soto (Washington Nationals)
Juan Soto will not be 23 years old until late October. Let that sink in for a moment. There is a 22-year-old outfielder with a .295/.415/.557 line over 313 games. He even took it to another level in 2020, hitting .351 with an utterly ridiculous .490 OBP. Essentially, he got on base every other trip to the plate. At 22 years of age. While walking 20.9% of the time and striking out just 14.3% of the time.
Surely it can’t get better, right? Wrong. Because he also stole six bases in 47 games, which if paced out over a full year would be just about 20 steals. If I was sure that Soto would continue to run at that rate, I’d be awfully tempted to make him the top overall pick in OBP leagues and maybe even move him ahead of Trout in standard leagues.
I am not so certain he’ll continue to run that much, though, and that means he’s probably more likely to steal 10 bases than 20, and I’d probably take the under on 15 as well. Still, a 40 home run season is within his reach, and he’s a mortal lock for a .300 batting average and .400 OBP.
While I do rank Trout slightly ahead, I wouldn’t begrudge you for saying you like Soto more. I mean, what’s not to like?
Tier 1.5: Near Elite
No. 5: Christian Yelich (Milwaukee Brewers)
Look, your feelings about Yelich are likely closely related to your feelings about his 2020. The OBP and slugging were passable, but the .205 batting average certainly was not. The 12 home runs and four steals were a little behind his usual pace, but the 30.8% strikeout rate was way higher than usual.
I’ve not been able to make heads nor tails of it, but luckily my colleague Matt Goodwin has, and here’s what he found:
.@ChristianYelich 2019 | 2020
AVG ………………. .329 | .205
BABIP ……………. .355 | .259
K% ………………… 20.3 | 30.8
GB% ……………… 43.2 | 50.8
wOBA ……………. .442 | .337
CalledStrike% … 23.7 | 36.4#SwingAway
— Matt Goodwin (@TheCorkedMatt) January 22, 2021
I’m willing to give Yelich most of a pass on his 2019 because the ceiling is the number one player in fantasy. There are fewer than 10 players who I truly believe could finish as the top player, when I use a first round pick, I definitely would not be sad if I ended up with one of them.
No. 6: Cody Bellinger (Los Angeles Dodgers)
I honestly thought that when I did the digging, I’d find something on Bellinger that I didn’t want to see. Maybe a glaring hole in his swing, or a disturbing rolling chart (don’t worry, I’ll have plenty of those for you later!). When I actually did the digging, though, all I found was bad luck. I don’t want to make it sound like Lady Luck was too hard on him, though. He still hit 12 home runs and swiped six bases. That pace would have been good for more than 30 home runs and more than 15 steals over a full season. He also would have tallied up about 180 combined runs and RBI.
Where the luck came into play was his batting average. His .245 BABIP suggests he was opening umbrellas indoors on a routine basis, and the 45 point gap between his .239 actual batting average and .284 expected batting average confirms that something outside of Bellinger’s control put a major drag on his ratios.
All of that being said, if Fate once again drives a dump truck full of miserable luck to Bellinger’s driveway, you’re still looking at a top-five first baseman and top-20 fantasy outfielder. If it doesn’t and lets Bellinger play the game the way he played it in 2019, you have a serious contender for a top-five overall pick in 2021.
No. 7: Bryce Harper (Philadelphia Phillies)
You probably already have an opinion about Harper, and that’s OK. Fantasy baseball is at its best when we are selecting the players we like best, and if you’re like most people, you either love or strongly dislike Harper.
I’m not going to give you a long lecture about why you probably should like Harper as a fantasy manager (even though I could), what I am going to do is point you in the direction of my colleague Lucas Spence, who wrote a breakdown of this exact topic.
To wrap things up, I think Harper is going to hit a whole bunch of home runs (like 35-40, if I had to guess), steal around 15 bases, pile up counting stats, and be a monster in OBP leagues. His batting does have a tendency to be a bit lower than the guys above him on this list, but based on his barrel rates and quality of contact, I suspect he should run into some better batted ball luck in the near future.
Tier 2: Very Good
No. 8:Kyle Tucker (Houston Astros)
There are so many young stars and prospects to be hyped on that it can be a bit of sensory overload, but be sure to reserve some of your faculties for studying Tucker.
I am far from a professional scout, but once baseball came back in 2020, I was watching every game I could. I distinctly remember catching an Astros game and being impressed by whoever was at the plate. He was fighting off good pitches, making loud, long fouls, and just seemed really poised. I was surprised to learn it was Kyle Tucker, the guy who the Astros utterly refused to play at times, instead opting to start Josh Reddick most of the time.
Part of the reason for Tucker’s lack of playing time had to do with plain ol’ ineffectiveness. In his first 49 games, he had just four home runs and a weak .652 OPS. While he had flashed some speed by swiping six bases, it wasn’t enough for the contending Astros, and they opted to play the veteran Reddick instead.
He did start showing signs of growth in 2019, though, and while he ended with a rather ugly 27.8% strikeout rate, he was trending in the right direction. In 2020, he continued in that direction and then some, as evidence by his rolling wOBA:
While there’s a bit of good fortune at play, particularly with respect to the final 100 PA or so, there’s a lot to be excited about with Tucker. I think he can continue to show off his power and speed and has 30 home run, 25 stolen base upside. While that is a rather aggressive projection, you can shave off a little on both totals and still wind up with someone worthy of a top-10 outfield spot.
Honestly, I could wax poetic about Tucker forever, but as a final send-off, I’ll send you to Brian Pollack’s article on Tucker from earlier this offseason.
No. 9: Marcell Ozuna (Atlanta)
It’d be hard not to resign this guy after what he did in Atlanta in 2020. While it was only 60 games, Ozuna was absolute dynamite, as his 18 home runs were third-most in baseball and his 56 RBI were the second-most in baseball.
His quality of contact metrics have been good for quite some time, but 2020 was truly the icing on the hard hit cake as he was in the top 6% of the league or better in exit velocity, barrel rate, hard hit rate, and xwOBA (and a few other stats, but they all basically tell the same story—he crushed the ball).
In addition to hitting it really hard, Ozuna did two other things that made 2020 special. First, he took a walk in 14.2% of his plate appearances, which is nearly double the rate he had coming into 2020 (7.5%). I usually prefer a guy with this kind of power to swing the bat, and in fact, Ozuna didn’t really change his swing rate at all—he just managed to avoid first pitch strikes a bit more often than he had in the past and worked more counts to his advantage.
Second, Ozuna got the ball in the air, which is exactly what we want him to do.Ozuna posted a 36.7% ground ball rate in 2020, which is over nine points lower than his career rate, and turned more than half of them into fly balls.
If Ozuna can stay healthy, get ahead in counts, and continue to put the ball in the air, we could see a career year from the 30-year-old outfielder. If it weren’t for his past health issues, he’d be just a little higher up on this list.
No. 10: George Springer (Toronto Blue Jays)
I knew Springer had performed well over the last two seasons, but obviously I had not been paying close enough attention. Over his last 162 games, Springer has 50 home runs, 127 runs scored, 121 RBI, and has hit .283/.378/.578.
Alright, I know what you’re thinking—Springer hasn’t played in more than 140 games in five years! And you’re right, he hasn’t. If i just look at his last 140 games, he has “only” 44 home runs, 112 runs, 104 RBI, and a virtually identical batting line.
The lack of steals caps his overall ceiling somewhat when compared to the guys in the top tier, but make no mistake—Springer is an excellent hitter. He’s currently projected to lead off for the upstart Blue Jays, and it’s not hard to imagine another banner year for the 31-year-old outfielder.
So far this offseason, I’ve felt like he’s been a bit overlooked in drafts based on his recent results, with an ADP slipping behind pick 50. If you miss out on grabbing one of the first seven guys on this list in the first two rounds, fret not—you can still land a top quality outfielder, possibly as late as the fourth round.
3/26 Update: An oblique injury is threatening to delay the start to his 2021, but I’m still very bullish on him. The risk is that oblique injuries can be very tricky to overcome and this could turn into a month of missed time if things go south, though all reports have been good so far.
No. 11: Whit Merrifield (Kansas City Royals)
Another year, another strong and consistent performance by Merrifield. According to Razzball’s 12-team Yahoo player rater, Merrifield finished as the second-best second baseman in fantasy in 2020, topped only by the previously mentioned DJ LeMahieu—and only by $0.70 in created value.
Speaking of consistency, Do you know how many times, since the start of 2018, that Whit Merrifield has gone hitless in two or more consecutive games? Just 11. His longest hitless streak in that time? Four games.
In the rolling chart below (get used to these—I love them and you should too), you’ll see that his expected batting average over a 100-game sample almost never drops below league average. In fact, it rarely below .260!
In a nutshell, that’s the value of Whit Merrifield. He doesn’t have hitless weeks—heck, he almost never has a hitless weekend. In a category that is notoriously volatile, this guy is everything but. His power does leave a bit to be desired, as 18 home runs is probably on the top end for 2021 projections. Most that I’ve seen have him at 16.
Also, 100 runs probably isn’t in the cards unless he gets a new team or Royals get a new lineup behind him (and I highly doubt either happens in the foreseeable future). At the end of the day, you’re drafting Merrifield expecting 16 home runs, a.300 batting average, 25 stolen bases, and hopefully 90 or more runs scored.
Everything else he might chip in is icing on the cake. The reason that puts him in this the elite tier is that those number are about as safe of a bet as you’ll find. All we need Merrifield to be is himself, and these numbers are likely to come to pass.
Much like Albies, managers in deeper roto formats will probably appreciate Merrifield’s stolen bases a bit more than a 12-team manager will, and those in leagues that require five outfielders will also find his positional flexibility useful.
No. 12: Luis Robert (Chicago White Sox)
As you can see, I’m still a believer in Luis Robert. Much was made of the incredible start he had right out of the gate, and just as much was made of the slump he was mired in towards the end of the season.
Let’s start with the good news—while most young players have to learn how to hit major league breaking balls, Robert showed he was more than capable of doing that right away, batting .252 and slugging .565 against them in his rookie campaign. He also racked up plenty of barrels and took an average to slightly above-average amount of walks. That’s all very good.
What was significantly less good was the strikeout rate. Other than a stretch of about 50 plate appearances shortly after the midpoint of the season, Robert struck out in 30-40% of his plate appearances.
Despite the slump, Robert has unbelievable power and speed potential and could certainly have more than 30 home runs and 20 steals in 2021. To unlock that potential, though, he’s just going to have to miss on fewer pitches. It’s just too hard to succeed with a whiff rate north of 35% on all three categories of pitches (fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed).
Simply hoping for the talent to shine through isn’t the only thing to hang our hats on, though. My colleague Zach Hayes did find something encouraging in the batted ball data that does a nice job highlighting the kind of upside Robert really has:
so uh i don’t think luis robert is slumping anymore pic.twitter.com/Qb8KDejc1g
— Zach (@pinetarkeyboard) September 28, 2020
No. 13: Starling Marte (Miami Marlins)
Where you rank Marte is highly dependent on how you feel about stolen bases. In a roto league, stolen bases are generally at a premium and players like Marte, who can feasibly hit 20 home runs and steal 30 bases, generate a ton of fantasy value despite being somewhat average with the bat.
Playing for the Marlins is a bit of a double-edged sword for players like Marte—on one hand, they’ve shown that they’re very willing to be aggressive on the basepaths. They ranked second in baseball as a team in stolen bases in 2020, swiping 51 bases. Due to the team’s general lack of power, giving guys like Marte the green light is an integral part of their offense.
On the other hand, counting stats will be a lot harder to come by in Miami, as there just isn’t enough firepower to generate a lot of runs—even in the middle of their lineup. Their spacious home park is also a bit of a mood-killer and will make it a challenge for Marte to get to 20 home runs. Thankfully, we’ve seen Marte succeed in pitching-friendly environments before (like PNC Park), so it shouldn’t be a huge issue.
On draft day, every draft is just a bit different when it comes to stolen bases. In leagues where stolen bases are heavily valued at the draft, Marte is a nice pick as he’s not just a one trick pony. 20 home runs and a .280 average is nothing to sneeze at when talking about stolen base producers, who often struggle to contribute in other categories.
Tier 3: Solid
No. 14: Brandon Lowe (Tampa Bay Rays)
As I’ll mention a few times in this section, this tier is really tight. In fact, in the course of writing this, I changed the order, changed it back, then changed it again over a span of about twenty minutes.
Ultimately, Lowe was crowned the king of the near-elite hill for his power, the glimpses of improved plate discipline, and because I believe that the Rays will once again be a top-10 offense and batting second in a top-10 offense is a very good thing for fantasy baseball purposes.
So let’s get the elephant in the room taken care of right now—I know that most of Lowe’s value is driven by a single month where he was an unstoppable hitting machine. From the start of the season through August 21, he was baseball’s best hitter by wRC+ (209). Here are his ranks in some fantasy-relevant stats over that stretch:
For the remainder of the season, he was much less prolific—though certainly not terrible by any means. It would be a mistake to assume that Lowe could sustain that kind of monster production for a full season; however, knowing he can do it for even a month is pretty exciting.
Equally exciting, and perhaps more sustainable than being one of baseball’s best hitters, was the improved walk rate. Lowe showed real growth by swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone, and as a result, improved his walk rate significantly.
Because Lowe loves to swing at pitches in the zone, he needs to be able to balance his approach by showing pitchers that he’ll take pitches outside of the zone. In particular, he all but refused to swing at fastballs outside of the zone, hacking at only 10.3% of such offerings.
As you’ll see in the rolling chart below, it’s helped set a new standard for his walk rates that should not only keep his strikeout rates in check, but also allow him to keep hitting near the top of that scrappy Rays lineup.
While all three second baseman in the near-elite tier have considerable upside, the changes in Lowe’s approach in 2020 combined with the incredible results we saw for half of the short season lead me to believe that he’s the most likely of the bunch to challenge the top group for a spot among the elites.
No. 15: Aaron Judge (New York Yankees)
I hope you weren’t expecting something earth-shattering here, because I’m probably about to tell you something you already know—Judge is an incredible power hitter but he can’t stay on the field.
Over his last 162 games, Judge has hit .271/.374/.522 with 41 home runs and 207 combined runs and RBI. Sometimes, we don’t have to look hard to find the reasonable upside because it’s slapping us right in the face.
We don’t always have to look for the downside either, unfortunately, as I had to go back to July 2, 2018 to get Judge’s last 162 games. In 10- and 12-team leagues, and particularly those leagues that only use three outfielders, as long as Judge can get out there for 130 games or so, everything will work out just fine.
Covering 30 games in your fantasy outfield with the waiver wire in 10- and 12-teamers isn’t all that difficult (usually), so the risk is much less than it is for those in 15-team formats and leagues that use five outfielders. Those waiver wires tend to be pretty barren, and the replacement level you’ll find for 30 games may be bad enough to cost you spots in the rankings.
Of course, if I knew Judge would play 130 games, he’d be higher on this list. The reality is that Judge missed 31% of his team’s games in 2018, 37% of his teams games in 2019, and 47% of his team’s games in 2020. It’s a reasonable gamble in shallow leagues, but it will take extra care and caution to take the plunge in deeper formats.
No. 16: J.D. Martinez (Boston Red Sox)
J.D. did not like the restrictions on in-game video in the spring, and he did not like during the season, either. As one of MLB’s best hitters over the last several years, Martinez was concerned that he would have a difficult time establishing a routine, and he wanted everyone to know it.
Truthfully, it’s a good thing he told us, because it helps explain his dismal 2020. After four consecutive seasons with a batting average better than .300 and and OBP above .370, his ratios cratered to .213/.293/.389. He struggled to hit every type of pitch, as shown in this chart:
It’s virtually impossible to tell how much of this degradation is from the break in J.D’s routine and how much is from possible loss of bat speed that comes with age, but I’m willing to give him a pass on 2020 and take him at his word regarding the impact of the lack of video.
With MLB announcing that they will have tablets for players to access in-game video, I am expecting a strong bounce-back season in 2021.
No. 17: Cavan Biggio (Toronto Blue Jays)
Let me tell you why I like Biggio so much. First, in the 159 games we’ve seen from Biggio so far, he’s hit 24 home runs, stolen 20 bases, and hit .240 with a strong .368 OBP. Second, he’s made considerable improvements to his strikeout and whiff rates, which is particularly important for Biggio because he rarely swings in the first place. Finally, he’s a guy with pop and speed who can get on base. Having all three of those qualities is a wonderful thing, and not something we should ever take for granted.
At one point this offseason, this tier was headlined by Biggio, but exactly one thing has caused me to lower him to the bottom (which, if nothing else, tells you how tight I perceive this tier to be)—his spot in the batting order.
Until the signing of Marcus Semien, Biggio was slated to bat in the two-hole, as he had most of the time during his time in the big leagues. That particular spot is absolutely ideal for Biggio’s skillset. Being near the top of a strong Blue Jays lineup meant plenty of opportunities to score runs, as evidenced by the 107 runs he’s already scored in his 159 games.
It also means a few more chances to steal bases for a player with his speed and walk rates. Lastly, and most importantly, it probably would have led to about 50 more plate appearances on the season (there are a plethora of great articles on the topic of plate appearances by lineup spot, so here’s one by Joe Douglas of Rotographs that I find very approachable).
Roster Resource currently projects Biggio to bat sixth, so instead of the heart of the order behind him, he gets the bottom of it. On the plus side, it should give him more RBI than we’ve seen from him thus far; however, his approach isn’t terribly well-suited to driving in runners as he doesn’t routinely make great contact and much of his on-base ability is driven by walks. It doesn’t mean he can’t still produce, but it does lower his ceiling just enough to put him at the bottom of this tier instead of the top.
If you play in a league that focuses on OBP instead of batting average, go ahead and put Biggio at the top of this tier if you wish. His high walk rates keep his ratios in excellent shape.
No. 18: Michael Conforto (New York Mets)
Conforto surprised me in a few ways in 2020 with his batted ball data. After years of pulling the ball, Conforto had an almost symmetrical spray chart. In addition, he had a spike in line drives, with 34.5% of his batted balls being liners compared to his career rate of 27.6%.
While these changes wouldn’t serve to improve his home run rate (which is the primary stat we associate with Conforto), it did manage to help him bat .322, and his nine home runs were respectable enough to still call him a power hitter.
Line drive rates can be a little fluky, especially in small samples, so I’m not all that convinced he’ll carry these changes into 2021.
If I had to guess what we’ll see from Conforto in 2021, I’d imagine it’d be something very much like the guy we saw back in 2019 who hit over 30 home runs, swiped seven bags, and had a decent batting average and a strong OBP.
No. 19: Nick Castellanos (Cincinnati Reds)
Instead of bemoaning his elevated strikeout rate and overall poor season in 2020, I’ll instead direct you to Chad Young’s piece that paints a picture of optimism heading into 2021.
While I recommend you read the piece for a deep dive on what went on in 2020, one takeaway is that there are plenty of reasons to buy back into Castellanos for the coming season. He has the hit tool, power, and support to be a very good fantasy outfielder, and history suggests he can put the pieces together and be exactly that in 2020.
No. 20: Yordan Alvarez (Houston Astros)
Note – Outfield eligibility is only available on Yahoo formats.
While Yordan is only a DH in most formats, Yahoo’s decision to retain eligibility carried over from 2019 makes him an outfielder for one more year.
The biggest and most obvious concern for Alvarez is health. He has what appears to be recurring issues with his knees, which is a big concern for a kid who is only 23. The good news is that Alvarez has shown that he’s capable of running the bases right now and appears on track to be good to go for Spring Training. The bad news is that if those knee injuries recur, it will likely land him on the IL or sap significant power.
Health aside, we saw what he is capable of during his magnificent debut, where he was one of baseball’s best hitters for roughly half a season. He has incredible power that he can use for home runs and for average. He’s a four category force to be reckoned with.
If there was anything else worth mentioning, it’s that he was exposed a bit in the 2019 playoffs by breaking and offspeed pitches. He struggled to make contact and at times appeared lost at the plate—a stark contrast to his regular season. All players have to make adjustments as pitchers begin to attack them differently, and Alvarez is no different. I believe he can make those adjustments, but if nothing else, it could lead to a bit of a slow start.
3/26 Update: He hasn’t seen much action this spring, but there’s no reason to believe that he’ll miss Opening Day (yet).
REMOVED: Eloy Jiménez (Chicago White Sox)
What a bummer. A torn pectoral ends his season before it begins.
Photos by Kyle Ross & Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire, All-Pro Reels Photography | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)