MLB Spring Training 2017: The Top 10 Outfielders to Watch

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2017

MLB Spring Training 2017: The Top 10 Outfielders to Watch

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    Normally a superstar, Andrew McCutchen is about to enter spring training as a wild card.
    Normally a superstar, Andrew McCutchen is about to enter spring training as a wild card.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    What's about to proceed is a slideshow about outfielders to watch that won't mention Mike Trout.

    It sounds blasphemous, but there's a method at work here.

    The idea is to focus on 10 outfielders who will be worth monitoring during 2017 spring training. What they have in common is not that they're slam-dunk superstars but that they have questions to answer.

    Some must show they're ready to be healthy and productive in this upcoming season after failing to be one or both in 2016. Others must show they're ready to turn their unproven talent into proven talent. Others must show they're ready to do jobs they may not be cut out for.

    Let's get to it.

Curtis Granderson, New York Mets

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    Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    MLB633.237/.335/.46412924305988

    Player Outlook

    Truth is, the entire New York Mets outfield is worth watching this spring. They have four legit everyday players to fit into three spots. 

    But if there's one in particular to watch, it's Curtis Granderson.

    Along with Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce and Michael Conforto, Granderson should be limited to a corner spot. He's played primarily in right field since joining the Mets in 2014 and is going to be 36 in March.

    However, somebody has to play center field. According to Mike Puma of the New York Post, Mets skipper Terry Collins hinted in December that Granderson will be the one to fall on that sword.

    Since he's averaged a .778 OPS and 25 home runs over the last three years, Granderson's bat is more than good enough for the gig. But that's no guarantee he'll be able to hack it. Guys are typically done playing center field at his age, and his defensive metrics in center field weren't that good even when he was in his prime.

    Whatever Granderson does this spring may not change Collins' mind. He can only inspire confidence or sow doubt. Stay tuned.

Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    A+/AAA90.358/.422/.605293514141
    MLB368.263/.323/.41688141145455

    Player Outlook

    The Mets aren't the only team with more outfielders than it knows what to do with. The Los Angeles Dodgers are also in that boat, and for them, the guy to watch is Yasiel Puig.

    Shoot, isn't it always? That stems from how memories of his rise to prominence in 2013 and 2014 are still fresh. And also how, at 26, he's still young enough to get back on that track.

    "He's capable of so much," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told Austin Laymance of MLB.com, "and I know his teammates want to see him achieve that, we want to see him achieve that, and we'll do everything we can to put him in a position to do that."

    Step 1 is getting Puig into this spring's Best Shape of His Life club. As Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reported in December, the Dodgers want Puig to lose some "bulk."

    If Puig is indeed less bulky, the remarkable athleticism he showed earlier in his career might make a comeback. His bat could also spring to life following its plummet into mediocrity. That would be a big boost, specifically to the Dodgers' outlook against left-handed pitching following last year's struggles.

Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    AAA410.270/.366/.48995181965625
    MLB95.179/.263/.345152410100


    Player Outlook
     

    Speaking of hulking outfielders with something to prove, nobody matches that description like Aaron Judge.

    Back in October, Jack Curry of the YES Network reported that Judge will be one of several players competing for the New York Yankees' right field gig this spring. He seems like the de facto favorite, though. With the Yankees positioned for a youth movement in 2017, why shouldn't he be?

    However, the verdict could be that Judge isn't ready.

    The 24-year-old has generated plenty of hype since he was drafted in the first round in 2013, but it's died down recently. Judge is no longer considered the brightest gem in the Yankees farm system. Baseball America ranked him as the club's No. 6 prospect. For Baseball Prospectus, he's No. 7.

    There remains a consensus that Judge has as much raw power as anyone would expect from a 6'7" and 275-pound behemoth. But that'll be for naught if he doesn't correct a swing-and-miss problem that led to a 44.2 strikeout percentage in the majors last season.

    According to Brendan Kuty of NJ.com, Judge did put in some work to curb his whiff habit this winter. If that pays off this spring, the hype will come rushing back.

Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    A+/AA418.312/.378/.532116319767016
    MLB118.295/.359/.4763111214161


    Player Outlook
     

    As Judge looks to reclaim his hype with the Yankees, Andrew Benintendi will be looking to make good on his hype with the Boston Red Sox.

    Benintendi began his pro career as the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft. He then became an elite hitting prospect before his promising breakthrough with the Red Sox at the end of 2016.

    Now, the 22-year-old is arguably the elite hitting prospect in the sport.

    "He has the best combination of upside and risk," an American League executive told MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. "He should be at least an everyday type player at the Major League level with the chance to be a consistent All-Star."

    Such is the context that will be surrounding Benintendi this spring, and it comes with a job in left field that's his to lose. Heck, he might not lose it even if he has a rough spring.

    The Red Sox would prefer the opposite, of course. And not just because they don't want to worry about left field. What they really need to worry about is replacing the offense they lost when David Ortiz retired. That will be a group effort, and it would sure help if Benintendi did his part.

Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    MLB592.230/.306/.325 122 27 49 61 11 

    Player Outlook

    The Chicago Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last season. Makes you wonder what they could do with more help from one of their most expensive players, doesn't it?

    Normally a guy who can hit, run and field, Jason Heyward could only run and field in the first season of a $184 million contract in 2016. He managed just a .631 OPS, well below the .784 OPS he averaged between 2010 and 2015.

    At 27, Heyward is too young to be declining. What the Cubs hope is the more likely answer is that his swing was simply out of whack in 2016. 

    To his credit, Heyward has put effort into changing that this winter. He's been working with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee to recapture the stroke he had at his offensive peak in 2012.

    "He's trying to mirror the swing he had then," Mallee told ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers. "Right now the path is not the same it was then. It's not making a change. It's getting him back to who he was."

    Heyward will soon put this swing to work in games. If it plays, the Cubs could get what they bargained for in 2017.

Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    MLB5.000/.200/.000

    Player Outlook

    When the Cubs aren't keeping an eye on Heyward this spring, they'll be keeping an eye on Kyle Schwarber.

    Schwarber is coming off a year in which he played in just two games before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the regular season. It was only by some miracle that he returned to help the Cubs win the World Series with a .971 OPS in five games against the Cleveland Indians.

    Surprising though it was, Schwarber's World Series performance only told the Cubs something they already knew: The dude can hit. 

    The question the 23-year-old must answer is what else he can do. Schwarber is a natural catcher who's also played left field but hasn't impressed at either position. Nor did he get a chance to hone his craft over the winter. He chose to continue rehabbing his knee rather than play winter ball.

    Further complicating matters is that Schwarber faces real competition for playing time at both of his positions. The Cubs have Ben Zobrist to play left field and Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero behind the plate.

    It all adds up to a puzzle for manager Joe Maddon to put together. 

Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    A-/A/AA/AAA38.242/.316/.333830230
    MLB43.231/.279/.282920751


    Player Outlook
     

    It's remarkable how well the Cubs did without help from Heyward and Schwarber. But arguably not as remarkable as how well the Indians did without help from Michael Brantley.

    Brantley was a legit star in 2014 and 2015, hitting .319 with an .876 OPS. But last year he was limited to just 11 games as he struggled to recover from offseason surgery on his right shoulder.

    Even now, Brantley is still trying to get 100 percent healthy. While he and the Tribe were quick to refute a report last September that he was due to miss a good chunk of 2017, Tom Withers of the Associated Press reports that the outfielder's recovery has only progressed to the point of him hitting off a tee.

    It's fair to characterize the 29-year-old as a question mark heading into spring training. If things remain that way, Cleveland's outfield depth chart will be a clear weakness going into the season.

    If Brantley does show well this spring, an offense that finished second in the American League in runs even without him in 2016 will be welcoming back a major contributor. Certainly, that would bode well for the club's aspirations of winning the World Series this time around.

A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    Rk/A+/AAA47.425/.511/.775175312112
    MLB46.244/.326/.3901002494


    Player Outlook
     

    The stakes in this case are different, but the Arizona Diamondbacks will also be welcoming back a star outfielder who suffered through an injury-shortened 2016.

    In fact, it was A.J. Pollock's injury that foretold doom for last year's much-hyped team. After he fractured his elbow in the closing days of spring training, it was one calamity after another for the Diamondbacks en route to a 93-loss season.

    Arizona may not have enough talent to make a complete recovery in 2017. But if nothing else, Pollock's returning to form would be a big help in getting the club pointed back in the right direction.

    Pollock was a quality player in 2014 when he OPS'd .851 and played strong defense in center field. He made the leap to superstardom in 2015, OPS'ing .865 with 20 homers and 39 stolen bases and winning a Gold Glove.

    At 29, Pollock is still young enough to recapture his old magic. If he's knocking the ball around and running down everything hit to him this spring, the Diamondbacks will be permitted to hope for the best.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

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    G Fiume/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    MLB627.243/.373/.441 123 24 24 86 84 21 

    Player Outlook

    The Washington Nationals head into 2017 looking good. Good enough to win the World Series, even.

    And they'll look even better if Bryce Harper gets his act together.

    Between the beginning of April 2015 and the end of April 2016, Harper had a 1.110 OPS and hit 51 home runs. He was on a tear unlike any in recent memory.

    Then it all fell apart. In the final five months of 2016, his OPS crumbled to .759 and he hit just 15 homers. Decent, but far from the otherworldly status Harper had been enjoying.

    This was either a really bad slump or the result of an injury that he chose to play through.

    Harper and the Nationals danced around answering that question. However, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated had it on good authority that the 24-year-old was battling a bad shoulder that limited his throwing and left him vulnerable to outside heat at the plate.

    If true, then presto! There are two things to watch with Harper this spring. If neither looks like a problem for him, he may be ready for a huge return to form in 2017.

Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    LevelPABA/OBP/SLGH2BHRRBIRSB
    MLB675.256/.336/.430 153 26 24 79 81 

    Player Outlook

    Harper wasn't great in 2016, but he remained a useful player on a contender. These things can't be said about Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Normally a good bet for a .900 or so OPS and plenty of value on the side, McCutchen's OPS plummeted to .766 and he didn't offer much else to go with it. In particular, his defense in center field crumbled to the tune of minus-28 defensive runs saved.

    This was a big contributing factor in the Pirates' losing 83 games and snapping a run of three straight postseasons. And this winter, they seemed committed to pulling the plug by trading McCutchen.

    But since that didn't happen, now the Pirates are heading into 2017 with a center fielder who might be declining and who could have a massive chip on his shoulder.

    Things could work out better than expected. McCutchen did finish 2016 on a hot streak at the plate. And as Mike Petriello covered at MLB.com, his defensive woes might be fixed by better positioning.

    The worst-case scenario, however, involves the 30-year-old continuing to struggle while holding a grudge against the Pirates for trying to trade him. That shouldn't be counted out either.

    Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. 

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