Baseball writers and fans rejoiced Thursday, as the Milwaukee Brewers jumped into a tepid offseason with both feet. In the span of an hour, the Brew Crew signed free agent Lorenzo Cain and traded for Christian Yelich from the Marlins. In the immediate aftermath, the hyperbole was being wheeled out by various baseball pundits, declaring that the Brewers posssesed the best outfield in baseball.
After hearing that, I looked up Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, confirming neither had been horribly injured, exiled, or suddenly retired. Considering that both are still on the Yankees’ roster, I started thinking about who actually has the best outfield in baseball, and what impact that could have on the 2018 season.
To start, I plotted all of MLB based on outfield projected fWAR:
Man, the Marlins are going to be awful.
No surprise, the Yankees top the board with 14.5 projected fWAR. Part of that is predicated on Aaron Judge “only” being pegged for a four-win season, and I’ve written before about how I think that’s an extraordinarily conservative measure. It’s very possible the true talent level of the Yankees’ outfield may exceed 14.5 wins.
So right off the bat, we can confidently imagine the Yankees having the best outfield in baseball. Also highlighted on this chart is the chief rival for the AL East title, the Boston Red Sox. Boston comes in with 11.9 projected fWAR, good for third in the league. The excellent trio of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi all figure to be league-average or better hitters and stellar defenders. Yankees fans by now can certainly testify to the annoying greatness of the Red Sox defensive outfield.
The Los Angeles Angel also made the list. Their 13.9 projected fWAR actually isn’t all from Mike Trout. Both Kole Calhoun and Justin Upton are pegged for solid seasons, with Upton perhaps conservatively graded after his excellent run with the Halos down the stretch.
Circling back to the AL East forecasts, this exercise helps reinforce something I’ve been trying to work out for the entire offseason. FanGraphs is projecting the Yankees and Red Sox to be just about even in wins (91) and run differential (+101 for the Yankees, +100 for Boston) in 2018, indicating a razor-thin margin between the two frontrunners.
The Red Sox get points for rotation depth, defense and “small ball” skills, while the Yankees boast far more power and a better bullpen. In the long run, these attributes might cancel out, but the additional value found in the Yankees’ outfield might make a difference in the division race.
The key differences in the projection lies in the Yankees’ outfield depth. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, who would be starters on most MLB teams, could find themselves playing bench roles should the Yankees put Giancarlo Stanton in the field. The Red Sox have terrific starters, to be sure, but their depth isn’t quite the same, with neither Brock Holt or Bryson Bentz measuring up much.
All that is before adding possible contributions from the pipeline as well. Both Clint Frazier and Billy McKinney could possibly bring real value to the Yankees. The Red Sox don’t really have any impact bats roaming their minor league outfields.
Lastly, there’s the gains and losses from trading an outfielder. Gardner and Bradley Jr., for example, must be used to hearing their names swirl in trade rumors by now. A trade of one of the Yankees’ outfielders for pitching depth or another bat would probably help the team more than a similar deal by the Red Sox. That’s New York’s outfield depth comes into play.
The 2018 AL East race is going to be thrilling, and it’s hard right now to come up with a definitive favorite. The Yankees can expect to boast the game’s best outfield, though, and that might be the edge they need.