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NL Outfielders Ready to Break Out in 2021

The top of the outfield class this year is lined with studs. It's hard to go wrong with any of the top-ten or so outfielders in drafts, but after that, it gets a little bit shakier. Players with risky profiles, small sample size success stories, bounceback candidates, and plenty of youngsters make up a lot of the other outfielders for managers to select from. That effect is even more substantial when things are broken down between the National and American Leagues.

That doesn't mean that there isn't upside to find deeper in the draft pools. Let's look at four National League outfielders who appear ready to break out in 2021. The players under consideration and that we'll take a look at today are Dylan Carlson, Nick Senzel, Alex Dickerson, and Cristian Pache.

These four players all have had limited amounts of opportunities thus far in their Major League careers, but have profiles that suggest they can be quite useful for fantasy purposes in the near future. Let's get into it.

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Dylan Carlson, St. Louis Cardinals

Carlson comes into the 2021 season as one of the top prospects in baseball. He made his Major League debut in 2020, receiving 119 plate appearances. Things didn't go all that well, as he produced a .200/.252/.364 slash line. That rough performance has driven his draft day cost down coming into the new season, as a lot of fantasy managers get turned off when top prospects come up and don't produce right away, which often leaves the player undervalued the next year.

It's important to remember the type of profile Carlson has and what makes him such a good prospect. He has a good hit tool, good speed, and the potential for some power upside, three things that should play well in fantasy baseball. There is a bet to be made that Carlson to push 20+ home runs and double-digit steals, all with a good batting average. One factor holding him back, besides the rough start in 2020, was playing time. However, the Cardinals remedied that by moving Dexter Fowler to the Angels, and all indications now point to Carlson starting in the outfield every day for the Cardinals this year.

It was a brief debut for Carlson in 2020, but it's still worth talking about. Statcast seems to believe that Carlson experienced some bad luck. With all the sample size caveats kept in consideration, Carlson was actually above-average in a good amount of the most important metrics, with a 9.2% barrel rate, which is much better than the 6.4% league-average. Ditto for his 42.1% hard-hit rate compared to the 34.9% league-average rate. That combination led to Carlson ending up with a .401 xwOBA on contact last year, despite the ugly triple slash, which does suggest that Carlson did hit the ball better than the results would suggest.

It's not all great though, as Carlson did strike out nearly 30% of the time last year and walked just 6.7% of the time. If he can manage to walk and strikeout close to his minor league numbers (around 11% and 20%, respectively), it would go a long way towards Carlson reaching his potential. It's something to keep track of over the course of the season, but for drafts, with an ADP of around pick 150, Carlson has the potential to be a very profitable player.

 

Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds

This will be the third season that Senzel will be a part of. The former top prospect hasn't quite made an impact at the Major League, for various reasons. Some of it is due to his injury issues, some due to underperformance, and some due to playing time issues, due to the free-agent signings made by the Reds prior to the 2019 season. However, a look at the Reds roster for 2021 shows plenty of opportunities for Senzel to slot in. He could be their centerfielder depending on how things go with Shogo Akiyama, who failed to impress in an admittedly brief first season in the US. Senzel could also theoretically play shortstop, although the team has been hesitant to do that in the past, but could end up doing so out of necessity considering Kyle Farmer is the projected starter there right now. Senzel could also fill something of an "everyday utility player" role, where he plays most games at different positions. Either way, there should be plenty of opportunities for Senzel to finally show what he can do.

Remembering his prospect profile, his carrying tool was his hit tool, but he also had above-average power and speed tools, which is what makes him so intriguing. Senzel could be the type of player who goes 20-20, and with a positive batting average. He showed that off during the 2019 season, as he managed 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases in just 404 plate appearances. In his shortened 2020 season, Senzel was still fast with 97th percentile sprint speed per Statcast, but he didn't do much else offensively. However, he did manage to lower his groundball rate to 39.3% and cut his strikeout rate down to 19.2%. Take it with a grain of salt due to it being in just 78 plate appearances, but it at least is something to like in an otherwise disastrous season.

Overall, with an ADP around pick 280, Senzel is most likely going to be a late-round dart throw in most drafts. There is little risk in such a late-round draft pick, but Senzel, with consistent health and playing time, has strong breakout upside.

 

Alex Dickerson, San Francisco Giants

2020 was the second season now for Dickerson in which he impressed, albeit in limited opportunities. Still, he did have an underrated and underappreciated 2020 season that may carry over into this season. For Dickerson, his .298/.371/576 triple slash last year was the product of hitting the ball harder. He set new career-highs in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate, all three of which stand out compared to the rest of the league, as Dickerson is well above-average in all three metrics.

Additionally, Dickerson is quite good at hitting his fly balls and line-drives hard, which is ultimately most important, as those are the batted-balls that lead to the best results. From 2019 to 2020, Dickerson's average exit velocity on those two batted-ball types is 93.5 miles-per-hour, a three-mile-per-hour improvement on his overall average exit velocity mark in the same span. Dickerson has shown great hitting ability in the last two seasons, albeit they came in brief samples. However, the projections for Dickerson this year do look quite good. The Bat X, a projection system that incorporates more elements of Statcast projects Dickerson for a 116 wRC+, a .342 wOBA, a .205 isolated power mark with 19 home runs and 65 runs batted in over 495 plate appearances. That's an extremely solid player, and one that should pay off for fantasy managers drafting him at his current ADP in the area of pick 330.

The biggest drawback to Dickerson though is that he is not likely to be an everyday player, considering his struggles against left-handed pitchers in his career. For his career, Dickerson has a 127 wRC+ against righties compared to an 86 mark against southpaws. Because of this, it is likely that Dickerson will be the strong half of a platoon in the Giants outfield. He should still get plenty of plate appearances, and those opportunities should come in the middle of the order where he'll have many chances to drive in and score runs, but ultimately, his overall fantasy impact will be lower than other options just due to being a platoon player. However, based on the projections, Dickerson should be productive in the playing time he does get, and at a low ADP, he should be quite good for the Giants and fantasy players this year.

 

Cristian Pache, Atlanta Braves

One of the game's top prospects, Pache did make his Major League debut last season, receiving a whole four plate appearances for the Braves in the regular season, but he was also in the lineup for the Braves during their postseason run. Pache comes into this season in a battle for the Braves' starting centerfielder spot, and if he wins the job outright will determine his fantasy use this season, for obvious reason. His main competition for the spot is veteran Ender Inciarte, whom the team may prefer due to his perhaps more reliable, although not spectacular profile.

The speed is what makes Pache so intriguing. His bat is not his carrying tool, but rather his elite defense and speed. While not a relevant fantasy category, his defense is still important because it will keep him in the lineup, and the stolen base upside will always make him an intriguing name for fantasy purposes. A peak season for Pache in the future would include at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases, but that shouldn't be expected right away.

However, that doesn't mean that Pache can't be fantasy-relevant. While his bat may not be fully developed, he shouldn't be a drag in the batting average department right now, although not a plus, but the projections do peg him for somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 home runs and 10 steals, right now, which would be quite nice and helpful. His prospect profile leaves him a bit under the radar in terms of fantasy value, especially with an everyday role not yet his, but with him going around pick 400 in drafts thus far, Pache would be an excellent late-round outfielder, as he has upside to dream on. Monitor the playing time situation this spring, as him being named the starter would likely send his ADP skyrocketing, and you don't want to miss out on those juicy stolen bases.



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