About 15 minutes before first pitch of a Nationals-Braves game last summer, one of Juan Soto‘s sprints took him into the outfield, out behind second base, and he paused to say hi to Ozzie Albies, who talks to everyone, and after a moment, Ronald Acuña Jr. joined in, listening more than talking.
Baseball endures partly because generational threads are extended, and in watching Soto and Acuña engage, it’s easy to wonder about how Willie Mays and Henry Aaron shared similar moments in the Polo Grounds, or when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio said hello near the batting cage or in the hallways underneath Yankee Stadium. Mays and Aaron were both born and raised in Alabama, Mays just 2½ years older. Acuña and Soto were born less than a year apart. Williams and DiMaggio were sons of California, southern and northern, respectively.
Soto and Acuña look as if they are going to be the Mays and Aaron, the Williams and DiMaggio of their age group — all-time great talents who take turns dominating baseball’s landscape. Soto’s searing plate discipline is much like that of Williams, who thought it something of a sin to consciously hack at a pitch outside of the strike zone — and who viewed his showdown with pitchers in personal terms, as Soto does. DiMaggio was generally the better all-around player than Williams, just as Acuña has a wider breadth of talents than Soto.
Trying to rank Acuña and Soto as part of the Top 10 player rankings for each position feels almost as impossible as comparing Aaron and Mays or Williams and DiMaggio. Maybe the Nationals can take pity on a lowly sportswriter and shift Soto back to left field to ease this process.
Soto is the more refined hitter, leading the league in walks last season with 145; only two other players even got to 100. But Acuña is improving, clearly. Acuña is a better right fielder, throws better, runs better, but Soto’s dominance as a hitter is so unusual that his offense could more than offset any flaws in other parts of his play. Think about this: Acuña was leading all National League position players in fWAR (4.2) at the time of his season-ending injury on July 10 — and 47 days would go by before eventual NL MVP Bryce Harper passed him. Acuña is the first player since DiMaggio, ESPN’s Paul Hembekides reports, to score at least 300 runs and hit at least 100 homers through his first 400 career games.
But the list of elite right fielders only starts with those two. Harper plays the position. So does Mookie Betts, who finished second for NL MVP in 2020. And Aaron Judge, who could be the next $300 million player.
No position is quite as stacked as right field in MLB these days, and Acuña and Soto are at the top of the heap. Here are the top 10 outfielders at each of the three spots, based on feedback from evaluators, as well as Hembekides and Sarah Langs of MLB.com.
Top 10 right fielders
1. Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves
Like Mike Trout, his trajectory in some of the most important markers could not be more clear. Over the first four seasons of his career, his rate of strikeouts and walks have improved, and his ground ball/fly ball ratio suggests he will put himself in position to hit a whole lot more homers in the years ahead:
2. Juan Soto, Washington Nationals
With three-plus years of service time, Soto is now likely three years away from free agency. He’ll hit the open market at 26, probably with some of the best numbers we’ve ever seen for a position player. And while that’s a long way off, it’s not hard to envision what might be the first legitimate bidding war between the two New York teams.
It’d be like Superman vs. Batman: The Yankees, chasing Soto as they move into the last years of Giancarlo Stanton‘s contract and as Aaron Judge edges into his mid-30s, frothing at the possible addition of a left-handed-hitting superstar for Yankee Stadium … against the Mets, fronted by the richest owner in baseball, Steve Cohen, who, in three years, may or may not have reached his goal of winning a championship. Cohen loves art, and in New York, outbidding George Steinbrenner’s son for the best hitter in baseball would represent his pièce de résistance.
Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who almost always takes his clients into free agency.
3. Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
In the second half of the season, Harper was as good as he’s ever been, with a slash line of .338/.476/.713.
4. Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Assuming there is a labor agreement in the next eight months, Judge is poised to get paid big bucks, either by the Yankees or in free agency, after he showed he could stay on the field last year. He finished fifth in fWAR among all American League players last season.
5. Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers
He dealt with a series of nagging injuries last season that limited him to 122 games, and his OPS+ — which was a staggering 186 in 2018, when he was the AL MVP — fell to 128 last season.
6. Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros
7. Nick Castellanos, free agent
He’ll be one of the biggest targets for teams seeking offense when baseball resumes following the best year of his career — a .309/.362/.576 slash line.
He slashed his strikeout rate from 33% in 2019 to 24.9% last season, and look, anyone with even decent power hitting behind Toronto’s group of George Springer, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to put up a lot of numbers. Last year, Hernandez had a .524 slugging percentage and drove in 116 runs.
9. Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets
Underneath the deep disappointment that the 2021 Mets represented, Nimmo had an excellent season, posting a .401 on-base percentage.
There are a lot of folks with other teams — a lot — who don’t understand why the Red Sox swapped Renfroe to the Brewers. One theory is that the Red Sox will use some of the prospect equity received in the Renfroe deal to feed a trade for a more established player, such as Oakland’s Matt Chapman or Matt Olson.
Top 10 center fielders
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
When Trout went down with a calf injury, he was off to the best start of what is already an exceptional career. With enhanced command of the strike zone, Trout generated a slash line of .333/.466/.624 in his first 36 games and then didn’t play again. He is 30 years old now, and the Angels’ priority will be his offense — and the up-and-coming Brandon Marsh is considered an elite center fielder. It’ll be interesting to see when the conversation begins about Trout moving to a corner.
He tied with Bryan Reynolds for most fWAR among center fielders last season — while playing 39 fewer games than Reynolds. He rated as a plus defender, easily led the majors in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric, and posted a .383 on-base percentage. The top of the Mets’ lineup could be dynamic, with Marte leading off.
3. Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates
At 26 years old, he’s an elite offensive player and drawing trade interest from rival clubs watching the Pirates go through a rebuild. Just as Cleveland faced a seemingly perpetual quandary about when to trade Francisco Lindor, the Pirates will have to decide if and when the time is right to flip Reynolds for younger trade assets. Reynolds has dramatically altered his ground ball/fly ball ratio, from 1.56 in his rookie season of 2019 to 1.10 last year.
4. George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays
He played a little less than half of the season, and in those 78 games, he had 42 extra-base hits and scored 59 runs — and Toronto’s record in the games in which he participated was 48-30.
Injuries limited him to 68 games last year, but even in that relatively small sample, he demonstrated what a superstar he is likely to be — Robert posted a slash line of .338/.378/.567, with an OPS+ of 155. He could be vying with Trout at the top of this list next year.
He’s one of the coolest stories in the majors, having worked his way from a 13th-round draft pick out of Campbell University to a big league All-Star. As they might say in the NBA, he fills a line score — he had 72 extra-base hits last season, scoring 91 runs and winning a Silver Slugger Award, stealing 30 bags along the way.
7. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
As Bellinger foundered last summer and some agents began to speculate whether the Dodgers might not tender him a contract, a highly ranked executive shot that idea down quickly. No matter how bad Bellinger looks now, the exec said, he has too much talent for the Dodgers to not bet on the young slugger to figure out something — and, on top of that, Bellinger will not be a total loss because he can bear so much value as a baserunner and a defender. The Dodgers worked out a one-year, $17 million deal with Bellinger for 2022.
The working theory has been that Bellinger needs a full, healthy offseason to rediscover his swing — which was certainly lost last year. His year-to-year production is mind-boggling. His wRC+:
2019: 161 (5th best)
2020: 113 (67th)
2021: 48 (223rd among 224 players with at least 350 PA)
8. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
At a time when it feels that management and players seem completely at odds in assessing value — re: the collective bargaining agreement talks — the Twins and Buxton threaded a very fine needle collaboratively in working out a long-term deal that both accounts for his extraordinary talent and extensive injury history. Buxton is guaranteed to make at least $100 million, but that number will grow if he can stay on the field and trigger some incentive clauses. At his best, he is a dynamic force.
Had he been healthy last season, when the Diamondbacks demonstrated they were very willing to weigh trades of their best players, it would have been interesting to see what kind of offers Marte would have received. He could be an impact player on a contending team.
10. Enrique Hernandez, Boston Red Sox
He played three spots for Boston manager Alex Cora last year, but the bulk of his work was in center field — and even before his blistering postseason performance, when he had 10 extra-base hits in 48 plate appearances against the Rays and Astros, Hernandez had already demonstrated he was worth more than the two-year, $14 million deal he got from the Red Sox. Hernandez isn’t necessarily a graceful defender, like Kevin Kiermaier or Jackie Bradley Jr., but the metrics show he is well above average.
Top 10 left fielders
1. Tyler O’Neill, St. Louis Cardinals
The gap between O’Neill and any other player at his spot might be the most significant among all of the positions. He is a plus defender, mashed 34 homers last season and finished 19th in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric. His rate of hard-hit balls jumped from 33% in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to 42.8% last year.
He is a combination of patience (.394 OBP) and power (.556 slugging percentage).
3. Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays
He won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in the season in which Wander Franco made his debut, which is saying something. Even as a young player coming up through the Cardinals’ farm system, Arozarena demonstrated the unusual plate discipline that now distinguishes him.
4. Joey Gallo, New York Yankees
A quick thought about Gallo, who struggled in his first months in New York: The Yankees should consider putting him in the leadoff spot and encourage him to just do what he does best, which is to get on base. He had a .379 OBP with the Rangers at the time the Yankees acquired him, and by batting him in the No. 1 spot — or one of the bottom three spots — Aaron Boone could rescue him from having to bat with runners in scoring position early in games, moments that fueled the boos he heard. Last season, Gallo hit .162 with runners on base, .240 when he led off innings. The first part of the 2022 season could be crucial in determining whether Gallo is a fit for the market or, like Sonny Gray, might be more comfortable elsewhere.
He has batted .300 or better in four consecutive seasons, pushing his career average to .298. Within a couple of years, he’ll start to come within range of 2,000 hits and 1,000 career runs, which would be remarkable achievements considering all of the injuries that he dealt with in the prime of his career.
6. Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
He won the MVP in 2018 and finished second the following year, and just hasn’t been the same player since breaking a kneecap in September 2019. As Sarah Langs noted, Yelich’s underlying data suggests that he’s still hitting the ball hard — but there are other issues.
Yelich’s rate of hard-hit balls was 49.1% in 2019. Last year: 48.8%. However, Yelich hit .189 against sliders and curveballs in 2021, after batting .191 against those pitches in 2020. Per Langs, in a note last summer: “From 2019 to 2020, he had a huge drop-off in swing rate (45.2% to 34.6%), which was the largest in MLB. He just stopped swinging as often, and that seemed to hurt him. It was back a bit in 2021, to 41.4%, but still a bit lower. He swung at 29.7% of first pitches in ’19, 13.4% in ’20 and 22.5% in ’21, so not fully back there.”
7. AJ Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers
Even in a season in which he was sidelined by injury, Pollock had the highest OPS+ of his career, at 137, with a .297/.355/.536 slash line. With Corey Seager gone, Chris Taylor perhaps destined for more time in the infield and the Dodgers in need of more lineup firepower, it’ll be interesting to see if Dave Roberts relies more on Pollock this year.
8. Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves
He was sidelined last year after after being arrested on domestic violence charges, but in the eyes of Major League Baseball, he has served his time for that.
9. Mark Canha, New York Mets
His power has dipped in recent years, but the Mets paid him for his ability to get on base, his tough plate appearances, and his clubhouse leadership. Between him, Marte, Nimmo and Pete Alonso, the Mets will have a nice collection of hitters who will work deep into ball-strike counts.
He had a good first season in Kansas City, winning a Gold Glove, and hitting for some power.