2017's Top 10 left fielders right now

January 23rd, 2017

MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" series, looking at the best players at each position headed into 2017, will air two positions each Sunday night through Feb. 12. As each position is revealed, MLB.com's Mike Petriello, a participant in the show, will unveil his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and no, batting average was not considered. We'll also include the rankings of "the Shredder," the MLB Network research department algorithm based on player performance, which accounts for both offense and defense.
Position overview: While other positions surge, left field is the weakest it's been in years, in part because there simply aren't many regular starting left fielders any longer. (Just 12 players took 400 plate appearances in left in 2016, compared to 18 in center and 21 in right). Compared to their peers, the 2016 collection of Major League left fielders had their weakest hitting performance ever, according to FanGraphs. While there's a pair of stars at the top and a surprising name at No. 3, that leads to some wide-open rankings after.
Eligibility notes: Players are eligible only at one position, and several players who saw time at left field in 2016 were considered in other spots for these rankings. They include (third base), (third base) and (center field).
Previous lists: Second base | Third base 
The list:
1. , Mets (Shredder rank: 2)
After a pair of OK-but-not-stellar seasons in 2013 and '14, Cespedes had a true breakout in '15 (.291/.328/.542, 135 wRC+) and then totally backed it up in '16 (.280/.354/.530, 134 wRC+, 31 homers), despite spending weeks at a time trying to play through a sore right quad. That's elite offensive performance that outshines pretty much every other regular left fielder, and because he adds very good defense -- at least if the Mets finally commit to keeping him in left, and don't force him to play center, where he's below average -- he's got the combination of skills on both sides of the ball that easily puts him atop our list.
Gif: Cespedes walk off homer
2. , Pirates (Shredder rank: 3)
Defensively, Marte is a center fielder playing left -- perhaps literally, as there continue to be rumors that he'll shift over and push into a corner. Until something more concrete happens on that front, we'll still consider him a left fielder, where he's proved to be a fantastic defender, leading all left fielders with +50 Defensive Runs Saved since 2014. That's in large part thanks to Marte's outstanding throwing arm, which topped all outfielders with a 97.1 mph Statcast™ average on competitive throws. Throw in four straight years of 30-plus steals and a 2016 hitting line of .311/.362/.456 (121 wRC+), and the 28-year-old Marte has at least a case for No. 1 on this list.  
3. , Brewers (Shredder rank: 1)
We're as surprised as you are that Braun rated this highly, but he's had 10 straight above-average hitting seasons -- yes, even his down 2014 wasn't that bad -- and his 2016 line of .305/.365/.538 (133 wRC+) was just about exactly what his career averages are. It's also basically the same line that Cespedes put up, and he was our No. 1 hitter. So while Braun won't get higher than this due to questionable defense and advancing age, his performance is a lot better than his reputation would suggest.
4. , Tigers (Shredder rank: 7)
How do you simultaneously equal your career high with 31 home runs and massively disappoint? You do what Upton did, which was hit .235/.289/.381 (77 wRC+) in the first half of his first season for Detroit, before going off with a huge .260/.337/.579 (142 wRC+) line in the second half, including 13 homers after Sept. 1. The end result was a season that was just barely above average, and while that's not quite what the Tigers were paying for, he's never once had a full season that wasn't at least average. Though Upton has been around since 2007, he's still only entering his age-29 season, so the floor seems to be adequate and the ceiling much better than that. At a position this thin, it's risky to put him this high, but worth it.
5. , Marlins
Upton started the second tier of left fielders, where talented players come with some serious questions, and Ozuna (who played mostly center in 2016, but is reportedly shifting to a corner with Yelich taking over center field in '17) fits that description well. A solid finish to 2015 helped predict a 2016 breakout, and that's exactly what happened, as he hit .307/.360/.533 (137 wRC+) in the first half, starting for the National League All-Star team. Unfortunately, his second half of .209/.267/.342 (61 wRC+) was an unmitigated disaster, coming along with wrist and knee concerns. Ozuna only just turned 26, and the talent is clearly there. Can the consistency follow?
Gif: Marcell Ozuna Home Run
6. , Royals
After five straight above-average and borderline star-level seasons, Gordon was struggling badly even before he fractured his right wrist in a May collision with Mike Moustakas, his second injury to the wrist in less than two years. While he was more-or-less a league-average hitter when he returned, the fact that his strikeout rate jumped from 21.8 percent to 29.3 percent is a concern. Gordon remains a plus defensive outfielder, but it's hard to look past that .220/.312/.380 (85 wRC+) line. The hope here is that one poor year isn't enough to sink a valuable player, yet there are huge questions here.
7. , Cubs
Schwarber might be the most divisive player in baseball, because his miraculous return to the Cubs for the World Series and his obviously stellar bat could move him much higher, yet questions about his knee, his defense, his contact rate and even how much playing time he'll get are clear risk factors. The feeling here is that his 2017 Steamer projection of .264/.353/.490 (127 wRC+, 27 homers) sounds like a pretty reasonable expectation for a player who just missed an entire year, but even if he gets that, it'd still rank below hitters like Cespedes and Braun, to say nothing of defense. A year from now, you could see Schwarber atop this list, or off it entirely. No other player here has such a wide variance in possible outcomes.
8. , Yankees (Shredder rank: 9)
Gardner had himself a typical Gardner season, which is to say double-digit steals (his eighth time, though 16 is a far cry from his high of 49 back in 2011), good defense and roughly league-average offense (.261/.351/.362, 97 wRC+). Put together, that comes out in the wash as a player who's reliably good for a season of average-to-slightly-above-average performance, and that's good enough to sneak into the back end of this position. That said, Gardner is 33, and speed players often struggle to continue to produce into their mid-to-late 30s.
Gif: Brett Gardner leaping catch
9. , A's (Shredder rank: 4)
"The other Chris Davis" put up a debut season in Oakland so huge (.247/.307/.524, 123 wRC+, 42 homers) that it sets him apart from some of the other power-only players who populate the just-missed section below. While there's obvious contact issues here, Davis' rate of barrels per batted ball was elite, topping every other regular hitter in baseball. That's a fancy way of saying when he manages to make contact, good things happen for Davis more often than anyone else. That's a tool that's good enough to get him on this list.
10. , Red Sox
The latest highly touted Boston rookie had just 118 plate appearances in 2016, so take that .295/.359/.476 (120 wRC+) line with a grain of salt. Still, he's done absolutely nothing but mash since the Red Sox made him the No. 7 pick in the 2015 Draft, and the starting left-field job is wide open for him. If we can gamble on Schwarber at No. 7, we can gamble on Benintendi here.
Gif: Benintendi slides home
Just missed (in no order):, Rockies; , Rangers; , Indians (Shredder rank: 5); , Cardinals (Shredder rank: 6); , Reds (Shredder rank: 10); Matt Kemp, Braves.
Dahl and Benintendi each had fantastic partial debuts, so an argument could be made for either at No. 10, but Dahl's path to playing time might be slightly more questionable unless the Rockies trade an outfielder. Duvall and Kemp are both powerful bats who have troubles with getting on base (not to mention Kemp's obvious defensive flaws), and the talented Brantley has much to prove coming off nearly an entire year missed due to repeated shoulder/arm injuries. Mazara, meanwhile, followed up a smashing start with a mere .248/.307/.389 (83 wRC+) line over the last four months, enough to keep him just off the list -- for now.