Breaking down NL East outfields for '21

February 24th, 2021

Full-squad workouts are underway in Spring Training, and clubs are getting their first looks at their projected rosters for 2021. There are National League East teams that arrived to camp with their starting outfield shored up, while others will be exploring their options over the next month in Florida.

There’s no lack of power at the position. Among NL outfielders last season, Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Michael Conforto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Brandon Nimmo claimed the top five spots in on-base percentage, and that same group ranked in the top eight in OPS.

Here’s how the outfield is shaping up in the NL East.

The known: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna are back together again to form one of the game’s best-hitting outfield duos. Ozuna’s return provides the Braves the big bat they needed for the middle of their lineup. His NL-best 18 homers last year combined with Freddie Freeman’s season helped compensate for the time missed by Acuña, whose 11.4 at-bats per homer ratio led all NL players who had at least 10 homers. The team would like to open the season with these two sluggers at the corner positions and rookie Cristian Pache in center field.

The unknown: Without the designated hitter, the Braves will have to live with Ozuna’s defensive flaws in left field. Of course, Pache’s tremendous range could compensate for some of Ozuna’s limitations. But before being forced into daily action during last year’s NLCS, Pache’s big league career consisted of two games and four plate appearances. The top prospect has the capability to immediately become one of the game’s top defensive outfielders. But if he’s not ready offensively, the club may need to give declining veteran Ender Inciarte playing time or shift Acuña to center. The latter option would create the need to find another corner outfielder.
-- Mark Bowman

The known: The Marlins will send out an all-veteran outfield with Corey Dickerson in left, Starling Marte in center and Adam Duvall in right. Magneuris Sierra, who is out of options, projects as the fourth outfielder. The left-handed speedster can play all three spots, and he was a spark plug when healthy in 2020. Dickerson hopes to rebound from a tough 52-game sample, when he slashed below his career numbers at .258/.311/.402 with a .713 OPS. Marte's presence was missed in the NLDS, while the addition of Duvall adds more pop (114 OPS+ since ‘19) to the lineup.

The unknown: Having first basemen Jesús Aguilar and Garrett Cooper affects the outfield. Last week, manager Don Mattingly and GM Kim Ng mentioned the possibility of Cooper seeing playing time at either of the corner-outfield spots to keep everyone fresh over the course of a 162-game season. Dickerson and Marte can become free agents after the season, while Duvall has a mutual option for 2022. Should any of these veterans be dealt midseason, prospects Jesús Sánchez, Monte Harrison and JJ Bleday could be next in line. Lewis Brinson, who has a Minors option remaining, is also in the mix.
-- Christina De Nicola

The known: Here’s one thing you can count on for certain: Barring injury, Michael Conforto will start nearly every day in right field. He’s earned the right to play against both righties and lefties, and he’s developed into one of the most consistent hitters in the National League. When a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, the Mets are likely to go with an alignment of Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo and Conforto from left to right. Versus a lefty, Kevin Pillar will probably play center, with Smith or Nimmo (and every once in a while, Conforto) taking an off-day.

The unknown: Smith’s defense remains a significant factor here. The Mets were hoping the DH would return to the NL; without it, they’ll start Smith in left as a way to keep his bat in the lineup. But they won’t be thrilled about it. Questions also surround Nimmo’s glove, but the Mets will have to live with it most days in center. Pillar could be the glue that holds this all together, as a right-handed hitter who offers at least league-average defense, while Albert Almora could also earn more playing time based on his aptitude in center. The Mets are likely to shift this mix around quite a bit, with Jeff McNeil, José Martínez and Jonathan Villar all also capable of playing the outfield.
-- Anthony DiComo

The known: The Nationals locked in their starting outfield with Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Kyle Schwarber. Soto’s defensive flexibility gave the Nationals the option to acquire either a right or left fielder this offseason. They landed Schwarber to play left field and Soto shifted to right, where he played in Rookie Ball as well as six games at the end of last season. Soto is excited for the new role, and he said it “feels great” to be back there. The Nats are looking for Robles to have a bounce-back 2021 after he worked on his agility and speed this offseason playing Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic.

The unknown: The fourth outfielder spot is up for grabs, and there is a competition for the role in Spring Training. Andrew Stevenson has been part of the Nationals organization since 2015, and he wrapped last season on a 12-game hitting streak. A year removed from winning the World Series and starting the “Baby Shark” anthem, Gerardo Parra has returned from a season in Japan as a non-roster invitee. Other candidates include Yadiel Hernandez, who had an impressive Winter League performance, and Yasmany Tomás, a non-roster invitee who previously played across four seasons for the D-backs.
-- Jessica Camerato

The known: Everybody knows the corners: Bryce Harper will play right field and Andrew McCutchen will play left field, although it is unclear how often McCutchen will be out there. The Phillies monitored his workload last season, following ACL surgery in 2019, but they are hopeful they can lean on him more this year. Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Brad Miller could play left, filling the role Jay Bruce served in ‘20.

The unknown: Dave Dombrowski said Adam Haseley, Scott Kingery and Roman Quinn enter camp as the favorites for playing time in center field. But Odúbel Herrera is the wild card. He is in minicamp, but if he shows well there and plays well in Grapefruit League games, he could push for a job. At the very least, Kingery will be the team’s super-utility player. Quinn is out of options, which is always a consideration when teams build rosters. Non-roster invitee Matt Joyce could work himself into the conversation, although he profiles similarly to Miller. Mickey Moniak got his first taste of the big leagues last fall, but he is behind the others on the depth chart.
-- Todd Zolecki