Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantasy Look at the Outfielders

It's time for another editorial shift before I finish up my fantasy approach to the 2009 Major League Baseball season. Having assessed the infielders, attention now moves to the outfielders and pitchers—two groups that I tend to dismiss to a degree so my analysis will be a tad superficial.

I'll deal with the pitchers separately, so let's focus on the guys roaming the big real estate.

Almost a third of the top 100 fantasy players were OFs—if I did extensive analysis for the top two tiers, it would be about 20 stars (possibly more) and that would be an obscene read. The third tier would be just as fat by itself.

Furthermore, extensive analysis for a group this deep is somewhat unnecessary. There's simply not much difference between Alfonso Soriano (picked 15th on average in 2009) and Vernon Wells (picked 84th) except for personal taste. In between, you'll see fluctuations in the three main areas (power, speed, average), but the overall production will be pretty consistent.

Finally, helpful outfielders seem to always be available on the wire—far more so than the other offensive pieces. You'll see undrafted guys or late round picks make huge leaps (a la Ryan Ludwick and Nate McLouth) or top prospects emerge to become productive contributors (a la Jay Bruce in '08 or Corey Hart/Hunter Pence in '07).

These are the primary elements that make drafting them easier...


As I said in the introduction to this series, there are many general approaches to fantasy baseball. I use the rotisserie mindset in my leagues (which are head-to-head and 10-14 teams). Keep that in mind because, using this approach, drafting outfielders is almost an afterthought.

But my take doesn't work in all settings and/or for every owner.

If you want to...say...maximize production with each pick regardless of position because your league is huge or that's just your thing, then the outfielders would be critical. Several of the top producers every year navigate the outfield and there are some important differences between those.

So I'll write up probably 5-10 OFs more than the others just for those owners who don't like my stance. And for fun.

Subscribers to my camp (not that I lead it) would use the phrase "dime a dozen" for OFs due to the aforementioned similarity, depth, and post-draft availability of useful guys.

As long as you get one big name in the outfield early to go with elite infielders, you're good.

You can usually catch lightning in a bottle later in the draft by taking a bunch of high-risk, high-reward outfielders. That should allow you to walk away with two substantial contributors without wasting the extra early round pick (better spent on infielders or maybe a pitcher).

It's far more difficult to score a high-end dirt merchant later in the draft because most of even the shakier guys get snapped up early.

And there's still the matter of the studs who emerge as the season progresses. If you whiff in your late round efforts to find another stable outfielder, there's a good chance you can find one several weeks in via the wire.

With that in mind, here's how I see the outfielders:
FIRST TIER 1. Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians—101 runs, 33 HRs, 90 RBI, 38 SBs, .268 average

This is the only tier that'll have much detail and the entry price is fairly simple—you've gotta have the potential to contribute in all three primary areas as embodied by the five standard categories (average, home runs, runs, runs batted in, and stolen bases) and contribute well.

Sizemore is almost the prototype—if not for the low-ish average he would be it.

And, at 26 (27 in August), there's reason to believe Grady will add the last element in 2009. This will be his fourth full season so it's about time for him to begin showing his maturity—to start combining his awesome physical ability with a growing-but-already-considerable reservoir of knowledge.

The icing on the cake, as far as I'm concerned, is Sizemore racked up those totals leading off for an underachieving Tribe in '08. I expect the Indians to be a major player this year and part of that is due to an overall improvement in the offense.

Grady Sizemore should both be driving the improvement and benefiting from it.

Having already improved on his plate discipline over the course of his short career, the Cleveland center fielder has all the makings of being a top five producer in all categories.

2. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers—92 runs, 37 HRs, 106 RBI, 14 SBs, .285 average

Braun is another guy who could be setting the standard for fantasy production by the end of the year. He's only 25 and 2008 actually was a bit of a regression from his rookie season.

I refuse to call that line a sophomore slump, but those who do will be looking for a rebound. I can't really conceive what a rebound from those numbers would look like, but I guess he could add 50 points to his average.

I think it's probably more likely that you see a modest increase across the board as Braun puts his five tools to work in a more familiar environment. Dude will probably never swipe more than 15-20 bags, but that's enough when you're flashing 100+/40+/100+/.300 potential on an annual basis.

And Ryan is but one man.

He's in a lineup with Prince Fielder (25 in May), J.J. Hardy (27 in August), Corey Hart (27), and a full year of Mike Cameron. All those elements should also buoy the left fielder's performance.

3. Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers—98 runs, 32 HRs, 130 RBI, 9 SBs, .304 average

Hamilton will be 28 in May, but he's got less Big League experience than the guys ahead of him because of his well-publicized trials and travails. And it's not outrageous to say he's got the most talent of the group.

Don't forget—this guy patrols center so he's got enough speed to steal more than those nine bases. Considering how much he's had to digest and overcome, base-running probably wasn't high on the list so Josh might just add some extra oomph there in 2009.

Nobody expected it from Matt Holliday last year, but he finished with more swipes than bombs.

Even if Hamilton just continues to toss in the odd theft when he's bored, the Ranger lineup was potent last year and figures to be even better this year. The loss of Milton Bradley will sting, but a full year of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz, the hopeful arrival of Jason Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden, and another year on Ian Kinsler should all help float Hamilton's boat a little higher.

And his numbers petered out a bit in the second half, possibly because Hamilton was unprepared for the strain of 162 games. If that was the issue, it should be corrected in '09.

4. Jason Bay, Boston Red Sox—111 runs, 31 HRs, 101 RBI, 10 SBs, .286 average

This one will draw some heat, but I really don't understand why Bay isn't getting more love. This guy was a top 20 outfielder while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even last year's numbers factor in over 100 games with the Buccos.

Bay is 30 so he's still in his prime and much has been made of how well his swing fits Fenway.

That makes 162 games spent in the murderous Boston order no small bonus. Especially since it , figures to be even better this year with a healthier year from David Ortiz and/or Mike Lowell plus another year of development on the youngsters (Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury).

The kicker is everyone's making such a fuss over Manny Ramirez. Well, the numbers from Manny's much-celebrated '08 campaign were basically the same as Bay's with a substantially higher batting average.

And Ramirez final line was the product of 100+ games with Boston and about 60 with the less-potent-yet-way-better-than-Pittsburgh Los Angeles Dodgers. I say Bay's line was better considering the context.

Regardless, there's a damn good chance Jason returns to his 2005 highs of 20+ steals and a .300 average to go with more runs, homers, and RBI.

5. B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays—85 runs, 9 HRs, 67 RBI, 44 SBs, .273 average

Those numbers will look grossly out of place by the time this tier is through, but I'm obviously buying that Bossman Junior basically swung with one arm in '08. He had major offseason surgery to correct the problem and is now dealing with a bruised hand from an errant pitch, but neither seem to be of any concern.

Although, if Upton were playing that first week or two, he'd probably be above Bay. Unfortunately, the talent is so thick up here that even a minor concern can cost you a rung.

B.J. will be 25 in August and is surrounded by equally dazzling talent that seems to be developing at about the same rate.

Figure a healthy Upton basking in the glow of a full season from Evan Longoria, a return to form by Carl Crawford, another solid year from Carlos Pena, and a step forward for Dioner Navarro will be an enormous upgrade from last year's model.

He'll continue to blaze away on the base-paths (when he feels like it) and I'm betting he exhibits more of that postseason power now that Upton's got the benefit of both arms.

6. Carlos Beltran, New York Mets—116 runs, 27 HRs, 112 RBI, 25 SBs, .284 average

I don't like putting a guy who'll be 32 in April and with a history of injury problems this high, but Beltran's consistency deserves it.

The .284 was Beltran's highest tally since 2003 and one of the highest of his career so it's probably not sustainable. But he'll certainly hover around .270, which is fantastic when Carlos is a lock to chip in 25-30 taters with an equal number of steals.

In the Mets' lineup—where he's surrounded by Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Delgado—you can bet Beltran will score 100+ runs and drive in about an equal number.

However, the fact that Carlos may just as easily reel off 40+ bombs and thefts is what keeps him this high despite the small age/injury caution flags. While the odds of either happening are small, that there is just as much chance of an exceptionally wonderful season as there is of an exceptionally awful one is enough to keep Beltran breathing the rarefied air.

7. Matt Holliday, Oakland Athletics—107 runs, 25 HRs, 88 RBI, 28 SBs, .321 average

Look, you either believe this muchacho was a Coors Field specialty act and will just be very good now that home no longer features mile-high air. Or you believe he's a phenom regardless of time or place.

Clearly, moving into the heavier air by the Bay will take a bite out of his power numbers—he finished as the 9th ranked player according to Yahoo in '08 so I'm dropping him a bit.

But moving to the Land of the Designated Hitter should put some of that bite back in, even if it is Oakland. I'm already on record stating I believe the As will compete in '09 and Holliday rises to such occasions.

Who can forget the tear this guy went on when Colorado rampaged to the World Series in '07?

Then there are those 28 swipes and the average. Neither of those should be hurt too much by the move. Not all of those balls that stay in the park will be caught and Matt may feel the need to run more to compensate for any decline in power numbers.

The bottom-line is I'm a believer in Matt Holliday and this is where believers have him.

8. Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles—106 runs, 20 HRs, 87 RBI, 10 SBs, .306 average

There are few things that excite baseball people more than a guy in his mid-twenties with five tools, a growing awareness of the strike zone, and an old school attitude. Markakis, at 25, has all of the above.

Last season saw a dip in Nick's RBI total, but he got on base with far more frequency via the walk while not losing his power stroke or points off his average i.e. Markakis was just as aggressive while being more selective. I like it and I'm not alone.

Helping Nick's case is the fortification of his surroundings—Baltimore's lineup isn't ready to compete with the bigguns atop the American League East, but it should be a lot better in 2009.

Adam Jones will improve after a full year's worth of experience and growth. Matt Wieters is up to show he's been worth the ink (or bytes). Brian Roberts is strapped to the ship for the long haul. And we'll see if the Resurrection Twins (Melvin Mora/Aubrey Huff) are for real.

In case anything goes wrong, Ty Wigginton is ready with a safety net plus Felix Pie might become something more than a blur and a bust.

Markakis was probably good for an increase across the board anyway since he's closing in on his power prime, Baltimore wants him to run more, and the aforementioned plate discipline should help the average. If the rest of the order can improve as well, 2009 could be special.

9. Carlos Lee, Houston Astros—61 runs, 28 HRs, 100 RBI, 4 SBs, .314 average

El Caballo will be 33 in June so it's with some reluctance I put him up here, but he's been as reliable as they come and last season's injury (broken finger) isn't particularly foreboding. What seals it is Lee's average of 12 swipes per season for his career.

That rocked me.

Carlos registered those 2008 numbers despite missing almost 40 games at the end of the season, which might shock other people. Yep, Lee missed almost a quarter of the season and still managed to hit the century mark in RBI and come within a whisker of 30 bombs.

With a 120 or 130 more at-bats to do some damage, his final line would have been a real embarrassment of riches even if his days of stealing 15-20 bags are over.

Such a glorious image earns el Caballo placement with the elite outfielders, the deteriorating Houston offense notwithstanding.

10. Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay Rays—69 runs, 8 HRs, 57 RBI, 25 SBs, .273 average

Crawford's is another set of numbers that looks out of place, but he missed over 50 games with a torn tendon in his finger and struggled up until suffering that injury with hamstring issues. The tendon seems like a freak thing while the hammy is a bit worrisome.

But Carl's been a runnin' fool in Spring Training so it doesn't seem to be worrying him or the Rays.

The really insane thing is, though Crawford's entering his seventh full MLB season, he'll only be 28 in August. It seems like he should be getting ready to retire and Carl's just entering his prime. While a leap after so many years in the Show would seem unlikely, much stranger things have happened.

Although Crawford lacks the 30-40 dinger pop the rest of the guys up here have, he possesses infinitely more speed than anyone save his teammate, B.J. Upton. And he's got Bossman beat at least as far as base-stealing prowess is concerned.

His injury-plagued 2008 campaign was the first full season in which Crawford failed to record a minimum of 46 swipes (two more than Upton's career high of 44).

More power may come for Crawford, but the speed ain't going anywhere.

11. Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs—76 runs, 29 HRs, 75 RBI, 19 SBs, .280 average

Soriano's no longer a top tier outfielder in my personal opinion, but he makes the group because he's still considered as such by the fantasy community. This guy is the fifth OF taken in the average 2009 Yahoo draft, falling behind only Sizemore, Braun, Hamilton, and Upton.

That's ridiculous—Alfonso hits in a potent lineup and is one of the most productive players in the make-believe world...when healthy.

But it's the qualifier that does all the work. Well, the qualifier and his age (33).

For other guys on the list who suffered a trip to the shelf in '08, I made allowances. Guys like Lee and Crawford got the benefit of the medical doubt while I'm penalizing Soriano. Seems unfair, right?

The difference is I don't expect another large chunk of the season to be lost to injury by either of the aforementioned. I definitely expect that to be the case for Soriano; I'm counting on it.

Yet, the potential for a 30/30 or even 40/40 season perseveres if my man can just keep his parts in working order. Even such a remote prospect earns Alfonso a spot with the cream of the crop...begrudgingly.


12. Carlos Quentin, Chicago White Sox—96 runs, 36 HRs, 100 RBI, 7 SBs, .288 average

Everyone remembers the self-inflicted injury that end Quentin's season, but that's not why I've got him outside the top tier despite putting up a season that arguably qualifies in only 480 ABs.

I'm dinging him because 2008 is the lone season where Q's production matched his potential. He's only 26 (27 in August) so there's no reason to completely doubt him, but he quadrupled his career homer total in those 480 ABs.

There are flashes in the pan and there are superstars that take a little longer than others to arrive. Let's see which one Carlos is—he certainly has the ability to be the latter.

13. Manny Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers—102 runs, 37 HRs, 121 RBI, 3 SBs, .332 average

Lord, I hate the Bums and it's only gotten worse since Ramirez was loosed upon the urban sprawl. I almost loathe Manny because of his apparent disdain for the parts of baseball I treasure.

He should probably be higher.

The only genuine problem with Man-Ram in the world of make-believe is whether he stays productive for the entire year. As skeptical as I've been, even I have to admit the honeymoon should endure at least through '09.

Since I can't type anything else negative about his fantasy profile...

14. Nate McClouth, Pittsburgh Pirates—113 runs, 26 HRs, 94 RBI, 23 SBs, .276 average

McClouth is slipping down draft boards so you probably don't have to take him this high, but keep an eye on him because early reports are he wants to run more in '09.

At 27, he should be entering his power prime so those taters are for real. Some are worried by his decline after a hot 60 or so games to open the year.

Man up, people—it wasn't that sharp and the speed alone should keep his value in this neighborhood as long as his production doesn't totally regress.

15. Curtis Granderson, Detroit Tigers—112 runs, 22 HRs, 66 RBI, 12 SBs, .280 average

Here's another guy in his prime (28) who's hitting in a potent lineup and has the potential to put up first tier numbers. If Curtis can pump up that RBI total or the thefts, he'll join the crowded a-list.

But that's been the Granderson Party line for the last couple years. Of course, he did cut his Ks way down in 2008 so this might be the year it all comes together for him.

Until I can eliminate all the conditions/qualifiers from his analysis, he stays here.

16. Alex Rios, Toronto Blue Jays—91 runs, 15 HRs, 79 RBI, 32 SBs, .291 average

Yet another phenom on paper who has yet to package it all in one season. So far, it's been either power or speed while the rest stays pretty consistent. If Rios can re-establish his 24-homer clout from 2007 while keeping his 32-swipe speed from 2008, we've really got something.

If not, well Alex is still a damn fine outfielder so he might be worth overpaying a bit for the upside even if it never comes.

On the other hand, there's a blackening cloud of pessimism forming over the Blue Jays' right fielder so you could also gamble on him sliding down the draft board.

Therein lies the fun of selecting outfielders.

17. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers—93 runs, 18 HRs, 76 RBI, 35 SBs, .290 average

Did I mention I abhor the Dodgers? It takes true resolve to fight back the edges of nausea and include a second Bum in the top 20 at such a stacked position, but the LA youngster must crash the party.

Kemp looks like an arrogant, self-entitled punk and one glimpse of this tank flying around the yard gives you a good idea why. Not that I agree or enjoy it, but he's already shown the ability to excel in all facets of the game—defense included.

There are still gaps in his game, but he's 24 and he's got Manny for a whole year. Damn it.

18. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners—103 runs, 6 HRs, 42 RBI, 43 SBs, .310 average

If you plan on drafting a lot of power elsewhere, then Ichiro is a perfect player to have. Perfect.

Leg issues slowed the Japanese superstar in '08 and he still posted his customary plus numbers in runs, steals, and average. Suzuki will be back in right field and most experts expect the reduced defensive workload to pay health dividends that should convert to offensive ones as well.

Ichiro will not give you much in the homer or RBI department—you draft him because he's almost guaranteed to post 110+ runs, 35-45 swipes, and an average well over .300.

19. Vladimir Guerrero, Anaheim Angels—85 runs, 27 HRs, 91 RBI, 5 SBs, .303 average

Vlady-doddy is 34 and has started showing wear at the seams. Shoulder issues slowed him in 2007 and knee problems that required offseason surgery took him down a peg last year. I don't like the sound of any of that.

In 2008, Guerrer0 dropped 20 points off his hampered average from '07 and his OPS may have foreshadowed the stock market free-fall—it hit depths not seen since 1997 (sub-.900).

Barring a significant rebound, this could be Vlad's last year in the upper echelons.

20. Corey Hart, Milwaukee Brewers—76 runs, 20 HRs, 91 RBI, 23 SBs, .268 average

Hart is 27 years old, 6'6", and 230 pounds. Those 23 bags would be the second consecutive year he's stolen as many. Ever wonder how some individuals apparently get the biological gifts meant for several?

Corey's one of those lucky few—he got size and speed meant for different people.

His average dipped 30 points in 2008 in his second full campaign and his '08 number might be the more reasonable expectation. Fortunately, so is a modest increase in his power numbers as this gigantaur enters his power prime.

And it seems you can count on 20+ exhibition of thievery.

21. Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies—102 runs, 14 HRs, 58 RBI, 36 SBs, .293 average

The Phillies' spark plug is really a version of Ichiro that gives you more power with a little less speed. That's not to say the Flyin' Hawaiian is actually slower than Ichiro, it's just not a huge part of Philadelphia's approach so Victorino doesn't put it on display as frequently.

The double-digit pop is for real, though, so you can sacrifice 10-15 swipes and 20-30 points off the average.

22. Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia Phillies—85 runs, 23 HRs, 110 RBI, 2 SBs, .293 average

OK, I reached for Ibanez. But there's method to the apparent madness—Safeco Field is an offensive graveyard compared to Citizen's Bank Park. It's much bigger by comparison and the 2008 Seattle Mariner lineup was a declawed, blind kitten compared to the Phils' 2009 version.

Raul put up pretty stellar numbers last season and now finds himself in a much livelier park surrounded by Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth.

He's coming off the board MUCH later than this (36th OF taken in the average Yahoo draft) so no need to actually pull the trigger here, but I like Ibanez as a potential sleeper.

23. Magglio Ordonez, Detroit Tigers—72 runs, 21 HRs, 103 RBI, 1 SB, .317 average

Magglio gets the last nod purely out of respect for a superb career. At 35, he's showing signs of serious decline so I don't expect the numbers to get better in 2009. I expect them to get worse.

But an aging superstar can always shake off the cobwebs to remind people, one last time, of what he once was. That keeps Ordonez from the nether-regions for one more year.

THIRD TIER (you're basically only getting stats on these guys so you can see how little difference there is between tiers)

24. Jermaine Dye, Chicago White Sox—96 runs, 34 HRs, 96 RBI, 3 SBs, .292 average

Hurt by Father Time.

25. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox—98 runs, 9 HRs, 47 RBI, 50 SBs, .280 average

Hurt by lack of a proven track record.

26. Ryan Ludwick, St. Louis Cardinals—104 runs, 37 HRs, 113 RBI, 4 SBs, .299 average

Same as Ellsbury.

27. Bobby Abreu, Anaheim Angels—100 runs, 20 HRs, 100 RBI, 22 SBs, .296 average

Hurt by age and his exit off the New York Yankee juggernaut.

28. Vernon Wells, Toronto Blue Jays—63 runs, 20 HRs, 78 RBI, 4 SBs, .300 average

Hurt by injuries.

29. Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox—65 runs, 21 HRs, 77 RBI, 13 SBs, .290 average

Hurt by lack of proven track record.

30. Hunter Pence, Houston Astros—78 runs, 25 HRs, 83 RBI, 11 SBs, .269 average

Hurt by sophomore slump.

31. Adam Dunn, Washington Nationals—79 runs, 40 HRs, 100 RBI, 2 SBs, .236 average

Hurt by brutal average.

32. Johnny Damon, New York Yankees—95 runs, 17 HRs, 71 RBI, 29 SBs, .303 average

Hurt by Father Time and my unreasonable skepticism in light of his resume.

33. Xavier Nady, New York Yankees—76 runs, 25 HRs, 97 RBI, 2 SBs, .305 average

Hurt by post-trade time in the cooler (not jail—his numbers tailed off).

34. Mark DeRosa, Cleveland Indians—103 runs, 21 HRs, 87 RBI, 6 SBs, .285 average

Hurt by the trade from the Chicago Cubs' friendier confines and more potent lineup.

35. Jayson Werth, Philadelphia Phillies—73 runs, 24 HRs, 67 RBI, 20 SBs, .273 average

Hurt by lack of proven track record.

36. Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds—63 runs, 21 HRs, 52 RBI, 4 SBs, .254 average

Same as Werth.

37. Torii Hunter, Anaheim Angels—85 runs, 21 HRs, 78 RBI, 19 SBs, .278 average

Hurt by Father Time and his style of admirably reckless play.

38. Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks—52 runs, 15 HRs, 42 RBI, 1 SB, .250 average

Hurt by the diapers he must still wear (reference to his 21 years not an attitude problem).

39. Nelson Crux, Texas Rangers—19 runs, 7 HRs, 26 RBI, 3 SBs, .330 average

Hurt by a history of failing to translate minor league dominance to MLB success.

40. Lastings Milledge, Washington Nationals—65 runs, 14 HRs, 61 RBI, 24 SBs, .268 average

Where he belongs.

41. Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks—85 runs, 22 HRs, 85 RBI, 14 SBs, .248 average

Hurt by being Adam Dunn with more speed and less power.

42. Elijah Dukes, Washington Nationals—48 runs, 13 HRs, 44 RBI, 13 SBs, .264 average

Helped by incredible physical tools and a glimpse of a breakthrough last year.

You can see that almost all of these guys—No. 1 through No. 42—offer great ability in either the speed or power department and that means either a lot of bombs and RBI or swipes and runs scored.

If they're not outstanding in one facet, they offer a great mix of both.

The only number that gets noticeably worse as you move down the line is the batting average, which is arguably the least reliable metric anyway. Significant swings are comparably normal and that means drafting based on average is typically an unwise strategy (the Ichiros of the MLB world notwithstanding).

Yet another reason to focus on the other areas and let the cadence of your particular draft dictate your outfield needs.

Next up...the pitchers.

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