In the American League, just a quartet of outfielders stand out from the pack, making Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Quentin and Nick Markakis valuable commodities. In the National League, top outfielders are even more scarce. The AL is loaded with borderline mixed league-quality outfielders, but the NL is even more loaded. It's a good idea to nab your No.1 outfielder early in NL-only leagues, but if you miss out on the 10 best, sit back, relax, go fill other needs, and take your time picking from any one of the many middle-of-the-road outfielders, from Raul Ibanez to Hunter Pence.
The Elite: At this moment, Ryan Braun stands alone as the best NL Fantasy outfielder. Should Manny Ramirez sign with an NL team, as has been rumored for weeks, Braun would have some company at the top. Whereas Manny is due for a reality check (or at least his stats are), things are looking up for Braun in 2009. He has yet to show the contact skills he displayed as a minor leaguer, and with modest improvement, Braun could hit .300 this season. Add that to his 40 HR, 20 SB potential and you have possibly the most productive outfielder in baseball.
Solid No. 1/No.2 Outfielders: Trailing behind Braun in the NL's single-file line of outfielders are Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano. Milton Bradley and Adam Dunn are on par with this pair in terms of per-game productivity, but Bradley's questionable durability and Dunn's lopsided Fantasy line are reason enough to drop them back in your rankings. Further down the list are a consistent producer (Carlos Lee), a Rockie who is figuring out how to hit on the road (Brad Hawpe) and a trio of guys (Jayson Werth, Nate McLouth and Matt Kemp) who each have just one year of experience as a regular outfielder. Their inclusion in this tier indicates that they can repeat their '08 successes, but which is the best bet? The suspense ends just a little further down the page.
Cohort Analysis: Carlos Beltran vs. Alfonso Soriano. Both players could compile similar stat lines, with a .280 average, 30 home runs and 20 steals being common denominators. The decisive factors are whether Soriano will bat lower in the order, where he can accumulate more RBI, and whether Beltran will continue a dramatic two-year trend of declining power. While you may not know how the first issue shakes out before Draft Day, the latter issue is a factor you ignore at your own risk. Also, while Soriano's skill profile has been comparatively stable over the past few years, Beltran's '08 whiff rate, his lowest since 2003, smells like a fluke, so a batting average decline is an even greater risk than a further decline in power. So while Beltran could equal Soriano's production, he is a much greater threat to fall short.
Cohort Analysis, Part II: Jayson Werth vs. Nate McLouth vs. Matt Kemp. Each one of these players has the potential to hit 20 to 25 home runs and steal 20 to 25 bases. While there may be some tradeoffs over runs and RBI, the choice among them comes down to batting average. Kemp won that contest last year, and he could win it by an even wider margin this year. The more that Werth faces righties, the more his average will likely suffer, as he has never batted higher than .257 against them. McLouth's average is also due for a dip, since he is unlikely to sustain an eight percentage point improvement in whiff rate. You might think that Kemp's .363 BABIP from last year signals trouble for his batting average, but his history suggests that he should put more balls in play this year. In other words, declining BABIP and whiff rates will cancel each other out, and his .290 average should be safe.
Other Mixed League Outfielders: The list below features the horde of NL hitters who could be anything from a No. 2 to a No. 5 mixed leaguer outfielder. Unproven and inconsistent types like Justin Upton and Jody Gerut should be available later in your draft, while the ploddingly consistent Raul Ibanez, Josh Willingham and Conor Jackson (who was also included in the RC/27 analysis of first basemen) are worthy of a higher pick. More puzzling is where to rank one-year wonders like Ryan Ludwick, Andre Ethier and Corey Hart, who have produced at near-elite levels, but not for more than one season.
Cohort Analysis: Ryan Ludwick vs. Andre Ethier vs. Corey Hart. Even though Hart had the worst season of the three last year, I like him the best out of this group for the coming year. Both Ludwick and Ethier took massive leaps in Isolated Power in '08, and both are likely to give some of those gains back. Ethier's power surge looks especially suspicious, since it was built mainly on one very good month's worth of stats. Not only have Hart's stats followed a more believable progression, but he was also a BABIP victim last season, registering a .298 rate. He could easily improve his batting average by 20 points. Ethier will still offer owners the highest batting average, but Hart will close the gap. Also, Ethier can't provide the home runs or RBI that Hart and Ludwick can. If you take Hart over Ludwick, the reward for sacrificing a few homers and RBI is an additional 20 stolen bases plus a slight edge in batting average.
|Chris B. Young||5.5-6.0||4.76||4.86||4.35|
Now we'll focus our attention to those outfielders who are best suited for play in NL-only Fantasy leagues. Even the better hitters in this group, like Elijah Dukes, Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida, have some weakness in their game that makes them highly replaceable in a mixed league format. Replaceable is the key word here. Just because a player is listed as a "solid NL-only leaguer" doesn't mean that player can't be reasonably productive as a No. 5 mixed league option. It just means that there are many similar or better options available for that slot. Likewise, a "borderline NL-only leaguer" is good enough for one of your last spots in an NL-only league, but then again, so is everyone else in that tier.
Solid NL-Only Leaguers: This tier includes some players with serious power (Dukes, Cameron, Cody Ross), some with a decent amount of speed (Lastings Milledge, a healthy Eric Byrnes), and others still who will help with batting average (Ryan Spilborghs, Skip Schumaker), but none who have bought the whole combo meal. Despite the wide variety of skill profiles, all should provide roughly equal value in most formats.
Why They Belong: None of the three guys profiled below is an obvious addition to a top outfielders list, even if it's a "top mixed league leftovers" list like this one. For many, Schumaker still bears the fourth-outfielder label, Steve Pearce is a relative unknown, and Byrnes had to shower all winter to rid himself of the stench of an awful season. Yet each provides owners with good reasons to suit them up for the coming Fantasy season.
Skip Schumaker, St. Louis: If we exclude cups of coffee from '05 and '06, Schumaker would be a career .309 hitter in 717 big league at-bats. For those who doubt the legitimacy of that average, the stunning news is that it could actually get even better this year. He is an excellent contact hitter with extreme groundball tendencies, which makes him a strong candidate to be a perennial .300 hitter. With a BABIP that could rise into the .340s, Schumaker's average could soar even higher. With regular play, that could give him a lot of run-scoring opportunities to go with his high average and 8-10 homers. Added bonus: Schumaker might even qualify at second base at some point this year.
Steve Pearce, Pittsburgh: Last season was a down year for Pierce, especially in the power department, but his minor league history shows the promise of a 25 home run hitter. While he won't replicate the .333 average he put up in the minors in 2007, he's much better than the .248 he hit as a Pirate last year. In addition to power and a decent average, Pearce could deliver a dozen or more steals, just as he has done in each of the last two years.
Eric Byrnes, Arizona: Having had such a miserable '08 season, it's hard to believe that Byrnes' skill numbers were only the slightest bit down from 2007, when he smacked 21 homers, scored more than 100 runs, and stole 50 sacks. Well, believe it. It's not clear which hurt more -- his twin torn hammies or his .226 BABIP -- but at least the latter, if not both, should be mended in the coming season.
Borderline NL-Only Leaguers: There are useful players in this group, but there are no .300 hitters, and maybe one or two, at the very most, who are capable of cracking 20 homers. Even more important, only Garret Anderson, Aaron Rowand, Willy Taveras and Cameron Maybin look like locks for starting jobs, so you need to monitor the depth chart and health status of the others to ensure that they are truly worthy of a roster spot.
Why They Probably Don't Belong: Rowand and Juan Pierre have been Fantasy stalwarts for some time, but a shrewd Fantasy front office knows when to say when. And is it time now to buy into the Cameron Maybin hype? Maybe not so fast just yet.
Aaron Rowand, San Francisco: Rowand had his worst season as a major leaguer last year, so after losing more than two runs worth of production (as measured by RC/27), he looks due for a rebound. This is a case where looks are deceiving. Whatever comeback Rowand enjoys, it will be modest, thanks a home park that is inhospitable to the long ball and a whiff rate that has increased by 22 percent over the last two years.
Juan Pierre, Los Angeles Dodgers: Back when Pierre was a .300 hitter with the Marlins, he had one of the highest groundball-to-flyball rates in baseball. While he is still one of the game's best contact hitters and hits more than his share of grounders, a recent increase in flyball rate has thrown a wrench into the singles-hitting machine. Because this is Juan Pierre we're talking about, those flyballs aren't turning into homers; they're becoming outs. That means fewer runs and steals to go along with a .280ish average. Even if Manny Ramirez doesn't steal his job, 2009 looks to be another disappointing year for Pierre.
Cameron Maybin, Florida: This latest successor to Pierre in Florida has that highly coveted power-speed combination, but to say he lacks Pierre's contact skills is like saying that Spring Training games lack suspense. Maybin will have to make some quick progress on his whiff rate if he is to prove our projection of a .247 batting average wrong.
Leave 'Em Alone: Each of the players below is in the running for a starting job in 2009, but none should be competing for a spot on your Fantasy roster. Jerry Hairston's .871 OPS last year was not a sign of things to come, but rather a sign that he should have played Lotto every day. He benefited from a lucky .361 BABIP and an equally fluky .161 Isolated Power. Gregor Blanco and Michael Bourn are one-category wonders, and while Norris Hopper does have some contact skills, he's still just Juan Pierre Ultra-Lite. Jordan Schafer and Colby Rasmus could exceed these projections, but both still have to prove they can hit better pitching than what they faced in Double-A. Both may also spend a significant portion of the season down in the minors.
|Gregor M. Blanco||4.0-4.5||4.46||N/A||N/A|
| Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James |
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.