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Reality Check: Making the most of outfield depth

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Outfielders: You start more of them than any other hitter.

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It's an elementary concept, but it's worth noting for the drastic effect it can have on your approach to Draft Day. Usually, the number of outfield spots to fill is three in Head-to-Head leagues and five in Rotisserie leagues. And that applies for every single team.

So yes, outfield is always going to offer a longer list of Fantasy-relevant talent than first base, third base or certainly shortstop. It's the way the game is designed.

But does a longer list make for a deeper position? Sure, the 30th outfielder is better than the 30th third baseman, but in most Fantasy leagues, the 30th third baseman wouldn't even sniff the lineup. No, the more pertinent comparison is the 36th outfielder vs. the 12th third baseman. Would you be just as happy with the former as the latter?

Judging by these latest rankings in our position-by-position look ahead to 2013, the answer is yes. Yes, you would.

How do I know? Because the 32nd player here, Martin Prado, was my ninth-ranked player at third base, which I also labeled a "deep position." That pretty much says it all.

Outfield hasn't always been this way. In fact, at this point last year, I would have said just the opposite was true. But as luck would have it, more outfielders rose from obscurity than sank into oblivion in 2012. Or, to put it more accurately, most of the players that sank into oblivion -- such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Michael Morse and, yes, Melky Cabrera -- have enough redeeming qualities that they still deserve to rank relatively high.

With that many names at our disposal, I'm switching up the format of this piece. Instead of sticking with the two lists of 10 that I used at every other position, I'm giving you three lists of 12. That's barely enough to meet the minimum roster requirements in a standard 12-team league.

And yet I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Top 12 outfielders for 2013:
1. Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers
2. Mike Trout, OF, Angels
3. Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers
4. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates
5. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays
6. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins
7. Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers
8. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
9. Matt Holliday, OF, Cardinals
10. Adam Jones, OF, Orioles
11. Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks
12. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves

Within this group, I detect two distinct drop-offs. The first is after the top two. The second is after the top seven.

The order of the top two I'm sure will be debated in countless other pieces throughout the offseason and into spring training, so I'll keep it short in this one. Braun does it every year. Trout has done it once. Pretty simple, I think. Of greater interest to me is the order of the next five, which I like as is but which clearly has some room for negotiation.

Kemp, McCutchen and Bautista are all part of my ideal first round, but I would still expect Stanton and Hamilton to be among the first 16 picks in any draft. Of the five, Kemp, Bautista and Stanton all missed significant time with injuries in 2012, but history suggests Hamilton is still the most injury-prone of the bunch. I expect big numbers when he plays, but I wouldn't count on him for more than 130 games or so, especially now that he's nearing his mid-30s.

McCutchen's relatively slow second half is why I give the edge to the more-proven Kemp, who was something of a dud in the second half himself. Both are potential five-category studs. Bautista's pure OPS potential is still arguably the best in the game, but with the kind of power numbers Stanton has been putting up prior to his 23rd birthday, I could see why someone would choose him instead -- particularly in Rotisserie leagues, where Bautista's walks are worthless in and of themselves. Plus, I'm not exactly counting on an improved batting average for the Blue Jays' slugger.

Notice I place Gonzalez outside the second drop-off, which may seem like an omission since he's perfectly capable of putting up first-round numbers. But his injuries are frustrating. His home-away splits are frustrating. His prolonged slumps, like during this past August and September, are frustrating. I can do better than frustrating at this stage of the draft. He's a second-round headache, as far as I'm concerned.

In Jones, Upton and Heyward, you have three up-and-comers preceded by the elder statesman Holliday, who is about as reliable as they come even at age 32. Again, those three could conceivably go in any order. Right now, I think Jones' power is the most advanced of the bunch, and I like the way Upton's September went. But Heyward might be the most unappreciated of the group. He had 27 homers and 21 steals in 2012. Upton's career highs in those categories are 31 and 21.

Next 12 outfielders for 2013:
13. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Red Sox
14. Allen Craig, 1B/OF, Cardinals
15. Curtis Granderson, OF, Yankees
16. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds
17. Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays
18. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
19. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Athletics
20. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians
21. Alex Gordon, OF, Royals
22. Alex Rios, OF, White Sox
23. B.J. Upton, OF, Rays
24. Corey Hart, 1B/OF, Brewers

Ellsbury is a tricky player to rank for 2013. Heck, so is Craig. Heck, so is Granderson. Heck, so are Harper, Cespedes, Choo, Rios and Upton. So much talent, so many different ways to assess it.

But getting back to Ellsbury. Who knows what to make of this guy anymore? He added power to his game in 2011, which wasn't totally unexpected given his pedigree and 27 years of age, but then it completely evaporated on him over 303 at-bats in 2012. Granted, he was never completely healthy, but do injuries adequately explain that much of a decline? No one can say for sure if he's capable of first-round production again, but if nothing else, I trust Ellsbury for an elite number of stolen bases. If that's all he does, I don't think drafting him here is a total waste.

The usual mainstays precede the hype-tastic duo of Harper and Cespedes, who averaged about as many Head-to-Head points per game as rookies as Adam Jones did during what most consider to be his breakout season. So why rank them this low? Well, Cespedes has injury concerns (which is why I'm forced to cite his per-game production), and Harper is still just 20 years old. We all know what happened to Heyward and Eric Hosmer during their sophomore seasons. Besides, with 40-homer guys getting to be harder and harder to find, you can't pass up your shot at Granderson and Bruce, regardless of their shortcomings. Zobrist ranks as high as he does because of his eligibility at second base and shortstop.

What follows is a group I'm calling "the players everybody could use but nobody really wants." It's pretty self-explanatory, but I'll elaborate.

Did you know B.J. Upton nearly had a 30-30 season in 2012? No lie. He was just two home runs short. Of course, he also produced a career-worst walk rate to go along with his typically low batting average, leading to an on-base percentage below .300. I don't know. Something about Choo and Gordon just seems ... safer, even if they're no threat to go 30-30. The three all averaged about the same number of Head-to-Head points on a per-game basis, so it's not a baseless gut reaction.

And Gordon, you may be surprised to learn, showed significantly improved pop over the final two months of the season, homering nine times in 231 at-bats. Another 20-homer season should be the expectation for him. And if he managed to rank 12th in Head-to-Head leagues with only 14 homers ... well, you can imagine the impact of six more home runs.

Of course, Rios ranked sixth in Head-to-Head leagues in 2012, but who knows what to make of it? He's been so up and down over the years that investing an early-round pick in him is the closest thing I can think of to Fantasy roulette.

Next 12 outfielders for 2013:
25. Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays
26. Austin Jackson, OF, Tigers
27. Shane Victorino, OF, Dodgers
28. Michael Bourn, OF, Braves
29. Hunter Pence, OF, Giants
30. Carlos Beltran, OF, Cardinals
31. Josh Willingham, OF, Twins
32. Martin Prado, 3B/OF, Braves
33. Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers
34. Nick Markakis, OF, Orioles
35. Michael Morse, OF, Nationals
36. Melky Cabrera, OF, Giants

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Here you'll find the speedsters of the position -- the high-end ones, anyway -- in Jennings, Victorino and Bourn. The key difference is that while Jennings is just entering his mid-20s, both Victorino and Bourn are on the wrong side of 30 -- and, judging by their second-half numbers, it shows. Really, Victorino's affliction was season-long, but I give him the edge over Bourn since he has the greater power potential and is more likely to see a boost in value with his expected change in venue this offseason.

What about Jackson? He's further along than Jennings as a hitter, but the two have similar upside. The reason I prefer Jennings is because he might triple or quadruple Jackson's steals total in 2013. Like Granderson before him, Jackson isn't quite the base-stealer so many people make him about to be. Heck, why would he run with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder behind him?

Old fogies Beltran and Willingham add some clutter to the position. The number of at-bats they got in 2012 was borderline miraculous, so I'm not expecting a repeat. Still, with the stats they put up, I can only drop them so far. Have at 'em, folks. Better you than me.

They lead into what is probably the most fascinating group at the position, which I'll label Rocky and Bullwinkle style: "guys who could easily rank in the top 25 come season's end" or "the reason I chose to go to 36 instead of 30." Of them, the one that no doubt attracts the most attention is Cabrera. Look, it's not a stunt. He's not a token choice for the last spot just so you'll know I didn't forget about him. I genuinely believe he deserves to go before Josh Reddick, Nelson Cruz, Jayson Werth, Norichika Aoki or anyone else I might have considered for No. 36.

How much Cabrera's PED use contributed to his big numbers the last two years is anybody's guess, but if you assume he's nothing without it -- meaning he'll go back to being the player he was with the Yankees and Braves -- you're robbing yourself of what could be a serious buy-low opportunity. You may ultimately be right, but by drafting him this deep into the position, you wouldn't be significantly handicapping yourself if that ends up being the case. And if you're even halfway wrong, meaning age and unrealized potential were partially responsible to Cabrera's breakthrough in 2011, he's, what, a top 15 or top 20 outfielder? Pretty good deal, I think. Per game, he was about as productive as Andrew McCutchen prior to his suspension in 2012.

The last player I want to highlight is Markakis, who outperformed Heyward, both Uptons, Granderson, Bruce and Harper, among others, on a per-game basis in 2012. Of course, he was injured off and on, but his returning power following an offseason procedure that revealed a hidden abdominal injury suggests he may be back to being a 20-homer-per-year guy. Honestly, he's as safe a source of power as the two players ahead of him.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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