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Reality Check: Early look at outfielders

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Now's probably a good time to remind you that the purpose of this series looking ahead to the 2014 rankings is not to give a thorough overview at each position but to offer just enough to get the juices flowing.

Why? Because at this position, I can only scratch the surface. It's friggin' huge.

That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Every real-life team starts three times as many outfielders as shortstops or first basemen. And every Fantasy team starts at least that many. Standard Rotisserie teams start five.

Going 30 deep here won't reveal as many of my sleepers at the position as going 20 deep around the infield did, but it's a start. And judging by how much I wrestled with these rankings, it's more than enough to get the juices flowing.

Top 10 outfielders for 2014:
1. Mike Trout, OF, Angels
2. Andrew McCutcheon, OF, Pirates
3. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
4. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Red Sox
5. Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers
6. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
7. Adam Jones, OF, Orioles
8. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays
9. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins
10. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Reds

I settled on my top eight way back in early September, when I projected them to go in the first two rounds of 2014 drafts. Granted, I've made some changes to my overall rankings since then -- most notably at first base -- but I'm still happy with the way the outfielders line up. I don't know that there's even room for debate until Carlos Gonzalez at No. 3, and obviously, Braun and Harper will raise eyebrows just because of who they are. But upside sets those three apart.

Gonzalez, who'll still be in the thick of his prime at age 28, is a five-category player when healthy and just put together a 20-20 campaign in only two-thirds of a season. Granted, playing two-thirds of a season is nothing new for him. His career high in games played is only 145. But players that produce at his level, with his consistency, have become so rare that -- particularly in standard mixed leagues, where fallback options are always available on waivers -- you kind of just have to draft him and hope for the best. Maybe you get what you can out of him in the first half and then trade him at the All-Star break. His injuries always seem to come late.

"Hoping for the best" isn't entirely necessary with Braun and Harper. The reward far outweighs the risk for both. The chance to spend just a second-round pick on Braun -- a first round-caliber player from the moment he entered the league in 2007 -- is too good to pass up, regardless of how you feel about him personally. Not every player handed a PED suspension turns out like Melky Cabrera. The Harper pick is a bit more speculative, but obviously, his potential is through the roof. To do what he did at age 20 with a bad knee most of the year should only make you feel better about his future. He averaged 3.15 Head-to-Head points per game compared to Jones' 3.25, so even if he doesn't improve, no harm done.

Jones, after all, doesn't have anywhere near Harper's plate discipline, which means he has probably peaked as the .285-hitting, 30-homer guy he's been the last two years. Clearly, there's nothing wrong with that, but it puts him a step back from some of the multi-dimensional hitters at the position. You may wonder why a one-dimensional hitter like him ranks three spots behind a one-dimensional hitter like Ellsbury, especially since Ellsbury's one dimension (speed) is more common than Jones' (power), but it all comes down to Head-to-Head scoring. Ellsbury averaged 3.71 Fantasy points per game 2013, putting him about as far ahead of Jones as Trout is ahead of McCutchen -- not especially close, in other words.

Choo offers a stable alternative to risk-reward picks Bautista and Stanton, and maybe in Head-to-Head leagues, where walks count for something in their own right, he edges them out. But in Rotisserie leagues or any format shallow enough to justify the gamble, I'll take the guys capable of doubling him up in homers. Yeah, injuries have ended each of Bautista's last two seasons in August, and he won't be any more durable at age 33. But the CarGo argument also applies to him. For the promise of elite production at a position of considerable depth, I'm willing to get what I can from him and deal with the injuries later.

Next 10 outfielders for 2014:
11. Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers
12. Carlos Gomez, OF, Brewers
13. Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers
14. Justin Upton, OF, Braves
15. Matt Holliday, OF, Cardinals
16. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds
17. Allen Craig, 1B/OF, Cardinals
18. Hunter Pence, OF, Giants
19. Wil Myers, OF, Rays
20. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves

So why not Kemp? After all, his best is even better than Bautista's or Stanton's and certainly better than Choo's. Look, in a 12-team league, they're all No. 1 outfielders, so understand that anything I say against any of them is basically just nitpicking. But because I have to justify these rankings somehow, here goes: I feel like Kemp's concerns are ... more concerning, if you follow me. It's not just the one injury that could sideline him for six weeks. It's the stream of injuries that crippled him throughout 2013 -- the shoulder, the hamstring, the ankle, etc. -- and the lingering worry that he won't be the same player even when healthy.

After needing most of the year to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, he had only a week in mid-July when he hit for power before getting creamed by injuries again, and he hasn't had double-digit steals since setting a career high with 40 in 2011. I understand if he stays healthy and gets back to producing at a first-round level, he's the steal of the draft, but owning him was pure torture in 2013. And because his propensity for injury is likely to keep him from running so much going forward, those who value speed as much as power might be better off with Gomez, who was in line for first-round numbers himself before playing with a banged-up shoulder and knee in the second half.

You follow me so far? Believe it or not, I think the first 12 are pretty straightforward. Even if you don't agree on the order, you can't really argue the players. The next 18, though? Oh boy ...

Holliday is probably the linchpin. The approach you take with him says a lot about the approach you'll take with the rest of the position. It comes down to trusting the seen vs. trusting the unseen. Based on what we've seen, he's as productive as ever, ranking 10th among outfielders in Head-to-Head leagues and eighth in Rotisserie, but if the regression finally comes in his age-34 season, he could get lapped by some of the up-and-comers at the position.

Clearly, I'm banking more on the seen since the only two up-and-comers I rank ahead of Holliday are the ones who've shown me the most, at least in terms of ceiling. Bruce has been steadier than Upton, but that's precisely the problem. Upton's fluctuations in batting average give me reason to think his peak first-round caliber. Bruce has most likely peaked as a .260-hitting, 30-homer type. Puig probably isn't as far ahead of Myers as these rankings would have you believe, but he's predisposed to a higher batting average and should also steal more bases. Plus, let's not downplay the role of perception here. Hype alone will keep Myers on the board three rounds longer than Puig.

Why reach for him if you don't have to? The sophomore jinx was plenty real for Anthony Rizzo in 2013, so no need to force the issue, especially with players as reliable as Craig and Pence still on the board. Pence may seem a little low to some, but understand he's coming off a dream season. He might have the slight edge on Craig in terms of power, but I trust Craig to hit .300 more than I trust Pence to steal 20 bases.

Next 10 outfielders for 2014:
21. Domonic Brown, OF, Phillies
22. Starling Marte, OF, Pirates
23. Martin Prado, 2B/3B/OF, Diamondbacks
24. Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays
25. Jayson Werth, OF, Nationals
26. Alex Rios, OF, Rangers
27. Shane Victorino, OF, Red Sox
28. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Athletics
29. Alex Gordon, OF, Royals
30. Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Angels

Notice I skipped Heyward in that last group? That's because I think he has more in common with Brown. The two would be studs by now if not for all their health and consistency issues. Brown might seem like the safer bet of the two coming off a breakout year in which he hit 27 homers, but Heyward himself hit 27 homers in 2012. And he was the more productive of the two over the final two-thirds of 2013, performing about like Craig in terms of Head-to-Head points per game from June 1 on.

Marte also broke out in 2013 -- and without all the speed bumps Heyward and Brown have encountered in their careers -- but what Heyward and Brown offer in terms of power is rarer than what Marte offers in terms of speed. Plus, I'm always wary of players who break out with plate discipline as bad as Marte's. It's something opposing pitchers may learn to exploit.

But again, I'm nitpicking. If I drafted Marte, I'd still trust him to start for me every week. I'm using the versatile Prado and Zobrist as the cutoff for that distinction. Most likely, you'll draft them at one of the many of the other positions they're eligible to play, so their versatility rightfully influences their ranking here. You could argue I'm even undervaluing Prado a bit considering he ranked eight among outfielders in Head-to-Head leagues and 13th in Rotisserie after the All-Star break, but the home run hitters and base stealers are sure to get more love on Draft Day.

As for who to trust with those last few spots, it depends what you mean by "trust." All the remaining players have noticeable flaws, but some are more related to age (Werth, Rios, Victorino, Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Beltran) and others to production (Cespedes, Gordon and Desmond Jennings). When in doubt, I usually go the upside route, but in this case, I'm not sure upside is synonymous with youth.

Werth and Victorino were so good to close 2013, with Werth compiling an MVP-caliber .990 OPS after returning from a hamstring injury in early June and Victorino reverting to his Phillies form after an injury forced him to abandon switch-hitting in August, that I feel like they're most deserving of an early-to-mid-round pick. I don't trust them completely, but at that stage, the price is right.

I suppose you could argue Cuddyer was right up there with them in terms of productivity, but 2013 was such an outlier for him that I don't have much hope of him repeating it at age 35. And Beltran had another subpar second half, hitting .277 with a .758 OPS. At age 36, he's at the edge of the cliff.

If I pushed this list to 36, Cuddyer and Beltran would make the cut, as well as Coco Crisp, Alfonso Soriano, Josh Hamilton and probably Curtis Granderson over Jennings and Austin Jackson. And if they win jobs out of spring training, rookies George Springer and Billy Hamilton won't be far behind. I'm also high on Christian Yelich. He put together a .370 on-base percentage as a 21-year-old rookie, stole 10 bases in 240 at-bats and will most assuredly hit for power once he adds muscle to his scrawny build.

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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