RankingsMarch 6, 2009

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Positional Tiers: Outfield

By Ray Flores

The outfield is traditionally believed to as deep as, well, the outfield. This season’s 2009 crop is deeper than usual: think of the outfield depth in recent years to be more like the Great American Ballpark, but this season, it’s as deep as the McAfee Coliseum’s outfield dimensions. With this greater depth in the outfield comes a wider variance of opinions on how this year’s outfielders should be ranked. For the last several weeks, we’ve been running a community ranking as to how the Cafe consensus believes the top 25 outfielders should be sorted out, which has provoked excellent debates among the Cafe faithful in discussing outfield values. I’ll try to incorporate some of the thoughts echoed from the Cafe into the tier rankings as we go along. If you’d like to check out our present top 25 outfield poll and past polls, please click here.

Tier 1: Round 1

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Grady SizemoreCle7.38Yes.268101339038634
Ryan BraunMil8.77Yes.285923710614611
Josh HamiltonTex10.96Yes.30498321309624

According to our community poll, Grady Sizemore won the Cafe’s top outfielder rank over Ryan Braun, 57 votes to 42, with Josh Hamilton placing a very distant third with just four votes. It seems clear that if you’re intent on taking an outfielder with a mid-first round pick, you are likely to confront the first-round conundrum in taking either Grady Sizemore or Ryan Braun as your team’s franchise player. On paper, Sizemore is arguably the most complete fantasy hitter among all outfielders, having enjoyed his first 30/30 season in his five-year Major League career and at 26 years old, Sizemore is only getting his foot across the threshold into his peak years. After an impressive rookie season, Ryan Braun proved he was immune to the sophomore jinx, having slugged 37 HRs and 106 RBI to go with 14 SB. Had Braun not been hampered with a ribcage injury late in 2008, he could have posted a 40-home run campaign to go with a .290-300 batting average. At just about the same age as Grady Sizemore, Ryan Braun should only improve and his upside is just as immense as Sizemore, more so in the power department. It’s a difficult decision to make and both Sizemore and Braun are excellent first-round choices, but Sizemore gets the very slight edge in my book. Sizemore’s stolen base success rate as well as an improved strikeouts-to-walk ratio point to another 30/30 season and an average closer to .280 than the .268 he posted last season.

Just barely squeezing into this first tier is Josh Hamilton, who was one of the best feel-good stories of 2008 and realized his much ballyhooed potential to the tune of a 32 HR, 130 RBI season, and a .304 batting average. In our Cafe community rankings, Josh Hamilton was voted third, but voters for Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran made it a close contest that was far from unanimous. Because of Hamilton’s median draft position as a borderline late-first round or early-second round choice, Hamilton cracks this tier. The slugger dubbed “The Natural” faded a bit in the second half, perhaps due to a combination of his Home Run Derby participation and the sweltering mid-summer Texas heat taking its toll. Hamilton will turn 28 this May and with his skill-set, the conditions are ripe for Hamilton to build upon last season’s riveting success.

Tier 2: Rounds 2-3

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Carlos BeltranNYM21.46Yes.2841162711225606
B.J. UptonTB26.24Yes.2738596744531
Matt HollidayOak14.99Yes.321107298828539
Carlos LeeHou27.19Yes.31461281004436
Alfonso SorianoChC22.06Yes.28076297519453
Manny RamirezLAD24.59Yes.332102371213654
Carlos QuentinChW29.87Yes.28896361007480

This second tier rounds out the elite echelon of outfielders. There’s very little argument against taking each one of these outfielders in the second round of your draft, but selecting one could be a maddening experience, given that outfielders in this tier are closely valued and/or could contribute in similar ways.

Fantasy baseball’s old guard of top outfielders is well represented here with names such as Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Manny Ramirez still very much well regarded in fantasy circles. Even though Beltran’s flyball rate slipped precipitously last year, he remains as one of the most sound five-category fantasy contributors available. Although it remains to be seen if Citi Field pans out to be the pitcher’s haven Shea Stadium was, Beltran could go on to improve his home splits and outperform the most reasonable of projections. Somehow, career years tend to elude Lee and 2008 was no different as his season was cut short with a finger injury. Despite that, “El Caballo” is one of the steadiest power hitters in the game today and his consistency as well as the chance of a career year should vault up his value on your cheat sheets. Like Lee, had it not been for an unfortunate hand injury, Soriano was headed for a 40-home run season. The nagging leg injuries over the past couple of seasons display that Soriano is no spring chicken at 33 years old, but his bat speed and power should remain intact to hit 35 home runs and steal 15-20 bases. A slow spring is perhaps in the cards for Ramirez as his playing status is in limbo. Regardless, he remains one of the game’s best technical power hitters and should be a late-second/early-third round selection.

B.J. Upton and Carlos Quentin are the fresh names making waves in the elite outfield tier and each carry considerable reward and risk. Upton possesses the all-world five-category potential that leaves fantasy owners drooling. 2008 was a disappointing season statistically for Upton, but what stays fresh in many managers’ minds is his torrid postseason home run binge, which has many hopping aboard the Upton preseason bandwagon again. A repaired shoulder should help to fix the culprit to what was ailing his regular season performance power-wise. Upton’s selectivity at the plate and success rate on the base-paths are extra reasons to believe that the Tampa Bay Ray will take his game to the next level. As for Quentin, his outstanding peripherals in accordance with his minor league track record support the idea that his breakout 2008 is indeed no fluke. The right wrist injury Quentin suffered last season clouds his value and production, dragging his draft position in some drafts to the point where he’s sliding down to the end of the third round. Like Upton, Quentin is a high reward/risk proposition worth looking into at the late-second/early-third round turn.

Undoubtedly, the talk of the offseason was the move of Matt Holliday to Oakland and how it could affect his fantasy value. There has been extensive discussion on Holliday in just about every fantasy corner and on the Cafe boards, there are a few threads dedicated to the subject with a considerable portion of Cafe members predicting doom and gloom to Holliday’s production. All the dire feelings on Holliday did not deter the A’s new slugger to be voted #4 overall in the Cafe’s top 25 outfielders. Without going into great detail, yours truly believes Matt Holliday will get his 30 homeruns, 15 SB, and .310 batting average, but hitting half of the year in Oakland probably limits his upside to the point the likelihood he exceeds those numbers is considerably slimmer. The nightly sea breezes, the extra foul territory, and the deep outfield of McAfee Coliseum are daunting factors in Holliday performing beyond said numbers. If Soriano defying ballpark odds in 2006 en route to a career year taught us anything, it’s that a hitter as good as Holliday shouldn’t be written off to the point his draft value falls into the third round.

Tier 3: Rounds 3-5

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Matt KempLAD40.75Yes.29093187635606
Nick MarkakisBal34.92Yes.306106208710595
Jason BayBos35.79Yes.2861113110110577
Carl CrawfordTB32.82Yes.2736985725443
Alex RiosTor44.30Yes.29191157932635
Vladimir GuerreroLAA42.75Yes.3038527915541
Curtis GrandersonDet52.41Yes.280112226612553
Ichiro SuzukiSea30.49Yes.31010364243686

The third tier is essentially the upper-middle class layer of outfielders. If you happened to skip on an outfielder in the first two rounds of your draft, any of these outfielders are suitable #1 outfielders, but they are more preferable as a strong #2 outfield option. Unlike the second tier, where there is a variance of opinions on players with somewhat similar upsides and track records, the third tier has a wider variance in upside and performance.

First off, I’ll mention the “Dennis Green characters” of this tier because they are who we thought they were and it’s likely that they will pan out to be that way in 2009. Ichiro Suzuki is the best example of this subcategory; he’s never posted a batting average below .300 nor failed to steal 30 or more bases in his eight-year Major League career. Ichiro could be a bit overrated relative to his median draft position of 30.49, given that his value is mainly tied to an exceptional batting average prone to fluctuations, but even at 36 years old, there’s nothing to suggest that his base-running opportunities will take a sharp decline. Nagging injuries have had a way of knocking down Vladimir Guerrero’s numbers in the last three seasons. Big Daddy Vladdy’s peripherals haven’t declined as sharply as some would claim and if he’s slated for more DH time, he has a realistic chance of posting 30 HRs, 100 RBIs, and a .300 batting average. Jason Bay had a rebound campaign of sorts, which cemented his status as a top-tier fantasy option again. Of the three outfielders listed in this subcategory, Bay could have the best chance of outperforming his projections in his first full season in Boston.

The rest of the outfielders in this tier comprise of five relatively young hitters who probably haven’t hit their stride yet. However, it can be argued that only one of these five outfielders possesses legitimate first or second round upside: Matt Kemp. The 24-year-old Dodger right fielder presents the best power/speed potential of the lot, armed with a skill-set similar to Upton but without the plate discipline, which continues to be a work in process. If Kemp continues to cut down on strikeouts as he did in the second half of 2008, a big season could be in store and a third round pick on Kemp shouldn’t be considered a reach at all.

Carl Crawford had similar hopes of panning out as a true five-category hitter, but his 20-25 home run power hasn’t quite come to fruition yet. The silver lining is that even if the fantasy world has been talking about Crawford in forever and a day, he’ll turn 28 this August, just entering into his prime years. The prevailing question is, where will Crawford hit in the talented Rays’ lineup?

Nick Markakis’ five-category upside was a tad overblown as well, given that his base-stealing opportunities dropped dramatically, just when a terrific April on the base-paths pointed to a 20-SB season in the offing. Furthermore, Markakis might not show the 30 home run power some have hoped, but “Nick the Stick” has very little downside for a high pick and is a guy who can be safely penciled in for 100 runs, 20-25 homeruns, 90 RBI, and a .300 batting average. It’s because of these attributes, Markakis finished as the highest-ranking outfielder in this tier, just a spot outside of the top ten in our community outfielder rankings.

Alex Rios and Curtis Granderson can bring similar production to the table as potential 25/25 producers. Even in light of Jim Leyland’s public intent to green-light him more on the basepaths, Granderson continues to be undervalued in drafts, being taken on average, as an early-fifth round pick.

Tier 4: Rounds 5-7

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Jacoby EllsburyBos58.39Yes.2809894750559
Nate McLouthPit58.33Yes.276113269422597
Shane VictorinoPhi59.41Yes.293102145836570
Bobby AbreuLAA69.55Yes.2961002010022609
Corey HartMil64.55Yes.26876209123612
Magglio OrdonezDet61.34Yes.31772211031561
Adam DunnWas67.74Yes.23679401002517
Ryan LudwickStL85.08Yes.299104371139538
Jermaine DyeChW87.45Yes.3159634963590
Jay BruceCin93.80Yes.2546321524413
Hunter PenceHou84.40Yes.26978258311595
Alexei RamirezChW51.54No.29065217713480

It is fitting that in one of the most crucial parts of the draft, there are bound to be a few dilemmas in choosing one of the more prominent outfielders in this tier. After the Sizemore/Braun and second round outfielder conundrums, there’s no trickier task than having to choose one of Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, and Nate McLouth, given that they are typically taken at around the same time of the draft. Not far behind in consideration to that trio of outfielders are five-category contributors Corey Hart and Bobby Abreu. Adam Dunn is the steadiest power hitter of the bunch, but up-and-comers such as Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce offer enough power upside without being a total liability in the batting average department.

After Jose Reyes is taken off the board, arguably the next best speed merchant is Ellsbury. Affectionately known as “Tacoby Bellsbury” around the Cafe after stealing a base in the 2007 World Series and awarding America with free tacos, Ellsbury’s line is seen as a cut-rate Jose Reyes to some owners, while others will argue he’s more or less a younger version of Juan Pierre. There’s a bit of risk involved in drafting Ellsbury, but there’s little denying his 50 SB potential that goes with about 110-115 runs and a batting average close to or at the .300 mark. Victorino is a more risk-averse alternative to Jacoby Ellsbury in that “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” could feasibly steal 35 bags and generate some power to the tune of 15 homeruns on the side.

Back when I was a little tyke, many kids in my second grade class were enamored with the children’s book series, “Nate the Great,” while I couldn’t fathom what made Nate so great. Well, those kids have grown up, but they still think Nate is great, albeit a different Nate altogether, and it’s just now that I’m beginning to understand what makes Nate McLouth so great. The Pittsburgh Pirate appropriately named “McLovin” won many admirers last season especially on the Cafe boards, having finished 2008 with 26 home runs and 23 stolen bases. What should we expect from McLovin this year, especially taking into account his second half OPS slide? It’s reasonable to think he runs a bit more, considering that without Jason Bay in the Pirates’ lineup, runs are more likely to be manufactured through the base-paths this year. McLouth has had a solid track record of maintaining a high success rate and last time I checked, Jim Tracy isn’t managing the Bucs, which should translate into McLouth swiping 30 bags next season. I’m somewhat skeptical of his sustainability of hitting 25 home runs in any given season and so, I’ll pencil him in for somewhere in between 20-25 home runs.

Hart was last year’s draft day darling, having been reached for as high as the third or fourth rounds in a few mixed league drafts. After a slight letdown where Hart finished well short of a 25/25 season and a relatively dismal .268 average, the shine surrounding Hart in this year’s drafts is off. Unlike the Canadian 80’s pop singer of his namesake, Hart is far from being a one-hit wonder, and a better contact rate as well as better plate discipline makes him a reasonable 25/25 candidate again without the compulsive feeling of having to reach. Almost on par value to Hart is the veteran Abreu, who remains a stable five-category contributor. Playing in Mike Scioscia’s system of aggressive base-running can translate into a marginal uptick in Abreu’s SB total, but keep in mind that Angel Stadium isn’t an ideal power hitter’s ballpark for lefties. In essence, don’t be surprised if Abreu winds up as more of a Shane Victorino type, minus ten SB. Curously, Abreu is still well regarded in the minds of many Cafe regulars, having been ranked #19 in the Cafe community rankings, ahead of Hart, Ellsbury, McLouth, and Victorino.

Another veteran outfielder that gets his fair share of appreciation is Ordonez, the next guy after Abreu in the Cafe’s community rankings. Keep in mind that was a very narrow victory for Ordonez in pulling home the 20th spot, as Ellsbury, Hart, McLouth, and Victorino also garnered double-digit votes. Ordonez is a reliable source for average and a triple-digit RBI total, but his statistics can also be replicated by a few of the outfielders in the next tier below this one. With speed being a very scarce commodity, Ordonez should take a step back in your cheat sheets. It’s better to pass on Maggs and take any of the top five outfielders in this tier, with the intention of taking a guy like Jermaine Dye a round or two later. Dye remains a candidate to be traded at this year’s deadline, but as long as he’s suiting up for the Chicago White Sox, it’s safe to say Dye is a 30 home run hitter who won’t do any damage to your batting average, assuming he can stay healthy.

Be prepared to take a slight reach on Bruce. Prorate the 22-year-old Bruce’s rookie season and he could have notched his first 30 home run campaign of perhaps many down the line. Pence is another alternative to Bruce, but his average probably won’t spike up to his 2007 mark and he doesn’t quite have the power ceiling that Bruce does. Both Bruce and Pence are likely to confront the growing pains of having to improve their plate discipline this season and patience must be in good supply when drafting either or both.

Lastly, Alexei Ramirez qualifies as an outfielder in leagues where the minimum of games played in the outfield is under the 20-game threshold. However, it’s worth noting that Ramirez is far more valuable in one of the middle infield spots than in the outfield, where by the consensus projections, he’d fall as more of the fifth-tier outfielder ilk.

Tier 5:Rounds 8-13

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Johnny DamonNYY113.28Yes.30395177129555
Andre EthierLAD118.42Yes.3059020776525
Chris B. YoungAri122.12Yes.24885228514625
Jayson WerthPhi140.14Yes.27373246720418
Lastings MilledgeWas140.14Yes.26865146124523
Torii HunterLAA104.54Yes.27885217819551
Raul IbanezPhi110.89Yes.29385231102635
Justin UptonAri183.37Yes.2505215421356
Vernon WellsTor100.88Yes.3006320784427
Brad HawpeCol128.42Yes.2836925852488
Nelson CruzTex167.13Yes.330197263115
Pat BurrellTB149.56Yes.2507433860536
Milton BradleyChC153.51Yes.3217822775414
Mark DeRosaCle147.68Yes.28510321876505

There’s a more defined diversity in the fifth tier of outfielders compared to the first four. Here, you will find veterans who are still productive but often don’t steal fantasy headlines (i.e. Torii Hunter, Raul Ibanez, Pat Burrell). In this space are also a few outfielders who have yet to hit full stride in their careers (i.e. Andre Ethier, Lastings Milledge, Justin Upton) and even a few high-upside picks that panned out as slight disappointments last season (i.e. Chris B. Young).

Sitting atop this tier is Johnny Damon and even though all the news printed about him recently is mostly dedicated to his alleged money problems, Damon turned in a solid season last year where he hit 17 home runs, stole 29 bases, and hit for a .303 batting average. He’s not quite yesterday’s news yet and there’s still room for some good on-the-field news from Damon in terms of his fantasy production.

The loud blip coming from your fantasy radar is likely to be caused by Nelson Cruz and if you can’t hear it, you should try to be on the lookout for Cruz past the midpoint of your draft. In limited at-bats last year, Cruz had shown at the big league level the kind of marked improvement that he had in Triple-A and mashed the ball in the Dominican Winter League this past winter. Cruz is an obvious post-hype sleeper entering this season, given his impressive winter as well as the indication that he could hit cleanup in a potent Rangers lineup. For a potential 13th-round pick, it’s worth taking a chance on a possible late bloomer that could reap a sizable reward.

Tier 6: Round 14-18

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Elijah DukesWas254.11Yes.26448134413276
Adam JonesBal208.69Yes.2706195710477
Xavier NadyNYY154.58Yes.3057625972555
Conor JacksonAri170.10Yes.30087127510540
Shin-Soo ChooCle216.00Yes.3096814664317
Rick AnkielStl184.04Yes.2646525712413
Nick SwisherNYY212.70Yes.2198624693497
Cameron MaybinFla208.55Yes.500902432
Willy TaverasCin189.98Yes.2516412668479
Coco CrispKC218.70Yes.2835574120361
Carlos GomezMin216.70Yes.2587975933577
Hideki MatsuiNYY199.75Yes.294439450337
Delmon YoungMin188.18Yes.29080106914575

This tier is what I call the “last chance saloon” because it’s perhaps your last chance at grabbing an undervalued hitter with some upside to plug in one of your last few outfield spots. At this point, relying on any of these outfielders in this tier as your #2 or even as your #3 outfielder isn’t recommended, but that’s not to say that there aren’t any gems to be uncovered from this tier.

At the top of this tier are a couple of former top prospects who have some power/speed upside. In his first season in Baltimore, Adam Jones posted a sound campaign for a 23-year-old in close-to-a-full season’s worth of at-bats. A 15/15 season is a reasonable expectation for Jones and if he’s featured in the two-hole directly behind Brian Roberts and in front of Markakis, he’ll be a bargain source for runs. If you missed out on Milledge several rounds earlier, Elijah Dukes is a late-round alternative and perhaps more of a wild card than his Washington teammate. In just 276 at-bats, Dukes hit 13 home runs and stole 13 bases, helping pundits recall why Dukes was once a touted prospect with unlimited upside. This year’s Nate McLouth? Perhaps. As long as he’s committed to his on-the-field craft, Dukes could be the next late-round five-category contributor to break out. On average, Dukes is taken with a 19th-round pick, a fantastic bargain according to his median draft position.

At this time of the draft, Conor Jackson (a poor man’s James Loney), Xavier Nady, and Shin-Soo Choo are popular outfield targets, but one that’s a bit under the radar is Rick Ankiel. In just 413 at-bats, Rick Ankiel posted a 25 home run season, and as long as he’s healthy and hitting in a Cardinals lineup with Albert Pujols, the spillover effect on Ankiel should remain intact. In short, Ankiel is a bargain-basement version of Ryan Ludwick.

In this tier are some of the most popular cheap sources for steals, namely Willy Taveras and Carlos Gomez, both of whom could do some damage to your team’s batting average. With the announcement of Hanley Ramirez hitting third in the Florida Marlins lineup, a spot opened up for Cameron Maybin to hit in either leadoff or in the two-hole. While Maybin is not exactly a pure speed burner to the extent of Taveras and Gomez, he has the upside of scoring 100 runs to go with 20 steals if he can hold on to one of the first two spots in the Florida order. Finally, a new home and a fresh start in Kansas City could propel Coco Crisp into a decent season as the likely Royals’ leadoff hitter.

Tier 7: Round 18+

 TeamMDP20 games?2008 AVGRHRRBISBAB
Adam LindTor253.33Yes.282489402326
Jeremy HermidaFla256.62Yes.2497417616502
Mike CameronMil258.11Yes.24369257017444
Chase HeadleySD259.46Yes.269349384331
Denard SpanMin205.95Yes.2947064718347
Jeff FrancoeurAtl237.00Yes.2397011710599
Eric ByrnesAri213.55Yes.209286234206
J.D. DrewBos211.90Yes.2807919644368
Juan PierreLAD235.06Yes.2834412840375
Ty WiggintonBal218.50Yes.2855023584386
Jose GuillenKC242.90Yes.2646620972598
David DeJesusKC247.98Yes.30770127311518
Ryan ChurchNYM254.29Yes.2765412492319
Fred LewisSF247.17Yes.282819407468
Randy WinnSF256.69Yes.30684106425598
Skip SchumakerStl258.11Yes.302875468540
Luke ScottBal263.56Yes.2576723652475

This is practically Davy Jones’ Locker as far as fantasy outfielders go, as it is filled with past low-upside sleepers, past young guns that not long ago were labeled the next best things since sliced bread, and veteran hitters that once took residence as fifth-tier outfielders. On that note, in deeper leagues you can take a late round flier on the likes of Jeff Francoeur, Eric Byrnes, Chase Headley, and Jeremy Hermida outproducing their low draft positions. Not listed here because they currently don’t have a median draft position in the top 300 are Travis Snider and Ryan Spilborghs, both of whom should vie for playing time and can make some kind of impact this season.

That about does it for covering the outfield in tiers. Check back tomorrow for the next Positional Tiers column, which will cover starting pitching. Until then, be champions.

True to his name as The Artful Dodger, Ray Flores is a Dodger fan whose preferred outfield is either a basketball court or a football pitch. While being artful doesn't best describe him, Ray is a web developer, a part-time fantasy football blogger (the game actually played with feet), and "Chief Wikitect" of the Cafe's Fantasy Sports Wiki project.
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