30 Questions: How will the outfield situation play out?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
The Angels' signing of Torii Hunter left the team with quite a crowd in the outfield. Hunter is set to man center field every day; that we know. But the Angels have five other players to slot into two corner-outfield spots and the DH spot. Four of those players -- Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr. and Reggie Willits -- received more than 400 at-bats last season. Juan Rivera, meanwhile, missed nearly all of last season because of a broken leg but hit .310 with 23 home runs in 448 at-bats in 2006. How will this all play out?
Vladimir Guerrero: Naturally, Guerrero will play every day when healthy. Although he has indicated that he's not enthusiastic about spending time at designated hitter, Angels management might see it differently since Guerrero is still suffering from a sore elbow that limited him to DH duty in the 2007 postseason. The 32-year-old slugger hit only 27 home runs last year, a career low for a 400-plus at-bat campaign. He did post an outstanding .324/.403/.527 line overall, though, and a career-high 45 doubles means that his power isn't eroding just yet.
Gary Matthews: Matthews, who will slide from center to left field to make room for Hunter, is also recovering from a 2007 injury. He's taking it easy this spring as he rests a balky knee that cost him time late last year. Matthews improved his home run and stolen base output last season, but his batting average and slugging percentage plunged outside of Rangers Ballpark.
Garret Anderson: Anderson comes into spring training without any current injury concerns. However, the longtime Angel is now 35 and sports an expanding résumé of recent ailments. He'll see plenty of time at DH as the club attempts to keep him fresh. Anderson was plagued by hip problems for much of last year, but once he got healthy, his bat came alive. A big second half that yielded 13 home runs and a .313/.369/.528 line made his overall 2007 numbers respectable.
Juan Rivera: Sidelined in the offseason because of a broken leg he suffered playing winter ball, Rivera got only 43 at-bats last year, all in September. At age 29, Rivera is in his physical prime, and his power potential is certainly intriguing. He'll need to hit more fly balls and fewer grounders to capitalize, however. The Angels have publicly placed Rivera on the trading block, but the team insists it won't give away talent cheaply just because the outfield is crowded.
Reggie Willits: Unlike Rivera, Willits is said to be unavailable in trade talks. The 26-year-old was a pleasant surprise last year, batting .293 and swiping 27 bases. However, much of his performance was fueled by a fortuitous hit percentage. Willits is a legitimate speedster, and he did hit for average in the minors (albeit exclusively in hitters' parks) while displaying respectable plate discipline. However, he offers no power whatsoever and possesses only mediocre contact skills and defensive abilities.
As it currently stands, Guerrero and Matthews will start at the corner-outfield positions, with Anderson occupying the designated-hitter spot. Rivera is penciled in as the fourth outfielder, with Willits in the fifth-outfielder role. What makes the Angels' situation so interesting is the fact that both backups have some history of success as everyday players. Rivera's 2006 performance is more sustainable than Willits' 2007, yet Rivera is the player being dangled in trade discussions. Given the age and injury history of Anderson and Guerrero, the club would be wise to keep Rivera around. Matthews is no ubertalent, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Rivera overtake him as a starter at some point. Rivera also is working out at first base this spring in an effort to increase his versatility. If that experiment is successful defensively, the team could slip his bat into the lineup as a backup to Casey Kotchman. That could mean that Robb Quinlan would be expendable; otherwise he will see a smattering of DH at-bats if he remains on the roster.
None of these players is a reliable pick right now. Guerrero is the only one currently boasting an unimpeachable skill set, and his lingering elbow woes are certainly cause for concern. Expect him to play as often as Hunter, logging about a third of his time at DH (despite his objections). Anderson will see some time in the outfield, but he'll be the primary DH and should produce respectable numbers as long as he can stay healthy. Both his knee and his mediocre skills suggest that Matthews is primed to disappoint again, and he could eventually wind up as the odd man out despite his incumbent status. Willits will likewise find it difficult to repeat his past performance. He's still an endgame speed target at the right price, but he simply doesn't have the bat of a major league regular, and his 2007 numbers are likely to inflate his draft price past the point of potential profit. Rivera is the most interesting speculative pick. He could conceivably produce a season similar to 2006 but will need some ill to befall Guerrero, Anderson or Matthews in order to get a real opportunity. He's the only one of the group whose upside exceeds his downside, and his backup status could make him a draft-day bargain in many leagues.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.
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