There's no question that there are far more outfielders worth taking a look at than there are hitters at any other position in the lineup. For example, Travis Snider doesn't even crack our top 40, and that's with a projection of 27 home runs and 88 RBIs. Compare that with the No. 45 first baseman, Troy Glaus, and his 10 homers and 44 RBIs, and you quickly get the idea.
Of course, that doesn't mean that outfield is deep. In ESPN standard leagues, you only have to start one catcher, one first baseman and one shortstop. But when it comes to the outfield, a 10-team league is going to need to claim at least 50 of these guys. So while there are plenty of everyday second basemen who may never get even a scintilla of consideration on draft day, you need to examine the outfield a lot closer.
Once your draft enters the late rounds, the likes of Coco Crisp and Jose Tabata will start to vie for your attention, so you really need to think twice before passing on the select number of elite outfielders in the first two rounds. Carl Crawford, Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez and Matt Holliday will all go off the board quickly, leaving you with a lot of injury risks (including a pair of sluggers wearing Texas Rangers uniforms) as well as guys who haven't put up sensational numbers for more than a single season; Jason Heyward and Andrew McCutchen, we're looking at you.
Here then, by way of explanation, is a quick snapshot at some of the reasoning behind what the ESPN Fantasy staff ultimately decided upon in terms of putting all these 7s, 8s and 9s in their proper places for the 2011 season:
Cream of the crop
1. Carl Crawford, Bos, OF, $33
2. Ryan Braun, Mil, OF, $31
3. Carlos Gonzalez, Col, OF, $28
4. Matt Holliday, StL, OF, $26
5. Josh Hamilton, Tex, OF, $25
6. Matt Kemp, LAD, OF, $24
7. Nelson Cruz, Tex, OF, $23
8. Shin-Soo Choo, Cle, OF, $22
9. Justin Upton, Ari, OF, $20
10. Andrew McCutchen, Pit, OF, $20
11. Jose Bautista, Tor, OF/3B, $19
12. Jayson Werth, Was, OF, $18
13. Ichiro Suzuki, Sea, OF, $17
14. Jason Heyward, Atl, OF, $17
15. Alex Rios, CWS, OF, $17
16. Hunter Pence, Hou, OF, $17
17. Jacoby Ellsbury, Bos, OF, $16
18. Andre Ethier, LAD, OF, $15
19. B.J. Upton, TB, OF, $14
20. Mike Stanton, Fla, OF, $14
21. Shane Victorino, Phi, OF, $14
22. Jay Bruce, Cin, OF, $13
23. Chris Young, Ari, OF, $13
24. Corey Hart, Mil, OF, $13
25. Delmon Young, Min, OF, $12
26. Michael Bourn, Hou, OF, $12
27. Curtis Granderson, NYY, OF, $12
28. Colby Rasmus, StL, OF, $11
29. Ben Zobrist, TB, OF/2B, $11
30. Drew Stubbs, Cin, OF, $11
31. Brett Gardner, NYY, OF, $11
32. Torii Hunter, LAA, OF, $10
33. Juan Pierre, CWS, OF, $10
34. Aubrey Huff, SF, 1B/OF, $10
35. Carlos Quentin, CWS, OF, $10
36. Bobby Abreu, LAA, OF, $9
37. Vernon Wells, LAA, OF, $9
38. Adam Jones, Bal, OF, $9
39. Angel Pagan, NYM, OF, $9
40. Rajai Davis, Tor, OF, $9
41. Nick Markakis, Bal, OF, $8
42. Carlos Lee, Hou, OF/1B, $8
43. Grady Sizemore, Cle, OF, $7
44. Nick Swisher, NYY, OF, $5
45. Jason Bay, NYM, OF, $5
46. Sean Rodriguez, TB, 2B/OF, $5
47. Travis Snider, Tor, OF, $5
48. Michael Cuddyer, Min, 1B/OF, $4
49. Andres Torres, SF, OF, $4
50. Denard Span, Min, OF, $4
51. Manny Ramirez, TB, OF, $4
52. Carlos Beltran, NYM, OF, $3
53. Chris Coghlan, Fla, OF, $2
54. Ryan Raburn, Det, OF, $2
55. Raul Ibanez, Phi, OF, $2
56. Franklin Gutierrez, Sea, OF, $2
57. Austin Jackson, Det, OF, $2
58. Johnny Damon, TB, OF, $2
59. Dexter Fowler, Col, OF, $2
60. Coco Crisp, Oak, OF, $1
61. Matt Joyce, TB, OF, $1
62. Garrett Jones, Pit, 1B/OF, $1
63. Seth Smith, Col, OF, $1
64. Nate McLouth, Atl, OF, $1
65. Jason Kubel, Min, OF, $1
66. Cameron Maybin, SD, OF, $0
67. Jose Tabata, Pit, OF, $0
68. Julio Borbon, Tex, OF, $0
69. Marlon Byrd, ChC, OF, $0
70. Logan Morrison, Fla, OF, $0
71. Jonny Gomes, Cin, OF, $0
72. Cody Ross, SF, OF, $0
73. Tyler Colvin, ChC, OF, $0
74. J.D. Drew, Bos, OF, $0
75. Alfonso Soriano, ChC, OF, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.
As deep as outfield is in terms of the number of available bodies, the "sure things" dry up awfully fast. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the question marks start as early as No. 5 on the overall outfield depth chart. Here are the four no-brainers that should grace the top of nearly every draft list.
First, there's Carl Crawford, who hasn't really performed up to his standards at Fenway Park for his career. In 75 starts, he's got a .275 batting average with four home runs, 35 runs scored and 26 stolen bases. Obviously, he won't be facing Boston Red Sox pitching now that he's wearing the home whites, but it's also why we think his stats will maintain, rather than improve. No need to panic, though, as those stats were good enough for second overall on the ESPN Player Rater in 2010.
Ryan Braun failed to hit 30 home runs last season for the first time in his career, but that's no need to remove him from the ranks of the fantasy elite. Braun actually put a higher percentage of balls into play than in any other season of his career, and nearly half of those were on the ground. Why? With Prince Fielder also struggling, pitchers didn't see the need to challenge Braun, so the number of good pitches he saw were few and far between. The two sluggers' symbiotic relationship should be grooving again in 2011, and as a result, Braun's top-10 value should return.
It's not a slight to Carlos Gonzalez to declare that he's not going to come anywhere near the numbers he posted in 2010. After all, in the history of the sport, only seven players have hit more than 30 home runs, stolen 25 or more bases, driven in 100-plus runs and posted at least a .330 batting average. Ken Williams did it back in 1922, and it wasn't until Barry Bonds' 1993 campaign that the feat was repeated. Of course, three of those special seasons come courtesy of Colorado Rockies -- Ellis Burks and Larry Walker being the other two -- so obviously, as long as CarGo is playing in the 303, he's a near lock to hit at least that high.
Speaking of the "Coors Effect," Matt Holliday has now spent two seasons away from Denver and managed to hit .313 over that stretch. I think it's time to accept that he wasn't completely a product of his environment. Holliday has done it year after year and can pretty much be counted on for 30-100-.300 production. You might find higher upside later in the draft, but nobody from this point on gives you as much security.
The next best thing
Every player in this next tier could well end the season at the top of the ESPN Player Rater, but there's an element of danger with each of these players that makes you at least think twice.
Forget for a moment that Josh Hamilton had an MVP season. Nobody is going to question his ability, that's beside the point in his case. The most pertinent number for Hamilton in 2011 will be the amount of time he spends on the disabled list. Be it a sprained wrist, a strained ribcage, an abdominal strain or even the flu, it just seems that Hamilton's body is much older than 30. Having only three-quarters of a season from the Rangers outfielder would still likely put him in discussion for a first-round pick, but without a guarantee that he'll avoid missing extended time, it behooves you to hedge a bit.
Matt Kemp started strong in 2010, with seven homers over the Los Angeles Dodgers' first 14 games. Kemp ended strong in 2010, with five homers in the team's last five games. It was everything else in the middle that had his owners frustrated beyond belief. Perhaps "off-field distractions" can be used as a catch-all umbrella for all that went wrong with Kemp last season, but even if that's an easy excuse, at 26, we're willing to give Kemp the benefit of the doubt and hope that the low .249 batting average was a one-time fluke.
Nelson Cruz could hit 40 home runs this season. He could also hit four. The issue with Cruz is his hamstrings, which sent him to the disabled list not once, not twice, but THREE times in 2010. Each time he returned to action last year, it took at least a week for him to smash his first long ball, so the concern here is that Cruz will spend so much energy focusing on how he is running and trying to avoid a repeat injury that it ends up throwing off his power swing entirely.
Justin Upton, another outfielder who had injuries factor into his 2010 stats, causing distaste among fantasy owners, was "on pace" for a potential 30-20 season but a torn labrum put the kibosh on that. He still strikes out way too much for my liking -- a 30.7 percent rate needs to come down in a hurry -- but he's only 23. Upton is 25th all time with 60 home runs hit at his young age, so there should be plenty of good time ahead.
Only eight players have ever had three 20-20 seasons with a .300 batting average or better. So maybe it's worth believing in Shin-Soo Choo, who not only achieved the rare feat in both of the last two seasons, but also cut down on his strikeouts in 2010 while increasing his walk total. With the specter of military service no longer hanging over his head, Choo should be as relaxed as ever, so joining the elite club that includes the likes of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron? That's a slam dunk.
Where's the ceiling?
Here we'll look at a group of players who are primed and ready to make that jump into the top 10 of outfielders, but each one comes with a little voice saying, "He can't do it. Pick someone else." Dare you trust your instincts, or do you succumb to those voices?
Year over year, Andrew McCutchen improved nicely in terms of lowering his strikeout rate (down from 19.2 to 15.6 percent in 2010. With all those extra balls in play, it was nice to see him maintain his .286 average even though his BABIP dropped 16 points. McCutchen was the only Pittsburgh player with a WAR over 1.5, so while he's certainly the first Pirates outfielder you'll want to claim, unless he gets a little lineup help, it's unlikely he'll reach his potential in the Keystone State.
Forget how much money the Washington Nationals are paying Jayson Werth; that's their problem, and not yours. At least don't make it yours by overpaying for what's likely to be the same stat line as last season, which wasn't all that much different from the year before, which wasn't all that much different from the year before that. Last year, that was good enough to be the No. 11 outfielder on the Player Rater, which is right where you should expect him to land in 2011.
"He's too old!"… "Those legs are going to give out on him!" … People have been saying that about Ichiro Suzuki for the past several seasons, and his next season with fewer than 200 hits will be his first. A lack of power numbers from your No. 1 outfielder is hard to come back from, so that's the reason Ichiro always seems to lag a few rounds behind the crowd, but after watching him swipe 18 out of 20 bases from August on? Let's keep that rocking chair on back order, shall we?
The first half of Jason Heyward's rookie year saw him shooting for the fences -- with a heaping helping of strikeouts and a .251 batting average to go along with 11 home runs. The second half of the season saw him settle down, cutting back on the whiffs and hitting the ball on the ground more. The result was a .302 batting average, but fewer (seven) round-trippers. Depending on which half Heyward liked better, expect either 30-.260 or 20-.290 from him in 2011. Either way, he should help your fantasy team.
The 2009 trade that sent him to Chicago from Toronto really put a huge dent into the perception of Alex Rios, but if you take away those unfortunate first 40 games with the White Sox, you've got yourself a guy whose fly-ball tendencies and HR/FB rate suggest someone who should have very little problem netting you 20 dingers with his eyes closed. Throw in the potential for 30 steals, and it won't take much for Rios to jump ahead a tier.
Because Hunter Pence has the patience of a hummingbird, forget about him in leagues that use OBP instead of batting average. He was the only player last season to have 25 or more home runs, but 45 or fewer walks with 600 or more at-bats. If he can somehow keep himself from swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, perhaps an amazing 30-homer, .300 season can be achieved. Odds are, though, Pence will leave you scratching your head at what he might be capable of with a little more self-control.
Mid-round sleeper: Angel Pagan
Late-round sleeper: Jason Kubel
Prospect: Desmond Jennings
Long-term prospect: Domonic Brown
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Nelson Cruz
Player to trade at All-Star break: Adam Jones
Player to trade for at ASB: Nyjer Morgan
Home hero: Justin Upton
Road warrior: Marlon Byrd
Better in points formats: Nick Swisher
Player I inexplicably like: Hunter Pence
Player I inexplicably dislike: Jay Bruce
Where's the basement?
If you believe in this next group of players, you might not be alone. There are plenty of positives to hang your hat on, but at some point it becomes a game of chicken. How soon is too soon to dip into this tier? Conversely, how many rounds can you leave these guys out there before somebody finally does bite? In both cases you may end up kicking yourself if you play your hand wrong.
Jacoby Ellsbury could well score 100 runs and steal 50 bases if he plays a full 162-game season. After all, Carl Crawford has hit .319 for his career with a runner on second and first base open, so he could be driving in his outfield-mate all season long. However, after last year's lost season in which some of Ellsbury's teammates were questioning his toughness, there is a fear that he'll try to do too much too soon and the whole cycle of pain will repeat itself. We're not in that basket, but there are enough owners out there who got burned by him last season who may steer clear here.
Andre Ethier was the king of the world through May 14 in 2010, with a .392 batting average, 11 home runs and 38 RBIs. Unfortunately, a broken right pinkie finger caused his swing to falter once he returned from the disabled list, and he hit only .260 the rest of the way. That doesn't mean you should expect Ted Williams here in 2011 -- don't project based solely on his preinjury stats, since he did have plenty of time to straighten things out and he didn't -- but it doesn't mean he's doomed for a mediocre .260 season either.
Where did his power go? That's the question with B.J. Upton, who followed up a "20-20" 2007 season with two roughly 10-40 campaigns. In 2010, we finally saw that glimmer of hope with Upton again as he just fell short of 20-40. Something finally flipped the switch in Upton's swing and he started launching the ball again in the second half of the season, hitting 10 of his home runs from Aug. 3 on. The big question is whether he can find that switch again for the 2011 season. If so, maybe 25-50-.260 is possible. If not -- this is a high price to pay for 10-40 and a .240 batting average.
Mike Stanton's debut was one for the ages, as only 13 other players had 20-plus home runs and an ISO of .245 of greater in his rookie season. Several of those names are first-round selections in 2011, like Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols, and while it's too soon to be automatically projecting Stanton for 40 home runs and 120 RBIs, certainly it speaks to the enormous potential here. Then again, one of those players was Kevin Maas, and he had only 23 home runs in his sophomore season despite getting about twice as many at-bats. Just saying.
Shane Victorino wasn't exactly flying headed into September, with only 23 steals and a .253 batting average, but he stole 11 bases the rest of the way and hit .296 over the final month of the season to rise all the way to No. 23 among outfielders on the Player Rater. Line drives seem to have become high flies for Victorino, which certainly hasn't affected his power at home -- 13 homers at Citizens Bank Park -- but with only five homers on the road, it's quite clear other parks are not taking to his stroke in as friendly a manner.
The good news is that the Cincinnati Reds' Jay Bruce is on a natural growth curve that could well land him at 30 home runs in 2011. The bad news is that he didn't steal a single base after May 22, so it's all power, no speed for Bruce. Plus, the leap in BABIP of 113 points from 2009 to last year is probably pointing to a batting average regression. It also would be nice to see him hit more home runs away from the Great American Ballpark before we start elevating him to Joey Votto status.
If Chris Young hits 22 home runs and swipes 38 bases in 2011, he'll join a very elite club. Only eight players have had 120 or more homers and steals in their first six seasons -- a group that includes Hanley Ramirez, Darryl Strawberry and both of the Bonds, father and son. Maybe he'll fall a bit short on the bases, but it does give you an idea as to why fantasy owners can't seem to quit Young.
I've always tried to avoid the obvious Corey Hart/sunglasses at night reference, but interestingly enough in 2010, Hart did indeed struggle once the sun went down. In the day, he hit a home run every 18.2 plate appearances and batted .287 for the year. When the sun went down, he was less successful in keeping track of the vision in his eyes, with a homer every 20.8 plate appearances and a .281 average. Overall, his HR/FB rate rose to 16.8 percent from 8.8 in 2009 when he managed only 12 blasts, so a decline back toward 20 homers might be in order.
Delmon Young has more career RBIs than Matt Kemp and Troy Tulowitzki, two other players entering their sixth major league seasons, and he finally surpassed the 20-homer barrier in 2010. His strikeout totals were way down as his contact rate soared to 82.4 percent. This will either be the year he steps up and hits .300 to go along with 25 homers, or it's the year to cut bait on the youngster once and for all.
It takes three
The value of a lot of the guys you're going to take in the next tier depends upon what you need to help fill statistical holes in your lineup. Outfielders come in all shapes and sizes, and bring different skills to the table, so going blindly by the rankings might not be the wisest course of action when it comes to filling out your slate of starters.
If you feel your team is pretty balanced at this point of the draft, then these are the five guys to grab: Curtis Granderson, Colby Rasmus, Drew Stubbs, Bobby Abreu and Adam Jones. All of them are projected to get you double-digit homers and steals. Granderson's problem is that he never saw a pitch he didn't like to swing at, and as such, he's been mired in the .240s for the past two years. I'm not so sure that changes. Stubbs, on the other hand, had one of only 19 seasons in the sport's history of 30-plus steals and 150-plus strikeouts. That dichotomy makes it unlikely he'll find himself in the leadoff spot and as such, the bases might be too clogged when he does step up to the plate for him to reach that stolen base total again in 2011.
If you feel the need -- the need for speed -- these five guys all have 50-steal upside: Michael Bourn, Rajai Davis, Brett Gardner, Juan Pierre and Angel Pagan. Pagan has the most power potential of the bunch, and we're not all that concerned about his playing time. Whether he wins the center field job or if he gets shuttled to right, he's going to be in the lineup. Drafting Pierre often gets snickers, but he's only 33, and he stole 29 bases from August on in 2010. No need to doubt the not-so-old man's legs.
If you need a power surge, you can "knock 'em dead" with this quartet: Vernon Wells, Carlos Quentin, Torii Hunter and Travis Snider. Quentin's poor start last year certainly points to him being a great value at this point of the draft. Take away those early troubles, and you'll find a .263 batting average from May 9 on. Veteran Hunter's 2010 was one of the top 10 fantasy seasons all-time from a player in his 14th season, but only three players managed to post that kind of a stat line in their 15th season. Expect some decline from him across the board.
The Last of the Mohicans
At this point, in terms of weekly leagues, you might want to stray from the rankings list a bit. After all, it's better to be able to field a lineup in which everyone is sure to get at-bats than to have a bunch of possible goose eggs in the mix.
As such, possible April platoon men like Desmond Jennings (Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez may clog up the Tampa Bay lineup) and Domonic Brown (when he returns from his broken hand, he'll still likely be splitting time with Ben Francisco and Ross Gload) have value for 2011, but don't necessarily make wise picks in that format.
Then you have the walking dead -- guys like Grady Sizemore (microfracture surgery on left knee) and the New York Mets injury brothers, Jason Bay (concussion) and Carlos Beltran (knee surgery) -- with which to deal. Certainly, they'd all be ranked higher if there weren't so many lingering fears due to their past fragility.
Whole outfields have been ignored at this point, and you shouldn't forget that stats from these teams count just the same as those earned by players from more glamorous lineups. Don't forget about the Minnesota Twins and the trio of Denard Span, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, or the Detroit Tigers with Austin Jackson, Ryan Raburn and Magglio Ordonez. In the National League, you've got the Pittsburgh Pirates' Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata, as well as from the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants: Cody Ross, Pat Burrell and Andres Torres.
From the standpoint of availability, you certainly can choose to wait on outfielders. You'll absolutely find at-bats deep into drafts, even as you go into Round 20 and beyond -- for example, David DeJesus with 519 projected at-bats, ranks No. 84 in outfielders. However, that's a path you might not want to walk down. If you pass on the elite guys early, you'll likely be left with so many question marks, Frank Gorshin will be knocking on your door looking to borrow some for his new suit. Riddle me this: Why would you do that to yourself?
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.