Commentary

2012 Position Preview: Outfield

Updated: March 27, 2012, 4:50 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

At first blush, it might seem that the outfield position is a bit shallower this season than in previous years. But a closer look shows that not to be true; the position is strangely deep.

Obviously there are more outfielders worth considering for a position on your fantasy roster than there are at any other offensive slot in the game. Yet even though a standard league will end up with at least 50-60 outfielders being selected on draft day, as compared to at least 10-15 at the other infield positions, when it comes to what's left on the waiver wire, there will still be better outfield options available than anywhere else.

To demonstrate this, let's look at Brent Lillibridge, who qualified last season at first base, second base and the outfield. A quick look at the ESPN Player Rater shows that his .258 batting average, 13 home runs, 29 RBIs and 10 stolen bases ranked him 31st at second base and 40th at first base. However, compared to other outfielders, Lillibridge's relative worth was far lower: 95th on the list.

The problem for drafters this season is going to be that there are so many guys with question marks hanging over their heads in terms of injury risk, possible platoon situations, lack of experience and one-dimensionality that while you can be sure that some of these players will answer those questions, predicting which ones will and which ones won't is harder than ever in 2012.

Cream of the Crop

Outfielder Rankings

1. Matt Kemp, LAD, OF (3)
2. Ryan Braun, Mil, OF (4)
3. Jose Bautista, Tor, 3B, OF (5)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury, Bos, OF (8)
5. Justin Upton, Ari, OF (9)
6. Carlos Gonzalez, Col, OF (16)
7. Curtis Granderson, NYY, OF (23)
8. Giancarlo Stanton, Mia, OF (25)
9. Andrew McCutchen, Pit, OF (26)
10. Matt Holliday, StL, OF (30)
11. Michael Bourn, Atl, OF (35)
12. Hunter Pence, Phi, OF (37)
13. Jay Bruce, Cin, OF (38)
14. Josh Hamilton, Tex, OF (40)
15. Nelson Cruz, Tex, OF (44)
16. Alex Gordon, KC, OF (50)
17. Ben Zobrist, TB, 2B, OF (51)
18. Shane Victorino, Phi, OF (55)
19. Lance Berkman, StL, 1B, OF (59)
20. Carl Crawford, Bos, OF (70)
21. Shin-Soo Choo, Cle, OF (75)
22. Adam Jones, Bal, OF (76)
23. B.J. Upton, TB, OF (78)
24. Jayson Werth, Was, OF (80)
25. Michael Morse, Was, 1B, OF (83)
26. Ichiro Suzuki, Sea, OF (87)
27. Brett Gardner, NYY, OF (88)
28. Michael Cuddyer, Col, 1B, OF (90)
29. Corey Hart, Mil, OF (96)
30. Desmond Jennings, TB, OF (99)
31. Chris Young, Ari, OF (102)
32. Jason Heyward, Atl, OF (104)
33. Drew Stubbs, Cin, OF (107)
34. Carlos Beltran, StL, OF (110)
35. Howard Kendrick, LAA, 2B, OF (113)
36. Coco Crisp, Oak, OF (135)
37. Andre Ethier, LAD, OF (136)
38. Cameron Maybin, SD, OF (139)
39. Nick Markakis, Bal, OF (141)
40. Torii Hunter, LAA, OF (142)
41. Melky Cabrera, SF, OF (146)
42. Nick Swisher, NYY, OF (147)
43. Logan Morrison, Mia, OF (150)
44. Carlos Lee, Hou, 1B, OF (152)
45. Martin Prado, Atl, 3B, OF (164)
46. Angel Pagan, SF, OF (174)
47. Jeff Francoeur, KC, OF (176)
48. Josh Willingham, Min, OF (181)
49. Alex Rios, CWS, OF (195)
50. Jason Kubel, Ari, OF (197)
51. Colby Rasmus, Tor, OF (204)
52. Matt Joyce, TB, OF (205)
53. Lucas Duda, NYM, 1B, OF (209)
54. Emilio Bonifacio, Mia, SS, 3B, OF (210)
55. Yoenis Cespedes, Oak, OF (218)
56. Ryan Raburn, Det, 2B, OF (222)
57. Mitch Moreland, Tex, 1B, OF (224)
58. Mike Carp, Sea, 1B, OF (226)
59. Brandon Belt, SF, 1B, OF (232)
60. Peter Bourjos, LAA, OF (237)
61. Dexter Fowler, Col, OF (245)
62. Delmon Young, Det, OF (250)
63. Austin Jackson, Det, OF (255)
64. J.D. Martinez, Hou, OF (260)
65. Brennan Boesch, Det, OF (261)
66. Allen Craig, StL, OF (262)
67. Alfonso Soriano, ChC, OF (265)
68. Jason Bay, NYM, OF (270)
69. John Mayberry Jr., Phi, OF (273)
70. Yonder Alonso, SD, OF (276)
71. Jose Tabata, Pit, OF (278)
72. Michael Brantley, Cle, OF (279)
73. Carlos Quentin, SD, OF (282)
74. Alejandro De Aza, CWS, OF (292)
75. Aubrey Huff, SF, 1B, OF (298)
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2012 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Overall position ranking is indicated in parentheses.

Matt Kemp's 2011 season was one of only four in the history of baseball in which a hitter had 35 or more home runs, 120 or more RBIs, a batting average of .320 and 30 or more steals. If you take away the two Colorado Rockies who did it (Ellis Burks in 1996 and Larry Walker in 1997), the only other player to achieve the feat was St. Louis Browns outfielder Ken Williams in 1922. And with Kemp in his prime, there's no reason to believe he can't put up such gaudy numbers again in 2012.

Can we all agree now that Jose Bautista is not Brady Anderson? Despite a drop in fly balls of 7.5 percent in 2012, Bautista hit a greater percentage of them out of the park. He still managed to hit 43 home runs despite being walked more than any other hitter in the league and was one of only nine players in all of baseball to have a BB/K rate greater than 1.00. A third consecutive home run title is certainly not out of the question here.

Jacoby Ellsbury missed nearly all of the 2010 season to injury, but boy did he heal up great! He was one stolen base shy of becoming only the fourth player to have 30 home runs, 40 doubles and 40 steals in a single season. Perhaps we're not ready to buy in that the power surge is truly legitimate, but the speed certainly is for real. If he gives you a final 2012 total of 25 home runs and 50 stolen bases along with a .300 batting average, why wouldn't you want a guy who can help you in all five categories?

A little patience at the plate goes a long way. Justin Upton was able to get his strikeout rate down last season, and hit the ball with a bit more authority, hitting a whopping .337 with 15 home runs when ahead in the count. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Upton finished third in the majors in terms of "no doubt" blasts, proving that his power was not a figment of the imagination. It looks as though the youngster has finally arrived.

Carlos Gonzalez had such a stellar 2010 season, he was bound to feel some pressure to duplicate it last year, especially after signing a huge $80 million contract extension. April was not kind to him  he hit just .228 -- but from May until he got hurt trying to make a catch in July, CarGo was just fine. Let's say he merely doubled his output from that 65-game stretch in 2012. If so, we're looking at 28 homers, 26 steals and a .312 batting average. As a floor, that's worth jumping on quickly.

Curtis Granderson, a career .226 hitter against southpaws, suddenly figured out how to hit lefties in 2011. Hitting .272 with 16 home runs versus left-handed pitching is what transformed Granderson into a legitimate MVP candidate last season. A dip in batting average might be expected this season, especially if he forgets what he learned in 2011, but if he can continue to blast away at will, he could well challenge for the home run crown.

There's some reason for concern with Matt Holliday , who failed to hit .300 for the first time since his rookie season. After all, he no longer has Albert Pujols in his lineup, and when Holliday moved up to the No. 3 spot last season when The Machine was hurt, he hit only .231 with four home runs in those 14 games. Still, as one of only nine players with 70 or more home runs and a .300 batting average since 2009, Holliday still merits inclusion at the tail end of the top tier of outfielders.

The elephants in the room

Reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun had his 50-game suspension for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug overturned on Feb. 23, and is now in the mix as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

On the one hand, Josh Hamilton's offseason lapse in judgment does show how fragile his sobriety is, and how every day is a struggle for the talented hitter. We know he's capable of a 30-homer season if he can stay focused and healthy. But even if he remains sober, that doesn't mean the disabled list won't claim him for a few weeks yet again in 2012.

Ready for their close-ups?

The question is not whether Mike Stanton can smash the cover off the ball. Rather, it's whether or not pitchers will dare to challenge him. If the ball is over the plate, he simply kills it. In his two seasons in the majors, he's hitting .336 on pitches in the strike zone with 45 home runs. When pitchers try to get him to chase bad pitches, they've been far more successful, holding Stanton to only 11 homers and a .125 batting average. But how many pitchers will be willing to play cat-and-mouse without trying to go for the kill?

Andrew McCutchen was one of only five outfielders with a WAR of 5.5 or better in 2011, and that feat is all the more impressive when you consider he had just one teammate (Neil Walker) with a WAR over 2.0. His 23 home runs and 23 stolen bases last year brings him into elite company alongside players such as Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson and Darryl Strawberry as one of only 15 players to reach those benchmarks in their third big league season. He's definitely a star on the rise.

[+] EnlargeHunter Pence
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesHunter Pence finished 31st overall on the Player Rater in 2011.

Hunter Pence has a .318 career batting average at Citizens Bank Park but has managed to hit only three home runs in 129 at-bats there, or one every 43 at-bats. During his five seasons in Houston, he hit one every 24.8 ABs at home, so while we don't have any concerns about his batting average going forward, we can't foresee a leap above the 25 homers he's been pretty good for year in and year out.

Jay Bruce strikes out way too much to be an elite fantasy option. But it's not just the 150 strikeouts that will drag his batting average down. It's also the fact that he's one of those all-or-nothing power bats that hurts his overall value. Yes, he may hit a few extra home runs by launching more and more fly balls into the outfield each season, but when close to 75 percent of those flies end up in the opposing team's gloves, expecting much more than .250 from Bruce is probably asking a lot.

After two seasons spent struggling to find himself, Alex Gordon finally discovered that major league bat fantasy owners had been waiting for since he first put on a Royals uniform in 2007. Gordon hit .303 with 23 home runs and 17 stolen bases, but really came into his own in the leadoff spot, where in 89 starts he had a .916 OPS. He also hit .403 when he put the first pitch of an at-bat into play, so it's clear that a focused Alex Gordon has a chance to be a standout.

Question marks

Nelson Cruz spent time on the disabled list twice in 2011, once in May because of a strained right quad and again in September when his left hamstring acted up. There's no question that when he's in the lineup, he's an All Star-caliber talent who could be good for 40 home runs if he were to play every single day of the season. Of course, since he has yet to play as many as 130 games in any year thus far, the risk may well outweigh the potential reward.

Carl Crawford was supposed to be a 20-homer, 50-steal player after moving to Boston last offseason, but a brutal April in which it seemed he was hypnotized by that Green Monster really affected his swing. He did manage to rebound some with a .279 average from May on, but offseason wrist surgery now puts his April in doubt. It's hard to think about paying a lot for a player you already know has injury concerns, so his draft value has to dip a bit not knowing for sure when he will be back on the field.

There's similar concern with Shin-Soo Choo. The Indians outfielder got hit on the thumb with a pitch last June and missed six weeks. Then he strained a muscle in his side and went on the disabled list again in August. In September, if not for the expanded rosters, he likely would have gone on the DL for a third time when he re-aggravated his strain. For someone who was considered a "safe" option before 2011, his draft value has to drop a bit since that label no longer seems to apply.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Adam Jones
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesAdam Jones hasn't reached the lofty numbers we expected, but .280-25-83 is nothing to sneeze at.

With Adam Jones, who has yet to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him, the issue is one of a possible trade. Of all Baltimore hitters, Jones certainly has the most trade value, and it would not be surprising to see him sent packing before July. If that happens, depending on his role with his new team, playing time might become an issue for the rest of 2012, and if so, perhaps he won't be the 25-homer, 90-RBI bat you may think you're drafting.

Speed versus power

Once you start looking for your third or fourth outfielders, it comes down to what the overall look of your team is as to which type of player you're going to want to pursue. When all the potential 30-30 guys are gone, it basically comes down to speed versus power.

Of the 19 players projected to steal more than 30 bases in 2012, 15 come from the outfield. In case you're wondering, the remaining quartet comes entirely from the shortstop position. Aside from Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury, who have some power credentials to go along with the speed, when it comes to fantasy value, you have to seriously weigh most of these "one-category specialists" differently.

There's no doubt that Michael Bourn and his league-leading 61 stolen bases helped a lot of people win the stolen base category outright. The question is whether or not that's worth his lack of pop. If coupled with a guy like Michael Morse, who gives you homers but no speed, then maybe so.

Other outfielders who may have flaws in their game, but still should be able to quench your thirst for speed include light-hitting Brett Gardner and Coco Crisp, potential batting average drains such as B.J. Upton and Drew Stubbs, and aging players like Shane Victorino and Ichiro Suzuki.

Of course, if you're already set in the speed department and are looking for around 20 home runs without too much of a drain on your batting average, then at this point of the draft you might want to allocate your resources on players like the following sextet: Corey Hart, Jayson Werth, Carlos Beltran, Andre Ethier, Nick Swisher and Jason Kubel.

Something to prove

Desmond Jennings was supposed to make Rays fans forget about Carl Crawford. Unfortunately, when he was promoted to the majors in late July, he proceeded to play about as well as Crawford did for the Boston Red Sox. In other words, he put the emphasis on being nominal rather than being a phenom. The hope is that a full season of action will allow him to turn into the 20-homer, 40-steal man many fantasy owners were expecting.

Jason Heyward's 50-point drop in batting average can be traced back to flaws in his swing brought on by a shoulder injury. He swung at more pitches, and more bad pitches, and simply didn't make the same kind of contact he had in his promising 2010 rookie campaign. With a new attitude and a new hitting coach, hopefully Heyward's slump will be confined to his sophomore season.

Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban defector with quote-unquote "big-time" power and tons of speed might well be a talent worth coveting, but he's still not guaranteed to start the season on the Oakland roster. After all they have Coco Crisp in center and can choose from more experienced players like Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes to stock their starting lineup. Although there's promise here, for now, Cespedes appears to be nothing more than a late-round wing and a prayer.

Maybe we can blame Colby Rasmus' .173 batting average and only three home runs in his 35 games with Toronto on a bad wrist. Perhaps we can write off his earlier 2011 struggles to conflict with then-manager Tony La Russa. Or maybe this is who he really is. Sure, he could bust out and hit 25 home runs again like he did in 2010, but it's just as likely that blame Anthony Gose gets called up to take his spot in the lineup by July.

Luck can cut both ways. It seems that Alex Rios was cursed last season. He hit just .227, though he had fewer strikeouts than in any other season since his rookie year. He put more balls in play, but they simply didn't end up eluding fielders like they did the previous season, when he hit .284.

Contrast that with Jeff Francoeur, who whiffed 123 times, his most since 2007. Yet he raised his average to .285, as nearly every ground ball seemed to find a hole. Expect that luck to even out; both these guys should meet somewhere in the middle in 2012.

DH-only

Veteran bats always seem to find a home eventually. That explains why the Houston Astros signed Jack Cust to a contract. If he does end up winning a spot on the roster as an outfielder, he'll have limited value. However, with American League teams always in the market for extra bats, unsigned veterans like Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero may yet find a home for the 2012 season, and if so, the outfield seems like their most likely landing spot should any of them earn eligibility beyond the DH spot.

Future snapshot

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
John Cordes/Icon SMIMike Trout is a future star, but when will that "future" arrive?

Mike Trout stole 33 bases in the minors last season, so you know he can run. What's more, he also hit five home runs during a brief stint with the Angels just after turning 20. Eventually, the power numbers should blossom as well. When that happens, watch out! As for now, expect a midseason call-up and rapid, yet steady, growth.

The sky's the limit for Bryce Harper, who has 30-30 potential. Washington is not likely to start the service-time clock on him before he's truly ready, though, so for 2012 at least, a September cup of coffee might be all the drink you'll get from this fountain.

Points versus roto

Getting on base via the walk is just as valuable in a points league as finding a hole in the defense. So even if the batting averages aren't topping .300, players like Jason Heyward, Bobby Abreu and Josh Willingham, who are adept at drawing walks, are worth more on draft day and beyond. Vladimir Guerrero, Delmon Young and Adam Jones take a bit of a nosedive given the same criteria.

Of course, a good eye also means you're not striking out as much. With an extra deduction for strolling back to the dugout, head in your hands after a punch-out, it pays to draft players who don't make that a habit. Look to elevate guys like Carlos Beltran, Shane Victorino and Nick Markakis by more than a few spots as a result. Conversely, players like Peter Bourjos, John Mayberry Jr. and Alfonso Soriano are far less fierce when the strikeouts cut into your overall value.

The bottom line

You do need to start more outfielders than any other non-pitching position, but that doesn't mean you should be afraid to take some chances on players who have question marks or smaller track records to go on. After all, with 90 regular starters to choose from, it's very likely that your post-draft waiver wire will be full of viable options from what the collective wisdom of your league has deemed to be the "unattractive" offenses.

At least a few of those players will be there for you to grab should one or more of your "risk" picks not pan out. So while you certainly don't want to pass on the cream of the crop in the outfield, you also don't have to "play it safe" as you fill out your roster. The outfield position is more forgiving than most.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.

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