- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Few positions have more historical cachet than right field in the National League.
From Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente through Dave Parker, Dave Winfield and Andre Dawson and on to Tony Gwynn, Larry Walker and Sammy Sosa in the 1990s, the position has been a repository for batting titles, home run champions, Gold Gloves and all-around marquee excellence.
Just not at the moment. When ESPN.com's writers sat down to pick their preseason NL All-Star teams in the spring, a few chose Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur in right field, a few more selected Colorado's Brad Hawpe, and most of us wondered, "Is that all there is?"
Call it a cyclical phenomenon, but there's not a dominant, Vladimir Guerrero-type player in the bunch.
Which made us wonder: Is there anyone currently playing right field for a National League club who could develop into that type of guy?
In this week's installment of "The Starting 9," we endeavored to find the answer. We excluded players over age 30 (Ken Griffey Jr., Shawn Green, Brian Giles, Preston Wilson, Jacque Jones and Randy Winn) and took a pass on Florida's Jeremy Hermida, who is on the disabled list after a disappointing rookie season, and asked several scouts and front-office executives the following question:
Of these NL right fielders age 23-28, which player has the skills to evolve into a consistent, All-Star-caliber player for years to come?
Here's how the young right fielders rank, from 1 through 9 (And Cubs fans, please hold those Matt Murton e-mails. Let's see where he's playing tomorrow):
Jeff Francoeur, Braves
Yes, we're aware that Francoeur posted an abysmal .293 on-base percentage last season, struck out 132 times and stole one base in seven tries.
He was also 22 years old and four years removed from the Parkview (Ga.) High School senior prom. Nevertheless, he displayed the mental toughness and durability to appear in all 162 games for a franchise with high expectations.
If Francoeur has one attribute the other players on this list lack, it's the "wow" factor. He's incredibly athletic and energetic, can hit the ball out to any part of the park, and has the type of throwing arm you rarely see these days. He also exudes star appeal. Just check out Francoeur's 50,000-watt smile as he gives catcher Brian McCann a fist bump on the cover of the Atlanta media guide.
The best news is, he's learning to take a pitch now and then. Francoeur already has nine walks, a total he didn't reach until July 24 last year. If Carl Crawford could raise his on-base percentage from .290 to .348 over four seasons and Jose Reyes is suddenly working counts in New York, it's counterintuitive to think Francoeur will be exactly the same hitter three or four years from now.
"He's the one player in this group who could really bust out and be a 45 [homer], 130 [RBI] guy," said a National League personnel man. "He already has a great feel for the game, but his best years are way ahead of him."
Carlos Quentin, Diamondbacks
Quentin is a solid defender, hits right-handers and left-handers, and runs the bases so diligently and aggressively that he'll have no issues with Arizona's resident baserunning cop, Kirk Gibson. "He plays the game with a lot of passion," said general manager Josh Byrnes.
Quentin's mature approach at the plate and grasp of the strike zone give him a nice head start. He's playing in a park where the ball flies, so it's no stretch to envision him as a consistent 30-homer, 100-RBI presence for the Diamondbacks.
The biggest concerns with Quentin are health-related. He underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2005 and has had back problems. Now he's playing with a small tear of the labrum in his left, or non-throwing, shoulder.
"He plays so hard, I'm just worried he might kill himself," said an NL scout. "Other than that, he'll be fine."
Andre Ethier, Dodgers
Ethier, who played left field last season, was a strong Rookie of the Year candidate until September, when fatigue and a shoulder injury turned him into a nonfactor down the stretch. Now he's playing right field in Los Angeles, even though prospect Matt Kemp has the higher long-term ceiling at the position.
While skeptics contend that Ethier lacks the wheels for center field and the power to be an impact corner man, he's a sound player who has value because of his ability to play all three outfield spots.
If Ethier's power develops, he looks like a guy who could hit .290 with 20 homers, 80-90 RBI and a bunch of doubles every season. Depending on your frame of reference, that either qualifies him as Raul Ibanez redux or J.D. Drew without the monster OBP.
Austin Kearns, Nationals
Kearns, 26, has yet to fulfill the expectations generated when Cincinnati picked him in the first round of the 1998 draft. Injuries and weight problems contributed to his overall lack of production with the Reds. Then GM Wayne Krivsky traded him to Washington, and Kearns was in a funk because he missed his buddy Adam Dunn.
Kearns generates more impassioned argument than any player on this list. Some talent evaluators remain intrigued by Kearns and think he's still a candidate to bust out. The analysts at Baseball Prospectus regard Kearns as a modern-day Dwight Evans, albeit with less of a throwing arm.
Kearns' detractors, conversely, dismiss him as a tease and a moody player. One executive called him "very overrated," while another observed, "Every time I see him, I think of the word 'underachiever.' "
On the plus side, Kearns is a fundamentally sound outfielder who takes good routes to the ball and habitually throws to the right base. You won't find him jogging out ground balls, either. But as a hitter, he has a long swing and can be vulnerable to off-speed stuff and pitches in on the hands.
Kearns is signed to a three-year, $17.5 million contract with a $10 million club option for 2010. At that point, the Nationals will either have to let him walk or commit to him as a long-term building block.
Brad Hawpe, Rockies
Hawpe is average at best in right field, but he has raw power and a strong, accurate throwing arm. Although he showed breakout potential with 22 homers and an .898 OPS in 2006, he's off to a slow start in 2007.
Hawpe has lots of moving parts to his swing, so he's prone to streakiness and can be pitched to in tight spots. His career .245 batting average with runners in scoring position is a testament to his holes at the plate.
At 27, Hawpe has yet to show he can hit lefties, and the Rockies seem averse to throwing him out there and letting him learn. He had 69 at-bats against left-handers last season, and now manager Clint Hurdle is sitting him regularly in favor of Jeff Baker. If Hawpe turns out to be a platoon guy, it will put a crimp in his long-term prospects.
Corey Hart, Brewers
Since Hart stands 6-6 and 215 pounds and plays in Milwaukee, it's natural to characterize him as Richie Sexson Lite. But he's a different type of player. Hart stole 31 bases in the minors two years ago and smoked the field when the Brewers held a team 60-yard dash in spring training. He is also athletic enough to play first, third or all three outfield positions, so it's no wonder Brewers GM Doug Melvin is a fan.
The biggest question is, when will the Brewers commit to Hart for 500-600 at-bats? His big chance figured to come this season, but he has fewer plate appearances than Kevin Mench, who is off to a .324 start. Hart is 25 years old and in his seventh professional season, so it's time for the Brewers to stick him out there everyday and see if he has the goods.
"For me he's kind of a vanilla type player across the board," said a National League assistant GM. "You really want a wing guy to be able to produce runs with his power or his legs, and he's a guy who can't turn a game around. He doesn't scare you with his power or his speed."
Shane Victorino, Phillies
Victorino, the "Flyin' Hawaiian," is a player most scouts classify as a great 350-400 at-bat outfielder. Respect is tough to come by when you stand 5-9, 160 pounds and you're a two-time Rule 5 selection.
Still, there's plenty to like about Victorino. He's a blur on the bases and a fine defensive outfielder, with a strong throwing arm. He'll also surprise you now and then with his ability to drive the ball.
Despite the occasional mental lapse, Victorino has shown the work ethic and dedication to address his weaknesses. The Phillies hired Davey Lopes to help with base stealing, and Victorino responded with seven steals in his first nine attempts. He's also showing more patience at the plate.
"He reminds me of Ryan Freel the way he's always in the middle of something," a scout said. "When you first see him you think, 'Boy, he'd make a good fourth outfielder. Then you watch him and say, 'What doesn't he do except hit for power?' "
Long-term, Victorino profiles better in center field than right. If Aaron Rowand leaves through free agency, Victorino gives Philly a cost-effective, ready-made alternative.
Xavier Nady, Pirates
Nady, a former second-round draft pick with San Diego, is with his third professional organization at age 28. He's been injury prone and has holes in his swing that time and experience haven't cured. He will consistently chase sliders off the outside edge of the plate, and he has difficulty laying off fastballs up in the zone.
Nady has an adequate throwing arm, but he's a below-average defensive outfielder. And while power is supposed to be his calling card, his .430 career slugging percentage is just a few ticks higher than Kenny Lofton's.
Luke Scott, Astros
Catch Scott when he's on a hot streak, airmailing balls into the seats, and you might wonder how he's 28 years old with a mere 120 big league games on his résumé. He showed flashes last season while posting a 1.047 OPS in 214 at-bats and carrying the Astros for days at a time.
But Scott came back to earth this April. When he's out of sync, he can look completely lost.
"He's so streaky," said a National League scout. "When he gets his pitch, he can drive it as far as anybody on that team. But he's such an all-or-nothing guy, he can drive you nuts."
6hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy
6hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy
7hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com
14hJacob Nitzberg, ESPN Stats & Information
1dRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com