- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Category of the week: Major league outfielders who've blossomed in 2009
In the interests of keeping the Starting 9 from expanding to the Starting 20-something, a few qualifiers were necessary. We left out guys older than 30, so Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz didn't make the cut.
We wanted players who've shown perseverance and plugged away through some career setbacks, so we excluded rookies -- unless they spent at least a decade in anonymity in the minor leagues. Sorry about that, Chris Coghlan, Andrew McCutchen and Nolan Reimold.
We figure Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Justin Upton already were considered hot stuff before this season. And because Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Nelson Cruz, Ben Zobrist and Adam Jones all made the All-Star team, they've already received their fair share of recognition.
Seven of the players listed below are with their second or third organizations. The other two (Adam Lind and Denard Span) are former hyped prospects who endured a rough patch in the majors or the minors and had to make some adjustments to get over the hump.
Past performance isn't necessarily an indicator of future results, as they say in the mutual funds game. But these players all raised their stock considerably in 2009.
Michael Bourn, Astros (.293 BA, 56 steals and 11 triples)
"He's been our most valuable player," Houston general manager Ed Wade said of Bourn, who is turning out to be everything the Astros hoped for when they acquired him from Philadelphia in the Brad Lidge trade.
Bourn's speed sets him apart, but the big question was whether he'd hit enough to put his wheels to use. He contributed off the bench for the Phillies in 2007, but it didn't help his development to spend the entire season in the majors and log only 119 at-bats.
After hitting .229 for Houston in 2008, Bourn played winter ball in the Dominican Republic at the club's request. Manager Cecil Cooper batted him eighth on Opening Day, and Bourn eventually worked his way up to second in the order, then first. He's done an admirable job learning to hit leadoff on the fly -- and we do mean "fly."
"Last year Michael put himself in a lot of tough situations," Wade said. "Word got around that he was trying to take pitches and be patient, and all of a sudden he was hitting in a lot of 0-2 and 1-2 counts. Now if somebody throws a fastball, he'll square it up and hit it somewhere -- preferably to the left side."
Bourn has gradually found the right balance between patient and overaggressive. He ranks second on the team to Lance Berkman with a .365 on-base percentage, is hitting .379 with runners in scoring position and has 40 extra-base hits. He's also given the Astros a big lift defensively.
"He makes center field look awfully small," Wade said. "Sometimes it seems like he's covering it corner to corner, foul line to foul line."
Adam Lind, Blue Jays (30 HRs, 101 RBIs, .913 OPS)
Lind, a third-round pick out of Juan Pierre's school, South Alabama, sailed through the Blue Jays' minor league system. But once he joined the big club in 2007, his strikeouts spiked, his walk rate declined and the game suddenly seemed too fast for him.
"He showed a pretty good strike zone in the minors, but when he got to the big leagues, it evaporated," an American League scout said. "He's like a lot of kids: They get to the big leagues, and they're almost in panic mode. They feel like they've got to swing at whatever comes in there."
The Jays sent Lind back to Triple-A for a refresher course, and now he's a budding star at age 26. Lind is tied for first in the American League in extra-base hits (76), ranks second in doubles (46) and is fourth in total bases (299).
Manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Gene Tenace helped Lind develop a more coherent game plan in the batter's box, and it has manifested in his improved plate discipline. Lind is seeing an average of 4.04 pitches per plate appearance this year, compared to 3.74 in 2008. He's tied for first in the majors with Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury with 71 two-strike hits.
Some people in the Blue Jays' hierarchy think Lind has a chance to be adequate in the field, but that opinion isn't universally shared. The consensus in the scouting community is that he's destined to be a DH.
"He's a liability," a scout said. "When he looks bad, it's not a 'pretty bad.'"
Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners (.279 BA, 16 homers, 60 RBIs)
One of Jack Zduriencik's first priorities as Seattle's new general manager was to add a center fielder to cover the vast expanse at Safeco Field. In December, the Mariners acquired Gutierrez from Cleveland, where Grady Sizemore already had staked his claim to center.
Gutierrez has made a big impact in Seattle with his glove. In The Fielding Bible's plus-minus rankings -- where a zero rating is considered average defensively -- Gutierrez obliterates the field with a plus-36. San Diego's Tony Gwynn Jr. and Arizona's Chris Young are tied for second at plus-20.
"He's got great instincts," Zduriencik said of Gutierrez. "He reads the ball off the bat very well. There are guys who are faster runners than he is, but his first step and his track to the ball are terrific. He just glides out there."
Gutierrez gave the Mariners a scare in July when he crashed into the Comerica Park scoreboard in pursuit of a Ryan Raburn fly ball, but he got up and walked off the field. Even 10-time Gold Glove Award winner Ken Griffey Jr. has raved about his defensive play.
At the plate, Gutierrez is a work in progress. He has a .938 OPS against lefties, and he's shown the occasional ability to wait on breaking balls and drive them over the fence to the opposite field. In 2004, Baseball America rated Gutierrez the No. 3 prospect in a stacked Dodgers farm system. At age 26, he's starting to tap into that potential.
Shin-Soo Choo, Indians (.393 OBP, 16 homers, 19 steals)
Choo's numbers have actually dipped a bit from 2008, when he posted a 1.038 OPS after the All-Star break. But he deserves credit for sustaining it over the long haul this season, without a lot of help.
Grady Sizemore was hindered by elbow problems, Travis Hafner has missed more than 60 games because of injuries and Victor Martinez left town for Boston at the trade deadline. Choo batted in the sixth spot on Opening Day, but he's spent the bulk of the season hitting third or cleanup. Amid the upheaval and the rampant disappointment in Cleveland, he's been a rock.
Choo's tools might not overwhelm you in a single viewing, but he's proficient in all facets of the game. He's developing into a 20-25 homer guy. He's improved against lefties. He's an instinctive baserunner, with 19 steals in 21 attempts. And he has 11 assists in right field to help offset seven errors.
He also plays with a quiet determination and toughness, and hangs in the box no matter who's pitching. Choo has been hit by a pitch 14 times, the fourth-highest total in the majors.
Four years ago, Choo and Chris Snelling were second and third in Seattle's outfield pecking order behind phenom Adam Jones. Snelling never managed to stay healthy, but Choo has continued to get better since GM Mark Shapiro acquired him for Ben Broussard in July 2006.
"Cleveland did a really good job of evaluating," an AL scout said. "They always felt he was going to be this type of guy. I'm not sure the industry as a whole had him evaluated that high."
Rajai Davis, Athletics (.314 BA, 37 steals)
But the A's have seen some positive signs while playing .500 ball since the break. The young pitching continues to develop. Cliff Pennington is playing reliable shortstop. Ryan Sweeney and Daric Barton have made progress of late, and Davis is the driving force behind a new-look Oakland lineup. Would you believe the A's lead the majors with 66 stolen bases since the break?
Davis, 28, stole 251 bases in the minor leagues with Pittsburgh. The Pirates traded him to San Francisco in the Matt Morris deal two years ago, and the Athletics claimed him on waivers in April 2008.
Davis overcame some early tentativeness and has become increasingly more assertive on the bases. He's the first Oakland player to steal 20 or more bases in back-to-back seasons since Rickey Henderson and Stan Javier did it in 1994 and '95. He also has played excellent defense in center, and when batting, finds enough gaps to be dangerous.
"If you watch him in batting practice, he can put balls in the seats," said A's assistant GM David Forst. "We don't expect 15-plus home runs from him. But singles will become doubles and doubles will be triples just because of his speed, so you don't worry too much about his power."
Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (1.015 OPS since All-Star break)
Gonzalez is a legitimate talent, but that didn't prevent him from being traded twice by age 23. Arizona sent him to Oakland in the Dan Haren deal, then the Athletics turned around and shipped him to Colorado in the Matt Holliday trade.
During Gonzalez's first spring in Oakland, Mark Ellis, Bobby Crosby and other Athletics raved about his arm strength, his picturesque swing and the amount of time his bat stays in the hitting zone. The ball goes a long way when he connects: Gonzalez has 10 homers in 148 at-bats since the All-Star break.
The Rockies have a 45-14 record this season in games when Gonzalez starts.
"He's beginning to blossom right before our eyes," Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd said. "His confidence is getting greater every day. He still has issues with plate discipline and overswinging, but he's like a freight train coming on right now."
The Rockies have had an impressive year nurturing young outfielders. Dexter Fowler skipped Triple-A ball and stepped right in as Colorado's leadoff man at age 23. At 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, Fowler still needs to add some strength.
Seth Smith, the former backup quarterback to Eli Manning at Mississippi, also has been a revelation. He's hitting .485 (16-for-33) as a pinch hitter, and he hit a late two-run homer to beat Tim Lincecum and the Giants in late August. The scouts absolutely love his swing.
Denard Span, Twins (.306 BA, .389 OBP)
When the Twins selected Span with the 20th overall pick in the 2002 draft, they envisioned him as the long-term successor to Torii Hunter in center field in Minnesota. Span logged more than 1,900 at-bats on the farm before his big league debut, and people began to have their doubts.
"You almost considered him a failed prospect at one point," an American League executive said. "He was a former No. 1 pick, and it didn't seem like he was going anywhere."
Span finally got his chance when Michael Cuddyer went on the disabled list a week into the 2008 season. Span played well enough to finish sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting, and he has continued to refine his skills as a leadoff man.
Span is tied for the American League lead with nine triples, and he has a .389 OBP even though he suffered dizziness for more than a month as the result of an inner ear infection.
Although Span and DH Jason Kubel have made positive strides for the Twins this season, the news isn't so upbeat on other fronts. Carlos Gomez doesn't get on base consistently enough to use his speed, and Delmon Young is starting to look like a lost cause. He has a Miguel Olivo-like 79 strikeouts and 10 walks this season.
Garrett Jones, Pirates (19 HRs, .587 slugging percentage)
The Pirates went 132 years before hitting their 10,000th home run, and Jones did the honors against the aptly named Homer Bailey of Cincinnati.
It was one of several memorable moments in a head-spinning rookie year for Jones. He arrived from Triple-A Indianapolis before the All-Star break and joined Ralph Kiner and Donn Clendenon as the third Pirate to hit 10 homers in July. He also ranks first among big league rookies in home runs.
That's pretty good for a former 14th-round draft pick who accumulated 4,185 minor league plate appearances in 10 seasons with the Atlanta, Minnesota and Pittsburgh organizations.
Jones has played both corner-outfield spots this season, and he's logged more time at first base since the Pirates traded Adam LaRoche. He might look like the immobile slugger type at 6-4, 245 pounds, but he has nine stolen bases in 11 attempts.
Is his homer binge for real? We'll know better next year. But it's been fun to watch.
"He's a good low-ball hitter, and when I saw him, he was laying off the stuff at the top of the strike zone that he can't get to," a scout said. "This guy has big raw power. And when you watch him run, he's more athletic than he comes across."
Nyjer Morgan, Nationals (.307 BA, .369 OBP)
A National League scout referred to Morgan as "Juan Pierre Lite." When you factor in Morgan's superior defensive skills, on-base ability and affordable contract, maybe it's the other way around.
Morgan made a big impression after coming to Washington from Pittsburgh by trade in early July. He hit .351 in 49 games, stole 24 bases and brought some fun to a clubhouse that hadn't experienced much.
Morgan occasionally refers to himself as "Tony Plush," baseball entertainer, and he quickly began doling out nicknames and lightening the mood in Washington. Let's put it this way: He's a better fit in the Nationals' clubhouse than Lastings Milledge ever dreamed of being.
Morgan's season ended prematurely when he broke his left hand on a slide in late August. He's 29 years old and still polishing the rough edges after spending his youth as a hockey player in Canada. The Nationals will give him every opportunity to prove he belongs.
Several under-the-radar outfielders have blossomed in 2009, and they've raised their stock considerably in the process.