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March 1, 2013

Pre-Season Positional Rankings

Top 50 Fantasy Outfielders, Part Two: 26-50

by Mike Gianella, Josh Shepardson and Paul Singman

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The Baseball Prospectus fantasy team has been rolling out its positional rankings over the past couple of weeks, and will conclude the process next week. Each team member assigned to cover a position will create an initial top 15 (more for outfielders and starting pitchers) on his own. He will then send that list to the rest of the team for discussion, at which point we will debate the rankings, both in terms of each player’s specific placement and the merits on which he was included in the top 15. This back-and-forth debate will yield the final list, which will be presented by the original author with notes on the pertinent players. We encourage you to bring your opinions into the fray using the comment section below.

Today, we continue the rankings with the second half of our outfielders list, featuring the players ranked 26-50. We released our top 25 outfielders on Wednesday, and you can view that article here.

Without further ado, here’s the list...

26. Carl Crawford, LAD
27. Nelson Cruz, TEX
28. Josh Reddick, OAK
29. Ben Zobrist, TBR
30. Angel Pagan, SFG
31. Norichika Aoki, MIL
32. Shane Victorino, BOS
33. Josh Willingham, MIN
34. Mark Trumbo, LAA
35. Hunter Pence, SFG
36. Torii Hunter, DET
37. Brett Gardner, NYY
38. Cameron Maybin, SDP
39. Melky Cabrera, TOR
40. Curtis Granderson, NYY
41. Carlos Gomez, MIL
42. Jayson Werth, WSH
43. Alfonso Soriano, CHC
44. Ben Revere, PHI
45. Nick Markakis, BAL
46. Andre Ethier, LAD
47. Alejandro De Aza, CHW
48. Ichiro Suzuki, NYY
49. Nick Swisher, CLE
50. Chris Davis, BAL

Notes:

26. Crawford was healthy enough to play in just 31 games last season, and that followed up a disappointing debut with the Red Sox in 2011. He's on the wrong side of 30, and he hasn't helped fantasy teams in standard formats since 2010. Prior to stumbling the last two years, though, Crawford was one of the best outfielders in fantasy baseball. He had hit .300 or better five times in his career and stolen fewer than 45 bases in just one of his first eight full seasons in the bigs. The speed seems to still be intact. Crawford stole five bases in five chances last season, and even in his forgettable 2011 campaign, he went 18-for-24 in that department. Unlike many speedsters, he wasn't a slap .300 hitter. Crawford has never reached 20 homers in a season, but he's reached double digits in all but two of his full seasons. He'll look to right the ship as a table-setter for the Dodgers this year.

27. Cruz fell short of expectations last year. He wasn't awful, but in 129 more plate appearances in 2012 than he received in 2011, he smacked five fewer homers. It's not as if his power disappeared, since he did rip 45 doubles, but in the world of fantasy baseball, doubles don't bring home the bacon. In addition to a reduction in power, his stolen bases went in the wrong direction, and that’s a skill he is less likely to rediscover. Cruz's batted-ball data and plate-discipline numbers have been nearly identical the past two seasons, as has his strikeout rate, so erase his 2010 season from your mind. He's not sniffing .300 again, and an average in the .260-.265 range is a safe bet. Overall, he profiles as a fringe second outfielder.

28. Reddick was sent from the Red Sox to the Athletics a winter ago, and while Andrew Bailey was considered the headliner of the deal, Reddick stole the show. He was unfazed by playing in a home-run-suppressing home ballpark, and surprised many by smacking 32 big flies. The homers came with a lofty strikeout total, though, and so his batting average suffered. The surprising aspect of Reddick’s stat line was 11-for-12 output on thefts. He's unlikely to approach that many steals again this year, but a handful of stolen bases coupled with his power output will make a low average palatable. And, it’s worth noting that there is some batting-average upside here, since Reddick’s minor-league strikeout rates were significantly lower than his rate last season and his .269 BABIP was a bit unlucky. An uptick of 10 points to is a possibility, and hitting in the heart of the A's order will give him the opportunity to best 80 RBI.

29. A full write-up on Zobrist can be found in the second-base rankings. Zobrist will be most valuable playing second or shortstop in most leagues, but his ranking on this list serves as a reminder that the depth of the position in five-outfielder leagues can often be overstated. Factor in the fact that a handful of outfielders are also used to fill utility spots on rosters, and the position dries up more quickly than unsuspecting drafters might expect.

30. Pagan is a sneaky-good fantasy outfielder. He doesn't do any one thing exceptionally well, but his 29 stolen bases tied for 24th in the majors last year. He's a catalyst atop the Giants' lineup, and his ability to make hard contact and avoid strikeouts has helped him to tally a .281 career batting average—a mark that he has topped in three of the last four seasons. Pagan’s power is lackluster, but his 10-homer ceiling means that he’s not a total nonfactor in that category. He is a perfect “glue guy” to use in your third outfield spot.   

31. I went over my concerns about Aoki’s power in a December Keeper Reaper. Beyond those concerns though, he seems a good bet to repeat his .290 average and 30-steal figures from last year, hopefully staying atop the Brewers lineup.

32. Despite a down year at the dish, Victorino maintained his fantasy value by swiping a career-high 39 bags last year. Now with Boston, Victorino should remain active on the base paths, and there’s evidence, based on a good study by Mike Podhorzer, that his power could come back. Age-related decline will likely soon affect the 32-year-old, but before that happens, we should get at least one productive year from the Flyin’ Hawaiian.

33. Willingham’s prodigious output of 35 homers and 110 RBI last year was the product of good health and a surprising increase in production at age 33. I would expect his home-run total to fall back in line with his career average of about 25, and the Twins’ projected lineup is looking like it could be too dreadful to support a 100-RBI batter. Don’t pick Willingham expecting a repeat of last year.

34. Trumbo brings immense raw power to the table, as evidenced by his reaching the 30-homer plateau the past two years. Sometimes that power gets overshadowed by his contact woes, as was the case in August, when he struck out an outrageous 43 times in 108 at-bats. The scary side of drafting Trumbo is the Angels aren’t afraid of curbing his playing time in the midst of such struggles, but if he can avoid a major slump, there’s a lot of power and RBI upside to be realized.

35. Having all but abandoned the speed element of his game (a wise decision, given his appalling success rates), Pence has fallen from the second to the third tier of outfielders. Seemingly the victim of poor BABIP luck last year, expect his average to rebound into the .270s. As you would envision, the move from Philly to San Fran wasn’t kind to Pence’s power numbers. Spending a full season in AT&T Park will likely continue to have an adverse effect, enough to break his Dunn-like consistency of hitting approximately 25 homers in each of the past five years. That total may fall just below 20 in 2013, but one thing you can count on is 160 games from the durable Pence.

36. Last season, Hunter found himself sandwiched between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the Angels lineup. This year, he's projected to spend the bulk of his time hitting behind Austin Jackson and in front of Miguel Cabrera for manager Jim Leyland; talk about a rough spot. In all seriousness, though, that cushy slot should enable Hunter to pile up counting stats that will rival his totals from 2012. And those RBI and runs will help make up for his eroding homer total and his reduced stolen-base output. A .389 BABIP last season helped him hit above .300 for the first time in his big-league career, but significant regression is in order this year. PECOTA pegs him as a .275 hitter, and that is right in line with his .277 career average. Hunter won't post the flashiest stat line, but at the end of the day he should chip in across the board. He is 37, though, and PECOTA warns of a 13 percent chance that he’ll collapse.

37. The 2012 campaign was essentially a lost year for Gardner, who played in fewer than 20 games due to elbow problems. When he's on diamond, though, it is his legs that deliver his fantasy value. Gardner is once again healthy and partaking in Grapefruit League action this spring. He strikes out a bit more than most players with only modest pop, and his .266 career average is somewhat low for a player with a speed-oriented profile, but Gardner also works a ton of walks, putting him in prime position to use his wheels. He has the speed and base-running acumen to challenge for the league stolen base crown.

38. The surface stats don't do Maybin's 2012 season justice. He enjoyed his breakout in 2011, but he actually made many notable strides as a hitter last season, even if his 21-point drop in batting average suggests otherwise. His contact rate improved by nearly seven percent from his 2011 season; he swung at a little over five percent fewer pitches out of the zone; and, he shaved over six percent off his swinging-strike rate from 2011. Maybin’s batted-ball profile differed very little from 2011 to 2012, yet his BABIP dropped 38 points from the former season to the latter. Maybin will be better this year than he was last, and a second breakout that exceeds his first could be brewing.

39. What type of player is Cabrera? Is he a fourth outfielder whose excellent play the last two seasons was completely the result of using testosterone? Probably not. That said, testosterone probably did help him play better, and no one can say with any degree of certainty how much of an effect it had. Cabrera has always had solid bat-to-ball ability, and he has never struck out in more than 14 percent of his plate appearances in a single season. Cabrera has never hit more than 20 homers in a season, but he's reached double figures in three of the last four. He's also never been much better than an average base stealer, stealing 20 in a season once, and failing to steal more than 15 in every other year. At his best, the Melk Man does a little bit of everything, but struggles to make a splash in any one category. For a player like Cabrera, moving from a Giants offense that was slightly better than league average in scoring last season to a Blue Jays squad that projects to be the sixth-highest scoring team in baseball this year is kind of a big deal. What Cabrera is able to contribute to fantasy teams in runs scored and RBI will determine whether he’s a third outfielder or waiver-wire fodder.

40. Granderson's fractured forearm is the reason for his free fall in the rankings. He'll miss a minimum of 10 weeks, and once he's healthy enough to play, he'll need to shake the rust off and regain his timing. When he returns to the field, he'll be tasked with punishing righties enough to cover up the stench of his .225/.292/.407 career triple-slash line against southpaws. Granderson finished with his lowest stolen-base total since the 2006 season last year, swiping only 10. However, he's loved playing in new Yankee Stadium, and his power is extremely reliable, as he’s eclipsed 40 home runs in each of the past two years. Even though the Yankees lineup looks less potent on paper than it has in past years, Joe Girardi’s offense still projects to be one of the highest-scoring in baseball, and that will help Granderson continue to rack up the counting stats.              

41. You’d be hard-pressed to find a greater risk/reward player on this list than Gomez. If he amasses 600 plate appearances, a 25-homer, 50-steal season is within the realm of possibility. It’s not that simple, though: Gomez is a fundamentally flawed player. While his strikeout percentage improved last year, his swinging-strike rate was higher than ever. Any kind of slip in batting average could cripple his value. This ranking reflects Gomez’s best-case scenario as a repeat of last year, but there is plenty of room for him to slip right back down. 

42. If Werth is going to live up to his mammoth contract, he’s going to have to have an MVP-caliber season in 2013 to make up for lost time. While it’s tempting to blame last year’s power outage on a fractured forearm, Werth’s isolated power was about the same as it was in 2011. Maybe there’s a 25/20 season in the tank, but now that he’s 34, overpaying for past performance coming off of two down years isn’t a wise idea.

43. It would be extreme to call Soriano a two-category monster, but with the exception of a down year back in 2009, Soriano has always been a good source of home runs and RBI. Soriano doesn’t rank higher because he’s a batting-average drain, and while he has been relatively healthy the last three years, he’s entering the part of the age curve (37) where a steep decline wouldn’t be a shock. At another position, it might be worth chasing the home runs, but 16 outfielders socked 30+ dingers in 2012.

44. In NL-only leagues, Revere would rank significantly higher on this list, but in a standard, 12-team mixed league, stolen bases are more plentiful in the free agent pool, and it’s best not to get too excited about a one-trick pony like Revere. While it is possible that Revere could steal 60 bases if he plays everyday for the Phillies, he does nothing else well, and there is no guarantee he hits .294 again. It’s fine to own Revere, just don’t push him too far up your lists.

45. Markakis does a little bit of everything, but doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. The resulting counting numbers spice up the stat sheet, but they aren’t compelling enough to warrant an early selection. Now that Markakis is 29, it’s unwise to expect a sudden surge into stardom. The power did close in on his 2007-2008 levels, but Markakis stopped running last year. Markakis is a talented athlete, but he’s more valuable to the Orioles in real life than he is to your fantasy squad.

46. Ethier’s name doesn’t carry the brand power it once did, which is a good thing from a value standpoint. If you read Ethier and think “a .280 average with 20 homers and good RBI totals,” you’re doing the translating correctly.

47. De Aza finally completed his first full season in the big leagues last year at age 28. He wasn’t delayed by a lack of talent; injuries and circumstances simply worked against him for a few years. Now established as the leadoff man for the White Sox, he’s in a good position to repeat his fantasy-friendly line from 2012.

48. A move to the Bronx seemed to rejuvenate a 38-year-old Suzuki, who batted .322/.340/.454 in 240 plate appearances with New York. Even at 39, Suzuki is an active base-stealer, and he still possesses enough power to flick about 10 baseballs into the right-field bleachers. The fact that he’s played in at least 161 games in eight of the past 10 seasons provides a testament to his astounding durability.

49. Based on ballpark and supporting cast, Swisher lost some value with his move to Cleveland this offseason. However, part of that loss will be offset by his sliding into the cleanup spot of the Indians order, as opposed hitting sixth, where he batted most frequently in New York. Consistency is the name of Swisher’s game, having hit at least 20 homers every year of his eight-year career, and having avoided the DL the past seven years.

50. Copying from the comments in the first-base rankings: Davis struggled to stick in the majors in his first few chances, but unlike some other "Quad-A"-type players, he continued to develop and mash in Triple-A, rather than stagnate. This reminds me of Nelson Cruz' career path, where he dominated Triple-A in 2008, albeit as a 27-year-old, and then finally broke through in the majors in 2009. Davis has more contact issues, and his average will likely fall into the .240-.250 range, but his 30-homer power looks legit and isn't likely to simply disappear at age 27. 

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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