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 a look at our top 25 outfielders. Comments on the outfielders ranked 26-50 will follow on Friday.
Let's jump right in with the list:
- Ryan Braun, MIL
- Mike Trout, LAA
- Andrew McCutchen, PIT
- Carlos Gonzalez, COL
- Matt Kemp, LAD
- Giancarlo Stanton, MIA
- Justin Upton, ATL
- Jose Bautista, TOR
- Bryce Harper, WSH
- Adam Jones, BAL
- Jason Heyward, ATL
- Yoenis Cespedes, OAK
- Josh Hamilton, LAA
- Jay Bruce, CIN
- Matt Holliday, STL
- Shin Soo-Choo, CIN
- B.J. Upton, ATL
- Jacoby Ellsbury, BOS
- Alex Gordon, KCR
- Allen Craig, STL
- Alex Rios, CHW
- Austin Jackson, DET
- Desmond Jennings, TBR
- Carlos Beltran, STL
- Michael Bourn, CLE
- Braun dealt with the PED distraction last offseason and still cranked out an incredible fantasy season, offering a .319 average with 41 homers and 30 steals. He's dealing with similar distractions again, but barring an unforeseen suspension, should remain atop the outfielder rankings. Braun has played in at least 150 games in each of the past five years, and nobody else matches his combination of consistency and excellence.
- Trout struggled in his first taste of major-league action at the end of 2011, which couldn't have been a more misleading indicator of his 2012 performance. Despite the Angels' stubbornness to promote him before May, the 20-year-old phenom still racked up 30 homers and 49 steals while batting .326. The power was the most surprising element of Trout's game, with his 1-to-20 HR:PA rate representing a significant uptick from his minor-league track record in that department. On the one hand, you might expect some regression, but on the other, he is still a developing 21-year-old who reportedly gained weight this offseason. We know Trout's going to be special, but to expect him to build upon last year's showing is too optimistic. I'll pencil him in for 25 homers, 50 steals, a .315 average, and a boatload of runs, which is arguably better than Braun's line, but comes with greater risk.
- McCutchen made the jump from a second-to-third round pick to a consensus top-10 selection with his impressive 2012 campaign. After setting a new career high in every roto category with the exception of steals, he's developed into a true five-tool player. The homers and average may fall a tick, to the 25/.290 range, but an increased focus on stealing should maintain his value. Impressively, he's yet to hit the disabled list in his professional career.
- Ever since his breakout 2010 year, Gonzalez, has been in a slow and steady decline, leading to last year's .303 average, 22 homers, and 20 steals. Considering that Gonzalez is only 27, I wouldn't put too much stock into that downtrend; if anything, Gonzalez is a good bet to bounce back a bit, and a 20-20 campaign isn't exactly something that you desperately need to bounce back from. As long as he stays in Colorado, it's hard to go wrong here.
- Kemp was on his way to repeating as the top fantasy performer last year, when a nagging hamstring strain got in the way. He missed 50 games between two disabled-list stints because of the injury, and never quite picked up where he left off after returning. In other health-related news, Kemp also required offseason shoulder surgery that was more serious than expected. He should be ready for Opening Day, but might struggle to hit for power, particularly at the start of the season. There's no doubt that Kemp has tremendous talent and is in his prime, but after going five years without anything more than a day-to-day ding, he must now reestablish his durability to warrant a higher ranking.
- Contrary to what is becoming popular belief, the sky is not falling for Stanton. Yes, the Marlins lineup is poor, but Stanton will still be a top-notch fantasy outfielder this year. He's among the favorites to lead the league in homers, but don't expect him to repeat his .290 average from last year. There were 290 batters that saw 1,000 pitches or more last season, and Stanton's contact rate of 68 percent was the eighth-worst amongst those players. Expect him to hit around his career average of .270, and consider any points above that gravy.
- Justin Upton has alternated good and very-good seasons since 2009. Coming off what was just a solid campaign, he's obviously due for a standout effort in 2013. Okay, so that's not really how things work, but nonetheless, there is a lot to like about the youngest Upton in the Braves outfield. He'll play most of the season as a 25-year-old, and has already shown the ability to hit for average and power, and to steal bases in his young career. The move from Chase Field to Turner Field isn't ideal in terms of ballpark index for right-handed home runs, but Upton has well-above-average power and wasn't just the product of a homer-friendly ballpark. It's also possible that Upton will steal fewer bases this season, but his well-rounded fantasy contributions and upside make him a safe bet to finish the year as a top-10 outfielder.
- Bautista played in fewer than 100 games last season due to a wrist injury that required surgery in September. Back in early January, he declared that his wrist is 100 percent healthy, and the fact that he's playing in spring training games supports his assertion. Power is Bautista's fantasy calling card, but he should also pile up counting stats in a revamped Blue Jays' offense. PECOTA pegs him as a .255 hitter this year, and that seems about right. Bautista gets big bonus points in leagues that use OBP in place of, or in addition to, batting average.
- Nineteen-year-old men aren't supposed to do what Harper did in his rookie season. He actually out produced what Trout was able to do at the same age one year earlier, but expecting him to make the same type of leap in his age-20 season is far too ambitious. Some regression is possible, but the natural talent that Harper possesses, most notably a quick bat packed with serious thump, gives him a chance to take his game to another level this season. It's easy to lose sight of Harper's stolen-base ability while marveling about his power, but he swiped 18 bases in 24 chances last year. Harper is a candidate to go 30/20, and few players boast that potential.
- One year after besting 20 homers for the first time in his career, Jones smacked over 32 big flies last year, blossoming into a true five-category contributor. He led the Orioles in runs and stolen bases, finished second on the team in homers, and ranked third in RBI and batting average. He helped fantasy teams across the board, but there are reasons to be pessimistic about a repeat from Jones. He remains a free swinger, and PECOTA is doubts that he can reach the 30-homer plateau again. He was an inefficient base-stealer, getting caught on seven of his 23 theft attempts. Manager Buck Showalter is stingy when it comes to sending base runners, so if Jones doesn't clean up his efficiency, he'll struggle to reach double digits in steals. He's a talented outfielder, but your expectations should be more in line with his 2011 season than with his 2012 numbers.
- After one of the most disappointing sophomore seasons in recent memory, Heyward regained his health last year and delivered on his immense potential. Playing in 158 contests, he batted .270 with 27 homers and 21 steals. Now feeling relaxed and batting second in a constructive Atlanta lineup, if he can stay healthy, a similar effort is likely in store.
- Cespedes silenced the skeptics in his rookie year, providing audacious owners with a .292 average, 23 homers, and 16 steals. A plethora of nagging injuries limited him to 130 games, but when he's on the field, there is no doubt he brings an elite combination of power and speed, with surprising contact ability. Now 27, Cespedes has the physical profile to improve on his output from last year, and brings hard-to-find 35-homer upside.
- Despite his second-half decline, Hamilton was still a beast last year, blasting 43 home runs and amassing 128 RBI. Now a year older and in the less-friendly Angel Stadium, his homer total should be expected to decline into the lower 30s. Nonetheless, batting cleanup behind Pujols and Trout is prime territory for RBI, and with triple-digit potential in that department, Hamilton still has considerable fantasy value.
- Bruce essentially replicated his 2011 season last year, further solidifying his reputation as a 30-homer, 10-steal guy who bats in the .250s. There's little reason to suspect any change for 2013, but a healthy Joey Votto and the addition of Choo atop the Cincinnati lineup could push Bruce's RBI total past the century mark.
- After offering essentially the same .300 average, 25-homer package the past four seasons, Holliday has garnered the "boring vet" label. With that label comes the opportunity to be undervalued, and in drafts where owners reach for the upside of B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings, the Cardinals left fielder could fly under the radar. Holliday finished as the 12th-most-valuable outfielder last year by the PFM, and at age 33, we shouldn't expect him to fall dramatically from that rank.
- Choo does a little bit of everything, and he stands to benefit in a number of ways from moving across Ohio to Cincinnati. His strong on-base skills will make him an ideal leadoff hitter, and getting on in front of Votto and Bruce should be a boon to his runs-scored total. Progressive Field has been friendly to left-handed power, but Great American Ballpark offers an even better environment, putting 20 homers well within his reach. And, to top it off, Choo is also a candidate to swipe 20 bases.
- B.J. Upton will take his tantalizing tools to Atlanta this year after spending the entirety of his career to date in Tampa Bay. Much has been made of the Upton brothers playing together, but no one can be sure of how it will impact each player on the field, or, for that matter, whether it will benefit them at all. One thing that is certain, though, is that Upton has flashed all the fantasy goodies. He has stolen no fewer than 30 bases since 2007, and he's bested 40 stolen bases three times. He has hit more than 20 homers the past two seasons. The batting average was an asset in 2007, when he hit .300, and acceptable in 2008, when he hit .273. But now, it's likely to remain a drag, because his bloated strikeout rate limits his ceiling in that department to around the .246 mark he posted last year. It's almost crazy to think that a 20/30 season is a relatively safe bet, but Upton offers that and a chance for more. It's worth noting, however, that leaving Joe Maddon for Fredi Gonzalez will probably cost him some steals this year.
- While their new manager may hurt the Uptons in the running game, Ellsbury should benefit greatly from playing for the aggressive John Farrell. PECOTA projects him to hit 13 homers, and that's a solid estimate with room for growth, but it's unwise, at this point, to view his 2011 surge as anything more than an outlier. Hitting leadoff will provide Ellsbury ample opportunities to score runs, and he should also help fantasy teams in batting average.
- Gordon was unable to duplicate his breakout 2011 season, and he went backward in all five standard hitter categories. That said, he still had a solid season last year. His plate discipline stayed intact from 2011 to 2012, but his homer total suffered as a result of him hitting fewer fly balls (34.5 percent rate in 2011, compared to 29.3 percent in 2012) and a lower percentage of his fly balls finding the seats. A little more luck could spark a rebound to his 2011 performance.
- Craig has hit at every stop in his professional career. Last season was in many ways an extension of his work in 2011, and it helps to validate that he can really rake at The Show. Craig, who is also eligible at first base, adds above-average power to fantasy squads, but his contact skills ensure that it doesn't come at the expense of a poor batting average. The biggest knock on Craig is that he's battled injuries that last few seasons, and he'll need to prove he can stay healthy for a full season now that he's a regular. Playing first, a less demanding position in some ways than left or right, may assist him in that regard.
- I (Paul) wrote about Rios in a January edition of Keeper Reaper. Recap: Everything broke his way last year, leading to a surprising top-20 season, and I'd be surprised if everything breaks his way again this year. Expect a safe 20/20 output with a .270 batting average, but not much more.
- I (Paul) wrote about Jackson in a December edition of Keeper Reaper. Recap: Despite his red-flag-riddled 2012, he offers plenty in the way of counting stats, to go with modest upside.
- So it turns out that multiplying Jennings's 2011 stats by 162/63 (simple extrapolation) wasn't the best predictor for how he'd perform last year. Doing so would have predicted 25 home runs and 51 steals; instead, we got just 13 homers and 31 swipes from the enticing youngster, who didn't live up to the draft-day hype. Now, with the hype gone, Jennings can provide value from this slot if everything clicks in his age-26 season.
- Beltran rediscovered his power stroke at age 35, which is nice, but not something you expect a 36-year-old to hang onto. Hitting in the middle of the Cards lineup will keep the counting stats afloat, but otherwise, you can't expect much more than 20 homers and 10 stolen bases from the still-talented, but aging vet.
- Bourn has finished either first or second in the majors in stolen bases the past four years, a testament both to his blazing speed and his ability to stay healthy. Now 30 years old and with Cleveland, there's little reason to suspect his prowess on the base paths will simply disappear. Whether he steals closer to 40 or 60 bags is anyone's guess, however, and will play a significant role in how valuable he is this season. Unlike many other elite speedsters, Bourn isn't a major drag in other categories and should approach the century mark in runs.
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