Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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2011 AL Outfield Overview

Monday, March 07, 2011


We're covering the American League outfielders this week. Four of my top five outfielders reside in the NL, with Carl Crawford serving as the lone exception. That won't surprise anyone. What will baffle a few is that I have Nelson Cruz next on the list, three spots ahead of Josh Hamilton at No. 9.

I see Cruz as the better bet of the two to stay healthy, even though he missed 25 more games than Hamilton did last year. There's no guarantee that the changes he made to his running style to accommodate his troublesome hamstrings will pay off, but he has the right approach. I don't expect Cruz to hit anywhere near .318 again, and I give Hamilton the clear edge in average. However, Cruz more than makes up for it with his basestealing: he's swiped 37 bases in 45 attempts the last two seasons. The power numbers should be pretty close: including the postseason, Hamilton averaged a homer every 15.6 at-bats last season, Cruz one every 16.3. Both will hit 30 homers if they stay off the DL. And I think Cruz has the better chance of doing so.

AL Outfield Overview

Underrated


Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox) - My favorite of the potential 60-steal guys, all of whom seem to be a bit undervalued at the moment. Juan Pierre, Brett Gardner and Rajai Davis also deserve mention here. Ellsbury, though, has the most upside in the group while hitting at the top of Boston's powerful lineup. Unlike the others, he's capable of finishing with 10 homers and 60 RBI and still contending for the league lead in steals.

Nick Markakis (Orioles) - Good riddance, Terry Crowley. With any luck, he'll take Markakis' declining homer totals with him now that he's out as Baltimore's hitting coach. Markakis went from hitting 23 homers as a 23-year-old sophomore in 2007 to 20, 18 and 12 the last three years. He's continued to hit right around .300 each season and he's remained a doubles machine, but he needs to stop flipping the ball the other way when he's facing mediocre right-handers. Since he's probably not going to threaten 20 steals again, he doesn't have the upside he once did. However, he makes for a great value pick, given his durability and the fact that he'll hit second or third in a good lineup. Even in his somewhat disappointing 2008 and 2009 seasons, he averaged 100 runs scored and 94 RBI.

Austin Jackson (Tigers) - Oddly enough, the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year just isn't receiving a lot of affection in early drafts. Like most everyone else apparently, I see his average slipping. Last year's .293 mark didn't compute, not when it came with 170 strikeouts. Jackson, though, should ease back on the strikeouts a bit this year, and I see him adding a bit more power to his game. My projection of a .280 average, nine homers, 97 runs scored, 54 RBI and 30 steals calls for him to be a top-40 outfielder. I rank him 16th among American Leaguers.

Overrated

Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners) - Ichiro is far from a typical player, but he is 37 now and the aging process has to set in at some point. He followed up his worst year as a major leaguer in 2008 with one of his best in 2009 before falling off again last year. I'd still count on Ichiro hitting .310-.320, but .350 is less realistic than it used to be and he's again not going to get much help from his teammates. Adding up his runs and RBI, Ichiro has gone from 179 in 2007 to 145 to 134 to 117 last season. It takes a major toll on his value.

Vernon Wells (Angels) - Wells hit .321/.363/.628 at Rogers Centre last year and .227/.301/.407 on the road. That was probably a fluke, but the fact remains that he's going from a park that has recently been very kind to right-handed power hitters to one that plays just about neutral. He's not much of a basestealer, and he hasn't reached 90 runs scored or RBI since 2006. I place him 40th in the outfield, six spots below Jackson.

Jason Kubel (Twins) - We saw what Kubel was capable of in 2009, when he hit .300 with 28 homers and 103 RBI. Last year, though, he slipped all of the way to .249, and he was fortunate to get enough playing time to reach 92 RBI with the way Jim Thome outclassed him all season long. Thome is back, and Kubel's best position remains DH. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will find a way to make it all work out again, and I am projecting Kubel to get his 500 at-bats and 80 RBI. However, I don't expect he'll be a big asset in any category.

Sleepers

Matt Joyce (Rays) - Joyce will have more of a fight for playing time than anticipated following the Rays' additions of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, but he should be in the lineup versus pretty much every right-hander after hitting .262/.386/.524 in 191 at-bats against them last season. He'll probably play right field most of the time, with Ben Zobrist starting at first or second against righties. Since he's likely to take a seat against lefties, he's not going to be a big asset in runs and RBI. However, he should be good for about 20 homers and 70 RBI.

Alex Gordon (Royals) - At age 27, Gordon is about to get his last chance in Kansas City. He was a bust last year, batting .215 with just 20 RBI in 242 at-bats. He was even thrown out on five of his six steal attempts. Gordon, though, was dominant in Triple-A, hitting .315/.442/.577 in 260 at-bats. It's too late now for him to turn into a star, but I expect that he'll put together a solid five- or six-year run as a regular left fielder. A sneaky good basestealer in the past, he has nice upside for a guy who figures to go for $5 or less in AL-only leagues.

Andruw Jones (Yankees) - Jones has hit 36 homers, driven in 91 runs and stolen 14 bases in 559 at-bats over the last two seasons. He's penciled in for less playing time with the Yankees than he got with the White Sox last year, but he should provide a lot of value if anyone ahead of him gets hurt. With Yankee Stadium helping him along, he'll get his 15-20 homers, all without getting enough at-bats to do much damage to a fantasy team's batting average.

Other thoughts

I'm lukewarm on Grady Sizemore, ranking him as the No. 49 outfielder currently. I'd go higher if he came back and impressed during the second half of March, but he's iffy for Opening Day as is. … Julio Borbon and Michael Brantley are youngsters capable of swiping 30-40 bases, and neither should break the budget. … Others will label Detroit's Ryan Raburn as a big-time sleeper, but I think he'll struggle some while playing regularly against right-handers for the first time. He should be good for 15-20 homers, but I don't think he'll be of a lot of help elsewhere.


Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of RotoWorld.com and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @matthewpouliot.
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