Which Minnesota Twins outfielder do you draft first?
Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys, better known as the Minnesota Twins outfield.
It's a home of expensive playthings, tempting for their possibilities but just a little bit underwhelming as far as the joy they actually spread to Fantasy Nation. On most days, the Twins will field three former first-round picks in left, center and right field, players who at one time or another have caused fantasy baseball owners to salivate. Over there in right is Michael Cuddyer, the ninth-overall pick in the 1997 draft, who blasted a career-high 32 homers last season but didn't even manage an .800 OPS the two years before that. In center is Denard Span, the 20th pick in the '02 draft, who took six years to arrive in the majors and, when he finally did, wasn't quite the 40-steal player the world believed it was getting. And in left is Delmon Young, good ol' Delmon, the first overall pick in the '03 draft and at age 24 already one of the most disappointing players in modern baseball history. Those are some serious signing bonuses running around out there.
To this group, we also have to add Jason Kubel, a former 20th-round pick who played more designated hitter than outfield last season, but does have outfield eligibility and seems likely to maintain it this season, considering that Jim Thome is also a Twin, meaning on days Thome plays, Kubel might patrol left. Kubel hit .300 and led the team with 103 RBIs last season, but lest we think he's bulletproof, remember he featured a .643 OPS against lefties.
So here we are. You're in a mixed league. You start five outfielders and you have three bench spots. And you're wondering which, if any, of these guys should you draft? Let's take a look at them individually.
Michael Cuddyer: Don't pretend you saw that kind of season coming. After an '08 campaign that saw Cuddyer limited to 279 at-bats and only three homers because of an injured finger and foot, he blew away the American League with those 32 dingers and 94 RBIs, and was obviously ownable in all fantasy formats (he wound up as baseball's 22nd-rated fantasy outfielder). But can you trust that kind of production going forward?
Despite the fact that it seems like he's been around forever, Cuddyer turns only 31 at the end of this month. He doesn't run much (34 career steals in nine seasons) and is a .270 lifetime hitter, so he pretty much has to be a power guy to have fantasy value. How likely is it that he approaches 30 homers again? I consider it possible, but not likely. Cuddyer is more a ground-ball hitter than a fly-ball one; his career numbers have seen him hit 45.4 percent of his batted balls on the ground compared to just 35.7 percent in the air (and 18.9 percent have been line drives). Some of his '09 production can be traced to the fact that he hit more fly balls (39.6 percent), which corresponded with an increased strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.19, compared to a 1.99 coming into the '09 season). In other words, it appears there's a conscious effort to swing more freely and for the fences. We can't punish him for that; heck, we like that. However, note also that Cuddyer's home-run-per-fly-ball rate was 17.1 percent last season, compared to a 12.9 percent career average. To me, that means he's likely to come back down to earth; thus, 25 homers is a more realistic goal than 32.
That's still decent. What would it have done to Cuddyer's fantasy value last year? Take away seven homers and, say, between 10 and 15 RBIs and he's still right around the 32nd-most-valuable fantasy outfielder of 2009. Considering at least 50 outfielders are going to start in your 10-team standard ESPN league, that still makes Cuddyer worth owning -- but not necessarily reaching for in your draft -- as long as you understand he's pretty much a three-category player.
Denard Span: Span took a long time to get to the majors and was supposed to be squeezed out of the Twins' plans a couple of years ago when they traded for Young and still had Carlos Gomez around, but all he's done is solidify himself at the top of the team's batting order. In fact, he hit .311 last season, the 18th-best average in the entire major leagues. That number soothed fantasy owners who thought they might be getting a high-steals guy when they drafted Span last year; in fact, he wound up attempting 33 steals in '09, tied for 25th in the majors, but he was successful on just 23 of them, a worrisome success rate indeed. He's a good (not great) hitter, but he's just not the game-breaker we thought he'd be with his legs.
But should we care? Even with "only" 23 steals (which was still good for a tie for 32nd in the majors), Span was fantasy's 15th-most-valuable outfielder last year, thanks to that terrific average and his 97 runs scored. The runs are for real, and so is that level of steals, plus Span was able to drive in 68 runs exclusively as a leadoff hitter. But I do take issue with that batting average.
While he has the ability to take a walk, and I think he's a good player, is he really at a .311 hitter? He hit in the .260s, .270s and .280s in the minors, and the fact that he trended toward more fly balls in '09 compared to '08 (and the fact that he doesn't have anything more than gap power) makes me think he's apt to see that average decline to somewhere in the .290 range.
Listen, this is still a relatively inexperienced major league player, and I'm making some pretty broad assumptions; if he continues to be a high-BABIP player (.339 in 2008, .353 in 2009) along the lines of last year, he probably really will flirt with .300. If he doesn't, though, and we look at what his fantasy season would have been with, say, a .290 average last year, the picture darkens just a bit. Instead of being the 15th-best fantasy outfielder, Span becomes 28th-best. So yes, he's batting-average-dependent. Then again, even if he regresses in that area, he's definitely rosterable.
Delmon Young: Oh, Delmon. Why must you vex us? The kid who was supposed to define the term "five-tool wonder" has finally lost most of his defenders, as he turned in a third straight big league season where he failed to live up to the hype. The kid still doesn't turn 25 until September, but the fantasy world would have to be blind to treat him with the same kid gloves we've used when evaluating him in the past. He has three straight seasons of an OPS below .750. That's Ryan Theriot territory.
At base are terrible plate-discipline problems. Young walked just 12 times in 416 plate appearances last year, a ridiculously bad 2.9 percent walk rate that simply provides no incentive for opposing pitchers to throw strikes. Accordingly, he struck out 92 times in '09. This is at the heart of his problems, and what worries me that he may never get it figured out. His batting eye appears to just be very bad.
Also, where's all that speed Young was supposed to have? He stole 20-plus bases in three separate minor league seasons and even stole 14 with the Twins in '08, but in '09 he stole exactly two bases and was thrown out five times. It was the first time in his career he didn't at least reach double-digit steals in a season.
Finally, there's the fact that his ground-ball rate for his career now stands at 50 percent, and his fly-ball rate is just 30.9 percent (he hits line drives 19.1 percent of the time). That's a shocking number for a guy who was supposed to be a power prospect. The best home run hitters typically feature fly-ball rates in the high 40s or low 50s. A combination of diminishing speed (or a diminishing ability to take advantage of it) and lots of grounders doesn't make for a fantasy stud. Presumably the raw talent about which everyone's been waxing for the better part of a decade is still there. But I just don't know if you can trust that it will manifest any time soon.
Jason Kubel: Kubel was a breakout candidate for three straight years, from '06 to '08, before finally sneaking up on everyone and blasting a career-high 28 homers and 103 RBIs in '09, and hitting .300 to boot. He wound up fantasy's 25th-rated outfielder as a result, not as good as Span or Cuddyer (because he has no speed and maxed out at 514 at-bats last season), but obviously still very ownable in 10-team mixed leagues.
For two seasons now, Kubel has made what appear to be permanent strides in his fly-ball rate: He jumped from 30.9 and 35.2 percent in '06 and '07 to 40.6 and 41.6 percent in '08 and '09, something that foreshadowed his increased homer total. His home-run-per-fly-ball rate spiked a bit in '09 (16.3 percent compared to a 13.7 percent career average), but not so much you'd call it a huge anomaly. I do think his .300 average last year has the whiff of a fluke about it (his BABIP was .327 after hovering right around .300 in his prior big league seasons), but even if that average drops to, say, .280, the power seems as legitimate for Kubel as it does for any of these Twins outfielders.
The main stumbling block in Kubel's development has been his performance against left-handed pitching. In the past, it's what caused him to sit a couple of times per week: In '09, for instance, he posted a 1.014 OPS against righties and just a .643 OPS versus lefties. (For his career, those splits are .853 and .670, respectively.) Now, Kubel did improve against southpaws later in the season last year; after hitting .197 against them in the first half, he managed to hit .285 against them in the second. That's not a huge sample size (he only had 148 at-bats against lefties all year), but it could mean more consistent playing time against all pitchers, which could either increase his overall fantasy value (by giving him more at-bats and thus more statistical weight) or decrease his batting average (if he goes back to struggling versus pitchers he used to sit against). Either way, though, as I say, I believe in his power.
Conclusion: I wouldn't touch Delmon Young in a 10-team mixed league, but the other three guys are surprisingly close to one another in my ranks. I have Span as my No. 24 fantasy outfielder, Kubel at No. 27 and Cuddyer at No. 29. I think Span has the most upside of the group and the capacity to help you in four categories (well, three-and-a-half, if we assume he drives in 70-ish runs again), while Kubel seems likeliest to lead the group in homers, and Cuddyer will come in the middle, around 25-80 or so. I wouldn't be heartbroken if I didn't get any of them in a mixed-league draft, because I don't foresee top-20 value out of any of them, which, in light of where they all (except Kubel) were drafted as amateurs, is maybe a touch disappointing. But each can be a solid fantasy contributor again.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.