It was touch-and-go there for a few years. The outfield position was on life support just when fantasy owners needed it most. It was vibrant and strong much of the past decade, but in the latter half of it, that nasty lack-of-depth bug hit and reduced it to something fantasy owners actually needed to pay attention to, instead of just assuming it would show up to work every day and be productive.
The position is hardly 100 percent; there's still a wobble in its walk. But at least it's up and moving.
The years (circa 2004) of being able to grab semi-productive options such as Kenny Lofton, Trot Nixon and Jay Gibbons in the final rounds are gone, but so are the years (circa 2007) of being stuck with upside plays such as Chris Duffy and Wily Mo Pena, or being stuck with Emil Brown, as a potential starting (fifth) outfielder. I wouldn't say we're now swimming in talented outfielders to load up your bench, but there are plenty of starter-worthy players or upside plays to choose from in mixed leagues, with such players as Corey Hart, J.D. Drew, Marlon Byrd and Chris B. Young falling in the 55-65 range in the outfield rankings.
I know I've used this analogy before, but comparing the outfield position to a Super Walmart or Super Target is spot-on.
Whether you're looking for milk or carpenter screws or decorations for the upcoming holiday, you can find it at such a store. It's a one-stop shop. That's how the outfield position is. Whereas you might look to first base to boost your homers category, or middle infield to boost steals, the outfield is loaded with players who can reliably get you both of those categories, and more. In fact, just looking at our early projections, we have at least 15 outfielders projected to finish with at least 15 homers and 15 steals, and 33 outfielders to have double figures in both categories.
Thirty-three outfielders, and keep in mind that only 50 (plus any at utility) are started in a standard 10-team league. And that doesn't even include the guys who can specialize in one category or another, such as Jacoby Ellsbury in steals, Ichiro Suzuki in batting average and Adam Lind in homers.
So what does all this mean? Well, because of how strong the top tier or two is, you will be tempted to take other positions in the first several rounds, likely focusing on the more scarce positions. Really, there's nothing wrong with that. But don't go overboard. Just because there are a lot of similar guys doesn't mean they can't boost your overall roto production all the same. If you happen to take three outfielders with your first six picks, so be it. You have every reason to do that, given the projections.
The depth at outfield, both in the upper tier and in the end game, gives you draft flexibility. Whereas in most of these position previews, we will be specific about how you should approach that position in your drafts, here we don't really need to be. You take an outfielder when it feels right to take one. If that means you load up on them early or don't take one before the eighth round, either of those strategies can work just fine. The only thing I will note, however, is that there is a drop in talent in this position around the end of the 11th or 12th round in a mixed league. So you try to have maybe two or three outfielders by then, but even if you don't, and you're set at other positions, you can still put together a fine team loading up on middle-round options.
I put my rankings together by position and work from those, instead of from a top 200 or overall list. What I have noticed about both outfielders and starting pitchers as the draft rolls along is that there's usually a player or two not crossed off even though the eight to 10 players below him are. If the pick comes to you during then, that would be a good time to take an outfielder.
OK, so the way I'll handle this position is to break it into the tier subheads, just like the others, and then, in a few cases, break them down again within the subheads to give you exactly what you're looking for. Read on.
1. Ryan Braun, MIL, OF, $30
2. Matt Kemp, LAD, OF, $29
3. Carl Crawford, TB, OF, $28
4. Justin Upton, ARI, OF, $25
5. Jacoby Ellsbury, BOS, OF, $24
6. Matt Holliday, STL, OF, $24
7. Ichiro Suzuki, SEA, OF, $23
8. Grady Sizemore, CLE, OF, $22
9. Jayson Werth, PHI, OF, $18
10. Adam Lind, TOR, OF, $18
11. Jason Bay, NYM, OF, $18
12. B.J. Upton, TB, OF, $17
13. Carlos Lee, HOU, OF, $17
14. Curtis Granderson, NYY, OF, $16
15. Nick Markakis, BAL, OF, $16
16. Andre Ethier, LAD, OF, $16
17. Bobby Abreu, LAA, OF, $16
18. Adam Jones, BAL, OF, $15
19. Nelson Cruz, TEX, OF, $15
20. Ben Zobrist, TB, 2B, OF, $15
21. Shin-Soo Choo, CLE, OF, $15
22. Shane Victorino, PHI, OF, $15
23. Adam Dunn, WAS, 1B, OF, $14
24. Josh Hamilton, TEX, OF, $14
25. Torii Hunter, LAA, OF, $14
26. Johnny Damon, DET, OF, $14
27. Andrew McCutchen, PIT, OF, $13
28. Manny Ramirez, LAD, OF, $13
29. Hunter Pence, HOU, OF, $13
30. Carlos Quentin, CHW, OF, $13
31. Raul Ibanez, PHI, OF, $12
32. Jay Bruce, CIN, OF, $11
33. Nate McLouth, ATL, OF, $11
34. Alex Rios, CHW, OF, $11
35. Denard Span, MIN, OF, $10
36. Michael Bourn, HOU, OF, $10
37. Nyjer Morgan, WAS, OF, $9
38. Carlos Gonzalez, COL, OF, $9
39. Jason Kubel, MIN, OF, $9
40. Juan Pierre, CHW, OF, $9
41. Julio Borbon, TEX, OF, $9
42. Michael Cuddyer, MIN, 1B, OF, $9
43. Brad Hawpe, COL, OF, $9
44. Nolan Reimold, BAL, OF, $8
45. Alfonso Soriano, CHC, OF, $8
46. Franklin Gutierrez, SEA, OF, $8
47. Rajai Davis, OAK, OF, $7
48. Dexter Fowler, COL, OF, $7
49. Carlos Beltran, NYM, OF, $7
50. Chris Coghlan, FLA, OF, $6
51. Jason Heyward, ATL, OF, $6
52. Ryan Ludwick, STL, OF, $6
53. Lastings Milledge, PIT, OF, $5
54. Cody Ross, FLA, OF, $4
55. Vernon Wells, TOR, OF, $4
56. Juan Rivera, LAA, OF, $3
57. Garrett Jones, PIT, 1B, OF, $2
58. Chase Headley, SD, 3B, OF, $2
59. Mark DeRosa, SF, 3B, OF, $1
60. Corey Hart, MIL, OF, $1
61. Brett Gardner, NYY, OF, $1
62. Conor Jackson, ARI, OF, $1
63. Colby Rasmus, STL, OF, $1
64. J.D. Drew, BOS, OF, $1
65. Matt Diaz, ATL, OF, $-
66. Mark Teahen, CHW, 3B, OF, $-
67. Coco Crisp, OAK, OF, $-
68. Marlon Byrd, CHC, OF, $-
69. Chris Young, ARI, OF, $-
70. Seth Smith, COL, OF, $-
71. Milton Bradley, SEA, OF, $-
72. Travis Snider, TOR, OF, $-
73. Matt LaPorta, CLE, OF, $-
74. Josh Willingham, WAS, OF, $-
75. Kyle Blanks, SD, OF, $-
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.
At the time of this writing, we have eight outfielders among our top 27, and then a new tier begins right around No. 37. So obviously these eight guys are in a class by themselves.
Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp are very similarly valued -- whom you prefer depends on whom you talk to -- but they arrived there in different ways. Braun burst on the scene in 2007 with 34 homers and 15 steals in just 113 games. Since then, he hasn't quite been the .320-40-120 stud we thought he'd be, but he has been a solid .300-30-110 player who even set a career high with 20 steals in 2009. Kemp, on the other hand, has developed his power over time (he always had the 30-steal speed), falling four homers short of a 30-30 season in 2009 and batting .297 in the process. Braun is a solid bet to repeat or even slightly improve on 2009, while Kemp has that developmental path that reminds us we don't really know how good he can be. If that certain unknown especially appeals to you, draft Kemp ahead of Braun and don't look back.
And the next six guys? Well, after my whole dissertation about how many homer-steal horses there are among outfielders (Braun and Kemp fit that mold), wouldn't you know only two of the six among this second-/third-round group are 20-20 types. They are Justin Upton, who, at age 22, is still developing and has the upside of a first-round fantasy pick, and Grady Sizemore, who followed up a 30-30 campaign with a poor, injury-marred 2009 season. The other four players specialize more without hurting you in other categories.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford specialize in steals, and how. Ellsbury had 70, Crawford had 60, and only Michael Bourn (also an outfielder), who had 61, was anywhere close to those numbers. (Chone Figgins was next on the list with 42.) In fact, the duo's combined steals formed 4.4 percent of all the steals in the majors last season, quite a high number considering that the top two home run hitters (Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder) combined for just 1.8 percent of the league total. And since both are relatively healthy and in their prime, they should be able to match those high steals totals again.
Matt Holliday and Ichiro Suzuki specialize in batting average. There's almost no way Holliday matches the .353 mark he hit after joining the St. Louis Cardinals in the second half of 2009, but keep in mind he still hit .313 in 2009 and he's a career .318 hitter. Ichiro, on the other hand, is in his own stratosphere in terms of batting average; he's a career .333 hitter and hit .352 last season. Now, his peripherals do show a bit of luck in 2009, and age (he's 36) might become a factor soon, but he's still an elite talent when you toss in that he still swipes 20-something bags and even hit 11 homers in 2009.
The Next Level
Here's another example how deep outfield is in the top tier: There are 17 players on this level. By "this level," I mean anybody who ranks between No. 30 (first three rounds of a 10-team draft) and No. 80, or the first eight rounds of a mixed draft.
Seventeen! That makes 25 total outfielders in the top 80 as I write this. Just for comparison sake, consider there are only 20 pitchers, both starters and relievers, ranked in the same area. Also consider that 25 outfielders are enough for teams to get 2-3 of them before we officially drop to the "steady" level.
Staying with the theme I've established in this column, I will split this category into two areas: those who are homer-speed combos and those who aren't. Mind you, just because a guy isn't a homer/speed guy doesn't mean he has less value. Instead, he might be a homer/batting average guy. But I split them so you can better react to your draft. If things are going along smoothly, and you're not identifying any category weaknesses, press on with the balanced guys. If, however, you have grabbed, say, a Prince Fielder or Jacoby Ellsbury early in the draft and see potential category weaknesses emerging, use the outfield position and this guide to help you.
The power-speed guys
Jayson Werth: Proved last season that 2008 was no fluke. Right man, right park. Werth strikes out way too many times to hit above .275 or so, but he's good for 30 homers and 20 steals.
Curtis Granderson: Joe Girardi is not quite as aggressive as Joe Torre was with the New York Yankees; then again, the Yanks have a more favorable hitters' park now, so he doesn't have to be. Granderson's homers should go up, and his steals down, but he'll still get 15 or so.
Bobby Abreu: How 'bout this guy! He got back to 30 steals for the first time since 2006. He struggled to hit homers, but he did finish with 15 of them, right around the number he hit in 2006 and 2007. I wouldn't say there's a decline there so much as I'd say the years of 20-plus homers are all but gone.
Adam Jones: Ain't it funny that Jones can have 477 and 473 at-bats, respectively, in successive years, and people don't worry about him being a young, injury-prone player, but when Ian Kinsler has a couple of freakish injuries, we're ready to pass on him. Jones is undisciplined at the plate, but his numbers are undeniable. He has all the tools of a superstar; he just hasn't put it together for a full season.
Nelson Cruz: Showed at the Home Run Derby that his power isn't a fluke. But he strikes out roughly once per four at-bats, which limits his batting average, and I think his steals are fluky. He doesn't grade out as being that fast, and he was more like a 15- to 20-steal guy in the minors.
Shin-Soo Choo: Hmm, I seem to have fallen into a "raised doubts" rhythm in the past three or four guys there, but it ends here. Choo is the real deal, and I think he could become a true five-category stud. He'll be taken in the sixth or seventh round, and I think even that will be a bargain.
Torii Hunter: Once while talking to me (years ago) about his amazing defense, Hunter said he had been "knocked out" several times on catches. He hasn't exactly backed off the accelerator in recent years, and now it's catching up to the 34-year-old. For the second straight year, he missed significant time in the second half. In 2009, it was because of a nagging groin injury that began when he ran into the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium. He's productive when healthy, but it's the injury chances that place him at the bottom of this tier.
Adam Lind -- Homers and batting average: I'd say more power than batting average because I think that category will be the easiest for him to repeat. While his 2009 BABIP wasn't out of line, Lind strikes out fairly often and hits a lot of fly balls, so a .300 average might not be in the works again in 2010. That said, his 35 homers might just go up if he can convert a few more of those 46 doubles from 2009.
Jason Bay -- Homers and RBIs: Bay is more of a selective base stealer, so he can't be counted on for even double-figures steals. But I still believe he can hit 30 homers (yes, even as a Met) and drive in 110-plus runs.
B.J. Upton -- Steals: Those wishing for 20-plus homers again: Have you seen the guy? He's lean and lanky, and his swing still looks more chop than loop to me. But count on 40-plus bases and hope he doesn't hurt your batting average.
Carlos Lee -- Homers, RBIs and average: At one point, he did steal bases, but as one buddy said to me a few years ago, he looks as though he's running around with one of those couch pillows stuffed in the back of his pants. But he's still one of the best pure right-handed hitters in the game.
Nick Markakis -- Batting average and RBIs: In the middle of a transformation as a hitter. He came up aggressive and free-swinging, but he has become more patient as pitchers work around him. That means fewer RBIs but more runs. So be it. Let's not anoint him as one who struggles versus lefties just yet, despite what happened in 2009. Just a year earlier, he posted an .843 OPS against them.
Andre Ethier -- Homers: Plenty more upside even from our projections. He had a fine 2009 season, and yet his BABIP was well below his career norms. That said, he still hit .194 against lefties, his true Achilles' heel. Doubt he changes that in a year, and it will ultimately put a cap on his upside.
Shane Victorino -- Steals and runs: Still quietly one of the best on-base and steals guys in the game. Secretly, I do wonder if his reckless style of play will get him hurt one of these days, but it's not something I'd be willing to build into his projections.
Adam Dunn -- Homers and runs: One of the least dependable upper-tier players available when it comes to batting average, but one of the most dependable when it comes to homers, RBIs and runs. Slid over to Washington (and the league's 21st-ranked offense) and posted the same solid numbers he had posted in previous seasons.
Josh Hamilton -- Homers: I'd be scared to draft him early, but he is healthy as of this moment, and there's no doubt he has early-round upside. If you think you've hit the lottery with the first five or six picks, grab this lotto card in the sixth or seventh round.
Mid-round sleeper: Julio Borbon
Late-round sleeper: Drew Stubbs
Prospect: Jason Heyward
Top-20 player I wouldn't draft: Adam Jones
Players to trade at the All-Star break: Jermaine Dye, Scott Hairston
Players to trade for at the ASB: Delmon Young, David DeJesus
Home hero(es): Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez
Road warrior(s): Ryan Sweeney, Chris Coghlan, Chase Headley
Player I like but can't explain why: Lastings Milledge
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Carlos Quentin
Where's The Ceiling?
If you were to project the 2009 numbers that Andrew McCutchen posted in 108 major league games over, let's say, 154 games, he'd have hit .286-17-77, with 31 steals and 106 runs. Not bad for a 23-year-old. Now, whether he can sustain it for a full season is another question. McCutchen did look pretty worn in September -- he hit .268 with just one homer and three steals in five attempts -- while finishing off a 157-game season (combined minor and major league action). He'll likely be asked to do the same for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it's wise to be cautious with your expectations.
Jay Bruce's ceiling is 40-plus homers; his downside is, well, his 2009 season. Bruce was a mess last season, aiming for the fences with nearly every swing. Something tells me it'll take more than an offseason to unravel that, but he is just 22 years old. You can get him at a bargain rate in drafts, and you could do worse with his upside in the middle rounds. But realize that his downside is as a batting-average killer, so if you grab him, make sure your aggregate batting average can absorb the hit.
Most people have Denard Span's ceiling right about what he did last season. I think it's higher. His line-drive swing won't allow him to hit many more than 10 homers a season, but I think he has 30-steal potential once he learns a bit more about opposing pitchers. If you've seen him play the outfield or hustle for a triple, you know he can hum once he gets going. I'm calling a .300 average, another eight homers, 30 steals and 100 runs. Sounds a lot like Shane Victorino, who is higher up the rankings list.
As noted above, Michael Bourn was the last of the big three 60-steal guys, but he's the only one we seem to look at with a suspicious eye. That's because he somehow jumped from a .229 average and .288 OBP to a .285 average and .354 OBP, thanks in no small part to a BABIP that jumped from a surprisingly low .290 to an unbelievable .366 in 2009. So which of the two sides do you believe? Well, obviously somewhere in between, but I feel something very close to 2009. I do have to acknowledge, though, that a standard luck correction would put him on base some 20 to 30 times fewer in 2010, which would in turn likely knock his steals back to 50. Still a high number, but not upper-tier high when combined with maybe three to five homers.
Really, the same caveat applies to lesser options Nyjer Morgan, Julio Borbon, Rajai Davis, Dexter Fowler and Brett Gardner. How often can these guys get on base? Pitchers are not going to pitch around them, so they'll have to hit. I like Borbon the most among this group, but the fact that we're talking about six legit 30-steal types in the middle to late rounds of a mixed draft displays the depth at this position. As such, you can use these guys as backup options in case you don't address the steals category adequately in the first half of the draft.
Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Reimold both had their moments in 2009, showing the potential for big numbers. One thing that helps them both, and the reason we like them, is that they both hit well at their home parks. Gonzalez hit 42 points better at Coors Field than on the road, and Reimold's OPS at home was 75 points better than on the road. Both will have decent lineups around them, and we look forward to seeing what the duo can do for a full season.
It took Franklin Gutierrez a while to get going, but once he did, he showed a nice power-speed combo, not to mention tremendous defense in center field. He doesn't have the raw upside of many of the players above him, but he makes for a solid fourth or fifth mixed-league outfielder.
Without looking, what did Chris Coghlan hit in 2009? OK, it was .321. And how many at-bats? He had 504. That's a pretty nice sample size to suggest that the .320 average is the real thing. Unfortunately, he also had a .365 BABIP, which is inordinately high for a player without much speed. He's a line-drive and ground-ball hitter, so he should be above the norm, but a little luck correction should be expected. Expect something closer to a .300 average, with eight to 10 homers and 70 or so RBIs. Not bad at all, but not anything worth reaching for in a mixed league.
And finally, we have a handful of players who have helped mixed owners in spurts, but can they keep it up for a full season? Lastings Milledge can, I believe. For as highly publicized as he has been, and even as well traveled, he still turns just 25 in April. He has legit 20-20 and maybe even 30-30 potential, but with him, you have the luxury of sitting and waiting for it. As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I don't like to say this, but Colby Rasmus has a bit of an Alex Gordon feel about him. He's only 23 and has plenty of solid years ahead of him, but two splits from 2009 disturbed me: He hit .160 and slugged just .255 against lefties, and he hit 40 points better at home than on the road. I'd have to see those get addressed before I jump for him. Travis Snider has major power, and he'll get a chance to show it in 2010, but he's still very raw, as evidenced by his one K per every 3.1 at-bats in 2009. The same can be said for Kyle Blanks, who also must battle an unfavorable ballpark to show off his power. Drew Stubbs also strikes out a lot, and he doesn't have the power of the two players mentioned above him. But he does have legit 25-steal speed, which can be helpful in spots.
Jason Heyward isn't just any prospect, he's one of the top prospects in all of baseball. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has five-tool talent, but will it lead to immediate fantasy production? He certainly has performed well in the minors, including a .352/1.057 OPS stint in Double-A last season. But he's only 20, and fantasy owners shouldn't expect much from him. By all rights, he's Justin Upton, Take 2, but keep in mind he also could be Cameron Maybin, Take 2. Don't spend anything more than a late-round pick on him in non-keeper mixed leagues; there's just too much reliable talent at this level and this position to go fishing for the unknown.
Matt LaPorta has power. We know that because we've seen it in the minors. But he didn't get an extended look in the majors until the Cleveland Indians traded away Ryan Garko. He didn't account for himself too well last September, but he enters 2010 with a starting job (at first base) to himself. Adding first base qualification early in the season should help his value, but we're still talking about a .270 hitter with maybe 20-homer power, nothing to write home about in a mixed league. Take a flier on him if he looks good in spring games.
Teammate Michael Brantley also should have a starting job to himself, and he's intriguing to fantasy owners thanks to his 46 steals in 116 Triple-A games in 2009. He didn't have the same success in the majors -- caught four times in eight attempts -- but he does have legit speed, and he did hit .313 in 112 at-bats. Will he hit more than 10 homers? No way. But it seems we're all smitten with the young power-speed players or even power hitters that we forget what kind of 30-steal force this guy can be. He makes for a fine late-round pick if he still has a starting job come draft day.
It's perhaps a bit premature to label Cameron Maybin as a "Quadruple-A" player. Granted, he stunk it up for the Florida Marlins, then went on to hit .319 for Triple-A New Orleans, but he turns just 23 in April. He'll get another chance with the Marlins this spring, but don't expect much. The reason fantasy owners will love him is his speed, but his steals potential is dwindling as the 6-foot-3 youngster fills out.
Where's The Basement?
Manny Ramirez's numbers were still solid in 2009 on a per-game basis -- he was suspended for 50 games for using performance-enhancing drugs -- but they were also deceiving. He hit just .255 after returning from the suspension, including just .229 in September and October. That doesn't sound very Manny-like. He'll be 37 and won't maintain the motivation and fresh legs that he had much of that second half. Can we count on another .300 average and 20-something homers and 100-plus RBIs from him, especially if perhaps they were partly PED-fueled in previous seasons? I'm normally one who predicts numbers close to the year before, but my spidey sense is tingling with this guy. I smell a decline this season. I'll let someone else have him.
A lot of people are calling for a bounce-back season from Carlos Quentin, but is that really safe? He has missed three of the past seven months of baseball because of injuries, and his average returned to its pre-2008 level last season. Now, the 2008 injury (broken hand/wrist) was a freak accident, but the 2009 injury (plantar fasciitis) wasn't, and it's not like he's a picture of health. Granted, not having Jim Thome clogging up the DH slot might help Quentin move there some and stay healthy, but I'm afraid we can't count on Quentin for anything but homers anymore. That makes him a risky 10th-round pick.
Carlos Beltran will be one of the hot players at this year's draft. On one hand, he proved he still had five-category potential in half a season in 2008, including a .325 average in 308 at-bats. Plus, he's still only 32. On the other hand, his knee problems and subsequent surgery were pretty serious, and he could miss a month or more of the season. And how much will that surgery affect not only his running, but also his skills and future durability? Better to put a red flag next to Beltran and make him fall to a level at which you simply can't ignore him. And if he doesn't fall to that level, you've avoided the headache of tracking him.
I was one of many who were smitten by Alex Rios. Or I guess I should say I still am; after all, he's only 29. So while I was discouraged by his 2009 performance and must draft him based on that, I believe he can get back to the solid .290-15-80 -30 player he was before falling apart over the past year.
Ah, what to do with Alfonso Soriano? He looks like Alfonso Soriano and swings like Alfonso Soriano, but he's not the Alfonso Soriano because injuries have mounted over the past few years. Whereas he could have enough good swings to hit 25-plus homers, the steals can't be counted on, and neither can 500-plus at-bats. But the general disdain he has attracted from fantasy owners by his subpar performances the past two years has perhaps dropped him to a level where his proven upside is actually interesting. In a mixed league, why not grab him in the middle rounds? If he gets hurt, you can always replace him with another decent option at this deep position.
Vernon Wells is only 31, but for whatever reason, he seems to be a decline. He had a career-worst year in 2007, improved it somewhat in 2008, and then bounced back to his subpar '07 level in 2009. That makes three years now of mediocrity. Don't get caught up in his name value and waste anything more than late-middle-round pick on him.
The same can be said for Delmon Young and Corey Hart. That said, Delmon has shown us only flashes of what he should have been, while Hart was actually reaching his potential before a poor 2009, which was caused in part by an appendectomy. I wouldn't count on a bounce-back from Delmon, but I still have faith in Hart.
Magglio Ordonez and Jermaine Dye both are on the decline. That can't be argued. But they also are savvy, veteran hitters who know the pitchers they face, and it's not as though they'll drop off the face of the earth anytime soon. They work well as back-end outfield starters.
Steady As She Goes
Hunter Pence must go in here because his '08 and '09 numbers were remarkably similar, but there's more to this story. For the second straight year, Pence's walks jumped, and he struck out 15 fewer times than the previous season. The improved patience and contact showed up in his batting average; it rose 13 points in 2009 to a respectable .282. As such, I don't think we blindly chalk up Pence for similar numbers this year; I think he can show improvement in all but the steals category.
Raul Ibanez lit up NL pitchers the first two months of the season before a groin injury put him on the DL. He came back a bit too soon and struggled to play through it, eventually leading to a .232 post-All-Star break batting average. Now, how much can be blamed on the groin, and how much on the fact that he'll turn 38 in June and maybe the book on him made its way around the National League? Hmm. With that ballpark and that lineup, he should provide steady numbers, but don't expect much better than that .272 average.
Johnny Damon can't run like he used to, but he can still hit. He tied a career high with 24 homers in 2009 and posted the third-best RBI mark of his storied career. But the RBIs were definitely powered by home runs, and the home runs were definitely boosted by Yankee Stadium (17 of 24 hit at home, and all of them to right field, according to hittrackeronline.com). Damon is a savvy vet who will find a way to be productive, but don't expect him to greatly boost your power categories, as he did last season.
Nate McLouth dealt with a midseason trade and a trip to the DL (hamstring) yet still fell just one steal short of a 20-20 season. Not bad. He's being virtually forgotten until the middle rounds in most drafts, but he's a 28-year-old with proven 25-25 potential. Don't underrate him.
Sluggers Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer have weaknesses (Kubel struggles versus lefties, and Cuddyer doesn't hit as well versus righties), but the Twins have figured out how to use them right, maximizing their fantasy potential. Kubel should be able to repeat his '09 numbers, while I see Cuddyer taking a slight step back. While many are saying Delmon Young is going to take a major hit because of the team's addition of lefty slugger Jim Thome, I could see Cuddyer losing some at-bats as well.
Again Juan Pierre showed in 2009 he can still run like the wind, collecting 30 steals despite getting just 380 at-bats. Now, those 30 steals by far represented a career low for him, but by the sound of it, the Chicago White Sox are eager for him to play the Scott Podsednik role on his new team and plan to use his legs often. Another 30-plus steals should be in the works.
Brad Hawpe, Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross aren't the most glamorous options because they tend to be a bit inconsistent week to week and month to month. But the numbers are there in the end. Over the past four seasons, Hawpe has hit between .283 and .293, and between 22 and 29 homers. Don't mind his mediocre July and poor September; he's still going to give you steady totals. Ludwick battled a few different injuries in 2009, which affected him in spurts, but he's one of the top RBI guys in the league, which is a good thing considering he'll likely hit behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday for a full season. And Ross quietly posted 24 homers and 90 RBIs, proving he could hit righties in the process. He had 40 extra-base hits against righty pitchers.
It's amazing what guys like Juan Rivera, J.D. Drew, Marlon Byrd and Josh Willingham can do with regular at-bats, and as of now, all three are slated to start again in 2010. In all four cases, the draft position hasn't quite matched the production, so look at them as nice fallback options.
Jeff Francoeur had a resurgence after being traded to the New York Mets, and while his free-swinging ways are well-known, all the at-bats do give him more RBI opportunities, and he should hit well enough not to hurt you.
And finally, keep the cheap base-stealers in mind. Coco Crisp, Willy Taveras, Scott Podsednik and Carlos Gomez might just be one-category guys, but steals are often tough to find on the free-agent wire, no matter the setup. At least consider them for bench roles.
A few others who could provide value and won't hurt you if they're playing regularly: Randy Winn, Josh Anderson, Chris Dickerson, Ryan Raburn, Angel Pagan, David Murphy, David DeJesus, Garret Anderson, Jose Guillen, Luke Scott, Scott Hairston, Ryan Spilborghs, Ben Francisco, Jonny Gomes.
Start 'Em Elsewhere
Not many outfielders move closer to the action and play the infield (and I'm not counting first base here, considering it's deeper than even the outfield). It's more like the other way around, e.g., a utility infielder grabbing enough outfield time to qualify there. Still, here are a few guys with multiposition capability at second base, shortstop or third base:
Skip Schumaker: If only he had more fantasy-category eligibility. As it now, the second baseman/outfielder helps only in batting average and runs.
Ben Zobrist: You're starting him at second base, most likely, but it's still helpful that he has outfield qualification.
Delwyn Young: Improving at second base helped him get 354 at-bats in 2009.
Jerry Hairston Jr.: Jack of all trades (eligible at outfield, shortstop, third base, plus he played 12 games at second base), but master of none.
Willie Bloomquist: With 25 steals and eligibility at shortstop and outfield, he's a better fantasy option than advertised. Then again, we can't be sure he'll get 434 at-bats again this year.
Fernando Tatis: Can help both at third base and in the outfield (he's also eligible at first base), even a borderline play in mixed leagues when he's playing regularly.
Mark DeRosa: Being passed by in many early fantasy drafts, but still has nice ability and qualifies at third and outfield.
Mark Teahen: Likely will start at third base for the Chicago White Sox but still has outfield qualification.
Bill Hall: Can start for you (or not) at third and outfield.
Chase Headley: Will this be his breakout campaign? I'm inclined to say yes, to an extent. I think a .278-18-80-15 season is coming, and you can play him in the outfield and at third base. Let's not forget what kind of talent he is, and that he's only 25.
The Do-Not-Draft List
Conor Jackson was a disaster of illness and poor play in 2009. While a slight bounce-back should be expected, do remember that he hit .182 in the games he did play in 2009. Given the depth here, you have the luxury of sitting back and seeing how he looks before grabbing him.
Messing with platoons can be frustrating, especially when pitching matchups force your player to the bench a lot during certain stretches. In mixed leagues, I'd rather use Seth Smith and Matt Diaz as matchup plays.
Chris B. Young is a homer-steal guy, but at what price? He hit just .212 last year and continued to strike out every 3.3 at-bats. Ouch. Also, he hit nearly three times as many fly balls as ground balls in 2009, which is a miserable rate for a player with his speed. Most are calling for a bounce-back to the .240-.250 range, but I think even that is generous. He's a batting-average killer.
Mike Cameron also can kill a batting average, even when he's hitting homers and stealing bases. Maybe not quite to the Chris B. Young level, but he's little more than an injury fallback option in mixed leagues.
Fantasy owners don't care about Milton Bradley's, um, "inconsistent demeanor." But his inconsistent play, and inconsistent benchings, is another story. He's one of the best pure switch hitters around when he's on, and being able to DH with the Seattle Mariners will help him stay in the lineup, but he can be a very frustrating player to own.
Other players who really aren't worth your time in mixed leagues, even when playing regularly: Tony Gwynn Jr., Fred Lewis, Melky Cabrera, Gary Sheffield, Eric Byrnes, Andres Torres, Willie Harris, Jason Repko, Gerardo Parra, Cory Sullivan, Ryan Sweeney, Kosuke Fukudome, Jody Gerut, Felix Pie, Will Venable, Clete Thomas, Wladimir Balentien, Ryan Church, Brandon Moss.
The fact that there are still a good 10 to 15 players I didn't even mention above who still somewhat interest me (Garrett Jones, Elijah Dukes, Rick Ankiel, Jack Cust, Laynce Nix) displays how deep this position now is. What that says to me is that while I shouldn't be afraid to grab the top talent early, the heavy tier of fringe-level mixed talent means I can get someone decent off the free-agent wire when I need to. So in mixed leagues, I shoot for upside in the late rounds at this position, at least for a bench role, in drafts, and simply pull the plug quickly if things don't work out.
During the season, I will look to ride the hot hand and pick favorable matchups to maximize weekly potential. In fact, leaving a spot or two open at the back end of your outfield can help you address needs such as steals, homers or batting average. After all, this position is the "super center." Whether you need a new toaster or a gallon of milk in a pinch, it will be there for you, 24 hours a day.
Brendan Roberts writes about fantasy baseball and football for ESPN Fantasy.