Angels' outfield has the potential to be superior

Are the luxury tax and increased revenue sharing spreading talent around? Or is this merely a down cycle for big league outfielders?

Either seems possible in assessing outfield collections entering 2007.

The days of the super outfields, when teams often used three big bats in the outfield to bludgeon the opposition, appear to have passed, or at least are taking a sabbatical. There are good outfields in the major leagues, ones with thunder and depth, no doubt, but by and large the teams with superstar outfielders are flanking them with players on the way up or warhorses past their prime and prone to injury.

Consider these great outfields of the recent past:

Braves, 2003: Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield (102 homers, 354 RBI combined).

Indians, 1996: Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez (95 homers, 327 RBI combined).

Angels, 2004: Jose Guillen, Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero (80 homers, 305 RBI combined).

Yankees, 2004: Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Sheffield (89 homers, 299 RBI combined).

Now, consider that entering this season there is no outfield featuring three regulars who combined for more than 86 home runs or 280 RBI last season. Not one. That's surprising.

The Yankees' outfield of Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu and Matsui is formidable, but Matsui is coming back from a season spoiled by a broken wrist. The Mets' trio of Carlos Beltran, Shawn Green and Moises Alou is a killer on paper, but the 40-year-old version of Alou isn't what he once was, and Green wound up with the Mets because he was a disappointment in Arizona. The Red Sox are potentially terrific with Ramirez, Coco Crisp and J.D. Drew, but Crisp couldn't fill Damon's shoes last year and who ever knows what to expect from Drew?

Outfielders were valued highly in the latest free-agent class, with the Cubs giving Alfonso Soriano a $136 million deal, Carlos Lee getting a $100 million package from the Astros and center fielders Gary Matthews Jr. (Angels) and Juan Pierre (Dodgers) getting $50 million and $44 million, respectively.

Matthews' big payday comes as he moves to his seventh team in the last nine years. Before blooming into an All-Star in Texas, he had rarely even been able to hold a job. Now he faces greatly heightened expectations at the age of 32.

If the Angels are right about Matthews, if he wasn't a one-year wonder when he hit .313 with 19 home runs and 79 RBI while playing center field like a Stradivarius last season, then manager Mike Scioscia will be the proud owner of baseball's best outfield.

With Guerrero healthy and poised for a big season, and Anderson playing the Ol' Man River role, the Angels made themselves No.1 by adding Matthews in center. They used five different players in center a year ago, with Chone Figgins, expected to play third base in 2007, getting most of the starts.

Guerrero, Anderson and Matthews combined to hit .308 with 69 homers and 280 RBI last season, more than any other trio who will play together in 2007.

If not for Juan Rivera breaking a leg in winter ball, the Angels would really be loaded. They hope to get him back for the second half and until then have questions about their outfield depth.

Next in line
1. Detroit: Already strong enough to reach the World Series, the Tigers added a highly intriguing X-factor in Sheffield, who became expendable for the Yankees after their trade for Bobby Abreu. Sheffield will probably work as a primary designated hitter as there's little reason to make changes.

With Magglio Ordonez in right, Craig Monroe in left and Curtis Granderson in center, the Tigers got 71 homers and 264 RBI from their top three outfielders a year ago. Those guys are all back, along with one of baseball's best extra outfielders in Marcus Thames. He quietly delivered 26 homers and 60 RBI last season.

Granderson, a hardworking center fielder with as much range as anyone, batted leadoff last year but could be dropped in the order after striking out 174 times. He's a strong-minded kid who could take another step forward this season.

2. Atlanta: This might seem to be something of a surprise, as the Braves are perceived to be backsliding, but the outfield is not one of Bobby Cox's concerns. In Jones and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, the Braves have the only tandem of outfielders who drove in 100-plus runs a year ago. Neither should drop off this season, as it's a contract year for Jones and Francoeur is no longer learning the league.

Left field is the question, but Atlanta has a reasonable platoon in Ryan Langerhans and Matt Diaz.

3. Mets: Beltran is money. He's a terrific athlete who still can run and make big catches, and he hits in a great lineup with Carlos Delgado and David Wright alongside him.

The Mets addressed their questions on the outfield corners by trading for Green last season and signing Alou after the Giants decided not to retain his father, Felipe Alou, as manager. Green and Alou had only 140 RBI between them a year ago, but could easily increase that this year if they stay healthy. Endy Chavez, the maker of one of baseball's greatest catches ever in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, returns as a fourth outfielder.

4. Yankees: Abreu was a huge addition last year, with his ability to both drive the ball and get on base making the Yankees' lineup as dangerous as usual down the stretch. Damon, motivated to make the Red Sox regret letting him walk, had a solid year in center, but he and Matsui appear on the downhill side of their careers. The Yankees received lots of trade proposals for fourth outfielder Melky Cabrera, but consider him too valuable to deal.

5. Boston: This is a name group, with Ramirez, Drew and Crisp, but Manny is the only consistent run producer of the trio. He is, of course, a meltdown waiting to happen with frequent trade requests and, at times, an annoying sense of indifference. Crisp is capable of bigger things after gutting his way through a tough 2006.

6. Cubs: Soriano, who is expected to bat leadoff and play center field, brings a badly needed presence to a lineup that has lived and died with the long ball for years. Soriano, right fielder Jacque Jones and left fielder Matt Murton combined for 86 homers a year ago, seemingly giving the Cubs the most outfield pop in the majors. It's unclear whether Jones and Murton will get as many at-bats, however, as the Cubs added Chicago native Cliff Floyd in a late signing. If October surgery has fixed his left foot, Floyd could command 400-plus at-bats and deliver 25-30 homers.

7. Devil Rays: As a unit, these guys haven't proven anything yet. But in Carl Crawford -- the outfielder 29 other teams covet -- Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young, Tampa Bay has three thoroughbreds. Baldelli has recovered from injuries to his knee and his elbow, and Crawford should help set an example for Young, who tarnished his image after tossing a bat at an umpire during a Triple-A game last year.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).