Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The outfield is loaded with talent and you shouldn't panic or overreach if you don't get one on the top-five guys. The toughest analysis at the outfield position will be the evaluation of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, a top-three outfielder if his PED suspension gets repealed, but with a maximum 110 games played if he misses the first 50 games of the season.
1) Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers - After a disappointing 2010 season, the light switch flipped to "on" and everything went right for Kemp in 2011. He batted .324 with 115 runs scored, 39 HR, 126 RBI, 40 stolen bases and an OPS of 0.986. Kemp led the league in runs scored, homers and runs batted in. His most impressive statistic might have been his stolen base percentage. After stealing just 19-of-34 (55.9%) in 2010 he improved to 40-of-51 (78.4%) last season. "I'm going to try for 50-50, which has never been done," said Kemp. Fantasy owners can only dream of a 50-50 season, but I'm sure they would all be happy with a repeat of last year.
2) Jose Bautista, Toronto - While Bautista's greatest fantasy value would be at the weaker third base position, he may not play there enough this season to stay eligible with the addition of youngster Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays lineup. Bautista's home run total dropped 20% last season and he still led the American League with 43 bombs. His RBI total dropped as well, from 124 to 103 as teams gave him the "Barry Bonds treatment" (league-leading 132 walks, including 24 IBB). Unless Adam Lind, J.P. Arencibia or Lawrie develop into a big enough threat to make them pitch to Bautista, his numbers could continue to slide.
3) Justin Upton, Arizona - Last season was easily the best of Upton's career. He set personal marks in games played (159), at-bats (592), runs (105), hits (171), doubles (39), home runs (31), RBI (88) and stolen bases (21). He also lowered his strikeout total by almost 20%. At just 24-years-old, he's not yet reached his peak. Given the addition offensive weapons the Diamondbacks will have in their lineup for 2012 (added outfielder Jason Kubel, full season from 1B Paul Goldschmidt), Upton should continue to thrive and build upon last year. He has the talent to challenge Kemp for the top spot.
4) Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston - Where did that season come from??? There was nothing in his history that said "take me I'm about to have a career year." Ellsbury went from a disastrous 18-game 2010 season to being the runner-up in the MVP voting. He batted .321 with career highs in runs (119), hits (212), doubles (46), homers (32), RBI (105), total bases (364) and an OPS of 0.928. And he still managed to steal 39 bases. Obviously the home run total was the biggest surprise for an outfielder that had never before reached double- digits. Now with a $5 million dollar raise in hand, the question is whether the year is "repeatable. I'm inclined to say no, though he has definitely improved from the hitter he used to be. Think .310 with 110 runs, 20-25 homers, 80-90 RBI and 40 steals, below last year's extraordinary season, but that's still good enough to make the top-five at the position.
5) Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado - Sometimes when you take a giant leap forward as Gonzalez did in 2010, you regress a bit the next season as teams target you as the "one guy we won't let beat us." That happened to Gonzalez in 2011 as he dropped in every significant category. But if you look deeper into the numbers, you will notice a horrendous April as he didn't adjust well and then an improvement in May and June. Injuries destroyed the second half of the season as he played just 12 games in July and 11 in September. After the slow start he played well when healthy and you should not lower your 2012 expectations one iota. Off-season reports are that he is lighter, stronger and wasn't distracted by contract talks as in 2011. I'm expecting big things from "CarGo" and top-five outfielder production.
6) Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees - On a team loaded with a star at every position, Granderson was the best player on the Yankees last year. He raised his OPS 124 points to 0.916, led the American League in both runs scored (136) and RBI (119) and still found time to steal 25 bases. The difference in his game from previous seasons was his ability to hit left-handed pitching. In 2010 he batted .234 with an OPS of just 0.647, but last season he batted a solid .272 with an OPS of 0.944.
7) Alex Gordon, Kansas City - In 2011 Gordon finally showed some of the promise that made him the No.2 overall pick in the 2005 draft. The third baseman-turned-left-fielder hit .303 with 101 runs scored, 23 HR, 87 RBI and stole 17 bases. Like Bautista, if he was still a full-time third baseman, he'd be vying for the top-five, but at the outfield position there is much more competition. In the Royals young and improving lineup, Gordon should improve on last year's totals.
8) Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh - The 25-year-old speedster has improved his home run total in each season to the point that he posted his first 20-20 season in 2011. he still needs to be a bit more selective at the plate (126 Ks) but all statistics indicate that he's headed in the right direction. A 30-30 season is possible if they get him some protection in the lineup, but its safe to expect he'll post a 25-25 season with 90 runs scored and 90 RBI.
9) Mike Stanton, Miami - Stanton was consistent in his home run production, hitting one every 16.3 at-bats as a rookie and every 15.2 at-bats in his sophomore season. The Marlins lineup will be improved with the addition of Jose Reyes at the top of the order and Stanton, who bats anywhere from third to sixth in the lineup, should reap some benefit. He's not a big base stealer, but he's solid everywhere else and 40 home runs is not a pipe dream, its probable.
10) Josh Hamilton, Texas - If Hamilton promises not to make any "mad dashes to home plate" in 2012 I'll happily raise his ranking. Unfortunately, the left- handed slugger has proven, for the most part, to be too fragile. He's managed to play more than 135 games in a season just one time in his career and over the last three years in averaging 114 games played per season. In the potent Texas lineup, he can easily post 100 runs, 30 HR and 100 RBI if he stays on the field. He has only contributed eight steals a year over the past three years, but given his fragile status, you probably don't want him to run.
11) Hunter Pence, Philadelphia - Despite dealing with a sports hernia that required off-season surgery, Pence put up premium statistics. His combined Houston and Philadelphia totals were a .314 batting average with 84 runs scored, 22 HR, 97 RBI and an OPS of 0.871. He's the perfect No.3 hitter in combination with Ryan Howard and his should set career marks in runs, homers and runs batted in this season. He won't run as much as in the past due to batting in front of Howard.
12) Nelson Cruz, Texas - With a new contract in hand, Cruz should be ready for a big season in the powerful Rangers lineup. With Cruz, however, it isn't contract worries that normally holds him back...it's health, or lack of it. Despite averaging 28 HR, 80 RBI and 15 stolen bases over the past three seasons, he's produced those numbers while only playing an average of 120 games a year. He could boost those statistics by 30% simply by playing a full season. Sadly, if you draft him, you must be prepared for at least one trip to the disabled list.
13) BJ Upton, Tampa Bay - Last year Upton joined the 20-20 club for the second time in his career with 23 long balls and 36 stolen bases. The target of trade rumors almost every season, in this his final year of a contract, the talk might actually come to fruition. He gives you quality production in many categories - so long as the rest of your lineup can balance his low batting average.
14) Matt Holliday, St. Louis - It will be a new sensation for Holliday, not having the best hitter in the game batting in front of him. With Albert Pujols in Anaheim, Holliday and Lance Berkman will have to carry the Cardinals offense. He should still be good for 20+ homers, 90+ RBIs and close to a .300 batting average, but the St. Louis offense has lost a lot of firepower and every Cardinals player has dropped in fantasy value.
15) Carl Crawford, Boston - His 2011 free agent signing with the Boston Red Sox offense sent fantasy expectations through the roof. Alas, Crawford stumbled out of the gate, was dropped in the lineup and never became the guy fantasy owners expected when they drafted him 11th overall. With the top of the order locked in with Ellsbury, Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz he may not realized the benefits of the powerful Red Sox lineup. Still, there is no reason he can't score 80 runs, hit 15 homers, knock in 80 runs and steal 40 bases.
16) Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland - Choo seemed poised for a big season in 2011, but was done in by an oblique injury that held him to 85 games played. Even in those games played, his production was not up to expectations. There is every reason to believe that Choo will return to being the 20-20 guy who batted .300 from 2008-2010. He may even be overlooked by some fantasy owners who simply look at the previous year's totals (not the underlying reasons behind the drop in production) and be a solid value this year.
17) Jay Bruce, Cincinnati - Bruce may be the streakiest hitter in the majors and for that reason you need a strong heart to select him for your team. For example, his OPS was an ugly .687 last April, then jumped to 1.140 in May when he blasted 12 homers and knocked in 33 runs. It turned just as quickly in the opposite direction as he had an OPS of just 0.649 in June hitting two homers and knocking in seven runs. With Bruce you simply have to "set it and forget it." Leave him in your lineup and by season's end he'll give you the numbers you are seeking.
18) Melky Cabrera, San Francisco - Cabrera put up unexpectedly good numbers last season with the Royals - batting .305 with 102 runs scored, 18 HR, 87 RBI and 20 steals. They won't be nearly as good with his new team, the Giants. First off, his 2011 totals were personal bests in runs, hits, HR, RBI, SB, batting average and OPS and has the look of a "career year." Secondly, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy plans to make Cabrera a leadoff hitter which will hurt his RBI total. Third, the Royals lineup was stronger than the Giants and he probably won't crack the 100 runs mark. All-in-all, the same people who underrate Choo because he didn't produce last season are the same fantasy owners who will overpay for Cabrera. Beware of selecting him based on un- repeatable numbers.
19) Jayson Werth, Washington - At least Werth had his big contract to keep him warm through the winter because looking back at his 2011 season didn't create a warm and fuzzy feeling. Werth batted just .232 and set four-year lows in runs, home runs, RBI and OPS while striking out a career worst 160 times. Werth won't be happy or satisfied with those results and we're looking for bounce back season in 2012. The young Nationals need a big Werth season for them to truly compete with his old team Philadelphia, the Braves and the Marlins.
20) Shane Victorino, Philadelphia - Victorino is a solid contributor to all fantasy categories, though he doesn't put up huge numbers in any of them. A trip to the disabled list cause his statistics to drop in 2011, but he's normally good for 95-100 runs, 15 HR, 35 steals and an 0.800 OPS.
Special Note: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee - If you pro-rate a typical Braun season down to 100 games, given his 50-game suspension, you still get the following totals - 67 runs, 22 HR, 73 RBI, 13 SB which is solid, but isn't good enough to make the top-20. If his appeal of the suspension is successful, he's a top- five fantasy outfielder, so you must continue to watch the legal proceedings.
Just missed: Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay; Chris Young, Arizona; Adam Jones, Baltimore; Jason Heyward, Atlanta; Jeff Francoeur, Kansas City; Carlos Beltran, St. Louis, Corey Hart, Milwaukee.
Rookies with fantasy value: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper.