Fantasy Keepers: Outfielders

Before we get started on the outfielders, I have to point something out. I had planned on including Aubrey Huff on this list because I don’t think he’s likely to qualify at third base after 2005. However, I noticed that he didn’t play much in the outfield last year, and might not even qualify there in some leagues. So, I went back and added him to the third base rankings.

Now that that’s cleared up, here are my top 20 outfield keepers in fantasy baseball.

1. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels: Now that he’s proven that his back isn’t so scary, Guerrero’s the best fantasy position player (although Albert Pujols might have an argument as the best keeper). I thought Guerrero would continue to hit as well as he always had, but that the bad back would curtail his basestealing. Instead, Guerrero swiped 15 bases, meaning he was a major asset in four categories and a slight asset in the fifth. Essentially, Guerrero does everything.

He hits for average (.337 last year, .325 for his career), hits for power (39 homers last year, 38 per 162 games in his career), drives in runs (126 RBIs last year, 116 per 162 games for his career), scores runs (124 runs last year, 107 per 162 games for his career) and still shows some speed on the bases (15 steals last year, 19 per 162 games in his career). And he’ll still only be 29 years old next year, so he should have at least a few years left of hitting .325-.340 with 35-45 homers, 110-130 RBIs, 110-125 runs and 10-20 steals.

2. Carlos Beltran, Free Agent: Beltran appeared on the national radar screen this season, but he’s been a very good player, in both real baseball and fantasy baseball, for some time now. In 2001, Beltran had a nice power/speed combination with 24 homers and 31 steals. Then, he hit 29 homers and stole 35 bases the following season and backed that up with 26 homers and 41 steals. This past season, he reached that magical age (27) and hit 38 homers and stole 42 bases. He also scored 121 runs and drove in 104.

The only thing he did badly (post a .267 batting average) is something he’s done well in the past, hitting better than .300 in two of the previous three seasons. He’s still in the prime of his career and he’s got every skill you could ask for. The team he ends up signing with will have some affect on his ultimate value, but I’d expect him to post .280-.290 average, 35-40 homer, 40-45 steal, 115-130 run, 100-115 RBI seasons for a few more years.

3. Carl Crawford, Devil Rays: Whether you think he’ll ever develop into a great baseball player or not, there’s no arguing that Crawford is already a great fantasy baseball player. When you hit close to .300 (.296), lead the league in steals (59) and score a bunch of runs (104), it doesn’t much matter that you don’t have a lot of power (11 homers and 55 RBIs).

Even more encouraging than the fact that he’s coming off a great fantasy season is the fact that he’s only 23 years old, and he improved in almost every offensive category. His hits went up from 177 to 185, his doubles went up from 18 to 26, his triples went up from 9 to 19, his homers went up from 5 to 11, his walks went up from 26 to 35, his strikeouts went down from 102 to 81, his steals went up from 55 to 59, his average went up from .281 to .296, his OBP went up from .309 to .331, his SLG went up from .362 to .450, his runs went up from 80 to 104 and his RBIs went up (barely) from 54 to 55.

I don’t know what else you’re looking for in a fantasy keeper. Even if he declines a little bit from those improvements, he’ll still likely be a top 10 fantasy outfielder. If he holds steady, he’ll be in the top 5-7 range. If he keeps getting better, who knows where he could end up? And if you have him, you could control him for a long, long time.

4. Manny Ramirez, Red Sox: Since arriving in Boston, Ramirez has hit better than .306 and driven in at least 100 runs every season. The only year of the four that he hit fewer than 37 homers and scored fewer than 90 runs was the year he only played 120 games, and that was his best rate year of the four. Quite simply, Ramirez is an exceptional hitter, not just because he’s good, but because he’s so consistent. He’s had six consecutive seasons with an OPS better than 1.000, which is something only one other player in baseball can currently claim (take a wild guess who that is).

Ramirez isn’t really in his prime anymore, as he’ll turn 33 years old in May, but as that streak indicates, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet either. For at least the next two or three years, Ramirez should be able to hit .300-.320 with 35-40 homers, 95-110 runs and 100-120 RBIs. And if he gets into one of his grooves, he could hit .340 or smash 45 homers and drive in 145 runs, or all of the above. He might not have a great shot at being one of the top three fantasy outfielders in any given year, but neither does he have much risk of falling out of the top 10.

5. Bobby Abreu, Phillies: Abreu has long been underrated as a player both in real life and in fantasy baseball, as he entered this season with a nice five-year streak of hitting at least 20 homers and stealing at least 20 bases and a six-year streak of posting an OPS of at least .875. This year was even better as his OPS (.972) was on the high end of his range, as were his homers (30) and steals (40). The result was that he was neck-and-neck with Beltran for the second spot behind Guerrero among fantasy outfielders (assuming you counted Pujols as a first baseman, which you didn’t have to do this year).

Anyway, Abreu’s going to be 31 when next season starts, so you wouldn’t expect him to keep getting better. However, the fact that he just had one of the best seasons of his career means you shouldn’t have to worry about him falling off a cliff either. Even if he reverts back to hitting around .300 with 20-25 homers, 20-25 steals, 100 runs and 100 RBIs, he should be around the top 10 for fantasy outfielders. If he replicates this season, he’ll once again find himself among the top few. Either way, it’s unlikely that you’ll be disappointed if you keep him, which is what you want from a top-notch keeper.

6. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners: Ichiro is unlikely to hit .372 again. However, especially with the additions of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, he shouldn’t need to hit .372 to score more than the 101 runs he scored last year. With Ichiro, there are certain things you know you’re pretty likely to get at this point. And with his talent, he could go well above those things that are pretty likely in any category.

You’re pretty likely to get a batting average above .320, you’re pretty likely to get at least 30-35 steals, you’re pretty likely to get more than 100 runs, you’re pretty likely to get at least half a dozen homers, and you’re pretty likely to get at least 60 RBIs. That means that you’re pretty likely to get a really good fantasy player. Ichiro isn’t that old at 31, and he obviously hasn’t shown much sign of declining.

7. Miguel Cabrera, Marlins: Before this season, I said something along the lines of, “I know everybody’s excited about Cabrera’s rookie season and it was very impressive for a 20-year-old in the majors, but let’s not expect him to go crazy quite yet because he did only hit .268/.325/.468 and he’s still only 21 years old.” Well, consider me proven wrong.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Cabrera followed up his impressive-for-a-20-year-old season with an impressive-period season, hitting .294 with 33 homers, five steals, 101 runs and 112 RBIs. Did I mention that he’s exactly a year older than my sister who’s in her junior year of college? If this kid can put up an approximately .300-30-100 season at the age of 21, what can he do when he actually gets to his prime?

I have no idea what his ceiling is, but players who are this good, this young are worth holding on to as long as you possibly can. If anything, this ranking might be a little low for him, because for all we know he could be hitting .320 with 45 homers and 125 RBIs on a regular basis in a few years. He might not be a top 10 fantasy outfielder next year, but neither will he be a dud, and the potential for him to be truly great is too obvious to ignore.

8. Barry Bonds, Giants: Well, here he is. In a normal, one-year draft, I might put him as high as third behind Guerrero and Beltran. However, there are a few things working against him that temper his obvious talents. First, he’s 40 years old. He hasn’t shown any signs of aging yet, but he’s not going to play forever. Not only could he start to decline at any time, he could also just retire any year now.

Second, his particular talents aren’t exactly highlighted by most fantasy leagues. He hit .362 this year, but that average was slightly less valuable to a fantasy team than Guerrero’s .337 average because Bonds had so few at-bats (373). His lack of at-bats similarly limits his RBIs, as somebody with his power should knock in significantly more than 101 runs. So, unless you’re in a league that uses OBP, SLG, OPS or some other non-tradition fantasy stat, he’s not nearly as valuable in fantasy baseball as in real baseball.

Third, there’s the whole BALCO thing. I have no idea how that will affect him next season, if at all. However, it’s something to consider and it has to lower his value, if only very slightly. Because of all three things, this is as high as I could reasonably put him. I mean, you just can’t take one or two potentially great seasons (Bonds) over the potential of 10-15 very good and maybe even great seasons (Cabrera).

9. Adam Dunn, Reds: Dunn took the majors by storm during his brief rookie season, hitting 19 homers in 66 games, but he regressed the next two seasons as everybody lambasted him for striking out too much. This year, he still struck out a ton, but didn’t let that get in the way of knocking 46 balls out of the park. He only hit .266 and only had 102 RBIs to go with those homers, but he did score 105 runs and steal a half-dozen bases.

The most important thing is that Dunn is still only 25 years old. He has a ton of power and he really only needs to hit .260-.270 to be a very good fantasy player. He should be able to hit 40-45 homers every season that he’s healthy, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t have at least a couple 50-homer seasons along the way. If he does keep hitting that many balls out of the park, 102 RBIs will be on the low end of his production there. And his high walk totals give him a high OBP despite the unimpressive batting average, which will allow him to continue to score runs in bunches. On top of all that, he’s fast enough to steal a handful of bases even though he’s listed at 6-6, 240 pounds.

10. Gary Sheffield, Yankees: Sheffield saw a significant decline in fantasy value from his amazing 2003 season in which he hit .330 with 39 homers, 18 steals, 126 runs and 132 RBIs, but he still hit .290 with 36 homers, five steals, 117 runs and 121 RBIs and was one of the top 10 fantasy outfielders. He’s 36 years old now, but he’s continued to play at a very high level for a very long time, so he doesn’t seem to be a huge concern for a big decline.

I’d expect him to be able to hit .290-.300 with 30-35 homers, 100-115 runs and 110-125 RBIs for at least another two seasons. There are injury concerns and the same BALCO concerns as there are around Bonds, but neither of those are scary enough to make you not want to keep him. He’s a great hitter, playing in a great lineup and he can still be very helpful to your fantasy team for a few more years.

11. Jim Edmonds, Cardinals: Edmonds is 34 years old now, but his five best seasons have been his last five and they’ve been very consistent, in a good way. He’s hit at least .295 in four of the five seasons, he’s hit at least 39 homers in three of those seasons, scored at least 95 runs in four of them and knocked in at least 108 runs in three of them. Also, his lowest OPS over the past five seasons was .974 and his highest OPS (1.061) came this season.

Edmonds might not be able to hit .301 with 42 homers, 102 runs and 111 RBIs every year, but I wouldn’t expect him to be significantly worse than that either. Over the next two or three seasons, I think the worst you’d get from Edmonds, as long as he’s healthy, is a .280 average, 30 homers, 80 runs and 90 RBIs. And if that’s the low end of his production range, then he’s pretty good. He had a reputation as being injury-prone early in his career, but he’s played at least 137 games in each of his five seasons in St. Louis and at least 150 games in three of them.

12. Lance Berkman, Astros: I would have put Berkman higher on this list, but he’s recovering from a torn ACL and might not be ready for the start of the season. He might be fine, but the possibility that he’ll miss some time right away and the possibility that he won’t be at full strength even if he does play right away knocks him down just a little. It’s a shame too, because otherwise there’s not much to complain about with Berkman.

He’s a little up-and-down as far as fantasy production, but his OPS has been above .925 each of the last four seasons, so you at least know he’s always a good hitter. If he does play the full season at full strength, you can expect him to hit .300-.315 with 30-35 homers, 5-10 steals, 100-110 runs and 100-120 RBIs. And he’s still pretty much in his prime as he turns 29 years old in February, so you shouldn’t necessarily expect him to start declining for another two or three years.

13. J.D. Drew, Dodgers: People like to say that Drew has now had just one good season, but that’s simply not true. He’s only had one mostly healthy season, but he’s been a good-to-great hitter each of the last five seasons. This season, he set a career high with 145 games and hit .305 with 31 homers, 12 steals, 118 runs and 93 RBIs. For his career, Drew has 162-game averages of a .287 batting average, 28 homers, 16 steals, 103 runs and 81 RBIs.

Los Angeles isn’t a great place to hit, but Drew’s talented enough that he should be able to produce anywhere. He’s only 29 years old, and if he can play 140-150 games, he should be able to hit .290-.300 with 30-35 homers, 10-15 steals, 90-100 runs and 100-110 RBIs. That would make him a top 10-15 fantasy outfielder. There’s a risk that he’ll miss a bunch of games and be a lot worse than that, but there’s also the potential that he’ll stay healthy and produce at the rate he did in 2001, making him a top five outfielder.

14. Hideki Matsui, Yankees: While Matsui’s first season stateside was a big disappointment, his second was a lot closer to what you would have expected from his numbers in Japan, lending credence to the belief that is simply took him some time to playing in the United States. Two other points in Matsui’s favor are that 1) at 30, he’s not that old, and 2) with his streak of more than 1,500 consecutive professional games played, you know Matsui is pretty durable.

Since he’s not much of a risk to decline and he’s not much of a risk to miss a lot of time, it’s pretty safe to expect him to hit around .300 with 30-35 homers, 100-110 runs and 100-115 RBIs. I don’t think he’s likely to break out and hit .330 or slam 45 homers or drive in 150 runs or anything like that, but neither do I think he’s likely to come close to reverting to the 16 homers he hit in his rookie season in the majors.

15. Carlos Lee, Brewers: Lee has quietly developed into a very solid player. He showed potential at a young age, but no control of the strike zone. Then he learned to walk, but the other parts of his game didn’t progress. After that, he regressed with his plate discipline, but the rest of his game improved. Finally, he put everything together somewhat this year. He hit .305 (with a .366 OBP thanks to 54 walks) with 31 homers, 11 steals, 103 runs and 99 RBIs.

Moving from the White Sox to the Brewers probably won’t help him, but neither do I expect it to hurt him, and he’s still only 28 years old and he may very well still be getting better. At the least, I’d expect him to hit .290-.300 with 25-30 homers, 5-10 steals, 85-90 runs and 100 RBIs. It wouldn’t surprise me if he improves and hits .310 with 35 homers, 15 steals, 100 runs and 115 RBIs. Either way, he’s a solid bet to be among the 20 best fantasy outfielders for each of the next three or four seasons.

16. Corey Patterson, Cubs: Patterson still doesn’t have good plate discipline, but he’s been improving every season, and it no longer looks to me like a weakness that opposing pitchers will be able to exploit by simply not throwing him good pitches. He also has excellent raw talents and he’s only 25 years old. This year, he only hit .266, but he hit 24 homers, stole 32 bases, scored 91 runs and drove in 72 runs.

I think it’s only a matter of time before Patterson has a 30-30 season, and he has an outside shot of developing even further than that. If he keeps improving his plate discipline, he could become a truly impressive hitter. Even if he doesn’t, I’d expect him to hit .270-.280 with about 25 homers, 30-35 steals, 100 runs and 70-80 RBIs next year and keep improving a little (or at least not declining) for the next three or four seasons.

17. Johnny Damon, Red Sox: Damon had a very impressive season this year, hitting .304 with 20 homers, 19 steals, 123 runs and 94 RBIs. I highly doubt he’s going to repeat that season, however, because over his previous three seasons he averaged a .271 batting average, 11.7 homers,
29.3 steals, 109.7 runs and 59.7 RBIs.

It’s especially disturbing that the only category in which he didn’t improve is stolen bases because he’s now 31 years old, which means he might just be slowing down a little, and he’s also playing for a team that doesn’t love trying to steal as part of its offensive philosophy. If his steals don’t go back up to the 30/year level he was at before and his newfound production in all the other categories disappears, he will not be a very good fantasy player.

It’s possible that he’ll hit .300 with 15-20 homers, 20-25 steals, 115-125 runs and 85-90 RBIs, once again putting himself among the top dozen or so fantasy outfielders. It’s also possible that he’ll only hit .280 with 10-12 homers, 15-20 steals, 100-115 runs and 75-80 RBIs, falling out of the top 30 among fantasy outfielders. The fact that he leads off for a good offense, hits in a good ballpark and is coming off a great season are the only reasons I have him ranked here. It wouldn’t surprise me if this ends up being too high.

18. Juan Pierre, Marlins: You may be surprised that I have Pierre ranked this low, but consider this: he hit .326 and stole 45 bases this year, and he still wasn’t one of the 15 most valuable fantasy outfielders. What happens if his batting average drops to around .300 or his steals drop to below 40? What happens is that he’s not much of an asset to your team, because (unlike Crawford) he has absolutely no power.

Pierre’s only 27 years old and could hit .320-.325 with 45-50 steals and 100-115 runs again (as for power, you’ll be lucky if you get three homers and 50 RBIs), but he also could decline a bit to .300-.310 with 40-45 steals and 90-100 runs. It may not seem like a huge difference, but when he relies on just three categories, he needs to really be good in those three categories. The problem is that it’s not a slam dunk that he’ll be as good in them as you want him to be.

19. Vernon Wells, Blue Jays: After bursting out with an outstanding 2003 season, Wells struggled with some injuries and some slumps this year and finished with a .272 average, 23 homers, nine steals, 82 runs and 67 RBIs. That’s a far cry from the .317 average, 33 homers, four steals, 118 runs and 117 RBIs he posted in 2003.

Still, Wells is only 26 years old, he had some reasons for not being quite as good this year and he does have the 2003 season to show you what his potential is. At the very least, I’d expect him to bounce back part of the way and hit about .300 with 30 homers, a handful of steals, 90-100 runs and 100-110 RBIs. With his age and talent, it’s also possible that he’ll rebound right past 2003 and have an even better season.

Either way, he’s a very good bet to at least be a decent fantasy outfielder and has better potential to be great than just about anybody else not ahead of him on this list. Think of him as kind of a low-risk/high-reward option.

20. Jason Bay, Pirates: It was shortened by injury, but Bay had a brilliant rookie season, hitting .282 with 26 homers and 82 RBIs in just 120 games. Had he produced at that level over a full season, he would have hit 35 homers and knocked in 120 runs, which would obviously have vaulted him way up the list of fantasy outfielders.

I would put him higher up on the list, but he’s only produced at the major-league level for 150 games (30 in 2003), although he was very good throughout his minor-league career. We just don’t know if he’ll maintain that production level, keep improving or suffer a bit of a sophomore slump. I wouldn’t be shocked if he hits .300 with 35 homers and 120 RBIs, but neither would I he surprised if he hits .275 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs. Another problem is that he doesn’t steal much and he plays in Pittsburgh, which will limit his opportunities to score runs.

So, he’s currently just a two-category player (homers and RBIs). If he gets the batting average up and becomes really good in those two categories, he could be a top 15-20 fantasy outfielder. If not, he’ll probably finish around 30-35th among fantasy outfielders. His potential to become a really good hitter gets him on the list. The question marks and team he plays for keep him from being higher than 20th.

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