- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
Yesterday, I ranked the top 10 starting rotations in baseball. Today, the rankings for the best outfields in the majors -- as in offense, defense, the whole thing:
This group has a chance to be something really special. Mike Trout has one full season in the big leagues, and it was merely one of the greatest single-season performances in the history of baseball. Josh Hamilton, signed for $125 million this winter, is merely one of the most dynamic hitters in baseball. And Peter Bourjos, who is expected to be the third member of the outfield, is merely regarded as one of the best defenders in the sport; he ranked No. 1 in UZR/150 among outfielders with 400 or more defensive innings in 2012.
For the sake of this discussion, we're going to assume that the bulk of Mark Trumbo's at-bats will be as the designated hitter, but even with that, it would seem possible -- although improbable -- that the Angels' trio could generate 100 steals and 100 homers. Ninety-ninety is probably a more reasonable projection, with 100-100 as the goal.
Something to remember: Part of the reason why rival evaluators believe Trout will continue to be a great player is that his approach at the plate is so simple, with mechanics that are easily repeated, and the adjustments he makes from at-bat to at-bat are so sound.
Look at Trout versus opposing starting pitchers (from baseballreference.com.) as the game progresses:
First PA vs. starting pitcher: .860 OPS
Second PA vs. SP: 1.042
Third PA vs. SP: 1.198
Fourth PA vs. SP: 1.244
With the acquisition of Denard Span, Washington GM Mike Rizzo finally was able to get the pure center fielder he had been looking for, and now Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth can be committed to the corners for the foreseeable future. The trio is good defensively, but even better offensively, with all three capable of getting on base at a good rate (Werth had a .387 on-base percentage last year, ranking 16th in the majors for hitters with at least 300 plate appearances). It's possible that Span, Werth and Harper could eventually hit 1-2-3 in the Washington lineup.
Something to remember: At age 19, Trout had his struggles early -- before erupting at age 20. Harper had arguably one of the greatest seasons for any 19-year-old, and coming into this year, he will be armed with all the knowledge accumulated last year. He will know that opposing pitchers are going to feed him a steady series of breaking balls. Only two hitters saw a higher percentage last year: Hamilton and Alfonso Soriano.
He will know the pitchers. It's worth noting, again, the steady incline in his performance in the final months of the season. Harper's OPS by month:
They have tremendous depth, with the quartet of Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Young and Coco Crisp, and excellent defense -- which really fits their spacious home park and aids the pitching. At age 25, Reddick took a big step forward, accumulating 66 extra-base hits, 32 homers among them. The timing of Young's arrival in Oakland seems perfect for him: There won't be a lot of pressure on him after years of being compared to his potential in Arizona, and having known Chili Davis for 15 years, I'd bet that he and Young will work well together; Davis is low-key in his demeanor and methodical, and this will help Young.
Something to remember: Cespedes immediately impressed his teammates with his toughness, with his ability to shrug off a poor at-bat and adjust in subsequent at-bats. Like Trout, he is just getting to know major league pitchers, and as with Trout, there were signs of in-game alterations during games last season. Check out his OPS progression in each at bat:
First plate appearance vs. a starter: .867 OPS, 26 strikeouts in 118 at-bats
Second plate appearance vs. a starter: .999 OPS, 14 strikeouts in 109 at-bats
Third plate appearance vs. a starter: .987 OPS, 16 strikeouts in 86 at-bats
It's the outfield with the most star power, for sure: Matt Kemp in center, flanked by Carl Crawford in left field and Andre Ethier in right. Kemp was plagued by injuries and limited to 106 games, and still managed to hit .303 with 23 homers, and Ethier finished the season with 20 homers and 89 RBIs. Crawford missed almost all of last season with elbow trouble before having Tommy John surgery, and he may not be ready for the very beginning of the 2012 season. If each of the three match their best seasons from the past, this group could be the best in the majors, with power, speed and defense. But a significant factor will be how Ethier and Crawford fare against the parade of left-handers they will see, especially in the later innings of games.
Ethier had an OPS of .606 versus lefties last season, and Crawford had even worse numbers (OPS of .566) against lefties while playing for Boston in 2011. Kemp did a ton of damage against lefties last year, with a 1.105 OPS, and the Dodgers will need him to continue that trend, because he's going to see a ton of lefties while hitting among Crawford, Ethier and Adrian Gonzalez.
Something to remember: The Dodgers' payroll is going to be far beyond the luxury tax, and the team's management has a distinct win-or-bust, Steinbrenneresque style of operation right now. If Crawford or Ethier struggle against lefties and the Dodgers suffer in the standings, it's hard to imagine the front office waiting patiently for them to figure out their swings. They're more likely to pursue a right-handed-hitting outfielder who can help balance the lineup -- which might explain why they were open to retaining Shane Victorino for 2013.
Left fielder Matt Holliday had a typical season of run production, with 27 homers, 95 runs and 102 RBIs in 157 games, and right fielder Carlos Beltran had 59 extra-base hits, including 32 homers. Center fielder Jon Jay took a big step forward as an offensive player, hitting .305 in 117 games, with a .373 on-base percentage; he progressed from 3.63 pitches per plate appearance in 2011 to 3.85 last season, a sign of an improved approach.
Something to remember: Beltran played in 151 games last season, his most since 2008, but he will be 36 years old in April. Given his history of knee trouble, he has reached that stage of his career when the Cardinals will presumably have some contingency plans built in. Beltran was a very good player in 2012, but his OPS of .841 was his lowest over a full season since his first year with the Mets, and his 124 strikeouts were his most since 2002.
Jay Bruce is one of the best overall outfielders in the majors, Shin-Soo Choo can get on base, steal bases and throw, and Ryan Ludwick is coming off a season in which he clubbed 26 homers in 125 games. The only question about the Reds' outfield is how they will be aligned. Their plan going into spring training is for Choo to play center field, but rival evaluators believe that eventually, Bruce will be shifted to center and Choo will move to right.
Something to remember: Bruce is 25 and still developing as a hitter, and there may not be a hitter who has been more defined by what happens early in the count. In those plate appearances in which he moved ahead in the count by taking the first pitch out of the zone, he posted a .929 OPS. When he fell behind 0-1, however, he had a .608 OPS. The difference in his results, depending on the count, was much more acute than that for a lot of hitters -- he had a .421 OPS in at-bats that ended when he was behind in the count, 1.009 when the count was even, 1.032 when he was ahead.
Left fielder Ryan Braun is one of the game's best hitters, and Norichika Aoki is one of the game's most underrated hitters. In his first year in the majors, the 30-year-old Aoki hit a solid .288/.355/.788 line with 30 stolen bases, and his production home and away was almost identical -- a .789 OPS in Milwaukee, .785 on the road. Carlos Gomez improved last season -- he had 37 stolen bases and 19 homers -- and with his free agency looming next fall, this will be an important year for him.
Something to remember: Opposing pitchers talked in spring training about how Braun would see fewer pitches to hit because of the departure of Prince Fielder -- but it made no difference. In Braun's six seasons in the majors, he has 614 runs, 643 RBIs, 202 homers and 126 stolen bases. He has demonstrated time and again a unique ability to square up pitches. Check out his career numbers in hitters' counts, when he can anticipate fastballs:
2-0 count: 1.329 OPS, 6 homers in 51 plate appearances
3-1 count: 1.686 OPS, 6 homers in 161 PA
3-0 count: 2.000 OPS, 3-for-3
The only reason why they're not higher on this list is that it's unclear how often Martin Prado will be in left field. It could be that the bulk of Prado's playing time will be as Chipper Jones' replacement, and if that's the case, then the Braves will fill left with some kind of platoon of Reed Johnson and some left-handed hitter to be named. B.J. Upton takes over in center field, and Jason Heyward will be in right field.
Something to remember: Heyward improved dramatically in every way possible last season, from his approach at the plate to his defense, and he's just 23 years old. His next big challenge will be to learn to cope with left-handed pitchers, something that he and Freddie Freeman will see a lot of in the late innings. Last year, Heyward had an OPS of .934 versus right-handers, and .635 versus lefties; 20 of his 27 homers came against lefties. Heyward has demonstrated the ability to take the ball through the middle and to left field -- check out his numbers according to where he hits the ball here -- and that could be crucial in his adjustments against lefties.
Somebody's going to be traded, but whether that's Jason Kubel or Justin Upton, Arizona should have a deep and diverse outfield, a group that includes left-handed and right-handed hitters, good defenders, speed and power. Cody Ross wrecks left-handed pitchers, Gerardo Parra is one of the sport's better outfielders, and in a small sample of 102 plate appearances in September, Adam Eaton showed an ability to get on base.
Something worth remembering: If Kubel is dealt and Upton returns, Upton will be in the vortex of a lot of attention -- about his relationship with the team, about the quality of his at-bats, especially on the road. Upton posted a .670 OPS while hitting away from home last season. He is seeing fewer and fewer four-seam fastballs, according to FanGraphs data:
2009: 50.0 percent of pitches
2010: 38.7 percent of pitches
2011: 33.5 percent of pitches
2012: 30.9 percent of pitches
The Orioles have Nick Markakis in right field and Adam Jones in center field, and manager Buck Showalter used an amalgam of players in left, from Nate McLouth to Lew Ford. The Orioles are hopeful that Nolan Reimold will be back and able to play more this season, and when healthy, he's a good offensive player.
Something to remember: Jones is one of those players who has been talked about for so long that it seems he would be 31 years old. In fact, he's just 27, and figures to continue to grow and learn as a hitter. There has generally been a slow and steady climb in Jones's OPS in his career:
He had 74 extra-base hits in 2012; only seven players in the majors had more. For Jones, the next step as a hitter will be to continue to narrow his strike zone -- as opposed to expanding it, something he did during the Orioles' series against the Yankees in the postseason.
The best of the rest
Detroit Tigers: With Austin Jackson in center, Torii Hunter in right and a combination of Andy Dirks and Avisail Garcia in left. Some rival evaluators believe there will be notable regression in Hunter's offensive production this year, after he hit .389 on balls he put in play last year.
Toronto Blue Jays: They could have one of the best outfields in the majors, depending on three factors:
1. Does Jose Bautista bounce back from an injury-plagued 2012, in which he hit .241 in 92 games?
2. Does Colby Rasmus progress, in what seems to be a tipping-point season for him? He had a .689 OPS last year, and at age 26, potential must start to translate.
3. Is Melky Cabrera for real, or is his performance a product of drugs? He was one of the best players in the NL before getting busted last year, after being viewed as a fourth-outfielder type by the Yankees and Braves and other teams in his career. The fact that Cabrera signed a two-year deal with the Jays -- rather than bet heavily on himself to bounce back on a one-year deal -- could mean that he has his own questions.
Colorado Rockies: They have a seemingly talented group in Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer and Tyler Colvin. But the home/road splits with the Colorado hitters always seem to raise questions about their level of excellence. Look at the home OPS and home runs against the road OPS/home runs:
Gonzalez: 1.046/13 at home, .706/9 on the road
Fowler: .984/10 at home, .720/3 on the road
Cuddyer: .858/9 at home, .744/7 on the road
Colvin: 1.032/11 at home, .687/7 on the road
The defensive metrics for the Colorado outfielders are so bad that they've even raised some red flags, for some team analysts, about whether they can even be applied to Rockies players.
• Ryan Freel's family has given the go-ahead for his brain to be studied for trauma, as they look for answers in the aftermath of his suicide, writes Mike Tierney.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Royals signed a couple of veterans in Miguel Tejada and Endy Chavez. These are two veterans who have been on successful teams, and Tejada is renowned as one of the big energy guys in baseball; he's had a nice showing in winter ball, hitting .284 for Aguilas.
3. The Yankees' payroll currently stands at $189 million, David Waldstein writes.
" For some fans, there is a fixation for Mike Piazza's time with the Marlins, writes Ken Belson.
• Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy were instrumental in the Giants' success.
• Adam Kilgore ranked the Nationals' biggest stories of the year. He covered the team, so I defer to his experience, but my own list would have the decision to shut down Strasburg at No. 1. No matter which side you thought was right, it was the most discussed story in the majors this year.
• It's bound to be a better year for the Red Sox, writes John Tomase.
• John Fay abstained from voting for the Hall of Fame this year.
• Vanderbilt made history.
And today will be better than yesterday.