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2014 Breakdowns: Outfield

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2014 Breakdowns: Outfield
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Matthew Pouliot examines 13 outfielders to pursue, and some to stay away from, in this week's Strike …

The outfielders are here, so that means a bit of an expanded column this week, with 19 players touched on below. For my complete rankings at every position, check out the online draft guide. It includes an overall top 300, top 250s for both AL- and NL-only leagues, 1,000 player profiles, 1,500 player projections, keeper rankings and much more.

Underrated

Ryan Braun - Brewers - Braun is currently the fifth outfielder off the board in Yahoo leagues. In ESPN, he's sixth, with an ADP of 15.5 in mixed leagues. That seems like quite the steroid penalty to me. Personally, I have him second (for the fourth year in a row) in the outfield and fifth overall in the top 300. Braun's decline last year was entirely the result of a thumb injury; before getting hurt in mid-May, he hit .319 with eight homers in his first 30 games. Apart from the thumb problem, he's been very durable, playing in 150 games each of the previous five seasons, and he still hits in one of the game's best parks for right-handed power hitters. Braun is just so darn good he has quite a bit of room to decline and still remain a top outfielder, and I don't see him falling far. My projection calls for a .270-31-100 line, with 22 steals.

Shin-Soo Choo - Rangers - Even though he's coming off a 20 HR-20 SB season in Cincinnati, Choo is getting picked 12th among outfielders in ESPN and 14th in Yahoo. I see him as a better bet in Texas than he was in Cincinnati, so I place him seventh. For one thing, he's now going to be hitting behind Leonys Martin and Jurickson Profar, rather than Devin Mesoraco and the pitcher. That will lead to a vastly improved RBI total over last year's 54. Also, with his OBP, he should rack up more runs scored than anyone this side of Mike Trout. My guess is that he'll lose a few steals -- why run when Elvis Andrus can simply bunt you over (right, Wash?) -- but he'll do enough in all five-categories to justify a third- or fourth-round pick in mixed leagues.

Jason Heyward - Braves - It's understandable that people are frustrated with Heyward. He's been a big disappointment in two of his three seasons since his strong rookie campaign, and his ability to stay healthy is in question. On the other hand, Heyward is just 24 years old, and while he was essentially useless in fantasy leagues last year, he actually had the best strikeout and line-drive rates of his career. Judging by his outstanding defense -- he played a fine center field after B.J. Upton was benched last year -- injuries haven't robbed him of athleticism, at least not yet. Since he thrived as a leadoff hitter late last year (.322, 6 HR, 31 runs scored in 118 AB), the Braves intend to leave him there this season. That's not great for his fantasy value, as runs batted in will be hard to come by, but it will give him extra at-bats and make him a great bet in runs scored. Maybe he'll resume stealing bases, too. This is a guy who hit 27 homers at age 22. He has too much upside to be allowed to slip in drafts.

Kole Calhoun - Angels - Continuing on with the theme of guys who could score a ton of runs, Calhoun is set to bat leadoff for the Angels ahead of Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. No pressure there. Calhoun kind of snuck up on people as a prospect since he was always old for his leagues in the minors, but he hit .354/.431/.617 with as many walks as strikeouts in Triple-A last year and then came up and amassed an .809 OPS in 195 at-bats for the Angels. In a best-case scenario, he could top 600 at-bats, score 100 runs and finish with 15-18 homers and 10-15 steals this year, making him a possible top-15 outfielder. I'm not quite that optimistic -- I have him ranked 29th -- but he'd be a great middle-round pick.

Michael Brantley - Indians - In three seasons as a starting outfielder for the Indians, Brantley just hasn't been able to do one thing well enough to make much of an impact in mixed leagues. This is the year that changes, I believe. As infrequently as Brantley strikes out, he's about due for a .300 season. The 26-year-old is about as skilled at putting the bat on the ball as anyone in the AL, and he did set career highs with 10 homers and 17 steals last year. The Indians intend to hit him fifth this year, which seems like an odd fit for his skill set. However, it sets him up to get a whole bunch of RBI chances behind Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana in the order. It's also a good spot for him to try to steal some bases, since he doesn't have to worry about being thrown out in front of the Indians' best hitters.

Overrated

Adam Jones - Orioles - Jones was a slightly better player in 2012 than in 2013, but he's suddenly gone from being a third-and fourth round pick in mixed leagues to a first-round pick. Credit those extra 26 runs he drove in last year. My opinion is that he's still a third- or fourth-round guy. For one thing, he does have some warning signs. His walk rate last year was the worst of his career. He swung more often and missed more often than ever before, and his strikeout rate was his highest mark since 2008. I don't think it necessarily means that Jones is destined to decline, but I do believe he's through improving as a player. My biggest concern, though, is that the run and RBI totals are coming down some. Last year, he hit ahead of Chris Davis. This year, he'll likely line up behind him, which should result in him coming up with the bases empty a bit more frequently. It also means he won't be driven in quite so frequently.

Carlos Gomez - Brewers - Even though I'm projecting him to come very close to matching last year's totals of 24 homers and 40 steals, I have Gomez a full 50 spots lower than his current ADP in Yahoo (23) and ESPN (24) leagues. The biggest reason is that I think last year's .284 average was a fluke; Gomez's BABIP last year was 40 points higher than his career mark and he struck out as much as he ever has. The other reason is that I expect rather weak run and RBI numbers again. Even with the nice average and homer total last year, he managed just 153 runs+RBI in his 147 games (Jones, in comparison, came in at 208 in 160 games). Maybe he'd better that if he got to hit second in the Milwaukee lineup this season, but he hasn't done that all spring. Instead, it looks like he'll bat sixth, at least while everyone else is healthy.

Alex Rios - Rangers - I'm typically very much in Rios' corner, championing the cause. This year, though, the price is simply too rich. He was an incredibly successful basestealer last year, going 42-for-49, but that bested his previous career high by eight and was eight more than he had in the previous two seasons combined. Also, he's a worse bet for homers in Texas than he was in Chicago. While the ballpark formerly known as The Ballpark remains a great park for offense, it's not the homer paradise for right-handed bats that U.S. Cellular is. Finally, Rios is looking at spending this season batting fifth after making 83 percent of his starts last year as a No. 3 hitter. That should cost him about 30 at-bats and at least 15 runs+RBI over the course of the year.

Curtis Granderson - Mets - One thing is for sure: Granderson is going to have to rework his approach some in Citi Field after spending the last few years taking aim at the short porch in Yankee Stadium. In 2012 and his abbreviated 2013, he struck out more than ever before (28 percent of the time) and hit just .230. I'm not writing him off, but I can't see projecting him to hit any better than .240, particularly with all of the strong pitching in the NL East. Right now, he's exiting the board as the No. 34 outfielder in ESPN leagues. I have him 10 spots lower. While I do have him down for 26 homers and 86 RBI, a big rebound in steals seems unlikely and he doesn't figure to be an asset in runs scored batting cleanup for the Mets.

Coco Crisp - Athletics - Crisp mastered the art of the 360-foot long ball last season, smashing his career high with 22 homers. He did hit 15 and 16 in back-to-back years for the Indians in 2004-05, but he went seven straight years never topping 11 before last year's outburst. The other concern with Crisp is the likelihood of injury; he hasn't topped 140 games since 2007 and he's never played in 150. He also hasn't managed to hit for average while playing half of his games in the O.co Coliseum, coming in at .264, .259 and .261 the last three years. He should have some value in mixed leagues while healthy, but not as much as he did last year.

Dexter Fowler - Astros - Ex-Rockies have consistently beaten their road numbers after leaving Coors Field, which is good news for Fowler. Outside of Colorado, he's hit just .241/.333/.361 with 13 homers and 64 RBI in 1,119 at-bats. The way I see it, Fowler is going to have to play better than he ever has previously in order to be a viable mixed-league outfielder in Houston. It's not an impossible standard, given that this is just his age-28 season, but there's plenty working against him. The league switch is a hurdle, and he's also had durability issues in his career, never topping 143 games. Given that he's never hit for power outside of Coors, he's not a particularly good basestealer for all of his speed and he's going to be surrounded by mediocrity, I expect him to crash and burn for fantasy purposes.

Sleepers

Chris Young - Mets - Young had to deal with that league switch last year. Worse, he did so as a part-time player in a far worse ballpark for offense in Oakland. The end result was a pretty disastrous season in which he hit just .200. On the other hand, prorating his stats to 550 at-bats would have given him 20 homers (even though he was robbed of a couple by terrific catches) and 16 steals. Now he's returning to the league he's more familiar with, and while Citi Field still has a rep as a pitcher's park, it's playing much more favorable to right-handed hitters after the changes made two years ago. Not only is he penciled in as a full-time player for the Mets, but he'll even get to lead off if Juan Lagares beats out Eric Young Jr. for a starting job. He won't hit for average, but he could produce similar value to Granderson for a fraction of the price.

Oswaldo Arcia - Twins - While he struck out way too much, Arcia was hardly overmatched in his intro to the majors last season, hitting .251/.304/.430 with 14 homers in 351 at-bats for the Twins. The strikeout will remain a big part of his game as a sophomore, but this is a guy who hit .309/.376/.517, .328/.398/.557 and .313/.426/.594 in his final three minor league stops, all while being young for his leagues. A .260-20-80 season seems quite realistic, and it's possible he'll surprise with a better average. The thought of a 2-3-4-5 of Joe Mauer, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Arcia in 2016 should have Twins fans awfully excited

Marcell Ozuna - Marlins - Ozuna was rushed to the majors after just 42 at-bats in Double-A last year, but he proved capable, hitting a respectable .265/.303/.389 in 275 at-bats before a torn thumb ligament ended his season. Particularly important was that he was the Marlins' best defensive outfielder, which should get him penciled back in as a regular this year. The guess here is that he'll hit for more power this time around. After all, he did hit 24 homers in the Florida State League in 2012, and one doesn't do that in those big ballparks without some real thump. For another thing, that aforementioned hand problem actually started last spring and likely sapped his power throughout. I'm not sure Ozuna will contribute in mixed leagues with Marlins Ballpark and a lousy lineup holding him back, but I expect that he'll be a fine NL-only outfielder.

Corey Dickerson - Rockies - The wind was taken out of Dickerson's sails with the news that Carlos Gonzalez wouldn't play center field after all. Dickerson made a ton of sense for the Rockies as a left fielder and leadoff hitter with Gonzalez in center, but he can't cover ground like Drew Stubbs or Charles Blackmon and there's a whole lot of ground in center in Coors Field. As a result, Dickerson might be a fourth outfielder initially. Still, that'd be a fourth outfielder on a team starting a weak offensive center fielder and injury-prone corner outfielders; things will probably work out for him in the end. If he gets 450 at-bats, he should be good for a dozen homers and steals with a strong average and a bunch of runs scored.

Chris Heisey - Reds - The Reds are hoping Ryan Ludwick shakes off an injury-ruined 2013 season and provides them with a powerful right-handed bat behind Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in the order. I say they're better off moving on and giving Heisey the job. While Heisey is 29 now and still hasn't had that breakthrough offensive season, he simply never got the chance to be a full-time player under Dusty Baker. Last year, his average slipped to .237 while he was filling in for Ludwick, but it came with fewer strikeouts than ever before and nine homers in 224 at-bats. Most likely, that .265 BABIP, coming after seasons of .312, .283 and .328, was a fluke. Overall, Heisey has hit 42 homers in 1,051 at-bats as a major leaguer. He's also a far better left fielder than Ludwick. If the Reds give him the opportunity, he'll hit 20 homers and probably get that average back up.  

Jesus Guzman - Astros - While the Reds are rooting for the old guy, the Astros are looking for younger players to step up, with Marc Krauss, Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes potentially starting at first base, in left field and in right field, respectively. I expect Guzman to outhit all of those guys. Despite playing at Petco Park, he's come in at .259/.324/.418 with 23 homers in 842 at-bats the last three seasons. His right-handed power should play much better at Minute Maid Park with those tantalizing Crawford Boxes within reach. He'll likely play primarily against lefties initially, but Bo Porter might rely on him more as time goes on, at least until George Springer and Jonathan Singleton can force their way into the lineup.

Abraham Almonte - Mariners - The switch-hitting Almonte was a very pleasant surprise for the Mariners last year after being acquired from the Yankees for reliever Shawn Kelley. He hit .314/.403/.491 with 11 homers and 20 steals in 94 games in Triple-A and then came in at .264/.313/.403 in 72 at-bats in the majors. However, it's his defense that could well earn him a starting job this spring; he's the best center fielder on the club with Franklin Gutierrez unfortunately unavailable. I doubt Almonte would be a star in year one, but he could bat .250-.260 with 10-15 homers and at least as many steals. He might also get to lead off since the Mariners don't want to go with lefties in the top three spots.

Grady Sizemore - Red Sox - Sizemore is five years removed from being a quality major leaguer, and any sort of setback with his knee could quickly end his comeback bid. Still, the reports have been awfully encouraging of late and things appear to be lining up for him to become Boston's primary center fielder and leadoff hitter. Working in his favor is that, barring a Mike Carp trade, there's no room for both he and Jackie Bradley Jr. on the Red Sox roster. So, if Sizemore shows he can handle it, he'll likely start in center with Bradley getting more minor league seasoning. I wouldn't expect him to be a fantasy star in any case -- he probably won't hit for average and stolen bases could be few and far between -- but as the leadoff man in the powerful Boston lineup, he could still be a bargain.

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