Sunday, January 27, 2013
Vote: Who has baseball's best outfield?
By Bill Baer
Justin Upton has been in the news all offseason, especially once the Arizona Diamondbacks needed to fix their outfield logjam after signing free agent Cody Ross. Rumors throughout the winter included both Upton and Jason Kubel, but Braves acquired the 25-year-old to improve their already strong outfield.
There is no debate: Upton has been one of baseball's best outfielders over the past four years. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Upton has compiled the 10th-most Wins Above Replacement among corner outfielders since 2009, at 13.0. He ranks ahead of players like Giancarlo Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jayson Werth. Now part of an outfield that already includes brother B.J. Upton and another young phenom in Jason Heyward, the Braves arguably lay claim to one of baseball's best outfields.
That leads us to the obvious question: Which teams are in the mix for baseball's best outfield right now? I've come up with four candidates that could challenge the Braves:
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout carries most of the weight here, as he alone gives the Angels one of the best outfields around. His 10.7 WAR last year was the most in a single season since Barry Bonds' 11.6 in 2002 and one of only 47 seasons of 10-plus WAR in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference (but not good enough for the AL MVP award, somehow). Trout does it all: hit for average (.326), hit for power (.238 isolated power), run (49 stolen bases in 54 attempts) and play incredible defense (he robbed hitters of at least three homers last season by my cursory research).
If this is starting to sound like an infomercial for the Angels' outfield, let me do my best Billy Mays impression: But wait, there's more! The Halos signed mercurial Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract during the offseason. Hamilton has been one of baseball's most feared hitters since joining the Rangers in 2008. Among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances over the last five years, Hamilton's .386 weighted on-base average is 10th best, just a hair behind players such as Jose Bautista and Matt Holliday. The AL average wOBA in that span ranged between .315 and .330, showing how truly prolific Hamilton's bat has been. While Hamilton isn't much in the field or on the bases, he more than makes up for it with his offense.
Peter Bourjos will be splitting Trout and Hamilton in center field. While many think Trout should have remained the Angels' center fielder, no one denies Bourjos has the athletic tools to thrive as the captain of the outfield. In limited playing time, the speedster has already stolen 35 bases and showed offensive potential during the 2011 season in which he finished with a .271/.327/.438 slash line. In a full season, Bourjos projects to be an above-average player with a very high ceiling. Should he realize his potential, the Angels could very well have an outfield that combines for 15 WAR.
St. Louis Cardinals
Hard to argue against an outfield that has two potential Hall of Famers in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, and one of the United States' founding fathers in Jon Jay. Holliday hasn't finished a season with an adjusted OPS under 138 since 2005 in Colorado. The only other player with a 135 or better adjusted OPS in every season since 2006 is former teammate Albert Pujols.
Beltran had problems staying healthy in 2009-10, but has logged 500-plus plate appearances in each of the past two seasons at the ages of 34 and 35. Beltran's 128 OPS+ last season was one of only eight such seasons in the past four years by a player 35 years old or older. Beltran isn't close to finished yet, and along with Holliday will make up not only one of the most fearsome corner outfield combos, but also one of the most fearsome 3-4 duos as well.
Jay has turned into one of the game's better contact hitters. In three seasons, he has hit .300, .297, and .305, which has led to an aggregate on-base percentage of .359. He has also stolen 27 bases, 19 of which came last season. While he may not have the power of his outfield compatriots, he complements them perfectly and plays a solid center field, giving the Cardinals one of the more formidable outfields in the game.
Let's say Beltran can't stay healthy, or an unfortunate injury keeps Holliday or Jay out of the lineup. Then 20-year-old outfield prospect Oscar Taveras will be ready to step in and provide help. Last year with Double-A Springfield, Taveras posted a .321/.380/.572 slash line with 10 stolen bases, 23 homers and 94 RBIs. While there is no guarantee that Taveras would enjoy the same amount of success facing major league pitching, he is looking like one of baseball's few can't-miss prospects.
List of 19-year-olds to post a 5-WAR season in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference:
Yes, Harper is the only player to have had such a productive season at such a young age. Expand the age threshold to 20 and he is joined by a plethora of current and future Hall of Famers, including Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. The sky isn't even the limit for Harper; the expanse of the Milky Way galaxy seems to be, in much the same way it is for Trout. Like Trout, Harper does it all, and he does it all very well, which is why he went home with the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Werth, the $126 million man, works opposite Harper in right field. In the first year of his deal with the Nats, his production declined precipitously, leading many to declare his contract a failure. When he was healthy last season, he was extremely productive, finishing with a .300 average and a 125 adjusted OPS, numbers similar to those that made him such a good player in Philadelphia from 2007-10. While the days of him being a 35-plus homer threat, as he was in 2009, may be over, he still provides more production than most corner outfielders, which should make the Nationals plenty happy.
Rounding out the trio of outfielders in Nats Town is the recently acquired Denard Span, who will push Harper out of center field. Like Cardinals center fielder Jay, Span doesn't have the aesthetically-pleasing offense of his corner outfield teammates, but complements them well simply by getting on base, running the bases well, and playing competent defense. Span has finished with 3 or more WAR in three of his five seasons, making him one of the more valuable -- and underrated -- center fielders in recent years.
Believe it or not, Athletics outfielders combined for the second-most home runs in the AL last season, trailing the New York Yankees 89 to 83. Josh Reddick led the way with 32 dingers as he broke out at the age of 25. He was one of nine players with 30-plus home runs and 10-plus stolen bases, joining the likes of Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen. While his low average and plethora of strikeouts depressed some of his offensive value, there was not much more the A's could have asked of him.
The Athletics were the surprising victors in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes last offseason, signing the Cuban phenom to a four-year, $36 million deal. It looks like a mighty bargain right now. The 26-year-old finished with a 137 adjusted OPS, making him one of the game's most valuable hitters. Of course, Cespedes lost value spending 26 games at DH, spending a couple weeks on the DL and playing below-average defense when he was in the field. As he becomes ever more familiar with AL pitching, he will become better with age and he should develop into a consistent All-Star talent.
Coco Crisp patrolled center field at O.co Coliseum last year, but that position may fall to Chris Young, acquired from the Diamondbacks. Crisp has developed into a consistent 2-3 WAR player since coming to Oakland in 2010. In those three years, he has stolen 120 bases in 136 attempts (88 percent), hit at about the league average (which is great coming from a premium position), and played above-average defense in center field. Young missed time last year with a shoulder injury, but averaged 4.8 WAR in 2010 and 2011, when he hit 47 home runs and played a great center field. Look for Reddick and Cespedes to play every day, although they could be rotated through the DH spot as well.
With the Upton brothers and Heyward, where does Atlanta's outfield rank among the other four listed above? I'd put Atlanta's outfield at No. 2, behind the Angels.
The Dodgers' outfield (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier) was omitted because of health concerns. Due to defensive concerns, the Cincinnati outfield (Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce) was also omitted, and the Milwaukee outfield (Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki) was a close runner-up to the A's.
How would you rank baseball's best outfields?