This batch of American League outfielders is the smallest. The reason? Unlike those from the first tier, none of these players can be counted on to be an OF1 because of some kind of flaw, obstacle or hiccup…but all three of them are also capable of being your top OF in the end, if you squint through the appropriately-colored glasses.
To look back at the previous tiers of AL OF keepers, click on any of the following: Tier One
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Cruz is one of the best per-game fantasy producers around — American or National League, outfielder or infielder — but the very use of that “per-game” qualifier gets to the crux of why he can’t be considered a true Tier One talent. We’re talking about a guy who, due to various maladies of the physical nature, has never once played even 130 games in a single season. When he does make it onto the field, though, he fills owners’ heads with nasty thoughts of all the dirty things he does, from crushing long home runs to racking up loads of RBIs to even swiping some bases. But with his advancing age (how many of you realize he’s 31?), ever-expanding list of injuries (multiple hamstring and quadriceps issues the past few years) and reduced stolen base numbers (from 20 in 2009 to 17 in 2010 to just 9 this season), Cruz is just as likely to disappoint you as he is to help you win your league. And while there was a chance he could have been acquired a bit on the cheap heading into 2012 due to yet another DL-laden season, that has all but evaporated because his monstrous postseason (7 HRs, 15 RBIs, 1.042 OPS) will only pump up his perceived value to where you’ll need to be all-in on home to get him either via trade in a keeper league or at a premium price in re-draft formats.
Desmond Jennings, Rays
Speaking of all-in guys, Jennings is going to be another line-in-the-sand type come 2012, given the hyptastic buzziness that surrounds him following his rookie campaign. After all kinds of anticipation over when he’d finally get his shot this year, the soon-to-be-25-year-old didn’t disappoint by putting up solid slash stats (.259/.356/.449) and tacking on an even more impressive 10 HRs, 20 SBs and 44 runs in just 247 ABs. Perhaps a better way to put Jennings’ numbers into context would be to point out that from the time of his first game this year (July 23), he was one of only five players to reach double-digits in both homers and steals. The others? Oh, just Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ian Kinsler. Obviously, Jennings comes in a notch below those elites because he doesn’t have quite the history of production to match, but his Next Big Thing factor is going to make him only slightly less sought-after on draft or auction day. In keeper leagues, at the risk of breaking the Overhype Machine, let’s just say that Jennings’ value is even higher (i.e. he rates above Cruz in longer-term formats). If I may temper expectations a bit for a moment, Jennings has had injury problems in his career and had never hit more than 9 HRs until the 12 he smacked at Triple-A before his recall. Still, his strong walk rate (11%) combined with his perch atop the Rays lineup are good indicators that even if his power drops into the 12-15 HR range (over a full season), he can still reach 40-steal, 100-run output. Much like the next guy used to do on the regular.
Carl Crawford, Red Sox
Crawford went from fringe fantasy first-rounder to aging player in decline in less time than it took for (the pre-2011 version of) him to steal a base.* As much as folks will hold grudges and figure he’s no longer a stud after his awful season — .259/.290/.371 with 11 HRs and 18 SBs over 506 ABs — I’m actually going the other direction. Consider: Crawford is still 1) in the prime of his career at 30 years old, 2) on a great offensive team and 3) playing in a top hitter’s park. Then there’s this: Crawford’s .299 BABIP this year, while solid compared to the .295 league-wide figure, was nearly 30 points below his career number (.328), and his batted ball data isn’t all that off from past years, so he certainly was a little unlucky. Not that his performance can simply be written off to black cats and voodoo dolls, because Crawford also saw his walk rate plummet (4%) and his whiff rate jump (19%), so it’s likely there’s some decline to factor in going forward at the plate. But what about where Crawford made his fantasy hay — on the basepaths? More disappointment there, too, as a guy who averaged 44 SBs from 2008-2010 swiped just 18 bags in 2011. But again, there’s an explanation: The hamstring injury he suffered hurt his running ability (and likely also his BABIP). My guess is most owners will remember Crawford’s disappointing first season in Boston, particularly his atrocious .155/.204/.227 April — clearly a .177 BABIP-infused line — and avoid him. That should actually wind up making him undervalued for arguably the first time in his career. An OF1? No thanks. But as an OF2 in deeper mixed leagues or AL-only play? Sign me up.
*That sounded cleverer in my head.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11