This group of American League outfielders is filled with players whose upside is limited by a flaw or two, but who are still very much worth employing as third or fourth outfielders, depending on the size and format of your league. All of these players are still in their prime, capable of putting up above-average numbers in at least two fantasy categories and, for the most part, they’re going to help much more than they hurt. Yes, even B.J. Upton.
Here’s a recap of the names in each tier so far:
Now for TIER THREE…
Ben Zobrist, Rays
Fittingly, the 30-year-old Zobrist also got the third tier treatment from RotoGraphs colleague Jeff Zimmerman in the second base keeper rankings. However, Mr. Zimmerman placed Zobrist one spot behind Michael Cuddyer — another OF-eligible second base type — which is a decision I can’t endorse. While both players will be eligible in the outfield in all fantasy leagues, it’s Zorilla who’ll be a definite 2B-eligible, whereas Cuddyer’s 17 games at the keystone fell just shy of the 20-game minimum required by some formats (like ESPN). But it’s not solely an eligibility edge that I score in Zobrist’s favor; after all, Cuddyer will also qualify at 1B, and he will show up in these American League outfielder ranks — eventually.
But back to Zobrist, who is perhaps best described by the “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” tag, in that he doesn’t truly stand out in any one category, but he’s certainly capable of posting above-average stats in everything from homers (19 per season from 2009-11) to steals (20 per) to RBIs (86 per) to runs (89 per), which makes him extremely valuable, especially when combined with his multi-eligibilityness. Sure, his 2010 was rough, but the ghastly .238 average that year was in no small part due to a lower-than-usual BABIP (.273, compared to .326 in 2009 and .310 this year), and his cumulative walk rate has been above 13% in his three seasons as a starter, so he’s even better in leagues that use OBP instead of BA. He’s a great 2B starter in all mixed formats, and he’ll get the job done as an OF3 in mixed play.
Alex Gordon, Royals
It finally happened for Gordon. The epitome of the post-hype sleeper, Gordon, 27, went .303-23-87, to go with a whopping 101 runs and 17 SBs, to boot. All of these were career highs, by the way. This, after spending most of 2010 in the minor leagues, making the switch from third base to left field. That’s a pretty impressive, career-saving turn. And while there is a bit of worry over what was a high .358 BABIP, his career number is .314 (obviously inflated by 2011, but still), so if anything it just means that he might wind up settling in the .270-.280 BA range next year. The other potential issue is the matter of his spot in the batting order: When he wasn’t batting third, he actually spent the majority of his time hitting leadoff and did quite well (.305/.383/.532), so the Royals would do fantasy owners who want to enjoy his runs and SB production a big favor by just keeping him there. (Pretty please.)
The only other minor hiccup I’ll point out is that he will lose 3B eligibility in 2012; having played 10 games there in 2010, he qualified in some leagues this year, which gave him an extra boost of value in such a down year for hot cornermen. Still, the Kansas City offense is on the upswing, what with the arrival of youngsters like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain, combined with solid enough production from Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur. (I still can’t believe I wrote the last part of that sentence — and meant it), so Gordon is in position to be a strong OF3 in mixed leagues.
B.J. Upton, Rays
In the case of Upton, you’re either for him or against him. I happen to be of the mind that he’s quite the valuable fantasy asset — if used correctly. At this point, even though he’s still just 27 (seriously, Bossman Junior?!), we know what he is and what he isn’t. You’re dancing with the devil if you keep him hoping against hope that, no, really, this is the year that he really breaks out — or that, you know, he’ll hit above .250. But again, that’s part of the beauty: If you can plan for that kind of average, well, just make sure to address that category with another position/pick/player. And! There’s this: With the overall decline in offense the past few seasons — from a .262 MLB BA in 2009 to .257 in 2010 to .255 in 2011 — Upton’s average actually isn’t quite the drag it has been in the past.
Plus, as much as the guy is a lock for a .230-.250 BA, he’s also pretty much a metronome in the steals department, having averaged 41 swipes since 2008. While the homers have been a bit erratic in that same time, at least they’re on an upward trend — again at a time when the rest of baseball is doing just the opposite — from 9 to 11 to 18 to 23, so anything in the 20-25 range is not out of the question. Put it all together, and you’ve got a player with a considerable risk factor, but one who is also totally capable of putting up a 20-homer, 40-steal campaign with enough runs and RBIs to keep you happy there, too. I’ll take that on my team as an OF3 any year, and if you trust your ability to build my team appropriately to fix Upton’s weaknesses, but more importantly, to take advantage of his strengths, then you shouldn’t shy away either.
Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
So 2011 wasn’t Choo’s year, huh? He was pretty terrible over the first three months, during which he dealt with the fallout over his May arrest for a DUI and hit just .244 with a .687 OPS as of late-June, when he succumbed* to a torn ligament in his left thumb that kept him out for a month-and-a-half. Then upon his return in August, just when he looked like he’d be able to turn his season around, at least partially rewarding those owners who stuck with him, by slashing .348/.412/.609 with 3 HRs and 8 RBIs in 12 games, he suffered an oblique strain that, essentially, ended his season. All in all, a 29-year-old who had been the pillar of consistency in 2009 and 2010 played just 85 games and hit .259/.344/.390 with 8 HRs and 12 SBs.
*I propose we start a movement to get the past tense of this changed to “succame.” Who’s with me! (Crickets.)
In trying to figure out what, exactly, was the issue — aside from the injuries and the off-field incident, which are more flukey than anything — there wasn’t a whole lot to uncover behind Choo’s disappointing 2011, at least statistically speaking. His batted ball data doesn’t show any departures from his previous figures, but then, his .317 BABIP, while below his career .353, didn’t exactly jump out and scream “Regression!” either. Alas, it’s not the most scientific advice, but I feel like Choo probably just had One Of Those Seasons. Fact is, had he played a full year — meaning 300 or so more PAs — I think it’s very possible he would have reached the upper-teens in HRs and once again crossed the 20-steal threshold. His average might not have finished exactly .300 like it did in 2009 and 2010, but one hot month would have been enough to get him to a respectable level. He’s going to be a tough keeper because of the disappointment, but if you are allowed to keep 8-10 players, somehow have him for a reasonable price (say, $12-$15) and could use the outfield help, I wouldn’t just throw him back without question. I think he’ll be a nice, undervalued pick in 2012 drafts and auctions, and even though there are still some concerns, I’d take him over the next guy because of the above-average potential in stolen bases.
Nick Swisher, Yankees
Swisher is one of my favorite fantasy assets because he’s usually underrated, often undervalued, curiously overlooked — and almost always performs to expectations. For instance, did you know that Swish has scored at least 81 runs each of the past six seasons? Or that he’s posted 78+ RBIs five of the past six? And best of all, he’s hit 21 or more homers every single season of his seven-year career. That’s the sort of consistency from a still-in-his-prime player (30) that makes a savvy fantasy owner feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Now that we know the Yankees picked up his 2012 option, I feel confident we can expect more of the same.
We’re Swisher does come up short, though, especially compared to the names ahead of him in this tier, is in his inability to contribute across the board, namely steals. With just 10 in his entire career, we know that category is going to have to be made up elsewhere. Also a possible pitfall? His batting average. His career mark is .254, which is about what you should expect. In 2011, the problem was he was coming off a career-best .288 and owners had delusions of a repeat performance, not catching that it was fueled by an outlier .335 BABIP. So when he started off in the low .200s through May, panicked owners sold, only to miss out on yet another Swisher season. He’s the kind of guy you don’t get excited about keeping because he’s not exactly a sexy selection (despite his off-field success in this area) with oodles of upside. But he’s a very smart keeper in formats where you can hang onto 8 to 10 players.
Adam Jones, Orioles
I can hear it now. How do you have Jones, a tooled-up 26-year-old coming off his best season ranked so low?!?!, you’re wondering/screaming. Hey! I don’t like having shouting arguments with irrational folks in the heat of the moment, so take a breath, McEnroe. Okay, now. Allow me to explain. First, here’s what you’re seeing: The solid .280 BA, the above-average 83 RBIs, the career-best 25 HRs and dreams of that 20-20 season we’ve all been waiting on forever. Here’s what I’m seeing: A flawed, still-raw player who will be just fine in the end — but not quite the breakout star you’re expecting.
As nice as his 2011 was — and don’t get me wrong, it was — the only category in which Jones really helped fantasy owners was home runs. But we’re talking about a guy who has proven to be a notorious ground ball hitter (49% GB career vs. 33% FB), so banking on anything more than what he’s done the past three seasons — 21 HRs per — is asking too much. Also? For some reason, there’s this widely-held notion that Jones is just biding his time until he so chooses to let loose with a 30-steal campaign. Well, did you know that the most stolen bases he’s ever posted as a pro, including the minor leagues, is…13? So yes, his 12 this year were useful, but that’s about what I’d be looking for from him next year, too. I’d really like to see some strides in his plate discipline (just 4.7% BB in 2011 and 4.8% for his career) before I start seeing Jones as anything more than an OF4 in mixed leagues. Bottom line: He’s sort of the anti-Swisher, a guy you keep if you buy into the potential and upside rather than actual production to date.
Carlos Quentin, White Sox
In all honesty, I wanted to rank Quentin higher than this. He’s in his peak years at age 29, he has a history of violence against pitched baseballs, and he plays in a great park for home run hitters. But it’s tough to rely on someone as injury-prone as Quentin, who has never played in more than 131 games in any season. So why, then, is he even ranked this high? Because, frankly, I’m a sucker for his per-game production (shades of Nelson Cruz), and he’s a rare breed, in that he’s a power hitter who doesn’t whiff like one (just 16% K career), so if he ever does get in a full season, he’ll wind up rewarding his owners with 30-plus homers and about 100 RBIs. Yes, that’s probably never going to happen, but a man can dream.
Of course, you’ll know by now that Quentin ain’t helpin’ in steals. And there’s the batting average risk, too, where he comes in with a .252 career number, thanks mainly to his fly-balling ways (47% career FB). I may be alone on this one, I realize, so if you feel like Quentin belongs more with the Josh Willinghams of the fantasy world, I can’t really blame you. But something here still gets me, and at a time when home runs were at their lowest in two decades, I’d still be willing to gamble on Quentin as an OF4 with his 35-homer potential and OF2 capability. And yes, I fully admit that I may be a bit unhinged when it comes to Carlos.
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