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2011 Player Rankings: AL OF

The act of ranking American League outfielders is best described as an exercise in risk evaluation. Whether you crave risk or shrink from it—or perhaps you prefer a little of both, eh?—there are plenty of options from each end of the spectrum in almost every one of the below tiers. I’ll be your guide this season as we evaluate the men who patrol the green pastures of the junior circuit.

As per usual, these ranks were determined from a compilation of lists submitted by the RotoGraphs crew. Before we get on with the tiers, a few housekeeping points:

1) This list comprises the Top 53 outfielders.
2) To establish continuity, only players who received at least three mentions from our panel of judges are ranked.
3) For the purposes of this project, eligibility requires either 20 games played in the outfield in 2010 or a projected outfield spot in 2011.

Now, onto the tiers.

TIER 1
Carl Crawford
Josh Hamilton

Right off the bat, you’re asking yourself: Do I feel lucky? If yes, then reigning AL MVP Hamilton may be your man. But Crawford was the unanimous No. 1 here. Chalk that up to a combination of Hamilton’s injury history and Crawford’s new, loaded lineup. These two are capable of putting up numbers that others on this list simply aren’t. Hence, they’re in a class by themselves.

TIER 2
Shin-Soo Choo
Nelson Cruz
Jose Bautista
Ichiro Suzuki
Alex Rios
Jacoby Ellsbury
Curtis Granderson

Choo has become Mr. Consistent, putting up nearly identical seasons the past two years (20-20 output with a pair of .300-on-the-dot batting averages), and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again, or even improve. Caution on the next three, though. Cruz would very possibly be No. 1 overall if fantasy value was determined by per-game production, but he rivals his teammate Hamilton for games missed. It takes a certain type of owner to seek out Bautista when something about him this year screams Mark Reynolds; circa 2010. Ichiro’s value is too tied up in relying on his lousy teammates to knock him in (just 74 runs last year!), and if he’s not hitting .350, he’s not helping enough. Rios and Granderson, on the other hand, perpetually feel like they’re capable of more only to fail to meet those expectations, but both are 20-20 candidates who play in good hitter’s parks.

TIER 3
Delmon Young
Nick Markakis
Brett Gardner
Juan Pierre
Torii Hunter
B.J. Upton
Vernon Wells
Adam Jones
Nick Swisher
Bobby Abreu

This group may be the “safest” batch. The categories are different, but we pretty much know what we’re getting—and not getting—from Gardner and Pierre (runs and steals), versus from Hunter, Wells and Swisher (homers and RBIs). Young showed enough legitimate advancement in his plate discipline (career-best 14.2% strikeout rate) and power potential (.195 ISO also a career-high), but his only “elite” roto category (112 RBIs) is also a highly unpredictable one. To wit, Markakis’ RBI total dropped from 101 to 60 without any sort of underlying indication of offensive decline. The two wild cards in this deck are Upton—even a .250 average would be welcome at this point—and Mr. Jones, who suffers from every fantasy owner’s wish that he could be someone just a little more funky.* The prevailing thought was that it would happen for him last year, but don’t write off that possibility in 2011.
*Counting Crows fan.

TIER 4
Ben Zobrist
Carlos Quentin
Rajai Davis
Grady Sizemore
Ryan Raburn
Denard Span
Michael Cuddyer
Magglio Ordonez
Luke Scott
Manny Ramirez
Travis Snider
Jason Kubel

Gut: Quentin hits 35 bombs this season. Or misses 35 games with plantar fascia problems, thus frustrating owners once again. Still, he’s worth the gamble as a third outfielder. While the same could be said for Sizemore, there’s something unsettling about targeting a guy who has had even more troubling recent injury issue—and who hasn’t homered since Aug. 27, 2009. Cuddyer, Ordonez and Scott are three very streaky hitters who will help more than hurt, but continuing the trend here, they always lose time to minor nicks and warts. The big sleeper candidate among this tier is Snider, who still has some major holes in his swing, but since his 2008 debut, he’s finally cobbled together a season’s worth of big-league plate appearances (675), and here are two noteworthy numbers: 40 and 25. As in, doubles and home runs. The man could be an extra-base machine.

TIER 5
Franklin Gutierrez
Austin Jackson
David DeJesus
J.D. Drew
Sean Rodriguez
David Murphy
Coco Crisp
Josh Willingham
Peter Bourjos
Alex Gordon
Julio Borbon
Johnny Damon
Juan Rivera

At this point, unless you see a breakout possibility (Rodriguez?), the strategy should be to find the outfielder who can help your team most based on category. There are still some 20-homer types (Drew, Willingham), as well as batting average helpers (DeJesus) and some theft specialists (Crisp, Bourjos, Borbon), but the upside is limited. A recommendation for AL-only leagues: Own David Murphy. As the fourth outfielder in Texas, he’ll find some spare playing time when Hamilton and/or Cruz visit the DL, get 400-plus at-bats, and hit 15 homers.

TIER 6
Matt Joyce
Michael Brantley
Lorenzo Cain
Michael Saunders
Desmond Jennings
Ryan Kalish
Felix Pie
Jeff Francoeur
Brennan Boesch

Chances are, one or two of these guys will surprise everybody and become a top 20 candidate by season’s end. If we’re throwing darts, how about Joyce? His combination of power (25 homers in 575 career plate appearances) and kid-gloves treatment (the Rays don’t let him sniff left-handed pitching) could manifest into a Jason Kubel-esque season. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to see Saunders’ big-league learning curve spike, thanks to his slowly improving eye (10.7% walk rate), some better luck (.260 BABIP) and more pop (.156 ISO) from of his 6’4″ frame.

BONUS TIER
Don’t forget about these four names, who came close but failed to qualify for these rankings because they fell just shy of 20 outfield games last year: Vladimir Guerrero (18 games), Adam Lind (16), Hideki Matsui (16) and Jack Cust (16). If your league has a lower games played minimum, then Guerrero and Lind would rank in the middle of TIER 3, while Matsui and Cust fit in one level lower, toward the bottom of TIER 4.

Comments are welcome below, and keep checking in as other outfield posts will follow throughout the week.