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2012 AL Outfielder Keeper Rankings: First Tier

Yesterday, we began the process of unveiling our 2012 keeper rankings here at RotoGraphs, starting with the first tier of catchers and National League outfielders. Today, we get to American League outfielders with tier numero uno.

For an idea of how they ranked and rated based on 2011 production alone, you can check Mr. Sanders’ nifty FVARz calculations. But to be clear, the ranks here will take into account future performance and projection, as well as past output.

Now, for that top tier.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
He may have a few peers in his tier, but there’s really no doubt that Bautista should be the top keeper among AL OFs. To wit, he’s baseball’s two-time reigning home run king, he’ll still be in his prime next season — he turns 31 this month — and he once again maintained his dual OF/3B eligibility going forward, which is basically just icing on a really big cake. Considering the premium on power that exists in today’s fantasy baseball landscape, one could argue that Bautista’s no-longer-questioned ability to hit balls over fences is the biggest asset in our little game.

That’s not the only skill Bautista possesses, though. This year, he posted an elite 20% walk rate — his MLB-best 132 BBs were 22 more than Joey Votto‘s total — proving he’s actually (gasp) getting better as a hitter. Also getting better? The Blue Jays surrounding lineup, featuring promising young players like Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus and Eric Thames, which should only help Bautista maintain, and even improve, his counting stats (runs and RBIs). And if you’re concerned at all over the fact that he’d never hit above .260 until this year’s .302 — his .309 BABIP was also 32 points above his career average — a quick peek at his batted ball data shows that 2010’s ridiculous 55% FB:31% GB ratio normalized a bit. And remember, this is a guy you want hitting the ball in the air so he can continue doing what he does — hitting home runs — better than anyone else in baseball.

Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Speaking of homers, the 30-year-old Granderson did his best to try to unseat Bautista from the top spot this year, bashing a career-high 41 to finish second. Combined with an MLB-best 136 runs, 119 RBIs (third-most in baseball) and 25 SBs (his second-highest tally), it’s safe to say Granderson had a career year. But that doesn’t mean he can’t approach those numbers again in 2012. For one, his perch as the No. 2 hitter in the Yankees lineup means he could reach the 100-100 plateau in runs and RBIs again, if by default. For another, Granderson no longer carries the can’t-hit-lefties label, as his .272/.347/.597 slash stats against southpaws indicate. Then there’s this little tidbit: The centerfielder led all of baseball with 16 HRs against left-handers.

About the only chinks in Granderson’s armor are that even with his improvements against lefties, he’s unlikely to hit for a high average due to his fly-ball tendencies (approximately 48% since 2009), and his career-high 20.5% HR/FB rate is likely to regress to the low-teens, per his norm, making another 40-homer campaign a bit of a stretch. Still, there’s no reason to think Granderson won’t again approach a 30-30 season with more than enough runs and RBIs to keep his owners happy. After all, isn’t that what the Grandy Man is supposed to do?

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Ellsbury actually topped all AL OFs in the FVARz calculations, and deservedly so after a ridiculous .321-32-105 season with 119 runs and 39 steals, to boot. Given that he’s smack dab in his peak years, at age 28, the Red Sox centerfielder has regained his status as a high-end fantasy performer — but the way he went about doing so this year was just a little bit different. Okay, a lot different. Sure, the sparkly batting average, shiny runs number and sexy stolen base total all fell roughly in line with his previous career marks, especially given his upward-trending career arc prior to a lost 2010. But the power spike was unexpected, as he’d never hit even double-digit homers, only to showcase first-rate pop with 32 HRs in 2011.

While it would be nice to think that this newfound power is another tool in Ellsbury’s fantasy belt going forward, there’s plenty of reason to be leery. His 34% fly ball rate was only slightly above his career norm of 32%, so it’s not as if he suddenly started lifting the ball more frequently. The next logical step, then, is to see if there are any red flags in his HR/FB rate, and sure enough, there are: His 17% rate this season is what you might call an outlier, considering his rates in his two other full years were 7% (2008) and 5% (2009). That proves that even if he was hitting the ball harder (career-best 23% line-drive rate), he was also getting extraordinarily lucky. If Ellsbury loses, say, 10-12 homers off his 2011 tally — which would still be generous toward his career HR/FB rate, which is already inflated by this year’s figure — then his fantasy output will suffer, especially if he doesn’t provide an uptick in his stolen base total and efficiency (39 of 54, only 72%). Basically, there’s nothing wrong with Ellsbury, but a heck of a lot went just right for him this year, and while he’s still among the best at this position, the reason he was so supremely valuable in 2011 — because he was available on the cheap — might wind up making him overvalued next season.

Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Keeping Hamilton in the top tier was a close call. Ultimately, though, I decided that he is an elite fantasy outfielder — here’s the catch — when healthy. Obviously, that is the 30-year-old’s biggest drawback from a fantasy perspective, as no owner wants to risk one of their top picks missing huge chunks of time. But in Hamilton’s case, that’s a risk that is worth taking, if you’ve got the stomach for it. Even this year, when he played just 121 games in total, Hamilton ranked in the Top 10 among AL OFs in homers (25) and RBIs (94), while falling just shy in runs (80).

At this point, with the injury history such a proven aspect of Hamilton’s game, the savvy owner can use that to an advantage by planning for as much. If you keep or draft him, just make sure to carve out some space on your roster for an extra legitimate outfielder who can be used to fill in for Hamilton when he’s out for the 30 or so games he’s liable to miss. That way, you can tack onto the already-top notch production you get out of Hamilton. While this strategy is a bit unorthodox — and not necessarily ideal — the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to simply pass up Hamilton altogether, because he has the skills, lineup and ballpark that put him among the elite. Put another way: If Hamilton were to rank No. 1 on this list a year from now — that’s the 2013 AL Outfielder Keeper Rankings — it wouldn’t be a surprise.