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Fantasy Fast Forward: Outfield Diamonds in the Rough

Nick Swisher

If you like a challenge, sifting through the dozens of major league outfielders and trying to project their 2011 fantasy value should be right up your alley.

There are thinner positions in the big leagues heading into this season… shortstop and third base, namely… but I always find the outfield to be the toughest to gauge. I think it has a lot to do with knowing how important it is to nail your outfield picks. Think about it… in most leagues, you draft only one catcher and one player at each infield position. You mess up and draft a loser at second base? It only leaves one hole in your lineup. If you don’t hit on a few of your outfielder spots, well you can kiss fantasy baseball glory goodbye. Most leagues have anywhere between three and five starting outfielder spots. That means up to half of your offensive starting lineup could be reliant upon your outfield talent. Yikes.

But of course, you can’t draft five outfielders at the very top of your draft and think your ticket to the fantasy playoffs is punched automatically. If you do that, have fun with the likes of Matt Wieters, Billy Butler, Chone Figgins, Starlin Castro, and Mark Reynolds manning your infield, not to mention the load of question marks you’ll have for pitching. So you have to really do your homework on this position and find some diamonds in the rough.

Luckily for you, I have done the homework and I have found you some gems. I’ve picked out eight outfielders that should be available in the mid-to-late rounds of your draft. By season’s end, I’m confident this 8-pack will make you look like Mensa members for drafting them.

Diamonds in the Rough

Nick Swisher, NYY

In his two years playing in the Bronx, Swisher’s production, especially his power production, has been remarkably consistent. With 29 homeruns in each of his two seasons as a Yankee, you have to love getting that kind of offense in the middle rounds of your draft. His batting average peaked at .288 last season, a career best, so while you can’t expect him to duplicate that this year, it’s not unreasonable to see “The Swish” somewhere in the .270’s for 2011. His hitter-friendly ballpark surely helps his situation as well.

Adam Jones, BAL

At just 25, Baltimore’s Adam Jones hasn’t yet reached his full potential, but I really feel he is poised to make a huge leap in 2011. He’ll be part of an improved Oriole lineup, with the additions of Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee, and those veterans should help keep the young Jones focused on improving his game. His strikeout numbers are a tad high, but if he can ratchet up his power numbers another level and get into the 25-homer range, the fantasyheads that draft him will be handsomely rewarded.

Ryan Raburn, DET

Raburn is penciled in as the Tigers’ starting left fielder for 2011, and he’s off to a great start in spring training to help solidify that starting spot. Spring is not his season normally, as Raburn’s been a notoriously slow starter the past few years, but if you can be patient with him, he should heat up for you as the year goes along. Over the last 70 games of 2010, Raburn’s power shined through, hitting 13 homeruns in that stretch. As a full-timer for the Tigers this season, a 20-homer total is a near certainty. Last season, he also played 21 games in the infield, at first, second, and third base, so if he’s able to add a few extra positions to his fantasy eligibility, that’ll just make him that much more valuable to your squad.

Jason Kubel, MIN

Beyond the high strikeout totals, there’s not a lot to dislike about Minnesota’s Jason Kubel. The only question mark I do assign to him right now is how much playing time he’ll see. With the re-signing of DH Jim Thome, the presumed health of 1B Justin Morneau, and the trio of Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young entrenched in the outfield, where Kubel fits in is up for discussion. He’s appeared in at least 140 games in each of the last three seasons though, and with the production he’s capable of, there’s no doubt he’ll get his at-bats. With more than 20 homers and 90 RBIs in each of the last two seasons, as long as Kubel cracks the lineup more often than not, think of him in the last few rounds of your draft.

Colby Rasmus, STL

Everything I’ve seen and heard about this kid has made me truly, “cuckoo for Colby.” He’s off to a red-hot start in spring training, which has prompted talk from Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa of considering Rasmus as a top candidate to bat second in the St. Louis order, right in front of Mr. Albert Pujols, the consensus top pick across almost every fantasy draft I’ve seen these last few weeks. If he lands that spot, Rasmus would be line for a huge jump in production, building off already impressive stats from 2010 that saw him hit 23 homeruns and rack up 66 RBIs as a part-timer. The sky’s the limit for this potential breakout candidate… the only question is whether or not 2011 is the year he makes himself a household name.

Carlos Lee, HOU

There’s a mixed bag of reviews on the now 34-year-old Lee heading into the 2011 campaign. Some “experts” say his down year of 2010 is the beginning of the end for the slugger, while others think he’ll spend 2011 showing the nay-sayers that last year was just an aberration. I tend to side with the latter point of view. Houston’s lineup isn’t anything to get crazy over, but Lee will sit right in the middle of it, and he’s still a threat for 25 homeruns and 100 RBIs, which you won’t get from your average fantasy outfielder. He’ll likely gain eligibility at first base this season too, which can help add some versatility to your fantasy lineup as the season moves along. Everyone might not be in Lee’s corner heading into this season, but I am… draft him with confidence.

Jose Tabata, PIT

Not since the Barry Bonds-Andy Van Slyke-Bobby Bonilla era have I been so high on the fantasy value on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ roster. Between Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez in the infield, and Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata out in the outfield, the future is finally looking brighter in the Steel City, at least in terms of offense. The young Tabata finally got the chance to shine at the big league level in 2010, racking up over 400 at-bats in his rookie season with Pittsburgh, after toiling away in the Yankees’ minor league system. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is considering Tabata for the team’s leadoff spot, with the thought of moving McCutchen down to third in the order. If that comes to fruition, Tabata’s totals should take off, with his run-scoring and base-stealing ability already strong. His batting average won’t hurt you either, building off a solid .299 mark in 2010.

Drew Stubbs, CIN

The Reds were a big surprise in 2010, and that had a lot to do with contributions from relative unknowns like Drew Stubbs. Here are two interesting stats for you about the Cincinnati outfielder… only two players in 2010 had at least 20 HRs, 30 SBs, and 90 runs scored: Hanley Ramirez and Drew Stubbs. Here’s another one though… only 19 players in MLB history have had seasons with 30+ SBs and 150+ strikeouts, and one of them was Stubbs last year. So there’s plenty of upside, if you can offset the high strikeout numbers and relatively low batting average with other members of your fantasy team. That being said, Stubbs will be drafted in most fantasy leagues this season, and I recommend you being the guy (or gal, ladies are always welcome!) to snatch him up.

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