Ah, the outfield. Standing in a huge field of freshly mown grass, the sun shining high in the sky, reacting at the crack of the bat, instantly calculating the trajectory of the ball and sprinting to the exact spot it will land.
At the Padres FanFest on February 8, I had a chance to stand in Right Field at Petco Park, and I noticed a few things…
First, you’re a little separated from the action. While infielders are close enough to see exactly what’s happening, every subtle shift by the catcher or batter, the outfielder is nearly 100 yards away. Go ahead, go stand at the other end of a football field and let me know exactly what’s happening at this end. Outfielders really have to focus to stay tied into the action of the game. When they don’t, well, that’s when expressions like “Manny being Manny” start.
Second, the sun at Petco Park doesn’t take any breaks. While we love San Diego’s cloudless skies, I suspect Deno and Will wouldn’t mind the occasional cumulonimbus finding its way in front of ol’ Mr. Sunshine during those 1:05 starts.
Perhaps if this article had been about catchers, I would have squatted behind the plate instead. But this time, we’re ranking the outfields of the NL West.
1. Los Angeles. Sorry, Padre fans, but in terms of talent, the Dodgers have the best outfield by far. The likely starters are Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Yasiel Puig. Four or five years ago, Crawford could lay claim to being one of the most versatile outfielders in the game, a consistent .300 hitter with mid-teens homers and 50+ stolen bases a year. While his numbers have dropped considerably since he left Tampa, nobody in the game would be surprised to see his production jump back up close to those levels. Three years ago, Kemp was the best speed-power outfielder in the game, almost joining Alfonso Soriano in the 40-homer / 40-steal club, missing by a single long ball. (Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez have also gone 40-40, but… you know…). And while Kemp has struggled with injuries the last two years, when healthy, he is as dangerous as anyone in the game. And last year, Puig, a former Cuban all-star, caught the fancy of the American baseball world, collecting 14 multi-hit games in 26 games in his June debut, hitting .467 with 7 homers. In less than 2/3 of a season, he finished the year at .319 with 19 homers, 11 steals, 66 runs scored, and an SLG of .534. His emergence, along with the resurgence of Hanley Ramirez, were largely responsible for the Dodgers’ division win last year. And at 28 years old, Puig in is the prime of his career. Would anyone be surprised if he were the MVP this year?
While this group is tremendous in terms of talent, they are not without their faults. Crawford has underproduced for three consecutive years since signing his $142 million dollar contract. Kemp has missed over 140 games in the last two years to injury, and his defensive stats are well-below average as a Center Fielder. And Puig doesn’t seem to be able to drive under 100 miles per hour, with two speeding arrests last year. So while these men clearly have the ability to hit a baseball, there is no guarantee they will do so in 2014. In the wings is two-time all-star Andre Ethier, a career .288 hitter with multiple 20-homer seasons under his belt. He is ready to provide solid backup to the starters, and chances are, he will have some opportunities to do so.
2. Colorado. The Rockies have put together an intriguing collection of outfielders. Led by perennial all-star Carlos Gonzalez, the team last year added steady contributor Michael Cuddyer and brought up contact-hitter Charlie Blackmon and power-hitting Corey Dickerson from the minors. Cuddyer responded well to Coors Field, hitting a career-high .331 while going deep 20 times. Blackmon, in 82 games with the big-league club, matched his career minor-league .309 average. Dickerson has tons of potential, having hit 32 HRs in A Ball in the Sally League, and showed well in his debut last year, hitting a respectable .263 with 23 extra-base hits in 194 late-season ABs with the Rockies.
CarGo is almost everything you want in an outfielder – hits for average and power, steals bases, is a versatile enough fielder to play any outfield position, has an arm that accounts for 10 or more assists a year, and is a tremendous clubhouse guy. “Almost” everything. His main drawback is that he has never played more than 135 games in a season, missing dozens of games to injury and other factors every year. But when he is in the lineup, he produces as consistently as anyone.
The team has also picked up Drew Stubbs. Stubbs is an interesting pickup. A speedy Center Fielder, he has a career high of 22 homers and has stolen 30+ bases three of the last four years. But his homer count has diminished each of the last three years, and he strikes out far too often to be an effective leadoff hitter. When I say “far too often,” consider this. He has the fifth highest single-season strikeout total in major-league history, with 205 in 2011. He’s struck out in 32% of his ABs in his career. Adam Dunn, by comparison, has struck out in 28% of his ABs, and he has hit 440 homers. This is a major reason this potential 30-30 guy is on his third team in three years. Who will play which position for the Rockies is still in question, but there’s little question this outfield will be able to hit.
3. San Diego. Let’s put the Padres here, in the middle of the pack. If they stay healthy and play as well as they are capable, the Padres outfield can put up some very respectable numbers and cover 2/3 of the outfield very well. But those are pretty big “ifs”. The projected starting lineup is Carlos Quentin in LF, Cameron Maybin in Center, and Will Venable in RF. Quentin, when healthy, is a leader on the field and is as feared a hitter as the Padres have. His 162-game averages are 31 homers, 98 RBI, and 94 runs scored. And tough? Just ask Zack Greinke, the control-artist whose collarbone Quentin broke when Greinke plunked him a little too close to his head for Carlos’ liking. This fiery leader is exactly the kind of player who can lead the Padres through a pennant race if he can stay on the field. Which, so far, he can’t. Quentin has missed 300 games over the last five years, and 156 in his two years in San Diego. His third knee surgery last year ended in his season in June, when he was on a pace to hit .275 with 26 HRs and drive in close to 90 runs. His injury, combined with backup Kyle Blanks stint on the DL, left the Pads scrambling to fill left field. In one 2-game stretch in August, Alexi Amarista, Jesus Guzman, Denorfia, Logan Forsyth, and even Yonder Alonso saw time there. Carlos can’t field a lick, but the bottom line is, the Padres are a much better team with him in the lineup batting cleanup.
Cameron Maybin is fast. Exactly the player the Padres wanted roaming Center Field for them, and when he started to hit and stole 40 bases in 2011, they secured him with a 5-year contract. In the two years since, he has been hampered by injuries, with wrist and knee injuries limiting him to 57 unproductive plate appearances last year. So we begin this year with Maybin a bit of a question mark. He remains largely unproven at the plate, with a career slash line of .248/.311/.370, and coming back from a PCL injury is tricky for anyone, let alone a player whose main contribution is his speed. Let’s keep our fingers crossed this year for Cam to stay healthy, so we can finally see if the long-term contract is a boom or a bust.
Will Venable played well enough late last season to remove the word “platoon” from his player card. While he and Chris Denorfia have played the righty-lefty game for the past 3-4 years, last year, Venable hit lefties well for the first time in his career, and emerged as a 20-homer, 20-steal guy, likely earning himself an everyday starting role this year. Venable, a career .216 hitter against lefties before last year, actually hit better against lefties than righties last year, hitting .276 and slugging .524 against southpaws. If he can maintain that, the Padres have another legitimate middle-of-the-order guy in their lineup.
That will leave Denorfia and Seth Smith as terrific options off the bench against lefties and righties, respectively.
Just a note about Denorfia: I was so impressed by him at FanFest. He talked with great respect about Buddy Black being excellent at communicating roles to the players (and Denorfia has produced extremely well while knowing exactly what his role is with the Padres). In an interview session with Deno, Alonso, Josh Johnson, and Joaquin Benoit, Deno paid particular attention when Benoit, who has a strong Dominican accent, was speaking, and he reacted perfectly to every nugget of wisdom Benoit had to offer. I saw a real leader, a great listener, and a terrific teammate in Chris Denorfia that day. And I think he has become my favorite Padre. Here’s hoping Buddy finds plenty of playing time for you this year, Chris!
4. San Francisco. The Giants will be counting on Michael Morse, Angel Pagan, and Hunter Pence to bring them back to the World Series for the third time in five years. Morse, who in 2011 put up 31 homers and 95 rbis, has bounced around quite a bit since then, with the Giants being his fourth team since 2012. In August last year, the Mariners traded him to Baltimore, where Morse was only used situationally, appearing in only 12 of the Orioles’ final 26 games. Morse did not seem to embrace that role, collecting only 3 hits after the trade. The Giants are counting on him to return to 2011 form.
Angel Pagan, the Giants leadoff hitter and Center Fielder, played a big role in the Giants 2012 season, having his best year, hitting .288 and scoring 95 runs. But last year, he was limited to 71 games with hamstring issues. An above average CF in his 7-year career, it remains to be seen if the leg injury will limit the range or playing time for the 32-year old.
That brings us to Hunter Pence. I love Hunter Pence. I once spent an entire fantasy-baseball season arguing that Hunter Pence was just as good as Jacoby Ellsbury, trading a little less speed for a little more power. (Take away Ellsbury’s 30 homers in 2012, which was a complete anomaly, and check the figures yourself.) Pence is 5-tool-player-lite. He’s above average in every category, a career .285 hitter with 6 seasons of at least 22 homers and four seasons with at least 90 rbi. He had a career-high 22 steals last year, and has averaged better than 10 outfield assists per season. In addition, he is a tremendous clubhouse guy and fan favorite. I know, I know, he looks completely awkward at the plate, but that’s part of his charm. Hey, he won over the fans in Philly, where they boo Santa Claus. The man is doing something right.
5. Arizona. The Diamondbacks made a major upgrade in outfield power this year, trading speedster Adam Eaton in a 3-way deal to pick up slugger Mark Trumbo. Trumbo’s power is legit, with 95 homers and 284 rbi over the last three years. Trumbo fell a couple of notches in batting average last year, from .268 to .234. At .268, he could hit cleanup behind Paul Goldschmidt. At .234, he’s more likely to be slotted into the 5 hole, behind Miguel Montero. Either way, the middle of Arizona’s lineup just got a big boost.
Complementing Trumbo in CF and RF are A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra, with Cody Ross likely to see plenty of time as the fourth outfielder. Pollock’s numbers show him to be an average CF defensively, but the average CF is really a very good fielder. His rookie batting numbers were nothing to write home about, a .269 average with 8 homers, but his two years in the minors yielded a .303 BA, so there is potential for improvement.
Parra earns his keep primarily with his defense, taking home two Gold Gloves in his 5-year career. He has been a punch-and-judy singles hitter for most of his career, but found enough power last year to hit 43 doubles and 10 homers. At only 27, Parra is just coming into his peak years, and with continued improvement at the plate, he could become relevant in the Dbacks lineup.
Only 40 more days until we see the Dodger and Padre outfielders roaming the spacious grounds at Petco Park on Opening Night in a nationally-televised game. Until then, take a look up into that blue San Diego sky, picture yourself 300 feet away from Matt Kemp at the plate, and sprint back to the wall to rob him of a homer, just like I did at FanFest.
Next time, Pitching staffs.