Around the Horn: Outfielders

Left, center, right a revolving door this winter

With the exception of pitching, no area drew more attention from general managers this winter than the outfield. The heightened quest for outfield help led to numerous changes at the position, so much so that at least 20 of the 30 Major League teams figure to have at least one new starter in the outfield.

In several cases, that one new starter could have a major impact on his new team's fortunes, such as Alfonso Soriano with the Cubs, Gary Matthews Jr. with the Angels, J.D. Drew with the Red Sox and Carlos Lee with the Astros.

Those aren't the only notable outfielders changing addresses this year.

Former Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez is now a Los Angeles Dodger, Moises Alou moved east from San Francisco to join the New York Mets, Kenny Lofton signed a free agent contract with Texas and Jose Guillen wound up in Seattle.

There were others on the move.

Willy Taveras is the new center fielder in Colorado, Juan Pierre takes over at the position for the Dodgers and Dave Roberts has joined the Giants. And Jay Payton moved on to Baltimore after helping Oakland reach the playoffs last season.

Other outfielders, such as Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki and Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr., haven't moved on, but they may be moving to new spots in the outfield this year. A few teams essentially stood pat as far as their starting outfield. And why not?

The Yankees have a strong starting trio in left fielder Hideki Matsui, center fielder Johnny Damon and right fielder Bobby Abreu. The same can be said of Toronto (Reed Johnson, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios) and Tampa Bay (Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young).

"The one area we are covered in is the outfield," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That would be one spot where we are particularly strong. I like the guys we've got out there."

All three Rays are potential five-tool players, as each can hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw. Last season, Crawford established career highs in home runs (18) and average (.305) while once again leading the American League in stolen bases, with 58. He continues to be a human highlight film in left field, and is considered by many to be the best left fielder in baseball.

Baldelli returned to the Rays after missing the entire 2005 season and most of the first half in 2006. In addition to showing splendid range and fielding prowess, Baldelli was second on the team in doubles (24) while collecting 16 home runs and 58 RBIs in 92 games. Young, who has worn the label of "Rays' top prospect" for some time, joined the team in September and gave indications that he belonged.

If Soriano contributes the way the Cubs hope he will, this time next year, the Cubs could be one of those teams satisfied to stand pat with their outfield.

Unlike last year, when Soriano's reluctance to move to left field created a stir during Spring Training, this year, moving to a new position apparently won't be a problem.

The $136 million outfielder said this past weekend that he'd like to play center field, something that manager Lou Piniella had been considering. The move would not only fill a spot on the depth chart but would guarantee that Matt Murton gets plenty of playing time in left, keep Jacque Jones in right and not rush highly regarded prospect Felix Pie to the big leagues.


Remaining Schedule
Catchers: Turnover at backstop
Corner IF: Infusion of youth at third
Middle IF: Lots of new combos
Outfielders: Revolving doors
Starters: Many seeking to rebound
Bullpen: Closers eye comebacks
DH/Bench: Depth can deliver success

"I think I worked hard on my outfield defense last year," Soriano said. "If Lou wants me to play center field, I'll play center field."

Murton is coming off his first full season in the big leagues, a year in which he hit .297 -- including .319 after the All-Star break -- with 13 homers and 62 RBIs. He batted .301 against left-handers. Jones, the only lefty projected in the regular lineup, hit .285 with 27 homers and 81 RBIs in his first season with the Cubs.

The Mets could have one of the better offensive outfields in baseball, with Alou joining center fielder Carlos Beltran and right fielder Shawn Green.

Beltran had a terrific 2006 season, one that earned him a Gold Glove and fourth-place standing in the balloting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award, the second-highest standing by a Met since 1990. Beltran drove in 116 runs, the fifth-highest total in club history, and scored 127 runs, more than any Met ever.

The Detroit Tigers added Gary Sheffield, but the veteran outfielder is expected to primarily serve as designated hitter. Last year in the American League, only the Angels and Blue Jays had more runs created (a Bill James formula to measure offensive contribution) by their top three outfielders than the Tigers had with their trio of center fielder Curtis Granderson, left fielder Craig Monroe and right fielder Magglio Ordonez.

The Pirates added much clarity to their outfield situation last week by acquiring first baseman Adam LaRoche in a trade that will allow the Bucs to shift Xavier Nady to right field on a full-time basis. The Pirates have an emerging superstar in left fielder Jason Bay.

There is, however, another looming outfield question remaining, one that could play a significant role in the fortunes of the Bucs' offense: Can center fielder Chris Duffy give the team the consistency it so desperately needs out of the leadoff spot in the order?

Duffy hit below .200 for the first six weeks last season, was demoted to the Minors in May, criticized manager Jim Tracy for trying to change his approach at the plate, and then refused to report to Triple-A Indianapolis.

Duffy eventually returned and by August he'd worked his way back to the big leagues, hitting .282 and swiping 23 bases in 24 attempts in 53 games.

"It would be a huge help if he can get on base on a regular basis, similar to how he has at times in the past," general manager Dave Littlefield said. "He's had streaks where he's done a real nice job with that. If he can do that on a regular basis, I think it will be a huge help to our offense."

The Indians already had a solid outfield trio in Grady Sizemore in center field, Jason Michaels in left and Casey Blake in right, and they've added free agent signees David Dellucci and Trot Nixon, who will start in the corner spots against right-handed pitching.

Sizemore not only earned his first invite to the All-Star Game in 2006, he became just the second Major Leaguer in history to record 50 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals in a season. He led the AL with 92 extra-base hits, the third-highest mark in club history.

"The dynamic he brings to the leadoff spot fuels our offense and puts us in position to score runs and win games," GM Mark Shapiro said. "I cannot think of a hitter I would rather have hit leadoff for us."

Shapiro believes that Sizemore and Nixon will set up dangerous No. 3 hitter Travis Hafner nicely. Dellucci, signed to a three-year, $11.5 million contract, has some pop in his bat, as evidenced by his 59 homers over the last three seasons.

Arizona fans may miss 2001 World Series hero Gonzalez, but the projected starting outfield of right fielder Carlos Quentin, center fielder Chris Young and left fielder Eric Byrnes has considerable potential.

Espeically Young, who hit .253 with two home runs, 10 RBIs and four doubles in 70 at-bats. The team expects him to become more of an offensive threat as well as he becomes more comfortable with NL pitchers.

"He does everything," manager Bob Melvin said. "You talk about five-tool guys, and he's one of those guys -- runs, hits, power, defense, the whole bit."

Quentin, 24, began his big-league career with a bang last year, hitting a two-run homer in his Major League debut on July 20, becoming only the third player in franchise history to do so. The round-tripper also made Quentin the fourth player in club history to homer in his first at-bat. He finished the 2006 campaign with a .253 average in addition to nine home runs, 32 RBIs and 13 doubles in 166 at-bats.

Lee, Houston's $100 million man, takes over as the Astros' everyday left fielder, with Chris Burke replacing Taveras in center. Luke Scott is the frontrunner to be the club's everyday right fielder, but Jason Lane and Richard Hidalgo are also in the picture.

Scott, 28, was called up after the All-Star break in 2006, and it wasn't long before he was a permanent fixture in the lineup. He hit .385 in the second half of July and .389 in August, bumping Preston Wilson to the bench and, eventually, off the team. Scott wound up hitting .336 with 10 homers in a half season with the Astros.

"[Scott] certainly came on board and did a nice job offensively," GM Tim Purpura said. "He worked hard in the outfield to improve his play. He is definitely a legitimate contender for that role. In some ways he's the leading candidate. He had a good offensive year, albeit not a full year. And he can certainly play the position defensively."

"I think that we're real fortunate that Ichiro can play right field and be a Gold Glove and play center field and be a Gold Glove there, too. And with his offense, he makes us better no matter where he plays."
-- Mariners manager
Mike Hargrove

Right field has been Suzuki's province the last six years, but not this time. The six-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner agreed to move to center field on a full-time basis for 2007 after playing the position for the final two months of the 2006 season. The move not only gave Seattle an immediate upgrade in center field, it allowed the Mariners to add a potential thumper to an outfield equation that's been sadly short on power, even with left fielder Raul Ibanez coming off a career year in which he hit 33 home runs and drive in 123 runs.

One of Seattle's first moves of the offseason was securing a right fielder in Guillen, who has 143 career home runs and enjoyed his best season as a Major Leaguer in Anaheim in 2004, when he hit 27 home runs and drove in 104 runs.

"It gives us a chance to bring a bigger bat like Guillen into the fold, which I think makes a big impact on the club," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I think that we're real fortunate that Ichiro can play right field and be a Gold Glove and play center field and be a Gold Glove there, too. And with his offense, he makes us better no matter where he plays."

Nine-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones is back for what could be his final season as Atlanta's center fielder, as he'll be eligible for free agency next winter. Jeff Francoeur returns in right field for the Braves.

It appears that Braves manager Bobby Cox will once again use a platoon in left field. Right-handed hitter Matt Diaz and left-handed hitter Ryan Langerhans, who combined to fill that role for most of last year, will head to camp as prime candidates. Recently signed Craig Wilson could also figure in the left field mix.

Drew, still working out a contract with the Red Sox, is expected to team with left fielder Manny Ramirez and center fielder Coco Crisp in the Boston outfield, and Wily Mo Pena will be the fourth outfielder. One of the reasons the Sox were most excited about bringing Drew on board is because they believe they need an outfielder with center-field range to play the difficult right field at Fenway. Drew has that ability.

Griffey, who is tied with Reggie Jackson for 10th on the all-time homers list with 563, could move to right field after spending all but six games of his 18-year Major League career as a center fielder. The notion is that right field would provide less wear and tear on his body, especially with less running. Griffey has been hampered by leg injuries that have cost him numerous games since he went to Cincinnati from Seattle in 2000.

"We'll all go to Spring Training with an open mind," general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "We'll see which makes us a better team. I think Junior and the organization are open-minded. No one has a crystal ball."

If Griffey does move to right field, Ryan Freel and Chris Denorfia will be the two leading in-house candidates to take over in center.

The Rangers must find a way to fit Frank Catalanotto, Kenny Lofton, Marlon Byrd, Nelson Cruz and Brad Wilkerson into three spots. Much depends on how Wilkerson comes back from August shoulder surgery.

The White Sox may have a center field battle on their hands this spring between Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney, as well as in left field, now that starter Scott Podsednik is expected to miss six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a hernia. Chicago brought in Darin Erstad, who can play center, and a number of rookies could battle this spring for the left field job.

Right field is set with Jermaine Dye. Dye soared to MVP-candidate status last season after batting .315 with 44 home runs and 120 RBIs. He joined Albert Belle, Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko as the only players in White Sox history to hit 40 or more homers.

In San Francisco, Barry Bonds is expected back to continue his pursuit of Hank Aaron's Major League record of 755 career home runs. He needs 22 to tie Aaron.

Bonds, who has not signed a contract with the Giants and turns 43 on July 24, says that he dedicated the offseason to rejuvenating his legs, slimming down -- he was noticeably heftier as last season wore on -- and strengthening his batting base, but no one will be sure until next month when Spring Training opens in Scottsdale, Ariz.

If Bonds returns, he'll be joined by right fielder Randy Winn, who will be seeking to bounce back from a disappointing season, and center fielder Dave Roberts, who stole 49 bases last year for San Diego.

Replacing Roberts in San Diego will be Terrmel Sledge, who has big shoes to fill. Among all regular outfields in Major League Baseball in 2006, the Padres' unit of Roberts, Mike Cameron and Brian Giles was the most productive offensively, with a total of 305 runs created. The Angels' trio of Garret Anderson, Chone Figgins and Vladimir Guerrero was second with 285 runs created.

Matthews will fit nicely in Anaheim between left fielder Anderson and right fielder Guerrero.

"He is going to be a lift in center field," manager Mike Scioscia said. "There are a couple of positions on the field when guys play it at a high level, and what they bring to the rest of the players. You see that with Orlando [Cabrera] at short and you've seen it in the past with Erstad. But I think you'll see Gary bring the whole outfield to another level."

Matthews hit .313 with 19 homers and 79 RBIs last season, with a .371 on-base percentage, while leading the Rangers with 102 runs scored.

"Guys learn at different stages of their careers," general manager Bill Stoneman said at the time of the signing. "Gary is coming into his own."

Baltimore's search for a starting left fielder and right-handed bat led the Orioles to Payton, and the addition of the versatile Aubrey Huff gives the team another corner-outfield option. Corey Patterson returns in center, and Nick Markakis will be in right field.

"I don't expect to start 162 games," Payton said. "I'll hit anywhere, one through nine. Wherever they put me. I know my role."

None of the three 2006 Opening Day outfield starters for the Nationals -- Soriano, Guillen and Brandon Watson -- is on the roster. Washington will likely go with Nook Logan in center and Austin Kearns in right, and Kory Casto, Ryan Church, Alex Escobar and Chris Snelling will be battling for the starting spot in left field.

Minnesota returns Torii Hunter in center and Michael Cuddyer in right, with Rondell White the leading candidate for the left-field job.

After an oblique strain slowed his progress at the end of Spring Training, Cuddyer started the year coming off the bench. But when an opportunity arrived, Cuddyer grabbed it and ran, delivering 109 RBIs and 102 runs scored and becoming just the 18th player in Twins history to top the 100 mark in both categories.

St. Louis also stood pat in the outfield, with Chris Duncan, Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion back for the World Series champions.

Which GM fared best in his reshaping of the outfield? The season will answer that question.

Jim Molony is a reporter for reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.