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The Strike Zone

Booms and Busts: Outfielders

A new home could mean bigger and better things for Adam Eaton this season. (Tony Gutierrez/AP) A new home could mean bigger and better things for Adam Eaton this season. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Late last month, I kicked off my second go-round of Booms and Busts, in which I highlighted a small handful of players at a given position whom I expect to take significant steps forward or backward. I have no hard-and-fast criteria for those players, no promises of fantasy league dominance or skyrocketing statistics for the Booms or slides below the Mendoza Line for the Busts. But between poring over projections, identifying players in changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, or entries into the prime age range of 26-29 years old, there are players I’d like to earmark before the season begins, for better or worse.

Note that I won’t be including rookies among these picks — those will be saved for another cycle — and I’m hoping (but not promising) that I won’t choose anyone from among last year’s picks. In the spirit of accountability, I’ll revisit those picks at each position, and see what I’ve learned (or haven’t); they’ll be judged on a PASS/FAIL basis as to whether I was right or wrong. In the interests of space and time commitments, I'm condensing the outfield from three pieces into one, with one Boom and Bust at each position, and shorter reviews of last year's field.

BOOMS

Yoenis Cespedes, A's (LF): Amid a whole lot of hype — fueled by a legendary showcase video that ends with a pig roast — the Cuban defector delivered the goods in 2012, batting .292/.356/.505 with 23 homers. While he went yard 26 times in 2013 and won the Home Run Derby, he slipped to .240/.294/.442. Though his performance against lefties held steady, he fell off sharply against righties; within that split, both his batting average on balls in play (which dipped from .331 to .259) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (which shot from 2.4 to 5.6) took drastic steps in the wrong direction. Some of that may have been Trouble With the Curve; the Baseball Prospectus 2014 annual notes that he saw a whole lot more of them when he fell behind in the count. Nagging thumb, hamstring and shoulder injuries were probably also factor; he did a 15-day stint on the disabled list for the thumb in April, and though he was out of the lineup several times thereafter, Cespedes never went back on the DL when it might have been a better idea to rest. In all, his WAR slipped from 3.7 to 1.7. He's capable of so much more, and I'm banking that he'll show it in 2014.

Adam Eaton, White Sox (CF): A well-regarded prospect who came into the 2013 season positioned as a top-of-the-lineup sparkplug and potential Rookie of the Year candidate, Eaton sprained his left (throwing) ulnar collateral ligament during spring training and didn't join the Diamondbacks until July 9. He played just 66 games and fell short both on offense (.252/.314/.360 with three homers and five steals) and defense, and for all of general manager Kevin Towers' glowing preseason talk about him, he allegedly wore out his welcome in the Arizona clubhouse, according to courageous ex-teammates who spoke up anonymously after he was traded. Regardless of that small-sample performance, it seems ridiculous for a team to change course so quickly on a now-25-year-old centerfielder who was so recently spoken of in glowing terms; I'm particularly willing to bet against Towers given his recent track record, so I think he'l flourish on the South Side.

Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins (RF): Stanton's power is already legendary, but he's had a difficult time staying in the lineup due to a variety of leg problems; after missing a month due to right knee surgery in mid-2012, he lost six weeks to a hamstring strain in early 2013. While he still poked 24 homers in 504 PA, his .249/.365/.480 represented career lows in batting average, slugging percentage and isolated power; in the red for the first time defensively according to Defensive Runs Saved (-7), his 2.4 WAR was a career low as well, less than half of his 2012 mark (5.5) in a similar amount of playing time. Some of his falloff might have been the existential despair of remaining a Marlin during the team's teardown; notably, his walk rate spiked as it was easier for opponents to key on him with no other lineup regulars slugging even .400. Stanton is still very young (24 last November) and, at least with full seasons from the even younger Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna, accompanied by more talent, if not exactly surrounded by it. Expect fireworks.

BUSTS

Ryan Ludwick, Reds (LF): Ludwick spent two years wandering in the wilderness before enjoying a strong rebound with the bat in 2012 (.275/.346/.531 with 26 homers), but his 2013 season was a lost cause. He dislocated his right (non-throwing) labrum while sliding on Opening Day, was out until mid-August after undergoing surgery, and wound up hitting just .240/.293/.326 with two homers in 140 PA. As he's due $8 million for 2014 with a $4.5 million buyout for 2015, the Reds resisted upgrading their leftfield situation this winter, but what they have on their hands is a 35-year-old who has hit .255/.325/.429 with subpar defense over his past five seasons; Ludwick has averaged 453 PA but just 0.7 WAR in that span. The Reds can hope he'll return to 2012 form, but the rest of us should be less optimistic.

Michael Saunders, Mariners (CF): A year ago, I had Saunders among my rightfield Booms, expecting that at age 26, he would build on his former prospect status and be helped by changed dimensions of Safeco Field. That home performance changed shape, but his higher on-base percentage was canceled out by a drop in slugging percentage, and his OPS for the split actually dropped by two points; meanwhile, his performance against lefties regressed to an unplayable .211/.293 /.361 in 150 PA. Even with a strong second half, his raw batting line (.236/.323/.397) wasn't pretty, though it was still good for a 106 OPS+ in his run-suppressing environment. The problem was that the absence of Franklin Gutierrez again pushed Saunders to play centerfield, where his defense was double-digits awful, just as shown in 2012. That role most definitely wasn't part of the deal, so I'm grading last year's evaluation a PUSH, and with Gutierrez again sidelined, I'm going on record as being far less sanguine about Saunders even as he heads into his age-27 season.

Nick Markakis, Orioles (RF):  After missing more than two months due to two separate hand injuries in 2012, Markakis returned to being a lineup staple; his 160 games marked the sixth time in seven years he's missed five or fewer games in a year. Unfortunately, he had his worst season at the plate, setting across-the-board lows with a .271/.329/.356 line, 10 homers and −0.1 WAR. He's better than that, but even so, he enters his age-30 season having averaged just 1.9 WAR per year for the past five seasons due to the erosion of his power and his defense; he hasn't hit 20 homers since 2008, and has been a combined 25 runs below average since then according to Defensive Runs Saved (-32 UZR). Those are some discouraging trend arrows.

Last Year's Booms (Leftfield/Centerfield/Rightfield) graded Pass/Fail

Matt Joyce, Rays (LF): Joyce struggled after returning from a 2012 oblique strain; I thought he'd bounce back while being shielded from lefties more. His .235/.328/.419 wasn't horrible in context (109 OPS+) but his 1.2 WAR (thanks to lousy defense) wasn't what I had in mind. FAIL

Justin Upton, Braves (LF): Bounced out of Arizona for his lack of grit, Upton started hot, and while he cooled off, his .263/.354/.464 with 27 homers (122 OPS+) helped the Braves coast to an NL East flag and represented modest improvement beyond both his 2011 (110 OPS+) and career mark (118). Even with subpar defense at an easier position, both versions of WAR show improvement. Narrow PASS

Lorenzo Cain, Royals (CF): Though injuries limited him to 115 games and he hit just .251/.310/.348 (80 OPS+), Cain was at least 20 runs above average via both DRS and UZR, with 3.2 WAR (B-Ref version), helping the Royals' march to respectability. PASS

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (CF): 134 games and a 5.8 WAR season that helped win a World Series and net him a $153 million contract? That speaks for itself. PASS

Brett Gardner, Yankees (CF): A solid rebound while taking over centerfield (.273/.344/.416, 4.2 WAR) earned him a nifty extension. PASS

• Michael Saunders, Mariners (RF): See above; he was thrust into a role that I hadn't anticipated, so I'm calling that bet off. PUSH.

Jayson Werth, Nationals (RF): Like just about every other Nat, he couldn't escape injury, but with a strong performance at the plate (.318/.398/.532 with 25 homers in 532 PA) and 4.8 WAR, he's started to make that contract look better. PASS

Last Year's Busts

Jason Kubel, Diamondbacks (LF): .220/.288/.324 with −0.7 WAR as a Diamondback before being designated for assignment. E-Z PASS

Nate McLouth, Orioles (LF): Overexposed as I predicted (593 PA, including 130 mostly bad ones against lefties), he hit .258/.329/.399 for a 96 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR. PASS

David Murphy, Rangers (LF): "Count this as yet another over-30 lefty in a larger role than his skills may merit," I wrote. The Murph hit .220/.282/.374 in 473 PA, and his sudden ability to hit lefties magically vanished (.223/.270/.291 in 111 PA). PASS

Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (CF): It's bad enough how wrong I was about the Blue Jays being a contender, but then I singled out a player whose performance (.276/.338/.501 with 22 homers and a career-best 4.8 WAR) wound up as one of roughly three things that went right for them. One of my biggest FAILs of the series.

Ben Revere, Phillies (CF): At .305/.338/.352, his batting average was shiny, but his already lousy walk rate and lack of power actually worsened, and his defense was subpar via multiple metrics before a fractured foot ended his year in mid-July. PASS

Ichiro Suzuki, Yankees (RF): His 4,000th hit was a moment to celebrate, but his 2012 post-trade surge was indeed a mirage, and he was overexposed, hitting .262/.297/.342 in 555 PA. PASS

Shane Victorino, Red Sox (RF): It took giving up switch-hitting for him to reverse a three-year trend of struggling against righties, but a 6.2 WAR season (with 23 DRS in rightfield) is a 6.2 WAR season — offhand, I believe that's the highest of anybody I called a Bust. FAIL

Delmon Young, Phillies (RF): My joke about Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.'s decision to get Young-er (via Busts Michael and Delmon) instead of younger is the gift that keeps on giving; Delmon hit .261/.302/.397 with −10 DRS and −1.2 WAR before being shipped back to Tampa Bay COD. PASS

Scorecard: 11 PASS, 3 FAIL, 1 PUSH

Running total (all positions thus far): 28 PASS, 12 FAIL, 1 PUSH

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