Outfields trumpet changing of the guard
Turnover across MLB will give teams new look this season
Sales of scorecards should be brisk in Arizona and Florida. Major League outfields have turned into fields of drifts, and fans will need those reference guides to familiarize themselves with the new casts.Prime outfielders have always ranked among the game's shiniest icons. The first seven names on the all-time home run list are still all outfielders. We still have a few of those immovable icons -- Garret Anderson in Anaheim, Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. in Cincinnati, Manny Ramirez in Boston. But, reflecting the real world as it always does, baseball is a mobile society. Icons aren't exempt. So Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Geoff Jenkins -- even Japan's Kosuke Fukudome -- have changed threads, the iconic leaders of a widespread transition that has us looking at outfields in both the National and American Leagues through kaleidoscopes. Here's the census on this population: Of last season's 90 outfield regulars, only 40 will be back in the same spot this season (and, yes, we're including Washington right fielder Austin Kearns, who, in brand new Nationals Park, actually will be a handful of miles south of where he played in RFK Stadium). Much of the turnover is in the critical middle of the gardens. Headlined by Hunter's arrival at Angel Stadium, an incredible 18 clubs will be unveiling new center fielders. The changes are spread across the big leagues, impacting virtually every team. In fact, the only ones set to stand pat in the outfield are the Colorado Rockies with, left to right, MVP runner-up Matt Holliday, Willy Taveras and Brad Hawpe. Three other teams, all in the AL East, have incumbents at two of the three spots, with a third returning regular now in a projected platoon. In the Bronx, Hideki Matsui may, at best, share left field with Johnny Damon, alongside center fielder Melky Cabrera and Bobby Abreu in right. In Boston, center fielder Coco Crisp has to detain Jacoby Ellsbury, between Ramirez in left and J.D. Drew in right. In Toronto, Vernon Wells and Alex Rios are fixtures in center and right, respectively, but Reed Johnson may have to share left with Matt Stairs.
Far more typical are the Rangers, who have overhauled their outfield with imports Josh Hamilton in center and Milton Bradley in right and Marlon Byrd taking over in the left-field spot where he made a total of 18 appearances in 2007.Also typical are the A's, who have aired out their outfield and are looking at a new starting trio of Emil Brown, Chris Denorfia and Travis Buck -- guys who appeared in a total of 187 big league games last season. Change equals anticipation, and Oakland manager Bob Geren says eagerly, "I see a mostly young, very athletic group of guys who have a chance to really grow together and surprise a lot of people." Besides, he meant, those who drop by Phoenix Municipal Stadium looking for last summer's outfield. Competition repetition The prevalence of guaranteed contracts -- hardly a novel concept, but the standard more than ever -- has pretty much done away with that Spring Training staple of yore, fighting for a job. Lineups are essentially locked in prior to the first workout. One of the game's new general managers, Pittsburgh's Neal Huntington, even goes as far as to admit, "I'm not a big fan of Spring Training decisions." But, retro fans, the good-old-fashioned showdown will be back en vogue in a number of camps. May the best outfielder win. Red Sox: Since Johan Santana's Twins haven't helped solve the logjam (yet), incumbent Crisp stands to go eye-to-eye with the kid, Ellsbury. Boston GM Theo Epstein does not feel "stuck." "We're in a good position to have two quality center-field options on the roster, and we'll see what comes of it," Epstein said. "We certainly wouldn't be opposed to having both guys in camp. It takes more than three outfielders to get through the season. Maybe it will develop into a competition." Padres: Scott Hairston, the late-game miracle worker following his late-July acquisition from Arizona, and converted third-base phenom Chase Headley will compete for left field. They'll have even more company in Chip Ambres, Paul McAnulty and veteran camp guests Jody Gerut and Jeff DaVanon. Twins: As long as the Santana lure remains on the hook (see: Boston), the scene in center to replace Hunter looks like a Starbucks counter at 8 a.m. Craig Monroe, Denard Span and Jason Pridie are set to rumble -- and corner outfielders Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer may also find themselves in the mix. Rays: Displaced by a series of injuries from center (now B.J. Upton's home), Rocco Baldelli joins a veteran scrum including Jonny Gomes and Cliff Floyd for the right-field spot. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon: "Rocco is the key. It may go right down to like the day before Opening Day. I'm not disputing that that's a definite possibility." Yankees: They have also been "backed up" by the Twins, and, with Melky Cabrera still in center, Damon is bumped into a left-field fight with Matsui. Neither can be simply consigned to DH with Jason Giambi still in the picture. Pirates: Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth, the inspirations for Huntington to express his dislike for camp fights, will duel in center. A runoff wouldn't work -- they can both fly, with 29 steals in 33 combined attempts last season. Fittingly, Huntington's early read on their race for center: "I think, right now, it's a dead heat." Gun and rake Every position has its double-threat components, and in the outfield, those components are a strong arm and a heavy bat.
Outfielders who cracked double-figures in assists and home runs with a TNT (throw 'n tater) rating of 35-plus: Alfonso Soriano, Cubs LF: 52 (33 homers, 19 assists)
Jeff Francoeur, Braves RF: 38 (19, 19)
Aaron Rowand, Phillies CF: 38 (27, 11)
Nick Markakis, Orioles RF: 36 (23, 13)
Cuddyer, Twins RF: 35 (16, 19)
Rios, Blue Jays RF: 35 (24, 11)
Upton, Rays CF: 35 (24-11) Stuff you don't hear every day "I feel like I've become accustomed to the baggie." -- Cuddyer, expressing a preference for continuing to play right field in the Metrodome, rather than take a shot at being Hunter's replacement in center "I had Griffey the first year he played, and he is in that category in my opinion. They're close to the same animal." -- Louisville manager Rick Sweet, on Jay Bruce, the 20-year-old anticipated to assume center field in Cincinnati after earning Minor League Player of the Year honors for his climb from Class A through Triple-A last summer "He definitely outperformed his contract." -- Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, on the versatile Stairs, who had 21 homers and drove in 64 runs in only 357 at-bats last season while drawing $850,000 The Ex-Ray Factor From Tampa Bay, they have fanned out to spread cheer and high hopes throughout the Major Leagues. Hamilton: The first-overall pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft thrilled Cincinnati last season with his rebirth and has moved on to Arlington, becoming the Rangers' new center-field piece. Joey Gathright: The one-time Tampa Bay comet (60 steals while being caught only 18 times) is still running wild, now for the Royals. In less than half a season in Kansas City, he burned for 25 infield singles, 10 of them bunts. Elijah Dukes: His talents now have people dizzy with anticipation in Washington, D.C., where he might emerge as a top contender for the Josh Hamilton Award -- given to sidetracked prodigies who make heartening comebacks from personal strife -- if the award existed. Outfield factoids For the second straight season, Soriano got the least bang for the jack: His 33 homers contributed to only 70 RBIs -- the dozen others with 33-plus home runs averaged 118 RBIs, none fewer than Jim Thome's 96; in 2006, Soriano had driven in 95 runs while homering 46 times. Whichever of their two right fielders is on duty -- Endy Chavez or newcomer Ryan Church -- on any given day the Mets will troop out their ABC outfield, with Moises Alou in left and Carlos Beltran in the middle. While new Milwaukee center fielder Mike Cameron is serving out his season-opening 25-game suspension, it'll take two Gabes to keep his spot warm, Gross and Kapler. Highest paid Reds player? Nope, not the one who first comes to your mind. It is Adam Dunn, the first in Cincinnati's storied history to put up 40 homers in four straight seasons, whose $13 million salary tops Griffey's by a half-mil.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.