Giancarlo Stanton got a lot of attention in 2014 for his record-setting contract, for leading the National League in homers, and for that frightening moment when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball. All of that obscured Stanton's improvement as a player defensively, just one more reason why he and teammates Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna make up the No. 1 outfield combination in the majors.
With that, here's Part VI of the team element rankings: The top 10 outfields, based on the thoughts of MLB evaluators:
The Marlins' trio of Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna is incredibly young, and while colleague Jonah Keri might consider this blasphemous, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether these guys might eventually compare favorably with some of the trios that the Montreal Expos fielded through their extraordinary history of outfielders, such as the trio of Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine (or Warren Cromartie), or the Moises Alou/Marquis Grissom/Larry Walker set. Stanton appears destined to be remembered as one of Major League Baseball's great power hitters, Yelich's career is off to an excellent start, and the other day, ESPN Insider Tony Blengino explained why Ozuna looks ready to break out.
Opposing pitchers already worked carefully to Stanton -- especially lefties, given his 1.000-plus OPS against them -- but this probably will be the season he starts to get a steady dose of the Barry Bonds treatment, as Andrew McCutchen and Freddie Freeman did last season. Stanton had 94 walks last season, and a rival scout mentioned the other day that it's a wonder he didn't have a lot more than that.
The Marlins' other two starting outfielders will have a lot to do with whether Miami exploits the chances created by Stanton's dominance at the plate. Yelich will hit in front of Stanton, along with Dee Gordon, and as Pirates manager Clint Hurdle noted last summer, lineup protection really comes from the spots in front of an elite hitter, not behind him, because if the top of the order consistently fills the bases, pitchers are backed into a corner and forced to deal with someone like Stanton. And Ozuna will hit behind Stanton somewhere, although the Marlins aren't sure where yet, and should bat often with Stanton on base.
As with those Montreal outfield combinations, there is excellence on defense as well, with Ozuna and Yelich each ranking among the leaders in defensive runs saved at their respective positions. Mark Simon, the "minister of defense" for ESPN Stats and Information, passed along numbers that show Stanton's improvement: "Stanton had rated well in right field every season but 2013 (minus-7 DRS). He bounced back to 7 DRS in 2014.
"Baseball Info Solutions charts good fielding plays and defensive misplays and errors as a means of doing advanced scorekeeping. Good plays can be things such as catches on tough-to-catch balls and cutting off throws to prevent baserunners from taking extra bases. Defensive misplays would be things like slipping and falling, failing to cut off a ball or failing to handle a carom off the wall cleanly." Here's a look at both categories for Stanton:
Stanton good plays vs. misplays and errors
2010: 25 good, 20 misplays and errors
2011: 25 good, 49 misplays and errors
2012: 24 good, 37 misplays and errors
2013: 18 good, 39 misplays and errors
2014: 28 good, 29 misplays and errors
"So he got his ratio back to 1-to-1, when it was not close to that from 2011 to 2013."
Stanton appears to be locked up through the next Bush or Clinton presidency, and Yelich and Ozuna are under team control for the years ahead. They could accomplish a whole lot together.
Andrew McCutchen didn't win the MVP award last summer, as he did in 2013, but he seemed to grow as a hitter as he coped with that Bonds treatment, learning how to do damage while seeing his walk total climb. Similarly, Pittsburgh left fielder Starling Marte had a season of progress, fighting his way through a horrific early-season slump to rate among the game's best hitters in the second half, when only three hitters -- Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Buster Posey -- posted a higher OPS.
The wild card for the Pirates' outfield production is the talented Gregory Polanco. When the Pittsburgh fan base clamored for the promotion of Polanco early last season, GM Neal Huntington warned about the adjustments that he would eventually face, knowing that Polanco is a tall hitter with long arms who would be facing a new level of challenges from opposing pitchers. As it turned out, Huntington turned out to be dead on in his assessment. Polanco started nicely, but finished with a .650 OPS, often sitting late in the season. If Polanco takes a step forward in 2015, as Ozuna did for the Marlins in 2014, the Pirates' outfield could be the majors' best.
Jayson Werth's status for the start of the season is up in the air following shoulder surgery, but there is this consolation: It's his right shoulder that is getting fixed, not his left shoulder, the lead shoulder in his swing. Werth played through the issue last season and had a strong season at the plate, racking up 54 extra-base hits and 83 walks and scoring 85 runs. He'll move to left field this year, with Bryce Harper shifting to right field, and some year there will be a major Harper breakout. Maybe 2015 will be the year he stays healthy and puts up big numbers. The steady Denard Span mans center field, coming off a season in which he posted a .771 OPS.
Meanwhile, some folks in opposing organizations are pleased that Jarrod Dyson is only a part-time player so far because of his impact on the basepaths and in the field; he had 290 plate appearances in 2014, and it appears he will serve basically as the fourth outfielder again. The Royals are betting that Alex Rios will be better than he was last season with the Rangers, when his power simply disappeared. He hit just one homer after May 14 -- in 352 plate appearances.
Jason Heyward has been warmly welcomed in St. Louis, and perhaps this will be the place where he will develop consistency, smooth out his swing, learn to deal with the inside fastballs he gets constantly and fare better against left-handed pitchers. Heyward has been one of MLB's best defenders in recent seasons, and he fits into the Cardinals' efforts over the past 15 months to improve the team's glove work. Center fielder Jon Jay had a resurgence in 2014, pushing his average to .303 and improving his defense.
Some rival evaluators watched Allen Craig struggle to hit behind Matt Holliday in the first half last season and felt there was no reason to give Holliday opportunities to hit in crucial spots. As the St. Louis production around Holliday improved through 2014, Holliday also got better. He continues to be an anchor in the Cards' lineup, but he just turned 35 and his OPS+ has been in decline:
Jacoby Ellsbury had a good first season with the Yankees, with 48 extra-base hits and 39 stolen bases, although he and the team probably expected more. Left fielder Brett Gardner ranks among the better defenders at his position, and he's coming off a year of unexpected power. He hit 17 homers, acknowledging that he increasingly looked for opportunities to drive the ball in particular ball-strike counts. Carlos Beltran tried to play through elbow trouble last summer and was never quite right, and he'll go into the 2015 season as something of a mystery, given his age (he turns 38 in April). The Yankees will also use Chris Young and Garrett Jones in right field.
Among all the teams in this group, there is probably more uncertainty about who will play in the Red Sox's outfield than any other. But Boston has a lot of really good options for manager John Farrell to choose from. Hanley Ramirez is ticketed for left field after the Red Sox aggressively targeted him. But center field and right field aren't settled. Rusney Castillo is promising and the Red Sox paid big dollars for him, but Mookie Betts thrived in his two-month audition last season; either Castillo or Betts could play center field. The Red Sox also have one year left in their three-year contract with Shane Victorino, who is returning from back surgery, and Boston's front office will bring Victorino into camp and see what he does before determining a course of action. They know this: When Victorino was healthy in 2013, he played Fenway Park's massive right field better than anyone since Dwight Evans. Additionally, they have Daniel Nava, a switch hitter with a high on-base percentage, plus the aforementioned Allen Craig and Jackie Bradley Jr.
There's a lot to sort through, a lot of competition, and in the end, that should turn out to be a good thing for the Red Sox's outfield production.
Mike Trout is widely regarded as MLB's best player, and Kole Calhoun continues to draw attention for his impact at the top of the Angels' lineup; he scored 90 runs in just 127 games. The only reason a trio that includes Trout isn't higher is because nobody -- neither the Angels nor anybody else -- has any idea what Josh Hamilton will contribute. Hamilton, 33, got off to a really nice start in 2014, but in the second half he was a mess, with his OPS plummeting from .822 before the All-Star break to .660 in the second half. He closed the year with 108 strikeouts and 10 homers in 381 plate appearances, and manager Mike Scioscia, as adept as any manager in protecting his players, spoke out about Hamilton's inconsistency.
The irony is that Hamilton's contract is heavily backloaded, and his salary will skyrocket over the next three years, to $25.4 million in 2015, $32.4 million in 2016 and $32.4 million in 2017, for a total of $90.2 million.
As a rival evaluator noted, there is a wide range of possible outcomes for San Diego's outfield trio of Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp. It's possible they could match the vision of GM A.J. Preller and hit so well that they overwhelm any concerns about their defense and the large number of strikeouts they'll probably compile. All three possess the transformative power needed to make Petco Park's dimensions look small, and each has reason to open 2015 with a chip on his shoulder. Kemp might want to prove to the Dodgers they made a mistake; Myers is coming off an injury-plagued season that probably helped convince the Rays they needed to move him while they could get decent return; and Upton will be eligible for free agency in the fall, and with a big year, he could put himself in position for a huge payout.
But it's also possible, the evaluator noted, that this combination of outfielders in that particular park won't work. Kemp's injury history scared away other teams (including the Dodgers, in all likelihood), while Myers is being asked to play center field regularly for the first time in pro ball, in one of the largest outfields in the majors. All three might suffer from the overwhelmingly right-handed nature of San Diego's lineup, which will draw right-handers from opposing teams constantly.
The Padres are like a great science experiment. If it works, the front office will get plaudits from all around. If it doesn't, then San Diego might have spent a lot of money that only fuels the cynicism of a frustrated fan base.
Over the past seven seasons, Hunter Pence has missed a total of 24 games, which goes a long way in explaining why manager Bruce Bochy lobbied hard for the Giants to sign the right fielder to a long-term deal before he became a free agent. Angel Pagan is the Giants' center fielder, and during the regular season, his presence in the leadoff spot helped San Francisco reach the postseason before he underwent surgery on a bulging disc. The Giants had enough concerns about their outfield depth that they recently signed Norichika Aoki to a one-year, $4.7 million deal. He could share time with Gregor Blanco or Juan Perez in left field.
Aoki could be an option at leadoff if Pagan gets hurt again.
Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun has told reporters his surgically repaired thumb feels better, and if he comes back strong, the Brewers will once again have a couple of All-Star outfielders, with Carlos Gomez already established among the best center fielders in the game.
New York Mets: Michael Cuddyer missed 32 games in 2013 and 113 games in 2014; when he plays, though, he hits, and the Mets are betting he'll stay healthy. Juan Lagares might be the majors' best defensive outfielder.
Around the league
• Kevin Long is hurt by the Yankees' decision to fire him, John Harper writes.
• Cubs owner Tom Ricketts joked about the White Sox attendance. Whether it's a coincidence or not, the context is interesting: Ricketts just got a nice appointment from the incoming commissioner, and Jerry Reinsdorf got booted from that inner circle.
• Things are looking better for the Athletics, writes Bill Madden.
• A Rangers prospect could be part of the big league rotation, writes Evan Grant.
• The Angels settled with a couple of their guys.
• Brad Ausmus will have some interesting decisions with his lineup, writes Lynn Henning.
• Terry Pluto writes about Terry Francona's love of relievers.
• For once, the Yankees have been cheaper than the Mets, writes Ken Davidoff.
• Dan Connolly examines the Baltimore payroll.
• Rusney Castillo has been a man on the move, writes Brian MacPherson.
• Some Red Sox rookies went to Harvard.
• As the Dodgers' new front office has taken over, the choice has been easy for Don Mattingly.
• The NL Central test for the Pirates has gotten tougher, writes Rob Biertempfel.
• The Cardinals are courting Jason Heyward this season.
• The Central has gotten tougher for the Reds, writes C. Trent Rosecrans.
• Ruben Amaro would like to see a certain top Phillies prospect spend 2015 in the minors.
• The timelessness of baseball has become less than sacred, writes Tyler Kepner.
• Within this piece, there is mention of MLB's new executive committee. It's all about alliances.
• Souvenir ticket stubs have become a thing of the past.
And today will be better than yesterday.