Albatross Outfielders Taking Flight

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Back in mid-April, FanGraphs ran a piece by Matt Klaassen that looked at the starts of the "All-Albatross Outfield", which consisted of the Blue Jays' Vernon Wells, the Royals' Jose Guillen and the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano. At that point, Wells and Guillen were two of the hottest hitters in the AL, while some pretty smart people were borderline calling for Soriano's head. The common thread between the three was that they were all regarded as exceptionally overpaid, three of the most unmovable long-term deals in the game.

But go scrape across the MLB leaderboards now, and you'll find that all of these overpaid outfielders have something else in common, too: a lot of them are playing really, really well right now. At the start of the season, which guys would you have included on your list of the most overpaid outfielders in the game? How about Wells, Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, Alex Rios and Magglio Ordonez as a reasonable start? Would you believe that those five are among the Top 12 MLB outfielders in wOBA, and four of them are among the Top 8 MLB outfielders in fWAR?

I mean, don't ask Carlos Lee, but right now, the albatross outfielders have been among the most effective players in baseball. Rios currently leads all outfielders in fWAR, with a .311/.356/.574 line, good for a .409 wOBA so far. Oh, and his defense in center field? It's been nothing short of very good, and the metrics agree (+5 DRS, +7 UZR so far in 2010). He's on pace for roughly 8.5 WAR right now, which he obviously won't maintain, but as the ever-astute Klaassen noted last week, the White Sox may have made a pretty nice move in claiming Rios off waivers last year.

Ordonez, Wells, Fukudome and Soriano have all been truly awesome surprises for their respective teams so far as well, even though their numbers shouldn't be all that surprising considering the kind of cash they're being paid. Ordonez is tied for third among AL outfielders in fWAR. He'll likely never be the slugger that he once was, but he's hitting over .300 for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons, he's flashing a greatly improved 14% walk rate, and his power production has still been slightly above average this season. His WAR is inflated somewhat by an uncharacteristically high UZR that doesn't gel with the DRS numbers, but even so he's been a hugely pleasant surprise for Detroit so far this season.

Wells has been touched on a lot this season given his shocking resurgence and the well-known size of his contract, but there are still some reasons to be worried about the 31-year-old center fielder. His strikeout rate is the highest of his career, which shouldn't be a coincidence given that he's making less contact than ever as well. He's showing a much more aggressive approach this season, one that includes way more swings on balls outside the zone, and while he's greatly improved his contact rate on those pitches, he's progressively been making less contacts on balls in the zone over the years. The aggressive approach has led to significantly more first-pitch strikes and swing-and-misses, as well as more infield flies as well. ZiPS projects Wells for some serious regression to finish the season (.346 rest-of-season wOBA), which would seem to be reasonable given that he's not likely to maintain his 21% HR/FB.

And then there are the two Cubbies, Soriano and Fukudome. Coming into the season, most Cub fans expected to blame these two on the offense's struggles this season, but shockingly these two have been the primary life support of an offense that has witnessed the respective demises of Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. Soriano has been going on one of his patented hot streaks lately, batting .350/.424/.709 with 8 home runs and 24 RBI in his past 30 games. He's got a .441 wOBA on the season now, one point behind Jayson Werth for the second-best wOBA in the NL. Obviously he's still overpaid going forward, but the Cubs can take a little hit if he's still a ~3-4 WAR outfielder going forward.

As for Fukudome, he'll always be essentially a platoon player, he's a completely different hitter against lefties than righties. But against right-handers, he's an OBP-machine with above-average power and base-running ability. He might not be useful against a sizable portion of the league's pitchers, but when he's not facing southpaws he's among the best right fielders in the game. If the Cubs can get anywhere near the production they've got from Soriano, Fukudome, Marlon Byrd, Tyler Colvin and Xavier Nady in the outfield going forward, then they could be a seriously dangerous team in that division.

Before the season, there was a whole lot of focus on these guys, primarily from the angle of, "How the hell could this contract possibly work out in Team X's favor?" And yeah, we're certainly pretty far from that point, where these team's truly received a quality return on their sizable financial investments. But seriously, when you owe a guy like Soriano $18M every year through 2014, you have to hope with everything you got that he doesn't start breaking down in 2009 or 2010. Coming into this season, that looked to be the case, but now he's giving Cub fans a whole lot of reasons to feel better about his presence out in left. Even if you hate watching him make that little hop before catching the ball, Chicago is a team that could desperately use a bat as dynamic as his.

I hate to keep rubbing it in Carlos Lee's face, but right now his struggles in Houston look that much worse with his outfield albatross brethren playing the way they're supposed to play. 

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