by Joe Giglio
The blockbuster trade that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta on Thursday didn’t just shake up the National League balance of power or empower Kevin Towers to use words like “gritty” when describing players Arizona wants to build around. It set the stage for the new look Atlanta outfield to challenge past trios as the best collective group in over 20 years.
An Upton-Upton-Heyward outfield isn’t just young and good. It’s potentially great. At different points in their respective careers, Jason, Justin and B.J. have combined for 18.0 WAR in individual seasons. Offensively, they all represent transcendent, multi-dimensional talents capable of changing the scoreboard on a nightly basis. B.J. (136), Justin (141), and Jason (131) have all put up season OPS+ numbers that match career marks of Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Rod Carew. Defensively, B.J. can run down anything in CF and Justin Upton -- who is slated to move to LF -- and Heyward are the two most recent recipients of the Fielding Bible Award for best defensive RF in baseball. All three can run the bases and steal 20-30 bags. Best of all, they are young. Heyward (23) and Justin (25) haven’t even reached their primes. B.J. is 28 and poised to remain highly productive for years to come.
If they all play to their individual talents, the collective output has a chance to become the best outfield baseball has seen in years. The following is a list of the top outfield collections of the past 20 seasons.
*Fangraphs’ WAR was used as the basis of this exercise. To be considered, all three members of the outfield had to rank in the Top 30 of OF’s WAR for that particular season. For two of the groups (‘95-96 Indians and ‘02-03 Braves), the composite of the two seasons together was tallied. The 1994 Expos WAR was prorated over 162 games due to the strike costing them the remainder of the campaign. Extra credit was given to groups that were able to do it in consecutive years. Lastly, it’s about groups, not individuals. You won’t see Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey or Ichiro on this list. Nor will the Bernie Williams-Paul O’Neill duo appear. All ranked very highly year after year. None were part of a great trio in any given season.*
1. 1994 Montreal Expos: Moises Alou (153 OPS+), Marquis Grissom (99), Larry Walker (151). Composite WAR: 19.3
The gold standard for outfields in the last generation. An entire trio of 27-year-old stars in their respective primes helped lead Montreal to the best record in baseball through 114 games. As we all know, they never got the chance to lead them into October due to the strike that halted the sport in August.
2. 2002-03 Atlanta Braves: Gary Sheffield (151), Andruw Jones (122), Chipper Jones (145). Composite WAR: 18.3
At the time, it felt like Atlanta rolled out two straight seasons of Hall of Famers in the outfield playing at that exact level. Between Andruw catching everything in CF and Sheff and Chipper mashing at the plate, Bobby Cox knew he didn’t have to worry about his outfield play in the slightest.
3. 1995-96 Cleveland Indians: Albert Belle (167), Kenny Lofton (108), Manny Ramirez (146). Composite WAR: 15.1
A few thoughts on the 90’s Indians: NFL Network ran a Lost Rings series a few years ago detailing the greatest groups to never hoist the Lombardi Trophy. If MLB Network copied the idea, this team would headline it...Albert Belle was as dominant a hitter as baseball ever had in his peak. If not for a degenerative hip injury, his counting stats would have landed him in Cooperstown...This group would rank higher if they all met at the right moment. Lofton’s best season was probably ‘94 and Manny was too young to be the force he eventually became. Many of you might still think they should rank #1.
4. 1998 Astros: Moises Alou (157), Carl Everett (121), Derek Bell (125). Composite WAR: 16.9
Between this OF, Bagwell, Biggio, and a great staff anchored by July acquisition Randy Johnson, the 1998 Astros remain the best baseball team I’ve watched that didn’t even get out of the first round of the postseason. Notice our first time member to appear twice, Moises Alou. That guy could really, really play.
5. 2012 Braves: Jason Heyward (117), Michael Bourn (99), Martin Prado (114). Composite WAR: 18.9
Well, well, well. As a MLBDepthCharts follower noted on Twitter, this new Braves outfield will have to top the 2012 version. Gone are Prado (in the Upton deal, ironically) and Bourn (still lingering in free agency). In are the Upton Brothers. This was the surprise of the list, buoyed by very, very strong defense and baserunning metrics. If we went strictly by WAR here, this trio would rank #2 overall on the list. Considering that we’ve now seen two groups of Braves on the list, the new guys have much to live up to.
Honorable mentions: 2011 Yankees (Gardner-Granderson-Swisher), 2010 Rays (Crawford-Upton-Zobrist), 1999 Orioles (Anderson-Surhoff-Belle), 1999 Royals (Beltran-Damon-Dye). For the majority of baseball fans, the idea of putting this new group in Atlanta with recent greats is uncomfortable. Heyward is still very young. Both of the Uptons have dealt with up and down seasons in their respective young careers. That being said, the ability is there. Better yet, age is on their side. Most of the great outfield groups in the recent past haven’t been able to stick together as a trio and thrive for multiple years. This entire Braves group is signed together through 2015.
Atlanta is building a team around three young, dynamic outfielders. It may not work. Or they may all go 30-30 with stellar defense in 2013. Years from now, they might just appear on a list like this
Joe Giglio is a sports talk host at WFAN in New York, former intramural coordinator at DeSales University, husband, and baseball fanatic willing to argue Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy at a moment's notice. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports and check out his blog at joegiglio.blogspot.com.