Left field is a position which has fallen on some odd-if-not-hard times in the AL East. Once home to the likes of Manny Ramirez, Hideki Matsui, and Carl Crawford, the position has been handed over to the likes of Eric Thames, Brett Gardner, and...well, Carl Crawford. Gone are the days of gaudy offensive numbers and suspect defense.
Instead, we start this season with two top defenders, one up-and-coming sophomore, and...well, Eric Thames.
Sorry, Eric, but...
Blue Jays: ...you're really just not up to par here. As much as his big year at Triple-A may have inspired some hope, Thames was never really a scouting darling leading into it, and when so much can be explained away with small sample size and high BABIP, it's not hard to believe that what we saw last year is what we'll get in 2012 from Eric Thames. His bat won't be terrible, his defense won't be good, and on the whole he'll just fill a hole.
Ultimately, Thames may not even hold onto the position. He could well end up being replaced by Travis Snider or even Rajai Davis. Regardless of who locks in the position, however, it would be surprising to see them be significant contributors.
Rays: While Desmond Jennings isn't necessarily looking to replace Carl Crawford, it's hard not to draw some comparisons. A strong outfield glove, home run and stolen base threat alike, the primary difference seems to be that Jennings can draw a walk.
That being said, I'm not sure we should expect quite the same heights from Jennings as Crawford saw in his last couple of years with the Rays. He'll have to prove he's the superlative that Crawford was in left, and frankly aside from his ridiculous hot streak when he first came up, Jennings' bat hasn't quite shown itself to be on the same level outside of his 2009 season.
Of course, it's hard to complain about falling just short of Crawford's best years, and Jennings could always end up surprising and surpassing him. But at least for this year, the primary concern will be to avoid the sophomore slump. If he can do that, he stands a good chance at leading the division.
Red Sox: Speaking of Crawford, Jennings' hopes for coming out on top will depend partially on whether or not the Sox' beleaguered outfielder can get his act together. After a complete mess of a season in 2011 saw him look a fool at the plate and in the field alike, Carl has a lot to prove in 2012. When you add in the wrist surgery he underwent over the offseason, the picture grows even darker.
Still, Carl was an amazing player as recently as 2010, and any major star deserves a second chance. If he can close his stance, get his discipline at the plate back to where it was in previous years, and figure out what he's doing in front of the monster, Sox fans might quickly forget 2011.
On the other hand, another year like last and Crawford could come up on the bottom of these rankings. Because when Carl Crawford is off, he's really off. We can only hope.
Yankees: The case of Brett Gardner invokes one of baseball's more contentious contemporary questions in baseball: just how much can a glove be worth? Aside from 2010, when pitchers forgot that they could throw him strikes, Gardner's bat has never been much above average. But with him catching just about everything hit to him in left, the argument could be made that he's one of the most valuable outfielders in the game.
Whether you're of the mind that a hit saved is as good as a hit earned or not, however, there's no question that Brett Gardner is a good player. Is he the best in the division? Quite possibly. Frankly, between Carl Crawford's down year and Desmond Jenning's inexperience, Gardner may well be in position to back his way into the top spot in the East even for those who struggle to overlook the complete lack of power in a traditionally offensive position. He is, for all intents and purposes, the safe pick.
So, no, Manny they are not, but there's some serious upside here, and for Sox fans, Crawford's 2012 could mean the difference between a star and an albatross. It seems like we just went through this last year with John Lackey, but with Carl signed on for so much more money and so many more years, the comparison almost seems laughable. Will Carl Crawford's 2012 make or break this decade of Red Sox baseball? No, but it will go a long way towards strengthening or crippling it.
All that being said, even if he does rebound, he'll have to outstrip some reasonable competition. From the caricature of his defense-first style that is Brett Gardner, to the modified version of himself that will be patrolling left in Tropicana. Who will win the battle of the Crawfordesques? Only time will tell.