Surveying the market: Outfield

Elsa

Rounding out our free agent preview with a look at the available outfielders.

For the final installment in our "surveying the market" series, we'll take a look at the deepest, most interesting crop of players this offseason, the outfielders. Whether we're talking about a contender or a team looking to the future, the best way to add impact this winter is probably by picking up an outfielder.

Outfielders as a whole posted their lowest wOBA (.322) of the last decade in 2013, but that's misleading as their 102 wRC+ fell right in line with every other season and speaks to a drop in offense across the big leagues. As a group, the position was only outhit by first baseman and centerfielders actually tallied more wins above replacement than any other spots, though those numbers are inflated by BtBS MVP's Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. Regardless, the point stands that the positions is as healthy as ever and teams that aren't getting production from their outfield are at a large disadvantage.

Last offseason teams spent big on outfielders. Excluding Nick Swisher, nine teams handed out multi-year agreements that guaranteed at least $10 million, with somewhat varying results:

Player Team Contract 2013 fWAR
Josh Hamilton Angels Five-years, $125 million 1.9
B.J. Upton Braves Five-years, $75 million -0.6
Michael Bourn Indians Four-years, $48 million 2.0
Angel Pagan Giants Four-years, $40 million 1.3
Shane Victorino Red Sox Three-years, $39 million 5.6
Torii Hunter Tigers Two-years, $26 million 2.5
Cody Ross Diamondbacks Three-years, $26 million 1.8
Ryan Ludwick Reds Two-years, $15 million -0.8
Ichiro Suzuki Yankees Two-years, $13 million 1.1

Obviously these deals shouldn't be judged solely on one year of performance, but outside of Shane Victorino and Torii Hunter there's been very little return for the money thus far.

We also saw a number of quality outfielders traded last offseason. Justin Upton, Martin Prado, Shin-Soo Choo, and Drew Stubbs all found themselves in new places, and the Minnesota Twins managed to flip not one, but two centerfielders for some high-upside pitching talent. Any way you slice it, teams were able to improve their teams (on paper) by acquiring outfielders and it looks like we'll see a lot of the same this year.

The elite

Jacoby Ellsbury

Although it's a tough one to make, there is an argument that Jacoby Ellsbury is the best free agent on the market this year. Despite playing 114 fewer games over the past three years, Ellsbury trails Robinson Cano by fewer than three wins above replacement according to FanGraphs. Unfortunately, the injuries that kept him off the field present just one of several questions evaluators will have to gauge when assessing the 30-year-old centerfielder this offseason.

For that reason, it's best to start with what we know for sure. We know that Ellsbury is a really strong baserunner, stealing 52 bases (and getting caught just four times) last year and posting the seventh best BsR in the majors since 2011. He's also a well above average defender in centerfield, with the metrics and scouting reports agreeing that he is one of the best glove men in the league. And we can say with certainty that he's an above average hitter and leadoff man. His career numbers are inflated by his tremendous 2011 season, but he posted a 113 wRC+ in 2013 and he's roughly a league average hitter in his healthy seasons.

That still leaves some questions to be answered, starting with his durability. According to agent Scott Boras, Ellsbury has "illustrated that he's a highly durable athlete," but that seems to clash with what we've actually seen throughout his career. In his six full big league seasons, Ellsbury has topped 140 games just three times, combining for 226 games in the other three. To Boras's point, his injuries have been more fluky than anything, but that's still a lot of time missed in recent seasons.

The other big question is just how good he can actually be. As mentioned above, Ellsbury pieced together one of the best seasons in the last decade in 2011, hitting .321/.376/.552 with 32 home runs and 39 steals. But for the rest of his big league career (2500+ plate appearances) he has totaled just 33 home runs, failing to even reach double digits in any other season. At first glance, it seems intuitive that we should ignore 2011. Then again, it did happen, and not all that long ago. So what should we make of the power? FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth published a fantastic article yesterday investigating that very question. I recommend you read the whole thing, but essentially he concluded that Ellsbury hasn't been fully healthy since his power spike, and that he may approach 20+ homers in future seasons:

If he can get a few months of clear-minded at bats where he's not worried about pain, I think he settles down enough to get his front foot down and let his hands work, bringing with it the home run power. That said, it's not reasonable to expect perfect health based on his recent history, and because of that I would bet money on not seeing 30 home runs again. If he is able to get a few full seasons of plate appearances, I feel comfortable betting on a 20+ home run season or two, with the floor of a high AVG guy who plays great defense and steals a bunch of bags.

If he never hits for power again, he's still probably worth close to $20 million per season over the next five or so years, and if you agree with Farnsworth then $20 million is a relative bargain. The Red Sox appear ready to let Jackie Bradley Jr. or Shane Victorino man centerfield next year if the bidding gets crazy, which it may with the Mets, Yankees, and Mariners all getting involved.

Shin-Soo Choo

Choo

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Choo isn't far behind Ellsbury in value, and for some teams he may actually be the more sought after free agent. In 2013, Choo posted the ninth best wRC+ among all qualified hitters, hitting for solid power and getting on base more than 42% of the time in his first season in Cincinnati. Looking at his 5.2 fWAR from last year, it's easy to see that he's a valuable player, but that may even undersell how good he was last year because he registered some rough defensive numbers playing out of position in centerfield.

Most teams that are thinking of adding Choo will view him as a corner outfielder, where his agent (Boras as well) feels that he is a "premium defensive outfielder." While I'm not sure that's true, he's at least average in the field and he provides more than enough with the bat. The only part of his game that is somewhat disconcerting is his woes against same-sided pitchers. Over his career, Choo's wOBA is more than 90 points lower against lefties and he hit just .215 with no homers against them in 2013. If his skills erode even slightly, he could become a very expensive platoon player in the last few years of a four or five season deal. For the next few seasons, however, he's a good bet to be a 3-5 win player and he will instantly upgrade any team's offense. Expect Seattle, New York, New York, Texas, and Detroit to all be heavily interested, with my gut saying that he signs with the Mets for something in the neighborhood of five-years and $95 million.

The next best

Carlos Beltran

Although he'll be 37-years-old in 2014, Carlos Beltran remains one of the top hitters in all of baseball. The Puerto Rican switch-hitter posted a .359 wOBA and 132 wRC+ in the regular season and followed that up with a strong postseason on the Cardinals run to the World Series. The latter statement comes as little surprise as Beltran is arguably the best playoff hitter the game has ever seen, ranking third all-time in WPA despite playing in 25 fewer games than the players in front of him.

I'd expect him to continue hitting even at his advanced age, but Beltran really has become a one-trick pony as he gets closer to 40. Beltran was the worst qualified position player in terms of defensive WAR in 2013, finishing below Adam Dunn, Chris Carter, and Prince Fielder among others. That's not a matter of small sample either, as it's been five years since he's provided positive value with the leather. And the former 30 stolen base machine swiped just two bags this year with his running days now a distant memory. He needs to sign with an American League team, with the Yankees or Baltimore prime spots for his services because he can spend a chunk of his time as the DH. If that's the case, he's worth a two-year, $30 million commitment.

Curtis Granderson

Between 2011 and 2012, no major league hitter topped Granderson's 84 round trippers, and only Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun got within 10 of his league-leading total. If he would've hit free agency last offseason, it's plausible that someone would have gone a little nutty and signed him to a Josh Hamilton-type deal. Unfortunetly for Grandy, 2013 was marred by injuries and he never really got a chance to get going, finishing with a .229/.317/.407 line in 61 games.

Much like Beltran, Granderson's defense has declined in recent seasons, though he did total his first positive mark in three seasons this past year. He also strikes out a ton (more than 28% last two years), and struggles to hit even .240 these days. Yet, power like his isn't available often anymore and he's a good baserunner that's still in the prime of his career. Probably not a 40 home run hitter outside of Yankee Stadium, Granderson is still the best bet on the market to top 30 blasts in the next few seasons. Because the payday would have been considerably larger last year, the Grandy Man is a prime buy low candidate for a team that misses out on Choo.

Nelson Cruz

Cruz

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Cruz is essentially the poor-man's version of Beltran and Granderson, a bat first player that fails to deliver value across the board. He's hit at least 22 home runs in five consecutive years, but he hasn't totaled more than 1.5 fWAR since 2010 because he can't run, he can't defend, and he can't stay on the field. And that description fails to mention that he's just recently finished serving a 50-game suspension for involvement with Biogenesis to boot.

Cruz will get someone to pay him like he's a middle of the order bat this winter -- the problem is that he really isn't. His offensive totals are inflated by the Ballpark in Arlington, evidenced by his .294/.356/.556 home and .242/.299/.435 road lines for his career. He also might not age gracefully with any loss of bat speed potentially enough to swing him from above average to below average as a hitter. Plus, we don't know what the effect of his PED use will mean for his development. The power keeps him in this tier, but I certainly wouldn't be racing out to sign Cruz if I had other options this offseason.

The already signed

Three of the better mid-level free agents have already come off the board with Marlon Byrd, David Murphy, and Chris Young all inking deals over the past few weeks.

Marlon Byrd

On the heels of the best offensive season of his career, the 36-year-old Byrd landed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Ben Horrow of BtBS broke down the deal over at The Good Phight:

The Phillies brought back a 36 year old outfielderwho has had an up and down career, marred by PED use, with a career wRC+ of 101, and further diminishing speed.

--snip--

Byrd is a right-handed hitter, something everyone involved with the Phillies in one way or another agreed the team need to add. With lefties like Utley, Howard, Brown, and Asche secured in the lineup, a right-handed bat to split them up was a necessity, and Byrd fits that role. Especially when we consider his .239 ISO and 165 wRC+ against left-handed pitching in 2013, it seems that this right-handed bat could make teams pay who try to bring a left-handed specialist out of the pen in the later innings of a game.

Even if Byrd doesn't repeat last year's success (which he likely won't), he won't have to hit much over the next two seasons to make this contract look good for Ruben Amaro and the Phils.

David Murphy

David Murphy agreed to terms with the Cleveland Indians on a two-year, $12 million contract. Had he entered free agency after 2012, that number may have been much larger, but a drop in performance fueled by a huge loss in BABIP led to a forgettable season last year. Ben Horrow again had the details on the move:

Like most hitters, Murphy's BABIP swung a bit back and forth between 2008 and 2011, but after experiencing a nice increase in 2012 that resulted in his best wRC+ and highest attained batting average, 2013 saw a hefty decrease in 2013. In fact, Murphy's BABIP ranked third lowest in MLB amongst hitters with at least 450 plate appearances, ahead of only Dan Uggla and Darwin Barney. For a hitter with above league average contact percentage numbers, and a career BABIP of .302, a .227 batting average on balls in play stands out like an insanely swollen and most likely infected sore thumb. This entire drop cannot be solely accounted for by randomness, but assuredly, someone on the bell curve has to end up on the low side, and it's quite possible that in 2013 that player was David Murphy. Even if his BABIP only rises back to the .280 neighborhood, still below his career average and a figure that would rank as his second lowest career BABIP, Murphy's other offensive numbers would dramatically improve. The Indians have obviously bet on such a reversion to occur come 2014.

Murphy joins Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, and Drew Stubbs in the Cleveland outfield, providing excellent depth and the potential for some big returns if he's even a two and a half win player (which Steamer projects) over the next two seasons. Being a mid-market team, the Indians have had some recent success with low risk, high return investments like Scott Kazmir, and they're hoping David Murphy will follow that trend.

Chris Young

Young's one-year, $7.25 million deal with the Mets has already been hailed as one of the offseason's best contracts and I must say that I agree with that sentiment. If you focus on the positives, Young is a good defender in center, a quality base runner, and he's got some pop in his stick. He does strikeout and put the ball in the air too frequently, and his struggles against right-handed pitching are well documented, but if he's conservatively estimated to get back to a two win level for the Mets, this deal looks mighty good for them.

The rest

The crop of outfielders thins out pretty quickly from there. If you count Corey Hart (which I don't), then you can add one more intriguing potential impact type player to the list, but that's really it. The rest of the market is full of good leather men that can't hit (Franklin Gutierrez, Nyjer Morgan), DH's pretending to be outfielders (Michael Morse, Jason Kubel) and players that really aren't good in either department, but are fun to watch like Juan Pierre and Rajai Davis. I guess if you believe in reclamation projects, Jeff Francoeur and/or Grady Sizemore may be intriguing, but it's doubtful either of them will ever match their past success. The same rule that applies to free agency at any position applies in the outfield -- if you're going to spend, spend for the top tier talent and hope for the best.

. . .

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Fake Teams.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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