The Major League Baseball offseason is officially underway. Clubs and players have decided to either exercise or decline their options, and as of midnight Thursday, Nov. 3, widespread negotiations were permitted.
One of the more plentiful position groups in this offseason’s free agent class is the outfielders. While the group lacks the star power of the first basemen and shortstops, there are plenty of players that will make a positive impact for their 2012 club, and also in the future. Numerous clubs head into the offseason with question marks in the outfield. With that said, let’s break down the available free agent outfielders this offseason.
The following chart consists of the entire 2011-12 free agent outfield class. The chart displays the player’s performance (in terms of Runs Above Replacement) and the number of major league games participated in through the previous three seasons (2009-11). The data were then calculated to determine each player's average RAR and games played per season (final two columns). The more recent season is given the most weight in the determined average, (2009: 14 percent of the weighted average, 2010: 29 percent of the weighted average, and 2011: 57 percent of the weighted average) as this most closely reflects the production expected from the player in the present while also taking into account the player’s historical trend. The percent values, while they seem rather random, give the more recent season approximately twice as much weight as the previous.
The following is a corresponding graph using the weighted averages above. Each mark on the graph is marked with a number that correlates where each player stands on the graph (Carlos Beltran = 1). The red line is the regression line (y=.15126x - 8.75), which shows the average RAR expected at each game for the entire free agent outfield class. For example, using the regression line equation, at 140 games played the average RAR expected from this free agent outfield class is 12.4.
Here is how the outfield free agent market shapes up:
The ultimate prize
Carlos Beltran: 34 years old; 2011: .300/.385/.525 22 HR 84 RBI 4 SB 4.7 WAR
Beltran once again enters the free agent market as the top outfielder available. After a great bounce-back year from knee injuries and a successful position change to right field, he returned to his All-Star form and had a resurgence in his power and run production. He is clearly the top overall outfielder in a market lacking star power at his position and will receive a great deal of attention from teams that are able absorb his contract easily and are contending for a championship. To sweeten the deal, even though Beltran is technically a Type A free agent, the team that signs him will not have to surrender draft pick in next year’s amateur draft because he cannot be offered arbitration.
Josh Willingham: 32 years old; 2011: .246/.332/.477 29 HR 98 RBI 4 SB 2.1 WAR
Willingham finished 2011 with career highs in both home runs and RBIs even while playing in a pitching-friendly ballpark. He enters the market as the top power hitting outfielder, but he has also never been known for his defense or speed. In each of his six full seasons his WAR has never dropped below 2.0 and he has shown consistent power numbers. Expect a lot of interest from American League teams that can use him both in left field and as a designated hitter, in order to maximize his offensive ability and restrict his defensive deficiency.
Michael Cuddyer: 32 years old; 2011: .284/.346/.459 20 HR 70 RBI 11 SB 3.1 WAR
Cuddyer would be a welcome addition to any organization’s clubhouse. His offensive consistency and defensive versatility will make him a hot commodity this offseason. Beyond his on-field production, he is a great clubhouse personality to add to a contending team. The Phillies have already shown a great deal of interest in Cuddyer as his versatility would be a perfect fit as Ryan Howard deals with his Achilles tendon injury next season.
Coco Crisp: 32 years old; 2011: .264/.314/.379 8 HR 54 RBI 49 SB 2.2 WAR
Some may be surprised to see Crisp in the “Potential All-Star” category and consider him to be more of just a solid everyday player, but his speed and defense make him the top center fielder available. He was also able to remain healthy last season and swiped a career-high 49 bases, second only to Michael Bourn. His WAR/G ratio the past three seasons is second among free agent outfielders, trailing only Carlos Beltran. Look for Crisp to be a highly productive table-setter and defensive center-fielder on a contender next season.
Serviceable everyday players:
David DeJesus: 31 years old; 2011: .240/.323/.376 10 HR 46 RBI 4 SB 2.2 WAR
If it weren’t for a down year in 2011 from DeJesus, he would probably be in position to negotiate one of the larger contracts of all the available outfielders. He hit just .240 in 131 games last season compared to .318 before a season-ending injury the prior year. He still has average of WAR of just over 3.0 over the past seven seasons and is still very valuable as a defender ( 2011 UZR: 7.5). His 2011 offensive output was not a true indication of his abilities, and his career consistency as a Royal will make many teams take notice.
Ryan Ludwick: 33 years old; 2011: .237/.310/.363 13 HR 75 RBI 1 SB 0.3 WAR
Ludwick’s 2011 statistics weren’t anything to write home about, but in a market that lacks power hitters Ludwick becomes a very practical option. His power probably peaked back in 2008 when he accumulated 37 home runs and drove in 113. His last two full season have had him playing for three different teams, mostly in ballparks that minimize the production of right-handed power hitters, and has still managed to average 15 home runs and 72 RBIs over that span. A move to a right-handed hitter’s ballpark could serve him well.
Jason Kubel: 29 years old; 2011: .273/.332/.434 12 HR 58 RBI 1 SB 1.1 WAR
Kubel was one of the many Minnesota Twins who was bitten by the injury bug this past season: He managed to play in only 99 games, his first time under 128 games since 2007. He hit at least 20 home runs the prior three seasons before 2011 and was again on pace for those types of numbers this season he if had managed to stay healthy. His age and offensive production make him a multi-year contract candidate in a corner outfield spot, but he may need to switch to his natural position (designated hitter) once his substandard defense catches up with him.
Potential value opportunities:
Grady Sizemore: 29 years old; 2011: .224/.285/.422 10 HR 32 RBI 0 SB 0.2 WAR
Sizemore instantly became one of the most interesting free agents this offseason once the Indians decided to decline his $9 million option. He showed flashes of his old self this past season with a nice resurgence of extra-base power, but still managed only 71 games and zero stolen bases in another injury-plagued year. There isn’t much reason for optimism that he'll regain his health as he is still dealing with knee problems, but if he can get healthy and resemble the Sizemore from 2005-08, he will be a steal for any team that signs him.
Nate McLouth: 30 years old; 2011: .228/.344/.333 4 HR 16 RBI 4 SB 0.2 WAR
McLouth established himself as one of the premier center fielders while he was in Pittsburgh from 2007-09 before being traded to Atlanta. He has since lost his offensive prowess the past two seasons for the Braves and has battled injuries. Even though McLouth seems like he may be an afterthought after two very disappointing seasons, he still has a very high ceiling and will garner attention from teams if he can prove to be healthy.
Laynce Nix: 31 years old; 2011: .250/.289/.451 16 HR 44 RBI 2 SB 0.6 WAR
Nix got off to a great start this past season for the Nationals but faded quickly in the second half. He ended up posting a respectable .250/.289/.451 and a career-best 16 home runs. Teams could find great value in Nix with a platoon role against righties. This past season he hit all of his home runs and all but one RBI against right handers and also played each outfield position and even some first base. His wRAR (above) from the past three seasons are comparable to players like Pat Burrell, Jonny Gomes, and even Jason Kubel, but Nix should sign for much less.
Players to avoid:
J.D. Drew: 35 years old; 2011: .222/.315/.302 4 HR 22 RBI 0 SB -0.3 WAR
Drew is coming off of an abysmal season in Boston, batting just .222 and hitting four home runs in 81 games. Many are questioning how much he has left in the tank and are thinking we may have seen the last of Drew. He is turning 36 years old this month and is entering the market after a freefall in offensive production in 2011. There will be teams interested in Drew because he is a left-handed hitter who can get on base, but don’t count on him regaining his power from even 2010.
Magglio Ordoñez: 37 years old; 2011: .255/.303/.331 5 HR 32 RBI 2 SB -1.0 WAR
Ordoñez is coming off two seasons that were cut short due to injury and will be 38 years old once the 2012 season starts. Although it was speculated that Ordoñez may end his baseball career, he recently said he would like to play again in 2012. He can no longer be counted on as an everyday corner outfielder and with his health and power in decline he may not receive very much interest this offseason. He must prove he has fully recovered from the ankle injury that kept him out of the 2011 playoffs to earn interest.
There you have it. The outfielder free agent class has many solid players, but it seems to lack a little fascination. Enter Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old Cuban outfielder and recent scouting video sensation.
Alex Fortney is a recent Ohio State/Georgetown graduate looking to join a major league front office in the near future.
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