MLB: Analysing The 2017/18 Free Agents Part 3 – Outfielders

Our 3rd and final free agent market breakdown looks at those who make their living in the outfield

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Our previous market breakdown – on December 2 – described the market as a crawl. Almost a month later and in a new calendar year the 2017/18 free agent market can be described only as a stalemate. Outside of the relief pitching market which has almost completely emptied itself out, Tyler Chatwood and Carlos Santana might be the only big name free agents to have found their new employers for the coming seasons. It should start to move soon however, as there appears to be some smoke filtering out of the Eric Hosmer (who we projected to receive 6yrs/$115M) and Alex Cobb (projected at 3yrs/$52M) markets. There is only some two months remaining before Spring Training arrives so signings should start coming thick and fast over the next few weeks. With that, let’s take a look at the outfielders who will find new homes in 2018.

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The 2017/18 free agent outfield market is perhaps the most robust out of any of the positional categories – the relief market a possible exception. The 2017/18 outfield market features a strong top tier of players headlined by J.D Martinez who just bashed his way to a 166 wRC+ in 2017. Further down, the market holds some interesting rebound options in the likes of Carlos Gonzalez and Jose Bautista as well as some glove first, everyday players such as Ichiro and Rajai Davis towards the bottom. There is less risk here than in the other free agent markets we have examined though there still hasn’t appeared to be a lot of interest from teams at this juncture.

A SHORT NOTE ON METHODOLOGY

The averages shown in the first table for each tier are a simple three year average taken from the Fangraphs Leaderboards, they give us some context as to the type of performer the player has been over the last 3 years in some key statistical categories as well as the players age and whether they have been extended a Qualifying Offer or not.

The second set of tables, attempt to project each players value as determined by WAR over a four year period and then assign a dollar value to this number. To achieve this, a three year weighted average was taken of the player’s WAR for the last 3 seasons and then a simple age adjustment was applied. The age adjustment used here was as follows:

Player < 28 = +.25 WAR
Player 28-30 = + 0 WAR
Player > 30 = -.25 WAR

This is just a simple adjustment to account for the effects of aging on player performance. The players WAR was then projected out over a 4 year period and the average WAR per year appears in the table below. The projected years column is a subjective assessment of the expected length of the players contract and does not factor into these calculations – it is simply a guide for you, the reader. The same applies to the “potential teams” column.

For the purpose of this exercise one ‘Win’ was valued at $8M.

Tier 1 – Impact Regulars

Player Position Age AVG HR wRC+ QO?
J.D. Martinez LF 28 .296 105 147 No
Lorenzo Cain CF 30 .299 40 116 Yes
Jay Bruce RF 29 .243 95 107 No

Jay Bruce is a little bit of a Black Swan on this list, though it felt more wrong to drop him to the 2nd tier given his likely earning potential. If you think he’s closer to the 2.7 win player he showed in 2017 than the sub-1 win player in the previous two seasons, then this placement is probably justified. Nonetheless, this tier offers a nice blend of power (Martinez and Bruce) and defense (Cain), so teams looking to fill an outfield spot in 2018 will have plenty of flexibility at the top end in doing so. Despite this, don’t be surprised if the projections below all turn out to be on the high end as most of the teams looking for outfield help in 2018 (Giants, Mets etc) all find themselves dangerously close to the luxury tax.

Player Proj WAR/yr Proj Yrs AAV ($) Potential Teams
Martinez 3.52 5 28.6M Red Sox, D-Backs
Cain 3.78 4 30.24M Mets, Rangers, Giants
Bruce 1.81 3 14.48M Mets, Giants

In something of a surprise, Lorenzo Cain is projected to out-earn prized slugger, J.D Martinez. This perhaps shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as Cain has posted both the superior peak season (6.1 WAR vs 5.0 WAR) and down season (2.5 WAR vs 1.8 WAR) over the last 3 seasons, as well as the best 2017 campaign (4.1 WAR vs 3.8 WAR).

Cain is an elite defender in CF, ranking 5th in Baseball Savant’s ‘Outs Above Average’ metric in 2017, who has also shown above average offensive abilities in the last 3 years, evidenced by his 116 wRC+. He is by far the most complete player available in this tier and at the 3yrs/$60M offer he is rumored to have been offered, is a potential bargain. There are some potential red flags here however, with much of Cain’s value depending on his above average running speed. That is only going to decline as he enters his 30s and any loss of speed could eat at a significant portion of his value on both sides of the ball. Nonetheless, I think Cain should remain an above average player for at least the next three years.

Martinez then, is the complete opposite of Cain. Arguably one of the best sluggers in baseball in 2017, Martinez is a liability in the outfield and is probably best suited to a DH role. One of the earliest champions of the ‘fly-ball revolution’, Martinez broke out with the Tigers in 2015 and hasn’t stopped hitting since. He almost single-handedly hit the Diamondbacks into the playoffs in the second half of 2017 so it’s no surprise they would like him back. Martinez is almost certainly going to hit but as a DH only type for much of this next contract, he will have to hit a lot to reach the $28.6M in AAV we have projected here.

At half the projected AAV, Jay Bruce is the most cost effective option on this list but is the inferior hitter and lacks the defensive acumen of Cain. He does hit for power however and is a reasonable defender in right field, so a team looking for left-handed power for a few seasons could have some interest.

Tier 2 – Everyday Players

Player Position Age AVG HR wRC+ QO?
Carlos Gonzalez LF/RF 30 .278 79 104 No
Jose Bautista RF 35 .228 85 116 No
Carlos Gomez OF 30 .247 42 97 No
Cameron Maybin CF 29 .268 24 99 No
Curtis Granderson RF 35 .238 82 118 No
Jarrod Dyson CF 31 .260 8 91 No
Jon Jay CF 31 .275 5 90 No
Melky Cabrera LF 31 .285 43 102 No

Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and Curtis Granderson all picked the wrong season to have a down year with all three significantly hurting their earning power in 2017. It might help some teams find some free agent bargains however, as all three have been upper echelon outfielders at times throughout the last few seasons. The rest of this tier is made up of players capable of handling CF on a regular basis and Melky Cabrera.

Player Proj. WAR/yr Proj. Yrs AAV($) Potential Teams
Gonzalez 0.8 1 6.4M Rockies, Orioles
Bautista 0.59 1 4.72M Blue Jays
Gomez 1.71 2 13.68M Rangers, Royals
Maybin 1.64 2 13.12M
Granderson 2.15 1 17.2M
Dyson 2.01 2 16.08M Pirates
Jay 0.88 2 7.04M Rangers
Cabrera .55 1 4.4M

The market for these players really has not developed so as it stands, predicting potential landing spots is quite a challenge. It’s no surprise then, that I project most of these players to land 1 year deals as they look to rebuild some value in 2018.

Teams in need of a center fielder have some respectable everyday options in Jay, Gomez, Dyson and Maybin all of whom offer high floors. Carlos Gomez may have the highest ceiling of that group, rebounding from a nightmarish 2016 to post a 110 wRC+ in and 2.3 WAR in 2017 with the Rangers. He’s never going to repeat his 7.4 win, 2013 season but he should remain an average everyday player for at least a couple more years.

This tool loves Jarrod Dyson which perhaps tells you as much about how speed and defense is still under-valued in the game than it does Dyson’s ability. Dyson has maintained his ability to get on base and steal bases into his 30’s, which coupled with his ability to play center field, has rendered Dyson an average or better player in each of the last three seasons. Dyson will be lucky to see a deal that reaches seven figures so there is a real chance that Dyson is the biggest bargain on this years free agent market.

Most teams shopping here however, will be hoping to win the rebound lottery by buying shares in Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista or Curtis Granderson. All have been star level players at times in recent years but are now squarely in their decline phase. Gonzalez is by far the youngest and may be the best bet of the trio while the projection above is largely blind to Granderson’s anemic tenure with the Dodgers in the second half of 2017.

Tier 3 – Role Players

Player Position Age AVG HR wRC+ QO?
Norichika Aoki LF 34 .282 14 104 No
Peter Bourjos CF 29 .230 14 75 No
Austin Jackson CF 29 .279 16 103 No
Rajai Davis CF 35 .248 25 85 No
Andre Ethier LF 34 .285 17 130 No
Ben Revere CF 28 .273 5 79 No
Michael Saunders RF 29 .235 30 96 No
Seth Smith LF 33 .251 41 110 No
Ichiro Suzuki RF 42 .256 5 76 No

The pick of the bunch here for me might be Andre Ethier. Ethier has missed almost all of the last two seasons with a broken shin and herniated disc but has been remarkably productive when he has been healthy. He’s unlikely to provide much value on defense at 34 and on the back of the above listed ailments but a 130 wRC+ is nothing to scoff at.

Ichiro will continue his attempt to defy the effects of aging. At 42 he’s a shadow of his former MVP status but he should be able to help a team out in a fourth outfielder role for another year or two.

Most of these players will likely have to settle for minor league deals so projections aren’t provided here.

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