San Francisco Giants: Breaking Down Their Free Agent Center Field Options
The one area where this year's free agent class is fairly deep is in the outfield. The rest of the crop of free agents is rather weak, particularly in the infield.
That puts the the Giants in a good position because they need one or possibly two new starting outfielders next season.
Hunter Pence is entering his final season of arbitration eligibility, so he's almost certainly going to be the starting right fielder. Gregor Blanco might be best suited as a fourth outfielder, but he just started 89 regular season games plus the entire postseason for a championship team, so perhaps the Giants will be inclined to stick with him as a starter in either left or center field. Top prospect Gary Brown is close to being a finished product as well, so he could form a platoon with the left-handed hitting Blanco in one outfield spot next season.
A platoon of Blanco and Brown wouldn't hit for a high average or slugging percentage, but it would provide plenty of speed, defense and on-base ability. Brown had a mediocre season at Double-A, which has changed the perception of his potential ceiling to possibly being just a reserve outfielder according to Jason Parks, a prospect expert for Baseball Prospectus.
For the sake of examining the center field market only, this article will assume the Giants will use Blanco and a right-handed platoon partner in left field, which is how they finished the season. If they do that, they can shift their focus to center field. They can make a trade for a center fielder as they did last year when they acquired Angel Pagan, or they can dip their toes into the free-agent market.
B.J. Upton, Pagan, Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino are the top four free-agent options in center field this winter. Josh Hamilton and Melky Cabrera have both played center field in their careers, but both are likely to be stuck in a corner going forward.
Let's take a deeper look at Upton, Pagan, Bourn and Victorino.
2012 statistics: .246/.298/.454, 28 HR, 7.1% BB, 26.7% K, 4.0 base-running runs, -2.4 UZR, 3.3 WAR
Upton has the most talent of any free-agent center fielder. He has all the tools, though his approach at the plate has submarined his batting average and on-base percentage over the past four seasons.
Once a patient hitter, he's now become overly aggressive which is why his walk rate and on-base percentage have gone down while his strikeout rate has gone up.
He's only 28 years old, and he can hit for power, run and throw, so he's the top option available this winter.
If he can re-discover the plate discipline that he showed in 2008 when he hit .273 with a .383 on-base percentage, he'll be worth a long-term investment. Unfortunately, he hasn't hit higher than .246 or put up an on-base percentage higher than .331 since that season.
In all likelihood, he isn't going to revert back to becoming the player he was at 24. Thus, instead of getting a superstar, the signing team will be getting an above-average starter, who has the talent of a perennial MVP-candidate.
2012 statistics: .288/.338/.440, 8 HR, 7.3% BB, 14.7% K, 8.2 base-running runs, 0.1 UZR, 4.8 WAR
Pagan is a criminally underrated player because he doesn't have great power, and he doesn't walk enough for a lead-off man. His only elite tool is his speed, but he gets the most out of it.
He makes a ton of contact, which allows him to leg out infield hits, turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples. He's an exceptional baserunner as well.
Defensively, he uses his speed to make up for his inability to get great reads off the bat. He's probably just an average defender at this point in his career, though some metrics rate him as above average.
The biggest problem facing Pagan is his age. If he gets a four-year deal, that will cover his age-32-through-35 seasons, a risky period of time for a player who relies solely on speed. If he loses a step, he'll go from being an All-Star caliber player to a fourth outfielder in a hurry.
Unlike Upton, Pagan has gotten the most out of his talent to this point in his career. The question is how much longer he'll be able to maintain that elite speed.
2012 statistics: .274/.348/.391, 9 HR, 10% BB, 22% K, 6.6 base-running runs, 22.4 UZR, 6.4 WAR
Bourn also possesses elite speed. He's even faster than Pagan, and he's a better base-stealer and fielder, too.
However, he has less power and he strikes out a lot more which holds down his batting average and on-base percentage. He's become a more patient hitter, but his contact rate has gotten worse; therefore, I have Pagan ranked ahead of him.
Bourn will turn 30 next season, which is why he's likely to get a longer deal for more money than Pagan. Once he loses a step, he's going to be in trouble because his entire game is built around his legs. His fielding, base-stealing and batting average are entirely dependent on his speed, so he cannot afford to lose a step.
He's a lifetime .272 hitter, but that's propped up by a speed-induced .343 batting average on balls in play. If he suddenly becomes a .250 hitter, his offensive value will plummet drastically.
The combination of little power, a high strikeout rate and probable large contract demands would scare me away from Bourn this winter.
2012 Statistics: .255/.321/.383, 11 HR, 8% BB, 12% K, 7 base-running runs, -2.0 UZR, 3.3 WAR
Timing is everything in free agency, and Victorino is hitting the market one year too late. Had he been a free agent last winter after he hit .279/.355/.491, he would have gotten a massive contract.
Unfortunately, he took a step back last season, particularly in the slugging department where he went from blasting 60 extra-base hits in 2011 to 47 last season. The speed and ability to make contact are still there, so a bounce-back season appears likely.
In many ways, he's similar to Pagan. They both are serviceable defenders in center who don't walk or strike out much, and they use their speed to boost their offensive games.
Since Pagan is a few months younger and coming off a better season, he's probably going to get a bigger contract, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's the better player going forward.
The Giants could shift their focus to a corner outfield spot instead of attempting to sign one of these free-agent center fielders. They also could avoid the free-agent market altogether by going the trade route again, as they did last season when they acquired Pagan and Carbera.
However, if they do attempt to sign a free-agent center fielder, my guess is that Upton and Bourn will be priced out of their market, making Pagan or Victorino the more likely play.