Carl Crawford comes with elite speed and a good bat, and is the only remaining free agent that can be said about.
Deal He Will Get: Seven years, $18 million/year
Deal He Should Get: Five years, $10 million/year
Everyone knows Carl Crawford is an elite hitter in this year’s free-agent class. That isn’t saying a whole lot, but the talents he has going for him are legitimate. His consistency in the batting average department speaks to a true ability to hit for average. Over 8.5 seasons in Tampa, his average fell within the .280 to .315 range seven times, failing to do so only in 2002 and 2008. Those also happened to be the two seasons he missed significant playing time.
In 2002, he debuted and played in 63 games, hitting .259. In 2008, he missed about a third of the season with injuries and hit .273. Other than that, the consistency has been remarkable. He topped the .300-mark five times. Part of this is due to his exceptional speed, which is perhaps his most noteworthy talent.
Speed is probably what most teams will have in mind when offers are constructed north of $100 million. His speed is legitimate and his base-stealing smarts are too, with 409 steals and only 90 caught-stealings placing him amongst the elite speedsters. Of the 14 players who stole 200 or more bases since 2002, Crawford ranks fourth in terms of success rate.
His 81.96 percent success rate was topped only by Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon, each of whom has at least 100 fewer steals over that time period. Among these top speedsters, only Ichiro has a better batting average than Crawford’s .296. The only player anywhere near Crawford’s stolen base total is Juan Pierre. Pierre hits a home run once every 447.3 at-bats, while Crawford hits one per 48.
For how many years will Carl Crawford be signed?
Perhaps Crawford’s one Achilles heel has been his lack of plate discipline. His career OBP of .337 is pretty average. Since he has hit for good batting averages, most of that OBP comes from hits. However, there is evidence that Crawford is learning discipline. His walk rates over the past three years have been 6.2 percent, 7.6 percent and 6.9 percent, having never topped six percent previously. One explanation is that pitchers have started to pitch around him, but that seems unlikely. Crawford was an established star well before 2008 and Tampa’s lineup was hardly fearsome before then.
Fangraphs’ swing percentage statistics show Crawford to be swinging at fewer pitches over recent years, though the percent of pitches out of the zone he’s swung at has actually increased. He’s also showing a lower percentage of swinging strikes, a greater percentage of out-of-the-zone swings and a greater contact rate on pitches out of the zone.
The explanation is that Crawford has been walking more and striking out more. The onset of “old-player skills” is beginning, though his plate discipline is getting better only marginally.
Speed and batting average are often thought of as “young-player skills,” and many of the best hitters of recent generations have shifted from high-average/good-speed guys to high-OBP/good discipline guys. I think that’s what Crawford will need to do to stay elite into his late 30s, and there is evidence that he’s begun to drift in that direction. As he gets older (he turns 30 late next season) he may shift further in that direction, but his defense will probably get worse (as might his speed). Years wear on guys' legs, and Crawford owes a lot to his legs, but he plays the field very well currently and that should continue in the coming seasons.
Based on all of this, Carl Crawford should expect to be paid comparably to what Ichiro makes or what Jose Reyes should be making, or a tick below what Hanley Ramirez would get on the market. Reyes makes about $6.5 million per year. Hanley makes almost $12 million per year. I think that’s about what Crawford is worth now, and I think, given the market, he will probably get about that, or even a little more in this year's paltry class.
He can also use Jayson Werth’s recent signing as leverage, and teams will not only be paying for Carl Crawford, but they will be paying to not have to employ Andruw Jones, Melky Cabrera or Manny Ramirez. Though the GM insistent on adding speed to his outfield can always give Corey Patterson a call.