MLB Free Agency: 15 Best Outfielders Available This Winter
Carlos Beltran could well be back with the San Francisco Giants next season, given the team's apparent predilection for retaining midseason outfield acquisitions longer than is advisable. That. after all, is how they came to have both Cody Ross and Pat Burrell this year.
It sure seems unlikely, though, given San Francisco's relatively tight budget and other pressing needs entering 2012. More likely, Beltran will become the most attractive free-agent outfielder to change teams this winter.
In a season without an elite outfielder available, teams hoping to rebuild there going forward will need to get creative in their pursuit of Beltran or else seek out platoon guys and one-dimensional talents to fill those units.
The good news? Acquiring role players via free agency is often more efficient than going after the big names, anyway. The following 15 players make up the head of this offseason's outfield crop, for better and for worse.
1. Carlos Beltran
Beltran had been in the midst of perhaps his best full season at the plate before the trade to San Francisco. Since then, though, he has scuffled, and after a wrist injury, he's been on the shelf since Aug. 7.
Like erstwhile teammate Jose Reyes, Beltran is losing money every day he does not take the field.
He's also not a true star anymore, as he no longer has the defensive chops to play center field every day. Agent Scott Boras reportedly foresees a five-year, $70 million deal, but that seems a bit high.
More likely, Beltran will sign for three (at most four) years and settle in as a slugging right fielder. Assuming he signs to play in a more hitter-friendly environment than San Francisco or Queens, he should be productive, and teams will be clamoring for his services given the other options.
2. Michael Cuddyer
Cuddyer, like Beltran, is a good player having a great 2011. His 133 OPS+ would be a career-high mark, and he continues to hit for power while displaying versatility and a rocket arm on defense.
A fan favorite, Cuddyer seemed a good bet to remain in Minnesota even before the team dealt Delmon Young Monday. Now he seems almost irreplaceable.
If his skills and clubhouse presence did not secure that notion, this might. The team continues to cast about fruitlessly for a better first base fill-in when Justin Morneau makes his annual trips to the DL.
3. Coco Crisp
Pitcher-friendly parks fit Crisp better than others, as they allow him to shoot the gaps and focus on doubles and triples rather than home runs.
They also accentuate the value of his defense in centerfield, which is not to be forgotten in evaluating him. His speed and range are his primary assets.
As a league-average hitter (99 OPS+ on the year) and an above-average fielder at an up-the-middle spot, Crisp is the third-best available free-agent outfielder and perhaps the last of those a team would want to plug into their lineup every day.
4. Lance Berkman
Berkman is a great hitter and all. He could well reach the Hall of Fame someday. He's more dangerous at the plate than any other available outfielder.
But he also has no real place in the outfield. Berkman is a first baseman by trade, and the weight he added in his early 30s has done nothing to make him more viable in the pastures.
What's more though, Berkman has time working against him. He may be the National League's best hitter this season, but he will almost certainly regress next season, and that regression can be huge and unsightly for players of his age and body type.
Unless a team in need of a first baseman (the Cardinals themselves, perhaps?) gets involved, Berkman must be approached with caution.
5. J.D. Drew
Strikeouts, walks and other skill indicators have not been the issue for Drew this season. Rather, it has been a blend of bad luck and a more aggressive approach designed to help him compensate for lost bat speed.
It's not fair to expect that he will ever regain the .900-plus OPS form that defined his prime years, but he should consistently draw walks and contribute at a league-average level on offense, and his defense in right field (despite a fringy arm) is terrific.
Some team will get Drew on a Carlos Pena-style contract for next season, and that club will not regret the decision.
6. Jason Kubel
Of Kubel and Cuddyer, the Twins seemed able to keep just one until they moved Young. Now they will probably try to retain both, and it would not be a bad idea. Kubel is better than you think.
Defensively, Kubel is inelegant but not awful. In left field, where his arm plays much more acceptably than in right, he actually covers the ground fairly well.
He can hit left-handed pitching, has hit for average and power in two out of the last three years and will not turn 30 until May 25. He should command a multi-year deal, but it might just be worth it.
7. Josh Willingham
The glove, the strikeouts and the trouble with same-handed pitching make Willingham anything but a sexy signee. But when he has been healthy and on the field, Willingham has been as steadily productive at the plate as they come.
He always hits for power, and he always draws a few walks. At 33 in 2012, he will not suddenly make the jump to elite status, but a shallow left-field porch could make him a 30-homer threat overnight.
8. Nate McLouth
Already, we have arrived at the portion of the list that is mostly dreams and half-hopes. McLouth technically has a club option for 2012 at $10.65 million, but the Braves are roughly as likely to pick it up as they are to do away with "The Chop" in favor of "The Wave."
McLouth may or may not be able to handle everyday center field duties. He may or may not rediscover his power. He may or may not maintain the plate discipline that has saved him some value despite his struggles. At 30, he has as good a chance to do so as any available center fielder.
9. Scott Hairston
Of the five or 10 viable center fielders on the market this winter, Hairston will have the most tools. He can hit for a bit of power, run a bit and generally play the game with athleticism.
He's not a pure center fielder, but he can play there as needed, and his stick can justify playing time in the corners as well. A good bench bat, he owns an .823 career OPS against southpaw pitching.
10. Kosuke Fukudome
If a position player can have one skill, Lord, make it the ability to get on base. Over a nearly four-year career during which he has had a ton of things to deal with, Fukudome has posted a .365 OBP.
While the power has come and gone in extremes, and while he never lived up to the hype that came with hi from Japan, Fukudome is a perfectly useful platoon player or even everyday right fielder.
Be not fooled by his sometimes crummy defensive numbers. He can play right field very well, center acceptably and left (in all likelihood) like a true pro.
11. David DeJesus
They will not necessarily be hot commodities, but all three of Oakland's current starting outfielders will hit the open waters this winter.
DeJesus bats left-handed, can play center capably and occasionally hits well enough to border on star status. He may not be able to sustain those streaks—OK, he's never able to—but he's still a serviceable player, especially against right-handed moundsmen.
12. Pat Burrell
Burrell has nearly always been better than people thought.
He's beefy but not as immobile in left field as many imagine. He hits for power and draws enough walks to matter.
He's obviously in decline, and his rising strikeout rate is a real concern, but Burrell can still play a bit and should find a home somewhere.
13. Cody Ross
Folk hero status in San Francisco aside, Ross is a classic case of high-peak, early-decline syndrome. He once fielded center field well enough, but he now struggles a bit even in left.
His game was long predicated on athleticism, from the speed to cover the green and steal bases to the quick hands to launch 20-plus homers in two straight seasons.
Could Ross rebound in a hitter-friendly park or run into some good luck with his aggressive approach? Absolutely, he could. But he's not going to consistently hit against right-handed hurlers ever again, and the rest of his game is no longer good enough to keep him in a non-Giants lineup.
14. Rick Ankiel
An occasional flash of power and the ability to (sort of) play center field make Ankiel just attractive enough for teams to keep giving him chances, year after year.
Someday, though, a team with sufficient depth (a nine-man pitching staff, maybe?) will find the proper niche for Ankiel. He would be an outfield arm replacement, and a lefty bat when a home run (and only that) will help.
He would come into games to play center and right field with runners on base and pick them off with his ridiculous arm. He could also launch occasional pinch-hit homers.
15. Reed Johnson
Reed Johnson is right-handed for Rick Ankiel. The translation is indirect but very apropos. Johnson's strength is range rather than arm, and he makes a living simply by playing when the opponent runs out a southpaw, but he is essentially the same kind of player as Ankiel.
Coming off a career year in 2011, he should get a sturdy raise this winter, even at age 35.