November 2, 2003
After one of the best Octobers in baseball history the calendar now reads "November," which means we are officially in free agent season. Players are filing for free agency, teams are getting their plans and budgets together, and agents are starting to make some phone calls. Over the next several months dozens of major league veterans will be finding new homes and signing big contracts.
Today I will look at the free agent outfielders. Later this week I will cover the free agent infielders, catchers and pitchers.
THE CORNER OUTFIELDERS:
What that means is that, assuming Guerrero signs the 6-8 year deal that has been typical for the top free agents of late, the team that signs him will be getting his prime years and they won't be forced to pay him as he nears 40. Anytime you give a player a guaranteed contract that spans that many years there is a lot of risk involved. Not having to worry about whether or not that player will remain productive as a 38-year old is an added bonus.
Vlad Guerrero is one of baseball's best hitters and has been remarkably consistent. Since hitting .302/.350/.483 as a 21-year old in 1997, Guerrero has had an OPS (on-base % + slugging %) between .943 and 1.074 every year. He has hit at least .300 in each of his seven full-seasons and his slugging percentage has been above .550 every year since his first season.
Here is what he's done recently:
AVG OBP SLG 2001 .307 .377 .566 2002 .336 .417 .593 2003 .330 .426 .586
The thing that makes Guerrero particularly intriguing is that there is one part of his offensive game that he has definitely not mastered. Guerrero is essentially a "hacker" who goes up to the plate looking for anything to swing at. He doesn't take a whole lot of pitches and he's willing to swing at just about anything traveling in his direction, as long as it's round, white and has stitches in it.
This season he saw an average of 3.33 pitches per plate appearance and he has seen an average of 3.16 P/PA during his entire career. There were only two players in all of baseball who had enough playing-time to qualify for the batting title while seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than Guerrero: Cesar Izturis and Deivi Cruz, who each saw 3.2 P/PA.
Not exactly stellar company.
Despite the few pitches he sees, it would appear at first glance as though Guerrero has become much more selective at the plate over the years. From 1998 to 2002 his walks went from 42 to 55 to 58 to 60 to 84. Guerrero was injured for part of this season, but if you project his walk total out to 155 games played it comes out to 87. Of course, first glances can often be misleading.
Guerrero gets intentionally walked more than almost any other player in baseball. He has been intentionally walked 128 times over the last six seasons, including 32 times in 2002 and 22 times in just 112 games this season. If you ignore those intentional walks and look only at the "non-intentional" variety, here are what Guerrero's walk-rates look like:
BB per 650 PA 1997 31 1998 28 1999 40 2000 35 2001 35 2002 47 2003 57
There are definitely signs of improvement there, but we're still talking about a guy who has actually drawn the equivalent of about 40 walks a year, with a career-high rate of 57 this season. Of course, when you are hitting .330 with 70 extra-base hits every year there aren't going to be a whole lot of people complaining about your walk-rate.
As Guerrero ages, I wouldn't be surprised if he gradually continues to become more patient at the plate. I don't think he's going to be leading the league in walks anytime soon, but if he could get to where he's drawing 80 legit walks a year, and thus laying off more bad pitches and getting better pitches to hit, it would make him even more dangerous.
Vladimir Guerrero is one of the best free agents in baseball history and the team that signs him will be adding an extraordinarily valuable piece to their team. I'd bust the bank and give him just about whatever he wants if he expressed interest in signing with my team. According to everything I've been reading, I'd say about a dozen teams think they have a shot at him, which means that price-tag is going to rise pretty high. He's worth it.
Because there is only one Vladimir Guerrero to go around (there's also one Wilton Guerrero, but no one seems to want him), there are going to be quite a few teams that budgeted for a big-time corner outfielder and didn't get the #1 guy on their list. That's good news for Gary Sheffield, who is the second-best free agent hitter on the market this off-season.
I am of the opinion that Gary Sheffield is one of the most underrated hitters of this era. Sheffield is a career .299/.401/.527 hitter with over 2,000 hits who will top 400 homers next season. Yet he is never really mentioned in the same breath as other top sluggers.
I think there are probably a few reasons for this. First, he has a reputation for being a bad guy. That plays a part in how the media treats him and that in turn plays a part in how fans perceive him. Second, he has spent much of his career in pitcher's parks. Third, a ton of his value offensively comes from his tremendous plate discipline. While the value of on-base percentage is gradually finding more support throughout baseball, it still remains a stat and a skill many people don't think that highly of.
Sheffield has been an offensive-machine for more than a decade. He hasn't had a sub-.400 on-base percentage since 1994 and he has had a sub-.500 slugging percentage just twice since 1992. He's also a fairly good outfielder with a strong throwing-arm. Among active outfielders, Sheffield ranks fourth in career adjusted OPS (OPS+), behind only Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez and Brian Giles.
At 35, he's nearing the end of the line, but he showed no signs of slowing down this season. Sheffield hit .330/.419/.604 with 39 homers, 37 doubles and a career-high 132 RBIs. He even added in 18 steals while being caught just four times.
Aside from the obvious stuff, something about Sheffield that has always impressed me is his strikeout/walk ratio. He hasn't struck out more times than he has walked in the last 10 seasons and has actually had twice as many walks as strikeouts in two of those years. For his career he has 1,110 walks compared to just 796 strikeouts, which is pretty amazing.
Sheffield is coming off of a six-year, $61 million-dollar deal that he signed prior to the 1998 season. That works out to an average of about $10 mill per year, which is around what I expect him to command this off-season. If I were running a team with an opening if left or right field I would love to sign him for something like three years and $32-35 million, but I suspect at least one team will be willing to give him more years than that.
After Guerrero and Sheffield are off the market, a lot of teams will be scrambling for corner outfielders. While there is a big drop-off after those two stars, there is still quite a bit of depth at the position.
The top second-tier name is probably Shannon Stewart, who had a very nice second-half with Minnesota and whose hype and media attention have never been stronger. In other words, he picked the perfect time to be a free agent. And, while Stewart is nowhere near an MVP-caliber player (like Jayson Stark, among others, have suggested), he is definitely a solid corner outfielder.
Check out how consistent he has been in recent years:
AVG OBP SLG HR 2B 2001 .316 .371 .463 12 44 2002 .303 .371 .442 10 38 2003 .307 .362 .459 13 44
The funny thing about all this "Stewart for MVP" talk, aside from the fact that he was nowhere near the MVP of the league, is that his performance this year is essentially the exact same as in 2001 and 2002. But I digress...
The one area of Stewart's offensive-game that is far from consistent is his running. Once upon a time Stewart was one of the best basestealers in baseball. He stole 51 bases in 1998 and followed that up with 37 more in 1999.
Stewart stole just 14 bags with the Blue Jays in 2002, although much of that was said to be because the new Toronto regime wasn't much into running. Before being dealt to the Twins this year, Stewart had a grand-total of one stolen base in 71 games with Toronto.
Once he got to Minnesota he would be set free on the bases and the old Shannon Stewart would come back. Or so the theory went. I can't begin to tell you how many times I heard about how Shannon Stewart was adding "a whole new dimension" to the Twins. For the first month or so in Minnesota, every time Stewart was on first base, the Twins' TV announcers would warn their audience that Stewart was likely to run. Except he never did.
In 65 games with the Twins, a team that was certainly in favor or running, Stewart stole three bases and was caught stealing four times. My personal observation of him was that his speed, while still good, was definitely not great, and he also did not get very good jumps off the pitchers. I would say that any team expecting Shannon Stewart to steal 30 or 40 bases again is being foolish at this point.
What they will get is a .300 hitter who will laces doubles all over the field. He will also walk a little bit, and his outfield defense was much better than I expected, even after he was asked to play right field for the first time in his career.
For a team looking for some offense in a corner outfield spot, Shannon Stewart would be an excellent choice. He's 29 years old and, although his speed appears to be in a decline, his bat looked just fine all year. I was very impressed with his ability to turn on good fastballs and rip them down the left field line for doubles, and the guy is a career .303 hitter. You can pretty much pencil him in for .300/.360/.450, which is probably worth about $5-$7 mill a season for three or four years.
For those teams unable to get any of the "sure things" in Guerrero, Sheffield and Stewart, there are plenty of other corner outfield options, although most of them come with a lot more risk and baggage.
The highest risk/reward ratio in the group definitely belongs to Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez has played in a total of 152 games over the last two years with Texas. When he's been healthy his hitting has been very solid, particularly this year, when he hit .294/.329/.572 in 346 plate appearances. If you go back three seasons, you find a .325/.370/.590 performance for Cleveland, when he played in 140 games and drove in 140 runs.
At this point in his career, Juan Gonzalez has to know he isn't going to be getting any multi-year deals for mega-bucks. And that's the reason he is worth taking a chance on. To sign him to a one-year deal, even if it is an expensive one, is worth the risk in my opinion. If you can keep him healthy, he's going to hit. If you can't...well, at least you don't have to keep paying him next year. There's a chance he might play 70 games, but there's also a chance he could play 135 and hit 35 homers while slugging .600. I'd offer him one year at $5 million with some incentives and go from there.
After Gonzalez, you've got a bunch of guys who played everyday in 2003 - Carl Everett, Jose Cruz Jr., Jeromy Burnitz, Raul Ibanez, Rondell White, Jose Guillen and Raul Mondesi. Personally, there isn't a guy on that list that I would be all the excited about acquiring, for various reasons, and I would much rather save some money and try my luck with the guys on the "clearance rack" (more on them in a moment). That said, if you have a hole in left or right field and you don't have any other options, there is some value in the above group.
I would stay away from Mondesi, because he is not only an overrated player with a mediocre bat (.251/.330/.456 over the last three years), he's an overrated player with a mediocre bat who is a pain in the butt and bad defensively. I wouldn't give him more than a million bucks for a single year, and I'm sure at least one team will give him a whole lot more than that.
I would also stay away from Burnitz, unless he is really cheap. Burnitz had a very good first-half, hitting .274/.344/.581, but he was awful after he joined the Dodgers for the second-half. In 61 games with Los Angeles, Burnitz hit .204/.252/.391, forcing his season-totals all the way down to .239/.299/.487. That means his OBPs for the last two years are .311 and .299, which also means I'm not interested unless he wants to play for next-to-nothing.
The most intriguing guy in that group is probably Jose Guillen. At 27 he's younger than the rest of those guys and he hit .337/.385/.629 in 91 games with the Reds, before being dealt to Oakland. After joining the A's he hit just .265/.311/.459, although he had a serious wrist injury for some of that time. I'm inclined to say he's the same guy who came into this season as a .260/.305/.398 career hitter, but the chance that his first-half with Cincy is a sign of him turning the corner is definitely interesting.
I'd say there's a pretty good chance some team gives Guillen a four-year deal for like $25 million, which is about two years and $20 million more than my price-range would be for him. He's interesting, but he's still Jose Guillen, you know?
Of those seven guys who played everyday that I mentioned, the two that I would go after if I felt I needed to fill a corner outfield spot with a "name" free agent would be Jose Cruz Jr. and Raul Ibanez. Carl Everett is also worth a look and he can fake center field too, but he's probably too much of a hassle and too expensive.
Jose Cruz Jr. had an interesting season. After being let go by the Blue Jays he signed a one-year deal with the Giants. He started out very hot, hitting .308/.439/.593 in April, and then didn't have another good month the entire year. He hit just .233/.348/.335 in the second-half and finished the year at .250/.366/.414.
So why exactly would I be interested in him? Well, he hit 20 homers in a very tough park to hit homers in and he also walked 102 times. If he can keep most of that plate discipline and bump the power up a little bit when leaves Pac Bell, he could very easily hit .260/.365/.450 next year (he has a career SLG of .458), which, along with good defense, is worth a one-year deal for a couple mill.
Raul Ibanez is an interesting player, because when he came to the Royals in 2001 he was 29 years old and a career .241/.295/.383 hitter. Over the next three years with Kansas City he got 1,384 at bats and hit .291/.347/.492. My first reaction was that some of that comes from hitting in a very good hitter's park, but Ibanez also hit .283/.345/.483 on the road during that span.
He struggles with left-handed pitching and probably needs a platoon partner, but he hits righties very well (.304/.364/.523 from 2001-2003) and he can play either corner outfield spot, as well as first base.
Beyond the everyday guys from last year like Ibanez and Mondesi, I guess we get to what would be described as the "fourth-tier" of corner outfield free agents, or the "clearance rack." This is a group of guys who have not had everyday playing time, and who are either injury-prone, poor defensively or in definite need of a platoon partner - and sometimes all three. Of course, being the big fan of platoons and cheap offense that I am, I see a TON of value in this group.
For example, Matt Stairs, when put into the lineup against right-handed pitching, was one of the best hitters in baseball last year. And yet the Pirates recently offered him a one-year deal for $900,000, which Stairs rightly turned down.
Stairs hit .304/.402/.582 against right-handed pitching last year and has hit .270/.375/.517 against righties over the last three years combined. The man can't hit lefties to save his life, but that only matters if you ask him to try, which I wouldn't. If you only play Stairs against righties, you get All-Star level production for about two-thirds of the playing time, all for very little money.
Then you just need to find him a platoon-partner to bash lefties and you can get yourself a .900 OPS-platoon for around two million bucks. Oh, and there are definitely some lefty-bashers on this list too.
For example, Eduardo Perez destroyed lefties to the tune of .353/.459/.667 this season and .271/.354/.643 last year. Like Stairs, he can play either corner outfield spot and first base. If you use Stairs and Perez in a strict platoon you could very easily get a .280/.380/.520 "hitter" with 30 homers. If you ask me, that sure beats overpaying for non-platooned mediocrity like Mondesi.
Another guy who can destroy lefties is Reggie Sanders. Sanders hit .301/.368/.647 against southpaws this season and .282/.359/.611 against them over the last three years. And, unlike many lefty-mashers, he is good enough against righties that you don't have to put him into a strict platoon. In fact, Sanders was very good against righties this year, hitting .278/.335/.533. Over the last three years he has hit righties at .259/.326/.487, which is right at the border of "acceptable" for an everyday corner outfielder. Sanders is also a good defensive player with a little speed, which separates him from guys like Stairs and Perez. He will most likely be joining his seventh team in seven seasons, which is good, because he is definitely the perfect one-year pickup.
A similar player to Reggie Sanders is Brian Jordan, who plays good corner outfield defense and kills lefties, while hitting just "okay" against righties. Over the last three years Jordan has hit .318/.381/.582 against lefties and just .284/.331/.441 against righties. He's been overpaid coming off a five-year deal for $40 mill, but he's definitely worth a million or two for 2004.
Another guy I like for cheap platooning in 2004 is John Vander Wal, who has hit .267/.358/.464 against righties during the last few years. Also, Ben Grieve might be worth taking a shot at on a cheap deal, just because he used to be pretty good and he's still only 27. And Ellis Burks can still DH and hit, as long as his legs are working and his hand isn't numb.
THE CENTER FIELDERS:
This year's group of free agent center fielders leaves a lot to be desired. Basically, you can either break the bank open and sign Mike Cameron to a multi-year deal, go for a one-year bargain with Kenny Lofton, or sign a corner outfielder like Carl Everett and ask him to stand around in the middle of the outfield while doubles fly past him.
As anyone who has read this blog for a long time knows, I am a big fan of Mike Cameron, so he is definitely the guy I would go after. That said, it's similar to the Vlad Guerrero-situation, in that every team needing a center fielder is going to go after Cameron and, last I checked, there is only one Mike Cameron to go around. That would put Kenny Lofton in a similar situation to Gary Sheffield, I suppose.
Way back in early July, I declared Mike Cameron "The Most Underrated Player in Baseball."
My reasoning for that was based on several things. For one, I believe Mike Cameron is the best defensive center fielder in the world and, because defense is often overlooked, the fact that much of his value comes from that area makes him underrated. Along with that making him underrated was also the fact that his home ballpark, Safeco Field in Seattle, has cost him an incredible amount of offensive production over the years.
Here's a little quote from that entry:
"Since joining the Mariners, Cameron has played 3.5 seasons with Safeco Field as his home ballpark. During that time at Safeco, compared to playing on the road, his AVG is down 26.6%, his OBP is down 14.5% and his SLG is down 32.6%.
Mike Cameron has lost more of his offense since 2000 by playing his home games at Safeco Field than Todd Helton and Larry Walker have lost when they leave Coors Field, the best hitter's park in baseball history, to play on the road."
I am still not quite sure why Safeco Field has had such a negative impact on Cameron's hitting. It is certainly a pitcher's park, but its impact on other hitters isn't nearly as pronounced.
The interesting thing about this is that players have long complained about Safeco Field's "hitter's background" and the Mariners changed it for the second-half. Here's a quote from an Associated Press story from July 19th:
"Safeco Field will have a new look for the second half of the season, one the Seattle Mariners hope will cut down the glare for day and early evening games. Mariners hitters have complained about that glare since the ballpark opened four years ago. Some have even campaigned to have the team keep Safeco's retractable roof closed for day games to solve the problem."
I can't say for sure that this was Mike Cameron's main problem with hitting in Safeco, but it seems to have been a problem for many hitters, a group which probably included Cameron.
So, did Cameron's Safeco hitting improve after the new hitting background was put in? Let's take a look...
Mike Cameron at Safeco Field: AVG OBP SLG Pre .218 .302 .417 Post .260 .355 .448
Batting average up 19%, on-base percentage up 18%, slugging percentage up 8%. I'd say Cameron liked the new background.
Of course, the really interesting thing about all of this is that right around the time the new hitter's background was put in and right around the time Cameron starting hitting better at home, he stopped hitting on the road.
Mike Cameron on the road AVG OBP SLG Pre .319 .403 .528 Post .202 .288 .307
I don't even know how to begin to explain that, so I won't.
What I will say is that over the last three seasons, a span that includes those awful numbers from last year's second-half, Mike Cameron is a .278/.364/.510 hitter away from Safeco Field. In addition to that, he is a .260/.355/.448 hitter at Safeco Field in the time after the hitter's background was changed.
I don't know how much of this is just dumb luck and sample-sizes and how much of it is legitimate, but either way I think it's safe to say that Mike Cameron deserves a shot at trying to put up some big offensive numbers outside of Safeco Field. Thankfully, because of his current free agency, the odds are pretty good that he'll be able to do that.
So, the big question is how much is he worth to another team? The answer to that question obviously hinges on whether or not you think the hitter he has been on the road the last several seasons is the one that will come out once he is away from Seattle. If you do think that, then I don't think it is a stretch to say that he could very easily hit .275/.365/.510 for his new team, and possibly even higher if he goes to a friendly ballpark for hitters.
What is .275/.365/.510 with extraordinary defense in center field worth? Andruw Jones hit .277/.338/.513 last year, so Cameron's "projection" is a step up from that. In fact, if Cameron can get his OBP around .360 and his SLG around .500, the only everyday center fielders from last year to do better than were Jim Edmonds, Carlos Beltran and Vernon Wells. In other words, if Cameron hits like I think he can, the team that signs him will end up with one of the top handful of center fielders in all of baseball next year.
What's that worth on the open-market? A lot more than he's going to end up getting, that's for sure. If I was running a team you can be certain I would be the guy signing Mike Cameron this off-season. I'd ask his agent what the best offer they have is, add a million a year to it, and get Mike in a uniform for the press-conference.
My prediction for Cameron next year? Hmm...let's say .270/.360/.500 with 25 homers, 35 doubles, 5 triples, 75 walks and a Gold Glove in center field. Assuming no GMs are reading this blog, I'd say Cameron is going to be one hell of a bargain for whatever price he ends up signing for. I guess we'll just have to wait a year to find out if I'm right.
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