November 12, 2014

Examining the Twins’ free agent options: Outfielders

Most teams coming off four straight 90-loss seasons have obvious holes all over the roster, but the Twins' lineup is pretty well set for 2015. Kurt Suzuki has a new two-year deal at catcher and first baseman Joe Mauer is signed through 2018. Brian Dozier isn't going anywhere at second base and shortstop will be filled by Eduardo Escobar and/or Danny Santana. Trevor Plouffe played well enough to stay at third base, at least until Miguel Sano is ready after elbow surgery.

Santana or Aaron Hicks will do the same type of seat-holding for Byron Buxton in center field and Oswaldo Arcia will man an outfield corner, presumably right field. Designated hitter can be filled by Kennys Vargas and/or Josmil Pinto. All of which leaves left field as the only clear spot that needs filling for 2015 and making a big splash with a long-term solution seems unlikely since post-surgery Sano, Eddie Rosario, or another prospect may be there by 2016.

Finding a veteran outfielder to provide 2015 help without blocking younger options and eating up future payroll would seemingly be a smart approach for the Twins and in looking over this year's free agent crop quite a few players fit that bill reasonably well. Here, in alphabetical order, are nine free agents who strike me as a worthwhile option or strike me as someone the Twins will view as a worthwhile option. Or both.

Norichika AokiNorichika Aoki: He's hit .287/.353/.387 in the majors, going 3-for-3 in solid seasons since coming over from Japan at age 30. Aoki had MLB's third-lowest strikeout rate from 2012-2014--one spot ahead of ex-Twins contact machine Ben Revere--and draws a decent number of walks while having the speed to steal 15-20 bases. All of which would make his left-handed bat a nice fit atop the lineup. During the playoffs Aoki's shaky routes in right field for the Royals stood out, but his defensive numbers have been just fine in all three outfield spots. At age 33 and unlikely to command big money, he seems like an ideal stop gap until the Twins decide who they want in left field long term.

2013 San Diego Padres Photo DayChris Denorfia: After a nice four-season run as a very productive part-timer Denorfia slipped to .230/.284/.318 in 121 games for the Padres and Mariners last season and at age 34 the risk is that his decline is permanent. However, from 2010-2013 he hit .280/.338/.414 in 484 games despite calling the majors' most pitcher-friendly ballpark home. Denorfia is also a plus defensive corner outfielder with the ability to handle center field if needed and has the speed to swipe 10-15 bases. Ideally he'd be used in a platoon role versus mostly lefties, but as a short-term solution Denorfia could be a regular if the Twins were willing to sacrifice offense for defense in a corner.

2014 Seattle Mariners Photo DayCorey Hart: Who knows. Hart was one of the best right-handed power hitters in baseball for the Brewers from 2010-2012, batting .279/.343/.514 with 31, 26, and 30 homers. Then he missed all of 2013 with a knee injury and was a mess for the Mariners this season, hitting .203/.271/.319 in 68 games. Hart is 6-foot-6 and was known for having great speed and range for his size, starting 41 games in center field and twice stealing more than 20 bases. Knee problems, time off, and normal aging may have ruined that skill set and it'd be crazy to offer Hart significant guaranteed money, but as a bounceback candidate he wouldn't be the worst idea as a cheap pickup.

Detroit Tigers Photo DayTorii Hunter: Not surprisingly the Twins have reportedly expressed interest in a reunion with Hunter, who left as a free agent in 2008. Hunter was 31 years old at the time, but his hitting actually improved after leaving. Even this season, at age 38, he hit .286/.319/.446 with 17 homers in 142 games. Defensively, however, Hunter has gone from being an elite center fielder to being one of the worst right fielders. During the past two seasons he was 22 runs below average in Ultimate Zone Rating and 28 runs below average in Defensive Runs Saved. Hunter and Arcia as the corner outfielders could be ugly, although the haze of nostalgia might keep a lot of people from realizing it.

Baltimore Orioles Photo DayNick Markakis: As a top-10 draft pick and stud prospect who had some big years early in his career Markakis looked like a long-term star, but now he's 31 years old with a .435 career slugging percentage. Combined during the past three seasons he hit .279/.342/.396. By comparison, Aoki hit .287/.353/.387 over that span. Markakis has a great defensive reputation, including a pair of Gold Glove awards, but the numbers do not view him as especially strong in the field. He's a superior all-around player with far more upside than Aoki, but you get the idea. He'd be a fine fit for the Twins, but my guess is that Markakis is going to get paid for his reputation rather than his actual production.

michael morseMichael Morse: After an injury wrecked 2013 season Morse was his usual self, hitting .279/.336/.475 with 16 homers in 131 games for the Giants to nearly match his .281/.335/.473 career line. Morse swings at everything, but doesn't strike out a ton and has hit above .275 in four of the past five seasons. And few right-handed bats have more power. Unfortunately he's a butcher defensively. Among all left fielders since 2011 he's dead last in Ultimate Zone Rating at 22 runs below average per 150 games. For some Twins-related context, Jason Kubel is -14, Josh Willingham is -10, and Delmon Young is -10. He should be a designated hitter, which the Twins don't need.

2013 Toronto Blue Jays Photo DayColby Rasmus: His production has varied wildly and he has a reputation for being a doofus, but Rasmus is an under-30 center fielder with 25-homer power and a .751 career OPS. It remains to be seen if new manager Paul Molitor is more open-minded to platooning than Ron Gardenhire, but Rasmus is a career .257/.323/.465 hitter off righties and struggles against lefties. Rasmus in left field would go a long way toward improving the defense without sacrificing any power and if he balks at that using him in center field until Buxton is ready may not be a bad idea either. I'd avoid any sort of major commitment, but Rasmus' skill set at age 28 is very intriguing.

2014 Texas Rangers Photo DayAlex Rios: For nearly a decade Rios was one of the better, most underrated corner outfielders in baseball. His lack of big-time power kept him under the radar, but Rios was a solid hitter who averaged 20 homers and 25 steals per 150 games from 2006-2013 and had center field-caliber range defensively. His offense and defense have slipped at age 34, causing the Rangers to decline his $13.5 million option, but Rios has been right around an average hitter for the past two seasons and could still get to plenty of fly balls in left field. Injuries sapped his production in 2014, but Rios played 145 or more games every year from 2007-2013 and is one season removed from 18 homers and 42 steals.

Milwaukee Brewers Photo DayRickie Weeks: I have no idea if Weeks would be willing to play left field. He was the Brewers' starting second baseman from 2005-2013 and then turned down a chance to play left field after losing the job to Scooter Gennett. He's never been a good defender and has struggled to stay healthy, so perhaps at age 32 he'd be more open to a position switch. Weeks hit .274/.357/.452 in a part-time role this season and has averaged 20 homers and 65 walks per 150 games for his career to make up for poor batting averages. If he's interested in trying to re-establish himself as a corner outfielder offer Weeks a one-year deal with the promise of an everyday role.

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  1. I don’t think this will happen because of how much they defer to JM, but moving Mauer to LF seems like it would be a reasonable option. They obviously have a need and he’s athletic-enough that he shouldn’t be a liability defensively. The other thing it would do is open up 1B and DH for Vargas and Pinto. If Mauer stays at 1B, Vargas and Pinto share DH probably, meaning neither sees as much as they need to develop. Again, I don’t see them asking JM to move, but it seems like an option worth exploring.

    Comment by hope4change — November 12, 2014 @ 6:48 am

  2. It never made sense to me to move Mauer to 1st. This is the solution they should be looking at.

    Comment by sandbun — November 12, 2014 @ 11:41 am

  3. I think Mauer will be better next year, wherever he plays, but I worry about the development of Vargas and Pinto if he stays at 1B. I expect Vargas will have stretches where he really struggles, but there is potential there, so he needs AB’s. Same with Pinto, you know Suzuki will catch more than half the games, so that limits Pinto’s AB’s as well. Everyone in MLB is searching for power hitters right now; here you have two young guys with plenty of it, but they’re going to be fighting for AB’s unnecessarily in my opinion. With the pitching situation the way it, you better get every capable hitter in the lineup as often as possible. Having said all that, I think the chances are slim and none.

    Comment by hope4change — November 12, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

  4. I’ve been of the opinion that he should play in the OF if he can’t catch as well. His bat will play pretty much anywhere, but with his arm strength he’s almost wasted at 1B. He’s athletic, has a cannon for an arm and has a plus bat at most positions. The one place where his skills are least needed? 1B.

    Comment by D-Luxxx — November 12, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

  5. This list confirms what I’ve been thinking all along – I really don’t want to see the Twins accept a defensive butcher to get a player with a “typical” power-hitting corner-outfielder profile (or to play on fans’ nostalgia with Hunter.) I’d like Aoki & Rasmus as targets, and possibly Rios or Weeks if there’s a chance of a pay cut or a position switch, respectively.

    This on Markakis: “He’s a superior all-around player with far more upside than Aoki, but you get the idea.” – Interestingly, Dave Cameron wrote a short post on Fangraphs arguing that Aoki was the better version of Markakis in most ways.

    Comment by wrong em — November 12, 2014 @ 7:42 am

  6. I would try and sign Norichika to a 1 year deal with a team option

    Comment by Kevin — November 12, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

  7. Thereare definitely some viable options here. My preference would be for Aoki, Denorfia, or Rasmus (despite his rep as a knucklehead); adding some defensive help and experience in the OF would be a very good idea. Hart might be an interesting backup plan if none of them work out, but shouldn’t be anything other than a backup plan. I don’t want Hunter, Morse or any of the rotten defensive guys. We need to shore up the OF defense considering our pitching staff and there appear to be some guys out there who can be at least competent on offense and add real value on defensive, even giving some positional flexibility.

    Comment by Josh — November 13, 2014 @ 9:06 am

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