The Meat Market: Outfielders

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Just like at the midseason trading deadline, teams in need of a centerfielder this offseason are going hot and heavy after Carlos Beltran, with Steve Finley as their fallback plan. The problem, obviously, is that there are only two of those guys to go around, and once they’re both off the market teams are going to go to the third spot on their list of free agent centerfielders are find themselves staring straight at Doug Glanville. As a wise man once said, “That’s not going to be good for anybody.”

As I discussed earlier this week, Beltran is perhaps a bit overrated heading into free agency and, although you wouldn’t know it based on his press clippings, he’s probably not quite as desirable a free agent as Adrian Beltre. Of course, considering Beltre is a 26-year-old third baseman who plays extremely good defense and hit .334 with 48 homers this year, that still leaves a lot of room for Beltran to be an amazing player. And there is no doubt that he is among the elite talents in baseball, an all-around stud who combines great hitting and great defense with the added dimension of outstanding baserunning (42-for-45 stealing bases this year, 118-for-132 from 2002-04), which is often overlooked.

There is little to say about Beltran that hasn’t been said. He turns 28 in April, he’s had four outstanding seasons in a row, he’s coming off one of the most impressive postseasons in recent memory, and he’s by far the best free agent at his position. With that said, the moment his agent, Scott Boras, insists upon a 10-year deal for Beltran would be the moment I stopped negotiating with them. There’s just no way a team would be smart to commit what will likely be in excess of $12-15 million per year to Beltran into his late 30s. As good as he is and as much as he could help a team right now, if it comes down to whether or not you’re willing to say right now that you’ll pay him $18 million when he’s 37 years old, you’re better off going in another direction and letting another team take on that burden.

The problem, at least this offseason, is finding that other direction. Finley is coming off a very solid season in which he hit .271/.333/.490 with 36 homers, 28 doubles and 61 walks between Arizona and Los Angeles. He’ll also be 40 years old next year, and regardless of what kind of shape he’s in and how well he’s played in recent years, history is not on the side of centerfielders once they hit 40. In fact, in the entire history of baseball only one 40-year-old centerfielder has managed to even accumulate 500 plate appearances in a season — Willie Mays, who hit .271/.425/.482 with 18 homers, 24 doubles and a career-high 112 walks with the Giants in 1971.

That’s it, Mays is the only centerfielder who could even continue as an everyday player at 40, and he had to play about a third of the time at first base to do so. And this is quite a news flash, I know, but Steve Finley is no Willie Mays, and the odds of him developing the sort of secondary skills Mays used to stay dangerous offensively at 40 are very long. Finley may have another good year or two left in him, but there’s a very good chance he doesn’t, and I wouldn’t want to be the team paying to find out. However, unless the trade market really opens up, the lack of quality free agent centerfielders may force teams to give Beltran extra years and gamble on Finley. After those two, it’s Glanville, Ricky Ledee and Tom Goodwin. Normally I’d say those are slim pickings, but honestly that’s quite an insult to slim pickings.

Even the free agent corner outfielders aren’t a particularly strong group this offseason. A year after Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero, Shannon Stewart and Jose Guillen hit the open market, this crop includes very few big names. The headliners are J.D. Drew and Magglio Ordonez, outstanding players who both come along with a lot of baggage. Drew shockingly had his best and healthiest season as a major leaguer in his “walk year,” hitting .305/.436/.569 with 31 homers, 28 doubles and 118 walks with Atlanta, and perhaps more importantly played in 145 games. That may not sound like a lot, but he had never before missed fewer than two dozen games in a season.

Meanwhile, Ordonez, who had been a model of health and durability for his whole career, played in just 52 games this season because of injuries. He also had his worst year offensively since he was a 24-year-old rookie in 1998, hitting “only” .292/.352/.485 in 222 plate appearances with the White Sox. Interestingly, both Drew and Ordonez have past experience in center field, although they aren’t the type of guys teams want to get creative with at this point.

Drew and Ordonez are both good free agent gambles, assuming of course they can be had for relatively short-term deals. Ordonez was one of the best hitters in baseball from 1999-2003, hitting a combined .312/.380/.546 with an average of 32 homers, 40 doubles and 118 RBIs per season. He was often overlooked even when healthy, and his injury-plagued 2004 season has really made him a forgotten man. As for Drew, there’s always the risk of getting very little return on your investment, but as long as you go into the deal knowing that you can only count on him for about 120 games a year, the potential reward outweighs the risk.

Despite the question marks attached to their names, Drew and Ordonez still stand out from the rest of the free agent corner outfielders, as the next group of players have even more issues. Moises Alou had an oustanding year with the Cubs, hitting .293/.361/.557 with 39 homers, 36 doubles and 68 walks, but he’ll be 38 next year and has quite an injury history of his own. Richard Hidalgo would have been a hot item this time last year, when he hit .309/.385/.572 with Houston, but now he’s coming off a disappointing .239/.301/.444 season that saw the Astros dump him on the Mets in the middle of a pennant race.

Coming off a 2003 season in which he hit .172/.261/.253 and played in just 65 games, Jermaine Dye had an oustanding first half this year and looked like he had bounced back just in time to cash in via free agency. After hitting .298/.359/.596 in April and .285/.343/.505 before the All-Star break, he plummeted to .231/.305/.397 in the second half, as yet another injury, this time to his thumb, hurt his production and kept him out of the lineup. And if you really want to talk about formerly good hitters who have been ravaged by injuries lately, two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez is available after playing in a total of 185 games over the past three seasons.

But wait, the list of old, injured, decrepit corner outfielders available as free agents this offseason doesn’t stop there. B.J. Surhoff hit .309/.365/.420 with the Orioles this year, but he’s 39 and hasn’t played more than 100 games in a season since 2001. Brian Jordan stayed healthy for just 61 games with the Rangers this year, after playing 66 times with the Dodgers in 2003. Marty Cordova has played in nine more major-league games than I have over the past two years, and I have trouble convincing myself to move from my bed to the refrigerator on occasion.

At 33, Danny Bautista is young compared to these guys, but even he missed 21 games this year after playing in a total of 128 games during the previous two seasons. Raul Mondesi started the season with Pittsburgh, was released when they finally got fed up with him after 26 games, and then played exactly eight games in his comeback with the Angels before a season-ending injury. The sad thing is that the reason I’m listing all of these injury cases is that they represent the best of what this offseason’s free agent class of corner outfielders has to offer. The “young” portion of the group essentially consists of Ben Grieve and Gabe Kapler, whose only chance at stardom rests with them merging their “talents” together to form one really muscular, extremely slow, horribly disappointing super hero who had exceptional minor-league numbers.

All of which is a very long way of saying that there are probably a few unlucky teams that picked the wrong year to need help in the outfield. If you need a centerfielder, you can choose between giving Beltran a lifetime contract worth twice the value of the franchise or rolling the dice on Finley defying history. If you need a corner outfielder, you get your pick of two very good hitters who might combine to play 150 games next year or you can throw a dart at the board of old, injured, over-the-hill guys and hope it at least lands on someone inexpensive.

On a purely on-field level, Beltran is a no-brainer and I’d have no problem going after Drew or Ordonez either. But for teams with actual budgets and limited resources, I’m not so sure there’s an outfielder in the bunch to really target this offseason. I’d see if Boras is really serious about needing 10 years, see if Drew or Ordonez likes a three-year deal with some incentives, and then start working the phones for a trade. Sometimes going to the store and coming home empty handed is better than an impulse buy you’ll regret later. All sales on outfielders are final whether or not you keep the receipt on Jeromy Burnitz.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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