Before free agency began, I ran down five potential bargains that I thought had a good chance to be worth more than the contracts that the FanGraphs Crowd projected them to sign for this winter. On that list was Chris Young — the outfield version — who the crowd forecast for $7 million per year over two years. Today, the Mets have signed for him $7 million for a single year, and I continue to believe that this will likely go down as one of the best free agent signings of the off-season.
It is very easy to focus on Young’s warts. He hit just .200/.280/.379 last year. He doesn’t hit right-handed pitching all that well. Now 30, his defense probably isn’t what it used to be. These statements are all true, but they simply explain why Young was signing for 1/$7M instead of 5/$75M like B.J. Upton last winter. If Young was coming off a good year, and had historically better numbers against right-handed pitching, and was still in his defensive prime, he’d be signing a big money long term deal. For 1/$7M, you get warts. You just pick and choose which warts you’re okay with.
And the particular warts that Chris Young comes with are the kinds of warts worth trying to buy low on. Yes, he had a bad 2013 season, but his track record before last year shows a league average hitter with a consistent skillset. In order to try and maximize his power, he hits a crazy number of fly balls. He takes some walks and gives up some strikeouts in the process. The combination of low contact rates and high fly ball rates means that he’s going to post very low batting averages, but the walks keep the OBP respectable and the occasional home runs mean that he’s still contributing while hitting .230.
None of that changed last year. He still hit for power, drew walks, struck out, and hit fly balls. However, he posted a .237 BABIP that was the lowest of his career, so his wRC+ fell from 98 to 82. Other than that, he was basically the same hitter he’s always been, and while BABIP for hitters isn’t entirely random, there’s no reason to expect him to sustain a career low. Steamer projects him to post a .269 BABIP in 2014, a little below his career average, and that bump would push him right back to league average hitter status.
League average hitters who can also play the outfield pretty well and add some baserunning value are nifty pieces. Yes, Young’s league average hitting comes with a larger than usual platoon split, but he offers enough non-hitting value to still be worth putting in the line-up against right-handers, and the overall production matters more than how it is distributed. Observed platoon splits need to be fairly heavily regressed when projecting the future anyway, so one should not simply accept that Young is a part-time player at this point in his career. He’s more valuable against LHPs, but handing him a regular job is completely justifiable.
Because the Mets already have Juan Lagares, there’s a good chance that Young will spend a decent amount of time in a corner outfield spot. Traditionally, the thought has been that you want bats in the corners and defense up the middle, but that false dichotomy is falling away as teams realize that defense matters at all positions, and you can still extract value from a good glove player in a corner. While Young’s bat doesn’t stack up as well compared to LF/RF types, his defensive abilities don’t disappear when he’s not playing center field, and the diminishing returns of playing multiple center fielders side by side are overstated.
Steamer projects Young for +1.7 WAR over just 434 plate appearances, so the forecasting system actually believes Young is a slightly above average big league player. Because of his platoon splits, you can’t extrapolate his entire value over 434 PA out to 600 PA, but there’s nothing wrong with giving Chris Young a regular job and letting him play most days. And for $7 million, getting a roughly average regular OF is a nifty little bargain indeed.
Last year, Cody Ross – same basic overall skillset, though with less defensive chops — got $26 million over three years. Ryan Ludwick, another average hitting RHB without as much defensive value, got $15 million over two years. Even Jonny Gomes, strictly a lefty masher who should probably DH, got $10 million over two years. For the Mets to land Young with only a single year commitment, even though he projects to be better than guys who got more money for more years, makes this a pretty great little deal. If Young has a big bounce back season, they can either flip him for prospects at the deadline or potentially extend a qualifying offer next winter, and maybe reap a draft pick as reward for their faith in his skills.
Young isn’t a sexy addition, but this is the kind of solid low cost move that smart teams are making these days. If you just focus on what Young can’t do, you’ll ignore the fact that what he can do has value, and $7 million for what he brings to the table is one of the off-season’s better bargains.