No two offseasons are alike. Some free-agent crops are bountiful, some less so. Sometimes, like last year, the trade market is on fire. Last winter, position players were on the move in huge numbers, due in part to a spate of new GMs — in particular, A.J. Preller — attempting to make their respective marks. Some years, the Winter Meetings are a virtual swap meet, while in others, they’re marked by a bunch of meetings leading to nowhere. Sometimes, the free-agent market dries up quickly, while in other years, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond, Yovani Gallardo, Doug Fister, Mat Latos and many others are still looking for work more than halfway into January.
When I wrote the first draft of this post yesterday, I was going to focus on the first two names in that list. Both entered the offseason with designs on a $150-million guarantee. Despite the relative lateness of the free-agent season, Justin Upton nearly reached that mark last night. Yoenis Cespedes remains available, however — and that availability has forced both him and all 30 clubs to step back and reassess his market.
For Cespedes, that means deciding whether to prioritize short- or long-term financial goals, while also considering competitive issues and quality of life. Meanwhile, clubs which might not have previously considered themselves as a possible destination for Cespedes are now having to decide whether to make a move in the event that his asking price drop far enough. After all, there really is no such thing as a “buyer” or a “seller”; hypothetically, if the price drops sufficiently low, all 30 clubs should dabble in the buyers’ end.
So let’s remove all preconceptions and determine which of the 30 clubs have a hole that could best be addressed by the signing of Cespedes, and examine whether the finances make sense both for player and club.
First, the skinny on Cespedes. He will play 2016 at age 30, and is coming off of a career year, accumulating 6.7 WAR in a season split between the Tigers and Mets. Power is his calling card; his batted-ball authority is over a full standard deviation better than league average in the air, on a line and on the ground. His strikeout rate is quite manageable for a power hitter, though his walk rate is disappointing, over a half standard deviation lower than league average. He has a bit of a pull tendency, though not an overly extreme one.
He is an infield-overshift consideration, but not a slam-dunk decision. His defensive pedigree is uneven, but he’s coming off of his best year in that department, earning a Gold Glove. His exceptional arm strength is a clear asset. One can even take a deep breath and play him in center field in short stints. Cespedes is a moderate risk, high reward player that Steamer conservatively projects for 2.9 WAR in 2016. He’ll likely pay off on even a high dollar deal for the next three years or so.
Importantly, he’s also displayed exceptional durability over the years; health is the sixth tool, and Cespedes possesses it.
Below is a comprehensive list of clubs who were projected to generate 1.0 WAR or less in left field, right field or designated hitter this season prior to the Upton signing yesterday. For each, we’ll briefly discuss the potential fit for a big-bat outfielder, both competitively and financially. Opening Day 2015 and current 2016 Opening Day payroll projections are listed. At the end, I’ll add two more clubs who don’t meet the strict criteria stated, but who could factor in anyway.
2015 Payroll: $184.3M
2016 Payroll: $198.1M
Dave Dombrowski spent a lot of money in Detroit, and has already added David Price in his first offseason in Boston. Steamer already favors the Sox in the AL East, despite Rusney Castillo being projected for only 0.9 WAR as the starting left fielder. This would be a bold move, but one that would have a much better chance of paying off than last year’s Hanley Ramirez addition.
Conclusion: At the end of the day, the Sox have made their big move already and will pass.
Hole: RF, DH
2015 Payroll: $217.8M
2016 Payroll: $229.6M
Yes, Alex Rodriguez is projected for all of 0.5 WAR in 2016. These are holes in name only, however. The Yanks, the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman notwithstanding, are actively attempting to conduct business in a new way.
Conclusion: A longshot.
2015 Payroll: $75.8M
2016 Payroll: $68.1M
This is an intriguing example of a club that originally considered itself a non-factor, but now has to at least consider diving into the market. Their payroll is actually projected to be down from last year, the division is up for grabs, and a few wins could really go a long way. Plus, their newly negotiated ability to search for alternate stadium sites in the greater Tampa Bay area gives them at least a flicker of financial hope. They did, however, tender a contract to Logan Morrison, and aren’t the type of club that can afford to sit $4 million on the bench.
Conclusion: They might be intriguing, but they’re still a longshot.
Hole: LF, RF
2015 Payroll: $119.0M
2016 Payroll: $116.8M
OK, Chris Davis is finally in the fold, but this club is currently still projected to start Nolan Reimold and L.J. Hoes at the corner outfield positions. Even with the signing of Davis, their projected 2016 payroll is still a tad behind their 2015 level. Unfortunately for them, their starting pitching needs are just as significant. Think they might like the Mark Trumbo/Steve Clevenger deal back, with the $8 million in savings attached?
Conclusion: The O’s have been connected to Cespedes. With Upton off the board, they now figure to be a finalist.
Chi White Sox
Hole: RF, DH
2015 Payroll: $118.6M
2016 Payroll: $119.4M
Pretty interesting call for the White Sox here. The AL Central is projected to be even tighter than the East, and one signing could eventually make the difference. The club is committed to going young at shortstop, and has shored up its woeful team defense with the addition of Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie. Do they give Avisail Garcia one more year in right, or do they pull the trigger? Financially, they get out from under incumbent DH Adam LaRoche after this season, so could a slightly backloaded deal for work?
Conclusion: A second-tier candidate for Cespedes, though the Tigers’ move for Upton could push them a bit.
2015 Payroll: $172.8M
2016 Payroll: $178.3M (pre-Upton)
The Tigers had a gaping hole in LF, where Tyler Collins was the projected starter. The club had already committed significant bucks to Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, and still has a questionable pen despite the addition of Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe. A ton of money is guaranteed to a few aging individuals looking for one more shot at glory.
Conclusion: The signing of Upton means they’re all in.
Hole: RF, DH
2015 Payroll: $112.9M
2016 Payroll: $124.6M
Right field is currently projected to be manned by Jarrod Dyson; DH is a hole in name only, as Steamer projects regression from incumbent Kendrys Morales. You couldn’t totally rule out the Royals; the longer this situation has gone on, the more they’ve hoped a big outfield bat could fall into their price range. In reality, however, they already made their big move for Alex Gordon. The Royals’ money is spent, and they are likely set.
Hole: RF, DH
2015 Payroll: $108.3M
2016 Payroll: $109.4M
The Twins are currently projected to start Eddie Rosario in right and Oswaldo Arcia at DH in their young lineup. They’re actually in a bit of a box: they’re locked into Joe Mauer at $23 million per year through 2018, and at some point will have to start paying their young position players. Plus, adding pitching is a higher near-term priority.
Hole: LF, DH
2015 Payroll: $72.5M
2016 Payroll: $90.3M
The Astros might secretly wish that Colby Rasmus declined their qualifying offer. Cespedes would be a big upgrade over Rasmus or DH Evan Gattis. The Astros’ payroll is already up sharply, but the club has always expected to boost it once the club was restored to contention. Cespedes would be a great fit in this park.
Conclusion: Intriguing dark horse.
Hole: LF, RF
2015 Payroll: $123.2M
2016 Payroll: $141.0M
The M’s have dramatically remade their roster under Jerry Dipoto this offseason, but I can’t help but think they’re done after Hisashi Iwakuma fell into their lap. The outfield is much more athletic — they actually have players who can catch fly balls now — but it’s still short on offense.
Conclusion: Longshot, but should at least kick the tires.
2015 Payroll: $141.7M
2016 Payroll: $144.4M
This one’s all about Josh Hamilton. If the Rangers consider him a sunk cost, they should be in on Cespedes. Best guess, it’s a bit early to be writing off a significant acquisition that is less than a year old. The club has a ton of dollars invested in a small number of players, but retains one of the game’s best farm systems. Best guess is that the focus will be on the kids in the near term.
Hole: LF, DH
2015 Payroll: $146.3M
2016 Payroll: $167.9M
Purely from a competitive standpoint, this is a perfect landing spot for a big outfield bat. Left field is wide open, with Steamer currently considering Daniel Nava to be the starter; DH is a hole in name only, as Albert Pujols will be penciled in when healthy. The Angels have continued to empty out their meager farm system for win-now pieces; this one will only cost money.
Conclusion: Second-tier candidate that will blink if situation gets real.
Hole: LF, DH
2015 Payroll: $83.9M
2016 Payroll: $82.2M
These guys always zig when you expect them to zag, and they haven’t yet made their totally unexpected move of the offseason yet. Plus, Cespedes flourished here. That said, I think the A’s have learned their lesson, and are unlikely to get involved unless the acquisition cost drops to an unexpectedly low level.
Hole: LF, RF
2015 Payroll: $97.1M
2016 Payroll: $85.2M
The Braves are currently committed to Hector Olivera and Nick Markakis on the outfield corners, appearing to tie their hands. Upton would have actually fit nicely into their rebuilding plan, but he’s gone now.
Hole: LF, RF
2015 Payroll: $115.4M
2016 Payroll: $91.2M
Left field is a true hole, currently projected to be manned by Adam Duvall. Ironically, the right-field hole is currently filled by Jay Bruce, a fading vet they’re currently trying to move. The Reds should have been poised to kick the tire on both outfielders, in the case the price dropped. They should be looking to turn things around within a three-year window, in which both players were projected to excel. This is a team that should be considering both actively buying and selling (Brandon Phillips) concurrently, to win in the Joey Votto Window of Excellence. There is some really interesting young pitching here.
2015 Payroll: $173.2M
2016 Payroll: $172.1M
The Giants have been big-game hunters this offseason, adding Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto and Denard Span already. Despite this, their payroll is basically flat from last year. In theory, at least, this leaves room for a big corner outfield addition. In reality, however, the Giants have won with outfield complements similar to their current group of Angel Pagan, Span and Hunter Pence from left to right, with Gregor Blanco perpetually in reserve. I’d bet they’re lurking, and having discussions, but ultimately, their big moves have already been consummated.
Conclusion: Second-tier contender.
2015 Payroll: $88.2M
2016 Payroll: $99.1M
The D-backs have already dropped a couple big bombs this offseason, inking Zack Greinke to a Godfather contract and swapping the farm for Shelby Miller. Right field would appear to be wide open, with a very raw Yasmany Tomas in place. Might Dave Stewart decide to push his remaining chips to the center of the table?
2015 Payroll: $108.4M
2016 Payroll: $99.5M
The Padres have a gaping hole in left field, set to be manned by, perhaps, Justin’s older brother Melvin Upton. Not really sure what the Padres’ plan is, but it doesn’t seem to revolve around large free agent purchases.
Two more for the road…
2015 Payroll: $125.9M
2016 Payroll: $141.3M
Left field isn’t technically a hole by my stated definition, as Michael Saunders is projected for 1.0 WAR there in 2016. Still, wouldn’t the Jays be better off with Saunders as a fourth outfielder? Upton in particular would have looked nice alongside this club’s aging offensive nucleus. That said, I’m not sure the payroll flexibility for a major addition is there.
2015 Payroll: $101.3M
2016 Payroll: $108.6M
Center field is the closest thing the Mets have to a “hole”; Juan Lagares is projected for 1.4 WAR there in 2016. The Mets already boosted their payroll by trading for Cespedes last summer; why wouldn’t they do it again, given how well it worked last time? The main concern is that Cespedes would likely be forced to play more center field this time around, as Michael Conforto would seem to have a lock on most of the left field at-bats. This one bears watching.
Conclusion: A very real possibility for Cespedes should he not sign in Baltimore.
So there you have it. My prediction? With Upton now off of the board, without needing to take a discount, expect a battle royale among the Orioles, Mets and perhaps a wild card like the White Sox for Cespedes’ services. The market certainly did take a while to define itself, and though a good deal of the industry’s available funds were held by clubs not looking to contend, it does appeal that both Upton and Cespedes will get fair value in the end.
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