Trade Targets: Corner Outfield

Continuing our Trade Targets series, here are five corner outfielders who could be available at (or before) the deadline.

PLAYER: Andre Ethier
TEAM: Dodgers
CONTRACT STATUS: $9.25M, arbitration-eligible after this season (free agent after 2012)

Corner outfield ranks as one of the thinnest positions for available talent, so we’re including a pair of front-line players from teams with ownership problems to lead off.

Frank McCourt reportedly faces a budget crisis with the next round of payroll expenses coming due June 15; more broadly, MLB could prompt the Dodgers to cut salary as the league works to find a new ownership group. Ethier is the team’s third-highest-paid player (behind…Rafael Furcal and Hiroki Kuroda?). He’s also one of the Dodgers’ best players, ranked 7th among MLB right fielders (an insane group that includes out-of-their-mind starts by Jose Bautista, Matt Joyce, and Lance Berkman) in wOBA. UZR hates Ethier (combined -38.3 fielding runs last three years), holding down his rest-of-season projection. Still, if the Dodgers do make Ethier available, he’d instantly become the most sought-after corner OF commodity, both for his bat and having another year left before free agency (albeit at a big price).

So, will it happen? You’d think the Dodgers would sooner try to move less exciting vets like Casey Blake before they hack into their core. Having a MLB team as a ward of the state (or at least under MLB’s close eye) hasn’t triggered any recent in-season fire sales either. The Texas Rangers added one of the best pitchers in baseball in Cliff Lee last summer — as well as veterans like Jeff Francoeur and Jorge Cantu — even as the team was about to be auctioned off in bankruptcy court. Even the downtrodden Montreal Expos didn’t slash payroll when they were owned by MLB and rumored to be contraction targets in 2002; Dealin’ Omar Minaya instead engineered deals for Bartolo Colom and Cliff Floyd, with the Colon deal still ranking as one of the most generous prospect giveaways of all-time. Throw in Ned Colletti’s history of fetishizing veterans and (over)reaching even when on the periphery of a pennant race (see: Carlos Santana for Casey Blake), and it would probably take a big offer to land Ethier.

Still, Ethier would look a hell of a lot better than Raul Ibanez in the Phillies outfield, wouldn’t he?

PLAYER: Carlos Beltran
TEAM: Mets
CONTRACT STATUS: $18.5M, Walk year

One of the most attractive corner outfield options is also one of the most difficult to peg. For the Trade Target series, we’re using rest-of-season ZiPS to project players’ offensive value, then three-year UZR to peg the defense. Of course the problem (well, one of them) in this case is that Beltran played just 145 games in the past two seasons combined. His .274/.363/.514, .379 wOBA start to this season is roughly in line with his .380 wOBA 2008 campaign. But Beltran derived his massive 7.6 WAR that season from uncommon durability (161 games) as well as defensive value that no longer applies (12.4 UZR and a Gold Glove playing center field then, vs. average to below-average defense playing a corner OF slot now).

Still, this rest-of-season WAR projection assumes Beltran misses about a quarter of his remaining games, and that he doesn’t leave Citi Field. A move to, say, Cleveland would plop Beltran into a more favorable park for hitters. If Travis Hafner returns to the Indians lineup at 100%, and Grady Sizemore becomes healthy enough to be a productive everyday center fielder again, you won’t see this kind of deal happen. But based on their track record of the past few years, you can’t bet on both happening.

The key here — other than the health of Hafner and Sizemore — will be money. Even with a fresh cash influx from new minority owner David Einhorn, the Mets probably wouldn’t mind ditching the rest of Beltran’s $18.5 million salary. If he were to be dealt fairly soon and Beltran’s health holds up, a gain of 2 or more wins for the team that trades for him is possible. As with many deadline trades in recent years, the Beltran-receiving team could ask the Mets pick up a significant chunk of Beltran’s remaining salary in exchange for giving up a better prospect (Beltran also has a no-trade clause in his contract which adds another layer of complexity).

A team like the Indians, without a ton of cash to spend that also places great value on young talent, would have to find a middle ground between financial help and not mortgaging the farm. Still, flags fly forever, and the Tribe has a legitimate chance for some big things this season. Beltran could greatly help their cause.

PLAYER: Luke Scott
TEAM: Orioles
CONTRACT STATUS: $6.4M, arbitration-eligible after this season, likely non-tender

Seems like he’s been around forever, doesn’t it? Yet the soon-to-be 33-year-old Scott isn’t slated to hit six-year free agency until after the 2012 season. No matter — he’s a likely non-tender after year, making him a straight rental for a contending team.

Scott’s off to a crummy start this year at .232/.316/.413, .319 wOBA, particularly given his limited defensive value. The highest strikeout rate since his rookie season and the highest swinging-strike rate of his career makes you wonder if his career might already be in decline. On the other hand, Scott hit .285/.368/.535 last year, without any underlying stats looking too far out of whack. That HR/FB rate has a good chance to bump higher from its current career-low of 12.5%, which would help his numbers across the board. The Orioles will likely be motivated to move Scott too, given Nolan Reimold‘s recent (small-sample) emergence and the team’s longer-term outlook (Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero look like crappy off-season signings).

So which team would be the best fit? Ideally a club seeking left-handed sock that could slot Scott at first base and DH as well as left field. The Rays have a bigger need for right-handed hitting, and both Brandon Guyer and Desmond Jennings could be solid internal options, once they’re over the Super 2 hump. Still, the Rays could stand to add power where Casey Kotchman and Sam Fuld primarily offer defensive value (unless you think Kotchman’s going to hit .361 all year). The price for Scott should also be low enough for even the notoriously prospect-clingy Rays to justify a move.

PLAYER: Kosuke Fukudome
TEAM: Cubs
CONTRACT STATUS: $13.5M, walk year (Cubs must sign Fukudome to an extension by Nov. 15 or release him, allowing him to become a free agent)

Fukudome owns one of the weirdest statistical profiles in the game this season. He’d shown modest, accelerating power in his first three major league seasons, but his ISO has plunged to .063 this year. He’d never hit higher than .263 in the the majors before, but he’s at .315 this year, thanks to a sky-high .382 BABIP. He went from a decent gloveman in right field his first couple seasons to below average last year, and he’s on pace to be one of the worst fielders in the game this season, depending on how much you trust single-season UZR figures. But man, the guy sure can walk. Fukudome has hiked his walk rate to a career-best 16.7% this season; he’d rank 8th in MLB if he had a few more at-bats to qualify among league leaders.

So what can kind of market value does an aging, small-to-moderate power, lousy-defense, high-walk, inflated .435 OBP corner fielder with a no-trade clause have on the open market? If the Cubs would be willing to pick up the bulk of his remaining ’11 salary, Fukudome becomes one of the most attractive top-of-the-order candidates on the trade market. He would add a welcome jolt of on-base ability to a Giants team that, with Buster Posey out for the year, needs more help than Brandon Belt alone can provide. They’ve got to do better than the 4th-worst team OBP (.304) in MLB if they’re going to defend their title.

PLAYER: Jeff Francoeur
TEAM: Royals
CONTRACT STATUS: $2.5M, mutual option for 2012 (in other words, bye-bye, Jeffy)

One of Sabermetria’s favorite whipping boys, Francoeur has always had his uses, even at the worst of times. He’s a career .302/.346/.494 hitter vs. lefty pitching. He’s got roughly league-average range, which along with a great throwing arm make him an above-average right fielder. He gives great quote. And of course there’s this. Are we seeing a legitimate breakout this year, into something more?

Francoeur’s ISO (.212) and wOBA (.363) are at their highest level since his terrific rookie season. He’s still just 27 years old, so a power breakout at this stage is certainly possible. Other encouraging signs: .299 BABIP right in line with his career average, and the lowest swinging strike rate and second-highest contact rate of his career. Still, his groundball rate is up, and much of his production can be linked to a big spike in HR/FB rate. In short…we just don’t know.

Here’s what we do know: The Royals have a ton of excellent prospects rising through the system, including 20-year-old outfielder prospect Wil Myers. After a hot start, they’ve faded badly and look unlikely to contend this season. And Francoeur’s dirt-cheap salary could make him a more likely trade candidate than anyone else on this list.

The Rangers used Francoeur as a platoon man and bench piece on their way to the World Series last year. Arizona would be a perfect destination this year. Gerardo Parra has leveraged fantastic defense and deft baserunning into a successful season. But he also sports a 626 OPS vs. lefties, and neither Xavier Nady nor Willie Bloomquist provide viable platoons. Even with serious long-term debt and hopes for longer-term success, the DBacks could swing a deal for Francoeur without killing their bottom line, or their future.

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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

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