By Cliff Corcoran
Trades have dominated the market for outfielders thus far this offseason, with the Marlins dealing Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna to the Yankees and Cardinals, respectively; the Cardinals turning around and sending Stephen Piscotty to the A's; the Giants including Denard Span in the swap for Rays third baseman Evan Longoria; and the Dodgers reacquiring Matt Kemp in their trade with the Braves. The Mariners went as far as trading for a second baseman to fill an outfield hole, acquiring Dee Gordon from Miami. Meanwhile, the only free-agent outfielder to sign a Major League deal this offseason remains Leonys Martin, who signed a one-year deal with the Tigers in early December.
In terms of the rumor mill, however, the outfield market is starting to heat up. Here's the latest on the top six free-agent outfielders and two more compelling trade targets.
The Marlins have already traded two-thirds of what was the best outfield in baseball, and the remaining third is not happy about it. Yelich has not asked to be traded, as team-controlled catcher J.T. Realmuto has, but the Marlins are reportedly open to moving their most valuable remaining asset. Miami has reportedly been in " active trade discussions" about both players for the past couple of weeks. Unsurprisingly, interest is widespread. Last Wednesday, MLB.com's Joe Frisaro reported that "at least 15 teams ... have had some sort of conversation" with the Marlins about Yelich. Among those teams are the Cardinals (who, again, have already acquired Ozuna from the Miami outfield), D-backs, Giants, Blue Jays, Rangers, White Sox, Phillies, Braves and Nationals, the last two of which have inquired about Realmuto, as well.
Yelich is an average defender, but he does everything well on the other side of the ball, hitting for average with power and patience and showing near-elite speed with good instincts on the bases. He is also heading into his prime, having just turned 26 in December, and is on a team-friendly contract that will pay him just $44.5 million over the next four years, including a $15 million club option with a $1.25 million buyout for his age-30 season in 2022.
As such, he's the most desirable outfielder on the market, but the Marlins are reportedly seeking a " huge overpay" in terms of prospects as motivation to part with Yelich. There has been speculation that Miami might require a potential trade partner to take a less desirable contract off their hands in the bargain, such as the $28.5 million owed to third baseman Martin Prado over the next two years, or even the $52 million owed Wei-Yin Chen over the next three. However, doing so would reduce the quality of their return, which is contrary to their current goals, per Ken Rosenthal. The organization is aware of the poor perception of its return for Stanton because of his large contract and reportedly sees a potential Yelich or Realmuto trade as a chance to alter the narrative. Still, given his age, talent and contract, Yelich, who averaged 4.1 WAR per season (Baseball-Reference version) in his age-22 to -25 seasons, may be worth the price tag.
I listed Cain as the top free agent on the market heading into the offseason (see the video below), but the rumor mill was quiet on Cain until late last week, when the Brewers, Rangers and Blue Jays all emerged as teams with serious interest. The Brewers drafted Cain in 2004 and traded him to Kansas City after the 2010 season in the Zack Greinke deal, but they've had significant front-office turnover since then and seem like an odd fit given their collection of talented, team-controlled outfielders. Signing Cain would likely prompt Milwaukee to trade one of those younger players, such as place-holding center fielder Keon Broxton or right-field slugger Domingo Santana, and might block center field prospects Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson. To sign in Toronto, Cain would have to move to right field in deference to incumbent center fielder Kevin Pillar, whose value lies primarily in his fielding. The Rangers thus seem like the best fit. Another consideration for Cain's suitors is that he rejected a qualifying offer and thus will cost his new team its second Draft pick and reduce its international bonus pool cap by $500,000.
Still, Cain has averaged 5.1 bWAR per season since 2014, and ranks third among all outfielders in that statistic since 2013, behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. He has also hit three times as many home runs on the road than at Kauffman Stadium over the past two years, and while concerns about his age abound, he won't turn 32 until mid-April.
Martinez remains the best free-agent hitter available this offseason. He has hit .300/.362/.574 (149 OPS+) since his breakout with the Tigers in 2014, averaging 32 home runs per season. However, he struggles defensively and has played more than 123 games in a season once during his seven-year career. It's not a huge surprise, then, that team most interested in him, per recent reports, wants to make him a designated hitter. That team is the Red Sox, who were last in the American League in home runs last year for the first time since 1993. Unfortunately for Boston, Martinez has told teams he wants to remain an outfielder, which could force the Red Sox to either overpay for his services or trade Jackie Bradley Jr. and downgrade their outfield defense to clear space for Martinez. Thus far, the Sox have not made that kind of overture to Martinez. They have reportedly made him a five-year offer, but other teams apparently have, as well. The Blue Jays, Giants and Martinez's most recent team, the D-backs, are among those believed to be in the mix.
McCutchen had a nice rebound at the plate in 2017 and is heading into his walk year owed a mere $14.75 million. That makes now an ideal time to sell for the Pirates. The most recent rumor may have involved the Mets, who would get McCutchen and versatile second baseman Josh Harrison (owed $11.5 million with club options for 2019 and '20) for prospects and slick-fielding outfielder Juan Lagares (owed $16 million for the next two seasons with a club option for 2020). Such a deal would result in a net increase of $10.25 million in guaranteed money for New York. That's a nifty idea for a Mets team believed to have just $10 million left to spend, but their thin farm system may prevent them from convincing the Pirates to make the swap. Similarly, while the Giants have been in contact with Pittsburgh about McCutchen, San Francisco is understandably reluctant to give up the best prospects from a thin system for a one-year rental. One mistake both teams are making is envisioning the 31-year-old McCutchen as a center fielder. The Pirates moved him to right field entering 2017 for a reason. His return to center was out of necessity and undermined his restored value at the plate.
As with McCutchen, Bruce's primary suitors have been the Mets and Giants. The Mets' payroll limitations make them the less likely of the two to land the lefty slugger, but this offseason's slow, careful market could work in New York's favor, suppressing Bruce's price and keeping a reunion in play. Bruce offers a powerful left-handed bat, but there aren't many other positive features to his game. He's inconsistent defender who may soon move to first base or DH and struggles against fellow lefties.
With a return to Seattle closed off by the Gordon trade, Dyson has become something of a Plan B for the Blue Jays and Giants, the latter of whom appear to have shown at least some interest in every player on this list. Dyson would be more valuable in San Francisco, where he could play center, than in Toronto, where Pillar's presence would likely push him to a corner. The bulk of the 33-year-old's value comes from his glove and his speed, the latter of which has shown a clear decline over the last two seasons, per Statcast™.
Given the strength of next year's free-agent class -- which includes outfielders Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen and Adam Jones -- there aren't likely to be many one-year deals this offseason to allow players to reset their value. However, Gonzalez, coming off a career-worst performance at the plate (.262/.339/.423, 87 OPS+), is one player who does seem likely to be seeking that sort of deal. That could be very attractive to teams who were encouraged by his strong finish to the season (.377/.484/.766 in September). A move to first base or designated hitter could also be beneficial both for CarGo and his 2018 club.
Of the teams to show interest thus far, the Astros are the most likely to move him out of the pastures. The Blue Jays would keep the former Rockies slugger in a hitter-friendly environment (not just the Rogers Centre, but three of the other four AL East ballparks, as well). The Giants, however, seem like the wrong fit. Gonzalez is a career .233/.284/.363 hitter in 264 plate appearances at AT&T Park. The A's, Rays and Royals, all of which were mentioned as potential suitors in early December, are similarly burdened by pitcher-friendly parks.
As much as Granderson struggled with the Dodgers, I had him among my top 20 free agents in early November, as he has averaged 26 home runs and 79 walks per year over the past four years while posting a 113 OPS+ and continuing to be a viable corner outfielder and an above-average baserunner. Thus far, however, the only word on Granderson this offseason has been that he does plan on playing in 2018, his age-37 season. That's not encouraging, but given what are likely to be very modest contract demands relative to the other players on this list, as well as his reputation as one of the most likeable people in the game, Granderson still seems like a sleeper in this market.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.