By Marc Normandin
There are 36 free agents listed as outfielders in the 2013 class, and just a handful can be considered to be reliable, above-average options. Most of the lot are journeymen and aging players, challenged either offensively or defensively; some are formerly well regarded talents who have fallen from their former graces. This is precisely why the Phillies struck early and inked Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million pact with a vesting option. There aren't very many Marlon Byrd types around, either in upside or production, and anything more than that is going to cost significant dollars and years.
The one positive about this winter's free agent market for outfielders is that there are plenty of high-end options to choose from. On the other hand, because those high-end players are the only quality outfielders available, each one will come at a high price -- some, of course, much higher than others.
He's the crown jewel of the outfield market and likely will receive the second-largest contract of any free agent this off-season, behind only second baseman Robinson Cano. Ellsbury is a career .297/.350/.439 batter who can steal bases with the best of them, nabbing a league-leading 52 bases in 56 attempts in 2013. It's worth noting that Ellsbury stole the last few -- and another six in October -- playing on a broken foot.
Throw in that Ellsbury is a plus defender in center, and you've got an all-around threat, despite the fact he's unlikely to ever see the 32-homer power he showed in 2011 again. He doesn't need to drive the ball that far to be valuable at the plate, as shown by the 4.2 wins above replacement Baseball Reference credits him with offensively for 2013. He does need to be on the field, however, something he didn't manage much in 2010 or the first half of 2012, but, let's be fair to Ellsbury and not call him brittle or injury-prone. He collided with Adrian Beltre in 2010 and suffered a mess of broken ribs for his trouble, and Reid Brignac dislocated Ellsbury's shoulder a week into the 2012 season. So long as no one crashes into him, things should work out just fine.
His agent, Scott Boras, is currently tossing around Carl Crawford-like payroll numbers for Ellsbury, so when someone caves, it's going to be in the neighborhood of $20 million per year. With more and more high-quality free agents coming to market late in their careers, though, or not at all, a 30-year-old Ellsbury is tempting to the right club who knows they can always shift him to an outfield corner when he starts to slow. The fact he will require draft pick compensation thanks to the qualifying offer means little, as he's the kind of talent that makes sacrificing draft picks worthwhile.
Choo is another leadoff option, but he's also capable of dropping down in the order. Choo owns a .389 career OBP, and he managed a .423 in his first trip to the National League with the Reds in 2013 -- numbers no other free-agent outfielder can match. Even assuming his league-leading 26 hit-by pitches won't happen again, that's still a lovely little number to stick atop any lineup.
The outfielder received more national attention in 2013 than he ever had before, but, as loyal readers might recall, you could see that coming with the switch to Cincinnati from Cleveland. He's been great for some time now, ranking 12th in OPS+ among all batters with at least 3,000 plate appearances since 2008, right behind David Ortiz and ahead of Evan Longoria, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Josh Hamilton and others you've heard far more about in that stretch. While his defense leaves something to be desired, if someone were to put him back in an outfield corner rather than stretching him as a center fielder, it wouldn't be nearly the problem. His bat can play anywhere, anyway.
Choo will be 31 in 2014, and, as with Ellsbury, Boras sees him matching or exceeding a massive contract from the winter of 2011 -- Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million pact with the Nationals. Choo won't benefit from his defensive reputation like Ellsbury or even Werth, but in the right offensive environment -- one that doesn't stunt left-handed power -- Choo could be a dangerous middle-of-the-order bat for much of a long-term deal. Here again, giving up a pick isn't problematic for a player who has very quietly produced as many wins as Choo has over the last six years.
Just a couple years back, Granderson looked like a game-changer all by himself in the lineup and in the field. He's slowed down defensively, though, and was primarily a left fielder for the Yankees in 2013 with good reason. Between injuries and diminishing offensive output, his star does not shine as brightly as it once did.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though, and declare him without use. Granderson will be 33 years old in 2014, so he won't command the same years or dollars as Ellsbury or Choo, especially not coming off an injury-shortened campaign. Even so, he's posted a .244/.338/.504 line over the last three seasons, and with power at a premium in the majors right now, someone is going to sign him and be very happy with the homer output, so long as he stays on the field.
Considering that 2013 was the first season of Granderson's career in which he didn't play at least 136 games, it's probably not as much of a worry as the recent nature of his injury makes it seem. He's going to strike out with regularity, and his batting average is very likely to be low, but he also had consecutive campaigns with over 40 homers before missing time last year. If he's able to bounce back even to 2010 levels, when he had "just" a 116 OPS+, whoever signs him will be pleased with their relatively short-term investment.
At 37, Beltran is the old man of the bunch, but he's still got plenty of production left in the tank. Over a two-year deal, spending his home games in a pitcher's park, Beltran amassed a .282/.343/.493 line, with 56 homers, 116 extra-base hits and the same 128 OPS+ in each season. Between his history of knee injuries and his age, he probably should spend his time in left field at this stage, with the occasional game as the designated hitter if he goes to the American League. So long as he's hitting, though, any lapses in his defense due to age or past surgery can be forgiven.
Beltran reportedly is looking for a three- or four-year deal to finish out his career, essentially to guarantee that, if nothing else, he can pile on numbers to build what should be a Cooperstown-caliber resume. He also wants it to come with a winner, though, or someone ready to win. If he's going to be that picky, he might have to settle for less, because successful clubs aren't in the habit of handing long-term deals out to players in their late-30's, no matter how ageless their bat happens to look. Ask David Ortiz, who managed to squeeze just two years out of the Red Sox, and they don't even need to worry about his glove.
Regardless of the years, Beltran will be worth the money for at least the first couple. He's done nothing but hit in his entire career, and even at his age and with draft pick compensation attached, he's rightfully a valued asset.
Cruz is intriguing. On the surface, his next contract should be somewhere in between the Granderson/Beltran level and the Ellsbury/Choo level. Cruz will be 33 in 2013, and while his 50-game suspension for his involvement with Biogenesis might ding him a little, it won't hurt his market as much as Granderson's injuries will harm his. Cruz could end up grabbing a four- or five-year deal from someone desperate for power, of which he has plenty. He's hit 135 homers since becoming a regular in 2009 with the Rangers, slugging .511 in that stretch.
There are question marks, of course, that could keep someone from daring to go anywhere near that long of a deal with him. Cruz has been a far better hitter at home in his career, as many who have spent as much time in Arlington can say; he's a career .242/.299/.435 hitter on the road, with just 65 of his 157 homers coming there. If he ends up in a park that favors pitchers, this could be a Carlos Lee-level disaster for whomever pays for his services. Any team would be much safer going with Granderson than Cruz, especially since Cruz, arm aside, has been a real nothing defensively of late.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book The Hall of Nearly Great and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.