Going into this offseason, one of the most popular questions for teams and fans was which of this winter’s top free-agent outfielders was the most desirable. The answer was obvious: Jason Heyward, both because of his all-around value (more than six Wins Above Replacement in each of the last two seasons, per baseball-reference.com) and because of his age (he turned 26 in August). That combination made him an excellent investment at almost any price. With Heyward off the market, however, the debate becomes far more compelling: Which of the top remaining free-agent outfielders—Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Justin Upton—is the one to target?
The player most similar to Heyward among those three is also the most decorated: Gordon, a three-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove award winner, two-time pennant winner and 2015 world champion. Like Heyward, Gordon is a lefthanded hitter with modest power, good on-base skills and a broad-based skill set who does everything well and derives a great deal of value from his play in the field. Gordon is also the oldest of the three players under consideration here by more than 18 months (or two years in terms of playing age). But while he has been more valuable than Cespedes or Upton over the last four years (which is as long as Cespedes has been in the league), he seems unlikely to retain that superiority over the next four seasons from ages 32 to 35.
Indeed, Gordon’s 2015 campaign marked a sharp downturn, and not just because of the groin strain which shelved him for 48 games. Even before the groin injury, his play in the field and impact on the bases was well below his usual standard. At the plate, however, he was his usual self, posting a career-high .377 on-base percentage and a 120 OPS+ and generating something close to his career line over 16 postseason games. A team signing Gordon is betting on a rebound in his fielding and his bat holding steady into his mid-30s.
Decline is not a concern when it comes to Upton. Having just turned 28 in August, Upton is 3 1/2 years younger than Gordon (four years in terms of playing age) and should maintain his established level of play for several seasons before any sort of decline sets in. As a result, Upton could be a better investment than Gordon even if he’s not, at his best, as valuable a player. Upton has been reasonably consistent at the plate over the last three years, averaging a .262/.344/.470 line, 126 OPS+ and 27 home runs per season and striking out in roughly a quarter of his plate appearances. Moreover, his play in the field has improved over the last two years, and he once again became a threat to steal this past season, swiping 19 bases in 24 attempts. If Upton can be a simply average defensive leftfielder—something he hasn’t always managed to do—he could be a roughly four-win player and maintain something close to that level of play for at least the next three seasons, from ages 28 to 30.
Cespedes just turned 30 in October, which puts him neatly in between Upton and Gordon in terms of age. The best athlete of the three, Cespedes has at least as much power as Upton and a better throwing arm than Gordon, and he is faster than either one. He doesn’t always make the best use of his skills, however. Since stealing 16 bases in his first major league season in 2012, Cespedes has stolen just 21 more bags over three years at a poor 60% success rate, and he was actually below average in the frequency with which he took the extra base prior to this past season. His arm is spectacular, but its impact masks his frequently sloppy play in the field. His power is great, but his offensive game is too dependent upon it, and his walk rate has declined in each of his big-league seasons to the point that he walked in fewer than 5% of his plate appearances this past year.
Despite all of those caveats, Cespedes’s upside right now is higher than that of the other two men on this list. Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs all had him worth more than 6.0 WAR this past season, besting Upton’s best season (which came way back in 2011) and falling short of only Gordon’s age-27 season (also back in '11). Cespedes is clearly a better bet to return to those heights than Gordon given their relative ages and 2015 performances. The big question is whether or not Cespedes can be expected to continue to be more valuable than Upton as he enters his thirties.
What the decision may ultimately come down to is the price tag. Gordon will likely demand less money than the other two because of his age and his disappointing walk-year performance, making him the budget alternative for a team willing to go big but not past $100 million in total dollars. Upton and Cespedes, however, seem likely to demand comparable contracts to one another. Upton might get an extra year or two, and Cespedes may get a higher average annual value, but the total investment seems likely to be similar, likely in the neighborhood of $150 million. At that price, the choice is between the relative consistency and youth of Upton, a reliable four-win player still in his twenties, and the higher upside of Cespedes, who is now in his thirties and has collapse potential given his erratic play in the field and lack of on-base skills.
In the end, Upton is likely to be the better investment over the long term, making him a wiser investment for a team looking to contend regularly over the next five years. But Cespedes could have the larger impact in the short term for a team looking for an impact player to help bring them a title in 2016.