As position players report to camp, some of them wearing strange new uniforms and others strange new names, several players appeared primed for trades, because their teams have more bodies than they do roster spots. The outfield appears to be a particularly crowded place in some camps, with these teams having surpluses that could appeal to other clubs in search of an additional bat.
You know the drill here, because the issue is now dragging into its third season. Even after the trade of Matt Kemp to San Diego, the pending arrival of prospect Joc Pederson—which will push Yasiel Puig back to rightfield—leaves either Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier as the odd man out sooner or later. The two lefties, either of whom would pair with righty Scott Van Slyke in a platoon, are both owed a pretty penny.
The 33-year-old Crawford will make $62.25 million over the final three seasons of his deal and is coming off his best season since his 2010 walk year—his last without a trip to the disabled list—having hit .300/.339/.429 for a 117 OPS+ with eight homers and 23 steals. He has a partial no-trade clause that allows him to choose two teams to which he can't be dealt, with the additional stipulation that the acquiring team can't trade him to the Yankees (seemingly not a problem given how strapped for cash they are these days).
The 32-year-old Ethier (33 on April 10) is still owed $56 million, including a $2.5 million buyout of his 2018 option. He's coming off the worst season of his major league career, having hit .249/.322/.370 with four homers in 380 PA, for a 97 OPS+, 24 points below his career mark. Regardless, Ethier is angling for a starting job, either in Los Angeles or elsewhere. "I want the opportunity to play every day," he told reporters Tuesday. "My mind hasn't changed from when I told you guys that a couple months ago. I felt like when I get a chance to play every day, I put up the numbers they ask of me."
In Ethier's favor is the fact that unlike Crawford, he's been willing to man centerfield, which could mean that he gets some early-season playing time as Pederson cools his heels at Triple A Oklahoma City. Working against him is that newcomer Chris Heisey, who was acquired in a December trade for minor league righty Matt Magill (more suspect than prospect) is a capable defender who play center as well, though Heisey is coming off a .222/.265/.378 showing with the Reds, his second straight season with a sub-.300 OBP. Even Van Slyke saw time in the middle last year, making 17 starts.
Regardless, to move either Crawford or Ethier, the Dodgers are going to have to eat some salary. They absorbed $18 million of the $107 million remaining on Kemp's deal, about 17 percent; by that formula, they'd be looking at paying about $9-10 million on the those two deals. But if it's actually the $18 million amount that they're comfortable digesting, it could come out to be a bit shy of one-third of the remaining cost.
Between relative newcomers and players returning from injury, the Red Sox have what must be at least the AL's most crowded outfield. Their big-money contracts suggest that incoming free agent Hanley Ramirez and late-season addition Rusney Castillo will likely occupy leftfield and centerfield, respectively, with the former facing the daunting task of learning not only to play the outfield but also the Green Monster. Castillo played just 10 games—all in the majors—after signing a seven-year, $72.5 million deal last August, then added eight games in the Arizona Fall League and another 10 in the Puerto Rico Winter League.
Former major leaguer Alex Cora, who managed Castillo in Puerto Rico, expressed no doubt that Castillo is major league ready, telling WEEI.com's Rob Bradford, "Mentally, we were very impressed with his approach. He didn’t try and pull too much… He did a really good job in centerfield. He has a feel of where to play guys after that first at-bat. We liked what we saw.” Earlier this week, general manager Ben Cherington concurred with regards to Castillo's readiness and facility with adjustments.
That leaves Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. to squeeze into rightfield and two backup spots. The 34-year-old Victorino, who was limited to 30 games last year by hamstring and lower back woes—the last of which required season-ending surgery on a bulging disc in early August—is making $13 million in the final year of his deal and is the favorite to start. Manager John Farrell told reporters last Friday, "If Shane Victorino is fully capable and fully healthy, he's our rightfielder… I mean, that's pretty simple."
Of the rest, the 30-year-old Craig is coming off a dreadful .215/.279/.315 showing after battling a Listfranc injury in his left foot for the second straight season. He's making $5.5 million this year and is owed at least another $21 million, including a 2018 buyout. Boston could previously look to Mike Napoli's free agency after this season as a path to regular work, but the subsequent signings of Pablo Sandoval and Yoan Moncada—the latter of whom could force Sandoval across the diamond once he's ready—narrow Craig's window of opportunity.
The 25-year-old Bradley, who played outstanding defense but hit just 198/.265/.266, has minor league options remaining, as does the 22-year-old Betts, who hit a strong .291/.368/.444 in 52 games and made a solid transition from second base to the outfield. Neither of them figures to sit on Boston's bench when they're still in the developmental phase of their careers, and one or the other could be part of a deal for a starting pitcher, though the Sox don't seem willing to use the latter to acquire Cole Hamels. The 32-year-old Nava is well acquainted with the fourth outfielder role and, at $1.85 million, is an attractive, affordable piece who could have appeal elsewhere.
Barring injuries, more than one of these guys will likely be on the move. That's just too much talent to sit or stash.
While hardly as longstanding as the Dodgers' crowded outfield, the Padres' new trio of Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Kemp not only lines up with the lack of a true centerfielder (Myers has 53 major league innings, there, but 100 minor league games) but also an expensive trio of holdovers in Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin and Will Venable. There's also 23-year-old prospect Rymer Liriano, who was safely returned to the minors after a rough introduction to the majors last year (a .555 OPS in 121 PA).
Venable and Maybin both have experience in centerfield, and it's likely the team will keep one around even if GM A.J. Preller can't fully sort out things. The former—32 and coming off a plunge from 22 homers and a 126 OPS+ to eight homers and a 79 OPS+—will make $4.25 million. The latter, who turns 28 on April 4, is coming off an injury- and suspension-marred season in which he hit .235/.290/.331 (81 OPS+) in 272 PA. He's owed $7 million for 2015 and at least $9 million beyond that, including a buyout of his '17 option.
Less likely to fit into the Padres' plans in some fashion is Quentin, who's 32, injury-prone (218 games in three years, including 50 in 2014), coming off a .177/.284/.315 line in 155 PA and due $8 million. A born DH stuck in a non-DH league (-10 Defensive Runs Saved per 1,200 innings), he's trying to learn first base this spring, though it's unclear if his body will let him. Plus, in Yonder Alonso and Tommy Medica, the team has an incumbent and a backup on hand already.
Perhaps because they don't play on one of the coasts, don't have a popular new GM and/or haven't made a headline-grabbing acquisition, the Indians' situation has flown somewhat beneath the radar. Nonetheless, the trade that brought Brandon Moss from Oakland leaves him, Nick Swisher, David Murphy and Ryan Raburn battling for two lineup spots: rightfield and DH. That's assuming Michael Brantley and Michael Bourn form the other two-thirds of the outfield and Carlos Santana stays at first base.
Moss and Swisher can both play first base—giving Santana some time at DH—as well as an outfield corner, but both are coming off surgery and could be a bit behind schedule, though Opening Day hasn't been ruled out. The former, now 31 and making $6.5 million, hit 21 of his 25 homers before the All-Star break, with a right hip labrum tear sapping his second-half production and leading to surgery in October. He has been participating in sprinting and agility drills but has taken live batting practice on the field, showing some serious power.
The 34-year-old Swisher, a switch-hitter, batted just .208/.278/.331 with eight homers and a career-worst 74 OPS+ in 401 PA before undergoing debridement on menisci in both knees on Aug. 20. He's owed $15 million a year through 2016, with a vesting option for '17. He's on a structured running and agility progression that has him beginning outfield-specific work in early March and exhibition games around mid-month.
Of the rest, Raburn could be the most expendable, coming off a .200/.250/.297 showing and making just $2.5 million with another $100,000 for a buyout of next year's option; that said, memories of his potent 2013 season (16 homers, .272/.357/.543 in 277 PA) will keep the 33-year-old righty in the picture for awhile yet. Murphy, a 33-year-old lefty, is coming off a .262/.319/.385 showing and is owed another $6.5 million including a buyout of next year's option.
As to who might be the takers in what's clearly a buyer's market, it may take the inevitable rash of injuries to light a fire under a GM—or, for one of these teams, to cool their need to deal. Three clubs worth keeping an eye on are the Rangers, Athletics and Orioles. In Jake Smolinski, Kyle Blanks, Michael Choice, Ryan Rua, Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick, Texas has no shortage of candidates for leftfield, but none who is proven or expensive; they also have an underwhelming DH in Mitch Moreland. Oakland has light-hitting Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry plus unproven Mark Canha in left. Baltimore has Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider at the corners, with Steve Pearce and Delmon Young alternatives there and at DH—another addition for depth is hardly out of the question.
Of course, the other option—the one teams seem to have relied upon all winter—is simply to trade 'em all to San Diego and let Preller sort 'em out.