Much has been made about the lackluster nature of this year's free agent class, a function of teams having the money and smarts to buy out some free agent years of their best young players, thus keeping them off the market in their prime.
But the market is rich in choices when it comes to outfielders. Though only one true impact bat is available, the top 11 outfielders include nine former All-Stars and four legitimate centerfielders, a position difficult to fill. You can start an argument among baseball people asking them to rank Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan according to who will turn out to be the better value.
How rare is it to have this many top outfield choices? Over the past two years only two outfielders have signed contracts longer than two years: Josh Willingham (three years, $21 million) and Michael Cuddyer (three years, $31.5 million). We're likely to see five such lengthy deals this winter.
What follows is a ranking of the 11 best free agent outfielders.
If franchises such as Milwaukee are hoping Hamilton "falls" to them for a cut-rate deal because of a weak market, forget it. Hamilton is the rare game-changing, middle-of-the-order hitter who gets on the open market. The options will be vast enough to get Hamilton more than $20 million over six or more years. (Seattle and Baltimore, solid clubs that otherwise lack a true big bat in the middle of the lineup, should join the obvious high-revenue teams.)
You know all about his flaws: his drug history, his injury history, his streakiness, his weird hitting profile (he swings and misses and chases bad pitches as much as any great hitter), his bad habits (tobacco), but you can't ignore that he is an impact bat. No, he may not be worth seven full years, but if you haven't noticed, teams have so much money they add extra years to secure the services of a player, not because they truly believe he will be "good value" in the last years of a long contract.
Keep this in mind when you think about Hamilton's value: He brings nearly the same offensive credentials to the free-agent table as Matt Holliday did in 2009. Holliday took home seven years and $120 million from St. Louis. Hamilton, a better defender and baserunner as well as a lefthanded hitter, is in line for more money. Check out how their numbers compared when both hit free agency:
He switch hits, he gets on base, he hits with power, he's durable, he's consistent. He cannot hit in the postseason. Oh, well. There's a reason he's available.
Don't think of Swisher as another Yankee Stadium creation. His numbers in the Bronx bandbox (.269/.372/.460) approximate his career numbers (.256/.361/.467). He turns 32 this month, so the limit on Swisher should be four years, but who saw the Jayson Werth contract (seven years, $126 million from the Nationals two years ago) coming?
This guy is custom-made for a place like New York or Boston. Intense scrutiny and expectations don't ruffle him -- in fact, he absorbs enough of it to bring shelter to teammates. Most importantly, he can still play. Hunter lost 18 pounds this season and enjoyed a strong year. He can still run and play defense. The decline phase of his career is hardly noticeable. His OBP in his 30s with the Angels (.352) is far better than what it was through his 20s, plus two years, with the Twins (.324). At 37, he's a great two-year buy for some club.
He is a premier defender and basestealer who has developed into a decent hitter. His career-high in walks this year (70) was encouraging, though his career-high in strikeouts (155) and poor second half (.225) were reminders that he still has holes in his offensive game. Bourn turns 30 in December and plays the game hard, so he's worth at least a four-year commitment.
Remember him? Sure, the tendency is to write off his 2012 numbers as inflated by synthetic testosterone after his PED bust, which ended his season in mid-August. And while it's true you can't be quite certain what Cabrera you're getting after the failed test, you are not likely to need a long financial commitment to find out -- perhaps one year plus an option to allow Cabrera the chance to re-establish his value.
Cabrera did post an .809 OPS in 2011 without flunking a test (or at the least, without getting caught) and he is just 28 years old. Sure, you get baggage and some public relations fallout the day you sign him, but that goes away quickly.
In the meantime, I can't believe Cabrera has yet to truly explain himself and begin to clear the air to try to reduce the taint. He needs to be fully accountable. And the fact that he could roll the dice in his free agent walk year by juicing is a reminder that baseball and the union aren't truly serious about getting PEDs out of the game; a 50-game suspension is baseball's equivalent of a five-minute timeout in the corner. The penalty should be at least one year.
At age 28 and almost 1,000 major league games, Upton should no longer be talked about in terms of "ceiling" and "potential," and yet, it still goes on. At this point there is no mystery about Upton: he is an annual threat to go 30-30, but with a lousy on-base percentage, too many strikeouts and too much inconsistency. For a guy playing in his eighth major league season, and in his walk year, Upton set a career high in strikeouts (169) and a career low in walks (45). Upton has value as a good defender and baserunner and the threat to hit mistakes a long way, but he's not an elite impact player.
He turns 32 this month, but Victorino did steal a career-high 39 bases this year, doesn't strike out much and still brings energy and enough extra-base power to be valuable. Over the last four years, only three centerfielders had more extra-base hits: Curtis Granderson, Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen. Victorino did, however, have a down year in 2012, so he won't command much more than a three-year deal.
He's virtually the same player as Victorino, only one year younger, coming off the better year and, on arm strength alone, the better defender. But it's close. Victorino has the better career OPS (.770-.757). Pagan did improve his sometimes curious baserunning decisions and strange routes to balls in centerfield to become a more polished looking player. Pagan and the next outfielder are the only players on this list yet to make an All-Star team.
One of the bargains of last winter (one year, $3 million), Ross should be in line for a multi-year deal to stay with the Red Sox, given his extroverted nature, which plays well in the Boston fishbowl, but especially given a pull-happy stroke that is made for Fenway. Ross' splits at home (.298/.356/.565) and on the road (.232/.294/.390) should convince both sides of a long-term relationship.
Few guys can handle the load of hitting cleanup on a division champion, but Ludwick, signed as a role player, did grow into that role for the Reds. Ludwick, 34, opted out of his $5 million option, knowing a bigger payday and a two-year deal is in line after posting an .877 OPS for Cincinnati.
The Yankees did win the bet that Suzuki would perk up in a pennant race in New York (.794 OPS) after looking washed up in Seattle (.642). Still, over the last two years, Suzuki's slash line (.277/.308/.361) doesn't add up to what you want from a corner outfielder or anybody you'd want hitting near the top of your lineup. The decline phase of a hitter with no power or the ability to take walks can be an ugly series of infield grounders. Suzuki, 39, can still run well enough to turn the ones he mis-hits into hits from time to time, but to be truly valuable Suzuki has to hit .320 or better -- something he has done once in the past five years.