Sign a Good Free Agent Outfielder, While Supplies Last
I am, it brings me great shame to admit, an inveterate procrastinator. Last summer, the air conditioning in my car stopped working, and instead of taking it in to get fixed, I just waited until the weather cooled off and look, now I don’t have to worry about it all winter.
Perhaps you’re the same way. Perhaps you’re the same way and you run the baseball ops department of one of the 30 MLB teams. Need an outfielder? Eh, we’ll figure that out later. Bryce Harper signed his megadeal in March, for crying out loud. There will always be help left on the market, one might reasonably be denied.
But that’s not really the case anymore. Two things struck me when I was writing up the Tommy Pham signing last week. First, very few teams only need three competent outfielders. Even the Mets, who signed veteran starters to long-term contracts at all three positions, still had enough of a hole in the lineup to warrant going out to get a top-notch fourth outfielder/platoon DH.
Second, Pham was one of the last good options on the board.
A gander at the list of unsigned free-agent outfielders reveals a lot of names you could talk yourself into. Jonathan Davis, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Robbie Grossman can both provide value in limited part-time circumstances. Franmil Reyes was godawful in 2022, but he’s still only 27, still has huge power, and is one full season removed from a campaign in which he posted a 126 wRC+ in 466 plate appearances. Surely there’s at least one GM or scouting director who’s completely unable to get over Jackson Frazier; They’re in the war room right now, crying and banging the table as their friends try to get them to put down the phone, go home and get some sleep. And Kole Calhoun and Justin Upton are still out there. To any GM who signs one or both of those two players: If you really do have access to a time machine, would you be willing to let me borrow it?
But only two remaining free-agent outfielders were worth more than half a win last season: Jurickson Profar and David Peralta. And at the risk of stating the obvious, both of these players are limited — not just in the sense that all human beings are inherently flawed, but also that both have holes in their respective games that might make them unsuited to a full-time role. .
Peralta’s limitations are simple to understand. Once one of the most underrated all-around players in baseball, at age 35, he’s pretty much a platoon left fielder. His defense… well, UZR and DRS thought it was mediocre-to-bad in 2022, OAA thought it was good (five outs above average). That discrepancy makes sense, because while UZR and DRS include a measurement of a player’s arm, OAA does not. And if you go to Peralta’s Baseball Savant page, you’ll find that last year he was in the 88th percentile for OAA but the 18th percentile for arm strength. Is this too in-depth a discussion of a platoon guy’s defense? Perhaps. He’s a left fielder, is what you need to know.
Peralta also has — has always had, really — a giant platoon split: a 121 wRC+ versus righties for his career compared to a 76 wRC+ against lefties. That matters less for a left-handed hitter like him than it does for a right-handed hitter like Pham, because most pitchers are right-handed. Last season, Peralta hit .267/.329/.449 in 417 PA (118 wRC+) against right-handed pitching and .154/.247/.215 (38 wRC+) in 73 PA against lefthanders.
All this makes Peralta a very easy peg to find a hole for, or at least it should. Players like him have found steady work since Casey Stengel met Gene Woodling. And there are only a few teams that couldn’t find a use for him if they wanted badly enough. But Peralta is a 35-year-old who would probably command a few million dollars even to be a fourth outfielder or platoon guy. And two realities of modern baseball make life difficult for him — perhaps not as difficult as life would’ve been four years ago, but difficult nonetheless.
The first is that even after recent reforms to roster size — expanding to 26, of which half must be position players — there aren’t many spots for a player who can only play left field and can only hit right-handed pitching, even if he does it well. Teams have to carry nine starters, plus a backup catcher, a backup shortstop, and by the time everything goes down the line, you’ll find that most teams would just as soon play a shortstop in left in an emergency than roster a full- time backup left fielder.
The second has to do with money. Even if Peralta doesn’t make the $7.5 million salary he commanded last season, he’s probably asking for far more than the $720,000 league minimum. Looking around the league, there’s no shortage of left-handed DH or left field types who are penciled in for a long look and probably won’t outperform Peralta: Gavin Sheets with the White Sox; Darick Hall, the presumptive stand-in for Harper in Philadelphia; Jarred Kelenic for Seattle, name recognition and all. Just to name three. (Arguable, Seattle already filled its need for a left-handed DH by signing Tommy La Stella anyway.) But all of those guys are going to get a long look, not just because they’re already under contract, but also because they’re re cheap pre-arbitration guys. Even if Peralta is likely to outperform a cheap incumbent, is he better by such a large margin that the team actively invests a big league roster spot in him? That’s a tougher sell.
One perfect fit would be the Rays, who generally treat their payroll like a berry compote; the more it’s reduced, the sweeter it gets. But they have a need to fit Peralta. Right fielder Manuel Margot is a great defender and the rare right-handed hitter with a platoon split to rival Peralta’s: 160 wRC+ versus lefties, 88 wRC+ versus righties. The Rays could use Margot and Peralta as a situational tag team, based not just on pitcher handedness but also the need for offense or defense.
In fact, this idea makes so much sense that it’s easy to forget that they tried this last season, and it was a disaster. Peralta hit just .255/.317/.335 after a midseason trade to Tampa Bay, playing part-time in left with Randy Arozarena shuttling between the corners and Margot occasionally stepping in for Jose Siri in center. But it still makes so much sense on paper that the team should consider giving it another shot.
Profar is another interesting proposition. Once the top prospect in baseball as a shortstop, the 29-year-old is mostly a left fielder now. (He’s made just 22 starts at second base since joining the Padres ahead of the 2020 season.) A switch-hitter with a trivial platoon split, the issue with him is not that he can only be productive in certain situations; it’s that his production, while consistent, takes a certain shape. He hit .243 in 2022 and .238 for his career. He also managed to marry an 11.1% walk rate (19th among qualified hitters, higher than Rhys Hoskins and Brandon Nimmo) with a .391 SLG (99th among qualified hitters, lower than Steven Kwan). And while he did hit 15 homers and 36 doubles, those numbers probably flattered his actual power output. His xSLG was just .359, and his HardHit% and barrel rate ranked in the 19th and 14th percentiles, respectively.
Still, this is a player who just posted a 110 wRC+ and 2.5 WAR in his age-29 season and hit leadoff for a team that made the NLCS. And he can still, at least theoretically, play second base. He turned down an $8.33 million option based on the not unreasonable expectation that he could command more elsewhere.
Here’s the problem. Profar is best deployed as the Padres used him: as an on-base and contact guy at the top of a lineup that’s stacked with power. I’ll admit that if you give me enough time, I’ll compare anything to the 2015-16 Blue Jays, but Profar with the Padres last year was not unlike Ben Revere on the 2015 Blue Jays. It didn’t matter that he didn’t hit for power, or that his left field defense had holes, because he never struck out and was always on base for the big guys. Profar is a less extreme version of that archetype.
Unfortunately, while that’s the ideal usage for Profar, that’s neither the ideal usage for the left field nor the leadoff spot. Signing him and playing him 150 games a year would represent a compromise, and so far no team has been willing to make it. He could fit on the Yankees, but they have internal options to try in left. Or the Marlins, not only to keep up with the meme about the entire team being made up of second basemen except the actual second baseman, but also because they’re in need of competent hitters of any stripe. Miami’s current plan in the outfield corners involves throwing good money after Avisail García for the next three seasons.
The most intriguing spot for Profar might be a return to the team that gave him his start. (Not least because it would give the entire BBWAA cause to stand up as one and scream the first line of “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen: “The Rangers had a homecoming…”) Texas is doing its rebuild backwards. Where most teams develop a homegrown core first and then go out and sign big-name free agents to plug the remaining holes, the Rangers grafted Corey Seager and Marcus Semien onto a roster that would have maybe one or two big league-quality position players otherwise. And as the Rangers’ scouts and coaches have begun to produce quality players (Jonah Heim, Josh Jung, Nathaniel Lowe), established free agents continue to roll in — most notably Jacob deGrom but also Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney.
But the holes remain. Texas is still short on guys who can get on base for Seager et al to drive in and short enough on corner outfielders and designated hitter options that Brad Miller and Josh H. Smith currently sit in the top section of the team’s RosterResource page. This is just the kind of team that would benefit most from signing Profar. For that matter, sign Peralta, too. They could use all the help they can get.