And just like that, two big names are off the board. On Friday morning, five-time All-Star Michael Brantley announced his intention to retire. A couple of days later, two-time Silver Slugger winner Teoscar Hernández signed a one-year, $23.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Brantley and Hernández were two of the top outfielders remaining on the open market. Neither looked his best in 2023, but each was an All-Star as recently as 2021.
Hernández was a consensus top-25 free agent this winter. He has an .802 career OPS and is a near lock to hit 25 bombs per year. Brantley was a bit more of a wild card, given his recent injury history, but his bat looked strong when he last took regular at-bats in 2022. The Steamer projection system saw him as one of the best pure hitters on the market; by projected wRC+, he ranked third among unsigned free agents. By projected batting average, he ranked sixth in all of baseball.
With Hernández spoken for and Brantley off the market, teams in need of an impact bat who can handle regular playing time in the outfield will need to look elsewhere for an upgrade. So, which options remain?
Cody Bellinger Is in a Class of His Own
Cody Bellinger is the belle of the ball. The 28-year-old figures to sign a long-term, nine-figure deal. His versatility makes him a good fit for plenty of clubs, and with Shohei Ohtani and Jung Hoo Lee off the board, he could drum up quite the bidding war.
The Next Tier
After Bellinger, Jorge Soler is the next best option on the outfield market. However, while he certainly meets the criteria for an “impact bat,” his outfield defense is questionable at best. He has played some corner outfield in each of the past ten seasons, but he hasn’t been a regular out there since 2021.
Soler played just 32 games in the field last season and still managed to accumulate -3 OAA and -5 DRS. In 2021, when he started 95 games in right, he graded out as one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball. As the slow-moving slugger enters his mid-thirties, it’s likely his defense will only get worse.
The veteran slugger can probably handle the outfield if necessary, but ideally, he should be a full-time designated hitter in 2024.
Joc Pederson falls in a similar category. His bat can make a real difference in the middle of a lineup, but his defensive stats have been dreadful the past few years, and he was primarily a DH in 2023.
In addition, Pederson is a platoon bat who should see as little action against left-handed pitchers as possible. His 80 wRC+ against lefties in 2023 was actually better than his career average.
More Questions Than Answers
Other than Bellinger, Adam Duvall might represent the best chance for a team to sign an outfielder who can contribute on both sides of the ball. He’s a solid defender who can handle center field, and he’s coming off a strong offensive campaign.
At the same time, we’re talking about a guy who will be 35 next season and has suffered significant injuries each of the past two years. Moreover, Duvall has been an up-and-down kind of player even at the best of times, experiencing high highs and low lows. Brantley was aging and injury-prone, too, but before his injuries became a problem, he was one of the most consistent veteran hitters in the game.
Any other free agents who could possibly provide value on both sides of the ball come with even more questions. Joey Gallo is a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner, and he’s only 30 years old, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together in a couple of years. Austin Meadows has an even higher ceiling, but the risk is greater as well; no one really knows if he’ll ever be able to play pro baseball again.
Low Floor, Low Ceiling
For teams in need of any outfield help they can get, Michael A. Taylor is a name to keep in mind. He’s a phenomenal defender, but even at his best, he’s a bottom-of-the-order bat. Still, his glove is strong enough that he can be a valuable everyday player in center field.
Another option is Tommy Pham; he doesn’t excel on either side of the ball, but at least he won’t be a total liability. He’s an average-to-above-average hitter, and his glove is good enough to stick him in a regular role in an outfield corner.
Taking the Trade Route
With so few outfield options remaining in free agency, could the trade market offer more upside? That remains to be seen.
Randy Arozarena has had his name pop up in trade rumors this winter, but presumably, it would take a king’s ransom for the Rays to part with their All-Star outfielder in his second year of arbitration eligibility.
Another name that has come up in trade speculation is Max Kepler; the Twins could look to cash in on his strong 2023 season before he hits free agency next year, shedding his $10 million salary in the process. Whether or not he counts as an “impact bat” depends on how much stock you put in his 2023 stats (24 HR, 124 wRC+) compared to his numbers from the previous two years (28 HR, 96 wRC+), but thanks to his glove, he’s been worth at least 2.0 fWAR in each of the past seven full seasons.
Teams In Need
Alright, so we’ve broken down the options for outfield upgrades. But the market is a two-way street. To paint a full picture, we need to identify the teams in need of outfield help.
San Diego Padres
After trading away Juan Soto and Trent Grisham, no team needs more help in the outfield than the Padres. Other than Fernando Tatis Jr., José Azocar is the only healthy outfielder on the 40-man roster. The big question is how much payroll flexibility A.J. Preller has available for upgrades.
Los Angeles Angels
Mickey Moniak was a pleasant surprise last season, but if the Angels are even pretending to be contenders, they need another outfielder. Mike Trout and Taylor Ward are coming off major injuries, and Moniak is hardly an everyday player.
The Marlins have plenty of outfielders, but they could use another good outfielder if they want to contend for a Wild Card spot next season. Jazz Chisholm Jr. is great at his best, but he’s prone to injury. Meanwhile, Bryan De La Cruz, Jesús Sánchez, and Avisaíl García aren’t exactly a fearsome combination in the corner spots.
The Mariners have technically replaced Teoscar Hernández and Jarred Kelenic with Mitch Haniger and Luke Raley, but the word “technically” is doing some heavy lifting there.
Haniger was dreadful last season, no two ways about it (73 wRC+ in 61 games). Raley was fantastic (130 wRC+ in 118 games), but there’s no guarantee he’ll maintain that level of production, especially considering his poor career platoon splits.
The Phillies could enter the 2024 season with Brandon Marsh in left field and Johan Rojas in center. That would be a terrific defensive alignment, but Philadelphia’s offense would suffer with Rojas in an everyday role. This lineup could use another right-handed impact bat.
New York Mets
If the Mets are willing to bench or trade Starling Marte, they could use an upgrade in right field. The veteran is still owed $41.5 million over the next two years, but he was a shell of his former self in 2023.
With Ramón Laureano in right and Myles Straw in center, the Guardians have one of the worst offensive outfields in the league. This team is rarely willing to spend on free agents, but they could certainly use an upgrade.
Like their AL Central rivals, it’s hard to guess if the Twins will spend any serious money this winter. However, if they end up trading Kepler, they’ll need someone to take his place.
The Twins are the favorites to repeat as division winners, but the AL Central is still up for grabs. Another bat could help Minnesota stay on top in 2024.