Choosy GMs could find hits among outfielders
Beltran tops free agents at position, but sleepers abound
Remember the amazement over the mega-deals Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford signed with the Nationals and Red Sox last offseason? Remember how they neatly book-ended the Winter Meetings and set the market for the top free agents? Remember how nobody saw Washington or Boston coming on either one?
Keep that in the memory bank this winter. Just don't consider it an example of what to expect. Better yet, stay away from expectations in general. This isn't that kind of year.
In an offseason in which the infield has the market cornered on the top free-agent hitters, the group of outfielders has more questions than names -- and there are a lot of names. But with enough teams needing outfield help to create a market, those questions might make it nearly as intriguing as clubs figure out which risks are worth taking.
Does Carlos Beltran have a healthy season or two left in him with his 35th birthday coming next April? Does Grady Sizemore have a career renaissance in him after so many injuries before his 30th birthday next August? Can Jason Kubel get back to the .300-hitting, 28-homer, 103-RBI form he showed in 2009? Has Johnny Damon finally found a home with the Rays? Is Magglio Ordonez done, or can he recover from a second surgery on his fractured right ankle? Has Juan Pierre slowed down, or does he remain a leadoff weapon for the right team?
There's nowhere near the same intrigue Werth and Crawford brought to last year's market. No free-agent outfielder this year is likely to change the course of a franchise or spearhead an offensive overhaul. But with useful bats and teams needing them, there's no shortage of mystery where some of these guys will land, and which teams will take a good look at them.
It's the kind of market in which just about any team that needs an outfielder could end up with one of the top names. None of these guys seem constrained to big markets or one league or the other, and different teams need different skills out of their outfields. Add in a glut of gifted outfield prospects across so many Major League rosters, and it's an unpredictable market.
A good number of them are going to come with risk, especially on the injury front. Yet there's a solid chance at least one of them, probably more, is going to come through with a big comeback. That won't lift a team on its own, but it could be a big boost for a contending team looking to take another step.
Looking to buy: This could end up being a swap meet among teams letting go of one free agent to sign another. The Red Sox could change J.D. Drew for Beltran or another veteran hitter to man right field and recalibrate the offense for 2012. ... The Giants appear poised to try to keep Beltran, whom they acquired at the July 31 Trade Deadline, but could end up with a center fielder and leadoff hitter instead, maybe Sizemore. ... The Nationals need a center fielder and top-of-the-order type. ... The Twins could lose both Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, leaving them with speedsters Denard Span and Ben Revere as returning outfielders. ... The Athletics could have wholesale changes in their outfield if Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Coco Crisp all find better deals elsewhere. ... The Padres could use an offensive boost from a corner position, but they might be better off doing that in a trade than through the open market unless somebody slips through the cracks. ... If the Indians don't bring back Sizemore, they'll have a hole to fill either in center or left, depending on Michael Brantley's future.
Top dog: Take away the injury factors, and the top free agent would be Beltran, who rejoined the .900 OPS club this year with a 142-game season that marked the most games he's played in a season since 2008. His knees won't allow him the same speed from his 25-steal season of 2008, but he still churned out six triples and his defense makes him a strong all-around corner outfielder. He might not be a long-term investment, but for the near future, he could be a major boost for a lot of clubs.
Best of the rest: Willingham might be the best pure power hitter on the market not named Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. As contract years go, a 29-homer season in Oakland is pretty impressive, despite a .246 average. Put him in a more hitter-friendly ballpark with less foul territory and more lineup support and he could provide a major boost. ... Cuddyer has averaged better than 20 homers and 80 RBIs over the past three years and his past five healthy seasons, and has a solid OPS to boot. Add in his positional versatility and he could find a lot of value on the market, though the Twins could push hard to bring him back. The Phillies are said to be very interested. ... If Kubel is healthy, he's a left-handed-hitting power source coming from a ballpark that isn't friendly of those kind of hitters. ... After shortstops Jose Reyes and Rafael Furcal, outfielders Crisp and Pierre are the next-best group of leadoff hitters on the market, still fast and smart baserunners who can find their way on. ... Somebody will take a shot on Sizemore in hopes that his knee further strengthens two years after microfracture surgery. If it does, he could be quite a comeback candidate.
Worth a shot: Rick Ankiel, Pat Burrell, Mike Cameron, DeJesus, Drew, Willie Harris, Andruw Jones, Ryan Ludwick, Nate McLouth, Jason Michaels, Xavier Nady, Ordonez, Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, Cody Ross, Marcus Thames.