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Free agency preview: Outfielders

Can the Royals find an on-base hitter?

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MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

There is a proud tradition in Kansas City of fielding outfielders who are absolute ball hawks, running down anything in the air in spacious Kauffman Stadium. But Lorenzo Cain is long gone, and next season will be the first time in a decade that Alex Gordon won’t be patrolling left field.

That will leave some holes in the outfield, especially if Hunter Dozier’s move to first base is permanent. Whit Merrifield seems likely to be in centerfield, although a move to second base or even a trade out of Kansas City isn’t totally out of the question. Edward Olivares and Franchy Cordero both show potential, but may not be expected to be every day players quite yet. Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel could be outfielders of the future, but seem likely to begin next year in the minors.

Jeffrey Flanagan recently wrote that the Royals “could be in the market for a cost-efficient free-agent outfielder” and Alec Lewis even projected that a free agent would start for the Royals in left field next season. Dayton Moore has said that the Royals “definitely need more on-base guys.” Last year, Royals outfielders hit .235/.306/.375 for a wRC+ of 85, better than only six other clubs in baseball.

The Royals have some financial flexibility, but don’t expect them to break the bank quite yet. Who are the potential outfielders they could target in free agency? I try to give a best guess at what kind of deals free agents can expect, although this winter could prove to be a very tight winter with lower offers due to the pandemic.

The top tier

Michael Brantley - The veteran brings a high-contact approach - he has the lowest strikeout rate among all outfielders over the last three seasons at just 10.6 percent and he had the second-highest contact rate among all hitters over the last two seasons. He battled some quad injuries this year and didn’t play the field that much, but he still seems to be a capable fielder by the metrics. The left-handed hitter is 33 years old, so he would most likely fetch a two- or three-year deal worth around $16-18 million per year.

Marcell Ozuna - The slugger didn’t get quite the long-term deal he was looking for last off-season, so he signed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Braves, and he proved it by leading the National League with 18 home runs. He had the 12th-highest average exit velocity among all hitters and the third-most barrels, according to Statcast. Ozuna is a poor defender, which could be a liability in Kauffman Stadium. He won’t turn 30 until November, but after rejecting a three-year offer from the Reds last winter, he will likely be looking for a a four- or five-year deal worth around $15-20 million per year.

George Springer - If you’re looking for an on-base guy, Springer is your man. Hitting leadoff for the Astros the last few seasons, Springer has the 17th-best on-base percentage among all outfielders since 2018 at .363. The three-time All-Star also has great pop with two 30+ home run seasons under his belt, and he’s a fine defender as well. The 31-year old should be one of the most attractive free agents on the market, with a six- or seven-year deal a possibility at around $20-24 million per season.

Can still be regulars

Jackie Bradley, Jr. - This is the player everyone expects the Royals to pursue since they have loved him ever since he was teammates with Whit Merrifield at the University of South Carolina. Bradley brings plus defense, winning a Gold Glove in 2018 as a centerfielder. His bat slumped the last few seasons, but he rebounded in the shortened 2020 season to hit .283/.364/.450. The 30-year old left-handed hitter brings solid power, solid speed, and a decent walk rate, and he even cut his strikeout rate down to 22 percent last year. The Red Sox would like to bring him back, and he could get a three-year deal worth around $10-12 million per season.

Adam Eaton - The Nationals have a $10.5 million club option on Eaton that I would guess they pick up. But they could go in a different direction, putting the left-handed outfielder on the market. Eaton is a terrific table-setter with a career .360 on-base percentage and just a 16.8 percent strikeout rate. He hit 15 home runs in 2019, but is more likely to hit single-digit home run totals. He is a good base runner, but doesn’t swipe a lot of bases. He was a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder earlier in his career, but his metrics have been poor lately, something he attributes to injuries. If he hits the market, Eaton could probably still get a two- or three-year deal if teams think his 2020 slump was an aberration.

Marwin Gonzalez - The versatile utility player actually only played eight games in the outfield this season, and is capable of playing first, second, and third base. His bat slumped badly last year, producing a line of .211/.286/.320, but he also had a low BABIP of .241 that suggests he could rebound. He has produced a solid walk rate of 8.7 percent over the last four seasons with a .335 on-base percentage over that time. Gonzalez has modest pop, enough to hit double-digits in home runs. He signed a short two-year deal in his first foray into free agency, and at age 31 will probably have to sign a similar two-year deal worth around $10-12 million per year.

Kiké Hernández - Like Whit Merrifield, Enrique “Kiké” Hernández is naturally a second baseman, but is capable of playing the outfield. The 29-year old right-handed hitter has decent speed and good baserunning metrics, but doesn’t steal many bases. His walk rate fell from 10 percent in 2018 to under 7 percent in 2019-2020, giving him a .296 on-base percentage over that time. He has solid power for a smaller hitter and is a good defender capable of playing all three outfield positions. Hernández will likely get a two- or three-year deal worth around $8-10 million per year.

Joc Pederson - The lefty hit 36 home runs in 2019 and was nearly traded to the Angels, but the deal fell through and he is trying to earn a ring with the Dodgers. Pederson mashes righties - his 131 wRC+ since 2018 against righties is among the top 25 hitters in baseball, but he has a career .576 OPS against lefties. He had a down year in 2020, hitting just .190/.285/.397, which will bring down his value. He has made strides defensively and isn’t too bad, and at age 28 is one of the younger free agents available. It is hard to peg the value for such a talented player that can would have to be in a platoon, but I can see a three-year deal worth around $8-12 million per year.

Jurickson Profar - Once the top prospect in baseball as a shortstop, Profar moved to the outfield with the Padres last year and enjoyed a renaissance with his bat, hitting .278/.343/.428 with seven home runs. The switch-hitter is one of the best contact hitters in baseball, striking out just 14.5 percent of the time over the last three seasons. He can draw free passes as well, with a healthy 9 percent walk in his career. Profar brings a nice blend of speed and power and is still capable of playing the infield, and he will still be just 28 years old come Opening Day. Profar could get a three- or four-year deal worth around $10-14 million per year.

The Bargain Bin

Dee Strange-Gordon - The son of former Royals pitcher Tom Gordon, Dee won a batting title in 2015 and has led the league in stolen bases three times. But his bat has slumped, and he has hit just .266/.293/.343 over the last three seasons. Gordon can still swipe 20-30 bases a year, but his defense is not good. He doesn’t strike out much, but he doesn’t walk at all - he was dead last among all hitters in walk rate from 2018-2020. The 32-year old left-handed hitter is probably looking at a one-year deal and is seen as a fourth outfielder who can be a pinch-runner.

Robbie Grossman - The switch-hitter has been a role player for most of his career, but he could be ready for a bigger limelight. Grossman doesn’t have much power and doesn’t bring a lot speed, but he is an on-base machine, with a career OBA of .350. He has an excellent 12.5 percent walk rate in his career, with a decent strike out rate of 20 percent. He is a pretty subpar defender, although the metrics don’t make him out to be too bad. A decent one- or two-year offer would likely be enough to land the 31-year old journeyman.

Jake Marisnick - If the Royals are looking for another terrific defender for their outfield, Marisnick could be a good fit. He has 14 Defensive Runs Saved over the last three years, despite only playing in about half the innings. He was once a top prospect, but his bat has never really developed, and he’s just a .229/.281/.385 career hitter in 1,884 Major League plate appearances as a right-handed hitter. Marisnick battled hamstring issues all season, limiting him to just 16 games, and may be seen as more of a fourth outfielder. He should probably get a one- or two-year deal worth around $5-8 million per season.

Cameron Maybin - The much-traveled outfielder has played for nine different teams since 2014. The right-handed hitter brings a solid blend of power and speed and might be more suited for a reserve role at this point. He enjoyed a career year in 2019, hitting .285/.364/.494, but his numbers slumped in 2020 to .247/.307/.387. The 33-year old is an adequate defender capable of playing all three outfield positions, and would likely take a one-year deal.

Kevin Pillar - Pillar got a few down-ballot MVP votes in 2019, but still found few takers on the free agent market last winter, settling for a one-year, $4.25 million deal with the Red Sox. The 31-year old is a very good defender who can play all three outfield positions, and can produce 15-20 home runs per season. He also has a very poor walk rate - only Strange-Gordon is worse at drawing free passes over the last three seasons. The right-hander had a solid season, hitting .288/.336/.462, but is probably looking at another one- or two-year deal worth around $5-7 million per year.

Yasiel Puig - Who will take a gamble on Puig? The enigmatic outfielder brings infectious enthusiasm but also unpredictability. He did not play this year after contracting COVID-19, but he has hit 20+ home runs in each of the last three seasons he played. In 2019, he hit .267/.327/.458 with 24 home runs and 19 steals. Puig can walk, and doesn’t strike out much for a hitter with some power, but he is a poor defender. Still just 29 years old, Puig will likely have to sign a one-year “make good” deal to prove he can be reliable.

Josh Reddick - The Royals pursued Reddick four years ago, losing out to the Astros. Reddick had a good first year in Houston, but has been below average the last three seasons. He has modest power for a corner outfielder, but can draw some walks. Reddick is a left-handed hitter, but actually has a reverse split, hitting southpaw pitchers better than righties. Reddick is a poor defender, and may not be a good fit for Kauffman Stadium. The 33-year old is likely to get a one- or two-year offer for $5-8 million per year.

Others: Jay Bruce, Billy Hamilton, Mallex Smith, Stephen Souza, Jr.

The old guys

Ryan Braun - The longtime Brewer has a $15 million mutual option that is certain to be declined by Milwaukee. The 36-year old is limited defensively, but can still hit 20 home runs per season. It seems likely he would stay in Milwaukee on a short-term deal, or if he leaves, he would chase a ring with a contender.

Yoenis Céspedes - The Royals already brought back Lucas Duda and Matt Harvey, so why not 2015 New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes? He has played just eight games over the last two seasons due to injuries, but just a few years ago he was a 30+ home run hitter. The 35-year old would probably have to spend a lot of time at DH, which would make a difficult fit in Kansas City.

Nick Markakis - The left-handed hitter seems made for Kauffman Stadium with good gap power and a high-contact approach. He has a career .357 on-base percentage that would be terrific at the top of the lineup. The 36-year old initially opted out of this season, but decided to return, and there has been talk he could retire.

Others: Jarrod Dyson, Brett Gardner, Jon Jay, Matt Joyce