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Potential free agent target: Joc Pederson

The lefty can mash, but can he play everyday?

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dayton Moore recently reiterated his desire to add a left-handed bat, most likely through free agency. With spring training beginning just a month from now, there still remain a number of quality options, including Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson. Fresh off a World Series title, could the left-handed slugger bring his bat to Kansas City?

Joc grew up in Palo Alto in Northern California and was selected by the Dodgers in the 11th round of the 2010 draft out of high school. He turned down an offer from USC to play for the organization that his dad, Stu Pederson, had spent most of his professional career playing for in the minors, with a brief cup of coffee in 1985. Joc established himself as a promising power hitter in the minors, earning MVP honors in the Pacific Coast League in 2014 and a September call up to the big leagues.

He entered the 2015 season universally regarded as one of the top 20 prospects in baseball, and he did not disappoint in the first half of the season. He homered in five straight games at one point, and by the end of June he had a .911 OPS. He was named an All-Star that summer, reaching the finals of the Home Run Derby. But he slumped badly and although he ended up with 26 home runs to tie Kris Bryant for the most among rookies, he hit just .210/.346/.417.

Pederson got off to a hot start in 2016 as well, but did not slump as badly in the second half. His improvement was perhaps in part his BABIP regressing to the mean, but he hit .246/.352/.495 with 25 home runs in 476 plate appearances. He struggled off the bat in 2017 and missed some time early on with a concussion after a nasty outfield collision with Yasiel Puig. He got going a bit in the summer, but was demoted to the minors in August and ended up posting the worst numbers of his career.

Pederson spent a lot of time in 2018 in the leadoff spot and responded with an improved performance at the plate with a 125 OPS+. In 2019, he posted his best offensive season, hitting a career-high 36 home runs with a line of .249/.339/.538, worth 3.2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. Despite his terrific season, the Dodgers had a crowded outfield situation and agreed to trade him to the Angels with pitcher Ross Stripling for infielder Luis Rengifo. But when another three-way deal with the Twins and Red Sox fell apart over concerns of Brusdar Graterol’s medicals, the Pederson deal with the Angels was also called off.

The Dodgers and Pederson had to deal with the awkward situation of him staying on the roster after a trade fell through, and he responded with his worst offensive season. He appeared in just 43 games and hit .190/.285/.397 with seven home runs, and was below replacement level.

There is no doubt that Pederson is one of the best power hitters available this winter. Since 2015, he has hit a home run once every 19 plate appearances, the 18th-highest home run rate for anyone with at least 100 home runs over that time. He is in the top 30 of all qualified hitters in ISO and average exit velocity since 2015. Even in his poor 2020 season, he was in the 96th percentile for exit velocity. He can also draw some free passes with a 12 percent career walk rate, although he strikes out a fair amount at 24 percent.

But he is a tale of two hitters. Against right-handers, Pederson is one of the best hitters in baseball, but against lefties, he is one of the worst. As Andrew Simon of recently wrote:

Since 2015, among the 281 batters who have come to the plate at least 1,000 times against righties, Pederson is tied with Springer for 28th in wRC+. But among the 287 batters with at least 350 PA against lefties, Pederson ranks 281st.

But Simon suggests that one reason Pederson is so bad against lefties is that he has never really gotten a shot to face them in Los Angeles. Because the Dodgers had such a stacked roster, they could afford to sit Pederson against southpaws. He points out that in the past five seasons, no hitter with at least 1,500 plate appearances has faced a higher percentage of righties than Pederson has at 86.9 percent.

Pederson has played mostly center field in his career, but his defensive metrics there are underwhelming and it would be a stretch for him to play the position in Kauffman Stadium. His metrics in corner outfield positions are pretty good and he could be a solid, perhaps even a plus defender in left or right field. He is not a threat to run, and while he’s not a plodder on the bases, he’s doesn’t fare well in Baserunning Runs.

Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors projects Pederson to sign for a two-year, $18 million deal with Craig Edwards at Fangraphs close to that mark with a two-year, $20 million deal. He had been connected with the Nationals and White Sox earlier this off-season, but both clubs have since signed lefty outfield bats (Kyle Schwarber and Adam Eaton, respectively). The Giants, Cardinals, Astros, and Tigers could be possible suitors. Contending teams may seem him as more of a platoon option, so the Royals could have a shot at him if they promise him more regular playing time (and pay him accordingly).

Pederson will turn 29 next April, making him one of the younger free agents available, and a better fit for what the Royals are trying to do than other candidates. His poor 2020 season and his impotence against lefties will give many teams pause, but he could provide some much needed power to this Royals lineup.