C.D. Lands in D.C.

Corey Dickerson
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, did you hear about the free agent who signed on Tuesday morning? Yeah, his name is Core… y Dickerson. So, yeah, not that free agent. Our deal is Corey Dickerson, to Washington, for one year and $2.25 million guaranteed, plus another $750,000 in performance incentives.

This is Dickerson’s third trip through the NL East since 2019, which is pretty enticing as a blind item, but then you realize that he was with the Phillies in 2019 but not ’22 and the Nats in 2023 but not ’19, and he missed the Mets and Braves altogether. That’s something of a theme for Dickerson’s career. He came up with the Rockies and was traded to the Rays in 2016, missing the two seasons in the past decade in which Colorado was good and having to sit through two of the last seasons in which Tampa Bay wasn’t.

But for as much as Dickerson has dodged playing for good teams for most of his career, he does have playoff experience, with the Marlins in 2020 and the Cardinals last year. He’s spent the past decade as an exemplar of a particular kind of player: a second-division starter who can be a meaningful platoon or bench player on a contender. That kind of player gets punted around a lot. Indeed, this will be Dickerson’s 11th big league season and his eighth team. He’s been traded in midseason twice and four times in total. (One of those trades was the deal that sent Germán Márquez and Jake McGee to Colorado in 2016.)

The allure of Dickerson is obvious: Over his career, he’s typically killed right-handed pitching and hit for a high average and decent power; he has a .287/.331/.505 line against righties, which is a wRC+ of 120. And yet he’s never made even $9 million in a season. Even if you assume he can only play left field or DH and that he’ll need a right-handed platoon partner, that’s still a bargain for, say, 400 plate appearances of well above-average offensive production at a profile that plays anywhere in the lineup.

The phrase “platoon left fielder/DH” doesn’t conjure a particularly romantic image, but at his peak, Dickerson was a really, really good player — a truly dangerous hitter, and against the big side of the platoon. That was enough to make him an everyday starter for three years in his late 20s. He was even an All-Star in 2017. Over and over, he has appealed to playoff bubble teams in need of offense on the cheap: the late-2010s Rays, the 2019 Phillies, the 2021 Blue Jays, and the 2022 Cardinals. And over and over, those teams realized why he could be had on the cheap: not just the platoon splits, but also the low walk rate (not terrible, but he’d dip below 4% on you). And apart from 2018, when he graded out at plus-15 on DRS out of nowhere and won a Gold Glove, he didn’t add much defensively. For a team that had nothing in left field, he was a huge upgrade. But to a team that had him and title aspirations, he was a player to be upgraded from.

And that was in his late 20s. Now entering his age-34 season, Dickerson is slowing down a bit. What used to be a .280/.320/.470 batting line is now more on the order of .270/.310/.400. And while he used to be playable against same-handed pitching, that isn’t really the case anymore. Last season, the Cardinals gave him 269 plate appearances against righties (and he still hit .286 with a 110 wRC+), but in 28 plate appearances against lefties he went 2-for-26 with one double, one walk, and one hit-by-pitch. Oof.

Speaking of “oof,” let’s talk about the Nationals, who are looking at quite a bare cupboard offensively after trading Juan Soto last year. Looking at their lineup, CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz need to play because they’re building blocks for the future; so too Luis García. (No, not that Luis Garcia, the other one. No, not that other Luis García, the other other Luis García.) And Joey Meneses was incredible last season, so even if that comes with the caveat of him being a 30-year-old career minor league first baseman, he needs to get regular playing time as well.

But after that, the Nats didn’t have much. Their rebuild, such as it is, has been stunted since Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom broke that mirror and condemned themselves to seven years of low-.300 slugging percentages. So what the Nationals have done is assemble a huge reserve army of guys who might hit if given the opportunity. These are players, mostly in their late 20s, who have either exhibited potential or performance at the major league level but found themselves out of a job in the past 12 months. Washington, lacking either established big-league hitters or enough MLB-ready prospects to fill out a lineup, has gone fishing on the waiver wire and in free agency.

That includes Stone Garrett and Alex Call, two Meneses-in-miniature cases who put up impressive numbers in a small big league sample. It includes post-hype sleepers like Jeimer Candelario, Dominic Smith, and Michael Chavis, and perhaps even Jeter Downs and Franklin Barreto, if you think they’ve hit enough at high levels to even warrant sleeper status. Or Matt Adams, who’s back for a third stint in Washington on a non-roster invite, even though he’s many years removed from his last productive stint in the majors.

You’ll notice that this group is very corner-heavy. Assuming Meneses and Smith lock down the first base and DH spots and Candelario plays third, Dickerson will have to contend with Call and Garrett for playing time in left, which brings the platoon issue back into play. Call, Garrett, and incumbent right fielder Lane Thomas are all right-handed hitters. Thomas had a mild platoon split in 2022 but a huge one (almost 500 points of OPS huge) in ’21 as a part-time player. The other two didn’t play enough in the majors to draw conclusions, but we can look at their Triple-A numbers. Garrett hit for a higher average but slightly less power against right-handed pitching (.293/.348/.557) than against left-handed pitching (.241/.288/.576). Last year, Call had sizeable reverse platoon splits both in the majors and in Triple-A, but he was more normal in the minors in 2021.

Dickerson’s $2.25 million guarantee might not sound like much in terms of establishing a pecking order, but this is the Nationals; almost 60% of their projected $104 million payroll is going to go to Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. If the MLB Trade Rumors arbitration projections turn out to be accurate, Washington’s fifth-highest earning player will be… feel free to buzz in anytime… no, I’m sorry, we were looking for “Buyout of Nelson Cruz’s mutual option.”

In contrast to Dickerson, both Call and Garrett cost the Nationals nothing to acquire, and both are pre-arbitration players with three minor league option years left. They’re expendable, in other words, leaving Dickerson to continue to play the long side of the platoon until he proves he can’t. And even if he isn’t the hitter he was five years ago, if he can post a 110 wRC+ against righties again, that’ll work — even in left field.

The best-case scenario for Washington actually involves Call, Garrett, Meneses, Smith, and Thomas all playing so well they end up squeezing Dickerson out of the picture. More realistically, he finds enough playing time to put up solid numbers against righties and warrant a trade to a contender at the deadline. In return, the Nats will get some 25-year-old reliever with an appalling walk rate or injury history but an obvious mechanical flaw they think they can fix. Maybe the Phillies get to July and find out Nick Castellanos still isn’t hitting and Bryce Harper’s elbow isn’t healing quickly enough, or the Guardians want someone who suits their high-contact approach but can also hit for any power whatsoever. Someone out there is going to need a part-time bat for the stretch run. Someone always does.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Good luck with him. His offense was so terrible over the first two months last year that it was likely only a trip to the IL that saved him from being DFAed. He came back to surprisingly hit much better over the next couple of months, but then his offense cratered again in September. That overall 110 wRC+ mark against righties is less impressive with such a streaky hitter.

1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Idk about his case, but maybe his terrible offense was due to the injury. Happens to a lot of guys. Would be nice if it worked out!

1 year ago
Reply to  hazelrah

The injury was a sudden calf strain. It’s not like it was something nagging at him that then flared up enough to require an IL stint.