Outfield Free Agent Signing Roundup

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Two of the outfielders I would have been most interested in signing this winter (as high-quality backups) both agreed to deals last week. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal; that’s what offseasons are for, after all. But both of them signed roughly two weeks away from Opening Day, and for meaningfully less than I would have predicted. That means that you can’t disconnect their deals from the context in which they were signed. That also means they get wrapped up into one article, so here we go. This will be a three-parter: Michael A. Taylor’s signing with the Pirates, Adam Duvall’s signing with the Braves, and the market forces behind both moves.

Taylor to the Pirates
This one was so obvious in retrospect. The Pirates have a lot of interesting young players, but one thing they didn’t have was a complete outfield. They have Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski, both potential pieces of the future and interesting players right now in their own right. But that’s only two outfielders, and Suwinski is more of an emergency center fielder than an everyday one. The options after that – Edward Olivares, Connor Joe – felt more like platoon pieces than everyday starters.

Taylor, who signed a one-year deal worth $4 million, makes the whole picture look a lot better. He’s an elite center field defender, regardless of which system you’re grading him on. That lets Suwinski and Reynolds handle the corners, more natural positions for both. It also means the Pirates won’t have to make a tough decision against lefty pitching: either to play the lefty-hitting Suwinski — who before the Taylor deal was their best defensive center field, even though isn’t really suited to play that position full time — despite the platoon disadvantage, or sacrifice defense. Now they can mix and match far more easily.

Taylor’s offensive game has always been his weak link, and that absolutely limited his market. He’s a career .239/.294/.389 hitter, good for an 82 wRC+, which spells out his upside pretty clearly. He’s an average overall player, give or take a rounding error, so long as he’s an elite defender. In each of the last three years, that’s been almost exactly what happened; his defense has carried him even when his offense hasn’t. When he smacked a career-high 21 homers last year, his production boomed, and he racked up 1.7 WAR in only 388 plate appearances.

We’re projecting a return to career norms for Taylor’s offense, and it’s not hard to see why. He posted easily the best power production of his career, and in a way that doesn’t feel sticky. Before last year, he’d hit 113 doubles and 74 home runs over his first nine seasons. He had 14 doubles and 21 homers in 2023, a meaningful deviation from his normal output. That all comes down to an impressive barrel rate and more aerial contact than ever, but I think it’s reasonable to project a return to career norms there, and Pittsburgh is a terrible park for righty power, which should push that even a bit lower.

If the Pirates are looking for a repeat of last year’s offense in a full-time role, they’ll likely be disappointed. But they absolutely don’t need that. He brings the floor of their outfield up significantly, to a roughly average unit. We think the Pirates will get nearly as many WAR from their outfielders (6.6) as the Mike Trout-led Angels (7.0) — partly because Angels right fielders are projected for 0.4 WAR, the worst total in the majors — with less injury risk. And all of that for $4 million! I love this signing for a team on the fringes of the playoff race thanks to the paper-soft NL Central.

Duvall to the Braves
Now for a signing that will matter far less in the regular season. The Braves signed Adam Duvall, who last year with the Red Sox put together his best season on a rate basis but dealt with plenty of injuries. He’s making $3 million on a one-year deal.

Duvall is the archetypical boom/bust hitter. He strikes out roughly 30% of the time, even in good years. He doesn’t walk a lot. What he does do is put the ball in the air at an absurd rate, and with authority. His career barrel rate, 11.8%, is in the top 10% of all hitters in the Statcast era. If pitchers hang ’em, he can definitely bang ’em.

I’d say that Duvall’s .284 ISO in 2023 was an unsustainable caricature of his offensive game, but his career mark is an also-outrageous .240. He’s never going to get on base much, but his power is as real as it gets, even as he enters his age-35 season. He truly doesn’t do anything else – his career OBP is below .300, a woeful number for a theoretically offense-first outfielder – but I can’t emphasize enough how real his power is.

The Red Sox put Duvall in center field in 2023, which caused some excitement about his ability to move up the defensive spectrum. I didn’t completely buy it, though, and it seems like teams didn’t either. At best, he’s a backup to the durable Michael Harris II. The real reason Duvall is headed to the Braves is insurance for their high-risk plan in left field. Atlanta moved a lot of pieces around to bring in Jarred Kelenic over the winter. The ceiling is high for the former top prospect, but let’s be realistic: the floor is unfathomably low.

Kelenic has a lot of prospect shine, but he’s a career 85 wRC+ hitter in 1,000 plate appearances of big league playing time. He’s been one of the worst hitters in baseball this spring, for whatever that’s worth. He has huge platoon splits; he’s been unplayably bad against lefties in a limited sample. I think that the Braves will give him a chance to hit against everyone and establish himself as an everyday player, but there’s no guarantee that he will.

Signing Duvall means that there’s an off ramp if things don’t work out with Kelenic. Until they added him, the alternatives were so bad that Kelenic might have retained his job even if he were to play quite poorly. Now, there’s a limit to how bad that position can get, because Duvall feels like a bankable option. He doesn’t have huge platoon splits, though he’ll surely be taking some of Kelenic’s playing time against tough lefties. But he can also just take playing time, period, if Atlanta decides its gamble isn’t paying off.

That’s really smart team-building, as far as I’m concerned. The Kelenic experiment isn’t a high-leverage one for the Braves, who figure to run roughshod over the NL East regardless of what their left fielders do. But when it comes to building a World Series winner, patching potential holes for cheap in March is a lot better than doing so for a premium at the trade deadline.

Why So Little Money?
Both Taylor and Duvall landed in my top 50 free agents list this offseason. The crowd and I both missed pretty badly on our estimates for both. I had Taylor down for one year and $9 million; the crowd called for two years at $7 million per. I did worse with Duvall; I had him pegged at one year and $10 million, while the crowd went for one year and $8 million. Neither player even got half the guarantees we estimated for them.

It’s all part of the same story that’s been going on in free agency for years. The middle class is getting squeezed. Teams prefer to look internally for roughly average options, confident in their ability to develop cheap alternatives who aren’t much worse than those available in free agency. That doesn’t work for stars – it’s a lot easier to find a minor leaguer who’s 90% of Taylor than one who’s 90% of Mookie Betts, obviously – so great players still sign big deals, but solid regulars feel the pinch.

I’ve tried to account for that in my contract projections by changing the scale that I use to convert WAR into salary. I’ve made the first 1.5 wins progressively less valuable over time to reflect the way teams are behaving. For what it’s worth, I think that behavior is completely logical; in a game of limited resources (an assumption completely worth challenging, but outside the scope of this article), pouring your money into chasing stars and then trying to replicate role players is a good strategy.

These two deals squeeze that distribution down even further. It’s hard to imagine Taylor or Duvall finishing less than a win above replacement, even in a part-time role. Fitting a curve to account for these salaries as well as some of the bigger deals signed in free agency would require making the first win almost completely worthless, even lower than I’ve forced it in recent years.

The question, then, is whether to use these contracts or most of the other contracts signed this offseason as benchmarks of what to expect going forward. You could throw Amed Rosario’s deal into the mix; $1.5 million for a rotation infielder is even a bit cheaper than these two. But then you’ve to contend with Joc Pederson’s getting $12.5 million, Kevin Kiermaier’s getting $10.5 million, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa’ getting two years and $15 million.

I’m going to handle these contracts in my future free agency prediction endeavors by hedging. I’ll use the data points, of course, but I think it’s reasonable to look at both of these as casualties of circumstances rather than perfect harbingers of the new normal. It’s hard to predict which free agents will get squeezed ex ante; every year, someone ends up sitting on the vine longer than expected because there aren’t quite enough teams looking for veterans.

I’m going to resist taking too broad of a lesson here, though. Taylor and Duvall are both outfielders with only one carrying tool, but players like that signed earlier this winter on more reasonable deals. The middle class is still getting squeezed, without a doubt. I just wouldn’t take these two deals as evidence of an acceleration of the trend. More likely, they’re victims of timing who will be huge bargains for the clubs that signed them.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Jason Bmember
2 months ago

“But then you’ve to contend with Joc Pederson’s getting $12.5 million, Kevin Kiermaier’s getting $10.5 million, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa getting two years and $15 million.”

Thank you for reminding us Jays fans that not only did they not land any top-shelf free agents this offseason, but they are paying premiums for the middling talents that they did sign.

It would be hard to score fewer runs in the two wild card games that they did last year, but they seem intent on trying! (Of course, to put up zeroes in the postseason you’ve got to make the postseason…)

Last edited 2 months ago by Jason B