While Yasiel Puig remains unsigned, a couple of other free agent outfielders came off the board on Wednesday via one-year deals at rock-bottom prices that belie their potential productivity even in part-time roles. Cameron Maybin returned to the Tigers, with whom he debuted in 2007, via a $1.5 million deal that includes an additional $1.3 million in incentives, while Jarrod Dyson agreed to a $2 million contract with the Pirates.
The well-traveled Maybin, who turns 33 on April 4, has played for eight different major league teams and has already passed through the hands of the Tigers twice. They made him the No. 10 pick out of an Asheville, North Carolina high school in 2005, and brought him to the majors in 2007, but dealt him to the Marlins that December in the Miguel Cabrera blockbuster. After three years with the Marlins, four with the Padres, and one with the Braves, he sparkled in a return to the Tigers for the 2016 season (.315/.383/.418) but was nonetheless dealt to the Angels that November and continued on his merry way. After splitting the 2018 campaign between the Marlins (again) and Mariners, he went to spring training last year with the Giants but was cut in late March after being arrested on a DUI charge. He landed with the Indians and opened the season with the team’s Triple-A Columbus affiliate before being sold to the Yankees for all of $25,000 on April 25, a time when Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Clint Frazier were all sidelined by injuries.
Maybin came up big for the Yankees even as every outfielder on the roster (himself included) hit the injured list at one point or another. He hit .285/.364/.494 in 269 plate appearances, setting career highs in slugging percentage, home runs (11), and wRC+ (127). His 1.6 WAR was his highest mark since the aforementioned 2016 season and ranked fourth among Yankees outfielders behind Judge, Brett Gardner, and Mike Tauchman. Of his 63 starts, he made 35 in left field, two in center, and 25 in right, and finished with zero DRA and -0.2 UZR. Well-regarded by teammates, he was known for giving hugs after home runs, something that kept him busy given that he was present for the lion’s share of their franchise-record 290 dingers.
As The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler detailed in mid-August, Maybin’s offensive improvement owes to his joining the launch angle revolution. Though the Astros (with whom he spent August, September, and October with in 2017) were the first team to encourage him to think about hitting the ball in the air, it took further discussions with players such as J.D. Martinez (with whom Maybin played in 2016) and Mitch Haniger (his teammate in Seattle) before Maybin came around. Via Adler:
Specifically, Haniger said he and Maybin talked about keeping the barrel of the bat through the zone and how to increase power “without exposing more swing and miss.” That balance was something that had caused Maybin hesitance in his curiosity about the evolution of hitters like Martinez and Haniger. A whiff once made him “feel some type of way,” a natural expectation for a hitter with his profile. Through his conversations with Haniger over August and September, Maybin finally came around to the idea of modifying his swing and his approach.
Convinced, Maybin called Craig Wallenbrock, the private hitting instructor who helped Martinez become one of the game’s top power hitters, and spent the winter of 2018-19 reworking his swing so as to drive the ball and elevate it with more consistency while worrying less about swinging and missing. Even with a career-high 26.8% strikeout rate, the results were night and day:
While a carbon copy repeat of that performance seems unlikely, it’s fair to suggest that with his new approach, Maybin is more than capable of surpassing his Steamer projection (.248/.330/.382, 89 wRC+, 0.4 WAR in 328 PA), which outdoes that of right fielder Victor Reyes (.273/.308/.400, 84 wRC+) if not that of left fielder Christin Stewart (.245/.327/.434). While the righty-swinging Maybin would seem to be a natural fit for a platoon with the lefty-swinging Stewart (who hit a dreadful .233/.305/.388 for an 80 wRC+ with -1.2 WAR), Maybin has shown a sizable reverse platoon split throughout his career; he owns a 98 wRC+ against righties compared to an 84 mark against lefties, and within the small sample sizes of last year was a 143 wRC+ in 181 plate appearances versus righties and a 96 mark in 88 PA versus lefties.
Maybin may well be on the move come July 31, and the same could be true for the 35-year-old Dyson, who on the offensive side is a less successful version of the speedy, slappy groundballer Maybin used to be. In 2019 with the Diamondbacks, Dyson set career highs for playing time (452 PA) and homers (seven) but hit just .230/.313/.320 for a 69 wRC+. For as meager as that line was, it was nonetheless a drastic improvement on his .189/.282/.257 (48 wRC+) showing in 2018.
Dyson’s limited value is entirely wrapped up in his baserunning and his defense. He was 30-for-34 (88%) in stolen bases last year, with a total that ranked third, and by our baserunning metric, his 8.9 runs above average trailed only the Orioles’ Jonathan Villar. His career success rate of 85% is tops among active players with at least 100 attempts. Via Statcast, his sprint speed places him in the 83rd percentile, down from the 92nd percentile in 2018, albeit in more playing time.
Defensively, Dyson remains an above-average center fielder; in 646.2 innings in the middle pasture last year via 61 starts and 42 appearances off the bench, he was 2.6 runs above average according to UZR and 5 above average via DRS. He owns a career UZR/150 of 10.9 in center, with a similarly prorated DRS of 18, and he’s above-average in the corners as well; in 879 total innings, he posted a 7.9 UZR and 13 DRS. With the team’s recent trade of Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks, the two clubs have effectively swapped center fielders this offseason, though it’s worth noting that the Diamondbacks used Ketel Marte there more frequently than Dyson (89 starts and 687.2 innings).
Dyson’s arrival allows the Pirates to keep Bryan Reynolds in left field and Gregory Polanco in right. Light-hitting Guillermo Heredia, the fourth outfielder, could be a potential platoon partner, as the righty-swinging 29-year-old owns a career 103 wRC+ in 487 PA against lefties but just a 69 wRC+ in 533 PA against righties. The lefty-swinging Dyson owns just a 65 wRC+ in 447 PA against lefties and an 83 wRC+ in 2,170 PA against righties. If that sounds like an unspectacular fit, well, meet your 2020 Pirates.
Dyson, for his part, was realistic about the current job market:
Jarrod Dyson on why he signed with the Pirates: "Ain’t too much out there right now. You would love to explore, but at the same time, you have to take what you can, take the good with the bad and roll with it. Make the most of it."
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) February 13, 2020
Both Maybin and Dyson have their limitations, admittedly. Even so, the late date of their signings and the meager salaries they’ll receive relative to the value they’re likely to deliver speaks to the squeeze put on veteran free agents in their mid-30s. The good news for both is that if they play well in the first half of the season, they’ll likely wind up with contenders down the stretch.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.