I know we've had a few threads discussing what we think the next year's team will look like (welcome back Casey Blake!), but I wanted to take a closer look at the outfield situation by first looking at who we have under contract or control for 2009, who will likely be available through free agency, and of course who is down in AAA (and a certain player who was "brained" in China recently).
The first premise that needs to be cleared up is whether or not we are going to head into next season with the hopes of contending or with the expectations of simply rebuilding for 2010. I recall some sentiment that may have filtered down from Shapiro that alot of this is going to be decided by the abilities of Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner to come back from their injuries without too much damage to their ability to hit. I'm going to go ahead and assume that both of these players come back to the point that Shapiro thinks we can contend in 2009.
So on with the current set of outfielders. The given is center field and I will not waste anymore than this sentence on this position as he is the best hitter on our club this year. Now here are the other outfielders currently on our 25-man roster with links to there THT stat pages, and followed by their (age), OPS+,split OPS+ (for consideration in platooning) and contract status:
Shin-Shoo Choo RF/LF (25), 115 OPS+, 121 sOPS+ vs. RHP. '09: Pre-Arb
David Dellucci LF (34), 93 OPS+, 100 sOPS+ vs. RHP. '09:$4M
Franklin Gutierrez RF/CF/LF (25), 70 OPS+, 92 sOPS+ vs. LHP. '09: Pre-Arb
Ben Francisco LF/RF(26), 109 OPS+, 102 sOPS+ vs LHP. '09: Pre-Arb
A few points regarding defense. Gutierrez is regarded as the best defensive outfielder of the bunch and that includes Sizemore. Choo's arm is good enough if not above avg. for right field and same may be said for Gutierrez. Dellucci and Francisco are adequate defense players for LF but neither has a strong enough arm to be a regular in RF (although that doesn't mean they couldn't play there). Dellucci is going to be in the last year of his three year deal, and the money owed isn't too much in the grand scheme of things. He is now no better in a platoon than Michaels was (i.e a .776 OPS vs. RHP compared to Michaels' .800 OPS vs LHP in 2007) and that simply isn't acceptable for a contending team. Gutierrez looks like he isn't going to cut it as far as filling any prominent role in the outfield next season. Depending on roster construction he may be able to stick around as a non-platooning reserve outfielder spelling Sizemore in center (although Sizemore plays alot, I mean he rarely misses a game) and providing late inning defensive help. Gutierrez has had one month where he's shown any sign of being able to stick in the majors, and that's been August (.936 OPS). He will need to have a similar September to improve his projections for next season. Out of this group I think we can smush out a workable platoon for right field with Choo being the primary player and either Francisco or Gutierrez filling in against left-handed pitchers. Dellucci will need to be traded away although I consider that he is less valuable than Michaels was so its not going to be easy. This leaves a hole in LF.
There's two ways I can see this going at this point. Francisco can man LF at a competent level both defensively and offensively (expect an OPS+ around 100 to 110, although don't rule out a sophomore slump), but I don't see us competing with mediocre production out of both our corner outfield positions (considering the questions around the corner infield and DH position as well) So we would need to upgrade the RF position with a right-handed bat. So this brings me to the upcoming free agent class for outfielder:
LF: Pat Burrell (31); Moises Alou (41); Cliff Floyd (35) - Team option worth $3M for ‘09, or a $250K buyout; Raul Ibanez (35); Garret Anderson (35) - Team option worth $14M for ‘09, or a $3M buyout; Brad Wilkerson (30); Manny Ramirez (35); Adam Dunn (28)
RF: Rocco Baldelli (26); Milton Bradley (29); Brian Giles (36) - Team option worth $9M for ‘09, or a $3M buyout; Juan Rivera (29); Jacque Jones (32); Wily Mo Pena (25) - Team option worth $5M or Player option worth $2M for ‘09; Vlad Guerrero (31) - Option worth $15M in ‘09, or a $3M buyout; Bobby Abreu (33)
Parring this down a bit by taking out the team options that I think will be picked up and Alou is likely to retire, leaves us with:
Non of these guys look very strong defensively. A guy like Abreu may resign with NY since NY can keep him if they want (you know, that having all the money thing). The typical Shapiro (i.e. small market) guys look to be Rivera, Pena, and maybe Ibanez. Giles is a weird guy. He seems to love living in SD, but since they placed him on waivers and were willing to deal him to BOS and are rebuilding, keeping him doesn't make much sense other than appeasing the fan base. If he is a FA I see him sticking on the West Coast with slight chance that he considers a return to CLE for a year or two and retiring. Its hard to see where Dunn goes (unless Ariz offers him an extension) because I'm not sure he is valued by some teams in the league that see his low avg., plodding pace, and high strike-outs (I can tell you that he's not signing with Toronto this offseason) and miss out on the other true outcomes (BBs and HRs). But probably going to cash in (as his former teammate Bronson Arroyo has alleged).
Finally, the minor leagues. I simply don't see anyone at Buffalo currently that would be any better than any of the players already currently on the 25-man roster. Maybe a way to old for his level (28 yr old) Todd Linden RF (.870 OPS) could fill in in case of an injury on the big league club, but is that really any better than what Ben Francisco did three years younger at AAA last season, and he's barely adequate. So that leaves Laporta down in AA, but by all accounts he will likely start the year off in Buffalo and put in time at AAA. Continued success in Buffalo in the early months could lead to a call up mid-season and could answer our needs that way, but if this happens I am assuming that the Indians are out of contention by this point (having not solved the outfield corner positions in the offseason).
So in summation, I find it hard to believe Shapiro will not sign a free agent outfielder or trade for an outfielder before the 2009 season starts if he plans on contending for the division. I'd like to see what others think, including whether or not you think that they would consider jumping Laporta up to the bigs early in 2009 or even giving him a shot to win a spot coming out of spring training. Also, what do you think about Gutierrez, Choo, and Francisco, do any of these guys stick going into next season?