The Lost Offseason: Free Agency (Outfield)

Last time, we looked at what type of budget Chris Antonetti would have last winter, and estimated it at $16-18M, which would include both free agent signings and contracts taken on in trades.

Very early into the offseason, the Indians took on $5M of Derek Lowe's 2012 contract (which will be covered in a future installment). So that left $11-13M to cover at least one outfielder and a first baseman. That wasn't very much of a budget, especially since the Indians really needed at least two players: an everyday first baseman, and an everyday center or left fielder (Brantley would take the other position).

As mentioned in a previous segment, the Indians did have Shelley Duncan on the roster, and although he would probably be exposed as an everyday player, he did have some value as a part-time player. Duncan's projected WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for 2012 was projected at 1.3, which in Fangraphs' scale meant that he projected as a Role Player. The Indians would need to shoot for a player better than Duncan, and land him for $5M-6M, leaving room for a first base signing.

I combed through last year's available outfield free agents, and here's the free agent outfielders that projected at 1.0 WAR or greater:

(all WAR data via Fangraphs)

Player Position Bats Average 3-Year WAR Projected WAR 2012 Age
Carlos Beltran RF/CF Both 2.8 3.7 34
David DeJesus RF/CF Left 2.8 3.2 31
Coco Crisp CF Both 2.3 2.9 31
Josh Willingham LF Right 2.6 2.7 33
Michael Cuddyer RF/1B Right 2.2 2.6 33
Grady Sizemore CF Left 0.6 1.9 29
Jason Kubel RF/LF Left 1.2 1.8 29
Yoenis Cespdes CF Right n/a n/a 26
Norichika Aoki RF Left n/a n/a 28
Cody Ross OF Right 1.7 1.5 30
Andruw Jones LF/RF Right 1.2 1.5 35
Kosuke Fukudome OF Left 1.3 1.1 35
Luke Scott LF Left 1.3 1.0 34
Ryan Ludwick LF Right 1.6 1.0 33

Quick WAR Chart (Fangraphs)

6.0+ MVP

5.0-5.9 Superstar

4.0-4.9 All-Star

3.0-3.9 Good Player

2.0-2.9 Solid Starter

1.0-1.9 Role Player

<1.0 Scrub Level

I also included two available players with no previous MLB experience: Yoenis Cespdes, who had recently defected from Cuba and was an unrestricted free agent, and Norichika Aoki, who had been posted by his NPB team that winter; the Indians would have bid on him via a blind bidding system, and if they had won the bidding, would have exclusive negotiating rights.The Indians did seem to have some interest in Cespedes, but not in Aoki (or at least none that leaked out to the media).

Not included in this list were a couple players the Indians eventually signed to minor-league contracts: Ryan Spilborghs and Felix Pie. Neither would appear with the Indians in 2012, and neither would be in the organization by the end of the season.

There were five outfielders who projected to be in the Solid Starter or above range: Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, Josh Willingham, and Michael Cuddyer. The Indians would show major interest in Beltran, Willingham, and Cuddyer, mainly because they were looking specifically for an outfielder who not only could hit for power, but break up the left-handers presently in the middle of the order.

But before any one of those outfielders signed with a club, the Indians re-signed Grady Sizemore, who had been out on the market for several weeks, to a one-year contract with incentives. The deal would pay Sizemore a base salary of $5M for 2012, as well as up to $4M in incentives. That shrunk the expected spending budget down to about $6-8M, but rather than drop the pursuit of Beltran et al for a first baseman, they continued to be mentioned as contenders for most of the top outfield free agents.

Beltran was probably never going to sign with the Indians, both due to money and (according to Chris Perez) fanbase concerns. Michael Cuddyer would sign with the Rockies, and it seemed that the Indians fell out of contention quickly on him. Probably the player the Indians were closest to signing was Josh Willingham; the price tag seemed in their ballpark, but he'd instead sign with the Twins for 3/$21M.

So the Indians would instead trade for Aaron Cunningham and be content to go to Spring Training with an outfield of Brantley-Sizemore-Choo, assume that Sizemore could stay healthy, sign a bunch of minor-league free agents, and try to patch together something in March.

So who ended up getting the best deal of the bunch? Here's the above chart with some 2012 actuals:

Player Ultimate Destination 2012 Salary Years Signing Date 2012 WAR $/WAR
Carlos Beltran St. Louis $ 13,000,000.00 2 12/23/2011 2.9 $ 4,482,758.62
David DeJesus Chicago (NL) $ 4,250,000.00 2+TO 11/30/2011 1.7 $ 2,500,000.00
Coco Crisp Oakland $ 6,000,000.00 2+TO 1/5/2012 2.4 $ 2,500,000.00
Josh Willingham Minnesota $ 7,000,000.00 3 12/15/2011 3.9 $ 1,794,871.79
Michael Cuddyer Colorado $ 10,500,000.00 3 12/16/2011 1.2 $ 8,750,000.00
Grady Sizemore Cleveland $ 5,000,000.00 1 11/23/2011 0 #DIV/0!
Jason Kubel Arizona $ 7,500,000.00 2+MO 12/19/2011 2.1 $ 3,571,428.57
Yoenis Cespdes Oakland $ 6,500,000.00 4 2/23/2012 1.7 $ 3,823,529.41
Norichika Aoki Milwaukee $ 1,000,000.00 2+TO 1/17/2012 1.9 $ 526,315.79
Cody Ross Boston $ 3,000,000.00 1 1/23/2012 2.5 $ 1,200,000.00
Andruw Jones New York (AL) $ 2,000,000.00 1 12/31/2011 0.6 $ 3,333,333.33
Kosuke Fukudome Chicago (AL) $ 1,000,000.00 1 2/14/2012 -0.1 $ (10,000,000.00)
Luke Scott Tampa Bay $ 6,000,000.00 1+TO 1/12/2012 -0.1 $ (60,000,000.00)
Ryan Ludwick Cincinnati $ 2,500,000.00 1 2/8/2012 2.5 $ 1,000,000.00

Keep in mind that WAR includes both offensive and defensive value, so although Willingham has been one of the better offensive players in the AL this season, he's also been among the worst defensive outfielders.

The Twins got the best player in Willingham (3.9 WAR) as well as decent $/WAR, but the Brewers got the best bang for their buck for Aoki*, who has hit well (108 OPS+) in addition to playing good defense. The Red Sox (Ross) and Reds (Ludwick) also made out very well. The Indians, of course, will get 0 WAR from Sizemore this season, and will likewise get zero return on the $5M.

*Note: this does not include the $2.5M posting fee the Brewers paid to Aoki's former NPB team.

Of the left fielders who did play for the Indians this season, here's what they did:

Player Position Bats 2012 Salary 2012 WAR $/WAR
Shelley Duncan LF Right $ 500,000.00 -0.1 $ (5,000,000.00)
Johnny Damon LF Left $ 1,250,000.00 0 #DIV/0!
Ezequiel Carrera LF Left $ 480,000.00 -0.1 $ (4,800,000.00)
Aaron Cunningham LF Right $ 482,300.00 -0.5 $ (964,600.00)
Totals $ 2,712,300.00 -0.7

So not only did the Indians give up the 3.9 wins by not signing Willingham, they couldn't even manage to get replacement value out of their left fielders, spending roughly $2.2M (plus the split contract salary given Carrera) for that less-than-replacement value.

That the Indians didn't give Willingham that extra year (as has been rumored) is not the major cause of the Tribe's disastrous season, as they will finish the season much more than 4 wins out of the playoffs. But this was a major hole on the roster, and it was one of the areas in which Antonetti could have improved the team even given the team's financial constraints. If Grady Sizemore had been healthy, then there's a good chance the Indians come out ok in left, but everyone knew the risks associated with him; that's why Antonetti was pursuing Willingham and Beltran even after Sizemore re-signed.

Next up: Free Agency (First Base)

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