Change-UpNovember 15, 2007
Know Your Free Agents: Centerfielders are plentiful, value plays not so much
By Patrick Sullivan

Teams are faced with some tough choices as they relate to centerfield this off-season. The name-brand players are there for the taking, but only at steep prices. Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand and Mike Cameron are all free agents, and all have track records as solid (even in down years) contributors for contending teams.

Time ticks, however, and given the defensive demands of the position, one would have to think long and hard about just how prudent it would be to take on any one of these players. Each is on the wrong side of 30. They all figure to regress defensively. And even if they all continue to notch strong offensive seasons, a move out of centerfield to one of the corner outfield spots or, say, first base would sap a great deal of their value.

There is another option who is most definitely on the market, but the trade market and not the free agent one. Let's see how he stacks up. We will start with three-year splits, and incorporate three-year averages for Win Shares and WARP3. Then you will see presented 2007 figures.

         AGE  AVG   OBP   SLG  WS WARP3
Hunter   32  .279  .335  .487  18  6.3 
Jones    31  .249  .341  .507  21  5.1
Rowand   30  .283  .344  .453  17  6.4
Cameron  35  .259  .342  .461  21  6.0 
Non-FA   28  .279  .332  .415  16  6.7
          AVG   OBP   SLG OPS+ WS WARP1
Hunter   .287  .334  .505 122  24  5.5 
Jones    .222  .311  .413 88   16  4.6
Rowand   .309  .374  .515 123  23  7.8
Cameron  .242  .328  .431 103  22  5.1 
Non-FA   .268  .330  .382 83   16  6.0

The non-FA, as many of you might have guessed, is Coco Crisp. He had an off-the-charts defensive year and though he has been more or less anemic at the plate for two seasons running now, he came to the Red Sox after the 2005 season as a solid offensive option for a center fielder.

Teams in the center field market have some nice options to consider in the free agent market. Torii Hunter and Aaron Rowand figure to continue to be solid players for a few more years. I fully expect a couple of bounce-back years from Andruw Jones. Mike Cameron, at 35, looks like more of a risk. The problem is that all of these guys would like long-term deals, and every one of them figures to decline. Anyone remember the end of Bernie Williams's run in center field for the Yanks? Even if you hover around an .800 OPS, if you can't field you are not of much use.

All of this makes Crisp an attractive option. He is owed $4.75 million in 2008 and $5.75 million in 2009. With the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury for Boston, Crisp is nothing if not expendable. For Boston's part, if the market is not as heated as they would like for Crisp's services, trading Ellsbury as part of a package for, say, Johan Santana or Miguel Cabrera should be considered an option. Crisp figures to be anywhere from useful to excellent for the two seasons he is under contract.

For teams capable of taking on the financial burden of a player they know will decline, this year's centerfield free agent crop offers a number of players who figure to offer nice return for the first couple of years of their contracts. For teams with shallower pockets, the trade market and more specifically, a good look at Boston's Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury will offer a better alternative.


The Sox are not going to trade Ellsbury. He's young, dynamic, inexpensive and they own him for years. Furthermore, they are not going to trade their top young players for guys entering their FA periods in the near term future. The Sox have won 2 WS in the past 4 years. The pressure to win is off of them and they are taking a much more practical and long term look to the future. Plus, they are going to free up close to $70 million in payroll obligations by the end of 2008 from where they started in the beginning in 2007.

Dont forget that Elijah Dukes can be had for the low, low price of $4.99 (also known as a decent pitching prospect).

While he was a below-average center fielder defensively, he can play the position and has decent speed to make up for his lack of defensive instincts, and plenty of power in his swing to make up for his lack of social instincts.

It seems to me that Andruw Jones is being severely disrespected by all analysts this offseason. Yes, he had an extremely pitiful year offensively, but he was still the best outfielder in baseball, or at least the national league. Reports of his *decline* defensively were wildly exaggerated this summer, and all advanced fielding stats back that up. People also seem to forget that this is a man who has hit 300 home runs, and hit 50+ and 40+ in the last 3 years.

This is the best defensive center fielder in the game, a top 3 offensive center fielder in the game, and a hall of famer. Had he hit 40 bombs this year, people would be talking about a monster contract. Whoever signs Andruw will be rewarded with the back end of a fabulous HOF career. Andruw also lost 15 lbs before last season, a sign that he can and will stay agile in the field. He is no Carlos Lee, he will not break down by 2009.

Not that I don't think Andruw could be a good FA pickup, but "a top 3 offensive centerfielder," and "he was still the best outfielder in baseball, or at least the national league"? Uhm, "John" is really a cover name for Scott Boras, isn't it?

Whether Andruw Jones is or isn't a Hall of Famer has ZERO bearing on whether a team should make a huge commitment and sign him to a 5-yr, $75M (or so) contract. He had an xlnt year defensively and a terrible year offensively for, at best, a mediocre overall season.

The only thing that matters at this point is how he will perform in the future. He was paid handsomely for his past performance. Besides, that's yesterday's news.

Given the season he just had coupled with his age, why would a team gamble those kinds of dollars on the hope that he will bounce back? I would not be surprised if AJ is forced into accepting the type of contract Ivan Rodriguez signed with the Marlins back in 2003. Rather than $10M for one year (like I-Rod), maybe a team coughs up $12-13M for Jones and takes a chance for a year, but I see no reason why a club would pay up for him in terms of dollars AND years at this point.

I agree Rich, it is the committment and the fact that Jones is going to be aging later into his thirties throughout the life of his contract.

By the way, there is a difference in talent between the NL and AL right? So do teams take this into account? I mean Andruw Jones should be better this season, but if he moves to the AL against tougher competition his numbers will probably never get back to where they were in the NL. This would work for Rowand too I would think. Opinions?

I realize that past performance is not super relevant, Rich, but Andruw is not past his prime, like he is being made out to be. He will win the gold glove, and deserve it, for at least the next 5 years, and he will hit 35+ home runs for the next 8. The best defensive outfielder of our time, a .900+ OPS and 40 HRs year in and year out, yeah, I sure wouldn't "gamble" on him.

And if you or anyone else thinks he will hit to the tune of a .700 OPS again, I simply feel bad for you. There is no reasn to believe that he won't fully bounce back next year. Andruw Jones 2008 season: .260/.345/.565. Plus the fact that he covers the most ground in the outfield. He simply makes more plays than anyone else. Im sick of you people disrespecting Andruw Jones.

Nobody is asserting that 2007 was indicative of Andruw's real ability. All folks here are acknowledging is the risk associated with signing Jones.

He is not the fielder he once was, is coming off of a disaster offensive season and is on the wrong side of 30.

That's a considerable bear case for a centerfielder, which is not to say that the bull case is non-existent or even less compelling.

Claiming he's "not the fielder he once was" is like saying "Mariano Rivera isn't the closer he once was". Sure, he's not putting up defensive seasons that rank amongst the top 10 of all-time like he was a few years back. But he's still top 5 defensively in the league (better than that, according to some metrics), and his offense is well above-average for a CF.

On the other hand, this is about the worst year ever to be a big-name CF; there's just so many options out there that the market price is being driven down. It's the same thing for trading Crisp; the market just isn't as robust as it would have been last year or (likely) will be next year.

As for Jones, I wouldn't be wild about giving him a 5-year deal, but suggesting the best offers he'll get are one-year commitments for $12-13M is absurd, IMO. Don't get me wrong, Jones may opt for that route, figuring a bounce-back year at the plate gets him a much bigger payday in the 2008 off-season. But there will be multi-year deals out there for him for at least 3-4 years at 10-15M per year. He's definitely worth a 4/50 risk even if you think 5/75 is too rich.

Personally, I'm thinking more and more that it makes sense for Jones to just take a one-year deal with the Braves for the 12-13M Rich suggested (maybe after an arbitration hearing) and hope for a bounce-back year. If he puts up .260/35 next year (like I think he will), well, he'll almost certainly get paid then. :-)