Finding a right-handed hitting outfielder – one that could platoon with Andy Dirks in left field – wasn’t a top priority for the Detroit Tigers this offseason, but it’s been something they’ve been talking about since the World Series Ended. But, according to MLB Trade Rumor’s Free Agent Tracker, only nine right-handed hitting outfielders remain available, and three of them (Jeff Baker, Ryan Raburn, and Delmon Young) would be recycled options.
It’s not a terribly large group so I decided to compile the names and objectively compare their relative worth. To do this I took three-year batting trends (wRAA splits versus left-handed pitchers only), career UZR in the corner outfield spots, and career base running ability (all as reported by FanGraphs). All stats were normalized to approximate value per 50 games played. (The standard positional and replacement level adjustments come from Wahoo’s On First’s Simple WAR Calculator.) If we add up all these components, we’re left with an expected WAR value.
This simple method in no way has enough accuracy to tell us that Baker would actually produce 0.9 wins or that Hairston would be worth 0.6 wins. But what it does tell us is that we would expect every one of these players to end the season between zero and one WAR if they played roughly 50 games in a strict platoon.
*Mark DeRosa had by far the fewest plate appearances of this group in the last three years, and he has relatively few career innings in the outfield, so his numbers in particular should be taken with lots of salt grains.
There are certainly better ways to project all of these numbers statistically, but you’d likely be splitting the smallest of hairs by doing so and end up with pretty much the same range of values. It’s surprising to see that there would be virtually no difference – from a total value standpoint – between Scott Hairston and Delmon Young (for example). It’s also interesting to note that the single name with average or better numbers for hitting, fielding, and base running is Raburn.
Scott Hairston, this year’s platoon bat golden boy, had a great year at the plate last season, but he’s been less productive against lefty pitchers over the last three years that Ryan Raburn has been, despite Raburn’s horribly horrific year. Sometimes one-year trends mean something, but sometimes they mean nothing.
The question here is how much stock should the Tigers put into last year’s numbers? Hairston and Young were the only hitters in the above group to post an .800 OPS versus lefties, and only Rivera was the only other hitter to crack the .700 OPS (vs. LHP) threshold. But we’re talking above fewer than 200 plate appearances in all cases and, except for Hairston and Young, fewer than 140 appearances. That seems like a lot, most of them still had over 100, but that’s really nothing in the game of baseball. It’s just a drop in the bucket.
Austin Kearns probably doesn’t hit lefties well enough to be considered and Ben Francisco probably isn’t good enough overall, but everyone else could be decent enough options.
If you’re willing to sacrifice defense for a plus bat then Delmon Young is the player to go with. If you’re hoping for the best defensive option with some versatility in the field then maybe look at Darnell McDonald. If you want a boom-or-bust guy that could also serve as the fan base’s whipping boy then look no further then Ryan Raburn. If you want an all-around solid option without the highs and lows then Juan Rivera and Scott Hairston would be good choices.
Really, though, the deciding factor between any of these players – should the Tigers go the free agent route – would be contract length and value. They quite obviously want a guy on a one-year deal (which has apparently ruled out Hairston), and I’m sure they don’t want to stretch the payroll to land a part-time player. Many of these guys could be had for one-year and a million or two, but it’s possible the Tigers could get a guy like McDonald or Raburn with just a minor league deal and a spring training invite.