Detroit Tigers: Which Free Agent Outfielder is the Best Fit?

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A lot has happened for the Detroit Tigers this offseason. General manager Al Avila has overhauled the bullpen in a cost-efficient and effective manner in addition to signing starters Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey to fill out the rotation. Avila also brought in Cameron Maybin and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to provide quality and depth in center field and behind the plate. What’s missing, you’ll notice, is the addition of a true left fielder.

A lot has also happened across the baseball landscape this offseason. General managers have made bold moves, signing the likes of Zack Greinke and David Price to massive contracts while also bolstering areas of depth by dealing for established closers. With the exception of Jason Heyward (who probably wasn’t a good fit from a contract standpoint in Detroit anyways) and Ben Zobrist, position players have generally been left unsigned. The likes of Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy remain without contracts for the time being. What’s missing, you’ll notice, is the lack of deals for the likes of Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Denard Span or Dexter Fowler.

Put it this way, the Tigers could use a left fielder, and there are plenty available.

In a recent story in the Detroit Free Press, Avila was asked if the team, “had ruled out going after Cespedes or Gordon.” The general manager replied, “At this point, yes.”

The key wording there is “At this point.” The Tigers obviously weren’t in on either player at the time the article was written, but times change. So to do player’s markets.

Sometimes a player’s market will unexpectedly dry out, and the free agent will be stuck without a dance partner. This leads to deals that are signed relatively late in the offseason. It’s how the Milwaukee Brewers signed Matt Garza and its part of the reason Detroit ended up with Prince Fielder.

A number of the offseason’s most-discussed names have changed teams. Price, Greinke, Hayward and Shelby Miller will all suit up for different ball clubs for the 2016 season. Yet here we sit with Christmas only days away and players like Gordon, Cespedes, Upton, Span and Fowler still don’t know where they’ll be playing baseball next season.

Could the Tigers pounce? The Detroit Free Press’ Anthony Fenech tweeted that “Agents have heard things about Alex Gordon, but nothing about Yoenis Cespedes. Some think the Tigers are still lurking.”

It’s completely speculative, but it would seem that the longer the top outfielders stay on the market, the more the Tigers would be interested. Avila said the team wasn’t in on Gordon or Cespedes “At this point,” however things could change. Signing any of the five free agent outfielders would significantly improve Detroit’s chances next season. What’s more, the team would probably shoot right up to World Series contender with the addition of Gordon or Cespedes.

Aug 23, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler (24) runs the bases after hitting a home run during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

That being said, here’s a look at which free agent outfielders are the best fits for the Tigers.

5. The Speedster: Dexter Fowler 

Dexter Fowler’s speed/power combination is intriguing. The outfielder has averaged 16 stolen bases and nine triples per season since becoming a full-time regular with the Rockies at the start of the 2009 season. While that speed would add yet another dimension to a Tigers roster that has a number of base-running threats. The outfielder also slugged 17 home runs in 2015. However, that’s where the factors that make Fowler a fit end. There are a number of reasons make him a poor fit for Detroit.

One is his batting average. Fowler only managed a .250 batting average last season, in addition to a career-worst .346 on-base percentage. In addition to the bat issues, the former Colorado player doesn’t play any position other than center field. The only other positon he’s played in the bigs is right field. Fowler has one more inning of experience in right field at the major league level than you do.

MLBTradeRumors.com predicts a four-year, $60 million deal for Fowler. In other words, he’d just be a more expensive version of Cameron Maybin.

4. The Over-Priced Hitter: Justin Upton

Upton would be last on this list if not for the fact that Fowler’s skill set is so similar to the likes of Maybin and Anthony Gose.

Upton outfielder is a fit for the Tigers in the same way that Prince Fielder would have been long-term in Motown—he isn’t. Sure, you could shoe horn his bat into the lineup, but there would be long-term issues. The outfielder may be younger than the likes of Gordon or Cespedes, but should he sign for anything close to what MLBTR forecasts for him (seven years, $147 million), it will be an issue.

Unlike players like Gordon and Heyward, Upton doesn’t come with an outstanding defensive skillset that will provide him value should his offensive output falter.

So, can Upton’s offense carry him through such a massive contract?

Probably not.

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While it would be interesting to see the corner outfield hit in a lineup with Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez, the fact remains that Upton’s offense hasn’t warranted such a contract.

Upton has only eclipsed the 30 home-run plateau once. Same goes for the 100 RBI mark. Interestingly enough, his 30-homer season came in a different one than his 100-RBI campaign.

Want more stats? Ok, you’ve got them. The former first-overall pick hasn’t posted an OPS anywhere near .900 since the 2011 season. In fact, his OPS has only come close to .900 twice. Those two occurrences happened in 2011 (.898) and 2009 (.899). Outside of those two seasons, Upton has never posted an OPS higher than .900 or even above the .835 mark.

Last season, Upton posted a .790 OPS. Both Logan Forsythe and Yunel Escobar had higher OPS numbers.

If you like overpaying and the combination of the words “contractual” and “albatross,” then a Justin Upton deal is for you. In other words, the Tigers shouldn’t even be considering him.

3. The Former Twin: Denard Span

Signing Denard Span would continue two trends for Detroit. Not only would he become the second ex-National to join the team this offseason, but he would also join a long list of former Twins players to end up in Motown.

You can read more about why the Tigers should sign Span from Motor City Bengals here. I’ll leave you with a small stat on Span. The outfielder has logged 157 plate appearances at Comerica Park. He’s a .355 hitter in those plate appearances.

Not bad.

2. The Rival: Alex Gordon

Oct 31, 2015; New York City, NY, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon breaks his bat in the second inning against the New York Mets in game four of the World Series at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Like Denard Span, MCB has made the case for signing Gordon. If you feel so inclined, that article (with more in-depth analysis) can be found here.

Gordon has excellent on-base skills and would provide a dependable, complimentary bat to the likes of Cabrera and the two Martinez hitters. The ex-Royal’s real selling point is his defense. Gordon’s elite defense is eerily similar to Ichiro Suzuki’s when the Mariner great was in his prime. Ichiro’s defense was sustainable into his mid and late 30’s—the same years that Gordon’s next contract will likely cover. The two aren’t the same person, but it’s encouraging to see that elite defense doesn’t fade.

1. The Old Friend: Yoenis Cespedes

Yoenis Cespedes was a massive hit during his brief stay with the Tigers. The left fielder hit .293 in only 102 games in the Old English “D.” During those 102 games he mashed 18 home runs and 28 doubles, in addition to driving in 61 runs. His defensive play in left field earned him an AL Gold Glove despite being dealt at the trade deadline.

You could make the case for either Gordon or Cespedes being the best fit, but not only is Cespedes a significantly better hitter, he’s also a year younger. Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press also wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit re-signed the team’s former left fielder. 

Every Tiger fan knows just how formidable a Detroit lineup featuring Cespedes can be. He also earns the top spot on this list because of what he can bring offensively. Even more so than Gordon, the signing of Cespedes would vault the Tigers back into World Series contention.

Next: Why the Detroit Tigers Could Trade Jose Iglesias

And if the pitching can get it together, maybe they can be the favorites.

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