As a follower of a small market Major League Baseball team, payroll restrictions can be a fact of life, and that may not have ever been more apparent than it was for fans of the 2021 Cleveland Indians. While the team’s player salaries have been limited now for decades, the situation seems to come to a head in the past season as Cleveland found itself with the lowest payroll in the entire league.
With matters such as these, it is rare that there is only one cause, and such was the case here. Naturally, a shortened and fan-less 2020 season was bound to cause cash flow problems for the ballclub, particularly when the ownership group does not have a source of revenue outside of the team. Such is the case in Cleveland, but hardly for any other teams, so while undue financial stress may be unacceptable, it can be understandable. Add this to the alleged over-extension of finances that the team claims to have pursued in previous years of competing, as well as a decision to not return the team’s most prominent player to the roster (a decision that looks like they avoided an overpay in retrospect) and you find yourself in the situation that the 2021 Indians were in.
This explanation provides little solace to fans that saw their playoff-bound 2020 team lose arguably their best player and make a sudden decline below the .500 mark for the first time since 2012. It feels in some ways that a team that was ready to continue to compete was robbed of that opportunity due to their financial straits. This certainly can be the truth, but there can also be more to the truth. Namely, while the Indians did lose talent and potentially wins due to their lack of spending in 2021, they may have gained something else.
That something else was the ability to identify which of their own young players has a future contributing to the Major League club. 2021 was an opportunity for players like Emmanuel Clase, Cal Quantrill and Myles Straw to join and solidify themselves as now-Cleveland Guardians. On top of that, this was an opportunity to discover which positions on the team may not be resolved by an influx of young talent already in the organization.
Most notably, the corner outfielders left something to be desired in 2021. For instance, 2021 outfield main-stay Harold Ramirez did not make it through the 40-man roster crunch, having been designated for assignment and then traded to the Cubs this week. Additionally, Bradley Zimmer and Oscar Mercado may be strong with the glove but have large questions in terms of their consistency at the plate. With Zimmer and Mercado now being the returning options that manager Terry Francona will have in terms of corner outfielders that have Major League experience, it stands to reason that the Guardians would look outward this winter to fill this void.
And they certainly have the ability. The other relative positive that comes from the self-imposed payroll restrictions that the team faced in 2021 is that they now have an incredible amount of financial flexibility this winter. The only player on a veteran contract at this time is star third baseman Jose Ramirez. The remaining 39 spots on the 40-man roster are occupied by players either in their arbitration or pre-arbitration years. Obviously, some of those players are here to stay, but still, with all these players being cost-controlled, it opens up a lot of possibilities.
Who may be among those possibilities on the free-agent market? Well, there is a full bevy of outfielders that are available this winter. On that list is Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, Mark Canha, Avisail Garcia, Michael Conforto, Kole Calhoun, Tommy Pham, Andrew McCutchen, Corey Dickerson, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler.
I know that’s quite the list of names to keep track of, in fact, it’s 11 in total, so allow me to break them down and ultimately rank them in terms of how their prospective new contract with the Guardians could bring value to the team in 2022. We are looking for corner outfielders that can be added to free agency, but it is important to remember that even with increased payroll flexibility, the Guardians only have so many chances to get this right. They must add value with any multi-year free-agent commitment that they make because they only have so many opportunities to do so. Payroll is a finite resource. It is just as important to avoid an albatross of a contract that could wreck the team’s ability to retool as it is to hit on a successful player. Anyway, let’s begin…
Out of their price range?
While Castellanos and Schwarber both have been strong offensive players in recent years and could certainly help the Guardians with their presence in the lineup, the team is likely priced out of being able to bring them in. Both players stand to have multi-year deals with Average Annual Values above $15 million. This doesn’t take them completely out of the question, but I would rate them both as plausible as opposed to likely.
Castellanos has really ascended to being one of the better hitting outfielders in the entirety of baseball in the last three years. He had a career year at 29 years old last season with a .309/.362/.576 slash-line and career-high 34 homers for the Cincinnati Reds. Still, the price may be a little too steep and the risk may be a little too high when he is expected to warrant five years and over $100 million on the open market.
Schwarber also has a reputation as a professional hitter throughout his career and is coming off of a one-year “prove it” deal that he signed in 2021 with Washington before being traded to Boston at the deadline. He indeed proved it in 2021, posting the best slash line of his career (.266/.374/.554) and likely setting himself up for a larger, multi-year payday. Due to the length of commitment involved (possibly four or five years), it is likely to throw the Guardians off the scent of Schwarber, who due to his body type, may not age incredibly gracefully either.
The “Expert’s” Favorite
Many, including multiple writers at MLB Trade Rumors, believe that Mark Canha is a prime candidate to join the Guardians in 2022. He can play either corner outfield position and is very good at getting on base, which would be a godsend to an offense that finished 27th in OBP in 2021. He also scored a career-high 93 times in 2021 and swiped double-digit bases for the first time in his career, an added benefit to a Guardians ballclub that began to reemphasize smart base-running in the second half of 2021. However, Canha is currently 33 years old, and spending free agent money on players getting into their mid-thirties can be a questionable practice, particularly for a team that can’t afford to make free agent mistakes due to tight resources (think Nick Swisher). He seems to be on a steady decline from his peak in 2018. The experts may love him, but it will have to be the right deal, particularly in length, to bring Canha to Progressive Field.
Other Guys Who Maybe Be On the Decline
Kole Calhoun, Andrew McCutchen and Corey Dickerson are other players on the list that are a lot less appealing due to where they land in their thirties. Calhoun in particular could have been an interesting candidate as a strong glove and a player that had really come around as a power hitter in the last few seasons of his career. He hit a career-high in home runs in his last full season of 2019 and had a career-best OPS+ in the shortened 2020 season, but he will turn 34 in 2022 and spent more than 2/3 of 2021 on the Injured List with recurring hamstring problems. He likely isn’t worth the risk.
McCutchen has been a great ballplayer in his time in the majors, but suffered the worst offensive season of his career in 2021 and has gradually become more of a liability in the outfield with time. 2021 was his first full season since 2018 but was also home to the worst OBP of his career despite being one of his best seasons in terms of walks. This seems contradictory but is explained by the fact 2021 was home to McCutchen’s 2nd worst Average Exit Velocity and Hard Hit Rate of his career. McCutchen was resorting to walks more because at 35 years old, his hit tool is diminishing.
Lastly, Dickerson has seen his power diminish over the past three seasons, though he remains about a league-average hitter in the aggregate albeit in limited playing time. As a left-handed hitter, he could serve as a platoon bat option if other opportunities on the market don’t come to fruition. He has hit .288 with a wRC+ of 114 vs. right-handed pitching since the beginning of 2019 while only batting .241 with a wRC+ of 82 vs. lefties. The Guardians probably wouldn’t embarrass themselves by adding Dickerson, but it likely wouldn’t be the first name they would want to pursue if they can find a more complete player at the plate instead.
The Potential Multi-Year Steal
Conforto is a really interesting candidate in that he has a reputation as a strong offensive player, but he is coming off of a down year. His OPS of .729 was the 2nd worst of his career, dating back to his rookie year of 2015. In contrast, he has a strong career wRC+ of 124. It’s likely that he will either take a one-year deal to prove himself and get back on the market for 2023, much like Schwarber did this past year, or will have to settle for a lesser multi-year deal. At just 28 years old, Conforto would be a great add on a slimmed-down multi-year contract, the trick will be convincing him to take it. It seems more likely he bets on himself again for next winter. On a one-year contract, he becomes more of a stop-gap for the Guardians and that may not be in the overall best interests of the ballclub.
More Hype Than Help
Pederson is likely a bit more of a widely known name than some of the other candidates we have talked about just because he has played most of his career with the big-market Dodgers followed by making another World Series appearance for the Braves this past season. Unfortunately, he appears to have peaked as an offensive player in 2018 and 2019 and has actually not put together even an average offensive campaign in either of the last two seasons. Always strikeout prone, his K-rate spiked in 2020 and 2021 and in the past year he failed to amass 20 homers for only the 2nd full season of his career. Dickerson is a similarly skilled hitter from the left side of the plate that has aged more gracefully into his 30s than Pederson has into his late 20s. I’d take Dickerson, even with his lack of name recognition, as a backup plan over Pederson in a heartbeat. There are very few players on this list that I would entirely stay away from, but Pederson might be the one.
My Top Three
Guardians fans may remember Garcia from his time with the Tigers and White Sox from 2012 to 2018. He has some familiarity with the division from that time. He slashed .262/.330/.490 with a career-high 29 home runs in 2021 for the Milwaukee Brewers, largely playing right-field and batting clean-up for the team that took the National League Central crown. He will be 31 in 2022 and stands to be a solid option. Two of his last three seasons have seen him achieve a wRC+ of 113 or higher (the other season being the shortened 2020 campaign) and he has become an improved fielder over time in right. Garcia had previously signed a 2 year, $20 million deal with Milwaukee and I suspect that being two years older will cancel out any increased premium that his production might have afforded him in his new contract. It would not surprise me to see his market value be similar if not just slightly inflated and that tempered market value along with solid production makes him a strong fit for a smaller market team looking to compete. He made sense for a similar team like Milwaukee in 2020 and now could make sense for Cleveland as well.
Pham is an interesting candidate as an underrated ballplayer that has succeeded when healthy and when playing time has been in his favor. As a Major Leaguer, the right-handed hitter has only had one season where he was below-average at the plate (based on wRC+) and that season was the shortened 2020. He will be 34 in 2022 but I have not lumped him in with Calhoun, McCutchen and Dickerson because of his Barrel Rate (10%) and because his expected statistics in 2021 were so strong. Those who will look at his .229 batting average will be misled. Pham slugged .381 in 2021, but based on his quality of contact should have slugged .442. In short, he was supremely unlucky to the tune of more than 60 slugging percentage points but still managed to be a slightly above league average hitter in 2021 despite his misfortune. If the Guardians are going to get value from their signing(s), they are going to have to do it by picking players that have evidence that they can outperform their past production. Given Pham’s Statcast data (Barrel Rate and Expected Stats), he hits that bill. A one-year deal might be in order for the 34-year old and while I shied away from one of these with Conforto, the payoff with Pham might be strong enough because his potential value will be greater than what most teams perceive. The price likely has to be right with Pham (no more than 1 year, $14 million, I would say), but I think he is a strong candidate for the Guardians to pursue.
This brings us to our final candidate, reigning World Series MVP Jorge Soler. Soler made a name for himself around the baseball world just last month when he smashed three World Series home runs, all of a variety that caused a lead change in their respective games. One might question whether this notoriety will cause someone to pay a premium for Soler, but I do not believe this to be the case in part because he is an admittedly flawed ballplayer. Soler is not particularly good in the field, in fact, he is bad enough that it’s worth mentioning here despite the fact that my general focus has been on offense because that’s where the Guardians drastically need to improve.
Still, Soler is a former American League home run champion from when he led the AL in homers for the Royals in 2018. He, much like Garcia, has a history in the AL Central has played for Kansas City for four and a half seasons. Another strong hitter throughout his career, only once has he played over 100 games and not had a wRC+ above 100. More specifically, he is also yet another candidate with a strong Barrel Rate. His 13% rate for his career is nearly double the league average and his expected statistics in 2021 are much higher than his actual stats. All of this hard contact has led him to hit more home runs than any other player we have considered. Similar to Pham, he continued hitting the ball hard throughout 2021, but luck wasn’t on his side. If Soler just keeps putting the ball in play in the manner that he always has, the odds say he will put up even better numbers in 2022 than he did in 2021. And truthfully, how often Soler puts the ball in play at all has changed for the better as well. While Soler has a reputation as being strikeout-prone, that may be changing. The powerful righty hit .189 with a 29% K-rate in 2021 before MLB started to enforce the foreign substance ban on pitchers. Following the rule’s enforcement, he hit .251 with a K-rate of just below 20%. Soler was supremely better at putting bat to ball under the new rules and it seems that we can expect that to continue.
He would serve as an excellent raw power threat to hit before or after Franmil Reyes and to extend the Guardians lineup. With rangy players like Straw and either Mercado or Zimmer manning the other two outfield roles, perhaps Soler (or Reyes if Soler plays DH) could be relatively hidden in the outfield. At just 30, a three year, $40 million deal may be a little more pricey than Garcia and more lengthy than Pham, but I believe it could be worth the investment due to the immediate thump he would provide to the middle of the Guardians order in a very similar way to what Edwin Encarnacion contributed while he was with the ballclub. All in all, there are a lot of strong candidates and the Guardians could make many good decisions, but I think Soler is the smartest decision they could make.
With all the candidates considered, he is a final look at my prospective free agent outfielder power rankings for the Guardians, along with suggested contract terms that they could pursue.
- Jorge Soler (three years, $40 million- likely if they make offer)
- Avisail Garcia (two years, $24 million- likely if they make offer)
- Tommy Pham (one year, $14 million- likely if they make offer)
- Michael Conforto (three years, $50 million- Conforto would probably decline)
- Mark Canha (two years, $25 million- likely if they make offer)
- Corey Dickerson (one year, $9 million- likely if they make offer)
- Nick Castellanos (four years, $90 million- plausible offer, will probably get outbid)
- Kyle Schwarber (three years, $60 million- plausible offer, will probably get outbid)
- Andrew McCutchen (one year, $6 million- probably don’t even make offer, will probably get outbid)
- Kole Calhoun (one year, $4.5 million- plausible offer, if the Guardians get desperate)
- Joc Pederson (not sure I would even provide an offer outside of a minor league contract)