MLB Free Agency has officially begun, and without a top-ranked farm system in place, it’s likely that our Milwaukee Brewers will have to survey the open market if they want to make any truly impactful additions this offseason. The Brewers treated us to their best season in a generation in 2018 and have quite an array of talent under control for next year, but there are still a few spots around the diamond where the team could use an upgrade or additional depth. With close to a projected $110 mil on the books already for 2019, Slingin’ David Stearns and company may have to get creative in their dealings this winter.
In the coming days we’ll be surveying the free agent market to get an idea of who the strongest available players are and at what positions. Earlier this week we took a look around the infield, and today we will focus on the available outfielders in this free agent class:
The outfield conversation, and free agency conversation as whole, begins with Bryce Harper. He was dubbed a baseball prodigy as a teenager, dropped out of high school and got his GED so he could enroll early in Junior College, and was the #1 overall pick in the 2010 draft as a 17 year old. He made his big league debut at age 19 two years later, and in the seven years since, he’s earned Rookie of the Year honors, made six All-Star teams, and won an MVP award. Harper has had some inconsistencies year-to-year, fluctuating at times between a well above-average player and the best hitter in the league, and has also dealt with a variety of injuries that have thrice limited him to less than 120 games. But he only just turned 26 years old and in 927 games with the Washington Nationals, he hit .279/.388/.512 (140 wRC+) with 184 home runs, 75 steals, and generally graded out as a solid defensive outfielder before his metrics went in the tank this past season. It doesn’t even feel like he’s reached all his upside yet, but Harper is still expected to receive the biggest contract in baseball history this winter (having already turned down a reported 10-year, $300 mil extension from Washington as well as the Qualifying Offer).
Next on the list is center fielder AJ Pollock, who declined a Qualifying Offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks before hitting the open market for the first time this winter. The 2009 first-rounder broke out in a big way in 2015, when he was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove while batting .315/.367/.498 (131 wRC+) with 20 homers and 39 steals. Unfortunately, Pollock just hasn’t been able to stay on the field consistently ever since then. He missed nearly all of the 2016 season after injuring his elbow, and hand, thumb, and groin issues have limited him to just 225 games the past two seasons. He’s remained an effective hitter, but his .261/.323/.477 slash, 35 dingers, and 33 steals since the start of 2017 are down quite a bit from his peak numbers. Pollock still grades out well in center field and he doesn’t carry much of a platoon split as a right-handed batter, but his durability issues figure to limit his market a bit.
The story is similar for old friend Michael Brantley, who did at least manage to appear in 143 games this past season after playing in 90 in 2017 and only 11 in 2016. Brantley was a solid regular in Cleveland before breaking out big-time in 2014, and over the last five years he’s hit .311/.371/.475 with 61 long balls and 62 stolen bags. The three-time All-Star rarely strikes out (10.7% for his career) and still plays about an average left field even as he enters his age-32 campaign. Like Pollock, Brantley’s issues staying on the field will dampen his market a bit, though he won’t have a Qualifying Offer to deal with.
Finally, there is old enemy Andrew McCutchen, who looks like he should still be able to find a notable deal this winter. It appeared the former MVP was in decline in 2016 when he posted a career-low 105 wRC+ for the Pirates, but he has bounced back to totals of 123 and 120 in the past two seasons. Cutch certainly should not be manning center field with any kind of regularity anymore, but he proved capable enough in right field for the Giants and Yankees last season. His eight-season streak of hitting 20+ home runs remains intact, and McCutchen actually posted a career-high 43.4% hard contact rate last season. He’s not a superstar anymore at age 32, but McCutchen should be able to score a multiyear deal similar to what Brantley will be looking at this winter.
Beyond those four big-time bats, there are several recognizable names available. Nick Markakis just finished a four-year stretch as a slightly above-average bat for the Braves. Carlos Gonzalez will be looking for a new home after more than a decade in the friendly environment of Coors Field, though his bat has been on the decline for some time. Another Rockie, old friend Gerardo Parra, hits the market after underperforming his deal in Denver. Lonnie Chisenhall looked like he was finally starting to tap into his upside in recent years before ill-timed injuries struck. Jon Jay and Cameron Maybin both will be looking for new homes after starting off hot in 2018 before falling off once they were traded to contenders. Adam Jones, Jose Bautista, Hunter Pence, and Carlos Gomez were once stars in this league who have fallen on harder times as they’ve aged. Melky Cabrera, Curtis Granderson, and Denard Span are still kicking around, too.
The Brewers appear set in the outfield with NL MVP Christian Yelich, 7th-place in MVP voting Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames, Hernan Perez, and Keon Broxton all under control for next season, plus the addition of Tyrone Taylor to the 40 man roster. But if there’s one thing we should have learned from Slingin’ David Stearns by now, it is to expect the unexpected and be ready for anything when it comes to roster building.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs