Few would’ve expected all three of Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon to remain on the free-agent market with just over two days of the calendar year remaining, but none of the trio has found a new team for the 2016 season at this juncture. With Jason Heyward off the board — and to a team, the Cubs, that didn’t figure to impact the corner outfield market anyhow — the market for the remaining top-tier outfielders should pick up in the not-too-distant future. Any of the three would represent a corner outfield upgrade for just about any team on the market, but each has points in his favor and points against, so let’s take a quick look at each outfielder.
Upton: The youngest player of the trio in this discussion, Upton will play next season at just 28 years of age. He’s four years younger than Gordon and two years younger than Cespedes, meaning any team that signs him will be buying more of his prime than they would in signing one of his competitors. Upton was the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, and while he hasn’t developed into the superstar projected by many scouts, he’s a well-above-average bat that could bolster any offense. Upton’s bat was about 20 percent better than the league average in 2015 with the Padres, and that gels with his career line. He’s averaged 25 homers and 148 games per season dating back to 2009 and does have one elite, superstar-caliber season (2011) under his belt. That year, he showed a glimpse of his true ceiling, hitting .289/.369/.529 with 31 homers and 21 steals. In the outfield, Upton is a solid, if unspectacular defender. He’s received positive marks in right field and left field from both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, although neither considers him an elite defensive option. He’s the weakest defensive player of this trio but also shouldn’t hit a decline phase in that regard as soon as his two corner counterparts.
Cespedes: The only player of this bunch that isn’t tied to draft pick compensation, Cespedes also boasts the most power of the group. Upton’s .202 isolated power (slugging minus batting average) is impressive, but Cespedes’ career mark of .215 tops it, and his 2015 mark of .251 bests anything ever compiled by Upton or Gordon. Defensive metrics absolutely love Cespedes in left field, where has a penchant for highlight-reel throws and above-average range. Cespedes, though, has seen his walk rate decline in each of his big league seasons. His .328 OBP from 2016 is almost entirely a function of his .291 batting average, and if that mark regresses to his career level of .271 going forward, Cespedes could struggle to keep his OBP above .300. A player with his power, defense and speed can certainly add value in other ways, but a poor approach and lack of plate discipline will become more prounounced issues if his power begins to fade in the later stages of what could be a six- or seven-year contract.
Gordon: At 32, Gordon is the oldest of the remaining top tier of outfielders. He has the least power of the group by a wide margin, but he’s also been easily the best defensive player, ranking eighth in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved and fifth in Ultimate Zone Rating among all players at any position over the past three years. Gordon strikes out the least of this bunch and walks the most, so he has a considerably different skill set than his younger, more powerful free-agent peers. Gordon figures to command the shortest commitment of this trio — a five-year deal is the expectation here — and while that’s an advantage in some regards, the reasoning behind that term (his age) is not. Upton, for instance, could sign a contract with an opt-out after three years, as Heyward did, and still re-enter the market younger than Gordon is right now. A five-year deal for a 32-year-old is a risky proposition, and having rejected the Royals’ qualifying offer following the 2015 season, Gordon comes with the additional red flag of draft pick compensation.
As stated earlier, any of the three would represent an upgrade for most clubs. The White Sox, Giants, Padres, Angels, Orioles, Tigers, Indians and Royals could all use corner outfield upgrades, though not all of those clubs has the financial means to add a top free agent. (Notably, Kansas City’s most recent offer reportedly resulted in Gordon’s camp telling him they have “no chance” to re-sign him.) Further fits could arise in the wake of trades, too.
There’s no true apples-to-apples comparison, as each player figures to command a different price tag. MLBTR predicted a five-year, $105MM deal for Gordon earlier this offseason while estimating a six-year, $140MM deal for Cespedes and a seven-year, $147MM deal for Upton (though Upton could command an opt-out, as the youngest of the group, which would be yet another wrinkle to the equation). There are a number of factors to be considered, but for the rudimentary purposes of this poll, we’ll simply ask, in a vacuum…