An Early Look at This Winter's Free-agent Outfield Picture

With Stephen Strasburg now locked up for the next seven years at $175 million, the free-agent class of 2016-17 took a major hit. Strasburg would have unquestionably been the top pitcher on the market, but after his Nationals extension, the next-best free-agent options on the mound appear to be Mat Latos, Andrew Cashner and Clay Buchholz. Not a great situation for teams that need starting pitching for 2017 and beyond.

Fortunately for the Phillies, starting pitching is their biggest strength, both now and in the future. With Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff thriving in the majors, and Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin and Mark Appel developing in Triple A, the Phils have plenty of young, inexpensive right-handed pitching with upside.

It's abundantly clear, though, that the Phils need offense at three of the four corners: first base, left field and right field. Some of that help could come if prospects like Nick Williams, Tommy Joseph or Andrew Knapp graduate to the majors by next opening day. If it doesn't, it's unclear how active the Phillies will be in filling holes in free agency. A lot of their plan will be based on how the rest of this season goes. If the major-league team plays well enough through the late summer and if the prospects reach a point where the front office feels they are ready to make an impact next year, perhaps the Phillies spend a bit earlier than expected to expedite this rebuilding process. 

It's early to think about all of this, but there are ways to spend without deviating from the long-term plan.

Look at the Cubs, for example. Everyone loves to talk about the boatload of prospects that catapulted Chicago to the top of the National League. And yes, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are two very unique prospects. But the Cubs also have plenty of veterans they went out and signed, like Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, David Ross and Miguel Montero. Prospects don't all develop at the same rate. It's why the best teams are often mixtures of young, homegrown players and established big-leaguers bought in free agency or acquired via trade. There's a reason the Cubs, even as forward-thinking and committed to youth as they are, have chosen to move forward with guys like Fowler and Zobrist rather than giving everyday playing time this season to Jorge Soler and Javier Baez.

By bringing in Lester last season, by adding a few other veteran pieces, the Cubs became very good a year earlier than most anticipated. And now they're an elite team a year or two earlier than most would have expected. Don't misunderstand, this is not a comparison of the Phillies and Cubs as they're not in similar positions - the Phils don't have a Jake Arrieta, an Anthony Rizzo or a Bryant to build around. The point is that even when you have an eye on the future, sometimes it does make sense to spend. Not too long ago, the Cubs were at the bottom of the National League the way the Phillies were last season; Chicago lost 89 games as recently as 2014. Things can turn around quickly if you strike the right balance of young talent and productive veterans.

With that, let's take a look at some of the top free agents who, as of now, will be available this winter and whether or not they'd fit the Phils. The number in parentheses is the age the player will be in 2017.

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Not a fit

RF Jose Bautista (36)
He's a big-time power bat with an extremely disciplined eye. From a skill set standpoint, he's exactly what the Phillies need. He's just way too old for them at this stage in the rebuild.

If Bautista were, say, 33, this pairing could make sense. Or if the Phillies were a year or two further in this process, it could make sense. But the first two years of any Bautista deal are likely going to be his most productive, and those are the years the Phils will least need his services because they probably wouldn't be a true contender just by adding him.

Bautista, according to multiple reports, is seeking a five-year, $150 million deal. The Blue Jays do not seem inclined to pay that price. Another team is likely going to give him $25 million per year, even if it's over a four-year term. After all, he's a perennial 40-home run, 100-plus walk hitter when healthy. And he's stayed healthy the last two seasons, averaging 154 games.

Not a fit for the Phils based on age.

CF Carlos Gomez (31)
This is a hard pass for me. Gomez hasn't played an outfield position other than center since 2010, and the Phillies already have their CF in Odubel Herrera. Gomez is also trending down in every way, hitting .204 this season with no homers, five walks and 36 strikeouts a year after batting .255 with a .314 OBP.

Gomez has tools - power, speed, great defense - but he swings and misses a lot, hasn't hit for average the last few years, and his instincts are questionable. For all his strengths, Gomez is difficult to rein in, the kind of guy who will unnecessarily steal third with two outs or who will swing out of his shoes when all that's required is contact.

LF/CF Ian Desmond (31), CF Colby Rasmus (30)
Pairing these two together because they're both guys who would give you a mediocre batting average, 20- to 25-home run power and a lot of strikeouts. Don't see either as a fit because the bat isn't going to make a significant enough impact. If the Phillies aren't signing difference-makers, they should instead try to fill their holes with developing prospects or short-term Band-Aids (like the final name below). Signing an average or slightly-above-average player to a three- or four-year contract would be unwise.

Potential fits

OF Yoenis Cespedes (31)
Cespedes will have two years and $47.5 million remaining on his contract with the Mets after this season, but he has the choice of opting out to become a free agent. Based on the way he's performed so far in 2016, he'd be crazy not to void those final two years. He's in line for a substantial payday.

Cespedes has been one of the top offensive players in baseball this season, hitting .291/.376/.670 with 11 home runs and a National League-leading 31 RBIs. He's hit 28 homers in just 366 plate appearances for the Mets - which is a 50-plus homer pace over a full season - and appears to be right in the midst of his prime.

Cespedes would be a fit for the Phillies positionally, and at 31 he wouldn't be too old, but it's going to cost so much. He will likely find the money that Bautista wants and more.

Personally, I'm on the fence when it comes to Cespedes. He has a difference-making bat, and although there are occasional concerns about him defensively, he also has a difference-making arm. I'm more confident that Cespedes will hit throughout most of his next contract than I am that other free agents like Josh Reddick, Gomez, Rasmus and Desmond will remain offensive pluses.

Cespedes would make Citizens Bank Park look small. And even though he'd cost a ton, he'd still likely be productive at age 32 and 33, when the Phillies are closer to contention. He could be a middle-of-the-order presence that protects Maikel Franco and allows guys like Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro to settle into non-pressure roles in their first few major-league seasons.

It just depends on the price. If some team is willing to give Cespedes seven years and $200 million, let them. But if he can be had for five years, he's worth a look given the huge amount of payroll space the Phillies have. They have a ton of money available, and you can't simply rely on that juicy post-2018 free-agent class - Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson, just to name a few - because a bulk of those players will be locked up before they even reach the open market.

RF Josh Reddick (30)
Reddick is intriguing because he could be had for much less than Cespedes or Bautista and he's young enough to be worth it for the Phillies.

Reddick has power - he hit 32 homers in 2012 and 20 last year - and he hits the ball with authority from the left side. He's also an above-average defender in right field with a big arm.

The issue is he hasn't been consistent. After that breakout 2012 season Reddick hit .245/.311/.412 the next two years. And the biggest holdup is that he's almost useless offensively against lefties, having hit .226 against them with a .287 OBP in his career. No team wants to spend a ton of free-agent money on a part-time player, and by the end of his next contract that's what Reddick will be. (He might even be that at this point.)

The Phils should stay in contact with Reddick this offseason, but if the price tag exceeds $16 million per year or if he requires a five-year commitment, no thanks.

CF Dexter Fowler (31)
Big fan of Fowler, but he's another guy who's played mostly center field in his career, and the Phils are in more need of corner outfield help. If Fowler continues to get on base like this - he's batting .339 with a MLB-leading .467 OBP - he's going to get a big contract somewhere.

It's intriguing, thinking about a 1-2 of Fowler and Herrera that could set the table for years to come. But the Phils' money would probably be better spent on power bats. And if they were to sign Fowler and then bring up Nick Williams, you're locked in at all three outfield spots and don't have a ton of power at any of those positions. So where, then, would the power come from? In that hypothetical scenario the Phils would be set in the outfield, at catcher with Alfaro, at shortstop with J.P. Crawford and at third base with Franco. Even if Alfaro becomes the offensive player many think he can be, would the combined pop of he and Franco be enough?

Looking ahead, the Phillies probably need power more than anything else from the next outfielder they sign or acquire, unless they truly think Williams can be that guy. To this point, Williams has been a solid minor-league hitter but not yet the kind you project for 25 to 30 homers.

LF Michael Saunders (30)
Here's a player it seems like the Phils might consider. If Saunders stays healthy this season and continues to hit, he will probably find a deal in the two- or three-year, $8 million to $12 million range.

Saunders was a well-regarded outfield prospect as he progressed through the Mariners' system but he never put it all together, either because of injuries or the dimensions of Safeco Field. He's found himself in Toronto this season, hitting .308/.385/.529 with nine doubles, a triple and four homers in 117 plate appearances.

Saunders would be a solid platoon corner outfielder, one who would play about 65 percent of the time because he's a left-handed hitter and there are many more righty starting pitchers than lefties. He'd be a significant upgrade on the players the Phils have used in the corner outfield this season, and he's not the kind of player who would be cost prohibitive or who would truly block other developing outfielders.

Remember how pathetic the Phillies' 2015 starting rotation was, and how they raised the floor in 2016? That's what we might see with the corner outfield - putrid in 2016, better in 2017. If the Phils don't play in the deep end of the pool with guys like Cespedes or Fowler this winter, if they want to remain patient and fully avoid the temptation to spend even if they've progressed as an organization, Saunders could be a decent secondary option.

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