By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Like numerous other clubs in baseball, the White Sox had for weeks been held up by a free-agent outfield market that had yet to establish itself. After the Cubs’ signing of Jason Heyward in mid-December to an eight-year, $184-million deal, many in the industry assumed that his contract would be the base for the remaining run-producing outfielders who were seeking new deals.
That hadn’t been the case until Wednesday morning, when Alex Gordon agreed to return to the Royals on a four-year deal worth a reported $72 million. Numerous owners and general managers had been hesitating to give long-term commitments to Gordon and fellow free-agent outfielders Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes.
With Gordon off the board, the new market for Upton and Cespedes seems to run the gamut from three to five years in length and $18 million to $20 million per season. Such length and the dollars are a long way off from the Heyward contract, which didn’t turn out to set the market like some anticipated.
“Heyward is 26 years old with a lot of all-around skill to offer,” an American League executive said. “These other outfielders are good players, however, who determines what they are worth and how many teams are in the hunt for them? There is no real market dollar figure attached to any of these players. All three have different skill sets. We liked Gordon, but we were not going four or five years on a 32-year-old player.”
The White Sox will now have to decide if committing to one of the two sluggers left in free agency is still the direction they want to go. Chicago could also renew another route and renew talks with teams on a trade.
In the case of Upton, you have a 28-year-old player who has good overall numbers but has been an underachiever in the eyes of many industry observers. Upton hit .251 with 26 homers, 81 RBIs and a .790 OPS in 150 games in 2015. He also comes with a huge swing-and-miss factor, as he’s averaged nearly 164 strikeouts a year over the past three seasons.
Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Cespedes travels to the beat of his own drum and has played for four teams since the start of 2014. A Cuban native, he has his own routine, which includes playing golf just about every day during the baseball season. This hasn’t impacted his work ethic at the ballpark or his preparation for games, according to one big league coach.
“We knew he played golf all of the time,” the veteran coach said. “He was always on time and when he played with us. He always busted his butt and was a good teammate.I am not sure people know how good of an outfielder he is. He is better in the outfield than Gordon, and Gordon is really good. The guy was a game-changing player with us.”
Cespedes hit .291 with 35 homers, 105 RBIs and a .942 OPS in 159 games last season split between the Tigers and Mets.
The White Sox’s pursuit for Upton or Cespedes could be held up by the Chris Davis contract talks. A slugging first baseman, Davis was offered $150 million in December by the Orioles. That offer was taken off the table by Baltimore when he and agent Scott Boras hesitated to accept the deal. Since that time, the perception has been that the Orioles will sign a run producer such as Upton or Cespedes if the Davis contract can’t be rectified. This gives the agents for both high-profile outfielders some added leverage in the marketplace.
With Gordon averaging $18 million per season in his new deal, the agents for both Upton and Cespedes will be seeking average annual values of at least $20 million for their clients. The desirability of the city and franchise direction may determine the final destination for Upton and Cespedes.
The trade market has both Carlos Gonzalez and Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies available, but the dangerous splits of playing half their games at Coors Field previously may back many suitors a bit. Both outfielders hit 55-plus points better at Coors Field than on the road.
Atlanta is willing to trade outfielder Nick Markakis, who has been a steady player for many years. But his power numbers fell off drastically in 2015, as he hit just three homers in 612 at-bats, which raised red flags regarding future production. The Reds have outfielder Jay Bruce on the trade block as well, if you can handle the low batting average that comes with him. Bruce hit .217 in 2014 and .226 in 2015, with on-base percentages below .300 in each season.
As we’ve suspected, it will come down to dollars and good sense for the White Sox in potentially adding one of these bats on the free-agent or trade markets.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.