It is real easy to look over the list of current free agents and drool over the prospect Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes manning left field alongside Mike Trout and Gold Glove-winning Kole Calhoun the next few seasons. While any of those players would undoubtably provide an immense boost to the squad both offensively and defensively, all would also put a pretty large dent in the team's payroll the next few years and all but one would cost the team their first round pick. A common response to that concern would be, "Who cares? It's Arte's money, not mine!" As we have seen the last few seasons, we should care, as big-money contracts for Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have hindered the team from importing real talent, leaving them to count on the likes of Joe Blanton, Raul Ibanez and Matt Joyce.
While other teams are busy schmoozing the upper-echelon of the free agent pool, can Billy Eppler be opportunistic and find a quality player for left field without the commitment in dollars, years and potential draft picks, enabling him the freedom to upgrade the club's other weaknesses? Several interesting names have surfaced among our comment threads. Let's examine what they'd bring to the table, what they would cost and whether they would be a good fit for our club. For the sake of this exercise, we will only include players available in the free agent market who can be had without surrendering a pick.
Span appears to be high on our wish list, as Washington somewhat surprisingly declined to make him a qualifying offer. Denard has been a reliable source of OBP throughout his career, even in years where he otherwise struggled. This skill, along with excellent speed, has made him a fixture at lead-off throughout his career. He has also been a reliable glove in center, consistently posting average-to-above average numbers before this past year. He does have experience in both corners from his days in Minnesota.
The drop-off in his defensive stats this past year was no doubt a result of various lower-body injuries, leading to three trips to the DL, with hip surgery finally ending his season in August. Even while hampered by injuries that limited him to 61 games, Span managed to to bat .301/.365/.431 and swiped 11 bags without getting caught. The lefty-swinging Span has shown no alarming platoon split throughout his career.
Span will be 32 next year, so teams may be hesitant to make him generous offers due to concerns that his injuries could be lingering. With centerfield always in high demand, several teams should be expected to check in on Denard, regardless, so don't expect bargain-basement prices. A 39 year-old Torii Hunter still got $10.5M last year coming off a similar run of seasons to Span's, so expect him to make something in the range of at least 3 years, $40 million. If teams are confident he is healthy and can still play center, he might fetch more.
One of the more under-appreciated players in the game, Aoki profiles similarly to Span as a lead-off option. His batting average and OBP has been remarkably consistent over his four major league seasons:
Like Span, the lefty-swinging Aoki isn't bothered by southpaws, actually posting stronger numbers when they are on the mound than he does vs. righties. He doesn't seem to care where he hits, either, posting nearly identical batting lines home and away. His 2015 ended pre-maturely due to a concussion, but Nori was well on his way to another typically solid season. According to his agent, he is fully recovered and ready to play.
So why has this gem of a player been on three teams in three years while settling for very modest contract offers? Keep in mind, San Francisco declined a reasonable $5.5M option on Aoki, instead electing to buy him out for $700,000. For starters, the corner outfielder has zero power. After slugging .433 with 10 HR as a rookie in Milwaukee, he's managed to put only 14 over the fence in his last three seasons combined. His stolen base numbers have declined as well, expected as he moves further and further from 30. He also has a bit of a reputation as a dunderhead in the field. Solid in his first two years, the numbers have dwindled the past two seasons, coinciding with his decline in steals.
Aoki will be 34 next year. As an under-powered corner outfielder with declining speed and defensive skills, teams are unlikely to make him a top priority, viewing him more as a fourth outfielder or a fallback option if they miss out on the high-profile names. The Angels could undercut those clubs and snatch him up quickly, tucking him into left where his modest glove shouldn't cause too much damage and plugging him atop the line-up, where his .350 OBP would be a welcome addition after the club posted a .280 mark from that spot last season. If he can be swayed by a 2 year, $12 million offer, they should jump at the opportunity. Even if he winds up a fourth outfielder, that's great value.
It was announced earlier this week that KBO's Lotte Giants would post the 27 year-old left fielder on Sunday, with teams having five days to make their bids. The lefty-swinging Son profiles similarly to Aoki, focusing on batting average and getting on base. Batting an impressive .323/.398/.462 in his career, his best season came in 2014 as he put up a .456 OBP and .538 SLG.
It is tough to gauge exactly what to make of Son and whether to count on him as an every day player in the majors. Last season's big Korean import was Jung Ho Kang, who hit .287/.355/.461 with Pittsburg before his season ended prematurely with a broken leg. Like Son, his last season in KBO came at age 27, hitting .356/.459/.739. That was far and away his best season, hitting 40 home runs. While Son clearly won't hit for that kind of power, his superior on-base and contact skills still make him an intriguing player that should adapt well to the American game.
Further complicating matters is the bidding process. Last year, despite a breakout offensive season while playing shortstop, Kang was had for a modest $5 million bid, then signed an equally modest 4 year/$11M contract. Teams were clearly kicking themselves for allowing such a great value to get by them, as last week Minnesota won the bidding for KBO's Byung-ho Park with a $12.85M posting fee, coming off a similar year to Kang's 2014 while providing much less value as a first basemen.
As a corner outfielder with minimal power, Ah-Seop Son isn't likely to draw the same kind of attention as Park. Lotte can pull him back if they don't receive a bid to their liking, especially since they also have third baseman Jae-gyun Hwang waiting for his chance to play state side. Teams would likely prefer Son, as his OBP skills would seem to be a safer bet to translate to the American game than Hwang's more well-rounded tool kit. If Billy Eppler can convince Arte Moreno that there is good value to be found overseas, a bid in the range of $8-10 million might be enough to secure Son's rights. With another $10-12M on top of that to get him signed, the overall commitment would seem well worth it to plug the left field hole.
The best of the rest
The Angels could go dumpster diving if none of the above players tickle their fancy, but don't expect to pluck a lead-off hitter or power bat from what's left. Gerardo Parra was having a career year in Milwaukee before predictably coming back down to earth after a trade to Baltimore. Chris Young is a decent option, providing a good glove in left while still fully capable of filling in at center when Trout needs a day off, but he might still find a job as an everyday centerfielder. Alejandro de Aza is a fine part time lefty bat, but nothing more. Domonic Brown could be a change-of-scenery candidate, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Ben Zobrist, while not a value pick, would hit enough to carry a role as a corner outfielder. But his value with the glove comes more from his flexibility, as he doesn't excel at any one position. I would still endorse signing him, even at age 34, but I would prefer it be in conjunction with one of the above players, allowing him to move around from third, left, second and DH.
I wouldn't be upset if Arte broke the bank for Jason Heyward or Justin Upton, but with so many holes on the current roster, it could be wise to go the bargain route in a deep left field class, allowing him to spend more aggressively on third base while keeping next year's draft pick in place.