This might be the best value in free agency

December 20th, 2023

When we bring up high-impact offseason additions, elite defense is not normally the first quality that comes to mind.

But why shouldn't it? Because while every club would ideally like to add a slugger to its lineup or an ace to the top of its rotation, they won't all be successful in doing so. Those that don't could instead prioritize tightening up their defense, something that’s usually a more affordable endeavor and can pay big dividends.

It just so happens that this particular free-agent market, while low on potential superstar position players, is deep in one particular area: outstanding outfield defense. Fortunately for clubs in need of a rangy fly catcher, there are a number still available.

Want proof? Here is a look at the top 10 outfielders in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric from 2018-23.

*Player traded this offseason
^Player is a free agent

1. Harrison Bader: +66^
2. Kevin Kiermaier: +58^
3. Manuel Margot: +47*
4. Lorenzo Cain: +45
5. Michael A. Taylor: +44^
6. Trent Grisham: +42*
7. Max Kepler: +41
8. Jackie Bradley Jr.: +38^
9. Cedric Mullins: +35
10. Cody Bellinger: +34^

It’s been an eventful offseason for this group, with Grisham and Margot already changing teams via trade, Kepler a potential trade candidate himself and five others currently free agents. (Bradley Jr., who didn’t play after being released by the Royals in June, has said he has not decided whether he will retire, a step Cain officially took this past season.)

Here is a closer look at the four other remaining free-agent center fielders from that list, plus some honorable mentions who are also capable of providing plus defense on the grass.

Bellinger stands out from the other three center fielders on this list because wherever he goes, he’ll be signed for his bat in addition to his glove, and the size of his contract will reflect that all-around skill set. With that said, his defensive prowess provides good news for whoever wins the Bellinger sweepstakes: Even if his bat declines back toward league average, he can still be a solid overall contributor.

While it might pale in comparison to the achievements of the guys listed below, Bellinger ranked in the 88th percentile in Outs Above Average in 2023 (+5) and the 86th percentile in average arm strength (90.5 mph). He also has above-average sprint speed (28.3 ft/sec in 2023) and is only 28, so that's not likely to degrade in a hurry. Bellinger can pull double duty and take playing time at first base, but he is primarily an outfielder, and that's where he's likely to be of the most value to his next team.

We could probably leave it at "He's literally Kevin Kiermaier,” right? Heading into his age-34 season, he's hardly lost a step, ranking in the 87th percentile in sprint speed in 2023. Even if Kiermaier’s speed does drastically drop off, you won't find a player better equipped to compensate, given that he just led the Majors in terms of the best outfield jumps (3.3 feet better than average). Since the inception of Statcast fielding metrics in 2016, he's been worth +84 Outs Above Average, by far the most of any outfielder (his +13 OAA in 2023 were the second most among outfielders).

Then there's his arm, which averaged 92.8 mph on competitive throws in 2023, ranking in the 95th percentile. In short, he's a known quantity, and, if healthy, about as close to a sure bet as you can get in free agency.

A truly underrated Statcast darling, Taylor has accrued +32 Outs Above Average since 2021, tied with Daulton Varsho for the most among outfielders. He's also made 15 five-star catches (batted balls with a catch probability of 25% or lower) since Statcast began tracking in 2016, tied for the sixth most over that period (the all-time leader, Billy Hamilton, has 18). Taylor's average 2023 sprint speed (28.7 ft/sec) was still well above league average (27.0 ft/sec), and his arm strength, averaging 91.5 mph on competitive throws, ranked in the 90th percentile of qualifying outfielders.

Taylor brings some power at the plate (21 homers for the Twins in 2023) and speed on the bases (13 steals), but his primary asset is the glove, which has been above average in every season of his career.

Kiermaier is the all-time king of Outs Above Average in the outfield. But since 2018, Bader's first full Major League season, he has Kiermaier beat, and it isn't especially close. Bader also runs well, posting an average sprint speed of 28.8 ft/sec (85th percentile) in 2023 while dealing with two separate lower-body injuries to his right groin and hamstring. Then there’s the fact that he offers one of the better outfield arms on the market, ranking in the 91st percentile or better in arm strength in three of the past four seasons. 

Bader won’t turn 30 until June, but despite being a good bit younger than Kiermaier or Taylor, health is a major question mark here. He has been placed on the injured list eight separate times over the past five seasons, averaging 96 games played since 2021. Bader has a lot to prove coming off his toughest offensive season (.232/.274/.348), but the glove is still elite as long as he can stay on the field.


: As noted above, he might be done. (He has a .513 OPS since 2021.) But even last year, Bradley had +4 OAA in limited playing time.

: He has +26 career OAA, and while he was minus-3 last year, that was mostly due to the Red Sox having to play him in center quite a bit. Even at 35, Duvall can still be solid in an outfield corner.

: He spent nearly all of 2023 back in Triple-A but can boast +54 career OAA (+14 since 2019).

: His performance has fallen off on both sides of the ball over the past couple of seasons, but he still has one of the stronger outfield arms in the game.

: He had a strong case as MLB’s fastest runner and best defensive outfielder at his peak but has played sparingly in the Majors in recent years (three games for the 2023 White Sox).

: A key role player on the World Series champion Rangers in 2023, Jankowski has racked up +29 OAA since ‘16 despite averaging only 68 MLB games per year during that time.

: Have glove, will travel. Marisnick has +15 OAA since 2020 while spreading 192 MLB games between seven teams.

: The Braves barely used him in center in his age-34 season, but he produced +3 OAA in the corners.