It didn’t take long for the Winter Meetings buzz to heat up. On Monday afternoon, rumors started swirling that the Indians have “serious interest” in free agent outfielder Shane Victorino. Cleveland is far from the only team interested (Victorino reportedly has multiple multiyear offers on the table), but the Indians sound like at least one of the frontrunners.
That the Tribe is in on one of the top free agents left on the market is exciting in and of itself. But once the novelty of a small-market team looking to make an impact signing wears off, would signing Victorino be a good idea?
This past season was a relative down year for Victorino: the 32-year-old switch-hitter batted .255/.321/.383 with 11 home runs and 39 stolen bases in 154 games split between the Phillies and the Dodgers. But despite his offensive decline (he OPSed .847 in 2011) he was still almost a league-average hitter (94 wRC+) while playing decent-to-good defense and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Despite his dip in production, FanGraphs estimated Victorino’s worth at 3.3 wins above replacement, which would have put him in a virtual tie with Carlos Santana for the Indians’ 2012 MVP.
Victorino is reportedly seeking a three-year deal worth around $10 million per annum. Based on that and Mark Shapiro’s estimation that a win costs around $9 million on the free agent market, Victorino would have to provide only about an extra win’s worth production every year to earn his keep (for reference, a league-average player is worth around 2.0 WAR). Using the more popularly accepted estimated cost of $4 or $5 million per win, Victorino would basically need only to be an average-ish player over the life of his contract to make signing him worthwhile, a level that he has blown past seven years in a row since he first earned an everyday job in 2006.
But there’s more to signing free agents than just adding talent. We’ve already noted that the Indians have far greater outfield depth than most fans seem to think. Just looking at wins above replacement doesn’t work when the player Victorino would replace is above replacement level. Put it another way: If you sell a stock for $10, you make a bigger profit if you bought it for $1 than if you started out at $5. And with Ezequiel Carrera, Thomas Neal, Tim Fedroff, and Russ Canzler all looking like potentially legitimate options for the Tribe’s left field hole, there isn’t as much room for improvement as you might think.
This isn’t to say that the specifics of the Tribe’s roster should preclude signing Victorino—to the contrary. As a solid center fielder, adding Victorino would mean Michael Brantley could shift over to left field, where his glove plays better; Victorino could also take over right field if Shin-Soo Choo is traded. Either way, his glove would be a welcome sight for a pitch-to-contact pitching staff that spent this past season backed by a mediocre defense. And Cleveland’s lineup could surely benefit from adding a switch-hitter who mashes the ball against lefties—even in a down 2012 Victorino OPSed .906 against southpaw pitching.
Signing Victorino would also make sense regardless of the Tribe’s plan for 2013. If the Indians think they can compete, signing Victorino would be a great way to turn one of their weakest points into a strength. If not, well, he’ll be around for at least three years. He’d give the Indians the outfield depth they might need to trade Choo without totally giving up on next season, and if worst comes to worst they could flip him at the Trade Deadline.
We don’t know exactly how the market for Victorino will end up shaking out—with so many teams interested there’s a good chance it will take substantially more than three years and $30 million to sign him, in which case the Indians might be better off taking a flier on Carrera or Neal or Fedroff or Canzler. But kudos to Cleveland for getting in on the bidding. Let’s hope he can be had for a decent price.