Let’s talk about free agent outfielders. Nearly every team could use one, either to serve in a starting role or to provide an upgrade over the players who are currently fourth or fifth on the depth chart. Unsurprisingly, reigning AL MVP Aaron Judge took home the largest contract of any outfielder this winter, but 11 inked average annual values of at least $10 million. Along with a variety of part-time and platoon players signed for smaller sums, nearly every big league-caliber outfielder has found a home for the season. Most of the remaining free agents, like Alex Dickerson and Jackie Bradley Jr., project to be around replacement level for 2023. But there’s an outlier, someone who just posted a career-best 2.5 WAR and was projected by our readers for a three-year, $30 million contract – Jurickson Profar. No other unsigned player is projected to earn even a third of that, but as teams start to finalize their rosters during spring training, Profar still doesn’t know what uniform he’ll be playing in come Opening Day.
Entering the offseason, we had Profar pegged as the 36th-best free agent in the class after his $10 million mutual option with the Padres was declined. Neighboring hitters on that list include Michael Brantley, Brandon Drury, and Josh Bell; all three have signed and will earn a combined $37 million in 2023. So what makes teams hesitant to add Profar to their roster?
Let’s compare him to the aforementioned trio of Brantley, Drury, and Bell. In fact, Profar is quite comparable to Brantley and Bell, who both play a position down the defensive spectrum. Both are also considerably better hitters than Profar. Brantley’s wRC+ hasn’t sat below 120 in five years, while Bell’s mark sits at 121 since the beginning of 2021. On the other hand, Profar’s 110 wRC+ last year was his highest in a full season, and his career mark of 94 is substantially worse than that of Brantley or Bell. Other outfielders like J.D. Martinez and Michael Conforto also signed in that price range. In other words, if a team was looking for an everyday left fielder who wouldn’t break the bank, Profar probably wouldn’t have been their first call.
If teams weren’t interested in Profar in an everyday role, then what about bringing him on as a part-time player? While Profar was exclusively a left fielder last year, he has significant experience at all four infield positions. Surely a league-average bat you can plug and play at five different positions would be useful to a contending team. Last season’s Phillies nearly won the World Series despite letting Didi Gregorius (58 wRC+) and Johan Camargo (74 wRC+) combine for almost 400 plate appearances, and nearly every other team has deficiencies at least somewhere on the field. Drury’s two-year, $17 million contract with the Angels shows the value teams place in a multi-positional skill set. Despite entering 2022 with just 0.6 career WAR, Drury experienced a power breakout, clubbing 28 homers and accruing 3 WAR despite not having a dedicated starting position. Instead, he took over wherever he was needed, appearing at five different positions as the Reds and Padres did everything they could to maximize his presence in the batting order.
So why did the Angels choose Drury over Profar? Projection systems view them similarly (both have a 104 Steamer wRC+), and while Los Angeles may have simply had a preference for a power hitter, Drury’s skill on the infield definitely outpaces Profar’s. Despite needing to carry around a suitcase of different gloves, Drury measured in with a +1 RAA around the diamond. Profar’s last extended stretch of play on the infield came in 2019, when he was Oakland’s everyday second baseman. That didn’t go so well, as he finished with a -5 RAA (and an astounding -20 DRS). The previous season, he split time between third base and shortstop with even worse results. While Profar has considerable experience at multiple positions, that hasn’t translated to success anytime recently. And since his move to the outfield, he’s slowed down a step both in the field and on the basepaths. Since the beginning of 2021, Profar’s speed has gone from slightly above average to a bit below, with his speed down the line worsening by a full grade:
Jurickson Profar Speed Metrics
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|Sprint Speed Percentile
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
So Profar might not be the guy you want filling in all over the field when higher quality defensive options exist, but the bat is still legit, right? Not as good as full-time starters like Bell and Brantley, but you can certainly carve out a role for Profar where he generates well above-average production. But maybe not. When the free agent market started to thin out, Michael Baumann wrote about the remaining crop of outfielders, headlined by Profar and longtime Diamondback David Peralta. Peralta’s 104 wRC+ and 1.7 WAR last season were a bit worse than Profar’s, but that didn’t stop the Dodgers from signing him to a one-year deal. Why? Peralta has a clear offensive use case against right-handed pitching: he had a 116 wRC+ against right-handers last season and has a 121 career mark. A team with the right supplementary pieces can do more with 400 plate appearances of Peralta than 600 plate appearances of Profar, who has no significant platoon split. It’s also important to compare Profar not just to hitters as a whole, but to other left fielders. While his 2022 statline would be quite impressive for an up-the-middle defender, corner bats are expected to shoulder more of the offensive load and generally hit better than the shortstops or center fielders:
Jurickson Profar wOBA Platoon Splits
While Profar’s overall offensive numbers were quite solid, they look a bit less impressive when compared to others at a bat-first position, especially given that he doesn’t specialize against either handedness of pitcher. In fact, his ZiPS and Steamer projected wRC+ would be below league average for left fielders. Combined with his -4 RAA at the position, it isn’t hard to see why a contending team wouldn’t want to give 150 starts to someone who isn’t a plus contributor on either offense or defense. Recently, I’ve written about players like Austin Slater and Dylan Moore, whose combination of excellent short-side platoon hitting, solid baserunning, and stellar multi-positional defense makes them incredibly useful in a wide variety of situations. Due to their versatile usage, they combined for 4.2 WAR last season in fewer plate appearances than Profar alone. Indeed, Profar profiles as almost a direct opposite to Slater and Moore. While he doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses in his game, his potential team also doesn’t have a way to deploy him exclusively in favorable situations.
Of course, none of this is to say that Profar is a bad player. Above-average hitters with his level of plate discipline don’t grow on trees, but the fact that he was a tier below many other starting outfielders and doesn’t have the specific skill set needed to be an effective role player likely dropped him on team’s priority lists this offseason. Still, he’ll almost certainly be tendered a major league contract before Opening Day rolls around – of all the remaining free agents, his projected 1 WAR ranks second to José Iglesias, while his 2022 WAR total absolutely laps the competition. As players thought to be roster locks get injured or perform poorly during spring training, teams could give Profar a call. While he may not have been their first option, he’s far from their worst.