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Comparing the Left Fielders of the A.L. East

How would you rank the left fielders in the A.L. East? Considering where they started the offseason, the Orioles come out surprisingly well.

Kevin C. Cox

After covering the infields of the A.L. East last week, we're moving on to the outfield. First up will be a ranking of the left fielders. Left field is a spot where three of the five teams in the division will employ platoons this season so this won't be strictly limited to players who will be playing the majority of the time. I'm also going to include the lesser half of the platoon where warranted. This should help us get a feel for the strength of the each position in the division more completely than just looking at the player who will play the most.

Just to keep you in suspense dear reader, I'm going to start at number five and work my way down to number one. I know you can't wait to see who I rank as having the best left field situation in the division so let's get started.

5. Melky Cabrera - Toronto Blue Jays

Career 1072 4236 0.284 0.337 0.409 99 -46.8 8.9
2013 88 372 0.279 0.322 0.360 87 -11.5 -0.9
2014 ZIPS 137 575 0.290 0.329 0.433 106 -10.7 1.3

The last year and a half hasn't been so kind to Melky Cabrera. First, there was the steroid suspension which came towards the end of 2012. The suspension interrupted a fantastic season, in which he was hitting .346/.390/.516. How much of that was aided by whatever he was taking? Who knows, but it's fair to assume that whatever he was taking aided his performance somewhat. The suspension cost him tens of millions of dollars most likely, and he ended up signing a two year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays.

Assuming he was off whatever he was taking before, Melky's performance cratered in 2013. He only slashed .279/.322/.360 while battling hamstring and quad muscle injuries. He played in 88 games before calling it a season because of a knee injury. It was later announced that he had a tumor removed from his lower back on August 30, which thankfully was benign. Still just 29 years old, a return to his prior form is possible though unlikely without the assistance he had before. With his advancing age bringing increased leg problems and deteriorating defense, Melky brings up the rear in the left field rankings. I think he'll produce around 1 WAR this season and be at risk to lose his job towards the end of the year before his contact runs out.

4. David DeJesus/Sean Rodriguez - Tampa Bay Rays

David DeJesus vs RHP G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def fWAR
Career 1277 5326 0.279 0.353 0.417 106 21 24.2
2013 122 439 0.251 0.327 0.402 102 3.6 2.1
2014 ZIPS 123 466 0.241 0.317 0.366 95 -3.6 0.9

Sean Rodriguez vs LHP G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def fWAR
Career 528 1594 0.228 0.304 0.360 86 24.7 6
2013 96 222 0.246 0.320 0.385 101 2.8 1.1
2014 ZIPS 111 318 0.233 0.310 0.376 95 0.9 1

As discussed earlier this offseason at Fangraphs, DeJesus has developed a pretty severe platoon split over the last few years. That's why I have him paired with Sean Rodriguez here. Joe Maddon has been one of the more creative managers in using platoon splits to get the most out of his roster. While Bradley Woodrum thinks the Rays may have a plan to fix DeJesus's problems with lefties, I'm not as optimistic. Over the past three years, DeJesus has posted a wRC+ of 96, 104, and 102. I think we can confidently say that he'll be around a league average hitter at the plate. His defense is harder to quantify since the metrics disagree. I will note that he has a good defensive reputation. I'd say the Rays can expect around 1.5 WAR from him this year.

When you add that performance to what the Rays will get from Sean Rodriguez, it's not half bad. Rodriguez has struggled overall, but has been able to manage a .334 wOBA against left handers over his career. Combined with effective defense all over the diamond, Rodrigez is a valuable player to the Rays. Realistically, I could've listed a number of players in this left field platoon for the Rays as they use platoons all over the field and Rodriguez is likely to get time at other positions as well. But I put him here because he spent the most time in left field last season of any position. The Rays should get somewhere around 2-2.5 WAR from the pair.

3. Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes - Boston Red Sox

Daniel Nava vs RHP G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def fWAR
Career 282 1041 0.274 0.369 0.413 115 -28 2.6
2013 134 536 0.303 0.385 0.445 128 -18.4 1.8
2014 ZIPS 119 453 0.257 0.344 0.384 100 -6.1 0.9

Jonny Gomes vs LHP G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def fWAR
Career 996 3426 0.244 0.335 0.452 110 -97.2 6.1
2013 116 366 0.247 0.344 0.426 109 -7.2 1
2014 ZIPS 110 361 0.236 0.335 0.408 103 -8.7 0.5

Even though Daniel Nava is a switch hitter, the Red Sox prefer him to face right handed pitching which bring Jonny Gomes into the lineup against southpaws. It makes sense to get Nava out of the lineup against lefties because last year he had a .288 wOBA against them while he had a .392 wOBA against right handers. There are two reasons the Red Sox left field situation doesn't rank higher here. First, I think we're going to see Nava regress this season. In 2013, he had a .352 BABIP which seems to be supported by a 26% line drive rate. But line drive rate is one of the more inconsistent statistics from season to season and I would expect his line drive rate to regress too. On top of that, ZiPS expects some pretty major regression.

Second, while Nava's best skill is his ability to reach base - his worst skill is his defense. As you can see above, he gives back a lot of his batting value in the field. Now 31 years old and entering his decline phase, I would only expect his defense to continue to get worse. Even though he hasn't been around that long, he's older than you'd expect because it took him a long time to get started due to not getting noticed early in his career. He actually went undrafted and played independent ball before the Red Sox noticed him.

Jonny Gomes makes up the other side of the platoon. Throughout his career, he has been a lefty masher compiling a .380 wOBA against opposite handed throwers. His wOBA against same handed pitchers is only .319. He makes a good option for the lesser half of platoon duty though he has never excelled in the field either. The Red Sox have compiled a strong offensive duo in left field, but since neither one of them plays good defense - they're not ranked higher up this list. They should accrue 2.5-3 WAR.

2. David Lough/Nelson Cruz - Baltimore Orioles

David Lough vs RHP G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def fWAR
Career 116 400 0.278 0.308 0.396 90 13.2 2.5
2013 96 335 0.286 0.311 0.413 96 11.2 2.4
2014 ZIPS 141 574 0.258 0.294 0.383 81 -1.6 0.6

Nelson Cruz vs LHP G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def fWAR
Career 804 3182 0.268 0.327 0.495 114 -21.9 13.3
2013 109 456 0.266 0.327 0.506 122 -9.7 1.5
2014 ZIPS 142 585 0.259 0.316 0.469 109 -8.5 1.8

About a week ago, Buck Showalter explained his plans for left field this season. He intends to go with David Lough against righties and let Nelson Cruz play left against southpaws. Lough came to the Orioles this offseason in a trade with the Royals in exchange for Danny Valencia. As the offseason has gone along, I have felt myself become more optimistic about David Lough. At first, I thought that Lough was nothing more than a decent fourth outfielder but I think he can be more than that. Lough's high contact rate allows him to put the ball in play frequently and also allows him to maintain a low strikeout rate, just 15.5% last year.

I think there's also a little more upward potential in his on base percentage. His walk rates in the minors have been higher than the 3% he put together last season. Maybe the ghost of Jeff Francoeur rubbed off on him or maybe he felt extra pressure to prove himself. Either way, the real strength of Lough's game is his defense. Last season, in a little more than half a season's worth of playing time, he accrued 15 DRS. He also put together a 14.5 UZR or a 27.3 UZR/150. A little more than half a season of defensive stats aren't perfect (or anywhere close to it) but I have a little more confidence in them when the two metrics agree. His UZR/150 last season was the sixth best of any outfielder in the entire league.

Despite my hope that Nelson Cruz would only see time in the field if a virus put the rest of the team in the hospital, it appears he's set to start the season as the short half of the platoon in left field. Cruz has always been a powerful hitter when he's been able to stay on the field. He's had myriad injury problems throughout his career, often to his hamstrings. Serving primarily as the DH this season hopefully keeps him healthier than years past serving as the Rangers everyday right fielder. You can see from his line above that he's provided a lot of value with the bat during his career, and has a career .495 slugging percentage which is excellent. However, he's comically bad in the field where his only saving grace is a plus throwing arm. For the teams sake, we should all hope that Nelson Cruz spends as much time as possible at DH. If it breaks right, the Orioles should be able to accrue about 3 WAR from the pair.

1. Brett Gardner - New York Yankees

Career 620 2228 0.268 0.352 0.381 101 64.9 17.8
2013 145 609 0.273 0.344 0.416 108 1.3 3.2
2014 ZIPS 118 463 0.259 0.339 0.388 100 5.1 2.4

The Yankees signed Gardner to a four year, $52 million extension this offseason which will kick in after the 2014 season. There's good reason for them to do that too. Gardner is a player that primarily accrues his value through speed and defense, which is a surprising theme of many of the left fielders in the A.L. East. It's a good thing for Gardner that most teams no longer prefer big lugs who can't play defense in left field. If this were 15-20 years ago, we probably wouldn't recognize the value that Gardner brings to the table with his package of skills. The defensive numbers were unkind to Gardner last season, but earlier in his career they were elite in multiple seasons. I'd put more weight in those seasons than I would in the numbers from last year. It's likely that he's shown some decline since 2010-2011 but it's doubtful he's declined to an average defender.

In addition to being an excellent defender, Gardner also provides more value at the plate than you'd expect. Buoyed by an excellent walk rate, Gardner has always excelled at getting on base. When you run like he does, he adds even more value through good base running. He's even got a little pop, showing a career .114 ISO. Put it all together and you get roughly a 4 win player.

That's my top five for left field in the AL East. I was kind of surprised there were so many speed/defense types manning the position. What say you? Do you think I have the order right? Is anyone too high? Too low?