What if I told you that there was an outfielder who has a .261/.320/.496 batting line over his past four seasons, is capable of playing passable defense, and is probably available for a contract similar to (or less than) what Pedro Alvarez got from the O’s this year? Sounds ridiculous, right?
As it turns out, that guy is out there. He’s available on the free agent market right now, is getting virtually zero press, and is someone who I honestly forgot existed until a couple days ago. His name is Franklin Gutierrez.
There’s obviously a catch to all this: Gutierrez is a part-time platoon bat. In those last four seasons (which include 2012, because he didn’t play at all in 2014), he has just over a single full season’s worth of plate appearances - 786, to be exact.
Of those plate appearances, 58% have been against left-handed pitchers. Once the Mariners figured out he crushes left-handed pitching around the start of the 2015 season, that number jumped to 70% for the past two years.
It’s not hard to see the reason why. Gutierrez has a OPS nearly 200 points higher against southpaws in his career: .846 (.289/.351/.495) vs. .652 (.240/.289/.363). Over the past two seasons he’s improved across the board but especially against left-handers: he’s hitting .293/.368/.546 against lefties since the start of 2015.
That’s equal to an OPS one point below the 2016 version of Nelson Cruz. That’s obviously valuable, but how valuable if he only gives you 250-300 plate appearances per year? For help, we can turn to Beyond the Box Score’s free agency calculator.
It estimates Gutierrez would be worth around $6 million per year given his position, age, and WAR over his past three years. The calculator is a year old now, but the numbers shouldn’t change too much. Let’s call it $6.5 million.
That also aligns with what Gutierrez got from the Mariners last year. After missing the entire 2014 campaign and having a terrific partial season in 2015, they gave him a one-year deal for $1.5 million that was laden with $4.25 million in plate appearance-based incentives. If he hit all of those (it’s hard to find the specifics), he would have earned $6.75 million.
He’s basically the same player now that he was last year, only with more data to back it up, so it makes sense that his value would be similar, albeit in guaranteed dollars. A full-time player with an OPS around .900 would certainly get close to $20 million if not more, so is a player who does it over 250 plate appearances worth a third of that?
Probably, and especially so when you consider that the Orioles as a whole are horrible against left-handed pitching. Furthermore, they have a natural platoon partner for Gutierrez in Hyun Soo Kim.
Of Kim’s 323 plate appearances last year, only 23 came against left-handers. In those 23 plate appearances, Kim had zero hits. It’s safe to say the O’s would love to keep Kim in a platoon role if they can afford to do so, and Gutierrez gives them an affordable way to do that.
He’s also a better fielder than Kim, even more reason to put him out there against lefties and let Kim sit. Gutierrez isn’t a Gold Glover, but he’s at least passable out there. He was worth -5 defensive runs saved (DRS) and -1.9 ultimate zone runs (UZR) over 785 corner outfield innings the past two seasons.
Compare that to Kim, who was worth a horrid -13 DRS and -7.1 UZR over 665 innings last year. To give a sense of scale, Fangraphs considers -5 to be “below average” and -15 to be “awful” for both of those scales. Anything above +15 is considered “Gold Glove caliber.” In other words, Gutierrez isn’t great, but Kim was almost as bad last year as a Gold Glove outfielder is good.
Gutierrez is unlikely to return to Seattle next year after their trade for fellow lefty-masher Danny Valencia. Their outfield was already crowded, and even though Valencia will mostly play DH and first base, it still means there are less at-bats to go around.
Also, there are very few signs that Gutierrez’s offensive breakout over the past few years is anything but legit. He hits the ball hard - so hard, in fact, that he ranked #1 in hard-hit rate out of the 307 players with at least 250 plate appearances last year.
Beyond the Box Score had an interesting article about how he’s minimizing the value of that hard contact by hitting so many balls on the ground, so don’t expect him to go out and hit 40 home runs next year. That said, he does share the Orioles’ affinity for massive dingers, like this 473-foot bomb in Cincinnati.
Still, the article also mentions that Gutierrez was unlucky on all those grounders. He had the highest hard-contact rate on ground balls in the majors (by far), and yet he only had the 108th highest wRC+ on ground balls.
That would make sense if he was someone who can’t run and is shifted a lot like David Ortiz (who had the 2nd highest hard-hit rate on grounders), but it doesn’t make much sense for him. Gutierrez isn’t shifted much, and he’s not insanely slow. More of those hard grounders should be getting through for hits.
Gutierrez isn’t going to turn the Orioles into a world series contender overnight, but he’s a useful player who would fit especially well on an Orioles team that was horrible against left-handed pitching this year. When the O’s go to Fenway for a series to face David Price, Chris Sale, and Eduardo Rodriguez, Gutierrez would be a huge asset.
Just like Chris Coghlan or Gregor Blanco, Franklin Gutierrez isn’t exactly going to make fans rush to buy season tickets. But he fits within the Orioles’ limited budget, and addresses a glaring problem with the Orioles’ lineup. Gutierrez could be the type of creative signing the O’s need to make another playoff push while the window for this team is still open.