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Three outfield free agents for Mets fans to watch

Boston Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury pumps his fist

Boston Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury pumps his fist after scoring on his inside-the-park home run in the seventh inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park in Boston. (Sept. 19, 2011) Credit: AP

In both words and deeds, the Mets’ current regime has made their plans about 2014. Not counting arbitration raises and minimum salary for pre-arbitration players, the front office has committed just $33.55 million to next season’s squad. That’s over $50 million less than the 2013 squad. An impressive position player core should be in place by next April, headlined by David Wright, Ike Davis and Travis d’Arnaud.

But the outfield is likely to remain a work in progress (to be kind) – unless Marlon Byrd emerges as a comeback player of the year candidate, Collin Cowgill suddenly becomes more than a fringe complementary players and Lucas Duda harnesses his natural power. With that in mind we present three players eligible for free agency in 2014 – one each in right field, center field and left field – to keep your eye on as the MLB season unfolds:

David DeJesus, Cubs
RF, 34 yo
Agent: ACES
2013 salary: $4.25 million
Career: .281, 80 HR, .774 OPS
2012: .263, 9 HR, .753 OPS

DeJesus is an especially interesting name because of his under-the-radar status. He’s played on bad Royals, Athletics and Cubs clubs and so never garnered much attention. But he’s average to above average in the field, with a -1.5 UZR/150 in center, 2.1 in right and 20 in left.

He’s only signed one free agent deal, with the Cubs for two years plus a 2014 team option valued at $6.5 million, and has never earned more than $6 million during a season. If the Cubs decline his option, the Mets could likely get him on a short-term contract for about as much as they’re paying John Buck or Frank Francisco in 2013 ($6.5 million). And he would be instantly more valuable than those retreads.

And when it comes to talent, though his batting average or power may not jump out at you, DeJesus is a man with a particular set of skills (hat tip to Liam Neeson). DeJesus was one of just eight players who were MLB-average or above in putting the ball in play, pitches per plate appearance, percentage of strikes fouled off, strikeout rate and on-base percentage.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
CF, 30 yo
Agent: Boras Corporation
2013 salary: $9 million
Career: .297, 56 HR, .791 OPS
2012: .271, 4 HR, .682 OPS

In deciding whether to pay the big bucks agent Scott Boras is likely going to demand for Ellsbury, who most analysts peg as either the first or second best 2014 free agent, the Mets must first decide who the heck Ellsbury is.

What we know: (1) He’s a great fielder. Ellsbury has a 6.7 UZR/150 in his primary position of center field and has positive ratings in both corners as well. (2) He’s speedy. In his three full seasons in the major, Ellsbury has stolen at least 39 bases and swiped 70 bases in 2009. (3) He makes good contact. In every season he’s played in at least 145 games, Ellsbury hasn’t hit lower than .280. He topped .300 in 2009 and 2011, when he finished second in AL MVP voting.

What to watch for: (1) Can he stay healthy? Ellsbury has only played in more than 74 games three times in five full seasons, suffering from rib and shoulder injuries. (2) Is he a power hitter? Aside from 2011, when he hit 32, Ellsbury has never hit more than nine home runs in a season. From a pure talent perspective, that’s not a big deal – a speedy, solid hitting, good fielding center fielder is very valuable. But from a contract standpoint, it means everything. No center fielder without 20-homer power is earning more than Ellsbury’s $9 million in 2013. His power output this season could mean the difference between a $9 million/year salary and $20 million going forward.

Mike Morse, Mariners
LF, 32 yo
Agent: ACES
2013 salary: $7 million
Career: .295, 70 HR, .839 OPS
2012: .291, 18 HR, .791 OPS

Seattle’s Safeco Field is essentially Citi Field West, the left, center and right field distances only three-to-four feet shorter at the Mariners’ home park. Thus, Morse’s 2013 could be a good audition for a future as a Mets outfielder. During his career, Morse has played over 870 innings at first base and in left field and right field. The Mariners, however, have used him exclusively in left field during spring training, his worst defensive position. Morse has a -9.1 UZR/150 in right, -3.1 at first and -20.4 in left. Among all major leaguers since 2005 with at least 950 innings in left, Morse’s UZR/150 is second worst – just ahead of Manny Ramirez and behind “fielders” like Adam Dunn and Delmon Young.

But Morse can also do something all three of those players could do: hit and hit with power. Among all outfielders since 2005 with at least 1,500 plate appearances, Morse’s .839 OPS is tied for 20th with Jason Bay (gulp). Since he became a regular with the Nationals in 2010, Morse hits a home run every 18.65 at-bats and an extra-base hit every 9.04 at-bats. David Wright, the Mets’ most prolific hitter, hits a home run an average of once every 23.24 at-bats during his career and an extra base hit once ever 8.7 at-bats. Morse’s rates outpace the powerful Ike Davis, too.

So if you’re up late, turn on the West Coast game and watch Morse lumber around left field and decide if his plodding defense outweighs his hitting prowess.

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