Nori Aoki and what top clubs pay their fourth outfielder

In yesterday’s article about Brandon Nimmo, a side thread in the comments section developed about Nori Aoki, specifically his contract status and the viability of bringing him back as a reserve outfielder in 2018. Commenter Pete In Iowa expressed this opinion:

What’s all this crap about the $7 – $8 million Aoki would get being too high a price for a fourth (or fifth) outfielder?? If you profess to be a competitive club, that price these days is not out of line to put a professional hitter and professional defender (which he has certainly shown himself to be in his small, but growing, sample size with the Mets) on your club — no matter if he doesn’t start. It’s called depth and that is the price to pay for quality depth.

We get so caught up in the going rate for starters that we can ignore what the going rate for reserves is. Certainly, I didn’t know what the going rate contending teams pay for reserve outfielders. So, here’s an attempt to rectify that. Below is a chart that shows the top 15 teams in Opening Day payroll for 2017 and what they paid for their top reserve outfielder, with all numbers coming from Cot’s Baseball Contracts:

Team Payroll 4th OF Salary
Dodgers $241.10 Scott Van Slyke $1.30
Tigers $199.80 Mikie Mahtook $0.54
Red Sox $197 Chris Young $6.50
Yankees $196.40 Aaron Hicks $1.35
Giants $180.80 Mac Williamson $0.54
Cubs $172.20 Jon Jay $8.00
Nationals $167.80 Chris Heisey $1.40
Angels $166.40 Ben Revere $4.00
Rangers $165.30 Ryan Rua $0.54
Orioles $164.30 Craig Gentry $0.85
Blue Jays $163.40 Steve Pearce $6.25
Mets $154.40 Juan Lagares $4.50
Mariners $154.30 Guillermo Heredia $0.78
Cardinals $148.20 Jose Martinez $0.54
Royals $143 Paulo Orlando $0.56

First off, it’s not always easy to determine who the starting outfielders were assumed to be, heading into the season. For example, once the Mets figured out they were going to be unable to trade Jay Bruce, their preferred outfield starters were going to be Bruce, Yoenis Cespedes and Curtis Granderson, with Lagares as their top reserve. But injuries to Lagares and Nimmo made Michael Conforto the top reserve. Someone who didn’t follow the Mets would have placed Conforto as the reserve and gone with that. Conforto’s salary was under $1 million while Lagares was over 4.5X that much. It’s highly likely a mistake like that was made with some other team on this list. We can certainly discuss any team that you think was not handled properly in the comments section.

Turning to the table above, only three of the 15 teams had an outfield reserve make $5 million or more. Let’s look at each of those clubs and examine their situation in greater detail.

Red Sox – They entered the year with an incredibly young and talented outfield. Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. made the most of all of the starters, earning $3.6 million. Mookie Betts earned $950K and Andrew Benintendi pulled down $549K. When your starters combine for just slightly over $5 million, it leaves room to pay your top reserve $6.5 million. Young’s a free agent following this season and it will be curious to see how Boston handles this situation. He was very good for them in 2016 but not nearly as good this year.

Cubs – Manager Joe Maddon likes to mix and match and move guys around so it’s really hard to identify who should be considered the team’s starting outfielders. On Opening Day, the Cubs had an outfield comprised of Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. For lack of any good feeling how this situation should be viewed, that’s who was considered to be the starters. You can certainly make a case for Zobrist being an infielder and Jay being a starter, which would make Albert Almora and his $552K the team’s fourth outfielder.

Blue Jays – The team only had three outfielders listed on their Opening Day roster. Pearce, the guy listed here as the fourth outfielder, started Opening Day at first base. Melvin Upton Jr. seemed like the guy to be the fourth outfielder but he was cut before the start of the season. Right now Pearce has the third-most outfield starts on the team, essentially making Ezequiel Carrera the fourth outfielder. Carrera makes $1.1625 million.

The other team that should be mentioned is the Dodgers. Andre Ethier made his first appearance of the year on September 1 after being sidelined with back and neck injuries. We can debate how he would be viewed if healthy at the start of the season. But it’s not like he was healthy last year, either. He’s kind of the West Coast David Wright in this regard. Ethier made $17.5 million in the last year of a 5/$85 contract. For this review, he was ignored completely, not considered either a starter or a reserve. You can quibble with that if you wish but the Dodgers payroll is so clearly ahead of everyone else that even if you wanted to argue he should be counted here as a reserve, it’s an uphill battle claiming that has significance for the other teams in the league.

Taking the information from the chart above, the average salary for the fourth outfielder for the top 15 payroll teams is $2.51 million. If you gave me this number as the over/under before doing this article, I would have bet the over, thinking it was in the $3-$4 million range.

However, what’s an acceptable salary for a reserve outfielder is different from team to team. It may make sense for the Mets to invest more than average on a reserve outfielder for next season, given the uncertain health of both Cespedes and Conforto. It may also depend on if Lagares is still a member of the team and whether or not he’s a starter. Finally, the number might also depend on if they spend to bring in a free agent starter. If they were to sign, say, J.D. Martinez, it would be extremely hard to justify bringing back Aoki at anything close to his current salary. But if they were to go Cespedes-Conforto-Nimmo and trade Lagares, then bringing Aoki back would make a lot of sense.

*****

In a totally unrelated note, if you listen to podcasts you should check out ours from last night that had New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro as the guest. Now, if you prefer your podcasts to be Morning Zoo craziness, well, this isn’t for you. But if you want to hear two people have an informed conversation, then I think you’ll really enjoy this. Mike shared his inside thoughts on Sandy Alderson, Terry Collins, Dan Warthen and many other topics. Click here to listen.

8 comments for “Nori Aoki and what top clubs pay their fourth outfielder

  1. Steevy
    September 21, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    What strikes me is that Juan Lagares makes way too much money..:)

  2. TJ
    September 21, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Brian,
    I agree with your conclusion that the correct answer is “it depends”. We Met fans are hypersensitive to the payroll and ownership spending. IMHO, this is a function of the ownership being disingenuous and the Mets being the little brother of the evil empire. The bottom line is the capability of the 25 man roster, combined with the depth on the 40 man roster, and lastly the team’s ability and willingness to fill holes that arise during the season when “the plan” doesn’t go as expected. Be it Aoki or someone else, the roster needs depth and quality without any weak links as a result of obvious spending shortfalls. It doesn’t matter what Lagares is making, or whether he is a platoon player, the fourth, or the fifth outfielder. His defense along makes him an asset to a big league team in anything but a 100% starting role, so unless they can acquire assets that push him to 6th or worse, he should be kept, and his salary should not in any way prohibit the procurement of other needed upgrades, if the Mets are truly interested in fielding a competitive 2018 squad. They need to make up 30 games on the true competitive teams.

    • September 21, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      But we have to live in the real world. And unfortunately, the real world doesn’t have the Mets carrying a top 10, much less a top 5 payroll. And if the average salary of a fourth outfielder for the high spending clubs is roughly $2.5 million, it’s exceedingly difficult for the Mets to carry Lagares as a fourth OFer next year when his salary rises to $6.5 million. Sure, they can do it. It means they have to skimp somewhere else. And I’d rather skimp on the 4th OFer rather than a 2B or 3B or SP or late-inning reliever.

  3. TexasGusCC
    September 22, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Philip Evans should be the 5th outfielder. Great athlete that can go to winter ball to learn to play the outfield and be a true utility guy.

    • John Fox
      September 22, 2017 at 10:13 am

      Gus, third baseman will be a much higher priority than a fifth outfielder, I’d rather have Evans work on that and see if he can challenge for the job next year

  4. IDRAFT
    September 22, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Aoki was released repeatedly this season. I doubt that the decision to being him back would hinge on his prior contract, as who would pay him that?

  5. Steve S.
    September 22, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    Question: Since Aoki has a weak arm, why is he out in RF and Nimmo (with a stronger arm) is in LF?

    • September 23, 2017 at 1:23 pm

      I don’t know.

      We’ll just add this to the pile of head-scratching moves we’ve seen under the TC administration.

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