It's time to take a look at the free agent outfield class. I decided that this group would best be described with Texas Hold'em analogies, so here we go.
High Pocket Pairs
These are guys you love to see come up to bat. You want them up in RBI situations.
Brian Giles is clearly the best outfielder available. Giles will have a significant impact on his new team, adding maybe eight wins. The Cardinals appear to be the frontrunners at this point, but the Braves are certainly in the running (Marcus is Brian's brother). Giles has incredible plate discipline and will add a few home runs once he leaves San Diego. The Padres' lowball offer of three years, $21 million definitely won't cut it.
Hideki Matsui is a notch below Giles, something akin to pocket jacks. He's still an elite outfielder, but playing in New York will inflate his contract somewhat. Still a difference-maker.
Johnny Damon is a borderline inclusion in this group. Sometimes I come off as a Damon-hater, but I'm really just a realist. Earlier this month I wrote Don't Sign Johnny Damon to explain my reasoning. Damon is dangerously close to slipping back into the realm of decent outfielders. His defense is slipping, his price tag is huge, and his on-base percentage may be the next to go. Should Damon be named as a steroid user when the next name is revealed in a couple of weeks, his value will plummet.
You don't mind holding suited connectors in poker, as long as you get to see the flop cheaply. Similarly, these players are good to have around on low-risk, affordable deals. That means a one-year commitment with a salary less than $5 million.
Jeromy Burnitz is helpful, but there's a reason it took so long for him to sign last winter. If everything else is in place, it's OK to plug him into your outfield.
Jacque Jones is the same way. Some fans are overrating Jones, but he's really on the same level as Burnitz. Both players' defense is a large part of their value.
Kenny Lofton and Jose Cruz Jr. will be nice value signings for the teams that pass on Johnny Damon. They come cheap with one-year deals and don't hurt you. Lofton could be a superb addition for the Cubs. Matt Lawton is another undervalued player; he was traded twice this season. He's always gotten on base, so he'll be a useful addition if he takes a pay cut.
Juan Encarnacion, Reggie Sanders, and Rondell White are fine hitters. Their defense is suspect, but they still have value. If Sanders stays healthy he's the best of the bunch. A team like the Orioles might overpay for Encarnacion given that he's only 29.
These are the jack-twos and nine-threes of the world. Hands you'd only hold onto if you're in the big blind and it costs you nothing to see the flop.
Preston Wilson, Jeff Conine, and Orlando Palmeiro are not guys you want in your starting outfield. Wilson and his agent likely envision him as a starting centerfielder, and he could be a Yankee if everything else falls through. Conine and Palmeiro are OK off the bench.
Bernie Williams, Sammy Sosa, and Richard Hidalgo are the deuce-sevens of free agent outfielders. They just barely have potential at this point, and you'd commit nothing to them. If Sosa somehow got completely healthy and dedicated himself, he could return to his 2004 form (.253/.332/.517). A desperate team looking to boost attendance like the Royals might want to throw a million bucks Sosa's way.
For more free agent rankings and predictions, check out my Revised Top 50 Free Agent list over at Roto Authority.