Much has been written about the Detroit Tigers' decision to add Cameron Maybin to their outfield. Even the team is not clear on whether he will play center or left field, and they seem to be content with their current stable of outfielders. One problem: none of their outfielders, save J.D. Martinez, is particularly adept at hitting left-handed pitching. Maybin, Anthony Gose, and Tyler Collins all have significant platoon splits, which would shorten the lineup considerably against a southpaw starter.
With the 2015 MLB Winter Meetings in the books, the Tigers still have one need that looms larger than all others: another outfielder, and particularly one who can hit left-handed pitching. General manager Al Avila has spoken of the desire for such a player, with a preference for someone who can play both the infield and outfield as needed.
As fate would have it, the free agent outfielder who has the best numbers against left-handed pitchers is none other than former Tigers outfielder Ryan Raburn. The Cleveland Indians curiously declined Raburn's inexpensive $3 million option, making him a free agent. He mashed left handers for a 173 wRC+ in 2015, and has been at 127 across the past two seasons (100 is league average). Over the same period of time, Maybin has an 84 wRC+ against lefties, while Anthony Gose's platoon splits are NSFW bad. Incumbent left fielder Tyler Collins has just 19 plate appearances against lefthanders in his career.
While the Tigers are looking for a more versatile player to fill out their roster -- Raburn is certainly not an infielder, as we know first-hand -- the fit is there, and he may come cheaper than their current interest, Orioles oufielder Steve Pearce.
Who is he?
Raburn was selected by the Tigers in the fifth round of the 2001 amateur player draft out of the University of Florida. He made his major league debut in 2004, but was outrighted off the roster after the 2005 season. He agreed to a minor league contract and made it back to the majors in 2007, when he batted .304 with an .847 OPS in 148 plate appearances. Over the next five seasons, Raburn would hit .254/.310/.427 in 505 games played, including some white-hot stretches in 2009 and 2010.
Raburn was released by Detroit after the 2012 season, when he hit just .177 with a .480 OPS in 222 plate appearances. He signed with the Indians and was rejuvenated, compiling a career-high 2.4 WAR for the Tribe in 2013. He hit .257/.335/.465 in three seasons in Cleveland, but they declined his $3 million option after a career-best .936 OPS in 201 plate appearances in 2015.
Why should we be interested?
The Tigers' outfield puzzle remains unsolved with three of their four outfielders struggling against left-handed pitching. As things currently stand, two of Maybin, Collins, and Gose would need to play against a left-handed starter, which shortens the Tigers' lineup considerably. They have not come close to replacing Yoenis Cespedes' offensive production yet, and the addition of Maybin doesn't even cover Rajai Davis' stellar numbers against lefties. Raburn would bring some balance back to the outfield when facing left-handed pitchers.
Why should we stay away?
To say that Raburn has been inconsistent throughout his career is a gross understatement. His annual OPS numbers by season are a real roller coaster: .346, .847, .666, .891, .814, .729, 480, .901, .547, .936. He would go for months on end floundering at the plate, and then tear the cover off the ball for two months down the stretch. Even in the past few seasons, Raburn was worth two wins above replacement, a win below replacement in 2014, and then 1.3 WAR again in 2015. He is also a below average hitter against right-handed pitching, with a career .693 OPS in over 1,200 plate appearances.
No discussion of Raburn would be complete without highlighting the fact that he was an unmitigated disaster when the Tigers tried to play him in the infield during his previous stint in Detroit. He was worth -18 defensive runs saved in 1020 innings at second base, and -6 defensive runs saved in just 158 innings at third. The small sample size disclaimer applies, but the eye test is in agreement. In the outfield, Raburn is a roughly league average defender with a certain flair for the spectacular (in both a good and bad sense). If the Tigers insist on a player who can play both the infield and outfield, Raburn should not be considered.
Will he wind up in Detroit?
While stranger things have happened, such as Jim Leyland thinking that Raburn could play in the infield, the Tigers might actually be done with their outfield. The team has historically filled their bench with two backup infielders, and they are butting against the luxury tax threshold after fixing the bullpen. It stands to reason that the Tribe would have shopped Raburn's services before letting him go, and he shouldn't cost more than a few million dollars. Given the relative deficiencies elsewhere on the roster, the Tigers could make a value buy for their outfield that could pay big dividends.