Johnny Damon isn't the only interesting free-agent outfielder still looking for work. For the first four months last season, Jermaine Dye was a valuable fantasy baseball resource, with 23 home runs, 63 RBIs and a good-enough .281 batting average entering August. Nothing wrong with those stats. Sure, you might be sour on him because of his final two months (four home runs in 45 games, .184 batting average), but don't dismiss his overall accomplishments. The White Sox decided to move on without Dye, and he remains unemployed in mid-January. But according to ESPNChicago.com, there's a mutual interest from the Chicago Cubs and the outfielder with 325 career home runs. Hey, it's about time!
Players like Dye are often underrated in fantasy baseball circles, because fantasy owners tend to overrate young players -- see Chris Davis, for example -- or players with the potential to hit for power and steal a base. I'm with you on seeking youth and multi-faceted options, but often it means safe, consistent power hitters such as Dye are ignored. As recently as 2006, he smacked 44 home runs with 120 RBIs and a .315 batting average. Even last season, Dye finished with more than 25 home runs for the fifth consecutive season. Dye joined 20 other right-handed hitters in the group of those who hit 20 or more home runs against right-handed pitching in 2009. I don't think he's done yet at age 36, and the Cubs seem like a really good fit, both for their team and for yours, depending on what round you can steal him in.
For now, there is no official deal with the Cubs, and the team is cautioning him against expecting regular playing time, thinking he can be a backup at corner outfield and first base. Fair enough. However, there's serious opportunities for Dye if he performs similarly to what he did most of 2009; he might be in line to take over regularly in right field. To wit:
• Left fielder Alfonso Soriano has missed an average of 42 games in his three seasons with the Cubs, and it's not just his durability that is declining. So is his production. Say what you will about Dye, but he has outhomered and hit for a higher batting average than Soriano the past two seasons. Soriano is more valuable because he can still steal bases, though not nearly to the degree he used to. The point is the Cubs realize Soriano isn't the guy he used to be, so they're looking for depth. Hard to believe this now, but Soriano was our No. 16 overall player in the rankings at this point last year. He's not in my top 75 now.
• Center fielder Marlon Byrd should not be viewed as an everyday player, and the friendly Cubs faithful will see that before April ends. Byrd is coming off his first season with 500 at-bats, and he did well, hitting 20 home runs with a .283 batting average. Now check his home/road splits, or better yet his career stats away from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Byrd is a very nice fourth outfielder, capable enough in the field, not a true platoon guy because he's the rare right-handed hitter with reverse splits (hits better against right-handers). However, it's kind of foolish to expect him to hit fifth in the lineup for the Cubs, which is the early rumor. Dye can hit fifth. Byrd is barely draftable in a standard league now that he's out of Texas, and he's a far better fit as the fourth outfielder than Dye.
• Kosuke Fukudome has a .767 OPS in nearly 1,200 plate appearances with the Cubs, which isn't very good, and at this point we should all stop expecting more. Fukudome is what he is, versatile defensively and able to hold his own when it comes to getting on base against right-handed pitching. That's it. Like Soriano, Byrd and Dye, he's on the wrong side of 30. Both he and Byrd can play center field capably, but neither has the power generally needed from a right fielder. Against left-handed pitching, Fukudome is downright awful, and after being caught on 10 of his 16 stolen bases attempts in 2009, he shouldn't get the green light anymore. He and Byrd should share center field, and the 40-plus games Soriano misses in left field.
I'd argue the Cubs should not only sign Dye, but present him the job in right field for 140 games. Despite the poor production the final two months, I don't think it's a sign of precipitous decline. We've seen this from Dye in the past, and he has bounced back. Plenty of players struggled for two-month periods last season. A grand total of five players hit more home runs than Dye when playing right field in 2009, and they all currently have jobs (Jayson Werth, Nelson Cruz, Michael Cuddyer, Andre Ethier, Nick Swisher) and will be, dare I say, selected in pretty much all standard fantasy leagues. Dye lacks the upside of some of those guys, but he still matters. I'd draft him in the same region as Cuddyer, Swisher, Ryan Ludwick and Brad Hawpe, others who could post 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Dye has played 32 games at Wrigley Field, and while it's a small sample size, he has slugged .600 in those games. Think positive!
Let's see what the Cubs -- or another team -- end up doing here, and remember that the 30-100 Dye can still deliver counts just as much as when a young player attains those stats. That makes for quite the draft-day sleeper.