The Reds need a major upgrade on offense and the most logical position for a new acquisition is left field. With no viable in-house options right now, the front office has two routes: sign a free agent or make a trade.

Payroll, of course, is a factor. Without relief from current commitments, the Reds don’t have much to spend on a new bat. They could shop in the bargain basement free agent market, but that wouldn’t provide the jolt to the run production needle they sorely need. A place-holder 30-something is more of the same.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the free agent market. Compilations of potential players (Baseball Prospectus, MLB Trade Rumors) show around 30 or so available as left fielders (or converted right fielders). That sounds like a big number, but keep in mind that true impact bats are scarce (read, expensive).

The two posts on Wednesday explained and quantified detailed criteria the Reds should use when looking for a new hitter. Implementing a screen for potential free agents that requires an on-base percentage (OBP) higher than .330, a walk-rate (BB%) at or above 8 percent and decent extra-base power (ISO) of .120 or better, narrows the field considerably.

Below you’ll find reports on seven candidates. The numbers charted for their OBP, BB%, ISO, and wRC+ are based on early projections for the 2015 season. DRS stands for defensive runs saved and that’s based on their 2014 data in the outfield.  In thinking about defense, keep in mind that range is a deficiency in a left fielder that can be covered over by the super-human range of Billy Hamilton. fWAR 14/15 shows their WAR (wins above replacement) as estimated by FanGraphs for 2014 and projected for 2015.

Here we go!

AokiHistory: Nori Aoki has played three years in the United States, the first two for Milwaukee and 2014 for the Kansas City Royals. The vast majority of his innings have been in right field, although both the Brewers and Royals have played him a bit in left as well.

Hitting: His hitting record has been highly consistent over his MLB career, with the exception of a marked decline in power. His ISO has fallen from .144 (2012) to .084 (2013) to .075 (2014). He does not meet our established power criteria. Aoki has an extremely low strikeout rate. Aoki gets on base pretty well, but his lack of power almost disqualified him for this list.

Defense: Defensive metrics are split on him, marginally negative. He’s left-handed.

Money: He played on a $1 2 million, 1-year contract in 2014. He would be one of the bargain basement options.

Conclusion: Hard to see Aoki offering much overall in offense. If this is where the Reds go, that’s bare minimum.

CabreraHistory: Melky Cabrera is coming off a 2-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he played primarily left field. He has previously suited up for the Giants, Royals, Braves and Yankees. In 2012, he was suspended for 50 days for testing positive for PEDs.

Hitting: Cabrera slumped in his first year in Toronto, attributed by most to a benign tumor on his spine. 2014 was a solid bounce-back season. He’s young relative to others in this group, so decline is a little less of a concern. Batting average is a big component of his on-base percentage. Cabrera doesn’t meet our established BB% criteria. Nice power number. Low strikeout rate.

Defense: Weak. Serious range issue, although arm is fine. Legs are a severe liability.

Money: Toronto may make him a qualifying offer ($15.3 million). Estimates put his contract in the range of $13-15 million/year. Gimpy legs probably limit number of years he’ll command.

Conclusion: One of the top bats available in the free agent market. Price tag means Reds would need to shed salary to consider him. Defense is a serious liability. Walk-rate a concern if his batting average declines.

Cruz

History: Nelson Cruz is coming off a 1-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles after playing eight seasons for the Texas Rangers. The Rangers played him mostly in RF, he’s played primarily LF for the O’s. In 2013, Cruz was linked to the BALCO scandal and suspended for 50 games. He turned down a qualifying offer from the Rangers. The Orioles signed him for $8 million just before the 2014 season began.

Hitting: Cruz led the major leagues with 40 home runs and finished in the top ten in ISO and SLG. His OBP and BB% are projected below our criteria, but his projected power more than compensates.

Defense: He received negative defensive scores playing RF but was rated positively in several defensive metrics this year playing LF for the Orioles.

Money: Strong rumors in the past 24 hours that the Orioles are pushing for an extension with Cruz. He’ll get paid this time, now that he’s proven his power wasn’t a function of his PED use.

Conclusion: Cruz would be a big splash for the Reds. Sounds like the Orioles may lock him up before he hits the open market. Prior to those rumors, many felt Cruz would be headed back to Texas where he was extremely popular.

Cuddyer

History: Michael Cuddyer is coming off a 3-year contract with the Colorado Rockies and previously played eleven seasons for the Minnesota Twins. Cuddyer has mostly played RF and 1B, but earlier in his career played 2B and 3B as well. Reputation as a “leadership guy.”

Hitting: Cuddyer won the batting title in 2013. He has good power. As with any hitters who play in Coors Field you have to be skeptical of numbers. Cuddyer’s last healthy season was 2013 and his road numbers were great: .367 OBP, 8.0 BB%, and 174 ISO. Plenty of good hitting seasons with the Twins, FWIW.

Defense: Below average, but not terrible, outfielder. Average first baseman.

Money: His recent injuries (hamstring) may lower his asking price or shorten the contract. It’s possible Cuddyer may look for a 1 or 2-year deal loaded with incentives.

Conclusion: Possible fit for the Reds. First-base flexibility a plus. Injury risk there, as with all older players. But that might just be what makes Cuddyer affordable for the Reds. Clubs looking for 1B, like the Pirates, will compete for Cuddyer.

Markakis

History: Nick Markakis has played for the Baltimore Orioles his entire career. Drafted by the Os in 2003 and started in 2006. Generally healthy. Young relative to this pool of players. Only played RF since 2006 although a couple substitute appearances at 1B in 2014. The Orioles have a $17.5 million club option for Markakis and most believe they’ll decline. Could pay him the $2 million buy-out and make a qualifying offer so they can receive the compensation pick if he declines.

Hitting: Solid major league hitter. Meets all three criteria. Low strikeout rate.

Defense: Above average arm, range is the issue. Defensive metrics split, but safe to say he’s not a liability. Think Jay Bruce, only in LF.

Money: I’ve seen varying estimates. Some in the $18-19 million range seem high to me. Others say the comparable is Hunter Pence at $16m/5 years, but Pence had a much better overall resume at the same age.

Conclusion: Markakis is a great fit for the Reds (and every other club looking for a corner OF) from the free agent pool. Only question is money. The team would definitely have to unload salary to afford him.

Morse2

History: Michael Morse is coming off a 1-year, $6 million contract with the Giants. He previously played four years for Seattle and four years for Washington. He plays mostly LF and 1B now, although earlier in his career he played across the infield. Oblique strain cost him playing time this year, hardly played at all in September.

Hitting: Low on-base percentage, low walk-rate, lots of power.

Defense: Huge negative. One of the worst fielders in baseball. He is “so poor” that his defense “overshadows his offensive production” according to Giants analysts.

Money: Shouldn’t command top dollar due to injury and defense, although coming off a much better season than 2013.

Conclusion: Morse is going to end up as someone’s first baseman or DH in the American League. His one quality – power – just isn’t enough help for the Reds to take on the issues in LF. Only included him in this post because John Fay keeps mentioning his name due to affordability.

Willingham

History: Josh Willingham is playing for the Kansas City Royals. He was traded to KC mid-season from Minnesota, where he had played for 2.5 seasons. Previously he spent 2 years with the Nationals and 4 years with the Marlins. He’s been strictly used as a LF. Final season of a $21 million/3-year contract. Almost signed with the Reds in 2012, but the club chose Ryan Ludwick instead because $2.5 million is less than $7 million.

Hitting: Struggled with batting average but super elite walk-rate maintains a well-above average on-base percentage. Still hits for good power. Willingham is one of those hitters who looks much better if you’re into modern stats. Marty Brennaman would scoff at Willingham’s .215 average last year. But Willingham’s wRC+ (runs created) of 113 would have trailed only Mesoraco, Votto and Frazier on last year’s Reds. Remember, 113 means 13 percent above average.

Defense: Below average fielder because of range, not arm. But not horribly negative.

Money: Should be real cheap.

Conclusion: Just when I was getting excited about Willlingham, I read that he’s strongly considering retiring at the end of the season. /Sad trombone./ His bat might not be a big impact, but the Reds could do much worse for a back-up to start the season. Then again, they’ve got Skip for that.