In my most recent Tigers Payroll Estimate I pegged Ryan Raburn as being in line for 1.5m in arbitration. Given a repeat of his 2010 or 2009 performance, which I think is likely, I'd have then estimated him at about 3.5m in 2011. So when the Tigers announced that they had agreed on a two-year extension with Raburn for just 3.4m - about half of my expectation of what it would cost for his 2010 and 2011 seasons - you can be assured that I raised an eyebrow.
I'm quite confident that the reason for my surprise wasn't because my estimates were off, to the contrary I'm confident that I'll prove to be very close in far more of my estimates than not - but rather that the Tigers got a great deal. How good? Well, we could simply say that the Tigers got Raburn for perhaps half of what it would've cost through arbitration and leave it at that, but we can do better.
Amongst all Major League left fielders who had enough at-bats to qualify, Raburn's 2.1 WAR in 2010 would've been tied for 11th with the Twins Delmon Young. And just 0.1 WAR behind Juan Pierre of the White Sox and Bobby Abreu of the Angels.
Would've been, except Raburn didn't have enough at-bats to qualify.
In just 371 at-bats, or about 3/5 of a season, Raburn managed to provide as much production as players with nearly twice as many plate appearances. Indeed, if you were to project Raburn's production over a full 550 at-bat season, he'd have been worth 3.1 WAR, which would've left only this list of players ahead of him:
Josh Hamilton (8.0), Matt Holiday (6.9), Carl Crawford (6.9), Carlos Gonzalez (6.0), Aubrey Huff (5.7), Brett Gardner (5.4), and Ryan Braun (4.2).
Not bad company, and given that Huff started a whooping 24 games in left, you could be forgiven if you excluded him from the list.
What's perplexing is that if you were forced to judge Raburn strictly on the amount of praise or neglect he gets from Tiger fans, you'd be almost certain to come away with the impression that he was a bench player at best.
I don't want to come across as a Raburn apologist - he's a player with some clear weaknesses - specifically in the field and as a hitter with a pretty severe platoon split against right-handed pitching. He's clearly not in the top-tier of the games left fielders like Crawford, Holliday, Gonzalez, or Braun, but he's also a better player than 20 or so other teams are going to run out on a daily basis - and probably better than anyone else in the Central.
At the same time, his weaknesses are probably not as bad as they're made out to be. While Raburn is frequently his own worst enemy, getting bad reads, taking questionable routes, and bobbling balls, we should probably cut him some slack. During his time with the Tigers, Raburn has been used primarily as a utility player, logging time at every position other than shortstop and catcher. Thankfully he finally seems to have settled in left field, and his defense there (+2.8 UZR for his career) hasn't been that bad at all.
Further, during the past two seasons - those in which he's come closest to regular playing time - his performance against right handers hasn't necessarily been bench-worthy as he posted an .800 OPS against them in 2009 and a .753 OPS in 2010.
In the end however, Raburn is mostly about mashing left-handed pitching, and frankly, there aren't a ton who do that better. Raburn's .929 OPS vs lefties in 2010 was good for 26th best in baseball overall (Victor Martinez was 1st and Miguel Cabrera 8th!). In 2009, his .976 OPS was 22nd best and better than anyone else on the Tigers, Cabrera included.
I've seen some questions about how Raburn will fare in a full-time role. Count me in the group of the unconcerned. Raburn might not make it pretty, but I expect his defense will be around league average or just slightly worse. And offensively, he hasn't been nearly the liability vs righties that some seem to think.
Overall, I expect Raburn will provide an OPS in the neighborhood of .820 with defense that shouldn't be worse than 5 runs below average. Over a full season that should be worst at least 3 WAR, and there's plenty of potential for more. If I'm right that would mean the Tigers are in line for at least 6 WAR over the next two years. In free agency, that would probably be worth at least 20m. The Tigers will get it 3.5m.