For the second straight offseason, the free agent market is moving at a glacial pace. Even two of the best free agents this century — 26-year-old superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — have not found a home.
Harper and Machado are not alone, though, as 132 of the 219 free agents — more than 60 percent — remain unsigned with a month until Spring Training and two months until Opening Day. Quite a few good ones are still out there, including All-Stars Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and A.J. Pollock.
It’s a strange situation considering that Major League Baseball has hit a record revenue for the 16th straight season, and yet payrolls dropped in 2018 by their highest amount since 2004. Things are so off that Barry Bonds’ former agent Jeff Borris said he believes the owners are colluding to suppress players’ salaries.
There are certainly a combination of factors creating the free agent surplus — owners caring more about the luxury tax, teams spending more efficiently and a weaker-than-expected free agent market — but the point remains that there are lots of talented players available at the right price.
With a hat tip to Travis Sawchik’s 2018 story for FanGraphs, how good could a team of all free agents be? Given a choice of only players who remain unsigned as of Thursday night, it turns out a 25-man roster would be very talented.
The Free Agent Team would have an above-average offense
This Free Agent Team will have 13 hitters and 12 pitchers. With one hitter at each position and five backups — or four backups if one was DHing — there is still plenty of talent to go around.
Using the fWAR projections from FanGraphs’ Depth Charts page (based on Steamer projections), here would be the team’s hitters. To make sure that the team’s total plate appearances closely matches the league average of 6,171 per team last year, I’ve cut four of the bench hitters’ plate appearances (and thus fWAR) by a third.
At 26.3 fWAR, the Free Agent Team would have projected the ninth-most offensive fWAR in the league. It’s a well-balanced team with solid power and versatility that slots ahead of the Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and New York Mets.
The Free Agent Team’s pitching is more middling
While most of the top hitters remain on the market — apologies to Andrew McCutchen and the underpaid Yasmani Grandal — many of the top pitchers have already been signed. Patrick Corbin earned the biggest deal in two offseasons, while Yusei Kikuchi and Nathan Eovaldi both landed big paydays. Still, plenty of valuable pitchers remain.
This team will get six starters since they will inevitably need an extra one over the long season and one can act as a long reliever if need be. Adam Ottavino would have been a nice addition, but he agreed to a deal with the New York Yankees hours before the self-imposed deadline for this team.
Overall, the pitching staff projects to log just 11.5 fWAR, which would rank 20th, just behind the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves. However, it is important to note that these 12 pitchers only project to throw 1,181 innings, which is well short of the 1,449 IP league average.
One could assume that the rest of the innings are logged by replacement-level pitchers, but there are more valuable pitchers available — such as Ervin Santana, Martin Perez, Jake Diekman and Oliver Perez — so the number could be a few points higher.
How does the Free Agent Team fare?
Before counting the contributions from the rest of our hypothetical 40-man roster, the Free Agent Team projects to accumulate 37.8 fWAR. While that can be hard to imagine in a vacuum, that’s the 11th-best mark in baseball, just ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays.
At 37.8 fWAR, they would be sixth in both the American League and National League — less than two fWAR behind the Los Angeles Angels and less than four fWAR behind the Mets. But, again, given that the pitching could conceivably add a few more wins over the missing 268 innings, they could make up that gap.
With an entirely replacement-level team estimated to win 52 games, this team of misfit toys would project to win nearly 90 games and be squarely in the playoff hunt. There’s plenty of talent out there for teams; all they have to do is spend the money.
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