Earlier this week, a giddy general manager sent a mirthful text, the sort of which rarely arrives just weeks before spring training: “Time to go bargain hunting!”
Typically, as February dawns, most well-regarded and successful major league veterans have found jobs. Maybe a straggler or three remains on the prowl, but the vast majority of players know at which spring-training outpost they’ll spend their Valentine’s Day. It’s what makes 2017 such a mixture of odd and curious.
Today, 18 days from the first pitchers and catchers reporting to camp, a legitimate major league team’s worth of players remains free agents. Now, this would not be a particularly good team, but it probably wouldn’t be the worst in the big leagues, either. (Thanks, Padres!)
This happens to be one of those times when Wins Above Replacement can be a handy statistic. It judges just how much better or worse than a replacement-level player – i.e. a Triple-A call-up – a player is. A team with 25 replacement-level players, according to the standard set by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, would be projected to finish 48-114. Thus, the team’s collective WAR added to 48 gives a pretty reasonable approximation for its final record. The r-squared between WAR and actual wins last season was 75 percent, a fairly strong correlation.
Well, Yahoo Sports’ All-Unemployed Team projects for a combined 12.0 WAR, according to the Steamer projections provided by FanGraphs. A 60-win team isn’t great shakes, by any means, but for this time of year, it speaks to why teams are elated.
Players are bugging their agents asking for updates. Agents are whispering among one another that the environment smells collusive, even if there’s no definitive evidence. And clubs are happy to wait, to let the market get more nervous and to jump at those low-guarantee one-year deals or, even better, no-guarantee minor league pacts.
At least one poor sap on this team – and more likely a few – will end up without guaranteed money, even though almost all have at least six years of reasonable major league production. For now, here’s our free-agent 25-man roster, with starters, a bench, a rotation, a bullpen and Steamer’s projected WAR for each player.
C: Matt Wieters
Résumé: The best player left on the market, Wieters is coming off arguably his worst professional season, with an 87 OPS+. Still, enough teams need quality catching that he should wind up with a one-year deal in the $9 million range.
1B: Mike Napoli
Résumé: There are two good reasons Napoli has struggled to find the multiyear deal he desires. Slugging first base types tend not to age particularly well, and there’s an absolute glut of them available. Combine the two and, best-case scenario, Napoli is looking at a one-year deal with a club option.
2B: Chase Utley
Résumé: Utley is one of those eminently employable types. His reputation is nonpareil. He’s still about average with his glove. Neither the bat nor the plate discipline are what they once were, but enough is there for Utley to fetch a major league deal in a utility/mentor role.
SS: Daniel Descalso
Résumé: Putting Descalso here is fudging a bit. Ian Desmond is really the only quality shortstop in this class, and he played center field last season and will spend this year at first base. Descalso, coming off a career year, may not get the multiyear deal he desires, but he fits in a number of places on a one-year pact.
3B: Aaron Hill
Résumé: Like Descalso a player better served in a utility role, Hill nevertheless found success for the first time in years with Milwaukee last season. He’s a player multiple executives are hoping they can snag on a minor league deal, especially after he struggled following a July trade to Boston.
LF: Chris Coghlan
Résumé: Part of this team’s allure is its versatility, and while Coghlan’s ability to play infield isn’t great, its existence – as well as that of his ability to smack around right-handed pitching – makes him a good value on a small one-year deal.
CF: Angel Pagan
Résumé: Calling Pagan a centerfielder anymore may be a stretch, but sometimes teams – especially those full of the unemployed – must work with what they’ve got. That said, he’s a league-average-hitting switch hitter who profiles as a solid corner outfielder. Getting him on sale in this market could prove a great deal.
RF: Brandon Moss
Résumé: Were Moss a free agent after the first half last season, he’d have signed a multiyear deal for well over $10 million per. After hitting .191/.248/.392 in the second half, he’s struggling to find a market amid other power hitters. He’ll find a job. He’ll be on a big league team. And, like always, he’ll be good for 20-plus homers.
DH: Chris Carter
Résumé: It’s late January, and the reigning National League home run champion is unemployed. Think about that. For all of Carter’s flaws – he’s more DH than first baseman, he strikes out 200-plus times a year, he’s a perpetual Mendoza Line threat – he hit 41 tanks last year. Maybe a dozen others in baseball can do that.
Bench: Pedro Alvarez
Résumé: Alvarez’s numbers are actually better than Carter’s, and he probably deserves the starting spot. (Didn’t want to get too left heavy, of course. Keen management skills here.) A team needing a left-handed side of a platoon will poach Alvarez and get a .320-on-base, .450-slug bargain.
Bench: Kelly Johnson
Résumé: He plays everywhere, and as much as teams are starting to believe they can find utility types in their farm system and pay them the minimum, Johnson doesn’t wind up getting traded near the deadline every year because his team wants to get rid of him. It’s because the contending ones know a good insurance policy when they see it.
Bench: Coco Crisp
Résumé: A switch-hitting, base-stealing, centerfield-playing bench player with significant postseason experience and a particularly low strikeout rate who won’t want anything more than a one-year deal? Yes, please.
Bench: Dioner Navarro
Résumé: He’s a major league catcher. Which is the only reason he’s ahead of Justin Morneau, Franklin Gutierrez, Adam Lind, Logan Morrison and Mark Reynolds, among others.
SP: Jason Hammel
Résumé: Based on his performances over the past two seasons, when he was a dream No. 5 for the Cubs and a decent fourth starter for most other teams, Hammel figured to cash in during this pitching-poor offseason. He’s as likely as anyone on this team to get a two-year deal.
SP: Doug Fister
Résumé: It is not easy to land a good job when over his last 15 starts a pitcher allows a .322/.379/.498 line – essentially two months of the collective players he faced averaging out to Dustin Pedroia.
SP: Travis Wood
Résumé: Wood spent years as an innings-chomping starter, which is exactly what this team – as well as real ones – could use this time of year. He’s not sexy. Steamer hates him because it thinks he’s still a reliever. Should Wood start, though, he’ll be worth one WAR easy, probably more.
SP: Colby Lewis
Résumé: Speaking of guys who will gobble innings, Lewis might not be the most certain thing on this team, but he’s one of just 29 pitchers with three 200-plus-inning seasons this decade. The following may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s true: Teams with rotation vacancies could do plenty worse.
SP: Jorge De La Rosa
Résumé: De La Rosa is easily the No. 1 seed in the “Didn’t Know He’s Been Around For A Dozen Years” bracket. Spending the past nine in Colorado hasn’t done wonders for his ERA. And last year’s 5.51 was nearly matched by an unsightly 5.35 FIP. But he’s left-handed and good for 150 innings and, for many, that is plenty good enough.
CL: David Hernandez
Résumé: Sleeper alert! Hernandez quietly put together a nice first full season back from Tommy John surgery, striking out 80 in 72 2/3 innings. His stuff was almost back to 2012 levels, when he was one of the most unsung relievers in the game. This is a potential steal.
RP: Joe Blanton
Résumé: “Why is he not signed yet?” intoned one scout earlier this week. Well, Blanton has sought a multiyear deal, which scared teams off after a delightful regular season was soured by a brutal NLCS. Those teams are missing out. Blanton’s reinvention as a reliever is real.
RP: Boone Logan
Résumé: After the Rockies gave Mike Dunn a three-year, $18 million deal earlier this winter, that became the asking price for Logan. Now … not so much, even if his walk year was statistically superior. Every team could use a good left-handed reliever, but with spring training approaching, Logan’s leverage has vanished.
RP: Jerry Blevins
Résumé: Blevins, too, wanted Dunn money, and of the trio, he may have best deserved it, with the finest 2016 season and a newfound reverse split, in which he was better against right-handers than lefties. Along with Hammel and Logan, he still could fetch a two-year deal.
RP: Matt Belisle
Résumé: Earlier this decade, Belisle was one of the game’s most unsung relievers, putting up great numbers for four consecutive seasons in Coors Field. He still has three legit pitches in his fastball, slider and curveball, displayed excellent command last season, generates plenty of groundballs and keeps the ball in the park. Another potential sleeper.
RP: Joe Smith
Résumé: Last time he was a free agent, Smith was guaranteed $15.75 million, and he earned all of it and more in his first season with the Angels. The last two have been a bit rockier, and he may need to decide between a low-guarantee major league deal and a minor league deal with big incentives for games pitched.
RP: Sergio Romo
Résumé: Never was Romo going to blow batters away – he won a World Series, remember, on an 89-mph fastball down the pipe – but with his heater hovering at 86 last season, nearly two-thirds of his pitches were sliders. This isn’t a terribly hard-throwing bullpen, so it’s not much of a change of pace, but surrounded by big fastballs, he may well be. And if you don’t like Romo, you’ve got your pick of righties (Fernando Salas, Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Papelbon, Vance Worley) and lefties (J.P. Howell, Javier Lopez).
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