On yet another cold, Midwest winter day, the last thing I want to do right now is lay by a fire as warm as the MLB Hot Stove this winter.
Now, bad joke aside, the 2018 MLB free agent market has been one of the quietest in recent memory. Several factors play in this, one of the more important ones being a team’s ability to not only look at past performances, but also to project future production, thanks to the rise in baseball analytics. However, one of the most obvious reasons is the loaded 2019 free agent class that teams are preparing for. Why would you want to spend big now, only to decrease your chances to be competitive in next year’s market?
Regardless, it’s been talked about for quite awhile: the remaining free agents could form a very good “31st team” of their own. But, at what cost would this come, and how good would this team actually be? I decided to find out.
My criteria for selecting these players wasn’t necessarily strict; it was a combination of MLBTradeRumors’ Free Agent rankings, my own opinions on a player, and — when choosing between two or three players — a look at their 2017 statistics and overall track record. My point: you’ll probably read this and disagree with some of my picks.
So, let’s begin:
Four of my selections were pretty straight-forward: Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn. For the fifth starter, I considered everyone: Jaime Garcia, Chris Tillman, Edinson Volquez, Jeremy Hellickson, etc. In the end, I rounded out my rotation with Jaime Garcia, based largely on his 2017 performance — which just happened to be a little bit better than the other pitchers. Assuming each pitcher pitches at the same level he did in 2017 (big assumption, I know), here are some measurements on these starters:
Not a bad start at all: four starters well above average in terms of ERA+, as well as high strikeout and low walk rates across the board.
The next challenge was to select my relievers. Unfortunately, on the day I wrote this, one of my relievers — Addison Reed — signed a deal with the Twins, so I had to replace him. Of the remaining free agents, three pitchers were pretty easy to select — Rosenthal, Holland, and Albers — while Duensing and Watson would serve as my situational lefties. Cahill and Siegrist, my last two picks, would play mop-up roles on my team:
Like the starters, not too bad: pretty high strikeout rates, pretty low walk rates, and Holland would be the closer after having a very successful comeback year with the 2017 Rockies.
The Infield and Outfield, much like the pitchers, came fairly easily for many. Avila and Lucroy separated themselves as catchers, while the “Big Three” from the Royals all remain on the market and of value. The biggest challenge was filling the bench. I chose Logan Morrison because of his combination of home run potential and high OBP (0.353). I chose Brandon Phillips because of his versatility, and Melky Cabrera because of his overall consistency:
Again, not too bad at all. Both Lucroy and Gonzalez performed well below their career numbers in 2017, which hurt my team’s overall value. However, this is a team that, on the whole, was above average offensively in 2017.
The real question is: how would this team perform over the course of the year? To answer this, I used this study from FanGraphs: my team has 5 SP, 7 RP, 2 C, 2 1B, 2 2B, 1 SS, 1 3B, 1 LF, 2 CF, 1 RF, and 1 DH. Given the values in the study, this team would be projected to win 92.5 games if each player performed at the same fWAR value from last season. This would’ve only one 1 or possibly 2 divisions in 2017 (NLC for sure, possibly ALE if you round up), but would’ve guaranteed my team a Postseason birth in either league.
The most important question is whether or not it is actually possible to put together a team like this. To find that out, I estimated what my team’s payroll would be, assuming each player signed a 1-year deal at either their market value (as determined by Spotrac) or at their salary from last season when their market value was not listed. Here are the numbers:
Okay, so I went A LITTLE over the MLB Luxury Tax — $116,394,652 over, to be exact. For those of you counting, my team would pay $23,278,930.40 in taxes, which would probably start pushing me to a profit loss so low that it’s about as bad as my brother when he plays MyGM on NBA 2K18.
So, as interesting a concept as “taking all the top free agents and putting them on a team” is, at their current expected salaries, they would either need to take massive pay cuts or backload their contracts to make this possible. In reality, the point is that this team would not be feasible.
However, there has to be a free agent team that would be. So, in order to keep this team under the luxury tax, I selected the following team; listed is their projected salary (under my assumptions), and the same statistics from above (Note: fWAR eq. is the fWAR value used based on the study I referenced):
As the numbers show, I was able to cut the necessary $116M off of my payroll to field this team. The team also looks much weaker offensively, if you consider OPS+ and wRC+ values. However, interestingly enough, this went from a team that, solely by fWAR projections, could’ve won 92 games in 2017 to a team that would’ve been projected to win 87 games. This team could’ve won a Wild Card spot in the AL outright, and would’ve been forced to a one-game playoff with the Rockies in the NL WC. So, despite the drop in offensive production, and getting rid of players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, I was still able to create — by fWAR projections — a playoff team.
As I was doing this, I kept thinking of the movie “Moneyball” in which the A’s are trying to replace the value of a player like Jason Giambi with 2 or 3 “lesser” players that equal the same amount of value. While they were trying to match up HR and RBI totals, I instead tried to match up fWAR totals. For example, I removed Lance Lynn and Jake Arrieta from my rotation, and determined I needed to make up about 3.8 fWAR, and do it using less than $44M. By taking on Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas, I made up 3.5 out of 3.8 with $20M. Not bad.
Now, by no means am I trying to suggest that this is an exact science — there are plenty of assumptions I made. Regardless of how much you might believe in my methodology, I think this “Moneyball”-esque experiment is a good example of why the free agent market has acted the way it has this year. There is value on the market in players who aren’t demanding $20M+ in salary. While these salaries continue to grow in demand, the payroll luxury tax value is not increasing at the same rate. Combine that with the rise in advanced analytics, and you have GMs who are less willing to take a $15–$20M risk. The new trend in baseball — as we’ve seen in the past 3 World Series winners — is to build talent from within and supplement it through signings.
There’s a reason why the Astros traded young talent for Gerrit Cole just yesterday, and much of it has to do with 2 seasons worth of control, and a measly $6.75M contract. So, players are either going to have to sign smaller deals at this point, or teams will continue to look elsewhere. Until something changes however, I’ll keep the heat running in the house, because I don’t think the Hot Stove will be helping me anytime soon.
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