It’s nearly mid-January and we could still create a pretty special team based on free agents alone.
It’s mid-January, and we are only a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Generally around this time, we are writing team previews, analyzing the last of the free agents who have yet to sign, and discussing projections for teams and positions based on changes in the depth chart post the hot stove. This year, however, we still have many good players who have yet to sign.
Rather than analyze individuals who changed teams, or individual team construction, we’ll be taking a look at the long list of talented free agents who have yet to sign with a new club to see how this ‘all free agent team’ stacks up against the rest of the league. It’s an incomplete exercise, of course, as this is a zero-sum game, and one team will end up with Bryce Harper and company, while the other 29 will not.
Taking a look at the top free agents still available, we can construct a lineup that looks pretty darn good on paper:
From a position player perspective, there really aren’t any surprises or too-big-of-stretches on this list. Each player is either at their natural position, or one in which they are either well-experienced or could be expected to make a reasonable adjustment.
Based on the list of current free agents available, we end up with three outfielders who are fully capable of playing center, though some better than others. Bryce Harper has played more right field than anywhere else recently, so moving him over a spot makes sense. Moving Adam Jones from center to left makes some sense as well since A.J. Pollock is the better defender. Of course, utility-man Marwin Gonzalez could also play leftfield, slotting in either Jones or Pollock at the designated hitter spot, when applicable, but we have him in the infield.
The biggest weakness is at first base, as there weren’t many good first basemen available this offseason. Steve Pearce was probably the best first base candidate available but the Red Sox signed him pretty early-on in the offseason. This makes Marwin Gonzalez that much more important, as he has played plenty of first base in addition to left field. We could get really creative and get Evan Gattis out there at first base, but he’s best left as a DH at this point in his career, and could slide in as a designated hitter/bench player.
This lineup is pretty solid, and would certainly meet the criteria for a playoff contender. Last season these eight players alone totaled more than 25 wins per FanGraphs, which is right around the value of all position players for the Cardinals (25.1) and the Braves (25.7).
This roster would likely hit over 200 home runs as currently constructed, and that’s not even including anyone else on the depth chart, which could include not only Evan Gattis, but potentially D.J. Lemahieu, and Nick Markakis. Those three players each hit 15-25 home runs, so this team would definitely have some flexibility and some thump. Those players all are looking for starting jobs of course, but in this exercise, what the heck!
With the current free agent position players we get a fairly well-balanced, competitive team. While it may be lacking in defensive prowess, this lineup should score enough runs to remain competitive, provided the pitching is league-average as well (which could be a challenge).
This team better hit, because despite some good relievers, the starting pitching is pretty suspect:
We knew coming into the year that the starting pitcher market would be wanting. With Clayton Kershaw staying with the Dodgers (and suffering from back issues the past few season) it was slim pickings on the free agent market to start, never-mind two+ months into the offseason.
Dallas Keuchel has not been a true-ace in several seasons, but he remains a strong starter who limits walks (6.6 percent walk rate in 2018) and limits hard contact (28.1 percent last year, and 25.3 on his career).
Keuchel managed a strong 3.6 fWAR last year, with an earned run average and fielding independent pitching about 10 percentage points better than league average. He’s a good add in an otherwise shallow field.
Gio Gonzalez has been a league-average pitcher for the better part of the last three seasons. He eats innings, which is important, and even though we’d rather have him as a number four(ish) starter, he’s the best we can do at number two. 170+ league-average innings is no small feat. He’s a solid addition to the rotation.
Wade Miley and Clay Buchholz are interesting cases considering the year they just had in Milwaukee and Arizona, respectively. Both threw about half as many innings as would be required to have an impact on our Free Agent team, both posted good ERAs, but have considerable questions.
Miley’s 2.57 ERA was significantly lower than league-average, but it’s not likely sustainable when you consider his penchant for walking batters and his lack of Ks. A career eight percent walk rate is not ideally for a 32-year-old starting pitcher who does not strike out many batters.
Similar to Miley, Buchholz only pitched 98 innings, but his sparkling 2.01 ERA is eye-catching. Even his K-BB% number of 15.0 is the best he’s posted since a good 2015 campaign in Boston. Still, there are a myriad of questions including durability, and an ability to limit the longball. Over those 98 innings, he allowed nine home runs. Throwing in the homer-prone Gio and Ervin Santana, and this rotation is always at risk of blowing leads.
You’re probably not getting 850-900 innings out of these five starters, which is the real problem here. Looking at the next-tier of starters, we’re in the hardly-inspiring realm of Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, and Drew Pomeranz.
The relief corps of Adam Ottavino, Cody Allen, and Shawn Kelley, with Craig Kimbrel slotted in as the closer is excellent. That’s a high-powered bullpen with strikeout stuff, and if Kimbrel is used creatively, could lead to many offenses being shut down past the 6th inning.
Overall, this team would likely be competitive, but would likely lose some slug-fests due to the limits of the starting rotation. It’s hard to say whether this team would be better in a pitchers’ park or a hitters’ park, but in any case, it would really fun to watch this offense roll.