Saturday, December 26, 2015

This Holiday Season, the Best Gifts Will Be These Four Free Agents

Merry Christmas, a belated happy Hanukkah, and an early happy new year to the baseball-blog-reading internet. I have a present for you: the latest update to the Baseballot All-Free-Agent Team. This offseason, readers and I are assembling the best possible baseball team constituted solely of current and recent free agents. Read the rules of our little game here; catch up on the first wave of "signings" here, and contribute to the team by tweeting me here.

We've added four players to the team in the last couple weeks: Jason Heyward, Hyun Soo Kim, Mike Napoli, and Henderson Álvarez. Our team's payroll is now up to $184,940,833 for 2016. That means we have just over $15 million left to spend before hitting our self-imposed budget of $200 million. Here's what the team looks like as we enter 2016:


Like a thunderclap from some out-of-season Midwest supercell, all of St. Louis felt a shudder when Heyward signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs. Despite the deal probably being this offseason's biggest for a position player, it was actually underpaying for the svelte outfielder. He may not match up in traditional offensive stats (13 homers, 79 runs, 60 RBI), but Heyward's huge value added in baserunning (+7 runs) and defense (+24 runs) make him one of the best players in baseball. For a six-win player, $23 million a year is a steal. And, while I'm normally leery of long-term contracts, this one is likelier than most to work out because of Heyward's age: he's a mere 26. The deal will encompass four or five years of his peak—not begin just as he starts to fade, as is the case for most free agents. This, of course, is all assuming Heyward doesn't opt out after three years, as is his wont under the contract. Even so, the agreement would work out to $78 million for three of his prime years. That's a fair market rate. Since our team is going for broke on the field, let's go for broke off it too. Heyward's the new face of our fake franchise.

Heyward's signing left us with just one slot to fill in the outfield: a backup position. As at most positions in this loaded free-agent class, our options are an embarrassment of riches. The going price for a solid complementary piece was between $5 and $6 million: Rajai Davis and Alejandro De Aza both got one-year deals in that range. I'd have been satisfied with both: they typically deliver league-average OPSes and create about 50 runs a season in limited time. But is that worth $6 million? On the other side of the spectrum, I loved the Angels' signing of Daniel Nava at $1.375 million for one year—always cast as a bench player, he was nonetheless worth 2.6 WAR just one season ago—but I wasn't confident that he would get enough plate appearances. Thankfully, I had an easy out of this conundrum: Kim, the 27-year-old Korean outfielder who just signed with the Orioles for two years and $7 million. In Kim, our hypothetical team gains a patient hitter expected to get regular playing time in Baltimore entering his physical prime, and at a lower price point to boot. Even after Jung Ho Kang, the market for Korean baseballers remains undervalued. Although it's not realistic to expect Kim to replicate the 28 home runs he hit for the Doosan Bears in 2015, his main skill is contact and batting eye, a skill that should translate. Even with an offensive dropoff, he'll walk enough and strike out rarely enough to be worth $3.5 million a year.


For our vacant DH spot, I opted for Napoli on a $7 million salary. Napoli's down year last season was due mostly to his .252 BABIP with the Red Sox; when he was traded back to the Rangers, he was a changed man (.295/.396/.513). His two biggest skill sets—power and ability to take a walk—were unaffected by age, injury, or bad luck, so at a relatively low salary, I like his odds to be MIKE NAPOLI again.

The DH spot came down to Napoli or Orioles utilityman Steve Pearce, whose .930 OPS season in 2014 has me convinced he's ready for a bigger role. However, I ultimately decided a Napoli in the hand is worth two Pearces in the bush. We have no guarantee that Pearce will receive significant playing time in 2016 (unlike Napoli, who the Indians have said will start at first base for them), and his salary is a mystery too.

There's a small chance I can still shoehorn Pearce onto our team. Our one remaining vacancy on offense is a second baseman, and Pearce played a bit of 2B in 2015 for the Orioles. It may not be his primary position (that's first base and the outfield, where he's actually an above-average defender), but he held his own with 6.5 UZR/150 there last year. The other options for our starting second baseman aren't inspiring. I could sign Pearce to be our utilityman and install incumbent Álex Guerrero as the starter at second, but his defense is even more suspect (though a natural shortstop, he has played only third and left field in the majors, and badly at that). I'll take a hard pass on Daniel Murphy, too; his 2015 was a career year, his defense saps a lot of his value, and he's on the wrong side of 30. Juan Uribe is a name I'll keep an eye on; though he's likely to be a part-timer going forward, he's produced a ton of value in that role before thanks to outstanding defense, including 5.0 WAR (!) in 426 plate appearances in 2013. If I can afford him (and if he establishes legal residency in time), my first choice would be José Fernández—but no, not that one. The 27-year-old Cuban defector fits a pattern I've well established here: in exchange for their lack of major-league track record, international free agents can usually be had at discounts, and their relatively young age means their prime years are usually still ahead of them.

Starting Pitcher

Dodgers fans felt their insides turn a little bit when the report out of Japan leaked that Hisashi Iwakuma had failed his physical. We can relate. Iwakuma was one of the all-free-agent team's first signings, and a personal favorite of mine—the low-ERA, low-WHIP guy with excellent fundamentals who came at a fraction of the cost of a David Price or Zack Greinke. Los Angeles backed away from their three-year, $45 million deal, letting Seattle swoop in and re-sign him to a complex contract. If healthy, Iwakuma will get a similar $47.5 million over three years, but the risk to the team is much less—"the Bear" is only guaranteed one year and $12 million. That built-in safety convinced me to stick with Iwakuma where the Dodgers didn't. Looks like we don't need to dip back into the pool for an emergency starter after all.

Still, the uncertainty means it might not be a bad idea to build some starting-pitcher depth. Bartolo Colón's $7.25 million deal to return to the Mets—reportedly lower than offers he received elsewhere—was tempting for a guy who can still be an effective starter. But I decided to go with upside. Álvarez had a gruesome 2015, dealing with two serious injuries and ghastly results when he did take the field. But when right, he's a young starter with great stuff and the ability to dominate. The Marlins' head-scratching non-tender of him meant that his next team would control him for two years under the arbitration process, a chance too good to pass up. The A's signed him to just $4.25 million guaranteed. That's the price of a decent reliever—except this $4.25 million contract has the chance to be worth tens of millions. This was an easy call and, barring another failed physical, ends my pursuit of starting pitching once and for all. (Sorry, Wei-Yin Chen.)

Relief Pitcher

The bullpen market has exploded since my last post. I'd have loved Steve Cishek as my closer and Tony Sipp as my lefty weapon out of the 'pen—but both signed for contracts that were far too rich ($10 million and $18 million, respectively). Shawn Kelley would be a good eighth-inning guy, right? Only if I want to pay him $15 million (I don't). Maybe Ryan Madson would be a cheap alternative at closer due to his injury history. Nope—somehow he got $22 million. This is a world where Jerry Blevins, a useful lefty but one who only pitched seven innings total last year, got $4 million guaranteed. I'm truly taken aback at how the usually affordable reliever market has gone to the next level.

Most of the truly safe relievers are now off the board, and I still have three slots to fill in late relief. Maybe it's time to get worried? But, as I explained a couple weeks ago, relief pitching is the ultimate crapshoot. I'd almost be comfortable waiting to just sign the last three relievers who ink contracts in February/March; because of the nature of the market, they'll be the cheapest, and because of the inherent randomness of bullpens, they won't necessarily be any worse. I'm not ready yet to succumb to the pressure of the fast-moving market and overpay.

Got any sleeper picks for good free-agent relievers? I'm open to pretty much any suggestions!

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