Thursday, March 17, 2016

Free-Agent Finishing Touches

Pitchers and catchers have reported; Spring Training games have begun; players are even starting to fall victim to cuts and injuries. With the signings of the last big free agents like Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler, the hot-stove season is also officially over. That means it's time to reveal the final roster for Baseballot's All-Free-Agent Team. In two previous installments, I went through the offseason in real time "signing" the best free agents to one imaginary team. In February, we plugged the team's final holes (the blue names below). Here is the 25-man active roster; my logic and justifications after the jump:


With one position player slot left and a hole at second base, I narrowed my choices down to recent Cuban defector José Fernández and Juan Uribe. But then Steve Pearce signed with the Rays on a team-friendly, one-year, $4.75 million deal. Pearce, if you've read some of my other blog posts, is one of the most intriguing baseball players in my book—an ostensibly part-time player who burst out for a .930 OPS in 2014 on the basis of peripheral stats that were actually quite solid. He's also very versatile defensively, playing over 120 innings at second base last year. Don't think I didn't notice that; it's not enough playing time for me to claim, in good conscience, he can be a staring second baseman, but as a utility man... That could work!

The downside to this is that Álex Guerrero, who horrified scouts with his play in the field last year, is now our team's starting second sacker. That's not ideal, but second is much easier to play than shortstop, Guerrero's natural position. And the chance to buy into a legitimate breakout candidate like Pearce is too good to pass up. It also proved to be a safe play: Fernández still hasn't signed with a team, raising doubts that he will play at all in 2016.

Relief Pitcher

The remainder of the open jobs on the all-free-agent team were in the bullpen. My strategy here was to pass on all the lucrative, $6-million-a-year reliever contracts and wait until the last minute to snatch up the bargains that are always left over at the end of the offseason. (You can't wait around and safely assume that there will be a good shortstop still on the market by February, when remaining free agents can be signed at huge discounts, but there will always be good relievers; it's always the deepest position in free agency, with hundreds of players on the market and not that many guaranteed bullpen jobs.) The gambit served me well, as I think I built a solid bullpen for just a few million a pop.

Korean closer Seung-hwan Oh, nicknamed the Final Boss, had 41 saves in Japan last year, and at first I targeted him as a dominant but probably below-market-price finisher. When he signed with the Cardinals, though, reports were sketchy about how much he was paid—and the implication was that it was a pretty penny. Scrapping that plan, I resolved that "closer" is just an intimidating label, and I threw Yusmeiro Petit—who still holds the MLB record for most consecutive batters retired!—into the role. That freed me up to look for a setup corps on the cheap.

When the Cardinals signed Carlos Villanueva last offseason on a minor-league deal, I really liked it for the team. Sure enough, he filed a 2.95 ERA in a long-relief role, continuing his career-long ability to absorb quality innings. When he signed a $1.5 million deal with the Padres this offseason, I knew I had to have him. His .265 BABIP last year indicates some regression may be in store, but that will be mitigated by pitching in PETCO Park.

In mid-January, Joe Blanton signed a $4 million, one-year contract with the Dodgers. I was a big believer in his 2015, when he reinvented himself as a 25.6%-strikeout-rate reliever, but even this fairly average contract was a bit too rich for my blood. I was confident that better deals would bubble up for comparable relievers, and I was right: a few days later, the White Sox signed Matt Albers for $2.25 million. Injured and insanely lucky (with a left-on-base percentage of 95.1%), Albers put up a 1.21 ERA in 37.1 innings in 2015. Nevertheless, his FIP was still a solid 3.48, and he has a long track record of excellence thanks to an ability to get groundballs (59% in 2015). His injury is unlikely to be nagging, as it was a broken finger suffered in a bench-clearing brawl.

Albers completed my right-handed arsenal, although there were even more options I could have sprung for. Tommy Hunter, who has allowed just two walks per nine innings in his career, signed for the bargain rate of $2 million, although it later turned out he was injured, so our team likely dodged a bullet. Even cheaper was Ryan Webb, who cost the Rays just $1 million.

I had just one opening left—for my bullpen's left-handed specialist. I was hot in pursuit of Angels non-tender-ee César Ramos, but his was a curious case. After putting up a 3.33 ERA in 135 innings since 2014, he's the kind of guy who might have been in line for a hefty multi-year deal. Instead, he signed with the Rangers on a minor-league deal, and the team announced they would convert him to a starter. Unusual, to say the least—but this also meant he wouldn't work in the role we wanted him for.

Antonio Bastardo was also on my short list, but he got the rare lucrative deal late in the offseason. This had me scraping the bottom of the barrel for lefties—Matt Thornton and Neal Cotts were two of the only reliable ones left. Finally, in late February, Cotts won the staring contest of who would sign first. He went to the Astros for only $1.5 million—certainly affordable for our imaginary ballclub.

Starting Pitcher

With seven starting pitchers on our roster as of several months ago, this wasn't a position where we were looking to add—but I was certainly tempted to when Mat Latos hitched up with the White Sox for $3 million. Latos had a terrible 2015, posting a 4.95 ERA for three teams (all of which seemed to hate him), but the previous two years he carried 3.25 and 3.16 ERAs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015 indicated he hadn't actually gotten any worse but instead was just supremely unlucky. Three million dollars is a steal for any starting pitcher, let alone one who is actually a good candidate for a bounceback. And although Latos has a reputation for being injury prone, if he is merely a league-average pitcher for two months, then suffers a season-ending malady, he'll still have been a bargain. (Mediocre starting pitchers regularly sign for $12 million a year these days, so a third of a mediocre season is worth $4 million.) I was upset I couldn't fit him onto my team, but he is a perfect example of the virtues of staying patient throughout the free-agent season. This year, I simply didn't wait out the market long enough. Sad!

* * *

At the beginning of the offseason, I pledged to build a 25-man roster of free agents under the constraints of a $200 million payroll. It was a close call, but we came in under budget, as our 25 players are guaranteed $193,990,833 for the 2016 season. The final roster will be viewable on this website all season long, and after the campaign I'll take a look back to see how they fared. Were they worth all that money? Or did I waste a not-so-small fortune on a bunch of replacement players? Stay tuned!

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