Saturday, December 3, 2016

If a Team Did Nothing but Sign Free Agents, How Would They Do?

Last winter, I embarked upon an experiment: build a hypothetical baseball team entirely from free agency. The rules were straightforward. I would simulate, as faithfully as possible, the circumstances of the offseason and the economic constraints that real GMs work under. I set a budget of $200 million and "signed" players to the same contracts they received in real life. I required myself to make decisions in real time, as quickly as possible after news broke of a new signing—like real GMs, I could not benefit from the hindsight of knowing that, say, Dexter Fowler would sign a bargain $13 million contract after Alex Gordon signed his $72 million one. I forced myself to find two players to play each position on the field—one to start, one to back up—and a full complement of five starting pitchers and a seven- or eight-man bullpen. It was harder than I expected—but I did ultimately field a roster of 25 for a combined salary of $193,990,833. Here's my 2016 "fantasy" team:

Now for the big question—how did I rate as a GM? Did I score some good bargains, or did I saddle my franchise with regrettable megacontracts? Most importantly—did I build a winning team?

It was a good lesson in the unpredictability of baseball and the dangers of the free-agent market: for the most part, I crashed and burned as a GM. But my team wasn't totally hapless, and there were some pleasant surprises in the bunch.

Overall, my players amassed 17.5 wins above replacement (using the FanGraphs version of WAR, including RA9-WAR for pitchers), which would theoretically translate to a record of 65–97. My team exhibited a capable offense, slashing .263/.335/.419. That would have been the fourth-best OBP in baseball but the 15th-best slugging percentage, as my hitters couldn't keep up with 2016's home-run-happy scoring environment. However, my team was miserable at pitching, posting a 4.63 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 4.76 FIP. Even worse, many of my pitchers, including C.J. Wilson, Henderson Alvárez, and Kris Medlen, were injured and barely played. My pitchers only amassed 947.1 IP, compared to the MLB average of 1444. If you use replacement players to fill in the gap, my team's stats would rise to a 4.72 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 4.77 FIP.

Easily the worst contract on my books is James Shields's $75 million deal. He actively harmed my team this year with a 5.85 ERA, 10.3 hits per nine innings, and the worst peripheral stats of his career. My attempts to cobble together a bullpen on the cheap also fell flat. My best signing was Yusmeiro Petit, who gave me a 4.50 ERA in 62 innings for the $3 million I paid him. Meanwhile, Matt Albers stunk up the joint to the tune of a 6.31 ERA, and Carlos Villanueva wasn't much better at 5.96 despite pitching in PETCO Park. The rest of my bullpen, Jason Frasor and Neal Cotts, didn't pitch in the majors at all.

Offensively, I caught lightning in a bottle with Mike Napoli, who led my team with 34 home runs, although it only translated to 1.0 WAR; still, at $7 million for one year, I'll take it. Steve Pearce was another great bargain signing. For $4.75 million, I received a .288/.374/.492 batting line, positional flexibility, and 2.0 WAR. Carlos Beltrán anchored my lineup with an .850 OPS and 2.3 WAR. Finally, my faith in Hyun Soo Kim was validated when, after a terrible spring training for the Orioles, he bounced back by hitting .302/.382/.420 over half a season. Even Jason Heyward produced 1.6 WAR, although this was far below everyone's expectation when he signed with the Cubs for $184 million and eight years. He slashed just .230/.306/.325 and was the most disappointing member of my lineup. His is another contract that could cripple my pretend franchise, although personally I think Heyward was more unlucky than bad last year and would reserve judgment for one more year.

So let's find out, shall we? I'll carry over my imaginary team into this offseason and again try to build it into a contender—on budget—using only free agents. Like in real life, though, I'll have to do it while operating under existing payroll commitments: the handful of players on my old team still under contract for 2017 and beyond. It's a list that includes some bad—Heyward and Shields—but also some good—Kim, John Lackey, and José Abreu. Stay tuned to see which players from this winter's historically shallow free-agent class I decide to roll the dice on this time.

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