Monday, March 13, 2017

Free-Agent Fantasy Baseball: 2017

Is it just me, or was this the longest hot-stove season ever? The other day, Pedro Alvárez—a 22-home-run hitter who in any other year would have been snapped up—finally signed a contract for 2017. He's not an anomaly, either; such big names as Jake Peavy, Ángel Pagán, and Jonathan Papelbon remain free agents well into spring training (and the WBC).

Hence the delay in publishing this post. A new tradition here at Baseballot is annually building the best possible 25-man rosters solely from the ranks of free agency. Then, at the end of the season, I look back and see how my "fantasy" team fared. Last year, my stint in the GM chair was an unqualified bust: my best estimate for my team's record was 65–97, and I saddled my imaginary franchise with a couple stinkers of a contract. So, naturally, I resolved to give it another whirl. Now that the offseason is complete, I've gone through the winter's entire crop of free agents and "signed" whom I deemed to be the best investments (and shrewdest bargains). This article, then, will be a unique tour through the best free-agent deals of 2016–2017.

Here are the ground rules for our little game. The goal is to simulate the real job of being a GM as faithfully as possible: our pretend team signs any free agent to the actual contract that he agrees to with a real major-league team. We have to fill every position on our team as if it were really taking the field: five starting pitchers, a bullpen with options from both the left and right side, one starting position player at each position (including DH), and a bench that can back up every spot on the field. Like a real GM, I forced myself to stick to a budget: the $195 million luxury-tax threshold that many teams are using as a de facto salary cap. And like a real GM, I made myself interact with events in real time, as they happened; I didn't allow myself to look back at the end of the offseason, after the market had played out, and choose the cheapest options. Instead, after news of a signing broke, I gave myself 48 hours to think it over and decide whether to add that player (and that contract) to our books—with no knowledge of any signings that came after.

Finally, to properly incentivize me not to mortgage the future with burdensome long-term contracts, I didn't just start a team from scratch. Instead, I carried forward the "franchise" that I started last year, inheriting its talent as well as its payroll obligations. Seven men from the 2016 edition of our team are under contract for 2017 as well: Jason Heyward, Hyun Soo Kim, Jed Lowrie, Álex Guerrero, Chase Headley, John Lackey, and James Shields. My first executive decision of the offseason was to release Guerrero, who had just one year and $5 million left on his contract. As a major-league bust now playing in Japan, he's not going to provide any value to our team, and his roster spot will be better used on someone new.

The team also held options on two other players: Hisashi Iwakuma and Jason Hammel. Again, to simulate real life most accurately, I chose to do what their true-life teams (the Mariners and the Cubs, respectively) did: pick up Iwakuma's option for $14.3 million and decline Hammel's option for a $2 million buyout. Iwakuma thus took Guerrero's place in the gang of seven carryover players.

But wait, there's more! According to the arcane rules of baseball transactions, I also had two more players who were not technically "under contract" but were still under team control for 2017: José Abreu and Nori Aoki. Were I a real major-league team, I would have had the choice to either non-tender them or enter the arbitration process to sign them for 2017. The non-tender and arbitration process happens over the winter right alongside the free-agent season, but from the beginning I never really doubted that I wanted to keep these two valuable, affordable players. Aoki eventually avoided a possible non-tender by agreeing to a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Astros—a cheap price for an extremely consistent above-average hitter. Meanwhile, Abreu and the White Sox avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $10.825 million contract. Of course, I'd have been willing to pay up to twice that for this 100-RBI slugger.

Add it all up, and I entered the offseason with nine names already penciled in for 2017. Once the price tags for Aoki and Abreu were officially set, I had $123,358,333 in predetermined payroll obligations for 2017. Given our budget of $195 million, that meant I had $71,641,667 to spend on free agents for the remaining 16 spots on our roster: two or three starting pitchers, an entire bullpen, a starting catcher, a starting second baseman, a starting outfielder, a DH, a backup catcher, a backup infielder, and a "wild card"/utility player to fill any final holes.


Starting Pitchers

This year's crop of free agents was notoriously weak, but nowhere more so than at starting pitcher. The best starter on the market was universally agreed to be Rich Hill, who was uninspiring enough to have only merited a one-year, $6 million deal last offseason. This year, he ultimately signed for three years and $48 million—not a bad price, but then you remember that he's basically guaranteed to miss half the year every year with blisters. So who's the second-best pitcher on the market? Probably Hammel, who posted a very characteristic 105 ERA+ last year in Wrigley and has averaged 1.8 fWAR the past three years. Frustrated that I couldn't have him at the very affordable ($12 million) option year from his Cubs contract, I nonetheless targeted him early on to fill out the front end of my rotation.

In the meantime, I tied up the back end with two capable innings-eaters: R.A. Dickey ($8 million) and Bartolo Colón ($12.5 million). Both 40-somethings signed one-year deals with the Braves very early in the offseason. It was appropriate: like the rebuilding Braves, our team was also looking for low-cost stopgaps who won't embarrass us to serve as bridges until more permanent starting-pitching solutions hit the free-agent market in future years.

From those November signings, though, it was a long wait for Hammel. February 1 came and went, and the righty remained unsigned. Did the Cubs know something the public didn't—an injury, perhaps—when they declined that option? Was I saving a slot in my starting rotation for a savior who would never come? Thankfully not—Hammel inked a deal with the Royals just a week before spring training, and it was worth the wait: two years for a mere $16 million, including a $5 million salary in 2017. Against all odds, our team actually saved money by declining that option and resigning him—and now he is under team control for just $9 million in 2018 as well.

Relief Pitchers

This was an offseason that saw the all-time record for biggest contract given to a relief pitcher broken not once, but twice. I don't understand it. Relief pitcher is always the deepest position in free agency, and plenty of respectable pitchers are always available for a fraction of what Aroldis Chapman signed for. The issue is that they're not as consistent as the A-list relievers—but given the small sample sizes involved with pitching in relief (a third of the innings of a starting pitcher for even the most hard-working fireman), is that really so surprising? The key is to find a pitcher who slumped in the previous year but retains strong peripheral stats. I found one such candidate in Casey Fien, who signed with the Mariners for just $1.1 million in early December. Fien struggled to a 5.49 ERA in 2016 despite entering the campaign with a career 3.54 FIP and 4.58 K/BB ratio. An improbable 24.5% HR/FB rate inflated his 2016 ERA, but an elite spin rate on both his fastball and his curve is good reason to expect a bounceback.

Another such candidate I brought on board was Drew Storen, the perpetually unlucky former Nationals closer. In Washington, Storen's two high-profile choke jobs in the playoffs overshadowed a career 3.02 ERA there, and last year his 5.23 ERA between Toronto and Seattle belied a 3.69 K/BB ratio and 3.51 SIERA. Finally, I opted for another former closer in Shawn Tolleson, who signed with the Rays for a mere $1 million guarantee in mid-January. He quickly lost the Rangers' closer job in 2016 on his way to a 7.68 ERA, but that was thanks to a .372 BABIP, 59.9% LOB%, and 24.2% HR/FB percentage. His xFIP was dramatically better at 3.89, in line with his excellent 2014–2015, when he had a 143 ERA+.

For the token lefty in my 'pen, my first choice was Brett Cecil (an awesome 138 ERA+ and 3.98 K/BB ratio the last three years), but he signed for way too much (four years, $30.5 million). I waited patiently for the market to cool off, but it showed no sign. Mike Dunn signed for three years and $19 million, but there were still plenty of names available, so I kept waiting. Boone Logan signed for one year and $6.5 million, but there were still other names available, so I kept waiting. Jerry Blevins signed for one year and $6.5 million, and, well, it was getting late in the offseason, but I had come this far, right? Finally, my patience paid off—one of the last southpaws to come off the board was J.P. Howell, who hitched up with the Blue Jays for only $3 million over one year. Like the rest of my relievers, Howell had a down year in 2016, but by his standards this merely meant "barely below average" (a 4.09 ERA). His K/BB ratio actually improved over 2015 (from 2.79 to 2.93), and his SIERA of 3.36 was virtually unchanged from his career norms.

Leaving my bullpen shopping until the last minute, when players are scrambling for jobs, paid off in another way as well. In mid-February, I got a player I never would've expected to be able to afford at the beginning of the offseason: Sergio Romo. Romo is, without exaggeration, one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 1.8 fWAR in 2015 albeit missing time with injury in 2016. Nevertheless, according to FanGraphs, he allowed the second-lowest exit velocity on batted balls of any pitcher last year. For a mere $3 million for one year, I got to install the newest Dodgers reliever as my closer.

Finally, I was hoping to snag Joe Blanton to fill my final bullpen slot, but the Mets' signing of Fernando Salas in mid-February (one year, $3 million) was an offer I couldn't refuse. SIERA has been in love with Salas the past few years: 2.82 in 2014, 2.65 in 2015, and 3.72 in 2016. Despite that recent spike, he still posted an above-average ERA last year and finished the season on a 19-strikeout, zero-walk tear with the Mets. Of course, only about two weeks later, Blanton signed for pretty much the same price ($4 million), but that's the uncertain exercise of team-building for you.

Catcher

Initially, catcher looked like the hardest slot on my roster to fill—it's already the scarcest position on the free-agent market, so finding a good catcher there is nearly impossible. When Jason Castro signed with the Twins for $24.5 million over three years, I became worried that the catcher market would be so out of control I would have to play in the shallow end. Fortunately, this ended up not being the case. Wilson Ramos, clearly the best catcher available, fell to the Rays for just $12.5 million over two years due to a torn ACL suffered at the end of 2016. Although he is expected to miss the first half of 2017, having an above-average catcher at an affordable salary for one and a half years after that wasn't something I could pass up.

The rest of the catching market was also super affordable: Welington Castillo for one year, $6 million; Matt Wieters for one year, $10.5 million. At those prices, I was tempted to snag myself another starting-caliber receiver—when else are they going to be this cheap?!—but even those modest price tags proved impossible to fit into my budget so late in the offseason. By the new year, I really only had room for small transactions here and there, so I was forced to turn to a traditional backup catcher: Alex Avila, who had a .359 OBP last year and figures to get a decent number of at-bats against righties in Detroit.

Second Baseman

I flirted with the idea of moving Jed Lowrie to second and signing Ian Desmond to play shortstop, but Desmond's five-year, $70 million deal with the Rockies was just too rich for my blood—plus they signed him to play first base, basically confirming that his shortstop-playing days are behind him. Instead, I put all my eggs in a long-sought-after basket: José Miguel Fernández, the Cuban infielder I've coveted since his first attempt to defect in 2014. Back then, he was a 26-year-old on-base machine, considered the third-best player in Cuba and ready to step onto a major-league team. Unfortunately, politics have since robbed him of two years of his prime. After failing to defect, he was suspended from the Cuban national team in 2015; then, he defected successfully and spent 2016 establishing residency and looking for work. The Dodgers finally signed him this January to a minor-league deal with a $200,000 signing bonus—far less, surely, than he would have received had he arrived in mint condition. At the time, I was elated with the signing; the Dodgers had a gaping hole at second base, and Fernández looked primed to share in or even seize the starting job there. Once I inked Fernández and his bargain-basement contract into my fantasy team's starting lineup, though, the Dodgers pulled a deft double play: they traded for Logan Forsythe and signed Chase Utley to plug their hole at the keystone. That makes our signing of Fernández likely to be a low-impact one, but at least it barely cost us any dough.

Outfield/Designated Hitter

These were the two open spots in my lineup where I knew I needed to add significant offense. Problem was, our budget really only had space for one big-ticket signing. I knew early on that it wouldn't be Yoenis Céspedes—his $27.5 million average annual value would have been a third of my total winter expenditures, all on one player. Instead, I set my sights on the second tier, and I found my man in Carlos Beltrán. With 89 wRC and a 122 OPS+ last year, the 39-year-old has proven that he can produce runs even in old age—yet at $16 million for one year, he's almost half the cost of Céspedes. (And in an advantage over other mid-tier sluggers like Josh Reddick, there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal.)

As the market developed, though, I began to wonder if Beltrán had been the right call. The later signings of Matt Holliday ($13 million) and Carlos Gómez ($11.5 million) to cheaper one-year deals gave me slight buyer's remorse. Meanwhile, I watched as the very best free-agent hitters settled for contracts that were frankly far more reasonable than we've come to expect: Justin Turner for $64 million/four years, Edwin Encarnación for $60 million/three years, and even José Bautista for $18.5 million/one guaranteed year and two option years. None of those deals would have been crippling to our imaginary franchise in the long term, but they all would have significantly broken the bank for 2017. With Beltrán in the fold, I had to look for not only a budget option, but also—given that Beltrán is primarily a DH at this point—specifically an outfielder.

Michael Saunders would have fit the bill nicely, but when he signed with the Phillies, it was for $9 million—a little pricey for a guy who amassed only 262 at-bats in the two years prior to his breakout 2016. I passed, but my options dwindled as the offseason ran its course. ($37.5 million over three years for a guy—Mark Trumbo—with the same amount of fWAR over the last three years as Daniel Nava? No thanks.) By the end of January, it looked like I had painted myself into a corner—but then Colby Rasmus dropped into my lap. Rasmus matched Saunders with 1.4 fWAR in 2016 but, because the Rays waited until he was the last outfielder in the bar at closing time, they snagged him for only one year and $5 million. Rasmus has been a frustrating player: in 2015, he showed offensive potential, hitting 25 home runs with a 116 OPS+. Then he was terrible offensively last year (a .641 OPS) but saved an astounding 20 runs on defense. For $5 million, it's worth taking the gamble that he can combine his 2015 batting value (9.6 runs above replacement), 2015 baserunning value (5.2), and 2016 fielding value (14.9) into another season to rival his 5.1 fWAR showing in 2013.

Bench

The well runneth dry of middle infielders. Only one, Lowrie, carries over from the 2016 team, forcing us to sign someone new to back up not only him at shortstop, but also our new starting second baseman. Unfortunately, the market was historically thin at shortstop; Sean Rodríguez was the only halfway respectable option, and after coming off an aberrant 126 OPS+ season, he ended up costing an unreasonable $11.5 million over two years. So I had to get creative—and I plugged my backup-infielder hole with Cuban amateur Lourdes Gourriel Jr. The son of Cuban superstar Lourdes Gourriel Sr., the younger Gourriel projects as an average hitter with decent pop but, crucially, can play all over the field. He played mostly left field and second base in Cuba and worked out at shortstop and center field in his major-league showcase. The Blue Jays finally signed him to be a middle infielder, "or possibly a third baseman." Best of all, he came cheap: $22 million over seven years, including just $600,000 in 2017. Although his immediate value will be limited (Toronto plans to start him in the minors), that's a huge break for a cash-strapped team like ours.

Clearly Ross Atkins and I think similarly, because his Blue Jays also inked maybe my top target of the offseason: Steve Pearce. Pearce was on my all-free-agent team last year as well, and all he did was hit .288/.374/.492 with 2.0 fWAR. That doesn't even account for his value in position-switching: he covered first, second, third, left field, and right field at various points last year. An excellent lefty masher, Pearce hits well enough to not only back up all around the field, but also platoon with the left-handed-hitting Fernández, Aoki, and/or Rasmus.


So there you have it: the Baseballot all-free-agent fantasy team for the 2017 season. Unfortunately, it ended up costing me slightly more than my allotted budget. Salary obligations for these 25 total up to $200,043,333 guaranteed, with a maximum payroll of $211,193,333 if all incentives are met. Let's say I have a very generous team owner or something; just go with it. Now, with actual, meaningful baseball games just a few weeks away, let's sit back and see how this team performs. Watch this space at the end of the season, when I simulate how a team with their stats would have placed in the standings. Then we'll see if I'm as good at judging baseball talent as I am at sticking to a budget!

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