The biggest storyline of this Major League Baseball offseason has been, of course, the number of free agents who have struggled to find contracts. Even now, with Spring Training underway, about 55 players* remain unsigned, including several recent All-Stars and a host of other useful guys.
In pondering that alarmingly high number, we began to wonder, as many other fans and writers have, what a team of unemployed free agents would look like and how many games it would win. Could the unsigned guys finish .500? Make the playoffs? Win a division?
To answer those questions, we built a 25-man roster (plus reserves) made up of only current free agents. Then we used FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system** to estimate how many wins above replacement each player will be worth in 2018. In the end, we added up all the WAR to find out just how much talent remains on the market. Here’s what we came up with:
* That number is based on this list, with the players who have since gotten deals subtracted.
** In cases when Steamer did not have full projections for a player, we defaulted to the similar Zips system.
STARTING POSITION PLAYERS
C — Jonathan Lucroy — 2.4 WAR
1B — Lucas Duda — 1.2 WAR
2B — Neil Walker — 1.8 WAR
SS — J.J. Hardy — 0.1 WAR
3B — Mike Moustakas — 2.6 WAR
LF — Seth Smith — 0.5 WAR
CF — Jon Jay — 0.4 WAR
RF — Carlos Gonzalez — 0.7 WAR
Total WAR: 9.7
This is not a terribly impressive group, even with Moustakas and Lucroy rating as strong contributors. The outfield is particularly weak, with J.D. Martinez and Carlos Gomez having recently come off the board. If the projections are to be believed, this team won’t have a gangbusters Opening Day lineup.
SP — Jake Arrieta — 2.8 WAR
SP — Alex Cobb — 1.7 WAR
SP — Ubaldo Jimenez — 1.5 WAR
SP — Ricky Nolasco — 1.4 WAR
SP — Lance Lynn — 1.3 WAR
Total WAR: 8.7
Some of the projections here are more than a bit weird, but we’re not here to legislate Steamer right now. We’re here to get a general sense of what a free-agent rotation would look like, and this one is weak at the top but solid one-through-five. Starting pitching could be a relative strength of the free-agent team.
C — Carlos Ruiz — 0.6 WAR
INF — Brandon Phillips — 1.0 WAR
INF — Adam Lind — 0.7 WAR
OF — Melky Cabrera — 0.3 WAR
OF — Franklin Gutierrez — 0.3 WAR
Total WAR: 2.9
This is a solid bench unit, made up of seasoned veterans who won’t embarrass themselves on the field, even if they won’t wow anyone either. Phillips would have cracked the starting lineup at several positions, while Lind and Ruiz make for sturdy backups.
RP — Trevor Rosenthal — 0.7 WAR
RP — Greg Holland — 0.5 WAR
RP — Trevor Cahill — 0.4 WAR
RP — Zach Putnam — 0.3 WAR
RP — Tyler Clippard — 0.3 WAR
RP — Robbie Ross Jr. — 0.2 WAR
RP — Koji Uehara — 0.2 WAR
Total WAR: 2.6
Despite Greg Holland’s reputation, Steamer doesn’t see him as a top-rate reliever, which really hurts the free-agent bullpen’s output. You wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable handing the ball to this group in a close playoff game. Still, 2.6 WAR would have ranked these guys 17th in baseball in bullpen WAR a year ago, which isn’t so bad.
That completes our 25-man roster, but we’re not done. No Major League Baseball team lasts all season using only 25 players, meaning any good team needs some guys at Triple-A who can hold their own in a pinch. We’ll (unscientifically) add five more position players, plus two starting pitchers and five relievers into the mix to bring us up, more or less, to a season’s worth of playing time.
C — Geovany Soto — 0.4 WAR
INF — Yunel Escobar — 0.5 WAR
INF — Mike Napoli — 0.1 WAR
OF — Jayson Werth — 0.0 WAR
DH — Matt Holliday — 0.1 WAR
SP — Brett Anderson — 1.5 WAR
SP — John Lackey — 1.1 WAR
RP — Huston Street — 0.2 WAR
RP — Drew Storen — 0.0 WAR
RP — Jason Grilli — 0.0 WAR
RP — Joe Blanton — -0.1 WAR
RP — Jason Motte — -0.2 WAR
Total WAR: 3.5
As you would expect, our reserves won’t produce much value. The position players here can generally hit all right, but don’t ask them to play the field. As for the pitchers, two starters with highly optimistic playing-time projections carry the group, with the bullpen producing a net negative. Meanwhile, apologies to Jose Bautista, Andre Ethier, Ichiro, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman and others who just missed the cut for our roster.
Now, before we get to the big reveal, let’s break things down into total position-player WAR and total pitcher WAR.
Total position-player WAR: 13.6
This figure is a bit disappointing. With a couple All-Star candidates and a long list of accomplished veterans, you might have expected our free-agent team to produce pretty well. But with so many of these guys in their decline phase or with serious issues on defense, the value just isn’t there. The 13.6 WAR total we came up with would have ranked 24th in baseball last year.
Total pitcher WAR: 13.8
The bad news is that free-agent pitchers are projected for only slightly better output than free-agent hitters. The good news is that 13.8 WAR would have ranked 15th among all staffs in baseball, ahead of one playoff team (the Twins) and several other wild-card contenders. That gives us hope that maybe, possibly this group could sneak into the postseason on the heels of its pitching…
Well, 13.6 + 13.8 = 27.4, which is the total WAR this collection of free agents is projected for in 2018. A team of all replacement-level players, FanGraphs tells us, would win about 48 games. That means a team that was 27 games above replacement level would win…
About 75 games, a figure that would have tied for 20th most in baseball in 2017. Teams that won 75 games last year included the Orioles, Athletics and Pirates. That many victories would have been good for third place in the NL East last year but no better than fourth in any other division.
So, after all that what can we conclude? Well, Rob Manfred might note that the remaining pool of free agents is not the All-Star team some paint it to be and that hand-wringing over free agents remaining unsigned is overwrought. But on the other hand, the Players Association might counter that the group of dudes just sitting around during the first week of Spring Training could beat a third of Major-League teams. And that, when you think about it, is pretty remarkable.