Contracts

Rebuilding Teams and Free Agency

When do free agents become value plays for small market teams?

Lorenzo Cain (MH).jpg
Former Royal and current Brewer Lorenzo Cain (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, many of baseball’s top free agents remain unsigned, as baseball’s top teams have shown an unwillingness to overpay for players that, ostensibly, are on the decline. As of Monday, which was Day 82 of the offseason, only 17 of ESPN’s top 40 free agents (43%) had signed with a team. According to FiveThirtyEight, the average offseason between 2006 and 2016 saw 76% of the top 40 free agents sign with a team by Day 82 of the offseason.

As mentioned in my previous piece, wins on the free-agent market are most valuable to teams contending for the playoffs. However, as playoff contenders continue to withhold from signing top free agents and prices for those free agents, presumably, begin to decrease, when does it become beneficial for non-playoff contenders to throw their hats in the ring?

Just yesterday, we saw an example of this happening: the Brewers signed former Royal Lorenzo Cain to a five-year/$80-million deal. Before yesterday’s acquisition of Cain and trade with the Marlins for Christian Yelich, the Brewers were projected to win 73 games in 2018, according to FanGraphs. Given that playoff teams from 2001 to 2016 averaged 94 wins during the regular season, it seemed unlikely that the Brewers would contend for the playoffs in 2018. Nevertheless, with four prospects on Keith Law’s top-100 prospects list and young talents Orlando Arcia and Domingo Santana already on the major-league roster, it could be argued that Milwaukee signed Cain (and traded for Yelich) not for 2018, but for 2019 and beyond.

As a result, I sought out teams in a similar position as the Brewers (i.e. rebuilding in 2018, potentially contending in 2019) and evaluated possible deals between them and the remaining free agents. But first, I needed to determine which rebuilding teams fit the bill.

Since 2001, there have been six franchises — Orioles, Cubs, Astros, Royals, Pirates, and Rays — to successfully rebuild their major-league teams from cellar dwellers to playoff contenders. While each of these rebuilds was different, all of them shared the following four characteristics in common:

  • At least five consecutive seasons with winning percentages below .500
  • At least one of those seasons with fewer than 70 wins
  • Following those five or more losing seasons, at least three consecutive seasons with winning percentages above .500
  • At least one of those seasons with 90 wins or more

Here are the win totals of those six teams across their eight rebuilding seasons:

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Currently, there are five teams — Braves, White Sox, Reds, Phillies, and Padres — that fit the criteria of a rebuilding team. Here are the win totals of those five teams over the past four seasons, along with their 2018 projected win-totals:

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While the Braves, Reds, Phillies, and Padres are all projected to win more games in 2018 than 2017, the White Sox are not. Each of the six successful rebuilders won more games in their last seasons before contending than in their second-to-last seasons before contending. As a result, I foresee the Braves, Reds, Phillies, and Padres potentially contending for the playoffs in 2019 but not the White Sox.

Consequently, here are four free agents, each of whom I think could fit well with one of the four teams on long-term deals:

J.D. 2.jpgJ.D. Martinez (Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY Sports)

J.D. Martinez — Braves:
Although projected for only 74 wins in 2018, the Braves have a lot of young talent, including Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, Julio Teheran, Luiz Gohara and Sean Newcomb, on their major-league roster, not to mention perennial all-star Freddie Freeman. The Braves also have 10 prospects on Keith Law’s top-100 prospects list, one of whom is Ronald Acuna, the top prospect on Keith Law’s list and the Braves’ projected starting left fielder. And, the Braves also have the best farm system, according to Keith Law. As a result, it is quite possible for the Braves to be contending by 2019.

With incumbent right fielder Nick Markakis’s contract expiring after the 2018 season, there is room on the Braves’ roster for a corner outfielder, as well as a right-handed power bat to complement the left-handed-hitting Freeman. Acquiring Martinez this offseason would also allow the Braves to platoon the right-handed-hitting Acuna with the left-handed-hitting Markakis in right field if Acuna is not ready for a full-time starting job just yet.

Here is how a long-term deal between Martinez and the Braves could potentially look:

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Age is as of July 1 of the given year. 2018 projected team wins is from FanGraphs. Projected team wins beyond 2018 are the average number of wins of the six successful rebuilding teams in the comparable year of their rebuilds. Projected dollar value is calculated using the model from my last article. 2018 projected WAR is from FanGraphs. Projected WAR beyond 2018 follows this aging curve: 0 WAR/yr (28–30), -0.5 WAR/yr (31–37).

Now, I realize that a four-year/$70-million deal is not exactly what Scott Boras had in mind for Martinez when the offseason began. However, given Martinez’s age and legitimate concerns about his defense, a $17.5 million per year valuation seems right despite Martinez’s prodigious power. Although, with a five-year/$100-million offer from the Red Sox on the table, something tells me that Martinez wouldn’t accept this hypothetical offer from the Braves.

Yu #3.jpgYu Darvish (Harry How/Getty Images)

Yu Darvish — Reds:
The Reds currently have the sixth-best farm system, according to Keith Law, along with four prospects ranked in Keith Law’s top 100, including the past two second-overall picks in Nick Senzel and Hunter Greene. The Reds also have young talent, including Jose Peraza and Eugenio Suarez, on their major-league roster, as well as perennial MVP-candidate Joey Votto.

That being said, the Reds desperately need pitching, having finished 2017 with the 10th-most position player fWAR but the fewest pitcher fWAR. Yu Darvish is the top starting pitcher on the market, so why not go after him? Here’s what a Darvish deal with the Reds could look like:

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Age is as of July 1 of the given year. 2018 projected team wins is from FanGraphs. Projected team wins beyond 2018 are the average number of wins of the six successful rebuilding teams in the comparable year of their rebuilds. Projected dollar value is calculated using the model from my last article. 2018 projected WAR is from FanGraphs. Projected WAR beyond 2018 follows this aging curve: 0 WAR/yr (28–30), -0.5 WAR/yr (31–37).

$23 million per year over six years may seem excessive for the 31-year-old Darvish, but such a deal could be worth it if Darvish were to help the Reds contend with the Cubs and Cardinals (and now Brewers) for the NL Central division title in 2019 and beyond.

Moose 3.jpgMike Moustakas (John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Moustakas — Phillies:
The Phillies currently have the fifth-best farm system, according to Keith Law, along with six prospects ranked in Keith Law’s top 100, including projected starting shortstop J.P. Crawford. The Reds also have young talent, including Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, and Odubel Herrera, on their major-league roster, as well as new acquisition Carlos Santana.

The Phillies could look to target a third baseman this offseason, as incumbent Maikel Franco finished below replacement-level in 2017. As a result, the left-handed-hitting Mike Moustakas could be the perfect fit for the Phillies, as Citizens Bank Park, which was the most-homer friendly park in 2017, is paradise for fly-ball pull-hitters like Moustakas (18.3 degrees average launch angle). Here’s what a potential deal between Moustakas and the Phillies could look like:

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Age is as of July 1 of the given year. 2018 projected team wins is from FanGraphs. Projected team wins beyond 2018 are the average number of wins of the six successful rebuilding teams in the comparable year of their rebuilds. Projected dollar value is calculated using the model from my last article. 2018 projected WAR is from FanGraphs. Projected WAR beyond 2018 follows this aging curve: 0 WAR/yr (28–30), -0.5 WAR/yr (31–37).

Even though the Phillies are projected for only 75 wins in 2018, with the division-rival Nationals potentially losing Bryce Harper to free agency after the 2018 season, the time could be now for the Phillies to invest in their major-league roster in order to compete for the NL East division title in 2019 and beyond.

Hosmer.jpgEric Hosmer (Peter Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)

Eric Hosmer — Padres:
Hosmer and the Padres have been linked throughout the offseason, even so far as a social media hacking suggesting that a deal between the Padres and Hosmer was imminent. Acquiring Hosmer would mean that incumbent first baseman Wil Myers would move back to the outfield, where he primarily played during his time with the Rays and in the Royals’ farm system. Here’s what a potential deal between the Padres and Hosmer could look like:

Hosmer graphs.png

Age is as of July 1 of the given year. 2018 projected team wins is from FanGraphs. Projected team wins beyond 2018 are the average number of wins of the six successful rebuilding teams in the comparable year of their rebuilds. Projected dollar value is calculated using the model from my last article. 2018 projected WAR is from FanGraphs. Projected WAR beyond 2018 follows this aging curve: 0 WAR/yr (28–30), -0.5 WAR/yr (31–37).

$20 million per year over six years may seem like a lot for a hitter like Hosmer (3.8 degrees average launch angle), who is the antithesis of the “flyball revolution”. However, Hosmer is only 28 years-old, which is young for a free agent, and Petco Park was the ninth-best ground-ball park for left-handed hitters in 2017.

And, just like the other teams I’ve talked about already, the Padres have a ton of young talent on their major-league roster and in their farm system. Manuel Margot put up a 1.9-fWAR season in 2017 as a 22 year-old in his first full big-league season, playing good defense in center-field, while Luis Perdomo finished 2017 with 1.6 fWAR as a 24-year-old in his second big-league season, generating ground-balls at the second-highest rate (61.8%) amongst qualified starting pitchers in 2017. Plus, Keith Law ranks the Padres’ farm system as third-best in 2018, featuring seven prospects in Law’s top 100, including third-ranked Fernando Tatis Jr. and 2017 first-round pick Mackenzie Gore.

As a result, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched for the Padres to be competitive in the NL West, in which the Dodgers seem like the only sure thing, starting in 2019.

Now, it should be noted that it is not a foregone conclusion that the Braves, Reds, Phillies, and Padres will be competitive starting in 2019. A lot had to go right for the Orioles, Cubs, Astros, Royals, Pirates, and Rays to have successful rebuilds. Things such as the development of young talent, acquiring the right veteran at the right time, and even sheer luck all had to go their way.

That being said, each of the four rebuilding teams have the right building blocks, whether they be young talent on the major-league roster and/or a strong farm system, that a veteran acquisition could be the one thing that transitions each team from the rebuilding phase to the competitive phase in the organization’s success cycle.

As always, thank you for reading, and see you next time, when the topic of my article will be… something different.

 

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