In Major League Baseball, just about the only thing harder than getting to the top is staying there. In that respect, this year is no different than any other. Each of the four teams projected to lose the most production in free agency this winter — the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Texas Rangers and the New York Mets — were playoff teams in 2016, and each of them must now move with speed and smarts to shore up their position among baseball’s elite.
To some extent, it makes sense for top free-agent talent to be clustered in top teams: While the average turnover rate for MLB rosters is somewhere around 30 percent, playoff teams tend to have — big shocker here — better players than non-playoff teams, so 30 percent of a playoff team’s roster1 is likely to be a more capable bunch than 30 percent of, say, the Atlanta Braves’ roster.2
Still, by combining a list of major-league free agents compiled by Spotrac with Fangraphs’ Steamer projections for each player’s wins above replacement next year,3 it’s possible to get a rough sense of which teams will have their work cut out for them on the free-agency front. These numbers were calculated going into free agency, so they don’t reflect the first few signings of the offseason. They do, however, accurately reflect the wide range of challenges teams faced at the outset of the main period of the offseason.
The Mets, who already leaned heavily on their pitchers — only the Yankees and Athletics got a higher share of their total WAR from pitchers in 2016 — are in line to become even more pitcher-reliant this offseason, as several of their fielders enter the free-agent market. Sure, ageless wonder Bartolo Colón has departed for the Atlanta Braves, but New York’s biggest free-agent questions were always going to involve position players.
One of those questions was answered Monday, when Neil Walker accepted the Mets’ qualifying offer, saving New York the headache of trying to fill a hole at the keystone. But they still have to account for the possible loss of outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, who’s projected for 3.0 WAR in 2017. Given the gap in the lineup that losing his bat would leave, there’s a case to be made that the Mets should just pony up whatever it takes to re-sign Céspedes. But “whatever it takes” will probably amount to quite a bit of money in this year’s weak free-agent class, and there are other, cheaper options available: Dexter Fowler (2.3), Carlos Gómez (2.1) and Ian Desmond (1.5) stand out. Look for the Mets to go that way.
Speaking of Gómez and Desmond, they’re part of what could be a mass exodus from Texas, as they join first baseman Mitch Moreland (0.8), designated hitter Carlos Beltrán (0.4), and starting pitchers Derek Holland (1.8) and Colby Lewis (1.1) in free agency. Sorting it all out is going to be a tough winter assignment for Rangers GM Jon Daniels.
Signing Mike Napoli (0.9) for another Texas tour of duty or going slightly up-market for Edwin Encarnación (2.3) would go a long way toward replacing Moreland and Beltran (both of whom could, of course, come back), and it’s not unreasonable to expect either Desmond or Gómez, both of whom can play center field, to return. The bigger problem is in the rotation, where Holland and Lewis had contributed nearly 30 percent of Texas’s rotational WAR since 2010. The Rangers don’t have any obvious internal options to step into those spots, and the free-agent market looks thin aside from Rich Hill (2.9), who’ll probably get better options elsewhere. A trade may be in the offing.
North of the border, the Blue Jays have just over nine wins coming off their roster, headlined by the aforementioned Encarnación, plus longtime star José Bautista (2.9), and the recently departed — also to Atlanta! — R.A. Dickey (2.0), among others. Some of Dickey’s production can be replaced with relative ease, but signing Kendrys Morales (0.9) and Cuban superstar Lourdes Gurriel Jr.4 significantly lowered the odds that either Encarnación or Bautista will return to the Blue Jays next year. Of the two, Bautista is the most likely to come back — at 36, he doesn’t have much upside left, he had a down season last year, and he is clearly comfortable in Toronto. No matter what happens, this offseason has already done much to reshape the Jays’ talented roster.
Finally, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a league-high 12.5 projected wins rolling off their roster, mainly in Justin Turner (3.7), Rich Hill (2.9), Josh Reddick (2.1), and Kenley Jansen (1.5). Jansen, a lights-out reliever, will probably get the most press this offseason, but L.A.’s shake-ups in the field — which have already included trading away Howie Kendrick and Carlos Ruiz — will be the most interesting to watch.
The Dodgers seem likely to retain at least one of their four big free agents, but they probably won’t keep all four. That’ll mean some tough choices: L.A. can probably survive Reddick leaving, but there aren’t many enticing options available if Turner ends up packing his bags. A trade with the Tampa Bay Rays for Evan Longoria has been bandied about by the Twitter cognoscenti, but that’ll cost L.A. a haul in terms of both prospects and dollars, if the Rays’ past dealmaking habits — and complicated relationship with the current Dodgers’ front office — is any indication. The Dodgers have enough smarts, money and talent to contend for years to come; they’ll need all three to get this offseason right.
There are limits to thinking about the offseason purely in terms of projected free-agent WAR, to be sure. For one thing, projection systems — even the very best — have flaws. For another, teams often have a better sense of their own departing free agents’ skill sets — and likelihood of performance decline — than anyone else, inside or outside the industry, so they may be basing their free-agency decisions on information that projection systems don’t have. And, more broadly, trying to evaluate whole offseasons through the lens of free agency alone misses the extreme impact that trades — and normal player development and growth — will have on the state of the league in 2017. But knowing how the projections treat every club’s outgoing free agents can give us a better sense of how the offseason will play out for each team, whether they spent 2016 at the top of the heap or staring up from the basement.