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Where Would The Top MLB Free Agents Make The Biggest Difference?

Last year’s MLB free agent class, headlined by young superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, was anticipated for years. But this year’s free agents might be even better — and they could help even more teams serious about contending in 2020.

Four free agents are coming off seasons of 6 wins above replacement or better: right-handed pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson. This is only the fourth offseason since the advent of free agency with that many players worth at least 6.0 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The full free agent class totaled 119.9 WAR last season — the most for a class since 2003.

So how might the top players from this talented crop change the fortunes of the teams that need them? We partnered with Out of the Park Development to find out.1 First, we employed the wisdom of the crowd — FanGraphs’s crowdsourced contracts — to whittle down this year’s free agents to the top four hitters and top four pitchers still available. We landed on hitters Rendon, Donaldson, Marcell Ozuna and Nick Castellanos2 and pitchers Cole, Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel.3 OOTP then ran 100 simulations of the 2020 season for each of the 30 MLB teams with each of those players added.4 OOTP also created a baseline by running 1,000 simulations in which the 10 free agents were not on any roster, and we compared the numbers of playoff appearances and World Series titles for each team with each free agent added against that baseline.

The results?

The Milwaukee Brewers would benefit the most from adding a premium free agent, receiving three of the top four gains in playoff berths added. Rendon would give the Brewers the largest boost in playoff chances, as with Rendon, the Brewers advanced to the playoffs 39 times in 100 simulations — 24 times more than without him.

Interestingly, before free agency began, the most valuable possible pairing that we first saw was for Yasmani Grandal, who played for the Brewers last season. The OOTP simulations run before the star catcher signed with the Chicago White Sox showed 31 extra playoff appearances for the Brewers, had Grandal re-signed. OOTP doesn’t have Grandal adding a single playoff berth for his new team, which lost 89 games last season and finished 28.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central.

The next most valuable player-team pairing was Cole joining the Brewers, adding 20 playoff appearances. Though the Brewers have been aggressive in free agency in recent offseasons and have made two straight playoff appearances, large-market clubs are expected to seriously contend for Cole, Strasburg and Rendon. (The New York Yankees have had an initial meeting with Cole.)

Mike Moustakas signed with the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, and the Reds would benefit by continuing to be aggressive in free agency, according to OOTP. Of the pairings we examined, Donaldson would give the Reds the third-largest boost, an increase of 10 playoff appearances to 42 out of 100 simulations.

Where would top free agents impact the playoffs?

2020 playoff berths added per 100 simulations run by Out of the Park Developments pairing each top eight free agent with all 30 MLB teams

playoff berths per 100 simulations*
Team free agent Avg. without F.A. with F.A. Diff
Brewers Anthony Rendon 14.7 39 +24.3
Brewers Gerrit Cole 14.7 35 +20.3
Reds Josh Donaldson 31.9 42 +10.1
Brewers Stephen Strasburg 14.7 24 +9.3
Braves Stephen Strasburg 83.9 92 +8.1
White Sox Anthony Rendon 0.0 8 +8.0
Brewers Madison Bumgarner 14.7 21 +6.3
Braves Josh Donaldson 83.9 90 +6.1
Braves Dallas Keuchel 83.9 90 +6.1
Braves Madison Bumgarner 83.9 90 +6.1

*Out of the Park Developments conducted 1,000 simulated seasons with no free agents added to any team and 100 simulations of each new hypothetical team-free agent pairing.

The top four free agent pitchers and top four free agent hitters, unsigned as of Dec. 4, were determined using FanGraphs’ crowdsourced contract estimates.

Source: Out Of The Park Developments

But what if we look at which teams might just get better, rather than gain postseason berths?

Again, the Brewers would benefit the most from adding a premium free agent. The White Sox would also improve by continuing to add star power to their roster. Those two teams account for 13 of the 15 greatest jumps in regular-season wins when adding top free agents. Cole added a simulation-best 6.9 wins to the White Sox, while Rendon followed by adding 6.6 wins to Chicago and 4.8 wins to the Brewers.

Only 18 player-team pairings would add more than a single win, suggesting free agency often has a limited impact on a team’s fortunes. This is in part why more and more teams have avoided it. But the simulations suggest teams in the AL and NL Central divisions could swing their fortunes most through adding star talent.

Where would top free agents add the most wins?

2020 regular-season wins added per 100 simulations run by Out of the Park Developments pairing each top eight free agent with all 30 MLB teams

reg.-season wins per 100 simulations*
Team Free agent Avg. without F.A. Avg. with F.A. Diff
White Sox Gerrit Cole 72.3 79.2 +6.9
White Sox Anthony Rendon 72.3 78.9 +6.6
Brewers Anthony Rendon 79.7 84.5 +4.8
White Sox Stephen Strasburg 72.3 76.8 +4.5
Brewers Gerrit Cole 79.7 83.9 +4.2
White Sox Josh Donaldson 72.3 76.2 +3.9
White Sox Nick Castellanos 72.3 74.9 +2.6
Brewers Stephen Strasburg 79.7 81.9 +2.2
Brewers Josh Donaldson 79.7 81.7 +2.0
White Sox Madison Bumgarner 72.3 74.2 +1.9

*Out of the Park Developments conducted 1,000 simulated seasons with no free agents added to any team and 100 simulations of each new hypothetical team-free agent pairing.

The top four free agent pitchers and top four free agent hitters, unsigned as of Dec. 4, were determined using FanGraphs’ crowdsourced contract estimates.

Source: Out Of The Park Developments

While some teams could improve their playoff chances in 2020, how many owners are willing to shell out millions for these players? Astros owner Jim Crane indicated that his club could make a run at Cole, even if it meant having to pay the luxury tax for the first time. The Los Angeles Angels, who boast the best bargain in baseball but little else around him, have hinted that they will be a big spender this offseason. They could pursue Cole, a Los Angeles native and UCLA product. Meanwhile, the MLB Players Association has become increasingly wary of owners’ lack of interest in spending and is investigating club coordination in free agency. In 2019, MLB average salary declined for a second straight season.

The other big question looming over free agency is when these players will sign. Last year’s season got off to an ice-cold start, and Harper and Machado were kept waiting for their contracts until after spring training camps had opened. Grandal’s deal, along with a few other notable contracts, could signal a quicker pace than in previous years, though only time will tell.

Many teams are incentivized to buy this offseason, from a wins-added standpoint. Will they spend more than they have in recent winters? We’ll have to wait — perhaps until spring training camps open — to find out.

Footnotes

  1. We ran these simulations before the Atlanta Braves signed left-handed pitcher Cole Hamels on Wednesday.

  2. Yasmani Grandal would have been on the list had he not signed with the Chicago White Sox on Nov. 21.

  3. Zack Wheeler would have been on the list had he not signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 4.

  4. When simulations were run for one free agent, the other nine were left off all teams.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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