It is now February, and still over 100 free agents remain unsigned,. Blame collusion, blame the collective bargaining agreement, blame players for wanting too much, blame whoever you want. The bottom line is so many free agents remain unemployed with spring training less than two weeks away.
The slow free agent market is, unequivocally, a bad thing for baseball. Forget about players not getting paid. This offseason has been incredibly boring. Imagine if the Miami Marlins hadn't torn things down? Aside from the Marlins deals, there have been maybe three trades and five free agent signings of consequence. That's bad. This has been a thoroughly uninteresting offseason for fans, and when fans are bored, it's bad for MLB and the MLBPA. It's a problem.
At the same time, all 30 teams can look at the current free agent market as an opportunity. Spring training is coming up and many impact players are available for nothing but cash (and maybe a draft pick). No front office or ownership group wants to look in the mirror at midseason and say, "you know, we really should've taken advantage of the slow free agent market and tried to get better over the winter." It's going to happen. We'll probably never hear about it, but there will be regret somewhere.
So, with that in mind, let's look at the five teams that stand to gain the most by stepping out of their comfort zone and signing one (or more) of the many quality free agents still on the board. These are teams with clear roster needs and an opportunity to improve their chances of contention in 2018.
A season ago the Diamondbacks managed to win 93 games one year after losing 93 games. It takes a total team effort to produce that kind of turnaround, though there's no doubt the midseason addition of J.D. Martinez helped separate Arizona from the other wild-card hopefuls in the second half. Martinez hit .302/.366/.741 with 29 home runs in 62 games -- 29 homers in 62 games! -- after coming over from the Tigers at the deadline.
The D-Backs now have a Martinez-sized hole in the outfield they could, in theory, fill with Yasmany Tomas. Their new front office regime doesn't seem particularly fond of him, however. Arizona can win a bidding war. The Zack Greinke deal showed us that much. A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin will be free agents after this season and Paul Goldschmidt after next season, so on one hand, the team may not want to spend big on a free agent now so they can afford to keep their own players later.
At the same time, isn't there something to be said for going for it when you have this core intact and under control? The best chance to win with this group is right now, when they're all together. Also, consider the projected NL wild-card race standings, via FanGraphs:
- Cardinals: 88-74 (+71 run differential)
- D-Backs: 85-77 (+35 run differential)
- Giants: 84-78 (+31 run differential)
- Mets: 80-82 (-6 run differential)
That is a little too close for comfort. Catching the powerhouse Dodgers for the NL West crowd probably isn't possible, realistically. Not unless the Dodgers are devastated by injuries and poor performance. I think Arizona is better than their projected record, though not a ton better. Not enough to feel comfortable penciling this group in as a no-doubt postseason team going into the new season.
The obvious target: Still Martinez. They reportedly remain engaged with his camp, and while it won't necessarily be easy to reel him in -- nor will it be easy for Martinez to replicate the season he just had -- the D-Backs can pull it off financially. Every team has money, they're just really good at pretending they don't. It's up to ownership to give the green line to add an oh-so-necessary middle-of-the-order bat.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox finished dead last in the American League in home runs last season, and while they can reasonably expect some more pop from Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts in 2018, they remain short on power overall. Especially given their ballpark and the home run-happy AL East in general. The ALDS was very telling. The Astros seemingly scored at will because they could hit the ball out of the park while the BoSox had to scratch and claw for every run.
As things stand,. They're over the $197 million luxury tax threshold and roughly $12 million away from the second luxury tax tier, which will increase their tax rate and drop their first-round pick 10 spots. There's basically no way for Boston to add an impact free agent and avoid that second luxury tax tier. That said, inevitable midseason call-ups and trade deadline pickups will add payroll, and could push them into that second tier anyway, even without a free agent signing.
Furthermore, check out the projected AL East standings, via FanGraphs:
- Red Sox: 91-71 (+102 run differential)
- Yankees: 91-71 (+101 run differential)
- Blue Jays: 84-78 (+30 run differential)
- Rays: 80-82 (-12 run differential)
- Orioles: 72-90 (-96 run differential)
At least one completely objective computer system sees the Yankees and Red Sox as neck and neck. Boston getting that big middle-of-the-order bat could very well be the difference between winning the AL East and settling for a wild-card spot. It'll cost them financially, for sure, but the more you win, the more money you make. The Red Sox have a lot to gain by adding a bat.
The obvious target: Martinez. This still feels inevitable to me. Martinez is a perfect fit for the Red Sox. He's a bona fide middle-of-the-order masher, he'd be a great fit for Fenway Park, and he has a relationship with president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski dating back to their time with the Tigers. Adding Martinez and living with the luxury tax penalties could equal a third straight division title for the BoSox, assuming they can beat the D-Backs in the bidding war.
New York Yankees
Everything I said about the Red Sox getting a big free agent potentially being the difference between a division title and a wild-card spot? That all applies to the Yankees, though they don't need a bat. They have plenty of those. Their biggest needs right now are another starting pitcher and an infielder in case youngsters Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar aren't ready for a full-time big league job. (Torres is coming back from Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow and hasn't played since June.)
At the moment the Yankees do have five starting pitchers: Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery. But their pursuit of Gerrit Cole as well as their reportedly ongoing pursuits of Corbin, Michael Fulmer, and Chris Archer tells us they'd love another starter. Not a depth starter, an impact starter. Montgomery can be stashed in Triple-A until a need in the rotation arises, which it always does. No team gets through a season with only five starters these days.
As for the infield, the Yankees are tentatively scheduled to break in rookies at second (Torres) and third (Andujar) bases. Torres and Andujar are both top prospects -- MLB.com ranks Torres as the fifth-best prospect in baseball and Andujar the 65th-best -- but they are still prospects, and therefore remain suspect until proven otherwise. Other internal options include youngsters Ronald Torreyes, Tyler Wade, and Thairo Estrada, and minor-league contract signings Jace Peterson and Danny Espinosa. Eh.
The Yankees are planning to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold this season to reset their tax rate, which is currently at the maximum 50 percent. That will save money in the short-term and set them up to spend more in the long-term., even after setting aside $10 million for in-season additions. That $15 million could go a long way, but it might not be enough to add a true impact piece.
The obvious targets: Yu Darvish and Neil Walker. It seems possible the Yankees could add Walker, who'd provide depth at second and third bases, and stay under the luxury tax threshold. Darvish? No way. They'd have to scrap their luxury tax plan to sign him. Then again, adding Darvish could separate the Yankees from the Red Sox in the AL East, and equal a division title. A division title means a better chance of winning the World Series and potentially more revenue-generating home postseason games.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are one of the seemingly few teams to make significant upgrades this winter. They added Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, and while neither is the MVP-caliber producer they were a few years ago, they represent massive upgrades for San Francisco. Their third base and outfield situations were disastrous last season. The Giants also added Austin Jackson to further improve their outfield.
And yet, there is still room for improvement. Lots of it, really. A case can be made they still need another outfielder, preferably a speedy left-handed hitter to platoon with Jackson in center field.
There's also the rotation. Here is the club's projected Opening Day rotation:
The first three guys are locked in, obviously. The fourth and fifth spots are where there is room for improvement. Blach had a 4.78 ERA last season, and his 4.0 K/9 was the lowest strikeout rate by a pitcher with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in five years. Stratton had a solid big-league showing last year (3.68 ERA in 58 2/3 innings) and his curveball spin rate is elite, so maybe the Giants want to give him an extended opportunity. Even then, there's still room for another starter.
The Giants, like the Yankees (and Dodgers), are trying to stay under the $197 million luxury tax threshold, which might not be possible. Cot's Baseball Contracts puts their current payroll at $194.86 million for luxury tax purposes, so once the midseason call-ups begin to mount, they'll probably go over the threshold. Given where they are on the win curve -- as pointed out earlier, they are right on the wild-card bubble -- adding another starter (or outfielder) could be enough to push them over the hump and into the postseason mix.
The obvious targets: Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. Darvish or Jake Arrieta would be sweet, but when you already have Bumgarner and Cueto, you needn't spend big for another ace. Lynn or Cobb would come cheaper and lessen the luxury tax burden, but also provide above-average innings and upgrade the back of the rotation. As for the outfield. Jarrod Dyson makes a world of sense. He could platoon with Jackson, and his center field defense would be welcome in spacious AT&T Park.
St. Louis Cardinals
Are the Cubs catchable in the NL Central? Yeah, I think they are. That doesn't mean I think it'll be easy. The Cardinals will need some things to go their way to have a shot at winning the division, specifically their young pitchers (Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty) having an immediate impact and Chicago's dicey back of the rotation crumbling. That is the easiest way for St. Louis to sneak in and steal the division.
There are the wild-card spots to fall back on, and the Cardinals are firmly in the wild-card mix as presently constructed. Marcell Ozuna is a big addition, and getting full seasons from Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez, and Paul DeJong figure to add a few wins as well. , and while I admit to be skeptical about Adam Wainwright's ability to be even a league-average starter at this point, I feel good about Weaver and Flaherty as depth options.
The bigger need for the Cardinals, in my opinion, is a bullpen arm. This is their relief crew at the moment:
- Closer: Luke Gregerson
- Setup: Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons
- Middle: Matt Bowman, John Brebbia, Brett Cecil, Sam Tuivailala
- Depth Options: John Gant, Josh Lucas, Mike Mayers, Ryan Sherriff
Gregerson has had a fine career. I'm not sure I'd want him closing out ballgames if I'm a contender though. The Cardinals could use a top-flight closer, a power arm capable of missing bats and neutralizing the other team's best hitters in the ninth inning of a one-run game. Closers have a tendency to come out of nowhere -- remember how messy the Astros' bullpen was in the postseason? -- but you'd still like as many quality options as possible.
The obvious fit: Greg Holland. Wade Davis would've been the better get, but he signed with the Rockies already, so Holland is (by far) the best available reliever. Get Holland for the ninth, bump Gregerson back into a setup role, and reap the reward. I believe closers and relievers in general are underrated by WAR. A good one could be the difference between locking up a postseason spot and hitting the golf course in October for the Cardinals.