A little exercise.
Say you're the general manager of a bad team. Say your owner gives you the green light to spend whatever it takes to improve your club. What kind of team could you have lined up this offseason if you could lure the free agent of your choice to your city? Here is one possible all-free agent team, including the average annual salary for players who have already signed (indicated by an asterisk) plus Jim Bowden's estimates for the unsigned players:
C: Brian McCann* ($17 million): 2.2 WAR
1B: James Loney ($7 million): 2.7 WAR
2B: Robinson Cano ($25 million): 7.6 WAR
3B: Juan Uribe ($7 million): 4.1 WAR
SS: Jhonny Peralta* ($13 million): 3.3 WAR
LF: Shin-Soo Choo ($17 million): 4.2 WAR
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury ($20 million): 5.8 WAR
RF: Marlon Byrd* ($8 million): 5.0 WAR
DH: Carlos Beltran ($18 million): 2.4 WAR
SP: Ubaldo Jimenez ($14 million): 2.7 WAR
SP: Bronson Arroyo ($13 million): 2.5 WAR
SP: Tim Hudson* ($11.5 million): 1.0 WAR
SP: Dan Haren* ($10 million): 0.0 WAR
SP: Jason Vargas* ($8 million): 1.8 WAR
RP: Joe Nathan ($12 million): 3.2 WAR
RP: Joe Smith* ($5.25 million): 1.8 WAR
RP: LaTroy Hawkins* ($2.5 million): 0.5 WAR
We'll fill out the rest of the team with minimum-wage replacement-level players. Would this be a good team? Sure, if everyone repeated their 2013 performances we get a combined total of 50.8 WAR via Baseball-Reference.com.
The Red Sox had a total WAR of 55.9, the Cardinals of 41.4, the Tigers of 54.5, the Dodgers of 46.3. The Cardinals "overachieved" their WAR primarily due to their record-setting .330 average with runners in scoring position. But 50 WAR would make this team a solid 95-win team or so and an obvious playoff contender.
But the payroll would top at over $200 million -- $208 million just for this group. And several players here are ripe for declines -- Byrd, Uribe, Loney. We could cut a few players, say Beltran, Nathan and Haren, saving $40 million, but that still only gets the payroll down to $168 million not counting several million more for the backups. Only two teams began last season with a higher Opening Day payroll, the Yankees at $228.8 million and the Dodgers at $216.6 million. The Phillies were third at $165.4 million.
What if you're a team, however, with some cheap baseline talent, money to spend and few long-term commitments. Say, the Seattle Mariners, who have only Felix Hernandez signed past 2014. Buster Olney wrote about the Mariners over the weekend, calling them a sleeping giant in free agency. Buster wrote:
Cano and/or Ellsbury could be greatly overpriced for the Mariners (and perhaps impossible; it may be that Cano would never leave New York to play for Seattle). But that would be the cost of jump-starting this franchise, and I’d rather overpay one or both of them than to pay inflated market prices on second- and third-tier players, because Cano and Ellsbury are elite, and for the Mariners, they would be game-changers. This brings to mind the thought process once explained by longtime Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi: You would rather overpay a great player than give one nickel more than you have to to a player who can’t be great.
Buster listed this possible Mariners lineup:
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
SS Brad Miller
2B Robinson Cano
3B Kyle Seager
DH Raul Ibanez
1B Justin Smoak
(One problem: The first five batters are all left-handed and Smoak is a switch-hitter who can't hit lefties; Saunders also hits left-handed. So that would need some fixing, but we'll stick to this for this study.)
The Mariners have also said they would like to sign a starting pitcher to join Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. OK, let's give them Jimenez at $14 million per year.
How good would this team be? You've added Cano, Ellsbury and Jimenez at an estimated $60 million. Baseball-Reference estimates the 2014 payroll of the current roster at $47 million. That doesn't include Ibanez, who made $2.75 million last year. You'd probably want to sign a reliever or two to add depth to last year's bullpen that was among the worst in baseball. If Cano and Ellsbury end up costing a little more than our guesses, you're looking at a payroll of $125 to $135 million ... not unreasonable.
But would the team be any good?
Here are the Steamer WAR projections for our fake Mariners team as listed on FanGraphs:
CF Ellsbury: 3.9
SS Miller: 3.2
2B Cano: 5.4
3B Seager: 2.9
DH Ibanez: -0.1
1B Smoak: 0.8
C Zunino: 2.1
RF Saunders: 1.0
LF Almonte: 1.5
SP Hernandez: 4.7
SP Iwakuma: 3.4
SP Jimenez: 2.7
SP Paxton: 1.3
SP Walker: 1.6
We'll assume the bullpen rebounds and is worth 3.0 WAR, about middle of the pack for a bullpen. We'll assume the bench is replacement-level.
Cumulative WAR for our fake Mariners? 37.4, still short of a playoff-caliber team. (A replacement-level team would be estimated to win 48 games, so our fake Mariners look like an 85-win team, give or take.)
And that's why building a team via free agency is a difficult proposition. Sure, our fake Mariners could sign a better DH and maybe Shin-Soo Choo for the outfield. But now you're looking at a payroll upwards of $160 million and still a team that may not win 90 games, and that's assuming Paxton and Walker are good and Jimenez's final three months were for real. Of course, Paxton and Walker could be really good and Steamer was a little sluggish on Cano and Ellsbury, so maybe our fake Mariners could win 92 and make the postseason.
The larger point: You need a lot of good players to make the playoffs. Patching a couple holes in free agency will rarely boost a bad team into postseason contention unless they get a lot of improvement from players already on the roster.