Last year at this time—363 days ago, to be exact—the free-agent market was so slow that I put together a roster made entirely of unsigned free agents, gave the team a nickname (the Nomads) and a free-agent manager (Joe Girardi), and ran them through our projection system. PECOTA pegged the J.D. Martinez-led squad for an 84-78 record.
Back then, 14 of BP’s top 25 free agents were unsigned, including six of the top eight. This offseason hasn’t been quite that slow, with “only” six of the top 25 free agents unsigned, but that includes the two superstars, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, and four of the top eight. Today is the launch of this year’s PECOTA projections, so let’s fire up the system again, this time hire Dusty Baker to lead our veteran-filled roster, and see if a team built from free agents as of February 7 could make a playoff run.
Like last year, I’ve assigned the hypothetical Free Agent Nomads to the American League and given them four “extra” players for a 29-man roster from which to generate a full season’s worth of playing time, since calling up minor leaguers throughout the year obviously isn’t an option. Other than that, we’ll keep things very simple.
(Note: AVG/OBP/SLG projections are based on most recent teams/run-scoring environments, but DRC+ puts everyone’s overall production on a context-neutral scale where 100 is average. I’ve capped plate appearances at 650, with all but Machado and Harper getting 600 or fewer, to force the use of depth.)
These guys can definitely hit. Last year’s Nomads projected to have an average offense, with Martinez doing most of the heavy lifting for a lineup with a total of just four above-average hitters. This year’s lineup projects to be well above average, with two of the top 35 hitters in baseball leading a total of seven above-average bats. Machado, Harper, and Mike Moustakas is a fearsome middle-of-the-order trio that totaled 99 homers in 2018 and 100 homers in 2017, and Marwin Gonzalez, Adam Jones, Evan Gattis, Carlos Gonzalez, and Derek Dietrich (a sneaky add from the non-tender pile) offer plenty of additional thump. Only the catcher spot projects to be a drain on the lineup, and relative to the position’s weak offense a Martin Maldonado/Matt Wieters combo isn’t even that bad.
I focused on defensive versatility for the bench, because hypothetical teams full of free agents are pretty limited in terms of in-season roster moves, but even the backups aren’t totally helpless at the plate. If you can’t stand the idea of a slugger-less bench, feel free to sub in, say, Logan Morrison or Lucas Duda. There are a few obvious righty/lefty platoon opportunities with Dietrich/Josh Harrison, Jones/Denard Span, and Gonzalez/Cameron Maybin, but I’ll let Baker handle the particulars.
It’s not a great group defensively, although Maldonado is a plus behind the plate and no one is playing wildly out of position (last year’s Nomads had Eduardo Nunez faking it at shortstop and we kindly asked all fans sitting behind first base to wear helmets). I’ve placed Machado at shortstop because that’s his preferred position and actual teams looking to sign him may have to do the same, so it only seemed fair. Jose Iglesias is on the bench in a utility role if improved infield defense becomes a priority, and the play-anywhere ability of Gonzalez/Harrison/Dietrich makes moving pieces around pretty easy.
PECOTA projects the Nomads to have the AL’s fifth-best offense.
(Note: As with the hitters, I’ve capped the playing time for pitchers. And the previous explanation about run-scoring environments and raw numbers applies here as well.)
Well, it’s a good thing the Nomads can hit.
Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez are dependably solid atop the rotation, but the rest of the starters have all sorts of durability concerns in addition to simply not being all that good. Clay Buchholz was excellent for the Diamondbacks last season, starting 16 games with a 2.01 ERA, but PECOTA isn’t quite sold on the oft-injured 34-year-old. The Nomads also caught a tough break at the last minute, losing no. 4 starter Jeremy Hellickson when he re-signed with the Nationals yesterday. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking 100-150 innings apiece for Buchholz, Doug Fister, Edwin Jackson, and Brett Anderson is way too optimistic, so feel free to allow one more roster spot for starting pitching help and insert, say, Ervin Santana into the mix. The overall picture wouldn’t change much.
The bullpen isn’t great, but it’s quite a bit stronger than the rotation and so they’ll lean heavily on relievers (although something tells me Baker may not be a big fan of the “opener” strategy). Craig Kimbrel is the anchor, giving the Nomads an elite closer, and the Bud Norris/Ryan Madson setup duo should be solid (making it a setup trio with Brad Boxberger would have helped, but he signed with the Royals yesterday). After that it gets a little sketchy, with more quantity than quality, although they’re definitely not short on late-inning experience. They are short on reliable left-handers, so Baker will probably want to pick his spots with Jake Diekman and Tony Sipp.
Accounting for a below-average defense, PECOTA projects the Nomads to have a slightly below-average pitching staff, ranking ninth in the league in runs allowed.
So, could a team built entirely out of unsigned players as of February 7 make the playoffs? Absolutely.
PECOTA projects the Nomads—with playing time divvied up among a 29-man roster as shown above—to go 85-77. Their exact playoff odds would depend heavily on which of the three AL divisions they called home—we’re keeping this exercise very simple, remember—but that would be the sixth-best record in the league and just one game back of the Rays for the projected second Wild Card spot.
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