As far as fan and analyst sentiment goes, the MLB free agency crop entering 2018 leaves much to be desired. Aside from a couple of big ticket players, the free agency list appears to be full of role players or players in the decline phase of their career. However, looking at the list through another lens, one can see significant opportunity: this is a class that is full of one-year or two-year contract opportunities, which means that it is an opportunity for GM David Stearns to find relatively low risk opportunities to round out the margins of the roster. The Brewers GM has thus far excelled in building teams that find unexpected production through depth moves (see Jonathan Villar, Keon Broxton, and Junior Guerra, among others, in 2016, and Manny Pina, Jesus Aguilar, and maybe even Chase Anderson, among others, in 2017). Leaping from this starting assumption, the 2018 free agency class should be viewed as the perfect opportunity for Stearns to expand his acumen for seeking roster depth into an arena where the wallet will expand slightly: three-to-five well-placed free agency signings can help the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers bolster their identity and solidify MLB roles for the short term while advanced prospects take their final steps polishing their respective approaches in the minors.
Recently, my surplus analysis of the Brewers roster affirmed the relatively well-known fact that Catcher, Right-Handed Pitcher, and Second Base are the greatest positions of need for Milwaukee in 2018.
Extrapolating those needs:
- While Manny Pina performed quite well, the Brewers could use stronger back-up support. It is not clear whether Stephen Vogt, Andrew Susac, or Jett Bandy have profiles that are suitable for high-end back-up to help the Brewers contend. This is prior to considering any concerns in approach or mechanics that suggest Pina will not be able to continue performing at his 2017 level.
- Waiver trade deadline acquisition Neil Walker delivered solid production down the stretch for the Brewers, and arguably should be a clear target in free agency given the lack of any immediate prospect that flashes a strong starting second baseman role in the advanced minors. Walker will not block any prospects, and his ability to play at multiple infield positions will help the Brewers execute their “Team Depth” strategy.
- Finally, right-handed pitching will take hits due to injury (Jimmy Nelson), free agency (Matt Garza and Anthony Swarzak), uncertain prospect production / development projects at MLB level (Brandon Woodruff, followed by Corbin Burnes and company), and arguably role depreciation as well (everyone from Junior Guerra to Jorge Lopez to Aaron Wilkerson could fit this description). It should not be outlandish to suggest that the Brewers could easily use two-to-three additional starting pitching options in order to withstand April-through-July and the battle of attrition that is the 162 grind.
This post will outline a set of topics for free agency analysis, but first it is worth looking at the three-year depreciated surplus figures for the Top 25 free agents among pitchers and batters. The following tables include:
- Raw 2017 Three-Year Depreciated Surplus (treated without contract, as though the player was a 2016-2017 free agent).
- Raw 2018 Three-Year Depreciated Surplus (once again, treated without contract, with every player on a three-year scale for ease of comparison).
- The difference between 2018 and 2017 depreciated surplus, which should read like “role depreciation,” or “role trend,” to suggest whether the player is largely trending upward or downward.
- These figures are drawn from Baseball Prospectus WARP, knocked down to 70 percent to imitate production regression of aging and injury (etc.), and placed on the “market rate” WARP schedule of approximately $7 million per one WARP.
- Additionally, players that have options or opt-outs were not included in this search in order to present a uniform class of players and avoid complicated contractual assumptions.
First, the best bats:
Now, following the same table structure, a look at the 2018 pitching free agents:
From this basis, much analysis should follow, as the surplus figures are highly abstract and obviously not tethered to the reality of negotiating contracts that could span anywhere from one-year (perhaps for someone like Cameron Maybin) to seven-years (for someone like Yu Darvish). Obviously, specific statistical, mechanical, age, injury, and other considerations will come into play in the actual market, as well. More detailed analysis on these areas will follow. However, for now, it is worth drawing some big picture conclusions about the class:
- Should someone wish to gamble on injury recovery risk, pitchers from Alex Cobb to Michael Pineda, or even Yu Darvish, could provide significant surplus (yes, Darvish could provide surplus value to a club even with a huge contract). Obviously, these cases will require particular attention to detail in terms of mechanics, injury type or severity, and other medical or recovery-related factors.
- The supposed lack of star power among position players could provide a feast for the right front office mentalities: players from Eric Hosmer to Neil Walker to reclamation projects like Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, or Carlos Gonzalez could deliver plentiful returns to front offices with a sharp eye to mechanics, strike zone approach, and other related factors.
- An amazing bench (or set of depth role players) could emerge from this class, lead by someone like Jarrod Dyson (a fantastic glove-first centerfielder). Even the Brewers, with their noted glut of outfielders, could arguably find room to upgrade depth roles with a player like Dyson (who offers more certain defense and a rather disciplined-if-unspectacular plate approach compared to someone like Keon Broxton off the bench).
- Moreover, who will be the next Chase Anderson? Or rather, how will the Brewers front office learn from their coaching and arsenal approach successes with the veteran? My vote in this regard is for the unheralded Jeremy Hellickson, who you last heard about in the ridiculed 2017 deadline trade involving the Phillies and Orioles. Yet although Hellickson followed up his strong 2016 campaign with some troubles in 2017, his arsenal and mechanics maintain the basic form of their 2016 foundation. Additionally, the righty works with the much-familar sinker-cutter-curve-change approach that the Brewers have worked with (see Davies, Zach, as well as Anderson).
While all the hype will justifiably go to guys like Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, the 2017 Brewers pitching success proved that arms can indeed succeed by being placed within a particular system that uses the proper individualized approach to each pitcher’s needs (Derek Johnson’s chameleon coaching style is oft-praised for this characteristic). For this reason, a raw mechanical project like Arrieta could succeed in Milwaukee, but given the cost comparisons and serviceable depth options available, this is a perfect offseason for Stearns and the front office to gamble on pitching acquisitions that fit a particular mold suitable to the organization. Since Milwaukee will face market constraints throughout their contending years, learning how to repeatedly find the next Chase Anderson will arguably be as important as learning when to jump at an elite contract.
The Brewers can indeed contend in 2018 while continuing to develop players at the MLB level, but they will be required to do so with the most….interesting roster in the division (as opposed to the one with the most starpower). In this regard, perhaps a consistent head-scratcher like the 2012-2016 Orioles is a better model for replication and discussion than the popular Cubs, Pirates, or Astros building models.
Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports Images