The All-Free-Agent Team: Building a squad out of the best of the rest
Inside of three weeks until pitchers and catchers begin reporting, the free-agent market is still stocked enough to piece together a full roster of familiar names—not a squad that would win a championship, mind you, but one with usable players. What follows here is a quick run around the diamond focusing on the top option at each position, with alternatives where relevant and only the occasional use of artistic license to ensure a complete team.
Catcher: Wil Nieves
Admittedly, this is the thinnest position of the bunch: Major resources such as MLB Trade Rumors, Cot's Contracts and Roster Resource show that the cupboard is completely bare as far as major league free agents. That shouldn't be too surprising given the need for extra backstops to handle the legions of pitchers who will be in camps soon. Still, the 38-year-old Nieves, a grizzled veteran of 12 seasons but just 427 games played, is without a job. Nieves began last season as the Padres' backup behind Derek Norris but played just six games, going 1-for-13 before being designated for assignment and then released in early May. Nieves caught on with the Braves, spending two months with their Triple A Gwinnett affiliate before being released again.
A career .241/.280/.317 hitter, Nieves was above replacement level as recently as 2014 with the Phillies (0.7 Wins Above Replacement in 36 games). He also appears more able-bodied than 36-year-old Gerald Laird, who played just one game for the Diamondbacks last year and spent more than four months on the disabled list due to back surgery.
First Base: Justin Morneau
After snatching the National League batting title in 2014, Morneau hit .310/.363/.458 last year, albeit in just 49 games due to a cervical neck strain and yet another concussion in a career that's had far too many. The Rockies declined their end of a $9 million mutual option, but the mediocrity of fill-in Ben Paulsen's showing (.277/.326/.462 for a 99 OPS+ in 354 plate appearances) leaves the door back to Colorado ajar. The Astros stand out as another team that can still use a boost at first, though the problem in both cases is that both Paulsen and Houston's Jon Singleton are lefties, as is Morneau.
Less promising options at first include lefty Ike Davis (formerly of the Athletics) and righty Corey Hart (last on the Pirates). As for Pedro Alvarez, also late of Pittsburgh: I've got other plans for him.
Second Base: Juan Uribe
The position is a bit of a stretch: He played just eight games there while bouncing from the Dodgers to the Braves to the Mets. But there's little doubt that Uribe, who turns 37 on March 22, still has something to offer beyond style for miles. Amid all of his packing and unpacking, Uribe hit .253/.320/.417 with 14 homers, a 105 OPS+ and 1.7 WAR in 397 plate appearances and wound up in his third World Series. He's still a more-than-competent third baseman who has the versatility to spot at second and first, as well as a valued clubhouse presence. The Indians' interest has been noted for weeks, and there's little doubt he find a job somewhere if that doesn't pan out.
Beyond him, the pickings at the keystone are slim now that Howie Kendrick is off the market. Dan Uggla's hugs may be his best remaining asset after his third straight year below the Mendoza Line. For the more glove-oriented, there's Jonathan Herrera, who played 29 games at the position last year plus another 16 at third, though his .230/.242/.333 "hitting" in 132 plate appearances limits his utility.
Third Base: David Freese
It's been a chilly winter (sorry) for Freese, whose 2.3 WAR with the Angels was his best showing since 2012. In his age-32 season, Freese hit .257/.323/.420 with 14 homers and a 109 OPS+ in 470 plate appearances. With the glove, he was two runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved and dead even via Ultimate Zone Rating. In early December, it appeared he would return to the Angels, but those talks fell apart and the team traded for Yunel Escobar instead. Since then, the most heat he's received is as a trial balloon floating him as a potential platoon partner with Boston's Pablo Sandoval. The odds suggest that Freese's market will thaw eventually, but with Uribe also still out there, he may not be anyone's first choice for hot corner depth.
Shortstop: Ian Desmond
One of three free agents still available who have qualifying offers attached, Desmond once appeared slated for a nine-figure contract, but those dreams died miserably amid a case of walk-year jitters. After averaging a 114 OPS+ and 3.6 WAR from 2012 to '14, he sank to .233/.290/.384 for an 80 OPS+ last year, though his defense was solid enough (+1 DRS) to prop him up to 2.0 WAR. Via either a one-year pillow contract or a deal with an early opt-out, the 30-year-old Desmond could still be a fit for a team with a protected first-round pick like the White Sox, who have light-hitting Tyler Saladino penciled in at short, or the Rockies, who could lose Jose Reyes for a substantial chunk of the season due to a domestic violence suspension.
Also available at shortstop: slick-fielding Clint Barmes and former MVP Jimmy Rollins, who's coming off a dreadful age-37 season in which he hit .224/.285/.358 with 13 homers and 12 steals but just a 78 OPS+ and -7 DRS en route to -0.1 WAR. At last report in early January, multiple teams were said to be interested in him, albeit as a second baseman.
Leftfield: David Murphy
The now-34-year-old Murphy split last year between the Indians and Angels, hitting a combined .283/.318/.421 with 10 homers and a 101 OPS+ but struggling in his second stop. He essentially canceled out his value with -4 DRS in the field. In fact, he's netted -0.5 WAR over the past three seasons due in part to overexposure; he's not a player who should be receiving 400 plate appearances a year anymore.
Murphy is just one of several familiar corner outfielders available, a group that includes fellow ex-Angels David DeJesus and Matt Joyce, fellow ex-Ranger Will Venable and fellow ex-Indian Ryan Raburn. The last of those options hit a robust .301/.393/.543 in 201 plate appearances for Cleveland and has shown in the past that he can fit in neatly to a lefty-mashing role.
Centerfield: Dexter Fowler
The other free-agent position player tethered to a qualifying offer, Fowler hit a solid .250/.346/.411 (107 OPS+) and set career highs for playing time (690 plate appearances) and home runs (17), plus his highest total in steals (20) since his 2009 rookie season. Alas, -12 DRS cut his value to just 2.2 WAR, and it's not just a one-year aberration: With the Astros in 2014, Fowler was 20 below average en route to 1.8 WAR. Take those together, and it may be a message that the soon-to-be-30-year-old is better suited to a corner outfield spot. The White Sox and Rangers are two teams that have been connected to Fowler; as noted above, Chicago—which got underwhelming work from Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia in the outfield—has a protected first-round pick, though the team stands to lose the compensation pick it netted when Jeff Samardzija signed with the Giants.
Available at a far lower price point than Fowler is another player who finished the season with the Cubs: 29-year-old Austin Jackson, who hit .267/.311/.385 with nine homers, 17 steals and 1.6 WAR.
Rightfield: Marlon Byrd
Changing addresses in midseason for the third year out of the past four, Byrd hit just .247/.290/.453 with 23 homers and 1.5 WAR for the Reds and Giants, the latter of whom declined his $8 million club option. The 38-year-old slugger's days as a full-timer could be over, but he still has enough pop to find work as a role player. He looks a whole lot more lifelike than other names in the rightfield pool such as Alex Rios, Shane Victorino and Grady Sizemore.
Designated Hitter: Pedro Alvarez
Throwing woes ended Alvarez's tenure as the Pirates' third baseman, and his conversion to first base went badly as well; via DRS, he was 14 runs below average last year, offsetting virtually all of the value of his offense (.243/.318/.469 with 27 homers and a 114 OPS+). Scott Boras has gone on the offensive trying to counter the notion that Alvarez's future is glove-less, and while the agent doth protest too much, there aren't any obvious fits for Alvarez as a platoon DH at this juncture, so it could take more than the usual Boras magic to land his client a job.
Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo
The third and final remaining free agent who will require draft pick compensation, Gallardo pitched to a respectable 3.42 ERA (124 ERA+) in 184 1/3 innings for the Rangers last year, reaching the 30-start plateau for the seventh straight season. His strikeout rate has been in free fall in that span, however, declining every year except one along that stretch; last year, it was a career-low 5.9 per nine, and his 4.00 FIP represented a full-season high. What's more, he pitched six full innings just twice in his final 16 starts en route to a career-worst 36% quality-start rate.
Handled correctly, there's still value in Gallardo—he was worth 4.1 WAR in 2015 and 2.5 in '14—and while the qualifying offer hurt his market, the worst-case scenario has him as the first call for a GM once the inevitable wave of injuries hits this spring. That's especially true given the alternatives: Mat Latos, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Guthrie, Tim Lincecum et al. Mark Buehrle could also be in this class, as he’s left the door open to a possible comeback.
Closer: Tyler Clippard
Even at this stage of the winter, free-agent relievers are like ants at a picnic: Not only are they everywhere, but there's also always more where that came from. A brief list of those who pitched at least 40 games last year and are still looking for work includes lefties Craig Breslow, Randy Choate, Matt Thornton and Franklin Morales and righties Burke Badenhop, Blaine Boyer, Tommy Hunter, Carlos Torres and Ryan Webb—and that's without mentioning relievers who saw less time due to injuries or detours to the minors.
One who stands out among the unemployed given his track record is Clippard, who saved 19 games and pitched to a 2.92 ERA (albeit with a 4.27 FIP) in 71 innings for the A's and Mets. The going-on-31-year-old righty has been heavily used, averaging 73 games and 77 innings over the past six seasons, and his late-season control struggles—five homers and 15 runs allowed in 21 2/3 innings in September and October—cannot be helping his market. The odds are he lands on his feet, however, even if it's only as a setup option on a one-year deal.