Ranking the best free agents based on their WAR projection
By Andrew Simon
Hot Stove season has arrived. Beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET on Tuesday, teams may begin signing free agents, as they try to add to their rosters and gear up for 2017. This year's free-agent class is an interesting one, with some potent bats and a few top-tier closers but little starting pitching.
As clubs prepare to chase their top targets, MLB.com analytics guru Tom Tango devised a projection system to rank the top 25 players available. This system simply forecasts a player's wins above replacement (WAR) for each of the next five seasons based on his WAR from the previous three, according to Baseball-Reference.com. It's basically a WAR-based version of the Marcel projection system that Tango created years ago. (For more details on this new system, aka WARcel, read Tom's blog.)
The system gives the most weight to 2016 and the least to '14, while also adding 0.1 WAR for each year under 30 or subtracting that same amount for each year over it to account for the effect of aging. For each subsequent season there is a loss of 0.4 WAR, plus the age adjustment. (That age adjustment is why you don't see the 43-year-old Bartolo Colon -- projected for 0.2 WAR in 2017 -- in this ranking despite his recent success.)
Before getting to the rankings, here are a few caveats to keep in mind:
• These projections are estimates and don't take into account various circumstances -- such as recent injuries -- surrounding different players. Therefore, any players whose WAR projections are close together could easily have their order swapped.
• Because these projections are based entirely on WAR, which reflects playing time, relief pitchers (even elite closers) aren't going to rank as high as they might on a subjective list or one based on potential contract size. WAR also accounts for defense, which reflects poorly on one-dimensional players.
• This list does not include potential free agents who will have -- or have had -- their 2017 options picked up. However, don't forget that some players included here -- but not those traded during the season -- could stay with their teams if they are presented with and accept a qualifying offer.
Here are the top 25 free agents of the 2016-17 offseason, based on WARcel projections for 2017. (Note: Ages listed are "seasonal ages", meaning as of July 1, 2017.)
1. Justin Turner, 3B, Dodgers 2017 WAR projection: 3.5 2017 age: 32
Three years ago, Turner was a decent utility infielder who signed a Minor League deal with Los Angeles after the Mets let him go. Now, with a retooled swing and three consecutive seasons of high-level production, he sits at the top of the free-agent class. From 2014-16, only 17 Major Leaguers with at least 1,000 plate appearances were more effective with the bat than Turner, going by his 138 weighted runs created-plus. On the other hand, Turner's wRC+ did drop in both of the past two years (from 158 to 124), and he will turn 32 later this month.
2. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets 2017 WAR projection: 3.2 2017 age: 31
One year after re-signing with New York, Cespedes opted out of the final two years and $47.5 million of that deal. Cespedes has produced back-to-back strong years, ranking 10th in the Majors in slugging (.537) over that time. He also nearly doubled his walk rate from 2015 to '16, pushing it to a career-high 9.4 percent.
3. Edwin Encarnacion, DH/1B, Blue Jays 2017 WAR projection: 3.2 2017 age: 34
While he has averaged 72 games at first base over the past five seasons, it would make far more sense for Encarnacion to remain in the American League, where he can spend significant time at DH. Even as a bat-only player, Encarnacion will attract his share of suitors. Since 2012, he ranks second in the Majors in homers and RBIs, including 42 and 127 last year.
4. Dexter Fowler, CF, Cubs 2017 WAR projection: 2.7 2017 age: 31
Fowler didn't exercise his part of a $9 million mutual option for 2017 after a career season in which he posted 4.2 WAR. The switch-hitter got off to a scorching start and rode that to a .276/.393/.447 line, finishing with double-digit homers and steals for the fourth time in five years. With a .366 career on-base percentage, Fowler would fit well at the top of many lineups.
5. Josh Reddick, OF, Dodgers 2017 WAR projection: 2.5 2017 age: 30
The left-handed batter managed only a .258/.307/.335 line and two home runs in 47 games for the Dodgers following a Trade Deadline deal, and injuries have been a frequent issue. However, Reddick has posted at least 2.4 WAR for five straight seasons. He would fit best with a team that has a viable platoon partner, as Reddick's .570 OPS against southpaws from 2013-16 ranks last among players with at least 400 plate appearances.
6. Ian Desmond, OF/SS, Rangers 2017 WAR projection: 2.0 2017 age: 31
He settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with Texas at the end of February after a rough 2015 season. It also required Desmond to leave his longtime home at shortstop for left field, where he showed enough to shift over to center. It's unclear whether that will remain his role going forward or if some teams might consider returning him to short or making him a super-utility player. Regardless, Desmond had an encouraging year offensively (106 wRC+, 22 homers, 21 steals), although his production suffered over the final two months.
7. Wilson Ramos, C, Nationals 2017 WAR projection: 2.0 2017 age: 29
What this projection and ranking don't account for is that Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee on Sept. 26, undergoing surgery in mid-October and embarking upon a rehabilitation process the Nats pegged at six to eight months. In other words, Ramos is highly unlikely to be ready for Opening Day, and his return might not come until midseason. That's an awfully tough break for a player who has battled numerous injuries but came back to lead all catchers with a 124 wRC+ in 2016. Still, the scarcity at the catching position means Ramos should do just fine on the market.
8. Neil Walker, 2B, Mets 2017 WAR projection: 1.9 2017 age: 31
Walker is another free agent recovering from surgery, in this case on his back, although at this point he is expected to be ready for Spring Training. A switch-hitter, Walker has been a model of reliability, reaching at least 12 homers, a 108 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR in each of his seven seasons, not counting a brief debut in 2009. He showed more power last year -- as did many hitters in a homer-happy season -- slugging .476 and racking up 23 long balls in 113 games.
9. Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cubs 2017 WAR projection: 1.8 2017 age: 29
In five seasons as a closer, the left-hander has converted 91 percent of his save chances, posted a 1.84 ERA, struck out 44 percent of his opponents and allowed a .480 OPS. Left-handed batters have seven extra-base hits off Chapman in that time, and in 2016, he accounted for more than one-third of the league's triple-digit fastballs. Simply put, Chapman is a force on the mound.
10. Luis Valbuena, 3B/1B, Astros 2017 WAR projection: 1.8 2017 age: 31
Valbuena certainly isn't a big name, and a serious hamstring injury sustained in late July required season-ending surgery. With that said, he can handle the hot corner and at the plate is a left-handed hitter who has produced a 115 wRC+ over the past three seasons. That ranks slightly ahead of both Todd Frazier and Evan Longoria during the same period.
11. Colby Rasmus, OF, Astros 2017 WAR projection: 1.8 2017 age: 30
After accepting Houston's qualifying offer last offseason, Rasmus posted a .979 OPS and hit seven homers in April, but he stumbled to a .191/.252/.297 line with eight homers the rest of the way while dealing with injuries. Overall, it was the worst offensive season of an up-and-down career, although strong numbers on the other side of the ball (20 Defensive Runs Saved, mostly in left) still pushed him past the 2.0-WAR mark.
12. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays 2017 WAR projection: 1.6 2017 age: 36
Bautista's age is not going to help his case, especially coming off a season in which he had two stints on the disabled list and saw his production tumble (1.0 WAR). The veteran slugger still ranked among the MLB leaders in walk rate while slamming 22 homers in 116 games, but his .452 slugging percentage was easily his lowest since before his breakout 2010 campaign.
13. Mark Melancon, RP, Nationals 2017 WAR projection: 1.5 2017 age: 32
Over the past two seasons, no pitcher saved more games than Melancon (98), whose 94.2-percent success rate trailed only Zach Britton. The right-hander doesn't have Chapman's dominant stuff, striking out less than a batter per inning, but he just posted an ERA under 2.00 for the third time in four years.
14. Rich Hill, SP, Dodgers 2017 WAR projection: 1.4 2017 age: 37
In two offseasons, Hill has gone from journeyman reliever taking a Minor League deal to being the top available starter. A pitcher his age isn't going to score a long-term contract, but his results since returning to the Majors late in 2015 should earn him a hefty average annual value. Although Hill battled blisters this year, his 2.12 ERA ranked second among all pitchers with 100 innings.
15. Kenley Jansen, RP, Dodgers 2017 WAR projection: 1.3 2017 age: 29
There are no secrets with Jansen, who threw his cutter close to 90 percent of the time in 2016. He has struck out more than 13 batters per nine innings in every season of his career, while posting a 2.20 ERA, including 1.83 this year. A foot injury in 2015 that cost Jansen six weeks hurt his production that year and his long-term projection a little as well.
16. Steve Pearce, 1B/OF, Orioles 2017 WAR projection: 1.2 2017 age: 34
Pearce has experience at all four corner spots, plus second base, but his most attractive attribute is his ability to crush left-handed pitching. While those numbers have fluctuated from year to year, Pearce owns an .852 career OPS against southpaws and has topped the 1.000 mark in two of the past three seasons.
17. Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Phillies 2017 WAR projection: 1.1 2017 age: 30
After posting an ERA+ below 90 for three straight seasons, Hellickson's first season in Philly saw him rebound nicely. The righty matched his career high in innings (189) and produced an above-average 111 ERA+ and his best FIP (3.98) in any full season.
18. Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Orioles 2017 WAR projection: 1.1 2017 age: 31
This is one ranking likely to stir up some debate. Trumbo slammed an MLB-high 47 homers in his first season with Baltimore, yet poor defense in right field -- when he wasn't at DH -- held him to a modest 1.6 WAR. There's still a lot to like about Trumbo for teams in need of power, but keeping him at DH or first base is likely the most prudent course of action.
19. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles 2017 WAR projection: 1.1 2017 age: 31
The switch-hitter accepted Baltimore's qualifying offer last offseason but then put together a fairly disappointing 2016. Wieters' wRC+ of 88 ranked 14th out of 16 catchers with at least 400 plate appearances.
20. Jason Castro, C, Astros 2017 WAR projection: 1.0 2017 age: 30
One thing Castro has excelled at is pitch framing. According to Baseballl Prospectus, he has been worth at least 11 framing runs in each of the past three years, including 17 this year, which ranked third in MLB. On the other hand, since his All-Star season in 2013, Castro has batted .215/.291/.369 while striking out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances. A left-handed hitter, Castro has fared considerably better against righties, so a platoon situation might be the best fit.
21. Carlos Gomez, CF, Rangers 2017 WAR projection: 0.9 2017 age: 31
Things never worked out for Gomez in Houston, where he posted a .619 OPS between his acquisition in July 2015 and his release in mid-August this year. Then, picked up by Texas, Gomez batted .284/.362/.543 with eight homers in 33 games, showing signs of the player who earned MVP votes in 2013-14.
22. Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays 2017 WAR projection: 0.8 2017 age: 30
Limited to 78 games in 2014 and just nine in '15 due to injury, Saunders stayed healthy this year and took advantage. The left-handed hitter put up a 117 wRC+ on the strength of a strong first half, although he hit only .178/.282/.357 after the All-Star break. Still, Saunders set career highs in doubles (32), homers (24) and slugging (.478).
23. Sean Rodriguez, INF/OF, Pirates 2017 WAR projection: 0.8 2017 age: 32
Rodriguez is a true utility man, having played every position other than pitcher and catcher, both over his career and in 2016. The difference this year was a huge spike in power that saw Rodriguez hit 18 homers and slug .510, compared with his .398 mark over the previous three seasons. Even assuming that doesn't continue, Rodriguez's versatility can help make him a useful piece.
24. Mitch Moreland, 1B, Rangers 2017 WAR projection: 0.7 2017 age: 31
Moreland enjoyed a solid 2015, when he was worth 2.2 WAR, but that's the only season in which he has surpassed the 1.0 plateau.
25. Alex Avila, C, White Sox 2017 WAR projection: 0.7 2017 age: 30
Avila missed almost two months with a hamstring injury but was a slightly above-average hitter in a 57-game sample, striking out and walking at a high rate and popping seven homers. However, Avila's pitch framing has rated poorly, and it seems likely he will fill a backup role in 2017.