MLB: Analysing the 2017/18 Free Agents Part 2 – Infielders

Our breakdown of the 2017/18 free agent class continues with a look at the notable infielders available this winter.

The 2017/18 off-season continues to crawl along with the Doug Fister signing with the Texas Rangers perhaps the most notable move so far. As a nice first test for the model which we nutted out in part 1 of this series, we predicted Fister’s market value at 1 yr and $4.2m, almost exactly the guaranteed sum Fister will receive in 2018. Nonetheless today we shift our focus away from pitchers and towards the defenders behind them on the infield. I have also included catchers in this group as they are not a significant enough class to warrant a post of their own.

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We characterised the 2017/18 starting pitching class as risky and I think this applies to this Winter’s free agent class on the whole. The upside on the offensive side of the spectrum is somewhat lower than with the pitchers and the risk somewhat safer, though this is more due to the nature of the profession than any intrinsic quality of the players. There is some high end talent available among this year’s free agent infielders though it comes largely at the lower end of the defensive spectrum with a notable glut of first baseman attempting to sell their services. This class also appears heavy on aging infielders looking to latch on with a contender. So with that, let’s move on to today’s breakdown.

A Short Note on Methodology

The averages shown in the first table for each tier are a simple three year average taken from the Fangraphs Leaderboards, they give us some context as to the type of performer the player has been over the last 3 years in some key statistical categories as well as the players age and whether they have been extended a Qualifying Offer or not.

The second set of tables, attempt to project each players values as determined by WAR over a four year period and then assign a dollar value to this value. To achieve this, a three year weighted average was taken of the player’s WAR for the last 3 seasons and then a simple age adjustment was applied. The age adjustment used here was as follows:

Player < 28 = +.25 WAR
Player 28-20 = + 0 WAR
Player > 30 = -.25 WAR

This is just a simple adjustment to account for the effects of aging on player performance. The players WAR was then projected out over a 4 year period and the average WAR per year appears in the table below. The projected years column is a subjective assessment of the expected length of the players contract and does not factor into these calculations – it is simply a guide for you, the reader. The same applies to the “potential teams” column.

For the purpose of this exercise one ‘Win’ was valued at $8M.

Tier 1 – Impact Regulars

Player Position Age AVG HR wRC+ QO?
Eric Hosmer 1B 28 .294 23 120 Y
Zack Cozart SS 32 .269 16 113 N
Carlos Santana 1B 31 .250 25 118 Y
Mike Moustakas 3B 29 .278 30 118 Y

If you’re looking for a star level offensive upgrade then this year’s free agent infield class is probably not the place you should be looking. Eric Hosmer is regarded as the offensive jewel of the class, however, his 120 wRC+ over the last 3 seasons hides the fact that he has been one of the most inconsistent hitters in baseball for his career. In this regard, Carlos Santana may be Hosmer’s exact opposite having been a pillar of consistency for his career as well as being the superior defender of the two.

Zack Cozart is coming off a 5 win breakout season and you shouldn’t expect him to repeat that but he can play shortstop and appears to have figured something out offensively which has plenty of value in itself.

Mike Moustakas offers the biggest power upgrade in this class though if the defense continues to decline as it did in 2017 then this looks like a pretty one dimensional profile going forward.

Player Proj. WAR Proj. Years Proj. AAV Potential Teams
Hosmer 2.4 6 19.2 Red Sox, Royals
Cozart 3.2 3 25.6 Reds, Padres
Sanatana 2.7 3 21.6 Red Sox, Mets
Moustakas 2.6 5 20.8 Braves, Royals, Cardinals

As it turns out, our simple model loves Santana and Cozart despite these two being the more poorly regarded players of the group in turns of earning power. Cozart almost certainly won’t receive $25m a year but that’s what comes out when you put a 5 win campaign in the most heavily weighted season in the model He’s a solid player though and there’s every chance he turns out as the best signing in this group.

3 yrs and $65m is likely on lower end of probable outcomes but is certainly attainable for Carlos Santana. He does a lot of things well as a switch-hitter who plays above average defense at first and can get on base while hitting for power. Looking solely at his numbers you’d be excused for preferring Santana to Hosmer but in this market perception pays and despite the evidence, Santana can’t match the ‘star’ perception attached to Hosmer.

Mike Moustakas is the most intriguing option for me here. Having played a solid third base for most of his career, there is the potential for some defensive value even if 2017 wasn’t his best showing with the glove. On top of that, Moustakas is coming off a career high 38 home runs and with a move away from Kaufman Stadium it would not be unreasonable to project a handful for more. He has shown the ability to hit for average though he doesn’t walk, limiting his value. There’s a ton of risk here though as Moustakas’ defense could continue trending southward and the 38 home runs proving to be a one year blip.

As I have alluded to throughout this post, Hosmer is likely to be paid handsomely this winter despite middling performances throughout his career. Scouts have long projected for more power than has actually come for Hosmer which makes this situation feel a lot like the 2015 Jason Heyward situation where a team is paying for age and projection over performance.

Tier 2 – The Grinders

Player Position Age AVG HR wRC+ QO?
Todd Frazier 3B 32 .231 34 109 N
Yonder Alonso 1B 31 .267 13 110 N
Neil Walker 2B 32 .272 18 114 N
Alex Avila C 30 .223 8 104 N
Welington Castillo C 30 .261 18 101 N
Jonathon Lucroy C 31 .274 12 100 N
Logan Morrison 1B 30 .236 23 107 N
Howie Kendrick UTIL 34 .278 9 107 N
Eduardo Nunez UTIL 30 .294 11 106 N

This group consists largely of solid, if uninspiring players who all should be able to play everyday for a major league club without offering much in the way of upside. Again there are few options for teams looking to upgrade at premium defensive positions, with only Neil Walker capable of handling an up-the-middle position everyday. Nonetheless, there’s some power here with most all of these players capable of 15+ HR per year with mostly solid defense across the board. Outside of Walker and Frazier none of these guys are likely to be any teams ‘Plan A’ entering the winter but you can certainly do worse than have one of these players filling an everyday position for your club.

Player Proj. WAR Proj. Years Proj. AAV Potential Teams
Frazier 2.71 2 21.68 Yankees, Mets, Cardinals
Alonso 0.84 2 6.72 Rays, Indians
Walker 2.28 2 18.24 Angels, Brewers
Avila 1.29 2 10.32 Yankees, Orioles
Castillo 1.71 1 13.68 Orioles, Athletics
Lucroy 1.94 1 15.52 Rockies
Morrison 1.41 1 11.28 Rays, Mets
Kendrick 1.13 1 9.04 Angels, Giants
Nunez 1.78 2 14.24 Red Sox, Angels

If there is a systemic error in our model then it is almost certainly the linear application of dollars to wins and it shows when you start projecting for average everyday player types. Teams aren’t really willing to pay $8m for a one win player because in most cases there is like 7 of them currently sitting in the minor leagues that they could play at the league minimum salary. Neil Walker and Todd Frazier are both solid players and in fact there is an argument to be made that Frazier is actually a good player but nonetheless, the thought of paying these players some $20m per year would be obscene to most MLB executives. This is also evident in the case of Welington Castillo who signed in during the construction of this post, taking $7.5m in AAV with the White Sox on a two year deal.

Todd Frazier is arguably the biggest bargain available among this class of infielders with his performance over the last 3 season congruent with a place among this class’ top tier. He is not perceived that way however, despite bringing plenty of power while playing solid defense at the hot corner.

Eduardo Nunez has enjoyed something of a breakout over the last few seasons and he brings the ability to hit for average and moderate power to compliment his upper tier speed, he can play multiple positions though he plays all of them poorly. The positional flexibility as well as the strong offensive profile does however, give Nunez plenty of value.

Logan Morrison enjoyed a power breakout in 2017, perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of the home run surge and could be a cheap source of power for a team short on payroll space. Alex Avila fits a similar mold having rebuilt his value in 2017 after back-to-back poor showings and now looks like a solid option for teams looking to add behind the plate.

Outside of that Jonathon Lucroy appears to be a pillow contract candidate as he will look to prove he can remain a viable catching option for a contender.

Tier 3 – Hire-A-Vet

Player Position Age AVG HR wRC+ QO?
Brandon Phillips 2B 36 .290 12 94 N
Chase Utley 2B 39 .233 10 88 N
Alcides Escobar SS 31 .256 5 66 N
Danny Valencia CINF/DH 33 .278 17 115 N
Lucas Duda 1B 28 .230 21 112 N
Jose Reyes UTIL 34 .262 10 94 N
Mike Napoli 1B/DH 36 .229 27 98 N
Miguel Montero C 34 .227 9 88 N
Chris Carter DH 31 .207 24 97 N
AJ Ellis 1B 34 .221 5 87 N
Johny Peralta 3B 35 .246 8 74 N
JJ Hardy SS 35 .235 7 63 N

This tier consists mostly of aging veterans more suited to a backup/time share role. If you’re looking for defense at an up the middle the position then this is where you will be shopping should you fail to lock up Zack Cozart, though outside of Brandon Phillips and Alcides Escobar there aren’t many everyday options available.

Brandon Phillips continues to age gracefully hitting at a just below league average mark while still playing average or better defense at 2nd Base. Phillips is not the impact player he may have been earlier this decade but he can still help a team in 2018.

On the other end of the spectrum Danny Valencia could be a buy-low candidate as he tries to bounce back from a disappointing 2017 campaign with the Mariners. The right-handed Valencia has posted fairly dramatic platoon splits throughout his career, posting a 136 wRC+ against left-handed pitching while managing just an 85 mark against righties.

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One thought on “MLB: Analysing the 2017/18 Free Agents Part 2 – Infielders

  1. Not a single option above who hit .300 last year. Is that a fluke? Or is that a lot of infielders swinging the the fences, er, I mean working on their launch angle, during their walk year? Uninspiring group, really.

    Like

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