HomeTrending MLB NewsAccounting for Free Agency’s Biggest Gainers and Losers

Accounting for Free Agency’s Biggest Gainers and Losers

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Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

When free agent Matt Chapman signed with the Giants this past weekend, most of my analysis focused upon the ups and downs of his 2023 season and the nature of his contract, which looks comparatively team friendly. One thing I underplayed in the analysis was the extent to which San Francisco’s winter stands out relative to the competition. Even before the addition of Chapman, the Giants had spent more money on free agents than any other team besides the Dodgers, and likewise project to receive more WAR from those additions than any team besides their longtime rivals.

Based on the data in our Free Agent Tracker, the Giants have now committed $261.25 million in guaranteed salaries: $113 million to center fielder Jung Hoo Lee, $44 million to righty Jordan Hicks, $42 million to DH/outfielder Jorge Soler, and $8.25 million to catcher Tom Murphy; this accounting does not include the major league salaries that shortstop Nick Ahmed or lefty reliever Amir Garrett will get if they make the big league roster; last month, they each signed minor league deals as non-roster invitees. San Francisco’s additions may not be as eye-catching as signing either Carlos Correa or Aaron Judge would have been last offseason, and the team still projects for a middle-of-the-pack 82 wins after going 79-83 last year, but the Giants may not be done spending some of the money that was burning a hole in their pockets. They remain interested in Blake Snell, especially in the wake of injuries within their rotation.

Of course, the Dodgers blow the field away when it comes to spending, even if we stick to the adjusted salaries once deferred money is factored in, with a total of $853.2 million: $437.83 million to Shohei Ohtani (down from a sticker price of $700 million), $325 million to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, $20.434 million to outfielder Teoscar Hernández (down from $25 million), $10 million to Clayton Kershaw (with incentives that can increase the value significantly for both 2024 and ’25), $9 million apiece to Ryan Brasier and Jason Heyward, $8 million to Joe Kelly, $7 million to James Paxton, and $4 million to Enrique Hernández.

Here’s a look at the 30 teams’ free agent spending. Note that, as above, these figures factor in the applicable deferrals but not incentives, escalator clauses, or split-contract salaries from minor league deals:

Free Agent Spending, 2023-24 Offseason

TeamFree AgentsMajorMinor$ (Millions)*
Dodgers1293$853.2
Giants752$261.3
Phillies642$183.0
Cubs835$142.0
Diamondbacks743$136.5
Reds1082$112.7
Royals1082$110.5
Cardinals660$107.6
Astros220$107.0
Brewers981$77.3
Braves642$71.4
Blue Jays642$70.5
Mets16106$69.2
Angels1587$52.3
Padres440$50.0
Red Sox624$48.5
Tigers651$47.5
Rangers1257$40.6
Yankees431$40.5
White Sox16610$30.1
Pirates752$29.2
Mariners312$24.0
Rockies532$16.5
Orioles413$13.0
A’s330$12.3
Nationals835$9.3
Rays532$9.1
Twins431$7.7
Marlins514$5.0
Guardians312$4.0

SOURCE: RosterResource

* = Total salares adjusted for deferred money, but not including incentives or split-contract salaries for players on minor league contracts.

As you can see, five teams committed less than $10 million each this winter, and of the bottom seven teams, four (the Orioles, Rays, Twins, and Marlins) made the playoffs last year. Free agency isn’t the only route to improve a team, but particularly with regards to the Orioles, one can empathize with fans who are disappointed that last year’s success hasn’t translated into a shopping spree to improve their odds of getting back to the postseason.

The 30 teams have committed a total of $2.74 billion to free agents so far, and even though that figure will increase once Snell and Jordan Montgomery sign, overall spending will still be lower this offseason than in recent ones. Based on the data at RosterResource, teams spent $4 billion last offseason ($2.22 billion on the top 12 free agents alone) and $3.22 billion in the lockout-interrupted offseason of 2021–22. For this winter, spending works out to an average of $91.38 million per team, but that figure is skewed by the top teams to such an extent that the median is just $49.25 million; only nine teams exceeded the mean.

Beyond the dollars, I thought it would be worth revisiting some free agent accounting we’ve done in the past, regarding WAR added and lost in free agency. This isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, as we’ll soon see.

Net 2023 WAR Added and Lost
in Free Agency

TeamOut FAOut WARIn FAIn WARNet WAR
Reds12-1.0108.79.7
Cardinals5-0.568.69.1
Royals8-0.1108.08.1
Dodgers169.012 (1)17.18.1
Diamondbacks92.677.75.1
Giants113.57 (1)6.93.4
Yankees110.443.63.2
Astros40.222.82.6
Nationals6-0.681.82.3
A’s5-0.431.92.3
Guardians8-1.63-0.21.3
Tigers73.564.71.3
Brewers142.693.40.8
Pirates31.972.70.8
Mariners62.432.70.4
Phillies64.464.40.0
Rays61.55 (1)1.0-0.5
Mets120.716-0.1-0.8
Marlins11-0.75-1.7-1.0
Cubs106.78 (1)5.5-1.2
Braves113.362.0-1.3
Rockies62.650.5-2.1
Red Sox74.060.8-3.2
Orioles74.240.8-3.4
Angels125.9152.1-3.8
White Sox112.616 (1)-2.3-5.0
Rangers146.2121.2-5.0
Blue Jays89.26 (1)2.8-6.5
Twins1112.641.9-10.7
Padres2010.84 (2)-2.5-13.2

Outgoing and incoming counts include players on minor league contracts. WAR figures cover only players who were in MLB in 2023; numbers in parentheses represent players signed from NPB and KBO

This is the most basic accounting, lumping together players signed to major league deals and those who had to settle for minor league ones; the latter inflates the counts of some of these teams well into double digits. It’s worth noting that where players spent time with multiple teams in 2023, I’ve only counted their WAR with their last team on the outgoing side, but their full-season WAR on the incoming side. Consider the case of Jeimer Candelario, who produced 3.1 WAR for the Nationals and then 0.2 WAR for the Cubs. To these eyes, crediting the Reds as adding a 3.3-WAR player properly conveys the impact of a substantial addition. The question is whether to count the Cubs as losing 3.3 WAR (via a player they acquired without intending to retain) or 0.2 WAR (reflecting the transient nature of a late-season addition). I went with the latter option.

The total number of outgoing free agents shown above (277) doesn’t include 11 additional players from the KBO and NPB, eight of whom have signed (all but Trevor Bauer, Adam Plutko, and Yasiel Puig), meaning that from among that total, 73 — about 25% — are unsigned. Most of the unsigned are fairly low impact players, in that just 13 produced at least 1.0 WAR last year, with Montgomery (4.3), Snell (4.1), Brandon Belt (2.3), Mike Clevinger (2.2) and J.D. Martinez (2.2) the only ones above 2.0. Meanwhile, 35 of them produced zero or negative WAR, though to be fair, that was often in limited opportunity.

While the eight foreign players who have signed are counted in the total number of signed free agents above, they didn’t produce any WAR within MLB. Thus, the fact that three teams outrank the Dodgers in terms of net free agent WAR comes with the caveat that the Los Angeles total doesn’t include Yamamoto.

I’ll come back to that issue, but first let’s note the teams at the extremes. Ahead of the Dodgers are three teams who had a bunch of players hit the open market, but who were at best minimally productive in 2023, and who all went out and made at least a few solid moves. Of the dozen Reds to test free agency, including the still-unsigned Joey Votto, only Harrison Bader produced even 1.0 WAR in 2023, and he nonetheless was 0.2 wins below replacement after being acquired from the Yankees. On the other side, in addition to Candelario, the team shored up its pitching by adding starters Nick Martinez and Frankie Montas, relievers Brent Suter and Emilio Pagán, and more — not big moves, but enough to put them at the top. The Cardinals shed five players, most notably Dakota Hudson, and overhauled their rotation by adding Sonny Gray, whose 5.3 WAR as a Twin tied Kevin Gausman for the AL lead, as well as Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn; they also added Keynan Middleton to the bullpen and staffed their bench with Brandon Crawford and Matt Carpenter. Of the eight Royals who became free agents, only Zack Greinke produced 1.0 WAR, but they beefed up their pitching, with starters Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha; their lineup, with Hunter Renfroe; and their bench, with Adam Frazier and Garrett Hampson to their bench. These moves won’t win them the division, but they’re at least proof of life.

The Dodgers’ figures on both sides of the ledger are inflated by their keeping Brasier, Enrique Hernández, Heyward, Kelly, and Kershaw, but they did shed the still-unsigned J.D. Martinez and Julio Urías, replacing them with the market’s two most expensive players. The Diamondbacks re-signed Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and didn’t lose anybody who produced at least 1.0 WAR for the team, while the only departing Giant to meet that threshold was Sean Manaea.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s striking that the bottom five teams include three AL postseason participants plus one NL team that barely missed it. Whether they won it all or fell short, their offseasons have resulted in some downsizing of payrolls and perhaps expectations.

In the wake of last year’s $255 million flop, the uncertainty regarding their local broadcast deal, and the death of chairman Peter Seidler, the Padres gutted their pitching staff, with Snell, Lugo, Martinez, Wacha, and closer Josh Hader among those departing, along with catcher Gary Sánchez, whom they plucked off the scrapheap and who had his best season since 2019. Most of the money they’ve spent this offseason was on their bullpen, with Wandy Peralta, Japanese lefty Yuki Matsui and Korean righty Woo-Suk Go joining the fold. The Twins shed Gray, Kenta Maeda, and Tyler Mahle from their rotation, and both Donovan Solano and Michael A. Taylor remain unsigned but unlikely to return; meanwhile their most impactful addition is first baseman Carlos Santana. The Blue Jays let Chapman depart, along with Belt, Hicks and Whit Merrifield; they cobbled together a lower-cost third base solution, which includes the incoming Justin Turner and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, retained center fielderKevin Kiermaier, and took a flier on Cuban righty Yariel Rodriguez, who spent three seasons in NPB. The Rangers may still re-sign Montgomery, but for now he counts only on the outbound side, and they also shed relievers Aroldis Chapman, Chris Stratton, and Will Smith, plus catcher/DH Mitch Garver. Their rotation is full of question marks as they bank on Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Mahle having strong returns from surgery. Veteran righty David Robertson should bolster the bullpen, and Garver’s departure is mitigated by the eventual arrival of top prospect Wyatt Langford.

Since the impact of the foreign free agents isn’t reflected in the table above, I took one more look at the landscape using projected WAR on the incoming side. Instead of taking it straight from our Free Agent Tracker — that uses Steamer, which is available in time for the opening bell of the offseason, but not ZiPS, which takes longer to prepare — I took the more labor-intensive route by swapping in our Depth Charts projections, which takes an average the two systems:

Net WAR Added and Lost
in Free Agency (Projection Version)

TeamOut FAOutWARIn FAIn WAR ProjNet WAR Proj
Royals8-0.1109.69.7
Cardinals5-0.568.08.5
Reds12-1.0106.67.6
Giants113.57 (1)10.16.6
Dodgers169.012 (1)15.26.2
Mets120.7166.45.7
Brewers142.697.44.8
Diamondbacks92.676.33.6
Guardians8-1.631.42.9
Pirates31.974.42.5
A’s5-0.431.92.3
Nationals6-0.681.82.3
Astros40.222.42.2
Marlins11-0.751.42.1
Yankees110.442.21.9
Phillies64.465.71.3
Tigers73.564.61.1
Rays61.55 (1)1.2-0.3
Cubs106.78 (1)6.2-0.6
White Sox112.616 (1)2.0-0.6
Mariners62.431.7-0.7
Braves113.362.4-0.8
Rockies62.651.4-1.2
Red Sox74.061.2-2.8
Angels125.9152.2-3.6
Orioles74.240.5-3.7
Blue Jays89.26 (1)4.4-4.8
Rangers146.2121.2-5.0
Padres2010.84 (2)1.8-9.0
Twins1112.641.0-11.6

Outgoing and incoming counts include players on minor league contracts. WAR figures cover only players who were in MLB in 2023; numbers in parentheses represent players signed from NPB and KBO

Despite accounting for Yamamoto, the Dodgers actually fall in the rankings due to known injuries (Ohtani won’t pitch in 2024, while Kershaw could be out until August) and regression (Brasier and Heyward, particularly), while the Giants surpass them with the addition of Lee. Also notable on the upper end are the Mets, mainly due to anticipated rebounds from Manaea, Bader, and Luis Severino. On the other side, the Orioles stand out more than in the previous table, mainly because the only free agent they signed to a major league deal, Craig Kimbrel, is projected to regress. Given that both Kyle Bradish and John Means have been sidelined with elbow injuries to start the season, it seems possible the O’s could add a low-cost starter who might boost their standing here a bit.

Thanks to our tools at FanGraphs, free agency is easy to track, even if I’ve made it more labor-intensive for this exercise. It’s hardly the only route by which teams improve, however. For example, the Orioles traded for Corbin Burnes, who may outproduce any of the starters who were signed. But in the big picture, the patterns I’ve illustrated offer us plenty of hints about what to expect from the upcoming season.

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