Over the last few weeks, we have seen many of the top free agent players sign with their respective teams. This includes the top three players on the market — David Price, Zack Greinke, and Jason Heyward — along with other top ten free agents like Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto. There are still a lot of players who have yet to sign, though, including impact names such as Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, and Alex Gordon.
While these kinds of players may not have the elite potential of a David Price or a Jason Heyward, they can still make a huge difference for a team projected to be in the playoff hunt. With the number of teams that see themselves as contenders, is is quite possible that one of these players will provide a team with the marginal wins needed to make the playoffs.
So which teams are most in need of an upgrade? I thought I would take a look at FanGraphs' Depth Charts projections to get an idea of where teams stand and see which teams would benefit the most from a free agent acquisition. To make things easy, I decided to sort teams into four categories based on how many projected wins they are from a playoff spot: non-contenders (more than ten wins), fringe contenders (five to ten wins), contenders (less than five wins), and favorites (projected to be in the playoffs).
Most of the teams on this list are pretty obvious non contenders, and they all happen to reside in the National League. The Phillies, Braves, and Brewers are clearly in rebuilding mode, and the Padres and Rockies have traded big-name players in the last six months (Troy Tulowitzki, Craig Kimbrel), which seems to indicate that they may be going down that road as well. Even if these teams were to sign one of the top remaining free agents, they would need a lot to go their way just to be competitive in 2016.
This group is dominated by American League teams, including three AL Central teams that benefit from being in a weak division. The Royals actually project to be the worst team in the American League, followed closely by the Orioles, Twins, and Tigers. The AL Central teams also appear to have a better chance of winning their division than they do of capturing the second wild card spot, so they probably have the most incentive to add via free agency despite being several games out of a wild card spot.
Of all these teams, only the Reds appear to be rebuilding, which makes sense given their stiff competition in the NL Central. The Diamondbacks have made a couple big splashes this offseason, but they are still nine WAR behind the Cardinals for the second wild card spot and sixteen WAR behind the Dodgers in the NL West. The White Sox are also in this group despite their recent acquisition of Todd Frazier. However, they still project to be the second best team in their division, behind only the Indians.
With good sequencing and a few breakout performances, it would not be unusual to see some of these teams in the playoff hunt. However, they still have more to do before they can call themselves true playoff contenders. Of all the teams in this group, the Rangers probably have the most to gain from adding players via free agency, as they are just over five WAR behind the Astros and Blue Jays for AL playoff spots.
This group of teams probably has the best chance of noticeably improving their playoff odds by adding wins through free agency this offseason, since they currently project to miss the playoffs by less than five games. The Giants have already made two big moves this offseason, and they are currently just one WAR behind the Cardinals. It is unclear whether or not they still have money to throw around, but if they do, it is likely that they will use it to sign one of the top remaining outfielders, given the current state of their roster.
The Pirates and Rays do not have the ability to spend big on the free agent market, but they could still improve their playoff chances if they are able to get the most out of buy-low candidates. Unfortunately for these teams, it seems likely that their most realistic chance of making the playoffs is through the wild card, given the strength (at least on paper) of the Cubs and Red Sox.
The Angels and Mariners are in an almost identical situation, as they are project to be about five WAR behind the Astros and Blue Jays. They are both in need of outfield help and seem like logical destinations for some of the left -field types remaining on the free agent market, unless they somehow believe that Daniel Nava (0.4 projected WAR) and Nori Aoki (0.8 projected WAR) should be starting full-time.
The teams in this group could also seriously improve their playoff odds by creating some separation between themselves and the teams projected to finish close behind them. The Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, Astros, and Indians appear to be early favorites in their respective divisions, as they lead their next closest competitor by at least four WAR.
Only the NL East looks to be a true tossup at this point, with the Nationals and Mets separated by less than one WAR, and it seems likely that the team that loses the division will be competing with the Cardinals, Pirates, and Giants (and perhaps other teams as well) for the NL wild card spots. The Cardinals currently project to win the second wild card spot, barely edging out the Pirates and Giants. While the Cardinals could benefit considerably from adding a couple extra wins to their projection, they do not have an obvious hole on their roster. They have excellent depth but little high-end talent, which may explain why they were so interested in signing Jason Heyward and David Price.
The Yankees and Blue Jays are solid favorites for the two AL Wild Card spots, but they will likely look to separate themselves from a deep field of AL teams and inch closer to the Red Sox at the top of the AL East. Neither team seems inclined to spend money at the moment, but that may change at some point this offseason, especially with the number of players currently available on the free agent market.
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While these kinds of projections are far from perfect, they give us a general idea of where teams stand at this point in the offseason. Some teams, like the Phillies, Braves, and Brewers are currently in the rebuilding process while others like the Cubs and Dodgers are set to be juggernauts with the rosters they have in place. Most teams are somewhere between these two extremes, and for many of them, the marginal wins they add between now and the end of the offseason could have a big impact in whether or not they end up making the playoffs in 2016.
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