Last year’s free-agent class was one of the strongest we’ve ever seen. With legitimate aces like Zack Greinke and David Price heading the class plus young outfield talent in Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, a bona fide slugger in Chris Davis, along with a host of other mid-rotation starters and solid position player options, teams spent roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars on free agents in 2016 salaries alone. This season lacks talent at the top and depth in the middle, but that doesn’t mean we should expect to see a lot less spending. Nobody is likely to receive $200 million, but teams have plenty of money to spend and it has to go somewhere.
One way to think about how much money teams have to spend this offseason is to consider the salaries departing from their rosters. The chart below measures the money that has disappeared from clubs’ payrolls. To calculate each figure, I began with every club’s Opening Day obligations from 2016 and identified those players making at least $1 million in 2016 who either (a) were traded during the season or (b) have become a free agent in the meantime. I then added up the salaries of the departing players. This shows how much teams are losing in salary based on departures alone, with data gathered from Cot’s Contracts.
We often think of payroll coming off the books as a benefit for clubs. Player contracts, especially large ones, tend not to be very valuable in their final years. Think about the Los Angeles Angels, for example, who enter the season with $60 million less in obligations. The team had large commitments to pitchers Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. While both of those pitchers were good at points of their careers, they provided little in terms of on-field value last year. The Angels, if they so choose, can now take the roughly $40 million formerly invested in those pitchers and put it to better use. If we work under the assumption that a win costs $8.5 million in free agency, the Angels could conceivably improve themselves by around five wins by spending that money on contributing players.
On the flip side of that coin, however, there’s the Blue Jays. Yes, Toronto enters the offseason with $50 million less in obligations, but they’re are losing considerable production from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They’d be content to pay even more for that production, it seems, given that both players received $17 million qualifying offers.
Way down the list, we see the Detroit Tigers, who have most of their players in large long-term contracts — and the Milwaukee Brewers, too, who simply don’t have that many well-compensated players overall.
While it might be simple to look at player salary out and then assume player salary goes back in, it doesn’t accurately depict the entire story. The departing player salary represented in the chart above amounts to over one billion dollars. A significant portion of that money, however, will be allocated to players already present on rosters who are in line to receive raises. Some will sign long-term deals, while others will earn a raise through the arbitration process.
The graph below depicts how much each team has in payroll for next year based on their roster right now, including arbitration estimates from MLB Trade Rumors.
Obviously, a lot will change between now and Opening Day, but the information above gives us a starting point. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Dodgers and Yankees at the top of the list. It’s somewhat of a surprise to see the Kansas City Royals among the top 10, as well, but their homegrown players all very close to free agency and raises to those players — in addition to the salaries of Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy — give the club with a decent-sized payroll ahead of free agency. All the way down at the bottom is the Philadelphia Phillies. From 2014 to 2016 the Phillies cut their payroll in half as they began to rebuild. The team certainly has the capacity to spend based on their market and prior payroll approaching $200 million. When they feel ready to contend, they could make a huge splash in free agency.
The last graph at which we’ll look attempts to provide a sense of how much each club has to spend as they enter the offseason. Every team operates with an independent budget, of course, and it’s possible that teams like Detroit and Kansas City will cut payroll while teams like Houston or Milwaukee or Philadelphia, who’ve all slashed payroll in recent years, could afford a massive hike in payroll. That said, if we want an overview on spending, we can take a team’s 2016 Opening Day payroll and increased it by 5% to get a decent view of what the 2017 Opening Day payroll might look like. In the graph below, I took the 2016 Opening Day payrolls, increased them by 5% and then subtracted the numbers in the graph above, leaving an estimate of how much money each team might have to spend this offseason.
The Dodgers, with free agents Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner potentially leaving, have a ton of money to bring them back or find replacements. The Angels, after wasting another year of Mike Trout, again have money to make another run should they choose to. A.J. Preller can go nuts again for the Padres if he feels like it, and the defending champion Chicago Cubs should have money to spare, as well. The Mets have a Cespedes-sized hole and usual suspects in the Rangers and Yankees should also be players. Not all of this money at the top will necessarily go to free agency. Some of it can change hands in the form of a trade, though that would presumably provide another team with more liquidity for them to sign players. The teams on the right side of the graph might still have money to spend, but they would need to increase payroll to make those kinds of moves.
All told, increasing Opening Day payrolls by 5% over last year and removing pending commitments leaves $700 million available. We can look at that amount, take out another $100 million for minimum-salaried players, and note that it leaves about $150 million less than what was spent last year. But keep in mind: last year’s players were good. Yoenis Cespedes received last year’s 11th-highest guarantee in salary, and the 10 players ahead of him made more than $225 million this past year. Cespedes proceeded to produce a season that wasn’t near as good as the previous one, and somehow became the best free-agent available this offseason in the process.
If teams increase payroll at a normal rate, they’re going to be paying a massive amount for wins in free agency this year. Last year’s free-agent class resulted in a few bargains as a few players, like Cespedes and fellow free agents Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler couldn’t quite get the contracts for which they were looking. Given the amount of money out there and the players available, though, it’s hard to see a lot of bargains in this year’s free-agent class.