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What early team projections tell us

ZiPS team projections were released, before most offseason moves have been made. It tells us the Cards are well set up.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Dan Szymborksi released preliminary team projections before free agency really kicks into gear. Essentially, how is each team positioned before ever making a move. It was posted with the understanding that a lot of teams will sign free agents and significantly alter the team projections. So as a tool, I’m not sure how useful it is. But it is fascinating.

Because the Cardinals have the second highest win projection in all of baseball. As the rosters currently stand, without most teams making even a single move of any significance, the Cardinals have the second highest projection of every team. I thought I’d repeat myself because maybe it hadn’t really sunk in. The Cardinals are well-positioned, at the moment.

They have a better projection than the Houston Astros. They have a better projection than every team in the AL East. They have a better projection than every team in the AL Central. Actually they have a better projection than every team in the American League. They have an identical projection to the Dodgers. The only team with a better projection is the Atlanta Braves, with 96 wins. But I’m not sure the Braves will really be making any big moves, and I expect that win total to go down with additions of the rest of the NL.

The reason why this is not a super useful tool is because the Dodgers lost Trea Turner, Tyler Anderson, and Andrew Heaney to free agency while declining Justin Turner’s club option. The Astros lost Justin Verlander, Michael Brantley, and Christian Vazquez to free agency. These teams will not do nothing over the offseason. The Cardinals are in a similar spot to these clubs right now, but will probably behave vastly differently in the offseason.

I added the Top 50 free agents projections together, and as a whole, they are projected for about 110 wins combined. But Steamer has no real plate appearance adjustment so players with injury histories are getting 600 PAs and over 150 innings pitched when you wouldn’t reasonably expect them to actually achieve those totals based on their history. So between that, and there being a few more valuable free agents beyond the 50, plus potential trades, we’ll say that there are 100 wins that can be acquired over the offseason.

But adding a 5 win player does not mean you add 5 wins to your team. Because, the projections inserted somebody already in the organization who may be above replacement level. In fact he probably is. Most of the time, if a team is acquiring a player, the player they are replacing will be projected to be below average. So I think it’s reasonable to think that, on average, any player acquired among the top 50 will be replacing a 1 WAR player. Sometimes, that player will be better, sometimes it truly will be a replacement player.

On the top 50 list, there are four relievers projected for 0.5 WAR or less, so we’re going to ignore them. Which means that the top 46 free agents, projected for around 100 wins, will be replacing about 46 wins on the current rosters. So it’s a net +54 wins that can be added over the offseason. On average, teams will add just +1.8 wins to their roster over the offseason.

In essence, I wanted to figure out which teams are likely to add more wins than that, which teams will add less than that, and which teams will add probably about that. This is an imperfect system, but I’ll narrow it down. By my count, there are roughly 11 free agents that are somewhat likely to improve their new team by +1.8 wins on their own. Whoever signs any of these 11 free agents is very likely to add more wins in other ways, and thus those teams will improve their team more than average. These 11 free agents aren’t going to 11 separate teams though.

There are also four other starting pitchers who probably don’t genuinely represent a +1.8 win upgrade but who are close enough that one more move will probably push them towards it. Within the top 10 free agents listed on Fangraphs, there are 4 shortstops, 2 outfielders, three starting pitchers, and one catcher. Interestingly, I expect the four shortstops and two outfielders to be signed by six different teams. No team is going to acquire two shortstops, which leaves my justification for my other point. The Yankees are either getting Aaron Judge or losing him to the Mets. If they lose, they may grab a shortstop. They will not get both a shortstop and Judge. The Mets meanwhile have Francisco Lindor, so even if they lose the Judge battle, I don’t expect them to pivot to shortstop.

But aside from that, all bets are off. The Mets may very well acquire a starting pitcher, Nimmo, and Willson Contreras. They are probably going to acquire two of the impact free agents, unless they get Judge. So conservatively, I’ll say that of the 11 free agents that I think will represent a +1.8 win upgrade or better on their own, nine teams will sign those 11 free agents. That’s nine teams who are improving more than the average.

Of the three starting pitchers who nearly make up the 1.8 wins by themselves, I’ll say two of them sign with completely unique teams. Another two teams, either through trade or compiling a couple 1 win upgrades together, will be about the average or better in upgrades. So, just spitballing, I’ll say that 10 teams are better than the 1.8 average, and another three are at exactly the average. The rest will add less than 1.8 wins.

Now let’s look at the teams and the resources they have and determine whether or not greater than 1.8 looks probable. In the NL East, the Mets feel like a guarantee. The Braves don’t seem likely to add much at all, since they already have an internal replacement for Dansby Swanson. The Marlins and Nationals aren’t likely to either, which leaves the Phillies. The Phillies is a tough one because I don’t know what their budget is. But they certainly seem hamstrung by their payroll. But more than 1.8, exactly 1.8, and less than 1.8 all seem possible. We’ll call them average.

In the West, the Dodgers are likely to add more, and the Giants are likely to add more. The Padres don’t seem to have prospects or money, but they’re something of a wild card and may do it anyway. Neither the Diamondbacks or Rockies seem like they can add 1.8 wins, although the Rockies are definitely also a wild card.

In the AL East, just about every team looks like they could and certainly should add 1.8 wins. The Rays won’t, because of their payroll. The Yankees will, the Red Sox and Orioles should, but may not. And the Blue Jays are probably limited by payroll as well, but they do have excellent trade pieces that push them to the average in my opinion.

The AL Central is a whole mix of probably average, at best. The Guardians have the best projection with 82 wins. They also do not spend money if they don’t have to, which they probably don’t. The Twins have Correa coming off the books, so I might put them in the “better than 1.8” book. The White Sox seem to not be able to spend more, and both the Royals and Tigers are in rebuild.

The AL West is kind of crazy. Aside from the Athletics, who will get worse, the rest have incentive and resources to spend. There’s the Astros, who might actually stand pat now that they’ve gotten their ring. There’s the Mariners, who are right on the edge and could really use that 1.8. They seem to have the motivation as well. The Angels are the Angels. They’ll sign one of the top free agents who will inexplicably suck for them. And Texas has money to burn as well.

So far, there’s seven teams who seem very likely to add at least 1.8 wins, five teams who are decent possibilities, and three more teams are nearly completely wild cards (Phillies, Padres, Rockies). As far as the Central is concerned, well:

The Cardinals look EXTREMELY well set up. I cannot see the Brewers making up six games, hell I can’t even see them making up a single game. The odds the Brewers add more wins in the offseason than the Cardinals - by projection standards - seems rather low. They simply spend no money. The Cubs may very well add more wins, but they are starting at a place that is 17 wins worse. So it’s going to be difficult. And the Reds and Pirates are rebuilding - or not trying - or whatever it’s called when teams are bad on both purpose and accident somehow.

Hypothetically, the Cardinals could be projected as one of the best teams in baseball with how they’re set up. Acquire a superstar in free agency, acquire a catcher via trade, and they will probably look pretty damn good. They won’t do this, I’m just illustrating that they can. In fact, theoretically, that unachievable 1 or 2 seed is possible - they just need to find a way to have a better offseason than the Dodgers and Mets. To call that a stretch is an insult to actual stretches. More like standing outside and just hoping lightning hits you.

But it is very interesting that the Cards are where they are right now. The pre-offseason moves projection would seem to benefit a team like the Cardinals more just because they usually have a good amount of depth. But the more important lesson in these projections is probably the rest of the NL Central - who seem unlikely to make up very much ground if the Cardinals just add a catcher. For better or worse, that is going to limit the motivation to making any big-time moves.