Congratulations, reader! You’ve just been hired to be the new GM of MLB’s newest expansion team, the Bozeman Xtreme! Major League Baseball has finally stopped beating around the bush with this whole expansion thing and brought another team into the league (the paperwork for the Charlotte Marauders is still under review but should be finalized before the end of the offseason).
However, for somewhat incoherent reasons involving “competitive balance” and “appeal to the younger generation,” Rob Manfred has decided that this round of expansion teams won’t get the benefit of an expansion draft. You’re going to have to build a 26-man major league roster entirely from scratch. The sole owner of the Bozeman Xtreme (famed laundry detergent magnate Gerald O. Hamptonshire) is on vacation and you can’t get hold of him, and he hasn’t hired any other front office personnel. The inaugural iteration of the Bozeman Xtreme will have to be built by one person entirely out of free agents. In mid-January. Thank goodness Gerald left his checkbook sitting on top of his desk next to the piece of paper where he was practicing his signature.
(Brief note: Player salaries are semi-educated guesses based on a player’s prior production and their 2019 salary).
You’re juuuuuust about to sign Josh Donaldson to play third, but your phone buzzes right as you go to call Donaldson’s agent. You see a mlb.com notification- he’s going to the Twins. Damn. You heave a sigh and wade into mlb.com’s Free Agent Tracker, which will be one of your few allies in the coming days. There are no free agents at third base. Like, besides Cheslor Cuthbert. After some intense scrolling, a name emerges. It’s a bit weird that Brad Miller‘s had trouble finding playing time since his offense is above-average and he offers good positional versatility, but everyone else’s loss is your gain. Unless they know something you don’t. You call him up and offer $9 million over two years, and he takes it. One down, twenty-five to go. You sigh again, but louder this time.
Next up is the middle infield. Brian Dozier jumps out as a decent buy-low candidate. Dozier hasn’t been much of anything special since 2017, but he was an alright option at the keystone for the Nats in 2019. His defense is kinda bad, but his bat is around league-average and he should be good for twenty dingers a year. You call him up and offer two years and $21 million. Almost certainly a bit of an overpay, but Dozier’s probably just about the best option on the market.
Shortstop is going to be a considerably tougher position to fill. You had designs on José Iglesias, but he had to go and sign with the Orioles. The free-agent shortstop market is impossibly barren. Can Jason Kipnis play short? After much thinking and some assorted cocktails (Gerald O. Hamptonshire keeps a wonderful bar), you place a call to Jordy Mercer’s agent. Mercer turned in a decent (if abbreviated) campaign with the Detroit Tigers in 2019 thanks to surprisingly solid defense and a playable .270/.310/.438 slash line, with peripherals to match. Mercer’s onboard for one year and $3.5 million.
Finally, first base. The market here isn’t quite as barren as the shortstop market, but it’s still pretty bad. After scrolling past names like Lucas Duda (who was somehow worth -0.8 WAR in only 39 games) and Mark Reynolds (-1.0 WAR in 78 games), you come to Mitch Moreland. Moreland spent a significant amount of time on the IL last year thanks to various strains in his back and quad, but he was still able to contribute 1.3 WAR and a 112 OPS+ in his time on the field. You’re able to reel him in for $6 million over one year.
Your head hurts. You’ve got 22 roster spots left. Another cocktail is in order.
Finding a left fielder isn’t a slam dunk by any means, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone decent to patrol the grass in Baja Fresh Stadium (naming rights pending). After some perusing, Kevin Pillar strikes you as probably the best left-field choice available. His on-base skills are basically nonexistent and his defense in center last year was very middle-of-the-road, but a move to left field would probably help him to reestablish his defensive value. Pillar was non-tendered after the Giants refused to pay him $9.7 million through arbitration, which you decide to match. The thought of negotiating right now gives you a splitting headache.
Finding a viable center fielder is tougher. None of the free-agent center fielders listed on the Tracker are close to being league-average hitters, and most of them are pretty bad defensively as well. As you search, however, a clear frontrunner emerges from amid the poisoned fog of Juans Lagares and Peters Bourjos. Jarrod Dyson’s offense is essentially nonexistent (.633 OPS in 2019, .657 lifetime), but he was able to generate 1.3 WAR with his usual blazing speed and stellar defense. He may be 35, but he’ll come cheap and ought to provide decent value in 2020. And he’s fun as hell, like just so unbelievably fun (seriously, click these links). He agrees to come to Bozeman for $3.5 million over one year.
Given the woeful offensive output of your other starting outfielders, you decide to go ahead and make a splash with your next signing. Watching Nicholas Castellanos field is like watching slow-motion footage of a ten-car pileup on a busy interstate, but the siren’s call of fifty doubles and thirty homers a year is too much to resist (especially given the noodle bats of Messrs. Pillar and Dyson). Castellanos is Bozeman’s new Opening Day right fielder, and all it took was $50 million over three years.
Your phone calls to Hamptonshire go unanswered. You feel your resolve beginning to weaken.
Catchers., et cetera
Even though you don’t have any pitchers yet, it occurs to you that someone should probably catch the baseballs they’ll be throwing. The free-agent catching market in mid-January is a wasteland of dudes in their mid-30s who probably won’t be good for even a 70 OPS+ next year. But someone has to catch, and eventually you encounter someone whose production hasn’t entirely disappeared. It seems like a million years ago, but Welington Castillo used to be a decent offensive catcher whose glove wasn’t awful. He posted a -0.2 WAR and an OPS+ of 80 in 2019, but you simply can’t be picky at this point. He agrees to come to Montana for one year and $4 million.
Finally, some bench players. You decide that a top priority is positional versatility, and any extra offense is gravy. One name that immediately pops out at you is Brock Holt. Holt’s been solid for the Red Sox over the past couple of seasons, and his position listings on Baseball-Reference read like a license plate (43/9657D, copy-pasted directly from the website). He’s been basically average offensively, and he plays everywhere. Sign you up. Holt agrees to a one-year, $4 million deal.
Past Brock Holt, there aren’t many playable utility guys still available. You’re getting pretty used to that, though. You scroll up and down and up and down the free-agent listings until you settle on Logan Forsythe as a plausible utility man. He’ll fit as a backup all over the infield, and he can even fake it at shortstop. His bat completely vanished after a trade to the Dodgers before 2017, but you need a bench. After some haggling, Forsythe agrees to come to Bozeman for $3.5 million over one year.
Your last bench spot needs to go to a true fourth outfielder. No names really jump out, so you’re kind of going to have to bite the bullet and just go for it with this one. You’re feverishly checking the Baseball-Reference pages of various random free agent outfielders when one slash line catches your eye: .295/.408/.450. That’s really good! It belongs to Matt Joyce, who put it up in 238 plate appearances with Atlanta last year, mostly via pinch-hitting appearances. You need all the offense you can get, and you’re able to sign him for one year and $2.5 million.
Hey. You just filled out like half your roster. You can’t help but feel some sense of accomplishment, even though it’s not a good team by any means.
Then you remember you need to sign an entire pitching staff. You pass out.
Stay tuned for Part II, where you try to find some pitching. As the poet wrote, “There but for the grace of God go I.”