A couple of years ago, Sky Andrecheck used the power of hindsight to see if an MLB team could have built a 2009 playoff contender using only players who were available on the free-agent market that previous off-season. The only caveat was that this team had to have a league-average budget. Using actual WAR and salaries, Andrecheck pieced together the perfect 25-man roster — actually 18, since he left his bullpen to fend for itself with replacement-level players — and on Aug. 24, his hypothetical team was on pace to win 96 games. And it all happened for the bargain price of $78.6 million.
While this is an interesting exercise, and one I replicated for the 2008 season, I don’t need to tell you that a pretty strong team could have been built on the backs of 2011 free-agent steals such as Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy, Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Vogelsong. Instead, Mr. Dave Cameron, in his infinite generosity, has given me a budget of $80 million FanGraphs Pesos to piece together a free-agent team for next season, without the benefit of hindsight. In case you’re wondering, the ratio of FanGraphs Pesos to Schrute Bucks is 3:1.
As you might imagine, it’s much harder projecting a team than replicating one using past data. Andrecheck had the luxury of adding 4 WAR seasons for less than $5 million, which I unfortunately did not. Could Javier Vazquez post another 5 WAR campaign? It’s possible, but it’s not fair to project that — especially when FanGraphs crowdsourcing estimates that his contract will have an average annual value (AAV) of $9 million.
A couple quick notes before we begin:
1) I projected PA and IP using past roles, health and how a player would fit on the team.
2) PA and IP don’t add up to a full season’s worth of data, as it is essentially impossible for a 25-man roster to remain healthy for an entire season. Any leftover PA and IP will go to replacement-level players.
3) We’re only looking at 2012 production, even though some of these players will require multi-year deals to sign. This is taken into consideration in the AAV.
4) I used a combination of sources to estimate salary.
- FanGraphs Crowdsourcing data
- Declined 2012 team options
- 2011 salary
- Previous free-agent contracts
5) Like Sky, I copped out and trotting out a replacement-level bullpen. Relievers provide the least bang for the buck on the open market, and due to their notoriously volatile nature, I didn’t think it fair to project their WAR.
Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Doumit will platoon behind the dish. Hernandez will catch against LHP while Doumit is the DH. Hernandez will also steal some starts against RHP because Doumit is a weak defensive catcher. The pair will combine for 4 WAR in 900 PA — remember Doumit is also DHing — and cost $9.3 million. Doumit’s potential earnings likely are suppressed due to his deserved reputation as a poor defensive catcher. However, he has posted wRC+ of 129 and 100 the past two seasons, meaning his bat plays at other positions when he’s not catching. Hernandez, on the other hand, is 35 years old, and catchers at that age generally don’t see multi-year deals or big money. It also doesn’t help that he’s now essentially a platoon player, accumulating 1011 PA over the past three seasons.
Casey Kotchman will man first base, get 500 PA and contribute 1.5 WAR. He’s coming off a 2.8 WAR season buoyed by a .335 BABIP (career .280), but with his low strikeout rate and decent walk total, he probably can be a decent option at first. This was the most difficult salary to project, since he signed a $750,000 minor-league deal last off-season. For this experiment, I signed him for $2.5 million. He could provide good value since his putrid 66 wRC+ 2010 is still fresh in everyone’s memory, which should depress his contract. While he’s not without risk, Kotchman’s poor batting line that year was driven by a brutal .229 BABIP, and he proved last year that the production drop wasn’t a permanent decrease in ability.
In the middle infield, Jamey Carroll will play the cornerstone and Clint Barmes will at shortstop. Carroll has put together back-to-back seasons of at least 2.2 WAR due to his strong OBP, and he can also play shortstop if necessary. His perceived market value is low because he didn’t make the majors until he was 28 years old, didn’t post his first season above 1 WAR until he was 32, and he’s now 37. Baseball isn’t kind to late-bloomers, at least financially. Barmes has had some trouble staying healthy, which — along with his poor batting average — hurts the market for him. Still, UZR likes his defense at SS, and he has shown some pop in his bat.
Casey Blake will be stationed at the hot corner after posting 9.1 WAR during the course of his last three-year contract with the Dodgers. He was injured for much of last season and just had neck surgery, but his agent says he will be 100% by next season. An average stick and good defense make him a strong option at third, and he is a solid bet for 2 WAR at a reasonable $4 million. Like Carroll, Blake is a late-bloomer who didn’t see anything more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues until he was 30.
Jim Thome will DH against RHP, and the plan is to squeeze another 320 PA out of him at 1.3 WAR. In reality, he signed with the Phillies for $1.25 million.
As alluded to earlier, Oakland’s outfield was hijacked, with Coco Crisp positioned in center and David DeJesus moving back to left. DeJesus is a steal at a crowdsourcing price of $5.6 million, and if healthy, Crisp’s defense in center field could help lead to another 3 WAR season. DeJesus provides good value because he doesn’t produce in typical corner-outfielder fashion. The market values big power numbers, while DeJesus contributes with on-base skills and stellar defence. Rick Ankiel, will be in right, ready to move to center in the event of a Crisp injury. His market price is low due to his history of meltdowns, injury problems and high strikeout rate.
One of the bench spots is already accounted for with Doumit, which leaves three spots to fill. John McDonald and Ronny Cedeno will be the back-up infielders. They both leave much to be desired offensively, but either can play short if Barmes gets hurt. McDonald also provides a lot of flexibility since he has spent significant time at second and third, with a few forays into the outfield. Laynce Nix will be the fourth outfielder. He’s cheap, having signed for $.7 million last off-season, and he has produced 3.4 WAR in limited action during the past three seasons.
Overall, the offense provides 23.1 WAR at a price tag of $44.05 million, which is about 40% of the going market rate. As I discussed for each player above, we can see reasons why the market can be biased against certain players. Unfortunately, it’s not as if this plan is without risk — these players are underpaid for a reason. Many come with high risk either due to age, injury or volatile production. Even if everything breaks right, this is not a playoff-caliber offense, but it would be competitive in most divisions. This leaves more than $35 million for the pitching staff.
Like any free-agent starting pitcher class, the 2012 group is filled with question marks. As many of the guys I’ve signed have legitimate injury concerns, I picked up six starting pitchers. In the unlikely chance they all are healthy at the same time, one of them will move to the bullpen.
After a disastrous 2010 and early 2011, Javier Vazquez regained his velocity and put together a solid season. He lowered his FIP every month, which culminated in a 1.79 FIP in 38 September innings. Should his velocity remain in the 92 mph to 93 mph range, Vazquez is a steal at a crowdsourced $9 million. Unfortunately, he also also showed that even small dips in velocity can prove disastrous for him — and that 5.56 FIP in 2010 is hard to ignore. Paul Maholm is a durable league-average starter, averaging 2.2 WAR and 183 innings in his six full seasons. His ability to command big dollars on the market is likely influenced by the fact that he throws 87 mph, his velocity has been trending down since 2008 and he has trouble striking out five batters per nine innings. However, his results show that he has adapted, and he succeeds by getting ground balls and keeping the ball in the yard.
Livan Hernandez is an innings-eater with a 3.95 FIP during the past two seasons, while Erik Bedard and Jeff Francis are the opposite of durable. When healthy, Bedard is usually good for a FIP around 3.50, while Francis is in the 4.20 range. They come relatively cheap due to their inability to stay on the mound, and while the ceiling is good, you could just as easily get nothing out of them. Aaron Cook has also had a history of injury problems. He hasn’t pitched more than 160 innings or posted a FIP below 4.50 since 2008 or an ERA less than 5.00 since 2009. But Cook does have a career 57.4% ground ball rate, which bodes well with this team’s strong defensive infield. He would be the first pitcher to head to the pen if all the others are healthy.
As I mentioned earlier, bullpens are volatile and don’t provide good value on a $/WAR basis. In the right situation, it can make sense for a team to spend money for the peace of mind of a stable bullpen, but not for a team like this where there are so many other holes to fill. The bullpen might implode, leading to my dismissal, but it’s a risk I am willing to take.
Overall, the pitching staff contributes 12.3 WAR for $32.25 million, a much poorer deal than we saw with the offense. Due to scarcity, pitching is expensive on the open market, but value can be found either by targeting injury prone players and crossing your fingers or by finding ground-ballers who don’t have the overpowering stuff that make talent evaluators take notice. This pushes the team to 35.4 WAR — or 78 wins — for $76.3 million. Obviously there are many questions marks with this team, and most of them are related to age and to health. The playing-time projections lean toward the optimal end of the spectrum, while I tried to be realistic about how much WAR would be produced in this optimal number of plate appearances.
However, it does bode well for fans of teams that choose to spend their money on the open market, rather than in the draft or importing Latin American talent. Simply put, a competitive free-agent team can be put together on a budget. For as much flak as the free-agent market can get, it’s possible to find value if you know where to look.
This off-season, there are a number of decent middle-infield options who should be available on the cheap. Guys like Barmes, Carroll, Mark Ellis and Jerry Hairston aren’t going to turn a team into a contender overnight, but they can provide production and versatility for a minimal investment.
There also are some decent names at catcher who won’t break the bank: Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco (re-signed by the Diamondbacks), Chris Snyder and Kelly Shoppach. This makes sense — during the past few off-seasons, middle infielders and catchers have routinely provided the best $/WAR ratio.
As you can probably guess by looking at the $/WAR totals on my team, the best values are on offense. Due to injury and the general overvaluation of relievers, it’s much more difficult to find bargains among pitchers. The best bet might be to roll the dice on an injured player like Bedard or Francis and hope to get as many innings as possible out of them.
Either way, I don’t think we’ll see this plan put into action any time soon since it’s still more cost-efficient to produce Major Leaguers internally — but it’s always fun to hope that your favorite team hits the jackpot with the next Brandon McCarthy.