The Best Bargains of 2015

There’s a lot of talk about market inefficiency in the long aisles of the baseball analysis superstore: which teams find value where others don’t, and, conversely, which teams see value that maybe isn’t there anymore (or even in the first place). For small market teams, finding inefficiencies is a matter of successful survival, and for large market teams, it’s a way of adding something extra to the x-factor that works: money.

Whatever the case may be, it’s part of our job to measure how teams are faring in the efficiency department, and we do that generally by looking at how much teams are spending in relation to what they’re actually getting, production-wise. Today, we’re not exactly going to go into specific strategies, like what the most recent Billy Beane magic wand looks like, but rather see which position players are projected to provide the most amount of production (WAR) for the least amount of money ($).

To do that, we’re going to split players into two groups: those making the league minimum, and those who aren’t. This is mainly so we don’t skew the data too much with extremely talented young players who haven’t yet reached arbitration. Those with more service time and who have hit free agency get their own group.

First, we’ll look at players who have hit free agency or arbitration. My fellow FanGraphs scribe Craig, who has been working on some great pieces about payroll and projections, laid some ground work and supplied the contract data for 2015. I’ve combined the contract specifics for all teams with WAR projections and calculated the cost per projected win.

It’s not perfect, and neither are any 2015 projections. We know WAR is sensitive to defensive performance in a given year — it’s meant to be the center of a player’s possible range of production, and we’re going to keep that in mind as we move forward. However, this is meant to give us an idea of which players are great bargains, and it will do that nicely.

I’ve filtered the top 30 position players by cost per projected win and have presented them below. I’m going to supply these in both graph and table form. We begin with the post-arbitration crowd, and their salary vs. expected WAR for 2015:


And now we present the same data in a table format, with the all-important cost per win field added:

Name Team Position 2015 Salary Proj. WAR Cost/Win
Yan Gomes Cleveland C $1,083,334 3.9 $277,778
Starling Marte Pittsburgh LF $1,333,333 3.7 $360,360
Salvador Perez Kansas City C $1,750,000 3.9 $448,718
Anthony Rendon Washington 3B 2,700,000 4.4 $613,636
Mike Trout Los Angeles (AL) CF $6,083,333 9.6 $633,681
Jonathan Lucroy Milwaukee C $3,400,000 5.3 $641,509
Bryce Harper Washington LF $2,500,000 3.7 $675,676
Jarrod Dyson Kansas City CF $1,225,000 1.8 $680,556
Jose Altuve Houston 2B $2,687,500 3.9 $689,103
Paul Goldschmidt Arizona 1B $3,100,000 4.4 $704,545
Rene Rivera Tampa Bay C $1,200,000 1.7 $705,882
Brett Lawrie Oakland 3B $1,925,000 2.5 $770,000
Josh Donaldson Toronto 3B $4,300,000 5.4 $796,296
Lorenzo Cain Kansas City CF $2,725,000 3.3 $825,758
Hank Conger Houston C $1,075,000 1.3 $826,923
Devin Mesoraco Cincinnati C $2,525,000 2.9 $870,690
Craig Gentry Oakland OF $1,600,000 1.8 $888,889
Andrelton Simmons Atlanta SS $3,142,857 3.5 $897,959
Michael McKenry Colorado C $1,088,000 1.2 $906,667
Martin Maldonado Milwaukee C $825,000 0.9 $916,667
Josh Harrison Pittsburgh 3B-SS $2,800,000 3.0 $933,333
Lonnie Chisenhall Cleveland 3B $2,250,000 2.4 $937,500
Peter Bourjos St. Louis CF $1,650,000 1.7 $970,588
Collin Cowgill Los Angeles (AL) CF-RF $995,000 1.0 $995,000
Todd Frazier Cincinnati 3B $3,750,000 3.7 $1,013,514
Desmond Jennings Tampa Bay CF $3,100,000 2.9 $1,068,966
Francisco Cervelli Pittsburgh C $987,500 0.9 $1,097,222
Kyle Seager Seattle 3B $4,500,000 4.1 $1,097,561
Matt Carpenter St. Louis 3B $3,750,000 3.4 $1,102,941
Giancarlo Stanton Miami RF $6,500,000 5.7 $1,140,351

A few things jump out right away: there are a lot of catchers, which can point to the sometimes difficult nature of projecting defense at the catcher position. However, I don’t think it’s too much of a surprise to see our friend Yan Gomes leading the charge: he’s growing into one of the best offensive catchers in the game, he just signed a team friendly, back-loaded contract, and he had an outstanding 2013 defensive campaign.

We see a lot of speedy outfielders with great defense and base running skills, and the table also highlights the lack of low-cost, high-production first basemen. This was highlighted yesterday: right now, first basemen are getting paid a lot of money league-wide. I’m inclined to think this is because we’re in a time when many veteran, franchise first basemen are in the middle of their contracts, pushing the cost for that position skyward, but that needs more research and less speculation.

Now let’s move onto the young guns: the pre-arbitration position players. As a primer, let me say this: pre-arbitration salary plans differ by club. Some give raises per year based on number of plate appearances, some do service time, and all generally keep their scheme under wraps. The important thing to know is that any difference in pre-arbitration salaries are really small. Because those salaries aren’t always disclosed, and for the simple sake of ease, I’ve set the salaries for all of these players at the league minimum for 2015: $507,500. Also because of this, I’ve charted this one a little differently — because we know everyone’s salary (or close to it), I’ve put cost per win in place of salary. Here we go:


And now also in table form:

Name Team Position 2015 Salary Proj. WAR Cost/Win
Manny Machado Baltimore 3B $507,500 4.5 $112,777.78
Christian Yelich Miami LF $507,500 4.0 $126,875.00
Joc Pederson Los Angeles (NL) OF $507,500 3.4 $149,264.71
Mookie Betts Boston 2B $507,500 3.4 $149,264.71
Nolan Arenado Colorado 3B $507,500 3.4 $149,264.71
A.J. Pollock Arizona CF $507,500 3.2 $158,593.75
Adam Eaton Chicago (AL) CF $507,500 3.2 $158,593.75
Gregory Polanco Pittsburgh OF $507,500 3.2 $158,593.75
Billy Hamilton Cincinnati CF $507,500 3.1 $163,709.68
George Springer Houston RF $507,500 3.1 $163,709.68
Juan Lagares New York (NL) CF $507,500 3.0 $169,166.67
Kole Calhoun Los Angeles (AL) RF $507,500 3.0 $169,166.67
Brian Dozier Minnesota 2B $507,500 2.7 $187,962.96
Kevin Kiermaier Tampa Bay CF $507,500 2.7 $187,962.96
Yasmani Grandal Los Angeles (NL) C $507,500 2.7 $187,962.96
Kolten Wong St. Louis 2B $507,500 2.6 $195,192.31
Chris Owings Arizona SS $507,500 2.5 $203,000.00
Marcus Semien Oakland INF $507,500 2.5 $203,000.00
Xander Bogaerts Boston SS $507,500 2.5 $203,000.00
Arismendy Alcantara Chicago (NL) SS $507,500 2.4 $211,458.33
Marcell Ozuna Miami OF $507,500 2.4 $211,458.33
Scott Van Slyke Los Angeles (NL) OF-1B $507,500 2.4 $211,458.33
Chris Taylor Seattle SS $507,500 2.3 $220,652.17
Derek Norris San Diego C $507,500 2.3 $220,652.17
Ender Inciarte Arizona OF $507,500 2.3 $220,652.17
Jean Segura Milwaukee SS $507,500 2.3 $220,652.17
Josmil Pinto Minnesota C $507,500 2.3 $220,652.17
Brad Miller Seattle SS $507,500 2.2 $230,681.82
Eugenio Suarez Cincinnati SS-2B $507,500 2.2 $230,681.82
Javier Baez Chicago (NL) SS $507,500 2.2 $230,681.82

These are the names we know, the ones we hope for, the players that the perennial next year is all about. You can argue with some of the minutiae of the projections if you want to, but there’s no arguing that this list is a who’s-who of great prospects, as it should be. While there might be some surprises on the first list, this second one holds no illusions.

Finally, a point that should be taken into account with this research is that it pertains to 2015 only – many of these very reasonable salaries (for the first group) in 2015 are part of back-loaded contracts that will explode in the next few years. Yan Gomes is one of them: he’s due for a raise of $1.5 million in 2016 and $2 million in 2017. That’s still a bargain for a great all-around catcher, but it’s less of a bargain than it is this year.

As we see less young, talented free agents hitting the market in the current era, more tact and strategy will be needed from teams on when and how to extend their young players. Commit too early in the hopes of locking a player up, and you could be stuck with paying someone who might not pan out; commit too late, and you’re not getting value for your money or another teams swoops in during free agency. Given the first group, the current strategy seems to be extend, backload, and hope to trade before the players become too much of a payroll liability. We’re seeing how that strategy is working out with huge, aging free agent contracts. Many teams can afford those deals; many can’t.

For some teams, finding this value is about survival. For the others, it’s just icing on top of a very expensive cake.

Thanks to Sean Dolinar for the graphic templates.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

Wouldn’t best bargains be better measured by excess value (Wins Projected-Wins paid for) than cost per win? The second group would be unchanged but there would be significant shuffling in the first group.

Pirates Hurdles
8 years ago
Reply to  Terence

yeah, my immediate thought was this after not seeing Cutch on the list. Surplus value is another interesting way to look at this and you can get rid of guys like Cervelli and not bias your sample to low cost players.

8 years ago
Reply to  Terence

100% agreed. the values are all so low ($1m and lower), that in theory a GM would likely be more concerned with maximizing total WAR than maximizing $/WAR.

It obviously passes the smell test, as you’d prefer Stanton over Gomes and Colin Cowgill should not be on the list…

Eric R
8 years ago
Reply to  Owen Watson

What about using AAV [perhaps adjusted to PV] instead of strictly 2015 salary? Stanton only gets $6.5M this year, but he wouldn’t have agreed to that on it’s own [probably would have gotten $10-12M in arbitration]. So his 2015 is artificially low because of the 0ther 13 years on the contract.

Eric R
8 years ago
Reply to  Eric R

I guess I should have read all of the comments before posting 🙂

8 years ago
Reply to  Terence

I don’t know… wouldn’t YOU prefer an investment where you can turn $1 into $2, rather than one that will turn $10000 into $19000? Who’s with me?! 😉