The Winter of Position-Player Roster Turnover

Like the draft year, the baseball offseason has a feel to it once you’ve been around the game for awhile. Like some draft years, some offseasons are just different, and we are currently living through one of them. The 2005 draft was different; if you had scouting director or national crosschecker-level responsibilities, you stood a good chance of seeing a future major-league All Star on any given day, and you knew it. This offseason, after what seemed to be a few years of relative winter calm, all hell has seemingly broken loose, especially with regard to position-player movement. Today, let’s take a look at team position-player turnover in the divisional era, to get a sense for the historical norms to which 2015 will someday be compared.

First, some ground rules. I went back to 1969, an expansion year and the first year of divisional play, and examined a listing of each team’s annual list of primary position players on Baseball Reference. That is, the player that logged the most games at any defensive position in a given year. For each team, and league, I counted the number of year-to-year changes among those leaders, calculating an annual turnover rate for each league, and a number of positions turned over annually for each club.

Changes can take place for any number of reasons, with offseason trades and free-agent signings representing only two of them. Players change positions, get injured, or play multiple positions, possibly not winding up as the team leader at any of them. Trades and free-agent signings are the primary drivers, however, and this offseason is laying the groundwork for a huge turnover year in 2015.

Below is a list of each league’s turnover rate by decade over the period being examined:

Years AL NL
1970-79 0.48 0.41
1980-89 0.42 0.41
1990-99 0.50 0.45
2000-09 0.47 0.49
2010-14 0.52 0.47
1970-2014 0.47 0.44

The magnitude of the annual position-player turnover is a bit stunning at first glance; utilizing this rather strict method of calculation, the population of position-player regulars turns over by nearly half each season. The AL fairly consistently posts a slightly higher turnover rate than the NL, and the DH position is a prime reason. DHs, by their very nature, turn over more rapidly, as many older players play out the string in that role. Also, teams that rotate the DH position among a few players are very unlikely to have the same primary DH in consecutive seasons.

Turnover has generally increased over time, for a number of reasons. The inception of free agency is one. Though the reserve clause was finally eliminated in the mid-70s, it took a while for the free-agency rules to truly ramp up player movement, especially among non-star players. A handful of “steady state” teams, which we will discuss later, kept the turnover rates steady in the 1980s before they finally took off. Also, the increase in player specialization, platooning, etc., has helped drive turnover rate further upward since the 1990s.

Let’s drill down a little bit further, and look at the annual position-player turnover rates over the last few seasons:

Years AL NL
2010 0.56 0.48
2011 0.62 0.45
2012 0.44 0.54
2013 0.51 0.48
2014 0.47 0.39

Just looking at this five-year sliver of time, we see both extremes of position-player turnover. The 2011 AL turnover rate of 0.62 is the single highest league rate of the divisional era. On the other hand, the combined 2014 MLB turnover rate was the lowest since 2001, and the second lowest in a non-strike season since 1986. Why was positional player turnover so low last season, on a relative basis?

Very quietly, as noted by Ben Lindbergh on Grantland last spring, major-league baseball recently went an unusually long period without a GM firing. Between November 27, 2011 (Ed Wade, Astros) and June 22, 2014, (Josh Byrnes, Padres), exactly zero GMs were fired. Since last summer, five other clubs, including three more from the NL West, have made changes in the top spot. It seems a pretty safe hypothesis that the relative position-player calm was a result of the GM stasis, and the recent flurry of player movement is a direct result of the GM turnover.

Just look at the Padres and Dodgers, to name two clubs. Only two of the nine 2014 Padres regulars, 1B Yonder Alonso and 2B Jedd Gyorko, have a realistic chance to be regulars at the same position in 2015. The rest of their 2014 front liners: SS Everth Cabrera, 3B Chase Headley and LF Seth Smith are already gone, and CF Cameron Maybin and RF Will Venable will either be dealt or left scratching for playing time. As for the Dodgers, four 2014 holdovers, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, 3B Juan Uribe, LF Carl Crawford and RF Yasiel Puig have a chance to be 2015 regulars, but only the former and latter among them are locks. 2B Dee Gordon, SS Hanley Ramirez and RF Matt Kemp are already gone, and CF Andre Ethier is likely either headed elsewhere or to the bench. New GMs A.J. Preller and Farhan Zaidi have wasted no time making their respective marks.

And they aren’t alone; the Braves, Marlins, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays and A’s, just to name a few, are in the process of undergoing massive year-to-year position-player turnover. Only two of the A’s 2014 position-player regulars, CF Coco Crisp and RF Josh Reddick, even remain on their roster at this stage.

What to make of all of this? Obviously, all of this change is going to work out for some clubs, and not for others. How have extremely high — and low — turnover teams performed in the past? Can they give us some guidance moving forward?

Since 1969, there have been exactly seven clubs who have turned over all of their position-player regulars in a single season:

– 1976 Minnesota Twins – Goodbye, Glenn Borgmann, Craig Kusick, 2B Rod Carew, Danny Thompson, Eric Soderholm, Steve Braun, Dan Ford, RF Lyman Bostock and Tony Oliva, and hello Butch Wynegar, 1B Carew, Bobby Randall, Roy Smalley, Mike Cubbage, Larry Hisle, CF Bostock, RF Ford and DH Kusick. Sure, a few guys changed positions, but this was a massive youth movement, one that would turn out to be a dry run for an eight-regular turnover in 1982 that would eventually yield a pair of World Series titles.

– 1977 Oakland A’s – Those complaining about Billy Beane’s recent overhauls should take pause and note the handiwork of Charlie Finley and even Connie Mack earlier in the franchise’s history. This time, Finley blew apart what was left of his 1972-74 World Champs, replacing Larry Haney, Gene Tenace, Phil Garner, Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bill North, Claudell Washington and Earl Williams with Jeff Newman, Dick Allen, Marty Perez, Rob Picciolo, Wayne Gross, Mitchell Page, Tony Armas, Jim Tyrone and Manny Sanguillen. Armas turned out to be the only player with a future among the newcomers, who went 63-98 after nine consecutive winning seasons by their predecessors. This was a money-saving clearance sale, no more, no less.

– 1977 Giants – Meanwhile, across the Bay, the Giants also turned over their entire group of position-player regulars. 1976 1B Darrell Evans moved to LF in 1977, while Dave Rader, good old Marty Perez, Chris Speier, Ken Reitz, Gary Matthews, Larry Herndon and Bobby Murcer were replaced by Marc Hill, Willie McCovey, Rob Andrews, Tim Foli, Bill Madlock, Derrel Thomas and Jack Clark. This didn’t turn out well for the Giants, as Matthews and Herndon had plenty left in their tanks, and a still productive Madlock was moved along himself a year later. Despite the development of rookie Clark, the Giants simply went from one form of medocrity to another.

– 1989 Phillies – For most of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Phillies were amazingly stable. Their core group won the 1980 World Series, so they set about establishing its stable successor. That didn’t work so well, and it was busted up in 1989, when Lance Parrish, 1B Von Hayes, Juan Samuel, Steve Jeltz, Mike Schmidt, Phil Bradley, Milt Thompson and Chris James were replaced by Darren Daulton, Ricky Jordan, Tom Herr, Dickie Thon, Charlie Hayes, John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and RF Von Hayes. It took a little while, and some patience, but the core of this new group did at least present Phillies’ fans with the unexpected pennant-winning summer of 1993.

– 1992 Mets – Following their championship season of 1986, the Mets attempted to keep their relatively youthful nucleus together and reprise their success. After a sub-.500 season in 1991 — their first since 1983 — they gave up, and replaced Rick Cerone, 1B Dave Magadan, Gregg Jefferies, Kevin Elster, 3B Howard Johnson, Kevin McReynolds, Daryl Boston and Hubie Brooks with Todd Hundley, Eddie Murray, Willie Randolph, Dick Schofield, 3B Magadan, LF Boston, CF Johnson and Bobby Bonilla. Some position switches are included, but so is a wild foray into aging veteran talent. It didn’t work so well, as Hundley was the only one left when the Mets began winning again in the late 1990s.

– 2006 Marlins – This was the second of the patented Marlin teardowns. Exit Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell, LF Miguel Cabrera, Juan Pierre and Juan Encarnacion, and enter Miguel Olivo, Mike Jacobs, Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, 3B Cabrera, Josh Willingham, Reggie Abercrombie and Jeremy Hermida. This rebuild didn’t ultimately lead to postseason glory, as its predecessor did, but the club didn’t tank either, winning only five fewer games in 2006.

– 2011 Royals – With some of their long-heralded prospects finally deemed major-league ready, the Royals replaced Jason Kendall, 1B Billy Butler, Mike Aviles, Yuniesky Betancourt, Alberto Callaspo, Scott Podsednik, Mitch Maier, David DeJesus and Jose Guillen with Brayan Pena, Eric Hosmer, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur and DH Butler. It took a little while, but the Royals got some payback in the form of an AL pennant in 2014, following a three-year span over which they had the lowest position-player turnover of any MLB club.

The first two and last two of the seven aforementioned clubs were largely prospect-based teardowns and rebuilds, and aren’t applicable to the current crop of overhaulers. The other three may be, however. The 1977 Giants and 1992 Mets made a bunch of trades, and the latter signed an “impact” free agent in Bobby Bonilla. The former graduated a high-end prospect in Jack Clark into an everyday role. It didn’t work out overall for either club. The third team, the 1989 Phillies, had a shocking dream season, four years out into the horizon, that faded as quickly as it appeared. Complete turnover hasn’t historically been a recipe for near-term success.

Let’s take a quick look at a few clubs, interestingly from the same era, with long-term low turnover with regard to position players.

– 1974-83 Phillies – Never turned over more than three position-player regulars in a season. Had zero turnover in 1976 and their championship 1980 season, with Bob Boone, Pete Rose, Manny Trillo, Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox and Bake McBride all returning as regulars.

– 1973-80 Reds – Never turned over more than three position-player regulars in a season, turned over more than two only once. Their 1975-78 clubs totaled exactly one position turned over, with Dan Driessen replacing Tony Perez in 1977. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey, Sr., held the other positions down throughout.

– 1975-82 Dodgers – Never turned over more than three position players in a season, turned over more than one only twice. Best known for their evergreen infield of Steve Garvey, Dave Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, they basically ran out the same team from 1975-80, with Steve Yeager, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith other key principals, plus a revolving cast of center fielders.

– 1977-83 Royals – Never turned over more than three position players in a season. Had zero turnover in 1979, with Darrell Porter, Pete LaCock, Frank White, Freddie Patek, George Brett, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis and Al Cowens all retaining their 1978 roles. Ironically, this was the first time in four seasons that they did not reach the postseason. They inserted Willie Aikens, U.L. Washington and Clint Hurdle into their 1980 lineup, and finally won a pennant.

Since 1970, 20 of 88 pennant winners, just under 23%, have turned over 50% or more of their primary position players from the previous season. Since the average club turns over about half of their regulars, this would seem to be a ringing endorsement for stability. It isn’t quite that simple, however. An awful lot of these pennant winners, like the 2014 Royals, underwent a great deal of change in the years immediately preceding their ultimate success. Clubs have windows for potential high-end contention, and the laying of the foundation to take advantage of such windows is often marked by dramatic change.

The Royals, following their 2011 total rebuild, have seen the least amount of position-player turnover since. The most? Believe it or not, the Yankees, with 8 positions turned over in both 2013 and 2014, thanks to injuries to aging stars, and patching and filling of the holes thereby created. Joe Girardi deserves a medal for getting them home above .500 in both seasons, and has another year of big change staring him in the face.

Three teams turned over only one position in 2014 — the Rays, A’s and Dodgers. All have gone on to wreak havoc upon their rosters this offseason. All of them — rightly, in my opinion — concluded that their existing nuclei had gone about as far as possible, and massive change was in order. I don’t agree with every move they made — Josh Donaldson, I’m looking at you– but as Chris Rock might say, I understand. And hey, it’s only January 5.

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A. J. Preller
8 years ago

You mean I don’t hold the record?

8 years ago
Reply to  A. J. Preller

The offseason is young, my friend! There is still time for change.