The Best Team Money Can Buy

Building a baseball team is an expensive chore, so teams save money where they can. Even teams that frequently dip into the free agent pool have to get contributions from their club-controlled players. Both New York teams made the playoffs last year, and despite their financial largesse, both relied heavily on contributions from players like Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano, David Wright, and Jose Reyes. Some teams, like the Marlins, rarely bother with free agents and rely almost exclusively on their club-controlled players. Last year, only the White Sox, Blue Jays, and Cardinals received more Net Win Shares Value from their free agents than from their non-arbitration eligible players (players with 0-3 years of service time).

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that it’s difficult and expensive to build a team using free agents. Sure, you can round out the back of your bullpen with a few mercenaries or sign a franchise centerpiece, but it’s tough to do both and get a starting right fielder all in one offseason. And, as David Schoenfield pointed out last week, the best free agents from this offseason will buy you only expensive mediocrity: almost $200 million of payroll submitted to a Diamond Mind simulation projected to around 77 wins. It’s a lesson in why arbitration and pre-arbitration players are so valuable. Role players can often be culled from the ranks of a team’s minor league system without having to pay free agent prices, where even a one-win player (three WSAB) can cost over $4.5 million!

Schoenfield’s article reminded me of an exercise on Athletics Nation last offseason. The goal is to assemble the best possible 25-man roster with a league-median payroll using only free agent contracts signed during the offseason. This differs from Schoenfield’s exercise, which illustrates (quite clearly) the insanity of this offseason’s deals. But since the free agency bin always contains a few bargains, is it possible to buy a decent team?

The rules: I can’t sign minor league free agents or players who signed minor league deals (e.g., Sammy Sosa), nor players who signed contract extensions before hitting the market (e.g., Michael Young). Only players who have already signed guaranteed major league contracts are eligible for my team, and their salaries will be their 2007 salaries (not the average annual value of their contracts). Players cannot be moved significantly from the position for which they were signed (e.g., Mike Piazza as DH), although I allowed for flexibility in the outfield and at DH. The league-median payroll for next year will be around $80 million dollars, so that’s the budget I’ve got to work with. Luckily, the owner of my team has been generous enough to approve a one-time posting fee for a certain Japanese pitcher. At the end, we’ll estimate the number of wins this team would generate using David Gassko’s new projection system.

Pitchers

Starting rotation
SP1: Daisuke Matsuzaka ($6 million)
SP2: Greg Maddux ($10 million)
SP3: John Thomson ($0.5 million)
SP4: David Wells ($3 million)
SP5: Tony Armas Jr ($3.5 million

Start with Matsuzaka, who will earn only $6 million dollars next year. He’s the ace of the rotation and a bargain when the posting fee is ignored (and, since I made the rules, we won’t count the posting fee). For some veteran stability, we’ll also pick up Maddux, who is a good bet to log lots of innings at a reasonable ERA. Slim pickings after those two—mostly bench-level guys coming off injuries. Thomson will be the third starter, who is on a bargain contract as far free agents go but comes with health questions. Hopefully Wells and Armas are up for the task of rounding out the back of our rotation. The rotation is top-heavy and won’t provide a lot of innings, but without committing a large chunk of payroll to Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt, building a free agent staff is tough.

Bullpen
RP1: Aaron Fultz ($1.65 million)
RP2: Darren Oliver ($1.75 million)
RP3: Chad Bradford ($3 million)
RP4: Tanyon Sturtze ($0.75 million)
RP5: Jose Mesa ($2.5 million)
RP6: Tom Martin ($0.8 million)

This may look ugly, but take a closer look. Bradford can be summoned in groundball situations, Fultz and Oliver are solid lefties, Mesa has some closing experience, and “Tanyon” is an unusual name. Also, I had never even heard of Tom Martin until 15 minutes ago. Hey, he’s left-handed—a troika of bullpen lefties will be perfect if Tony LaRussa agrees to manage the club.

Position Players

Starters
C: Mike Lieberthal ($1.25 million)
1B: Doug Mientkiewicz ($1.5 million)
2B: Marcus Giles ($3.2 million)
SS: Craig Counsell ($2.8 million)
3B: Pedro Feliz ($5.1 million)
RF: Trot Nixon ($3 million)
CF: Dave Roberts ($5 million)
LF: Cliff Floyd ($3 million)
DH: Barry Bonds ($15.8 million)

The infield is based on finding bargains on the defensive side: Feliz, Counsell, and Mientkiewicz are all above-average with the glove and Giles isn’t awful. There’s a little bit of on-base ability among those four, at least average in all cases except for Feliz. Feliz’s ghastly plate discipline is offset by his pop and underrated glove. Mike Lieberthal, like many on this team, is a significant injury risk, but he’s signed to a reasonable contract and provides some value as a backstop.

But if you thought there were some risks in the infield, the outfield will be lucky to play together at all. Nixon, Roberts and Floyd haven’t been the game’s most durable players in the past few years. But Nixon and Floyd have strong rate projections for next year, even if they won’t play every game, and Roberts can still chase fly balls in center. You may be sensing a theme here, and that’s that many of the cost-effective free agents have big health concerns. The issue with many of these players isn’t performance, but rather the risk of a catastrophic injury that would prevent them from being any kind of asset whatsoever.

And Bonds? Still worth it. He’s anchoring this offense for better or for worse.

Bench
IF: Alex Cora ($2 million)
IF: Aaron Boone ($0.9 million)
OF: Jose Cruz, Jr ($.65 million)
OF: Ryan Klesko ($1.75 million)
C: Doug Mirabelli ($0.75 million)

There’s some assorted free agent talent on the bench. Cora can back up in the middle infield and whatever is left of Boone can man the corners when necessary. Klesko is a stretch in the outfield corners and Cruz even more so in center, but there you have it. The bench has some handedness flexibility for late game matchups but only Cora would qualify as a true defensive specialist.

The total bill for this team: $80.2 million, which should be right around the median for 2007 payrolls.

True Winners

To estimate how many games this ragtag bunch of mercenaries would win, I used “wins above replacement” from David Gassko’s projection system. For the offense, I gave each player up to a full season’s worth of plate appearances (~650 PAs). If the player was projected to receive fewer than 650 PAs, I had a bench player fill in the rest, keeping in mind positional realities (that is, Klesko won’t be manning the keystone when Giles takes a day off). Spreading around the playing time and pro-rating the wins above replacement results in approximately around 18.3 wins above replacement on offense.

For pitchers, I simply summed the projected innings for each of the players. Since this resulted in far less than a full season of pitching (which is around 1440 IP), I magically filled in the remaining innings with replacement-level players. This is somewhat disingenous since I am not counting their salary toward the total, and even replacement-level free agents cost a decent amount of money. If you really want accuracy, add a few million to the payroll. In any event, the pitching on this team is a complete mess and only comes out to about 12.7 wins above replacement. That’s a top-heavy number; Matsuzaka and Maddux account for over half of that total.

This whole method is pretty approximate and we can futz around with the details all day, but the point is that this team will win something like 30 wins above replacment, which is between 80 and 81 wins. For a league-median payroll we have managed to assemble a league-average team, albeit one with serious potential for decimation by injury. I’d say that .500 is closer to the upside than it is to the downside. There are a few bargains in the free agent bin, but it’s difficult to acquire star-level talent and get solid role players and fill out a rotation and stock a bullpen and—well, you get the idea. Intelligent selection of free agents is actually comparable to simply choosing the most expensive players, but neither will allow you to build a good team.

While I have done the best that I can, I’m sure that I missed a few excellent bargains that were on the market this winter. If you have alternative roster $80 million roster constructions from this winter’s free agents, I would love hear it. You can e-mail me at the address below.

References & Resources
Thanks again to David Gassko for providing 2007 projections. A helpful discussion between him and John Beamer on the internal THT mailing list was very helpful in approximating the number of wins this team would produce.

ESPN’s Free Agent Tracker was a useful resource for this exercise, as was Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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