The Best Team (A Reasonable Amount Of) Money Can Buy
We're entering the dog days of the baseball season and, with about a month and a half to go, I thought it would be a good idea to look back on the free agent class of 2009. An old adage claims that you can't build a team around free agency alone. And, while this is pretty accurate, there are of course, ways to dramatically improve a team's fortunes through free agent pickups. The problem of course is that free agents cost dramatically more than players in their first six years, so to building a great team out of free agents alone is fairly difficult unless your team happens to be in the American League and hail from New York.
But, with outstanding foresight, is it possible to build a pennant contender entirely out of free agents for only the league average payroll of about $80 million dollars? In this article, I'll take a crack at that, and along the way, take a look at the best bargains of 2009.
Building a Ballclub
I'll start my theoretical team full of replacement level players, which I'll assume, as Fangraphs does, will play at a level equivalent to a .300 winning percentage. To evaluate a potential free-agent's contribution thus far to my team, I'll simply look at the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as calculated by Fangraphs. Since I am defining all of my other players as replacement level, I can simply add the free-agent's WAR to my team's expected win totals to see how their addition would impact the club. After 120 games, we would expect our replacement-level team to have a 36-84 record, but with good free agent signings, we can increase our win total.
There are about 700 plate appearances at each position over a full season, and since we've so far played about 3/4ths of a season, we have about 525 PA's to allocate at each position if we so choose. I'll also assume that each player could have been signed for the same amount of money that he actually signed for before the 2009 season.
Starting at catcher, we'd like to sign David Ross (1.3 WAR in 122 PA) for $1.5 million and Gregg Zaun (1.4 WAR in 227 PA) for $1.5 million. Our replacement level catcher worth 0 WAR will take over the duties for the remaining 176 PA's.
At first base, the pickings are slim. Of course, Teixeira is out there, but we don't want to break the bank. The best we can do on the cheap is to sign Wes Helms (0.8 WAR in 173 PA's) for $1 million. Our replacement level first baseman can take over the rest of the first base position's PA's.
At second, the obvious free agent choice is Felipe Lopez, who currently is tearing it up with Milwaukee for the total of $3.5 million - pricier than our other selections, but well worth it at 3.1 WAR over 511 PA's.
At third base, our theoretical "20-20 hindsight" team will go even pricier to sign Casey Blake away from the Dodgers. At $5.8 million he's not found in the bargain bin, but has provided 3.1 WAR over 474 PA's so far this year.
Our pick at shortstop is Juan Uribe, who has been decent, but not great for the Giants this year with 1.2 WAR over 278 PA's. However, he can be had for just $1 million.
Rounding out the infield is jack of all trades, Craig Counsell, who in 378 PA's can fill out the missing PA's at shortstop, third, second. He actually goes slightly over the allotted PA's, so we'll proportionately scale back his 2.2 WAR to just 1.8 WAR. He's been a bargain for just $1 million.
Though the infield, and at catcher, we've spent a total of just $15.3 million, but so far have a total of 13.1 WAR, bringing our win total up from 36 to 49 and bringing the WPCT up to .408.
In the outfield, we'd like to emulate Angels' GM Tony Reagins, and sign both Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera. Right fielder Abreu can be had for just $5 million and gives us 2.7 WAR in 501 PA's, while Rivera signs for $4.25 million but is the MVP of our team, adding 3.3 WAR in 421 PA's. In centerfield we'll sign Scott Podsednik for $500,000, providing us with 1.2 WAR in 431 PA's. At DH, we can make our biggest free agent buy yet, signing Raul Ibanez, who is having a career year in Philadelphia for $10 million. He provides 3.1 WAR over 413 PA's.
That rounds out the offense. Adding up the WAR, we've raised the team record to 59-61 - not bad on just $35 million worth of free agent hitters. In fact, had we not signed Ibanez, we could have still been competitive on a Marlins-esque $25 million - the difference being that our club came together entirely through free agency.
Moving on to the pitchers, one would think we could power our way to the playoffs with $45 million to shore up a replacement-level pitching staff. Starting off, we can sign Dodgers' starter, Randy Wolf, for a fairly pricey $7 million. However, he's been good this year, adding 2.7 WAR to the team. We can also add Mike Hampton - he hasn't been great, but he's worthwhile at 0.8 WAR for $2 million. Rounding out the rotation is Brad Penny at 2.1 WAR for $5 million and Carl Pavano at 2.5 WAR and about $6.5 million (including performance bonuses he is likely to earn).
At this point, we've got a pretty good team (67-53) for just $55.5 million. We've already plucked the lowest hanging fruit, and to squeeze more wins will take substantially more cash. At this point, the best return on a full $80 million may be signing the dominant Sabathia and paying his enormous contract of $23 million for a return of 4.2 WAR. That's the highest WAR on the team but he's by far the worst deal at over $5.5 million per win. Out of cash, the bullpen is left to fend for itself with replacement players - there were no good bargains out there anyway. However, the Sabathia signing brings the team to an outstanding record of 71-49, with a playoff bound winning percentage of .591, good for 4th best in the majors for only $78.6 million dollars. Below, you can see the "All-Bargain" team as a whole and their contracts and values:
Looking at the team, a few things jump out at me. One is the relative ease in which we were able to find cost-effective position players contrasted with the difficulty in finding cost-effective pitchers, particularly relievers. It would seem as though this would either show an inefficiency in the free-agent market or a problem in the calculation or definition of Fangraph's WAR values. After all, WAR should be equal to the player's marginal win value to a team regardless of position. Without doing an in-depth examination, I can't be sure what's going on or if it was just a fluke in this particular 2009 season.
Another potential issue is the calculation of WAR for pitchers. According to their WAR, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano were good bargains and quite valuable to their teams this year. However, with ERA's of 5.61 and 5.20 respectively, these players have been widely seen as busts in Boston and Cleveland this year. In the case of Penny, he's actually being removed from Boston's rotation. Fangraphs uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) as the basis for their calculations and indeed both Penny and Pavano have good peripheral statistics - but the fact is that they gave up a lot of runs this year. A lot of that may be due to bad luck, but nonetheless, that is part of their performance, so I'm not quite convinced that the Fangraph's WAR based on FIP is completely the right statistic to use here. This has been debated before and you can check it out the debate here.
These issues aside, it is interesting to see how well you can build a team with 20-20 hindsight. The moral of the story is, yes, you can build a playoff bound team entirely built through free-agency. However, it's really hard. Even with the enormous advantage of knowing how a player would perform in advance, we were still only able to become the 4th best team in baseball after spending the league average in payroll. Not to mention that most, if not all of these players are playing over their heads (that's why they were such good bargains), and thus I would expect the performance of the team to drop precipitously during the month of September. Nevertheless, creating the team has been a fun exercise for the dog days of August.