Friday, February 10, 2006

MLB Free Agency Game
By Blogger

Pitchers and catchers. Pitchers and catchers. Can you smell that? It's leather, dirt, grass, and sweat. Pitchers and catchers.

Let's play a game, shall we? Historically, baseball may be prone to the romantic's overtures, but it's still an economic game, and, as with many aspects of American life, money governs action. With that in mind, a poster going by novaoakland on AthleticsNation came up with an interesting game involving payroll and free agency that I'll pass on here.

The game is simple. Construct a 25 man roster using ONLY free agents from this offseason, on a budget approximating the median of MLB team payrolls, using actual salaries that the players signed for. We'll use $75 million as our "median payroll", and we'll use an AL team so that the DH is in play. For players with long range contracts, use the yearly average as a compromise to account for deferred money. So, if you want Bengie Molina on your team, it would cost you $5 million. If you want Scott Eyre, make it $3.7 million. It's not exact, but we're just having fun, right? Our main tool will be the ESPN.com Free Agent Tracker. Now, let's have at it. (Links to player stats will be at the bottom of the column.)

Where To Start?
My first instinct as I contemplate how to build this team is that bargain hitters will be easier to identify than bargain pitchers. In addition, a run saved is more valuable than a run scored, so I'm going to start with pitching and try to get that out of the way. For my overall general strategy, I will find the best bang-for-the-buck bargains I can, and then reevaluate the entire roster once I figure out how much more money I can spend.

So. Pitching. Of course, AJ Burnett is there, all $11 million dollars of him, which is a better deal than Kevin Millwood at $12 million. But the best deal on the board, pitcher or hitter, appears to be Esteban Loaiza at $7 million. While Loaiza isn't an ace, he could be a legitimate number two option on a championship team. Nearly as good a deal, only for an innings-eating mid-rotation guy is $4 million for Jason Johnson (Cleveland is gonna be damn good).

After the no-brainers, I've hit the first major crossroads: Do I bite the bullet and go for a guy with the highest ceiling, or do I trade some upside for certainty? Do I trade potential production for cost control? Since I'm seeking out bargains to start, my choice is to go for certainty. On this limited a budget, I can't stomach the idea of committing to Burnett this early in the game, and so shell out $4.4 million for Brett Tomko, and $1.5 million for Byung-Hyun Kim. We don't yet know how much some of the other guys will get, including Jeff Weaver, who I like, so I can't use him. Instead, since this is my fifth starter, I'll skimp (though I wouldn't call it punting), and dumpster-dive for Brian Moehler at only $1.5 million. Since I'll need a long reliever, and with this staff, God knows who might collapse during the season, I'll dumpster-dive again, this time for Joe Mays at only $1 million. So, for six starting pitchers, I've spent $19.4 million, or about what Derek Jeter makes in a single season.

No Pepper
Hitting is an art form. Well, pitching is more of an art form, but it sounds more sage to say hitting is an art form. Quick, who is the most expensive free agent under the rules of our game? If you guessed that it was a three way tie between Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Rafael Furcal, you win the pride of knowing you got it right. Anyway, I'm thinking we'll stay away from these guys for now.

Where are the bargains? Bargains in the infield? Anyone? Bueller? The first name that jumps out is Frank Thomas, who, at most, will cost $3.5 million this season. He'll bat third, and he'll DH, because I've also found the perfect first base platoon: Matt LeCroy at $900,000, and Mark Sweeney at $900,000. Both guys play other positions, LeCroy can catch and Sweeney plays corner outfield, so they're ideal platoon candidates as they are flexible off the bench when not starting.

At catcher, I can't resist going with Mike Piazza. He'll catch about 90 games, DH against some lefties with LeCroy catching and Thomas at first, and he could even step in at first a few times. For $2 million, he'll produce much more at the plate than the average catcher. Of course, I'll need a backup catcher besides LeCroy as a defensive option. How about Miguel Olivo for $500,000? That works for me. A backup catcher with a good defensive reputation and a little pop? Sure. Kenji Johjima, at a little more than $5 million per year, was very tempting, but right now, I just don't know enough about him to take that gamble at this point in the game.

At third base, the choice is easy. Bill Mueller is the class of the group, and goes for a reasonable $4.8 million. At second base, the choice is just as easy, as Ryan Freel is available for $1.5 million. Freel is a younger, cheaper, and more productive option than Mark Grudzielanek.

Before we get to shortstop, outfield, and the bullpen, a quick update: I've spent a total of $33.5 million.

Chicks Dig the Long Ball
It's true. They do. But so do I. There are no Alex Rodriguezes in this batch of free agent shortstops. However, I also can't believe that I'm still not halfway to my total budget, and I'm nearly done with my starting lineup. Therefore, I'm gonna get a bit drunk with money and go all J.P. Ricciardi on you and pick Rafael Furcal as my shortstop. Nobody else is at all palatable. At $13 million, Furcal is by far the best shortstop available, but he's also by far the most expensive. I'm already getting a bit gun shy. Let's move on.

In the outfield, it's not pretty. Am I willing to spend megabucks on Damon or Matsui? Or should I put my faith in the Juan Encarnaciones of the world? Let's start with a bargain: Preston Wilson. For $4 million dollars this year, that's a huge power upside. Though I'd like to put him in a corner spot, I'll leave him in center field, because in order to sign Brian Giles to play right field for $10 million, I'll go with Rondell White in left field for $3.3 million.

All right, update time again. It looks like I have my starting lineup with a platoon partnership, a backup catcher, and six pitchers (17 players), all for a grand total of $63.8 million. That means I have about $11.2 million for five bullpen pitchers and three more bench players.

Fungible
With the crazy closer money going around, and only $11.2 million left to spend, I can't get a top flight closer unless I revamp some other aspect of my team. Besides, with the natural flukiness in performance that comes with so few innings pitched each year, I'm willing to take my chances with extremely low cost relievers. So, my closer will be Rudy Seanez, at $2.1 million. The other relievers will be Felix Rodriguez for $600,000, Steve Karsay for $600,000, Matt Mantei for $600,000, and Chris Hammond for $800,000. That leaves me with $6.5 million to spend on three more bench players.

I think it's hard to ignore Wes Helms as a viable infield backup. Though Helms is a corner infielder, with Mueller's positional flexibility, if Freel goes down, Mueller could move to second. At $800,000, a still-young player who once hit 23 home runs in a season is hard to pass up. In the outfield, Matt Lawton plays both corner spots and probably wouldn't embarrass himself in center field or at the plate. For $400,000, I've got my fourth outfielder.

For the final roster spot, I'd like some speed off the bench, a defensive stalwart that I could put anywhere on the infield. Pokey Reese hasn't played in the big leagues since 2004, when he was... well... awful at the plate. But the dude can play defense, so I'll take him for $800,000. That fills out my roster and leaves me with $4.5 million to play with.

Final Adjustments
After looking through the player pool one more time, I've decided that perhaps the best way to spend the money is to bolster the bullpen. Octavio Dotel is going to be back earlier than expected, since he's healed very quickly from reconstructive surgery on his arm. Even giving up a month and then giving him time to work his way into the closer role with Seanez holding down the fort until he does, Dotel is worth $2.3 million. We can now sweep away Matt Mantei and his $600,000. Really, is Matt Morris so much better than Tomko as to warrant my spending all $4.5 million dollars to upgrade? I don't think so. The upgrade from Mantei to Dotel could be far more profitable.

The Roster
So, for a total of roughly $72.2 million this year, you could have this roster built entirely out of free agents.

Starting Lineup
Ryan Freel - 2B
Rafael Furcal - SS
Frank Thomas - DH
Brian Giles - RF
Mike Piazza - C
Preston Wilson - CF
Mark Sweeney/Matt LeCroy - 1B
Rondell White - LF
Bill Mueller - 3B

Bench
Wes Helms - 3B/1B
Pokey Reese - SS/2B
Matt Lawton - OF
Miguel Olivo - C
Sweeney/LeCroy

Starting Rotation
Esteban Loaiza
Jason Johnson
Brett Tomko
Byung-Hyun Kim
Brian Moehler

Bullpen
Octavio Dotel
Rudy Seanez
Chris Hammond
Felix Rodriguez
Steve Karsay
Joe Mays

The Wrap
If I do say so myself, and I do say so myself, this team would have the potential of being an offensive powerhouse. Its keys to success would be: 1)Stay healthy. A good number of these guys are health risks. Despite the relative depth on the team (If Piazza goes down, then LeCroy splits catching with Olivo. If an outfielder goes down, Freel can head out there with Helms and Mueller shifting, or Lawton can simply step in. And so on...), too many guys listed here are injury risks to be at all comfortable. And 2)Get at least one career year out of the starting pitching staff, and at least average years from everyone else. If any of the starting pitchers regresses significantly, the season's toast, no matter how good the offense.

That said, this lineup can hit anyone, the bullpen's top two can stifle anyone, and while Johnson is going to be consistently average to above average and Kim will be an adventure, you never know when Loaiza or Tomko is going to hit a groove and throw a two-hitter. They'd be the proverbial "okay team that no one wants to face in a playoff series."

What I hope this game shows is that free agency is a viable team-building mechanism. It's not as ideal as building from within combined with judicious spending on the free agent market and savvy trading, but it is definitely possible to completely gut an existing roster and immediately field a competitive team. In other words, meet the 2009 National League Champion Florida Marlins.

5 Comments:

Blogger Bryan Koch said...

All I can say is your bullpen truly is the "Who's Who" of Yankees relief pitching busts.

12:59 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

Touche.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Good team David, though I'd be worried about that staff. I'd probably have bit the bullet and spent the 11 mil on Burnett, then tried to even it out elsewhere. But again, not a bad team and imagine what you could do if you also count non tendered players, like Russell Braynan.

11:47 PM  
Blogger John W. Schmeelk said...

Did Ben just say:

"Imagine how good this team would be with Russel Branyan?"

Hello?

4:36 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

John, Ben's point was that the non-tenders form another player pool to be exploited. And yes, I'd strongly consider Russell Branyan instead of Wes Helms, if only because Branyan can also play corner OF, rakes against righties. Not only that, I'd have to consider having him as my lefty 1B platoon option instead of Sweeney.

6:08 PM  

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