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March 15, 2010

Ahead in the Count

The No Turnover Standings

by Matt Swartz

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"Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city, you're actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You know what I mean? You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt! They hate him now! Boo! Different shirt!! Boo!"

The above is a quote from Jerry Seinfeld of Seinfeld, in the Episode "The Label Maker." It was a good episode, but I liked "The Muffin Tops" even better. George Costanza was working for the New York Yankees at this point in the show, but George Steinbrenner traded him to a company called "Tyler Chicken." It was a fictional show, and wasn’t that a ridiculous premise? In what industry can workers be traded to work for other companies in other cities without their consent? Oh yeah—in baseball. Instead of imagining a world where regular people could be traded from company to company, I decided to imagine a world where players could not be traded. In fact, I wondered what would happen if there were no turnover at all. Would Steinbrenner’s club fall out of contention without the ability to sign free agents (or trade their front office employees for fermented chicken drinks)? Would the Marlins be able to hold onto enough talent to form a dynasty? The answers may surprise you.

Just about every baseball fan can think of a player they wish that their team hadn’t let go, and fans constantly argue about who should stay and who should go from the current crop. These decisions have large impacts on franchises, but without a crystal ball, it’s hard to know what to a team should do. Players rarely play on one team for their whole career, as they often depart via free agency, get traded, or get released. Teams give up on young players too early, and other times they simply cannot afford to keep them around once they become arbitration-eligible. Some general managers are particularly savvy at identifying talent, while others part with it before it shines.

For this article, I went through every player who played in the major leagues last season and figured out his WARP* and the team that first signed him to a contract, either as a draft pick, international free agent or undrafted player. I then determined each team's record based on the combined WARP of the player who originally belong to it. Next to a team's original player win-loss record, I list its actual record for 2009 and the amount of money it spent on payroll last year, according to bizofbaseball.com, in millions. Without further ado, the 2009 No Turnover Standings:


NL EAST    Original W-L     Actual W-L   Payroll
Braves           100-62          86-76   $100M
Phillies          86-76          93-69   $138M
Nationals         80-82          59-103   $69M
Marlins           77-85          87-75    $38M  
Mets              68-94          70-92   $142M 

NL CENTRAL Original W-L     Actual W-L   Payroll
Cardinals         87-75          91-71   $103M
Pirates           76-86          62-99    $48M
Astros            69-93          74-88   $108M
Cubs              69-93          83-78   $142M
Brewers           68-94          80-82    $90M
Reds              64-98          78-84    $73M

NL WEST    Original W-L     Actual W-L   Payroll
Rockies          108-54          92-70   $84M
Dodgers          102-60          95-67  $132M
Diamondbacks      87-75          70-92   $74M
Giants            81-81          88-74   $95M
Padres            55-107         75-87   $43M

AL EAST    Original W-L     Actual W-L   Payroll
Blue Jays         95-67          75-87    $84M
Red Sox           89-73          95-67   $140M
Yankees           88-74         103-59   $220M
Orioles           68-94          64-98    $79M
Rays              66-96          84-78    $71M

AL CENTRAL Original W-L     Actual W-L   Payroll
Twins             85-77          87-76    $73M
Tigers            81-81          86-77   $139M
Royals            79-83          65-97    $82M
Indians           74-88          79-83    $77M
White Sox         72-90          65-97   $105M

AL WEST    Original W-L     Actual W-L   Payroll
Mariners         107-55          85-77   $102M
Rangers           89-73          87-75    $77M
Athletics         87-75          75-87    $62M
Angels            69-93          97-65   $122M

The NL East was certainly a surprising division. The old story generally goes that the cheap Marlins simply do not supplement the talent they draft with free agents, leaving them with a team that perpetually falls short of the postseason. However, the Marlins actually would have done worse if not for some savvy trades that added talent and that helped them overcome the loss of talent that became too expensive. Hanley Ramirez was an especially smart pickup among the young talent the Marlins received from the Red Sox in the trade for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota. Beckett got too expensive for the Marlins, but in this fictional world where players can’t change teams, they would have had to keep him. Lowell was actually a Yankee before he was a Marlin, so that did not count against them. What counted heavily against the Marlins in 2009 was Adrian Gonzalez, who was traded for Ugueth Urbina during their 2003 championship run. However, the Marlins also picked up Dan Uggla, originally a Diamondback until the 2005 Rule 5 Draft, and a number of players who made smaller impacts along the way. Interestingly, the Marlins did not lose much talent from their original draft classes other than the Beckett, and of course, they traded Miguel Cabrera, who they signed from Venezuela.

The Braves certainly would have been force in 2009 if they had not traded Adam Wainwright and Jason Marquis for J.D. Drew in 2003. Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens, however, were not originally Braves, so that counteracted some of the effect on the rotation. However, they did not compensate for the loss of Rafael Furcal and Kevin Millwood. They also released Garrett Jones in 2002, who produced solidly for the Pirates last season. The Braves also traded Elvis Andrus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Neftali Feliz to the Rangers for Mark Teixeira.

The Nationals certainly lost a lot of talent during their days as the Expos, players who continued to produce into 2009. Vazquez was traded for Juan Rivera, Randy Choate, and Nick Johnson in 2003, none of whom were ever swapped out for significant players, and none of whom remain with the team. The move that cost them the most was when tried to get into the pennant race in 2002 by trading Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee, along with Lee Stevens, for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew. The Expos failed to make the playoffs by 12 games, and Colon was swapped out that winter with a minor-leaguer for Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez, and Jeff Liefer. Jason Bay and Milton Bradley were once Expos as well.

In the NL Central, the Cardinals would still have won the division if talent could not move, but the Pirates would have had a much better showing. They originally drafted Rajai Davis in 2001, only to trade him for Matt Morris in a hopeless 2007 season. They also lost Bronson Arroyo on waivers to the Red Sox in 2003 after drafting him in the third round in 1995, and traded Aramis Ramirez to the Cubs for Bobby Hill in 2002. Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth both produced in 2009 after being traded away during the season. Mike Gonzalez, Tim Wakefield, and Ronnie Paulino were all originally Pirates' property.

The Astros parted with Johan Santana and Ben Zobrist after originally signing both, but they made up for it for the most part by bringing in Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, Carlos Lee, and LaTroy Hawkins, while also getting a lot of production from Michael Bourn without having to deal with the extra negative WARP from Brad Lidge., Lidge was one of the rare cases where a player’s negative WARP with a different team than his original one played a big role in The No Turnover Standings.

The Rockies had a great year in 2009 built on a strong young nucleus. However, that nucleus could have been even more impressive had they not let some players leave. Chone Figgins was traded for Kimera Bartee before he even stepped into a major-league batter’s box. Bartee went 0-for-15 for a last-place Rockies team in 2001 and never played in the majors again. Craig Counsell had a strong year for the Brewers, but he was also originally a Rockie—but was traded for reliever Mark Hutton in 1997. Everyone knows Matt Holliday was originally a Rockie, but so were Juan Uribe, Juan Pierre, and Jeff Baker.

The Diamondbacks lost a lot of talent over the years, with a net loss of 17 games in 2009. The Diamondbacks once had Uggla, Carlos Gonzalez, Valverde, Lyle Overbay, and Scott Hairston. Of course, Carlos Gonzalez was part of the trade that brought in Dan Haren and his 8.0 WARP in 2009.

The Padres’ problem would seem to be money as they only spent $43 million on payroll in 2009. However, they still gained 20 games in the standings on savvy moves. Naturally, Gonzalez was a big part of that after being originally drafted by the Marlins. Heath Bell, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Tony Gwynn were not originally Padres, either. Neither were Hairston and Evereth Cabrera.

The Blue Jays would have won the AL East if everyone was forced to play with their originally procured talent. They released Chris Carpenter in 2002, and traded Orlando Hudson with Miguel Batista for Troy Glaus and Sergio Santos. Brandon Lyon, Michael Young, and Felipe Lopez were all originally Jays, too.

While it’s not a surprise that the Yankees' wins largely came from spending on free agents, the Rays were the most shocking team of all. The reputation of the Rays is of a team without money that gets by on strong drafts. However, much of the Rays' genius comes in acquiring talent from other teams. They traded Aubrey Huff for Zobrist and Mitch Talbot in the summer of 2006. J.P. Howell came in trade for Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez in the summer of 2006 as well. Another big move came when the Rays acquired Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza from the Twins in exchange for Brendan Harris, Delmon Young, and Jason Pridie after the 2007 season. The Rays barely lost any of their own talent, with Matt Diaz and Johnny Gomes providing the highest WARP of all players on other teams but originally property of the Rays. Jason Hammel looks to make the Rays hurt a little bit.

The AL Central looks pretty similar to the true 2009 standings, but the Royals have lost some talent over the years. Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Howell were all originally Royals. Meanwhile, the Royals haven't acquired many good players from other clubs beyond Joakim Soria and Alberto Callaspo.

The Bill Basavi years cost the Mariners dearly, but some of their talent loss was not his fault. Alex Rodriguez was originally with the Mariners way back when, but Shin-Soo Choo was, too, before Basavi traded him for Ben Broussard in 2006. Ryan Franklin and Raul Ibanez both provided a lot of wins in 2009 and both got their starts as Mariners. Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt Thornton began in the Mariners’ organization, as did Adam Jones, Rafael Soriano, George Sherrill, Joel Pineiro, and Brian Fuentes. While Jack Zduriencik brought in Franklin Gutierrez, Russell Branyan, and David Aardsma in his first season as the M's GM last year, Basavi failed to bring in major contributors to the 2009 club other than the ones he drafted. Jarrod Washburn, Adrian Beltre, and Erik Bedard were Basavi’s major additions, and questions surround all three players. All in all, Basavi shredded some excellent draft classes by predecessors Pat Gillick and Woody Woodward, making a series of bad moves that cost him his job.

The Angels’ gap in wins is largely explained by their latest outperformance of their Pythagorean Record, but they also added a lot of talent. Figgins was a solid pickup who contributed to the 2009 division title, and cost them nearly nothing in trade. Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu were useful free agent signings. Furthermore, neither Darren Oliver, Rivera, and Matt Palmer started with the Angels either, but all played important roles in 2009.

For those who are interested, I have made a Google Doc where you can view the 2007 and 2008 No Turnover Standings as well. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that the 2007 No Turnover Mariners would have gone 118-44. It was also pretty interesting to see the 2007 No Turnover Reds go 49-113, and the 2008 No Turnover White Sox lose 100 games despite the fact that the real 2008 White Sox won their division.

CONCLUSION

Teams add talent either by drafting or signing amateur players, signing them on the free-agent market or by trading with other teams for them. The importance of drafting is shown in the standings above, but a lot goes into making good transactions. There are plenty of low-spending teams with poor draft classes that did well by adding young talent in trades. The Rays and Marlins are certainly examples of that. There are teams who spend well and draft well yet fail to perform, such as the Mariners. General managers usually get credit for good draft classes and free-agent signings, but much of that is dependent on having a good scouting staff and an owner willing to spend. Evaluating major-league and minor-league and acquiring it via trade make a large difference and that is where some GM can really show their skills. Building a winner is simply not just based on drafting well. While drafting obviously makes for good baseline of talent, when we consider the spread of wins above, the differences between the No Turnover Standings and the actual ones make it pretty clear that GMs have a big effect on more than just draft day and being able to correctly evaluate talent through the constant roster churn is a particularly useful skill to have.


*: For this exercise, I'm using WARP3.

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

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