February 4, 2009
The 31st Team
I hadn't watched much of the MLB Network since its launch on January 1, mostly because I haven't been home much since then. Yesterday, however, I had the channel on all day, catching a replay of the Mexico/Puerto Rico game, and then most of the Tuesday Caribbean Series doubleheader, with an edition of MLB Hot Stove between the two games. I'll spare you a review of the coverage, as I wasn't really watching for that purpose. It was just good to see baseball in February, even if the rosters were a bit watered down due to the upcoming World Baseball Classic. There were some great pitching performances, and a couple of huge hits. The studio show had former players. Lots of them.
My takeaway from the day, however, was names. Every few minutes, the scroll at the bottom would show the remaining free agents. "Orlando Hudson, Mark Grudzielanek, Ray Durham..." "Ben Sheets, Randy Wolf, Braden Looper, Tom Glavine..."
After a while, I started playing games with them. "You could platoon Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones and fake center field." "Hey, an all-Orlando double- play combination would be funny. Lots of Strat-tournament teams did that last year." "I wonder if those six guys would make a better bullpen than half the teams in baseball have."
So let's say something happened. I don't want to say what-I don't want to verbalize a horrible thought-but let's say that MLB needed a 30th team to complete the schedule. Or maybe a 31st to satisfy the result of some lawsuit. Could you take the available players and build a team from them? How much would it cost, and how good would the team be?
Here's what I came up with. The prices paid reflect the reality that, in this situation, a team wouldn't just be able to sign guys to minor league deals with NRIs, but they'd have to spend a few bucks to lock up the player.
I lost Javier Valentin to the Brewers overnight, which was disappointing. This leaves the team with two very similar catchers: right-handed batters who hit the ball on the ground, don't walk much, and don't hit for power. Rodriguez still throws well enough that his defense is a plus, and if this were the tandem, I think you'd ride him and hope that his physical condition allows him to play 135 games, hit a relatively empty .280, and be a +5 or so defender.
Yes, I know: Adam Dunn wants to play left field. As you'll see when we get to the outfielders, though, there's no room for him there, and 30 other teams seem to be uninterested in signing him to play the outfield as well. With a number of left fielders still available, Dunn is going to have to be more flexible about his position, and I'm willing to overpay him to get him to do so. OBP is going to be an issue for this team, as is lineup imbalance; Dunn addresses both problems. Millar is a pinch-hitter and spot starter against southpaws. He might also be asked to fake third base on occasion.
(I'm assuming this will be a National League team, but having a DH slot would clearly be an asset given the players available on the market.)
Hudson has a broad skill set, and while I've pointed out his flaws, getting him to play second base for this team would be a boon. In fact, it's the presence of him and the next signee that makes this project possible. There's probably never been a double-play combination this good available this late in any year other than 1995. Durham, like Millar, is a good bat off of the bench with limited defensive skill.
As with Hudson, Cabrera is a somewhat flawed player who is nonetheless above average for his position, and who contributes across the board. Like Hudson, the first-round draft pick attached to him has raised the cost of signing him beyond what most teams care to pay; my fake team doesn't care about the 2009 draft.
Alex Cintron would have been a perfect fit to back up all three infield positions, and in fact, he was the only major league free agent left who had that ability. Unfortunately for my guys, he signed a minor league deal with the Brewers yesterday. As the roster is currently constructed, Hudson is the backup shortstop. The full execution of this plan would certainly involve the generous use of minor league free agents. As of this morning, I don't have a list of those.
He's really the only option. If Crede's back doesn't hold up, Millar or my imaginary minor league free agent ends up playing a lot of third base. The saving grace here is that the up-the-middle defense is so good that you might get away with sacrificing some on the corners.
That offer should be the best available to Ramirez right now, though given his importance to this plan, a one-year deal for $30 million would also be an option. You need to get him to make this work. Abreu plays right field and does his OBP-and-doubles thing. Between them, Jones gets a lot of playing time to cover the gaps, with Edmonds playing 70 times against right-handed pitchers. If Jones really is done on both sides of the ball, Payton could play more, but he's primarily around to be Ramirez's legs.
The lineup? Abreu, Hudson, Ramirez, Dunn, Cabrera, Edmonds, Crede, and Rodriguez. I don't hate it. Edmonds probably has to play more than Jones to keep the bottom of the lineup from being five straight right-handed hitters with OBP issues. You could bat Cabrera second and Hudson fifth, but that's a minor swap.
It's a mix of innings guys in Looper and Hernandez, and upside-if-healthy guys in Sheets and Martinez. Wolf and Jennings split the difference between the two.
Relievers bounce around so much that it's hard to predict what any group will do. You can see where Cruz in the ninth, maybe used as a four- or five-out guy, with Beimel and Ayala playing matchups in front of him, Ohman spotting against lefties, and Lieber and Tavarez in multiple-inning roles, could be an average, or maybe a little above average, pen. You can also see it as an unmitigated disaster.
I think what surprises me is just how expensive the roster is: $120 million, with another $59 million committed to 2010. There's no way this team will return that kind of value on the field, and in going through this exercise, you begin to understand why these guys are free agents. Why pay $2 million for Joe Crede when you can pay $400,000 for the same likely performance with more upside? Lather, rinse, repeat for many of the guys on this team. Perhaps that means the prices that I'm offering are a bit high, but understand that if any team has to overpay to attract talent, it's the one that didn't exist on Groundhog Day.
I suspect that even a three-week head start would have made a difference, as a number of solid bench and bullpen options have been snatched up recently. More importantly, I love the idea of actually doing this, but while mixing in some available free talent from other pools. I'm signing players to $1 million and $2 million contracts in this exercise, and I think that a lot of those can be turned into $400,000 deals without any negative effect on the team's performance, and maybe even some improvement. There have to be better relievers than Ayala and Tavarez, a better third baseman than Crede, a good utility infielder, a better backup catcher than Lo Duca... the top 18 guys on this roster and the top seven minor league free agents would make a team that can win 80 games for about $80 million.