Picking All-Stars-whether by fan ballot, journalistic conceit, or individual manager’s favoritism-has always been somewhat hit or miss. The standards are invariably slippery, and the insane tokenism requirement that places a particularly ludicrous burden on picking a real ballclub generates some relatively loathesome All-Star roster contortions. Add in that fame inevitably plays a role perhaps equal to performance, and it’s pretty hard for the relative unknowns to make it onto an All-Star Game roster.
Now, my carping aside, there’s no absolute value judgment to attach to that, but I do think it’s interesting to sift through the players who have done well this season and nominate what I’d call the “Free Talent All-Stars”-the guys who have been acquired on the cheap and delivered exceptional performances. They provide an important reminder that there’s still talent to be dug up from unlikely sources and people with the ability to find that talent in front offices all around the game. However much Casey Stengel “could’na dunnit without the players,” there’s something to be said for the people who find them. Considering the increasingly important financial considerations that every team utilizes in setting up their rosters, and the purported increased difficulty in finding these kinds of bargains in a post-Moneyball world, there’s something to be said for the quality of the players who make my particular list.
I’m picking this roster using two simple criteria. First, the players can’t be homegrown, and were instead available to everybody at some point, either through ticky-tack deals, outright purchase, waiver claims, or the low end of the free agency market. Second, they have to be making less than a million dollars. As arbitrary as that may be, it does help eliminate most of the guys who have become arbitration-eligible and who therefore command better salaries because their teams are willing to pay rather than non-tender them, which in turn means they aren’t really “free.” These are players anybody and everybody could have afforded, and who many teams chose not to.
Finally, I freely admit that I’ve cheated, picking 27 players for 25 presumed slots. Since this is a make-believe exercise, I hope you can indulge me, but if you can’t, keep in mind that most clubs juggle their benches and the back end of their pens with enough regularity to make sure they’re actually using more than 25 players on a regular basis.
Pitching Staff-Rotation Starter VORP SNLVAR Acquired S1 Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles 32.5 3.7 Waiver Claim S2 Chad Gaudin, Athletics 32.5 3.7 Minor Deal S3 Justin Germano, Padres 10.6 1.6 Waiver Claim S4 Chad Durbin, Tigers 13.6 1.5 NRI Contract S5 Brian Burres, Orioles 11.6 1.1 Waiver Claim
The Indians had put up with a lot of failure from Guthrie-he famously imploded in Triple-A in 2003, and it took four passes for him to finally master the International League. He also combusted in various brief big league trials, and generally drove them to distraction to the point that they were relatively unconcerned with the risk of taking him off of the 40-man roster this spring. Still, he had never broken down physically, and there was the perhaps-reasonable supposition that a lot of the problem was in getting him to settle down and settle in. That’s exactly the sort of situation where a team that needs help can grant an opportunity, and getting claimed by the Orioles was probably a godsend. Entrusted with a rotation spot when Adam Loewen went down, he’s rattled off twelve consecutive quality starts (one blown), a performance almost any ace would be hard-pressed to match.
Chad Gaudin has bobbed up and down on prospect lists, and went in and out of favor, first in Tampa Bay, and subsequently in Toronto. Rushed by the Rays, he struck J.P. Ricciardi’s acquisitive sweet tooth in 2005, finally seemed to establish himself at Triple-A that year, only to get folded, spindled, and mutilated in a couple of brief trials. Too easily out of favor, he was just as readily discarded as acquired, and since he’s a short right-hander, he’s always going to have to struggle with low expectations. Typically, Billy Beane got him when his value was at its lowest, and while a first year’s work in Weaver-style middle relief was more than a little bumpy in terms of his command, he was ready to step into the rotation this spring. He still needs to pick up something he can get over for strikes against lefties, but he’s still only 24, and again, the price (Dustin Majewski) was about as low as you can get without being a waiver claim.
Germano’s not on the same plane in terms of performance, but the strike-thrower’s reaching that ceiling some might have expected for him as a solid enough back-rotation starter in the bigs. Again, in the same way that the Orioles could take advantage of a weak overall 40-man to make a claim on Guthrie, Pads GM Kevin Towers had the virtue of a relatively slender system to be able to snag Germano when the Phillies indefensibly placed him on waivers after dealing for him the previous summer. Unlike Gaudin and Guthrie, I’m not especially sanguine about his future-he’s more a demonstration of the more pedestrian benefits to recognizing that fungibility from your fifth slot in a rotation is perfectly okay, and that you don’t have to go wildly overcompensate Jaret Wright, import Kei Igawa, or consult the appropriate oracle to see which version of Jeff Weaver you just signed.
Just as Germano might struggle to keep his job (but was nontheless worth using), Durbin’s already lost his after doing solid work for the Tigers. Six quality starts in 14 isn’t bad for a well-traveled minor league vet, but again, he’s a good example of the best-case scenario when you stock up on journeymen to fill up your camp, and suddenly find that you need the guy. Of the quintet, Burres is the one guy I’m not sure what to expect. Though not overpowering, he’s delivering one of the Three True Outcomes to almost a third of the right-handed batters he’s faced, which seems pretty unstable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up with a career something like those of Billy Traber or Brian Tallet-a lefty utility pitcher who you might not really want to stick in your rotation for 30 starts.
Bullpen Reliever VORP WXRL ARP Acquired R1 Rafael Betancourt, Indians 20.9 3.331 21.3 NRI Contract R2 Heath Bell, Padres 21.2 2.908 19.9 Minor Deal R3 Joakim Soria, Royals 14.1 2.471 11.9 Rule 5 R4 Kevin Gregg, Marlins 13.1 2.635 10.2 Minor Deal R5 Matt Guerrier, Twins 25.6 1.516 18.3 Waiver Claim LS Pedro Feliciano, Mets 8.0 1.568 8.5 NRI Contract
The pen is a bit more straightforward as a group-all of these guys are useful, and some of them are tributes to some fine scouting. Betancourt has been effective for the Indians for more than four and a half years, and sufficiently unrecognized to still qualify for this list. Joakim Soria didn’t command the disbelieving headlines that Gil Meche did this winter, but grabbing the Mexican flamethrower in the Rule 5 draft represents another reason to credit Dayton Moore. Bell was another canny snag by Kevin Towers (one I underrated at the time). Gregg’s a handy utility pitcher, perhaps the true inheritor of the title from Miguel Batista since he’s a solid enough starter for the back of a rotation, as well as a stable pro whose work as a closer suggests that heavy breathing over “closer moxie” just fogs the glass without letting us see through it. Guerrier and Feliciano represent solid enough retreadings, handily filling long relief and lefty specialist roles; we don’t see enough of the former, and perhaps too many guys not up to it tried out in the latter.
Pitching Honorable mentions: Carlos Villanueva, Brewers (17.7 VORP, 2.265 WXRL, 8.0 ARP); Kevin Cameron, Padres (17.3 VORP, 0.709 WXRL, 17.4 ARP)); Jesus Colome, Nationals (13.1 VORP, 2.157 WXRL, 9.1 ARP)
Lineup Player VORP EqA Acquired C Ramon Castro, Mets 7.4 .299 NRI Contract 1B Carlos Pena, Devil Rays 28.6 .329 NRI Contract 2B Dan Uggla, Marlins 17.8 .279 Rule 5 3B Edwin Encarnacion, Reds 6.3 .261 Minor Deal SS Brendan Harris, Devil Rays 22.7 .287 Minor Deal CF Josh Hamilton, Reds 18.5 .298 Rule 5 RF The Braves LF Platoon 29.8* .304 Minor Deals LF Jack Cust, Athletics 18.9 .313 Minor Deal DH Dmitri Young, Nationals 27.0** .313 NRI Contract *: VORP at LF **: VORP at 1B
The lineup’s an interesting blend as far as its sourcing. Hamilton and Uggla are two of the biggest recent successes to come out of the Rule 5 Draft, and reflect that for as much talk as there is over the talent available being more limited than ever, it’s still a potential free-talent jackpot for a team that does it’s homework; credit both Larry Beinfest and Wayne Krivsky and their crews for doing exactly that. The Mets’ snagging Castro could be considered something similar to Hamilton’s availability, in that personal issues had a lot of teams turning up their noses over a player who could start for about half the teams in the majors. Young, Pena, and Harris are all formerly well-regarded prospects of varying vintages who fell out of favor for a variety of reasons, and while Brendan Harris may not be an especially good shortstop afield, he’s obviously earning his keep well enough to secure a future as a regularly-used utilityman.
The outfield makes for a more difficult proposition overall, in part because we aren’t talking about a group of everyday regulars. Cust is a part-time player and an even less-frequent outfielder (and for good reason), but Young deserves some recognition, although with his defensive shortcomings, relegating him to DH pushes Cust out to left. That in turn does something I’m a little uncomfortable with, in terms of bumping the Braves’ outstanding little left field platoon into right, but Willie Harris and Matt Diaz (Mallie Harraz?) are exactly the sorts of pickups on the cheap who have fulfilled an important offensive role where little perhaps was expected of them. It’s also a reminder that however old-school the Braves may be, putting together a good platoon is an old-school virtue anybody can like. Harris appears to be a particularly impressive reclamation project, a player who they radically improved by overhauling his swing, and who might actually wind up being the new Dion James after all. Between Bobby Cox’s comfort with platooning, and John Schuerholz’s staff finding him the components, it’s a credit to the Braves for making something out of what seemed to be nothing.
The name that might surprise you here is Encarnacion’s. Partially, it’s the slim pickings at third base; as it goes among the free talents, it goes in the majors as a whole, as it seems as if teams are having trouble finding quality players for the hot corner. Still, Encarnacion’s recovering from a slow start and an early punitive demotion, and putting him here provides this lineup with a prospect with the hitting talent to be an All-Star in any league. It also provides us with an opportunity to give Jim Bowden his due for nabbing Encarnacion as the “other” guy in a swap that also brought the Reds Ruben Mateo for Rob Bell. Yes, Bell, another fine product of that Braves’ assembly line of failures, another starter that they sensibly elected not to keep (throwing him in on the Denny Neagle/Bret Boone exchange), and that Bowden just as sensibly decided not to get too hung up on. If ever there was an example of why it makes sense to keep track of the small fry on the back ends of these kinds of exchanges, it’s Encarnacion.
Bench 1B Matt Stairs, Blue Jays (14.5 VORP, .291 EqA) 2B Brandon Phillips, Reds (17.0 VORP, .269 EqA) SS Jason Bartlett, Twins (5.1 VORP, .245 EqA) OF Marlon Byrd, Rangers (17.8 VORP, .320 EqA) OF Shane Victorino, Phillies (17.1 VORP, .277 EqA) C Jamie Burke, Mariners (6.4 VORP, .294 EqA)
Some of these guys are old standbys-Stairs was one of the original free talents of the late Nineties that Billy Beane made his name with, and the Wonder Hamster still hasn’t lost much to age. Phillips was another excellent cheap pickup by Krivsky, and another bit of quality shed by the Indians in their roster crunch. Jason Bartlett may not really belong here, but he’s a shortstop, and putting him on this team reflects the extent to which I’m uncomfortable with Brendan Harris as an everyday shortstop; he was flat-out stolen by Terry Ryan from the Padres back in 2002 for ill-starred platoon outfielder Brian Buchanan. Marlon Byrd’s performance is worth a double-take, and he’s earned everyday play in Texas; if he finally lived up to the billing he used to get as a center field prospect coming up the Phillies’ chain, it might reflect more kindly on those of us who believed in him back then. Victorino’s another Rule 5 victory, although he’s Ed Wade’s to brag about. Finally, Burke is sort of a goofy selection, but give the journeyman his props-he’s thriving as the Mariners’ backup, and if this is the sort of Junior Ortiz bit of one-year wonderdom that buys him significant service time, more power to him.
Position Player honorable mentions: OF-R Shannon Stewart, Athletics (16.1 VORP, .278 EqA); INF-L Mike Fontenot, Cubs (12.0 VORP, .311 EqA); INF-R Aaron Boone, Marlins (11.2 VORP, .296 EqA); 4C-L Greg Dobbs, Phillies (9.7 VORP, .281 EqA).
Now, most wouldn’t put this team up agains either league’s All-Stars, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t acquit itself pretty well against either team. It has power in the lineup, speed on the bench, some good defense (if a problematic left side of the infield), a solid rotation, and enough quality relief help to shut anybody down. As baseball games go, the All-Star Game is something of horsehide platypus-certainly baseball-flavored enough to call them baseball games, but as straight-up games go, something less than the real tabasco. However, put this team up against either league’s best in seven-game sets played to win, and I think they’d win their share.