Each year as leaves begin to change color from autumn-gold to winter-grey the baseball world gets to experience the magic of free agency. Every team believes that they’re just one player away from being the 2012 Baltimore Orioles. Of course building a baseball team is not that simple and if it were there wouldn’t be much drama from season to season. With that logic the season would have been called when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to that ill-advised contract in January. That doesn’t change the fact that logic isn’t always the prevailing trait during the free agent signing period. The most efficient teams combine a blend of scouting, savvy free agent signings, and ametuer player development. The Rays have been operating on payrolls of less than half of the Yankees and Red Sox over the past few years and have been able to hold their own for the very reason. The Evan Longoria contract certainly helps, but they’ve also been smart with their free agent signings. If you’d like to learn more The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri is a fantastic book on the Rays and how they’ve been able to sustain their success over the years. Unfortunately, most teams don’t operate at the level of efficiency that the Rays do. this could be due to a lack fo front office talent, bad luck, or both. As I was considering the success of soem recent small market clubs the idea of building a team through the free agent market gripped me. I mused about various ways to explore this topic and landed on what I think should be an entertaining exercise.
I’d like to assume the role of a newly formed expansion team, the Atlanta Riceronis (I’m not good with names), and see what sort of team I would be able to build. I’m going to use Fangraphs’ 2013 contract crowdsourcing data for contract values. For those players without Fangraphs data I will use my best estimate. Unfortunately, Baseball Think Factory’s ZiPS projections are not fully released yet. In their place I will simply use my best judgement to determine WAR values for each player using standard .5 WAR per year regression. Using my team’s WAR totals I will then calculate an expected win total. I will fill every position on the field and attempt to round out a 25-man roster with 15 additional spots filled by hypothetical replacement level players making the league minimum. According to the MLB collective bargaining agreement the 2013 league minimum will be set at $490,000. That number multiplied by 15 spots is $7,350,000. The Riceronis payroll will be capped at a 2012 MLB opening day median team salary of $85,753,487.50. Subtracting the $7,350,000 owed to my imaginary minimum salaried players I end up with $78,403,487.50 to split between 25 real players. This will leave me with $3,136,139.50 per player…ouch! I realize that these numbers will most likely not be accurate compared to what actual 2013 numbers will be, but I feel like they’re pretty good as far as arbitrary numbers go! I’d also like to say that if I can find a way to field a winning team while spending ~$3,000,000 per player in the free agent market I expect my major league GM offer to come in the mail by tomorrow.
Before I present that data I’d like to outline We would expect a team full of replacement players to average ~45 wins over the course of a full MLB season. This means that my team will have to accumulate roughly 45 WAR in order to reach 90 wins and a virtually assured playoff spot. This enormous constraint will leave me with only $1,742,299.72 to spend on each win above replacement. Now, without further delay I would like to present to you the 2013 Atlanta Riceronis!
|Atlanta Riceroni’s 40-man Roster|
|Player Name||Position||Estimated WAR||2013 Salary (USD/yr)|
Well…that team sure does stink. The best player by WAR is Melky Cabrera who is going to be coming off of a PED suspension. Brandon McCarthy will be the staff ace after coming off of a horrific head injury. Not to mention this team will be employing Scott Rolen as their starting third baseman in the year 2013. I tried my best to make multiple value signings, but considering my salary constraints I feel as though I did a decent job with the options I had to work with. I feel as though the starting rotation would be above average, but the rest of the team is middling at best. I’m no Billy Beane, but at least I’m no Jim Hendry. At least I don’t think I’m as bad as Jim Hendry. In fact, if you think I’m as bad as Jim Hendry please don’t tell me. I don’t think that my confidence would survive such a serious blow.
I spent multiple hours putting this team together and still ended up with what would most likely be a ~70 win team. Not to mention I came out over budget at a total payroll of $93,500,000 after taking into account the salaries of my 15 replacement level players. Just to provide some perspective the Atlanta Riceronis’ payroll would end up right near the 2012 New York Mets payroll of $93,353,983. Interestingly the Mets won 74 games in 2012 putting them right along with my projections for my imaginary team of free agents. In contrast, however, the 2012 Atlanta Braves managed to win an impressive 94 games with a payroll of only $83,309,942. I guess traditional scouting methods do still hold some value! I think the lesson that we should all take from this little experiment is that it is not good business to build a team solely through the free agent market. Obviously my example is an extreme case and is unlikely to ever occur in real life. Regardless, I believe that the spirit of this experiment provides a valuable lesson to all of those fans who pine for their team to sign every big name free agent over the offseason. This has been a lesson in moderation and balance. The correct way to build a successful big league ballclub is through efficient free agent signings exceptional player development, smart drafting, and a little bit of luck. Perhaps the 2014 Atlanta Riceronis will take these lessons a little bit more seriously. Unfortunately, until they heed these lessons they’re no better than the New York Mets. No team should want to be the Mets, no matter the price.