Sunday, November 02, 2008

What Could Have $50 Million Bought Your Team? Part One

    Let's say you are the general manager of a baseball team whose entire organization was on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 flying from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile in November of 2007.  The reason for cross-navigating South America?  The Commissioner's office has tasked your team to assist in spreading Major League Baseball throughout the Southern Hemisphere by touring your franchise to play local teams.  This is a seemingly blackmail situation since the Commissioner was kind enough to lobby on your team's behave to a state in order to get public funding for your new $500 million stadium, your owner feels obligated to accept this request.  You are ordered to have your traveling secretary assemble logistics plans.  Because your organization is notoriously thrifty, your traveling secretary cuts corners whenever possible to save money, notably flight arrangements.  While en route to Chile from Argentina, the team's 1972 twin turboprop's pilot mistakenly banks right too soon and crashed your ballplayers into the side of an Andean mountain, left forever to parish in the crisp Chilean snow caps. 
    Thankfully, because of your miserly budgeting, these players were all ambiguous and nameless "replacement players" - the personification for the Baseball Prospectus's statistic, VORP.  Not one of them would be missed. 
    The Players' Union insurance company sees it a different way. Their view is that your organization is at fault because of the secretary's frugality in procuring what is determined to be an insufficient method of travel.  The organization is forced into paying all the existing contracts upfront, ranging from the lowly Rookie ballers to the underpaid Major Leaguers.  This all but bankrupts your fiscally tight team. 
     Because Major League Baseball knows they coerced your team into the barnstorming tour and do not want any more negative attention, the league provides the team's owner with $50 million dollars to shop for enough free agents to field a baseball team thus keeping the franchise alive until the current owner can find a buyer.  Looking to recoup some money in this tragedy, the owner tells you that you will field a team in 2008 and to begin scouring the open market using your $50 million in hush money. 
      This payroll amount gives you an advantage over just four other teams:  Pittsburgh Pirates ($49.3 m), Oakland A's ($47.9 m), Tampa Bay Rays ($43.8 m), and the Florida Marlins ($21.8 m).  Unlike these ballclubs, you do not have the advantage of dipping into your farm system for inexpensive talent as all of those players were on board of the tragic flight as well (maybe the crash had something to do with cramming 200-odd men into a plane designed to hold 50...).  In order to level the playing field for you, the Commissioner allows you to have free reign over the free agent pool before all of the other teams are allowed to sign players.  Who would you have targeted to remain in that budgeted amount of $50 million?
The Starting Lineup:
RF | Milton Bradley | 14 WSAB*  | $5.75 M | 2.4 WSAB per $1
Your scouts loved his swing from both sides of the plate and recognized his versatility of power and patience.  So you signed him based on that rather than his personality disorders which served you well.  During the 2008 season, he would chew up 509 plate appearances for your squad while setting a career-high in home run (22) thanks to your hitter-friend ballpark and led the league in on-base percentage (.436). 
Not a bad "get" for you with $44.75 million left to spend.
CF | Mike Cameron | 9 WSAB | $7 M
Big money spent on a player that would miss 25 games for failing MLB's drug policy.  Fortunately, Cameron would play stellar defense and finish as the 8th overall best defensive centerfield (+8 according to John Dewan's Fielding Bible), ahead of notable centerfielders such as Torii Hunter, who would later land a hefty contract when he wouldn't configure into your tight budget.  In addition to his glove, Cameron would deposit 25 home runs and hit .243/.331/.477 in 508 PAs. 
Cameron's acquisition would leave you with $37.25 remaining.  Looks like frugality time.
LF | Jody Gerut | 7 WSAB | $700k
Wow, you are a risk-taker of epic proportions.  Here you see value in a player that was not only was accused of having an unnecessary knee surgery in 2006 but also hasn't played an inning major or minor league ball.  After one of your scouts witnessed him in the Venezuelan Winter League mashing the ball, hitting .390/.488/.567 with 14 extra base hits in 141 at-bats, you take out a minor league contract on him - mostly to displace Cameron when he is serving his suspension.  Boy are you glad you did. Though a centerfielder by nature (+12, 5th best on the list of centerfielders in 2008), you use Gerut to patrol your spacious left field.  Unlike your two other outfielders, Gerut didn't strike out that much (14% k%) and smacked 14 home runs finishing .296/.351/.494 in 356 plate appearances. 
$36.55 left in the coffer.  
3B | Jorge Cantu | 6 WSAB | $500k
There was something that intrigued you about Cantu, especially in his 2005 season with the Devil Rays when he hit 28 home runs and compiled a .211 isolated slugging average.  In both 2005 and 2006 he was hitting line drives on nearly 20% of the balls in play.  When he washed out in 2007 with both the Devil Rays and then the Reds, people said "bust".  In 2007 he hit only 4 home runs in 300 at-bats split between the majors and AAA.  You reviewed his past minor league numbers carefully that show no indication that he is who he was in 2005 and 2006.  Strikes out a ton; walks about as much as a quadriplegic.  Then again, a consistent near 20% line drive rate each year of his career?  Might be worth the minor league flier - toss him aside if his spring training numbers don't show signs of life.  Against your statistical judgement, you sign him.  The power returns.  For pennies on the dollar, you end up nabbing a guy that hits 29 home runs and 41 doubles with an ISA of .204.  Cantu doesn't come without his faults.  He is atrocious at third (-11, 29th overall at third) and has actually accumulated 478 outs, the 7th highest in the league.  You'd pay half a million for that production again any day.       
Now, with $36.05 remaining, your sights are set on possible the hardest position to fulfill on the free market, shortstop.
SS | Jerry** Hairston | 8 WSAB | $500k
In 2007 while with the Texas Rangers, Hairston hit .189/.249/.289 in 192 at-bats.  What's more is that he hit even worse at the best hitter's ballpark in baseball - .172.  Plus he is tainted by the Mitchell Report.  Clearly this isn't the time to decide if you are a morally bankrupted organization as you had already signed Mike Cameron who would be serving a suspension.  If you wanted a holy and divine team you would have perused John Smoltz, Josh Hamilton or hire Gary Gaetti as your hitting coach.  In order to win, you have to become the Dallas Cowboys of baseball and grab inexpensive talent anyway you can.  Hairston, despite his shortcomings as a fielder, actually performs higher than expectations at the plate hitting, batting .326/.384/.487 in 297 plate appearances. 
Since Hairston is a brutal hack at short, better find a second baseman with range to their left to cut those grounders off up the middle with the remaining $35.55.
2B | Kaz Matsui | 4 WSAB | $5 M
With a thin second base market, you finally breakdown and sign someone to a 3-year deal that you figure won't damage your budget too much.  You ignore his statistics in Coors Field, assuming they are inflated by the high altitude and suspect that there will be decline and mostly focus in on his defense, but are pleasantly surprised when Matsui bats .293/.354/.427 in 422 at-bats.  As a bonus PR department enjoys the frequent press releases focusing on Matsui's early season surgery due to "anal fissures". 
$30.55 left and we haven't even gotten to first base or the pitching staff... 

1B | Doug Mientkiewicz | 4 WSAB | $750k
Like the second base position, first base was also a challenge to find worthy candidates on the market.  Mientkiewicz's agent wouldn't stop harassing you though.  He has become like Drama on Entourage, you think to yourself, desperate for work. The persistence paid off as you inked him to the one-year with an incentive laden contract for large amounts of bubble gum for every Web Gem.  Plus with all of the offensive-minded players in the infield, someone is going to have to be able to gobble up all their errant throws across the diamond.  His defense ends up being muddling at best, but his sudden rekindling of patience not seen since his Minnesota days astonishes your front office.  He walks 44 times and strikes out just 28 in 334 plate appearances.  You're criticized heavily for playing a guy with a .379 slugging percentage at first base - a position where the league average first baseman hit .479 - but you are happy with your selection for his discounted rate. 
$29.8 remaining...
C | Rod Barajas | 11 WSAB | $1.2 M (+ option year)
Ask any Philadelphian at the end of the 2007 if they were had by the Ballpark at Arlington factor when they signed Barajas to a one-year, $3-million dollar contract only and they would undoubtedly prattled off an endless stream of profanities.  Barajas would visit the DL list and finish the season batting .230/.352/.393 in 146 plate appearances, getting passed in playing time by Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste.  Gillick would later tell you that felt like he was solidifying the defense of the team by signing Barajas.  You know that Barajas's career on-base percentage was low (.289) and you assumed that his career slugging percentage (.409) was probably created in that statistical mirage in Arlington that has led many a baseball executives astray.  On the other hand, the class of free agent starting catchers are Barajas and Jason Kendell.  The problem with signing Barajas is that you are quite confident you will have to find a stellar back-up catcher as well.  You exhale painfully and offer Barajas a contract since his agent was willing to go lower than Kendell.  A one-year, $1.2 (with an option year) contract is extended and he accepts.  In 2008, his presences on-base is so rare (.294 OBP) that your first base coach tastefully quips that Jenna Jameson was more likely to show up at first during a Barajas plate appearance.  The power that was zapped in Philly, however, has a small resurgence for Barajas in your lineup as he gathers in 34 extra base hits and slugs .410 (well above the MLB average for a catcher of .390).  Furthermore, he allows just two passed balls in 785 innings behind the plate providing stability for your pitching staff to throw to. 
You had spent just under half of your budget on your starting eight regulars.  You are left with $28.60 to sign five starters, seven relievers and four bench players. 
** Originally read "Joey Hairston".