Building a Competitive MLB Team With $78 Million

 

brad-pitt-as-billy-beane-in-moneyball-2011
Courtesy: Return of Kings

The MLB All-Star rosters were announced recently, and while I may have disagreed with some of the selections I figured I couldn’t be too upset. As is tradition for me at this point in the year, I began contemplating if it was possible to create an all-star team of sorts using the least amount of money possible. That is how this blog post was conceived.

I’m not sure if there are alternate realities, but if there are I’m almost certain that I’m a GM in at least one of them. Ever since I saw Moneyball for the first time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of constructing competitive squads with a low payroll that could realistically contend for a title. Now, I’m not entirely sure if the team I’ve built for the purposes of this post could potentially hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in October. Having said that, I’d like to think they’d have at least a fighting chance if nothing else.

The league average payroll in 2017 is $150,360,881 per Spotrac (where I’ll be getting all referenced player salaries from). $150 million is a lot of money though, so to make this exercise more challenging I’ll be attempting to build a competitive MLB team for $78,272,995–the payroll of the Milwaukee Brewers, which is currently the lowest in the league.

To make things even more difficult, I’ll be abiding by just one rule: each player on my roster must have accrued at least five years of service time by this point in the season. I know I could just select rookies like Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, and Dansby Swanson among others and call it a day. That’s way too easy and, in my opinion, defeats the entire purpose of this experiment. Let’s begin!

Sidenote: My roster will consist of 13 batters (seven IF’s/five OF’s/two C’s) and 12 pitchers. I know some people may construct their roster differently, which is totally fine. Everyone is allowed to have their own opinion on how to do things.

Starters

newsengin-18568344_041517-braves-photos-cc64
Courtesy: Curtis Compton/AJC

Catcher :: Tyler Flowers, Atlanta Braves ($3,000,000)

It’s fair to describe Flowers as a journeyman. A former top prospect of the White Sox who was actually drafted by the Braves in 2005, Flowers could never live up to the hype in Chicago. His prospect stock dropped massively between 2009 and 2011, and when Flowers was at the big-league level he was never really able to put it all together.

Everything seemingly changed last season. Flowers had his finest season at the dish, slashing .270/.357/.420 while contributing eight homers. His wRC+ of 110 was the highest he had ever posted in the majors. For all of his success at the plate, Tyler’s performance behind it was more intriguing. The Braves backstop posted an FRAA of 5.0, and was one of the better defensive catchers in the league.

Fast forward to early July 2017, and Flowers has arguably been the best defensive catcher. His FRAA has shot up to 13.9, which is the highest mark in the league for catchers. He’s ahead of names such as Martin Maldonado, Austin Hedges, and Christian Vazquez–all of whom are considered defensive savants. Combine that with his impressive .312/.405/.450 triple-slash, and you’re looking at perhaps the most underrated and underappreciated player in the league this season.

1st Baseman :: Mark Reynolds, Colorado Rockies ($1,500,000)

Reynolds’ K% (28.7%) is the 14th-highest mark in the Show this year. Our first baseman isn’t all that great defensively, he’s not exactly going to help us out on the basepaths, and it’s more than fair to describe him as a pull hitter (see his spray chart below). Mark’s .283/.372/.513 line might look impressive, but then you remember his BABIP is .360 and his home field is the most hitter friendly in the league. Not surprisingly, he has hit much better at Coors than on the road in 2017. So, with all of those negatives, why do we want him?

reynoldsSpray
Courtesy: Baseball Savant

One of the downsides of a small salary cap is pretty obvious: you have to be willing to make sacrifices at certain positions for the overall benefit of the rest of the team. Sure, the soon-to-be 34-year-old corner infielder has his flaws. He can also still hit the ball out of the park and draw walks at a somewhat decent clip (his BB% this year 12.3%), and his small price-tag will allow me to spend money on more talented players elsewhere.

2nd Baseman :: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros ($4,500,000)

Far and away the best player on our 25 man roster. His .342/.410/.539 slash line speaks for itself. He has 12 home runs, 18 stolen bases, a low 12.3% strikeout percentage, and a 2.1 BsR. Altuve’s 155 wRC+ is the fifth-highest in the league, behind just Aaron Judge, Joey Votto, George Springer, and Bryce Harper. The only downside is his fielding; the Astros 2B has posted a -1.5 UZR thus far in 2017. Still, at just $4.5 million, Altuve is a major steal.

Shortstop :: Logan Forsythe, Los Angeles Dodgers ($5,750,000)

During his time with the Rays, Forsythe molded himself into a utility player who could play almost anywhere in the field. While he’s received innings at first, second, and third this season, Logan can also hold his own at short as well as either corner outfield spot. The current Dodger will most likely be playing short most nights for us.

He’s having a bit of a down year offensively; after posting wRC+’s of 125 and 113 in 2015 and 2016 respectively, he’s currently sitting at 103 in ’17. He’s walking more than ever before–his 15.2% walk clip would be by far the highest of his major league career–but he’s also striking out more. Forsythe’s ISO is also down below .100 (.098), and if for some reason it doesn’t improve, it would be his lowest single season mark since 2011.

I’m not sure if he’ll ever post a line like he did in 2015 with Tampa Bay again, but I’d be content with an OPS closer to the .778 he finished with last season as opposed to the .718 mark he’s currently sitting at.

MLB: New York Mets at Kansas City Royals
Courtesy: Peter G. Aiken/USA Today Sports

3rd Baseman :: Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals ($8,700,000)

The most expensive player on the squad! You know, it seems to be an every other year kind of thing with Moose. He wasn’t very good in 2014, but rebounded in ’15. He had a rough go of it last season, but made the AL All-Star team this year. Seeing as the longtime Royal is set to hit free agency after this season, he picked a heck of a time to perform as well as he has.

Moustakas’ 25 dingers are tied for fourth most in the league with the previously mentioned Bellinger. Only Judge, Springer, and Votto have more. The .304 OBP leaves a bit to be desired, but it shouldn’t be all that surprising as Moose has never had a strong penchant to draw walks. In fact, his BB% of 4.6 this season would be the lowest of his career. Still, Mike is finding ways to contribute both offensively and defensively–he currently has a positive UZR at the hot corner.

Left Fielder :: Austin Jackson, Cleveland Indians ($1,500,000)

The 30-year-old outfielder may currently be on the DL, but when healthy he’s been a solid contributor for a Cleveland team looking to get back to the World Series.  Jackson is quietly having his best season offensively since 2012, when he slashed .300/.377/.479 with Detroit. He’s probably due to regress–he’s finished a season with an wRC+ above 100 just three times over his eight big league seasons–but at only $1.5 million I’ll take a chance on Austin.

Center Fielder :: Jarrod Dyson, Seattle Mariners ($2,800,000)

While the former Royal isn’t terrible at the plate, I didn’t select Dyson for his offensive ability. The outfielder’s elite speed and defensive prowess intrigued me enough to slot him in as our starting center fielder. Dyson’s UZR of 5.3 is good enough for a top-15 ranking among all positions, and his 8.3 Spd (4th in the league) and 3.8 UBR (6th) marks make Dyson a solid pick.

Right Fielder :: Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays ($2,500,000)

The man who has played for three nautical-based teams to date, LoMo is on pace to have the best season of his career at close to 30 years old. Once a highly touted prospect in the Marlins system (remember that potential Stanton/Morrison duo?), Logan is currently OPS’ing over .900 while slashing .260/.368/.569 with 24 HR’s and 57 RBI. His ISO is among the highest in the league, but it hasn’t hurt him quite yet.

The Rays have used him primarily at first this season, but seeing as Reynolds is already occupying that spot on our team, we’re going to put LoMo in right. He hasn’t played right since 2015, and he’s never played the position regularly but I have faith that his bat will compensate for any potential defensive miscues.

Bench

Catcher :: Chris Iannetta, Arizona Diamondbacks ($1,500,000)

Infielder :: Eric Sogard, Milwaukee Brewers ($535,000)

Infielder :: Cliff Pennington, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ($2,250,000)

Outfielder :: Eric Young Jr., Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ($535,000)

Outfielder :: Peter Bourjos, Tampa Bay Rays ($1,350,000)

I was mainly aiming for versatility out of my bench players, and I think I accomplished that. Each of my five bench options can play multiple positions and, more importantly, they aren’t expensive.

Iannetta’s performance at the dish isn’t anything to write home about, but he’s always been one of the better pitch framers in the game. He’s not on Flowers’ level, but his 6.4 FRAA is tenth among catchers. When it comes to back-up catchers, I’m not too concerned if they can hold their own with the bat. If they can, then so be it, but I’m more concerned with how they perform defensively.

Mr. Nerd Power himself, Sogard is a solid deal at just six figures. He can play second, third, and short relatively well, and the Brewers even tried him out in left this season. As with Iannetta, Sogard’s offensive production isn’t typically impressive–he usually OPS’s under .600–but defensive-minded players are always welcome on my team. Having said that, I’ll happily take his .331/.438/.485 slash line this season.

You should be seeing a theme by this point. Pennington can play each infield position as well as left field, and he probably won’t be a burden defensively at any of them. Cliff is a bit more offensively gifted than Sogard, and he’d probably be one of my first options of the bench as a pinch hitter.

Mark Simon of ESPN ran an article a few weeks back claiming that Young had essentially been a poor man’s Mike Trout for the Angels. He’s since come back down to earth, but Young is still OPS’ing over .700, albeit in limited playing time. If money wasn’t an issue, I’d much rather have his teammate, Cameron Maybin, but since he’s only making six figures, Young is a solid alternative.

For whatever reason, Bourjos has always been one of my favorite players in baseball. While he was never quite able to replicate that impressive 2011 season he had with the Angels, Bourjos has still managed to earn big league jobs due to his performance in the field. That’s not to say he still doesn’t find ways to contribute offensively; his .247/.300/.441 triple-slash is still respectable for a reserve outfielder.

Projected Lineup

1. Logan Forsythe, SS

2. Jose Altuve, 2B

3. Mike Moustakas, 3B

4. Mark Reynolds, 1B

5. Logan Morrison, RF

6. Tyler Flowers, C

7. Austin Jackson, LF

8. Jarrod Dyson, CF

9. Pitcher

Starting Pitchers

Charlie Morton, Houston Astros ($7,000,000)

He’s started more than 25 games in a season just twice, leading many to question his durability. It’s a fair question, and one of the main reasons why his contract with the Astros was incentive-laden.

Through 11 starts with Houston, Morton has pitched to a 3.74 xFIP, striking out close to 10 batters per nine innings and walking close to four batters per nine. Interestingly enough, the Astros don’t really view the right-hander as a standard back-of-the-rotation arm. So, what did the Astros front office see in Morton that made them offer him a contract last offseason? Take a look at the two graphs below, courtesy of BrooksBaseball:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

The first graph shows Morton’s average release speed throughout the course of his entire career. The second graph shows the same set of data, but starting from 2014. Can you see what the Astros saw? Morton’s release speed has never been higher. The 33-year-old was only able to make a handful of starts for the Phillies last season before getting shut down, but even then Morton was throwing the ball harder than he had been with the Pirates.

Naturally, it was fair to wonder whether Morton was for real or if his performance was just a fluke. Houston banked on the former, and they have been rewarded with (to this point) a solid season from Morton. It should be noted that he missed almost two months due to a lat injury, so the durability question will continue to follow him. Still, I’m happy to take the risk, as it seems like Morton could be a solid rotation piece for our team, even at $7 million.

Ivan Nova, Pittsburgh Pirates ($7,000,000)

After tossing three complete games during his entire tenure with the Yankees, Nova has thrown five in his time with Pittsburgh. I’ll repeat that one more time: Nova has thrown five complete games in the year he’s been a Pirate.

His sudden resurgence shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s walking less batters than ever before, as evidenced by his 3.1% walk percentage, which is the third lowest mark in the league. Nova is stranding more runners, limiting the amount of home runs he gives up, and forcing less hard contact than he typically did while in New York.

So, is Nova just a flash in the pan? Maybe. Maybe not. His FIP is currently higher than his ERA, but obviously there’s more to it than that. Nova’s ERA- is currently sitting at 77, which is one of the lowest marks in the entire league and the lowest he’s posted since 2013. Pitching at PNC helps, but perhaps Nova has turned a corner. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a little regression, but it also wouldn’t surprise me to see Nova continue to impress.

tyler-chatwood-mlb-philadelphia-phillies-colorado-rockies-4
Courtesy: Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports

Tyler Chatwood, Colorado Rockies ($4,400,000)

I really wish Chatwood didn’t have to pitch at Coors as frequently as he does. Take a look at these splits (do keep in mind that he started 25 games for the Angels in 2011):

HOME: 306.0 IP, 5.21 ERA (4.43 xFIP), .292/.378/.464, .365 wOBA, 38 HR

AWAY: 300.0 IP, 3.24 ERA (4.16 xFIP), .240/.326/.365, .305 wOBA, 23 HR

Chatwood’s peripherals aren’t as impressive as I’d like them to be (7.39 K/9, 4.84 BB/9, 1.53 K/BB), but he’s shown flashes that he can be an above-average pitcher, especially if he could find some way to get away from Coors at some point. Our team won’t be playing our home games at Coors Field, so perhaps Chatwood could become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter for us.

Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays ($4,200,000)

He’s only 29, but Cobb is definitely one of my biggest “what-ifs.” We’ll never know how good Cobb could have been had he been able to stay healthy over the course of his career. Regardless, Cobb is having a solid 2017, and is on pace to hit at least 25 games started for the first time since 2014 and just the second time in his major league career.

Cobb doesn’t strike out a ton of guys anymore (his K% is actually one of the ten lowest marks in the league), but he compensates by not walking a ton of guys either (his BB% is also one of the lower marks in the league). Health permitting, with a FIP of 4.12 and an ERA- of 88, there’s no reason to think Cobb can’t be a solid piece in our rotation. There’s more of a risk involved with Cobb than any of the other starters mentioned here, but at just a tick over four million dollars, the potential reward outweighs the risk for me.

Jhoulys Chacin, San Diego Padres ($1,750,000)

Chacin is probably the least-riskiest pitcher on my roster if for no other reason than the fact that he doesn’t present a ton of upside. I initially had Tyson Ross in my rotation, but as I was filling out the rest of my roster, Tyson’s six million mangoes became an albatross. At just $1.75 million, I just want Chacin to eat innings at the back of my rotation. If he can pitch anywhere close to his 2017 FIP (4.42), I’d be content.

Projected Rotation

1. Ivan Nova

2. Charlie Morton

3. Alex Cobb

4. Tyler Chatwood

5. Jhoulys Chacin

Mike Mionor
Courtesy: CSN New England

Bullpen

Mike Minor, Kansas City Royals ($4,000,000)

Drew Storen, Cincinnati Reds ($3,000,000)

Adam Ottavino, Colorado Rockies ($2,100,000)

Brian Duensing, Chicago Cubs ($2,000,000)

Fernando Abad, Boston Red Sox ($2,000,000)

Tommy Hunter, Tampa Bay Rays ($1,400,000)

Brandon Morrow, Los Angeles Dodgers ($1,250,000)

I’ll begin by saying that my bullpen doesn’t have a closer. That was intentional. I can’t begin to describe how much I hate the idea of closers and the save stat. Why should a relief pitcher earn a save for simply pitching the ninth inning against the bottom of the lineup with a three run lead? That’s incredibly stupid to me. There are so many underappreciated relievers in the league today who don’t get the recognition they deserve simply because they’re not racking up 30-plus saves a season.

In my bullpen, I’ll be utilizing four standard relief pitchers and three “stoppers,” who will pitch in the most crucial situations as opposed to simply waiting for the ninth inning to arrive. If my best relief pitcher needs to pitch the sixth inning, so be it. If my fourth or fifth best relief pitcher needs to pitch the ninth inning, so be it. With that being said, here’s how I envision my bullpen.

Duensing, Abad, Hunter, and Morrow will be the aforementioned standard relief pitchers. The Cubs post-World Series season hasn’t exactly been full of highlights and easy rides, but Duensing has definitely been a bright spot. Pitching to a 2.79 ERA while striking out close to 11 batters per nine innings, the former Twin and Oriole has become a dependable option for Joe Maddon, especially after his rough April.

One of the two southpaws in our ‘pen, Abad has bounced back in Boston after a rough first go. Acquired from Minnesota last year in a trade, Abad came touting a 2.65 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He proceeded to pitch to a 6.39 ERA over 12.2 innings with the Sox, allowing at least one run in a third of his appearances. He’s been very effective against lefties this season, as they’re slashing just .189/.231/.333 off him in ’17.

After a 2012 starting experiment with the Orioles failed miserably, Hunter was moved to a bullpen role, where he’s been more than adequate each season. The Rays are the fourth team he’s pitched four since 2015, and he’s rewarding them with perhaps the best season of his career. He’s pitched to a 2.79 FIP in 25 innings, striking out 27.7 percent of the batters he’s faced. Opposing batters are batting just .213 off Hunter this season, the lowest mark he’s allowed during his major league career.

Injuries have always been a major issue for Morrow, and he’s definitely another
what-if?” After appearing in (and starting) 30 games in 2011, take a look at the amount of games he appeared in in each subsequent season:

  • 2012 — 21
  • 2013 — 10
  • 2014 — 13
  • 2015 — 5
  • 2016 — 18

At this point in 2017, Morrow has appeared in 14 games (already his third highest mark since 2012!!!) and has pitched to a sparking 1.93 ERA and 1.37 FIP. He’s striking out close to thirty percent of the batters he faces while walking just 3.5%. He’s yet to allow a round-tripper and is inducing less hard contact (just 27 percent) than he has in years past. Health will always be a concern with Morrow, but at just a tick over one million dollars, he could become another steal for this team.

We’ve reached the final three players on our 25 man roster, our stoppers. Minor, Storen, and Ottavino will be pitching in the highest-leverage situations for us, and I can’t say I’m no confident in all three of them. A once hyped prospect in the Braves system, Minor unfortunately flamed out due to injury, but has found a home in the Royals bullpen this season. In his first major league action since 2014 (!!!), the 29-year-old southpaw has tossed 43.1 innings, pitching to a 1.87 ERA. Minor has allowed just one homer all season, and is striking out close to ten batters per nine innings.

A former Nationals standout, Storen was awful with the Blue Jays last season before being traded to Seattle, where he rebounded quite nicely. While his 2.80 ERA seems nice on the surface, the 4.80 xFIP is a cause for concern. That he doesn’t strike out a ton of batters while walking perhaps a bit too many isn’t great either, but if nothing else I could always swap out Storen with one of Duensing, Abad, Hunter, or Morrow.

Ottavino may be the nastiest pitcher in our bullpen. He tends to strike out a high number of batters that he faces due to his fastball and perhaps one of the best sliders in the league, but control has definitely been an issue. Adam is walking close to seven batters per nine innings this season, which would help explain his abnormal 5.74 ERA. He’s stranding close to 75 percent of the batters he allows to reach base, but when your BB/9 is 6.61, you can only do so much.

Financials

BATTER TOTAL SALARY :: $36,420,000

PITCHER TOTAL SALARY :: $40,100,000

CUMULATIVE SALARY :: $76,520,000

SALARY CAP :: $78,272,995

Conclusion

At the beginning of this post, I said I’d like to believe that this team would at least have a fighting chance at being a contender if nothing else. Well, do I still believe that?

It might just be because I’m overconfident in my selections (in fact, it probably is), but I think this team could contend for a playoff spot. The way it’s constructed, I don’t know if they’d go deep into October (probably not, if I’m being honest), but it’d still be fun to see how it would all play out.

At the same time, if I’m being honest once again, we’d need a heck of a lot to go right. Our pitching rotation could either become a huge strength or a glaring weakness depending on the health of Morton and Cobb and the performances of Nova outside of Pittsburgh and Chatwood outside of Coors. The bullpen has intriguing names, but each pitcher in the ‘pen also carries at least some risk. I don’t hate the lineup, but it doesn’t necessarily scream “intimidating” to me. Our bench players might be versatile, but I’d be lying if I said I trusted any of them to come up clutch off the bench.

In any case, I came in just under $2 million shy of our proposed salary cap. Would there have been a better way to spend the money I had available? Possibly. Be sure to let me know!

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