Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Exercise in Free Agency

We've all had the thought that we could do better than our favorite team's GM. I mean, [insert name here] is such an idiot, right? Can you believe he made that dumb trade? We're just regular old fans, and even we know that the obvious correct move is to sign [player we really like]. Not sure why we bother paying this guy when we would totally rock this job for free!

This thought occurred to a friend and me in high school, and we actually went through with it—at least in our heads. We constructed an entire 25-man roster from the ranks of free agency that winter. The team was terrible. Years later, when I became acquainted with sabermetrics, I went back and calculated it: the squad was cumulatively worth 20.2 wins above replacement (FanGraphs version), roughly comparable to the 2015 Milwaukee Brewers. It wasn't as easy as it looked.

Of course, our rudimentary understanding of advanced stats in baseball (coupled with a decidedly pro-ex-Red Sox bias) probably doomed us early on. Over a decade later, I think it's time for a do-over—a chance to see whether all this baseball knowledge I've accumulated since then is actually worth anything.

So here's my challenge for the next few months: build the best major-league team that can possibly be assembled out of the ranks of free agency. Try to guess which of this offseason's signings will provide the best bang for my make-believe buck, and try to avoid crippling my fake franchise with an albatross of a deal. Simulate, as faithfully as possible, the circumstances of the 2015–16 offseason and the economic constraints that real GMs work under.

To do all this, I need your help.

You, my friend, are part of an elite group—the people who actually read this blog! This will be the Baseballot community's team, so I'll take input from readers in the comments and on Twitter. You'll be the scouts and the Jonah Hills to my GM.

Here are the ground rules. We can "sign" any free agent to the contract that he eventually agrees to with a real major-league team. After news of the signing breaks, we'll have 48 hours to think it over and decide whether to add that player, and that contract, to our imaginary team. (Like real GMs, we won't be allowed to look back at the end of the offseason, when the market has been set, and choose the cheapest option—we have to interact with events as they happen.) We have to fill every position on the team: five starting pitchers, one starting position player at each position (including DH—our hypothetical team plays in the AL), and a bench that can back up every spot on the field. And, again like real GMs, we have to stick to a budget. We'll be generous and say $200 million—the third-biggest payroll in the game.

To avoid an issue that my high-school friend and I encountered—lack of positional scarcity (it took away a lot of the challenge when we needed two third basemen and there were only two legitimate options on the market)—we'll give ourselves a head start on this go-around. We'll seed half the team with players already under contract that our mock club might have plausibly signed in offseasons past. Out of the major-league players who signed free-agent contracts in the last four years, I randomly (with positional weighting) selected the following 12:
There are some bad contracts on that list (would YOU pay CJ Wilson $20 million to pitch next year?), but it could have been a lot worse—Abreu and Hammel are nice bargains. Still, it's an expensive group overall. With the help of Cot's Baseball Contracts, we find that this core of 12 players are owed $122.1 million in 2016. That doesn't leave us with much ($77.9 million) to add two starting outfielders, a DH, a middle infielder (probably to start at second base), a part-time catcher, two starting pitchers, and basically an entire bullpen.

So what are you waiting for? Get thinking about who you want on our team! Think Alex Gordon would be a fit? Perhaps Jordan Zimmermann would look nice in our nonexistent team uniform. As real GMs fill out their squads, we'll make our calls in tandem. Follow me on Twitter and check this blog all winter long to track additions to our team roster. I'll post periodic updates on the team-building explaining my thoughts and justifying my decisions. By March, we'll see whether the 25 guys we threw together are worthy of taking the field as a major-league team.

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