We're two and a half months into the regular season and half the teams in MLB have been effectively eliminated from contention. By effectively eliminated, I mean their PECOTA-adjusted Postseason Odds are less than twenty five per cent. I suppose the Angels and A's could conceivably be viewed as contenders if you squint hard enough, and as a Braves fan I'm rarely inclined to write off the Marlins, but the Rangers are the most talented team in that division with more help on the way and a lot of trees would have to fall uphill for the Marlins to make the postseason.
How a contender is constructed will vary. Some teams prefer to acquire their wins exclusively on the free agent market. Some teams prefer to spend ten years building their core through player development. More times than not, however, they're built through a combination of the latter and shrewd off season transactions. While the shrewd off season transaction is largely discussed on this series of tubes that we call the internets, I think there's enough smoke here to bring this up.
On the free agent market last year, six 1B/OF/DH types signed with new, currently contending teams for $8 million or less guaranteed and project as at least part-time players (ZiPS Update projection of 300+ PA's). The six players were guaranteed $21.75 million all together. For that kind of money, a GM could reasonably expect to receive a 5-win return on his investment. The group has produced 8.7 fWAR already. If all six of them quit tomorrow and still collect checks for the rest of the year, they'll have been paid nearly half the market rate for their wins.
At least some of the success of these contenders is a product of these moves. In each case they were seen as damaged goods or inferior commodities by their previous organization. Yet the new organizations have been successful in leveraging their skills appropriately, leading to substantial upgrades at a discounted rate.
A more specific look at each individual contract below.
1. In 2009 Giants' left fielders posted a .743 OPS and their first basemen posted a .733 OPS. They signed Aubrey Huff to a 1-year, $3 million contract and he has hit .305/.396/.541.
Huff has been the most valuable of the six thus far--posting a .406 wOBA and 2.4 fWAR. He's walked more than he's struck out and mashed 28 extra-base hits. While accounting for some batting average and isolated power regression (I'm not sure either will), ZiPS projects a .355 wOBA going forward, which would mean the Giants net about $12 million in surplus value on a $3 million investment.
Above all else, the Giants needed offense. Anywhere, anyhow, from anyone. Huff has provided plenty of that, and is one of the biggest reasons the team still has a reasonable shot at making the post season.
2. In 2009 Braves' first basemen posted a .814 OPS. They signed Troy Glaus to a 1-year, $1.75 million contract and he has hit .286/.380/.496.
If Glaus stays healthy, he'll likely have $4 million coming to him during the 2010 season, but only $1.75 million was guaranteed. Glaus's .382 wOBA ranks second among qualified Atlanta Braves. ZiPS projects a .367 wOBA going forward, netting the Braves about $9 million in surplus value.
The Braves have suffered from a lefty-heavy middle-of-the-order ever since Mark Teixeira was traded, making Glaus a perfect complement to the offense. His 13 HR's rank first on a team that has long had trouble hitting for power. The Braves sit one half of a game on top of the New York Mets in the NL East standings, and they likely wouldn't be there without Glaus.
3. In 2009 Rangers' designated hitters posted a .802 OPS. They signed Vladimir Guerrero to a 1-year, $6.5 million contract and he has hit .335/.370/.570.
Proof that walking a ton isn't necessary to be a valuable player. Guerrero's .335 batting average isn't likely sustainable, but it should remain rather high seeing as he's striking out in only nine per cent of his plate appearances. ZiPS projects a .390 wOBA going forward, making Guerrero a ~3.5 win DH.
It's worth noting park effects and that the guy he replaced has also been hitting exceptionally well in Chicago, but the Rangers went with Guerrero and it's working, which is all a fan can hope for. Vladimir Guerrero is in the running to be a Type A free agent at the end of the year, which could mean a pair of draft picks coming to Daniels and company next June.
Guerrero's base salary in 2010 is only $5.5 million. The Rangers hold a $9 million option for 2010 with a $1 million buyout, the option is voidable for nothing by Guerrero. He can earn $0.9 million in bonuses plus a $0.25 million assignment bonus if he's traded.
4. In 2009 Braves' left fielders posted a .725 OPS. They signed Eric Hinske to a 1-year, $1 million contract and he has hit .315/.381/.565.
Hinske's strikeouts and batted ball profiles suggest the .315 batting average isn't close to sustainable, but with league average walk rates and plenty of pop, ZiPS projects a .351 wOBA in 178 more PA's. League average players usually cost around $8 million on the free agent market, Hinske figures to be just as valuable as one.
Hinske likely has $0.5 million in bonuses coming his way, especially now that he's forced himself into the starting line up against right handed pitching. While what he's done for these first few months will likely dwarf anything he does in the second half, he'll still find ways to provide value to a team that generally struggles to field three competent outfielders each night.
5. In 2009 Tigers' designated hitters posted a .704 OPS. They signed Johnny Damon to a 1-year, $8 million contract and he has hit .281/.380/.412.
Johnny Damon has been Johnny Damon and ZiPS expects him to continue to be Johnny Damon. He seems to have adjusted his game to the park a bit--striking out less frequently but hitting for less power (something we'd expect to see, anyway). Unlike the others, it was fairly reasonable to expect, rather than hope for, this type of production from Damon. Still, the Tigers were able to get a bargain, netting three projected wins for the price of two.
Like Guerrero, Damon has a good shot at being a compensated free agent at year's end, which could net the Tigers a draft pick or two. Damon was the most expensive of the six players, but he's still been well worth it.
6. In 2009 Twins' designated hitters posted a .829 OPS. They signed Jim Thome to a 1-year, $1.5 million contract and he has hit .243/.378/.476.
Perhaps more relevant than their '09 DH OPS is their '09 LF OPS--.790--because that's where Thome is really cutting into the playing time matrix. Thome is more of a part-time player, but ZiPS projects a .347 wOBA in 237 more PA's for the rest of the year, making his contract a $4 million asset.
While Thome hasn't had the impact of an every day player, he's still been pretty valuable for only $1.5 million. He's similar to Eric Hinske, in that he was signed as a bench player and projected to post a ~.350 wOBA the rest of the way, for which the Twins will find plenty of use.
I should probably note that if Nick Johnson had stayed healthy, his contract could have been better than any of the six I mentioned here.
What we're seeing is a perfect example of free agency working in a team's favor. They're able to find a player with the appropriate skill set for them to leverage with their roster such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
There also appears to be a pattern here--contending teams finding cheap, effective bats from the pool of damaged 1B/DH/OF types. Are the contenders lucky or good?