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The Mike Trout All-Stars: AL players playing above the minimum, for the minimum

Some American League teams do a great job of getting production from players at the league minimum while others seem to miss this important economic opportunity.

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Mike "The Golden Nugget" Trout
Mike "The Golden Nugget" Trout

I've always been fascinated by the young players, the up-and-comers, the rookies and the guys looking to carve out their place in the league. "This is where the next superstar will come from," I tell myself, as I closely followed guys breaking into the big leagues. Following sabermetrics and understanding the salary and value implications of young, cost-controlled talent only fueled my passion to follow those on the verge of a breakout. These are the most interesting, exciting players in my eyes, and it's time they get a little credit.

These players produce for their team at below-market prices, resulting in potentially huge surplus production. We can all guess what the obscenely high final number will be for Mike Trout's future multi-million dollar deal, but for now, he makes just over $500,000 last year despite being the best player in the league and racking up over 10 wins above replacement (again). That's surplus production. Clearly the Angels have struck gold with Trout, but what other teams are getting major league production at a major discount? While some clubs are paying nearly $6 million per win on the free agent market, players like Trout and his contemporaries are making the league minimum. Clearly there are teams that are more budget savvy than others and some that could, apparently, care less about their budget all together. We don't need to name names, but you know who I'm talking about (hint: it's the Yankees).

Because a team-by-team breakdown would be way too tedious and some teams don't have many of these bargain-rate producers, I decided to go in another direction. I've assembled an All-Minimum Team for each division in baseball. These players all play at or near the league minimum and aren't arbitration eligible until 2015 at the earliest. I used the FanGraphs Standings page, which displays projections that are a 50/50 blend of Steamer and ZiPS, to calculate a WAR total for each player on the All-Miminum Team roster with the following playing time allowances:

  • All starting position players are given 525 plate-appearances
  • All bench position players are given 200 plate-appearances
  • All starting pitchers throw 180 innings
  • All relief pitchers throw 65 innings, except the long man (listed last) who throws 100 innings
  • All players had to appear in a game in 2013

While actual usage (AB's/IP) would vary in real life, the flat rates give us a better platform for comparison. Generally speaking, I selected the best player available at each position who fit the salary criteria, resulting in an almost-complete disregard of things like handedness and platoon-splits. While that might seem troubling on the surface, remember that the main idea is to compare which teams/divisions best cultivate and utilize surplus value. Now, on to the teams from the American League!

American League East
Lineup WAR Rotation WAR
C Austin Romine, NYY 2.0 RHP Alex Cobb, TB 3.2
1B Daniel Nava, BOS *1.2 RHP Kevin Gausman, BAL 2.7
2B Brett Lawrie, TOR 2.7 RHP Felix Doubront, BOS 3.1
3B Manny Machado, BAL 3.3 LHP Sean Nolin, TOR 1.5
SS Xander Bogaerts, BOS 2.6 RHP Chris Archer, TB 1.6
OF Wil Myers, TB 2.6
OF David Lough, TB 1.4 Bullpen
OF Desmond Jennings, TB 2.6 RHP Steve Delabar, TOR 0.6
DH Will Middlebrooks, BOS *2.1 RHP Preston Claiborne, NYY 0.4
LHP Drake Britton, BOS 0.3
Bench RHP Alex Torres, TB 0.4
C Steve Clevinger, BAL 0.6 LHP Jake McGee, TB 1.2
2B Jonathon Schoop, BAL 0.3 RHP Rubby de la Rosa, BOS 0.2
MI Ryan Goins, TOR 0.0 RHP Brandon Workman, BOS 0.4
OF Anthony Gose, TOR 0.1
*Positional Adjustment Team WAR Total: 36.9

The squad from the AL East All-Minimum Team has some exciting names, including Wil Myers, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Chris Archer. Some more familiar names produce a ton of surplus value, too, including Desmond Jennings, Will Middlebrooks, Alex Cobb, Jake McGee and others. From the looks of things, the Rays have done a solid job of cultivating productive players who can contribute in a strong way at the league minimum. This, of course, makes sense given the Rays' lack of financial resources, forcing them to extract value at below-market prices. The Yankees on the other hand, have just two representatives in a middle reliever and a catcher, as they seemingly have all of the financial resources in the world and don't have to place such a premium on finding players who can produce at a cheap, league minimum level. If they do find those guys, great; if not, they'll just buy somebody.

Baltimore has a nice collection of young talent, notably Machado and Kevin Gausman, while Boston has a bunch of pitchers on the team, mostly of the relief variety. The Blue Jays notably shipped off a lot of young talent to acquire Miami's buyer's remorse last winter. However, they still have some pieces that are attractive at the minimum, such as Brett Lawrie and Steve Delabar, but are a mostly veteran ball club when compared to other teams.

Division Outlook: while the AL East may not be revered as a division that develops and promotes a lot of young talent, teams like Baltimore, Boston and Tampa Bay are clearly doing something right. While the Rays do this out of necessity, the Red Sox have deep pockets but still have an ability to grow their own talent. Baltimore falls somewhere in the middle and if it weren't for a bad elbow, they might have arguably the best player in the division in Dylan Bundy.

American League Central
Lineup WAR Rotation WAR
C Yan Gomes, CLE 3.9 RHP Jose Quintana, CWS 2.8
1B Connor Gillaspie, CWS *1.3 RHP Danny Salazar, CLE 3.5
2B Jason Kipnis, CLE 2.9 LHP Drew Smyly, DET 2.7
3B Mike Moustakas, KC 2.5 RHP Yordano Ventura, KC 2.3
SS Jose Iglesias, DET 1.1 LHP Danny Duffy, KC 2.0
OF Lorenzo Cain, KC 2.8
OF Adam Eaton, CWS 2.0 Bullpen
OF Oswaldo Arcia, MIN 1.6 RHP Cody Allen, CLE 0.6
DH Nick Castellanos, DET *1.4 RHP Bruce Rondon, DET 0.6
RHP Nate Jones, CWS 1.3
Bench RHP Casey Fien, MIN 0.4
C Josmil Pinto, MIN 1.2 LHP Donnie Joseph, KC 0.0
1B David Cooper, CLE 0.0 RHP Bryan Shaw, CLE 0.2
MI Brian Dozier, MIN 0.5 RHP Corey Kluber, CLE 1.4
OF Jarrod Dyson, KC 0.8
*Positional Adjustment Team WAR Total: 40.1

Cleveland comes away with the largest impact on the AL Central All-Minimum Team. Danny Salazar, Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes all profile as good every day major league players. Corey Kluber just missed the cut in the rotation and serves as the long man out of the bullpen, while Cody Allen is a nice high-leverage arm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Minnesota has a small impact on the team as they look to rebuild. Oswaldo Arcia is the only starter on the team, but Josmil Pinto profiles as a solid catcher.

The Royals have some pieces to build with at the minimum, including Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Yordano Ventura. Everyone's been waiting for Danny Duffy to get right and in this scenario, 2014 is the year. The Tigers and White Sox have fewer pieces on this squad. Chicago's surplus value is largely tied to Jose Quintana, Nate Jones and the newly-acquired Adam Eaton while Detroit has Drew Smyly, Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias.

Division Outlook: for a contending team, Cleveland has done a nice job of building a young, effective group of players. The potential move of Carlos Santana to third base could have as much to do with keeping him healthy as it does with getting Yan Gomes into the lineup. Kansas City has some nice pieces and will look to capitalize on them as they make a run at the division. The White Sox have added valuable pieces through recent trades, mostly with the Diamondbacks, while the Tigers and Twins are looking up at the rest of the division in terms of talent at the league minimum.

American League West
Lineup WAR Rotation WAR
C Derek Norris, OAK 3.3 RHP Taijuan Walker, SEA 1.9
1B Chris Carter, HOU 1.9 RHP Sonny Gray, OAK 2.1
2B Jose Altuve, HOU 2.0 LHP Martin Perez, TEX 2.1
3B Kyle Seager, SEA 2.5 RHP A.J. Griffin, OAK 2.3
SS Brad Miller, SEA 2.9 LHP Dallas Keuchel, HOU 2.2
OF Mike Trout, LAA 6.9
OF Kole Calhoun, LAA 2.6 Bullpen
OF Abraham Almonte, SEA 0.5 RHP Danny Farquhar, SEA 1.0
DH Josh Donaldson, OAK 2.7* RHP Sean Doolittle, OAK 0.6
RHP Yoervis Medina, SEA 0.4
Bench LHP Robbie Ross, TEX 0.6
C Mike Zunino, SEA 0.8 RHP Ryan Cook, OAK 0.6
INF Jurickson Profar, TEX 0.6 RHP Tanner Scheppers, TEX 0.7
2B Nick Franklin, SEA 0.6 LHP James Paxton, SEA 0.9
OF L.J. Hoes, HOU 0.4
*Positional Adjustment Team WAR Total: 43.8

This division is tough to classify. Seattle and Oakland have impact players and a bulk of them on the roster. Houston also has a number of players on the list but no one can compete with the "Mike Trout Factor" that the Angels benefit from. Texas has some impact arms on the roster and Jurickson Profar still looks like a very good baseball player long term. Overall, there's some balance here although the Angels have very few representatives.

Brad Miller and Taijuan Walker pair very nicely with Kyler Seager and Seattle's bulk of relief arms. Houston obviously has some has rebuilding pieces in place in Jose Altuve, Chris Carter and lefty starter Dallas Keuchel. Despite some relatively high-priced acquisitions in recent years, Oakland continues to augment those players with inexpensive, productive guys at the league minimum. Texas has a small impact here with only Martin Perez standing out. The Angels obviously have Mike Trout and the projections love Kole Calhoun, but there's little to nothing else on the horizon.

Division Outlook: Seattle, Houston and Oakland all seem to be in a good place to capitalize on their minimum salary talent. Because each of these franchises have medium to small sized payrolls, there is a clear emphasis on homegrown talent development. The Angels have stumbled upon Mike Trout and one has to wonder where they'd be if they hadn't hit on the greatest young talent in decades. Texas doesn't have much in the way of league minimum cost talent, but they're happy to get what they can from Profar, Perez, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross.

Looking at the three squads assembled, we can see some patterns between the divisions and teams. In general, as markets and/or payrolls increase in size, the reliance on players at the league minimum diminishes. This should come as no shock, as the Yankees and Astros are both part of this simulation and have significantly different levels of surplus value extraction. A year from now, Houston's list might showcase George Springer, Jonathan Singleton and Mark Appel in addition to those listed above. Houston's ability to utilize production at the league minimum will only grow going forward will New York's will remain relatively unaltered. That's not to say that either franchise is "doing it wrong" but instead to show just the difference in roster tactics between teams with the $228 million and $26 million payrolls.

Of the three divisional All-Minimum Teams here, the AL West edges out the Central with the AL East coming in last. Of course, this is largely due to Mr. Trout as he's not only the best player in the game but also the best bargain in baseball. Seattle, Oakland and Houston are doing the lion's share of the work, however, with several young contributors each. In the AL Central, the Indians and Royals are contending for the division while also getting excellent cheap production. Out East, Baltimore, Boston and Tampa Bay are representing well with several productive players at the league minimum each.

This simulation, despite making some assumptions that might not pan out as the season unfolds, highlights how well each American League team is extracting production from players making league minimum salaries. By doing this, teams can either keep their payroll down (Astros) or subsidize the salary of higher-priced players (Mariners). Teams like the Indians, A's and Red Sox will contend this season, and in seasons to come, with their young, inexpensive assets. Some teams lag behind and either have the money to make up for it (Yankees) or do not (Twins). No matter the team, getting production at league minimum salaries remains a valuable concept.

Next week, I look forward to breaking down the National League and identifying if the senior circuit is really more youthful than the American League.

. . .

Jeff Wiser is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. He occasionally blogs about craft beer at BeerGraphs and you can follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.