As you may have already read, we here at Beyond the Box Score created a pretty big event: a mock expansion draft where we expanded the MLB to 32 teams. You can read all about the methodology behind it, and the draft itself here. And, if you have interest in what the other expansion team did, there's a very nice writeup on the Charlotte Divide here.
But you're not here for the Charlotte Divide. You're not here to read about their starter-by-committee system. You're here for the 2015 Portland Beavers.
In our fictional scenario, the MLB chooses to expand to 32 teams, including two new franchises on each coast of the U.S. To make a short backstory, let's say that the Portland area was chosen thanks to two competing bids for a franchise in the area: one from former Microsoft exec Paul Allen, and another from Nike founder Phil Knight. Ultimately, Knight's group won out, and the shoe magnate immediately set about naming the team after the historical Portland Beavers baseball teams (thanks, Jeff Wiser!), and recruiting a front office.
As we all know, unfortunately nearly every viable baseball general manager candidate died in a horrible accident when an asteroid struck the secret baseball convention that takes place during every World Series. (What? You didn't know about this.) Faced with extremely limited choices, Mr. Knight hired Bryan Grosnick, to be the team's first general manager -- ostensibly due to Mr. Grosnick's incessant pestering. The team also immediately hired three colleagues from Beyond the Box Score as assistant general managers: Jeff Long, Jeff Wiser, and John Choiniere. This greatly improved the franchise's chances of being run effectively.
Nevertheless, with a rookie GM in place, the Portland era was off to an inauspicious start.
Preparing for the Expansion Draft
Once the other 30 teams' expansion protection lists were made public, the new Portland front office immediately sought to both specific players and a methodology for acquiring talent through this draft. The front office certainly understood the difficulty of building a contending team in short order, but felt as if they needed to field a team that could be competitive early in the team's run.
With a $95 million payroll, the team could not be major agents in free agency -- and the wisdom of building through free agency is always a question. In addition, the recent tendency of major league teams to heavily value prospect talent made for many circumstances in which big-money talents and "post-hype" major league veterans were undervalued and/or left unprotected in the draft.
The team also considered the game theory aspects of the draft. Having some experience with the opposing front office, Portland's staff considered (1) how they could ruin "consumate strategizer" Ryan Morrison's plans and (2) how to identify a Charlotte strategy early and focus on players that not only fit our team's strategy, but wait on players who did not fit the Charlotte purview.
Coming into Round 1, each member of the front office looked to highlight five players seen as "most desired" to build the team around. As the FO communicated, six players quickly separated themselves from the pack as an early collection of targets:
- Robinson Cano
- Josh Rutledge
- Jimmy Nelson
- Lucas Duda
- Josh Harrison
- Stephen Vogt
Each of these players was flawed (except Nelson, whose only flaw was being a pitcher), but each jumped out as the staff as a building block for this franchise. As the team's central conceit focused on building position players first, then later focusing on pitching, Nelson was taken out of consideration for the first overall pick. Vogt and Harrison both provided flexibility, with Vogt being one of the few reasonable options at catcher in the draft. Cano was obviously a transcendent talent, but his contract looked like an anchor over the next decade.
In the end, it was general manager Bryan Grosnick who pushed hard for Lucas Duda as the first Portland Beaver. Was it because he feared Duda being drafted by the Divide? Yes. Cano seemed a safer bet to slip to the fourth overall pick, and Grosnick had a bizarre mental blind spot when it came to Nelson. Harrison and Rutledge were seen as high-value choices, but neither provided the overall offensive performance of Duda, who was one of the few impact hitters available in the draft.
In addition to identifying top targets, the team looked to identify their top targets by team. While there was no official process for this, save a series of increasingly incomprehensible spreadsheets, the Portland front office looked to identify desirable players by franchise, while also considering which teams might have most desirable talents overall. It was for this reason that the team made Stephen Vogt (Athletics) and Josh Harrison (Pirates) early choices, while waiting longer on Josh Rutledge (Rockies). Two out of three ain't bad.
Bonus Perspective: Jeff Long
Going into drafting for the Portland Beavers though, my mindset shifted a bit to how we could best utilize the available talent in the draft. My goal in supporting our FO was to lay out a plan for acquiring premium talent which was relatively rare in those left unprotected by the other teams. Some of the names thrown around included Cano (whom we drafted) and Choo (whom we did not). We then opted to supplement Cano and Duda with guys that had more positional versatility. Josh Harrison for example could play several positions for us which really opened up the options available to us later in the first and subsequent rounds. As Bryan mentioned we also threw around Josh Rutledge as a versatile guy until Charlotte scooped up Matzek before we could jump on Rutledge.
The last point I'll make is to echo the thoughts of Bryan throughout the original writeup of the draft. Our goal was near-immediate competition, and the best way to do that was to rely on platoons to maximize value from flawed players. This philosophy lead me to campaign heavily for Vogt, Semien, and Peterson. Though our payroll was much higher than the Oakland A's, our talent pool was much smaller than what the A's have worked with over the past few years, so we stole some concepts from Billy Beane's roster building handbook and looked in depth at platoons. Obviously you can't platoon every position on the field, so we picked our spots (C, SS) where talent was a bit more scarce (especially after Charlotte took Andrus and Ramirez in the first round).
As the first round continued, and Jimmy Nelson came off the board, the team looked to target several starting pitching options that had been thrown around the office. In the end, thanks in part to Charlotte's strategy of drafting virtually zero established major league starting pitchers, Portland was able to acquire almost every starter they identified as a good option, including Collin McHugh, Joe Kelly, and Jacob Turner.
Shortstop was a constant source of confusion for the Portland front office, as the team's first target of Josh Rutledge became unavailable early. The team's second target, Chicago's Alexei Ramirez, was considered to be a late-round option by the Beavers, but it turned out that Charlotte had targeted him as a second baseman mid-round. That led to an decision to draft Jace Peterson very early in Round 2.
By the end of the draft, Portland shifted into value mode: where could the team gather players who would grant the team overall depth or assets that could be converted into different players later on in the team's run -- or who would provide valuable depth in case of emergency. That included guys like Sam Fuld, Brad Boxberger, and Rene Rivera. While we did make a few moves with prospects in mind (Tyler Austin, J.R. Graham, etc.) it proved difficult to lean too heavily on high-reward prospects late in the game.
In truth, Portland didn't have as organized of a plan of attack compared to Charlotte. The front office was well aware that the best laid plans would get blown apart easily, if not when particular players were drafted, then when particular teams were taken out of play.
The amount the team will cost is about $78.5 million dollars for "2014" ... and that also will go up in 2015 with seven players due for arbitration raises and Raisel Iglesias's contract coming due. That's a fair bit under the $95 million payroll, but some of that money might be best saved or invested in other areas (such as poaching the Pittsburgh Pirates' training staff and the Chicago Cubs' scouting department).
With all of this in mind, it's time to examine how it all shook out.
Oh, and I'm tired of writing this in the third person, so we'll take this back to a more personal perspective.
The Position Players
So, with what we have, we're assuming that the team won't add substantial free agent talent in the offseason. This is what we're rolling with.
Our catcher platoon will be simple: Stephen Vogt plays against right-handed starters, Rene Rivera plays against left-handed starters. It's really that simple. If something unexpected happens, like Rivera figuring out how to hit around 100 wRC+ for his career, we'd consider docking Vogt starts. Especially given that this team may have some serious run prevention issues.
This one's relatively easy. Lucas Duda is the starting first baseman. We need consistency at a few positions, and Duda is a good enough hitter to hold this one down. Backing him up on his well-deserved days off? That'll be either Danny Valencia or Stephen Vogt.
Robinson Cano. All day. Every day. When Cano needs a day off, the team will first turn to either Asdrubal Cabrera (against left-handers) or Marcus Semien (against right-handers). But yeah, Cano plays every day, until he can't play every day any more.
Third base might be a little more flexible than other spots in the lineup. As of today, the initial plan is to play Josh Harrison at third base against right-handed pitchers (read: most of the time), and Danny Valencia will play third against left-handed pitchers. Right now, Josh Harrison is an everyday player for this team. He'll need to move around a little to allow this team to field the best possible lineup, but he's shown enough to be given the benefit of the doubt. He's our Ben Zobrist.
If either player needs a day off on their scheduled day, Asdrubal Cabrera (against left-handers) or Marcus Semien (against right-handers) would probably fill in.
To start the season, we're going to operate under the impression that Jace Peterson and Marcus Semien can hold a platoon at the six. Peterson will play the heavy side, playing against all right-handed starters. Semien will play short against lefties, and both players will get substitution / pinch-hitting opportunities occasionally against opposing-handed pitchers.
In case of injury, the other guy gets the full-time job.
Gerardo Parra is this team's right fielder. He's had a bit of a down year, but this is a guy who certainly deserves an everyday spot in right field for some team. He has his flaws: his game is based on good defense and a bat that sits just below league-average, so he's certainly not the prototype in right field. But this team is counting on big(ger) bats at first, second, DH, and a bit of lumber at third and catcher. We can live with his usual production.
When Gerardo needs to sit, the first option is Sam Fuld, the second is Marcus Semien.
Gregor Blanco, almost by default, is our everyday center fielder. I'm not convinced that Blanco will continue to be a good hitter, or even a good fielder, but he's a very nice, rather inexpensive option for a team like ours. He's the type of player who will not win any awards, but he can be a solid fixture in the outfield for another year or two. In the case he needs to miss a game or two, the team will turn to Sam Fuld in his absence.
So, left field is a bit of a conundrum. We have several players who can fill in at this position. First, Josh Harrison gets the start on days when left-handed pitchers are throwing -- the weak side of a platoon. When he's bumped off third by Danny Valencia, this is where he plays. But what about righties?
For the time being, this team's left fielder against right-handers is Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera, a career shortstop and second baseman, hits right-handed pitchers okay, and there's the possibility he could become a good defender in left field as he ages. It's an experiment, sure -- but it is one with the potential to pay off in the short term.
The defensive metrics in 2014 have graded Matt Kemp as a terrible, horrible defensive outfielder. So, unless something dramatically changes in his defensive profile, Kemp is this team's full-time designated hitter. I'd rather run Asdrubal Cabrera out there in left field instead of Kemp, for sure, at this point. Kind of a scary thought.
For fun, here's our projected lineups.
Against right-handed pitching:
- Josh Harrison - 3B
- Robinson Cano - 2B
- Asdrubal Cabrera - LF
- Lucas Duda - 1B
- Matt Kemp - DH
- Stephen Vogt - C
- Gregor Blanco - CF
- Gerardo Parra - RF
- Jace Peterson - SS
Against left-handed pitching:
- Josh Harrison - LF
- Robinson Cano - 2B
- Gregor Blanco - CF
- Matt Kemp - DH
- Danny Valencia - 3B
- Lucas Duda - 1B
- Marcus Semien - SS
- Rene Rivera - C
- Gerardo Parra - RF
The Pitching Staff
Let's start with our rotation. It's pretty simple: Collin McHugh, Matt Shoemaker, and Joe Kelly are the straight definites at No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. Danny Hultzen is a guy we *want* for the rotation, but assuming he's not ready to come back from injury yet, he doesn't slot in. If he did, he'd be our No. 3, and we'll bump Joe Kelly down to No. 4.
But operating without Hultzen, we run Dan Straily at No. 4 and Jacob Turner or Mike Fiers (likely Turner, with Fiers as a long-man or Triple-A depth) at No. 5. Do any of these options make me incredibly comfortable? No.
When the inevitable injury happens, Fiers or Robbie Ray is the first man up. He'll also give us another lefty in the rotation, which I'm all for. After that, I guess it's either Graham or Goforth.
The bullpen's a lot simpler. Tony Watson starts out as our nominal closer. Brad Boxberger is the eighth-inning guy. Siegrist is our lefty specialist / lefty setup dude. Darren O'Day is the tentative seventh-inning guy, while Jean Machi is our designated ground-ball inducer. Everyone else is just a bullpen weapon.
- Collin McHugh - RHP
- Matt Shoemaker - RHP
- Joe Kelly - RHP
- Jacob Turner - RHP
- Dan Straily - RHP
- Tony Watson - LHP
- Brad Boxberger - RHP
- Kevin Siegrist - LHP
- Darren O'Day - RHP
- Al Albuquerque - RHP
- Jean Machi - RHP
- Vic Black - RHP
The Nuclear Option
Here's another strategy worth considering: Danny Hultzen is unable to return from injury as a starting pitcher, but appears to be able to contribute as a left-handed reliever. Hultzen, given his injury issues, must be treated with care.
As such, Portland chooses a new role for Hultzen: the team's designated "opener."
Dan Straily is moved to the "No. 2" starter position. Mike Fiers stays as the "No. 5" starter. On days when either of these pitchers are scheduled to "start", the team will instead start Hultzen to open the game. Hultzen will pitch at least one inning (provided things don't all go to hell), and no more than three innings (if the pitch count is low), before ceding the ball to Fiers or Straily to pitch as if they were the game's starter.
You can read a little more about the "opener" theory here. If the front office gets super-psyched about the opener idea, and Brad Boxberger turns into the team's closer, we could also sub in Kevin Siegrist in the "opener" role instead of Hultzen. Or we can just blow the whole thing up.
... so that's the team. Sure, they're probably not likely to win 90+ games in their inaugural season, but they have a few good offensive options, a reasonable rotation, and a pretty badass bullpen. They could play spoiler, and they're set up to compete for a couple of years based on the players being (mostly) under loads of team control.
Not bad, right?
. . .
Many, many thanks to my Portland cohorts Jeff, Jeff, and John -- and to all of our BtBS compatriots who acted as virtual GMs. It made the process a load of fun.
Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.