At its most basic level, the goal of a Major League GM is simple: assemble the best realistically possible group of players that stand the best chance of winning the World Series. That task is either hampered or aided by the team’s budgetary constraints, and the size and shape of the pool of talent available at any given moment. There’s also some throwing and hitting of balls involved, or so I’ve heard. If any GM in the game could have their way, they would clone Mike Trout 25 times and teach some of those clones to pitch. Alternatively, you could replace some of those clones with Clayton Kershaw copies. Or just roll with a team composed entirely of catchers, if that’s your kind of thing.
I’m here to pay a different sort of game. Not every player is Mike Trout. Some players are, well… Craig Gentry, or Billy Butler. Gentry and Butler aren’t necessarily bad players when they’re playing to their talent level. Gentry is a speedy slick-fielding center fielder, but his below-average bat is hampered by a lack of power and serious platoon issues. Butler is a heavyset DH whose ISO has dropped from .197 in 2012 to just .107 in 2014, but can still hit for average and was the victim of some bad BABIP luck in his last campaign. Gentry and Butler are good complimentary pieces who struggle in certain aspects of the game. So, we must ask, just how successful can a team composed entirely of these sorts of players be?
To maximize value out of one-way and/or one-tool players, the players selected for the team almost have to excel at one thing, or be so freakishly bad at another that it drags down the viable tools the player owns. We’ll tally up the players’ projected WAR for the 2015 season and see how they contrast with lineups around the league. For the sake of maximizing the production of the team, we’ll have our team be in the AL and use Butler at DH.
Catcher – Christian Vazquez (BOS)
Vazquez debuted in 2014 and quickly established himself as one of the best defensive backstops in the game. DRS says he saved six runs in just 458.1 innings behind the plate, and Baseball Prospectus’ new Called Strikes Above Average metric pinned Vazquez as being 2014’s third best pitch framer behind Hank Conger and Rene Rivera. fWAR pegged Vazquez at being worth 0.7 wins over the course of the 55 games he played in, but none of the available WAR formulas factor pitch framing factor in pitch framing just yet. When that’s considered, it’s not outlandish to think that Vazquez could have been in the 1.5 fWAR range in those 55 games. That’s a weapon over a full season.
Vazquez’s problem is that his bat has never been anything to write home about. He’s never hit above .300 at any level, but he doesn’t have the power to make up for it. Luckily enough for the Red Sox, they figure to have a good enough lineup to hide Vazquez’s bat, and barring a trade he could end up as the backup to the potent Blake Swihart. Offense is not everything, and Vazquez’s skill behind the plate is the reason he can be a viable starting catcher.
A brief honorable mention goes to Padres prospect Austin Hedges, who currently profiles as an even more extreme version of Vazquez (truly excellent backstop, nearly nonexistent on offense except for the occasional bomb).
ZiPS projected WAR: 1.8, +1 extra credit win for pitch framing. 2.8 WAR.
First Base – Chris Carter (HOU) and Lucas Duda (NYM)
Carter swatted 37 home runs for the Astros, which is a good place to start. He also struck out in 31.8% of his plate appearances, while only walking in 9.8% of them. Add in a -8.8 UZR/150 at first base, and it’s easy to see why Carter managed only 1.7 fWAR despite his huge long ball total.
However, Carter’s skill set could be maximized by deploying him as the small half of a platoon with another first baseman — say, a lefty hitter that has trouble making contact with southpaws. Enter Lucas Duda. The Mets slugger broke out with 30 bombs of his own, but only scratched out a .241 wOBA against same-side pitchers, with a huge 32.8 K%. Duda actually fielded his position fairly well (5 DRS, 0.4 UZR/150), so platooning him with Carter would give the team wRC+ marks over 140 from both sides of the plate. That’s a situation where you live with the strikeouts these two generate. Is a platoon cheating in this kind of exercise? Probably, but I want to win, damnit.
ZiPS projected WAR: 1.7 for Carter, 3.2 for Duda. Let’s call it 4.1 purely because Duda doesn’t have to hit against lefties anymore.
Second Base – Daniel Murphy (NYM)
Second base is actually surprisingly sparse in terms of candidates for the team. Many of the good defenders are also good hitters (Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler), and many of the poor defenders have multiple tools that carry them (the hitting ability and speed of Jose Altuve, and Jason Kipnis to a lesser extent). Then there’s a messy middle ground of players like Joe Panik and Scooter Gennett that don’t really excel at, well, anything. There’s no metric for "grit."
Thus, we arrive at Daniel Murphy. Murphy isn’t that special with his bat (only a 107 projected wRC+ this season), but he’s bad enough with the glove to make the squad. So… good for Murphy, I guess? Murphy’s only carrying tool is his consistent hitting, but it comes with a lack of power that Citi Field certainly doesn’t help. He’s also a good bet to reach double-digits in steals, but he’s not a major threat to run. So yeah, Daniel Murphy everybody. Don’t everyone get all excited at once.
ZiPS projected WAR: 2.1
Shortstop – Jose Reyes (TOR)
Let’s play "Name that Shortstop!"
- Player A: -12 DRS, -12.5 UZR/150 in 2014 (1138.1 innings)
- Player B: -9 DRS, -15.6 UZR/150 in 2014 (919.2 innings)
- Player C: -16 DRS, -6.6 UZR/150 in 2014 (1243.2 innings)
Player A is Derek Jeter. Jeter was generally awful in his final year in pinstripes, and possibly sank the Yankees season for a variety of reasons. His more-awful-than-usual fielding was part of that. Jeter was 40, and coming of a lost season caused by ankle issues. No surprise there.
Player B is Hanley Ramirez. We’ve known Hanley’s a pretty godawful shortstop for a while, but the man can mash. It would help if he could stay healthy, of course, and if his defense at shortstop wasn’t actually worse than a recently hobbled 40-year old Derek Jeter according to UZR/150.
Player C is Jose Reyes, on whom injuries and astroturf-furnished home field have taken their toll. He’s still a legitimate leadoff hitter when he’s healthy, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where he breaks down in a big way very soon. For now, though, he’s the starting shortstop for our hodgepodge team due to the fact that he lacks Hanely's power, and tools are bad, remember?
ZiPS projected WAR: 2.9
Third Base – Nick Castellanos (DET)
Castellanos is really bad at third base. We’re talking -30 DRS and -19.1 UZR/150 bad. He also had a rough first year at the plate that ended in a 94 wRC+ and a -0.5 fWAR — hardly the result the Tigers had in mind for their much-hyped top prospect. The good news is that ZiPS thinks that he cuts his strikeout rate from 24.2% to 19.6%, and he goes from hitting 11 homers to 17. We’ll take a projected 114 wRC+ with bad defense for our squad. There’s simply no way Castellanos is that bad in the field again, right? Guys? Fingers crossed for a return to his pedigree.
ZiPS projected WAR: 2.1
Outfield – Matt Kemp (SDP), Sam Fuld (OAK), and Mark Trumbo (ARZ)
Kemp and Trumbo perhaps most embody what the corner outfield spots can sometimes become: a place to hide a powerful bat without a defensive home. Kemp returned to being an extremely effective force at the plate in 2014 (.287/.346/.506!), but his well-publicized defensive issues limited him to 1.8 fWAR. Kemp actually posted a worse UZR/150 (-25.8) than Trumbo (-16.3), who has the grace of an elephant in the outfield. Kemp will handle right field duties due to the fact that he still has a halfway decent throwing arm, and Trumbo will patrol left.
Because I can’t have Vazquez be the only good defender on this team, Sam Fuld will be the center fielder. Fuld was the second-best defensive center fielder in baseball last year by UZR/150, behind only Jarrod Dyson. Dyson would have gotten the nod here if it wasn’t for the fact that his blistering speed gives him a second ridiculous weapon on the base paths, so Fuld it is. Fuld did swipe 21 bags in 2014, but speed usually comes with good center field defense, and Dyson is simply on another level.
Fuld also can’t hit all that well. ZiPS forecasts a wRC+ of 84 for him in 2015, but I have a feeling that StatCast (when it finally becomes publicly available) will reveal that we actually undervalue defense, and defensive specialists like Fuld are undervalued. Fuld won’t repeat his 2.8 fWAR from 2014, but the rest of this lineup hits enough to sacrifice an offensively-minded CF like Dexter Fowler.
ZiPS projetcted WAR: 1.4 for Kemp, 0.8 for Fuld, 1.2 for Trumbo. That’s 3.4 total.
Did We Win?
So if we add up all those projections, along with Billy Butler’s projected 1.3 WAR, we get 18.7 WAR. If we add another 2.5 wins for bench players and replacements from the minors, that’s 20.7 WAR. 20.7 WAR, when compared to the totals accrued by teams’ offensive players in 2014, would sandwich our imaginary squad right between the Cardinals’ 22.0 and Rockies’ 20.4 for 12th place. That’s not too shabby for a squad that only squeezes 3.4 WAR out of its outfield. Perhaps I’m being bullish on the potency of the first base platoon, but that’s a team that can win if there’s a good pitching staff. If the pitching is good, they’re the Cards. If not, they’re the Rockies. This formula also heavily relies on the health of Kemp and Reyes, which is a huge roll of the dice.
So basically, it’s fantastic to have a lot of well-rounded players on the roster. However, you can make some noise without them.
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Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a member of the IBWAA. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.