When the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Yu Darvish and all the they’re-the-Warriors-of-baseball blather turned me curmudgeonly, a friend texted an interesting question: “What would an MLB team look like if it were the Warriors?”
Never one to back down from a challenge certain to involve too much research, excessive time spent in Microsoft Excel and eventual obsession to the point where a child may or may not ask, “Dad, are you OK?” I dutifully swore that I would build the best 25-man roster money could buy.
Except that wasn’t fun. It’s not difficult to spend money. It’s difficult to spend money when there’s a finite amount. Though Major League Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, for the sake of this exercise, it will be $137,790,903 – the average of all 30 teams’ opening day payrolls.
Otherwise, there were no rules. No limit on pre-arbitration players, whose salaries are artificially depressed, because a number of those in their first three seasons are among the game’s best players, and this would be no true representation of a baseball mega-team without them. Anyway, the best teams in real life often splurge on stars because of a roster laden with talent making 500-something-thousand a year.
Don’t like the idea of seven-man bullpens? Me, neither. So I went with 14 hitters and 11 pitchers. Want left-right balance in your lineup? I did, and you’ll see how that went. Care to use the super-sized bench to exploit platoons? Not a bad idea.
There are a million ways to build a fake baseball team, and I really do wonder if any two teams would be exactly the same. Probably so, because there are some no-brainers, some complete gimmes and some whose appeal crosses swaths of fans. A perfectly matched 25, though? Well, try it, with the same contract database I used. Try to build a team to win this year (which, about three-quarters of the way into the season, is sort of cheating, so perhaps, if this is enjoyable, we consider doing it again next spring, with a sweet little web-based tool to make it easier).
Until then, here is the genesis of the best team $136,333,142 can buy.
This is the easy part. Of course you start with the easy part. Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger are rookies, Corey Seager in his second season, Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa in their third. Bryant makes $1,050,000 because the Chicago Cubs were munificent after his MVP season. Seager is at $575,000, Judge at $544,500, and Bellinger and Correa the absolute league minimum, $535,000. Jose Altuve is the one veteran, and he’s signed to the single best long-term contract in baseball and is making $4,687,500.
I can figure out where they’re going to fit later. I just know I want all six on my team. And since it’s my team and I’ll pick who I want to, and I didn’t spend even $8 million on the first six guys, I’m going to take Mike Trout, even if he costs $20,083,333, because he’s Mike Trout, and what sort of best team is this if it doesn’t include the best player in the world? (Take that, Dubs.)
Since I was in a money-spending mood, I went right for Chris Sale ($12 million) and Corey Kluber ($7.7 million). Not only are they the two best pitchers in the American League, Sale makes less than Ubaldo Jimenez, Clay Buchholz and Matt Garza, and Kluber is cheaper than Wei-Yin Chen, Yovani Gallardo and Hector Santiago. I am an amazing GM already.
Next on the list was Chris Devenski, the Astros’ swingman, who made the team a) because I’m stubborn and refuse on principle to go with 12 pitchers even though it probably makes more sense, seeing as I’m unlikely to pinch hit often with a lineup of stars and b) because he’s good and inexpensive ($554,500). In fact, almost my entire bullpen would be filled out with that cheapness in mind. Relief pitchers are volatile, fungible and the idea of splurging on them didn’t make a ton of sense. And so it went: Roberto Osuna at closer, Corey Knebel at setup, Felipe Rivero and Brad Hand to conquer lefties, for $552,400, $538,900, $564,500 and $1.375 million, respectively.
This left me with 14 spots and about $86.5 million left to spend. The money felt liberating, and I decided to splurge on Kenley Jansen as closer. Much as I abhor overspending on relief pitchers and don’t buy the concept of the “proven closer” as some kind of mystical entity, Jansen is in the midst of a season in which he has struck out 80 and walked five, and with the first year of his five-year deal costing just $10.8 million, it felt right.
It was time to be practical again, and nothing says pragmatism quite like switch-hitting utility players? In the last two seasons, Jose Ramirez has played second base, third base, shortstop and left field. And this season alone, Marwin Gonzalez has patrolled first, second, third, short, left and right. Ramirez’s salary: $971,400. He’s a keeper. Gonzalez’s: $3,725,000. Same. Picking both takes me out of the platoon business, but for the sake of versatility, it’s worth it.
Joining them is Tommy La Stella. Who? I’ll tell you who: Tommy Freakin’ La Stella, the perfect pinch hitter. Twenty-nine times this season, La Stella has entered a game for the Chicago Cubs in the pinch. Seven of those, he got a hit. Seven of those, he drew a walk. Twice he was hit by a pitch. Twice he struck out. My dream pinch hitter gets on base, never strikes out and makes $573,500. Also: Every dream team needs a Christian Laettner.
With both utility spots taken, La Stella and either Correa or Seager taking up two more on the bench and a backup catcher still needed, it’s beginning to dawn on me who’s not on the team, and it’s making me nervous. No Anthony Rendon or Justin Turner at third base. No Andrelton Simmons as a defensive replacement at shortstop. These may warrant reassessment at the end if I have leftover money. For now, I’m at just over $70 million left, which prompts me to ask the question: Is that enough for Clayton Kershaw?
The best team without the best pitcher sounds rather absurd, but so does this: $35,571,428. That’s Clayton Kershaw’s salary this season. It’s more than half my remaining payroll, and I still would have to find two starters, two catchers and two corner outfielders. So as painful as it was, Kershaw will have to find his way onto the best team of those who don’t mind taking up 25.82 percent of their payroll.
I had delayed the corner-outfield situation because I wasn’t sure if I would have room for Bryce Harper’s $13 million salary, and honestly, it’s probably not necessary, because Mookie Betts is spectacular in right field and at $950,000 a fraction of the cost. Left field in 2017 is grim. Justin Upton would be fine, but at $22 million-plus, he’s too steep. Marcell Ozuna isn’t a bad option, but he’s right-handed, and that’s becoming a problem. Even if I do choose Seager at shortstop over Correa, almost all the rest of my starting lineup – Altuve, Bryant, Trout, Betts, Judge (at DH) – is right-handed. The only other lefty is Bellinger, and – wait, Cody Bellinger can play left field, and it frees up first base for a left-handed hitter, because there aren’t any elite left-handed-hitting catchers.
For the two spots behind the plate, there are three choices: Buster Posey ($22,177,777), Gary Sanchez ($557,900) and Willson Contreras ($544,500). Posey is the best catcher in baseball. Sanchez and Contreras are the best bargains. And because Contreras is the best of the three defensively and can pummel home runs, he makes the team. Whether he’s a starter or the backup depends on other moves. And considering I have spent $68,860,033 and have $68,930,870 remaining, the permutations here are countless.
Even if Kershaw is too much at $35 million-plus, Max Scherzer is not at $22,142,857, and a Scherzer-Sale-Kluber playoff gauntlet is evil. I’ve still got nearly $47 million to toy with and don’t know where to go. Posey over Sanchez? Maybe. What about first base, where Joey Votto is a bargain at $22 million (and left-handed). Thing is, he has the same rate stats as Paul Goldschmidt, who at $8.85 million is the NL equivalent to Altuve in terms of bargains. I even start wondering whether my bullpen needs Craig Kimbrel, neck and neck with Jansen for the best-reliever-in-2017 title. Knebel does walk a ton of hitters, whereas Kimbrel’s strikeout rate is obscene (16.59 per nine) and his walk rate just as absurd (1.41). The only hold-up is Kimbrel costs about $12.5 million more than Knebel, and that’s not money I’m willing to spend yet.
First I want to upgrade my bench. Yes, six paragraphs ago I waxed poetically about the virtues of Tommy La Stella, but I need a real outfielder. George Springer is a possibility, and the power off the bench is great. At the same time, Bellinger-Trout-Betts-Judge provides plenty of that. No, I want game-changing speed to use as a pinch runner in high-leverage, late-inning situations and an elite glove that can patrol center and allow Trout to spell Bellinger in the eighth and ninth innings. Billy Hamilton is the perfect player for this team and that role, and while he costs $2,625,000, the extra outlay is worth it. Sorry, Tommy.
Back to catcher. I want to choose Sanchez, because it allows for Votto at first base, and Votto, with his 99-to-61 walk-to-strikeout ratio, is my ideal hitter. And yet Posey himself possesses an upside-down ratio (more walks than strikeouts), and Goldschmidt, though right-handed, though more prone to strikeouts, is close to Votto’s equal.
Now it’s getting serious. Only $13,708,736 left and two rotation slots to fill. The first is easy. Of all the pre-arbitration pitchers, Luis Severino is the best, and his $550,975 salary leaves me with about $13.1 million for one final starter – or a bunch of tinkering.
I could replace Knebel with Kimbrel! And have less than $700,000 for the last starter. I could flip Bryant and Turner, who’s the single best hitter in baseball against left-handed pitching, and a give that starter a little over $1 million. But then I look back at Posey, and he’s the sixth-best hitter against lefties, and has that plate discipline, and the leadership, and the on-base percentage, and … why, exactly, am I arguing against myself to keep Buster Posey on this team?
OK. Enough vacillating on Posey. He’s in. And he’s bringing someone with him: Madison Bumgarner, the forgotten ace of 2017 for the forgotten team of 2017, will make $11.7 million this season. Scherzer-Sale-Kluber-Bumgarner-Severino. Right-left-right-left-right. And here’s the lineup:
This is really good, and yet despite having Betts and Posey and Altuve and Ramirez on the bench as paragons of low strikeout rates, Justin Turner keeps popping into my head. The problem is, to add him to this team, whose $136,333,142 payroll is about $1.5 million under the cap, would mean getting rid of Scherzer, Trout, Sale or … Posey.
OK, fine. Get rid of Posey, Bumgarner, Goldschmidt, Bryant and Knebel. Add Sanchez, Jacob deGrom, Votto, Rendon and Kimbrel. Remember, Rendon is every bit as good a hitter as Turner and possesses a better glove. Team 2.0 is quite phenomenal, too, with a Kimbrel-Jansen back end of the bullpen, a more balanced lineup with Seager hitting second, Trout third and Votto fourth. Adding deGrom to the rotation and elevating Contreras to starting catcher are definite downgrades, though, enough that the team no longer has that feeling of invincibility.
Which is stupid, you know, because this is baseball and the best teams in history still lose 30 percent of the time. And yet Version 1.0 of this team seemed unbeatable, an assessment with which the numbers seem to agree.
It’s safe to say that inside a clubhouse with talent like this, not every player would perform the same – particularly those going from starring roles to the bench. The relief pitchers’ roles would likely be diminished, too, with them throwing somewhere in the range of 75 percent of their usual innings load. With that in mind, when trying to get a sense of how this team may fare, I used FanGraphs to grab the Wins Above Replacement totals for all nine everyday players and 11 pitchers. I cut the relievers to 75 percent and didn’t bother using the backups.
Here’s how WAR works practically. The idea is a replacement-level team – a team of Triple-A players – could win at about a .294 level in MLB – about 48 wins a season. However many WAR a team has, that added to 48 should be somewhere close to its season total. Right now, a .294 winning percentage through 119 games for the Dodgers equals 35 wins. They have 45.1 WAR, which would put them at 80-39. In reality, they’re 85-34. Pretty close.
My team’s total: 76.7 WAR, or a 112-7 record.
I love my team, but that’s not a .941 crew. There is no such thing. Baseball is too difficult, too fickle, too random, too taxing for a team, even the greatest team, to play at that level. The Warriors won 73 of 82 games two years ago. You can do that in basketball. In baseball, the Dodgers are on pace for one of the finest seasons in the history of the sport, and their best 82-game stretch this year is 64-18.
Forgive me, then, if I chortle a bit at WAR’s calculations and chuckle even more – this one with giddiness – at the roster assembled. Lots of power, plenty of contact, unfair gloves, enough speed on one side. Innings, strikeouts and a boatload of attitude on the other. And together, one team capable of satisfying a question that didn’t need to be answered but is better for having been.
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