Saturday, December 24, 2011


Prince Fielder: a bit too ready for his close-up...
Twenty-eighty hours to Xmas and rather than wrap presents we can't help but spike the egg nog for old times' sake. And after one too many, we are seized by yet another silly but semi-subversive idea as we stumble over Jeff Passan's free agent master list at The one-liners there are strictly sweatshop material but the list shook loose a vagrant thought...

Which is, what would it be like if baseball simply declared the free-agent period over and done with at Xmas, with all of the remaining players summarily assigned to a new team? Baseball could have fun with a variant on expansion by creating a thirty-first team via a bidding war between the various metro areas with a rooting interest in joining America's giddiest monopoly, and by making the thirty-second team a team filled with the free agent leftovers left unsigned by Xmas.

This is, admittedly, more whacked than our earlier proposal (back in the 1995 BBBA) that teams simply be moved from city to city on a yearly basis...well, come to think of it, maybe this idea actually makes more sense.

Let's have that thirty-second team land permanently in a place where everything that happens there is supposed to stay there--Las Vegas. Let's call the team the "Leftovers." And let's have the team be disbanded every year, only to be replaced by a new set of free agents.

Of course, this would be hard to implement, because once teams saw who was available, they would tend to snap up all the best players by the deadline. But we could think up ways to make it work if we really wanted to: it's not that important to cross t's and dot i's for the purposes of spiked-egg nog whimsy. Suffice it to say you could devise a method that would ensure that a sufficient number of good players would be available to a franchise specializing in a permanently-imposed makeover. (If these players were all free agents again in the following year, for example, the Players' Union would probably sign off on it.)

Let's take a look at how this would work in our current 2011-12 offseason. And let's begin with some context, using Passan's master list. We've taken his rankings and distributed them across a grid of free agents that's organized by position. The ones in orange are the ones that have already been signed.

Passan has 181 free agents on his master list; as of December 23, 71 (just under 40%) have been signed. (Perhaps some enterprising researcher can tell us if this percentage is on track with the average progression of free agent signings over any given off-season.)

The list set up this way (players are anonymous, though we've coded Yu Darvish and his posting lottery fee in pale blue so you'll see where it is on the chart) tells us several interesting things.

First, more than half of the Top 50 free agents (according to Passan, of course: YMMV) have already been signed.

Second, catchers and middle infielders tend to have high signing percentages. Teams seem to focus on getting these guys signed early. (This is subject to further verification, however.)

When we look at the actual players who are sill available and place the best of them onto an actual roster, we get:

C--Ramon Castro (137), Jorge Posada (96), Ivan Rodriguez (146), Jason Varitek (160)
1B--Prince Fielder (2), Conor Jackson (122) Carlos Pena (19)
2B--Mark DeRosa (117), Carlos Guillen (118)
SS--Ronny Cedeno (72), Edgar Renteria (119)
3B--Wilson Betemit (57), Kevin Kouzmanoff (81), Sean Burroughs (171)
UT--Aaron Miles (134), Willie Harris (135)
LF--Johnny Damon (34), Andruw Jones (56), Scott Hairston (103)
CF--Coco Crisp (29), Rick Ankiel (94)
Roy Oswalt contemplating the potential run support
from his Leftover hitters...
RF--Ryan Ludwick (47), Kosuke Fukudome (64)

Starters--Roy Oswalt (7), Hiroki Kuroda (13), Edwin Jackson (17), Hisashi Iwamura (18), Javier Vazquez (21), Rich Harden (38), Jeff Francis (61), Kevin Millwood (78).

Relievers--Ryan Madson (15), Darren Oliver (51), Chad Qualls (53), Brad Lidge (54), Joel Zumaya (79), Mike Gonzalez (80), Dan Wheeler (91), Shawn Camp (102).

It is a team blessed with surprisingly credible pitching and an offense that's barely existent once you get past Prince Fielder.  You will see what we mean when you take a look at the team's projected batting order:

1. Crisp cf; 2. Damon lf; 3. Fukudome rf; 4. Fielder 1b; 5. Castro c; 6. Betemit 3b; 7. Guillen 2b; 8. Cedeno ss.

It's a team that projects to score 600-625 runs over the course of a season, which would have ranked thirteenth in both the AL and the NL last year.

When we played out the year, we got the following stats in one of those sim-seasons (as is often the case in a simulations, the game simply trashes a few players--this time it was Betemit):

What leaps out here is that Prince Fielder would be getting pitched around as often as possible. The team loses seven points of BA, five points of OBP, and nineteen points of SLG if Prince were to be replaced at first base by Carlos Pena. And estimates indicate that the team would score 35-40 fewer runs with Pena on first instead of Fielder.

The best estimate of the runs allowed for the pitching staff is right at 700 for the season. The Pythagorean Method suggests that this team would go 72-90 with such a runs scored/runs allowed differential.

What are the chances that a "leftover" team can be a playoff team? Probably about 1 in 9, which isn't awful odds. After all, some teams don't make the playoffs anywhere near that often, even with bonafide efforts to build a farm system and play within the current rules of MLB.

While definitely right on the ledge in terms of wackiness, there is something oddly irresistible about a team that has virtually 100% turnover from one season to another. The years in which such a team contends for the playoffs would contain a smidge of surrealism--a quality that wouldn't exactly hurt a game that has tilted dangerously in the direction of uniformity over the past couple of decades.

Er, Morganna--this is not what they meant by the "double switch"....
And, finally, for a team with such a built-in revolving door policy, the proper management method would be a return to the Cubs' "college of coaches" approach, with the person in charge on any given day determined by any number of occult practices--day of the week, biorhythms, seance, short straw, karaoke contest.

Or Vegas showgirls. Yeah, that's the ticket--a gaggle of showgirls are the perfect "brain trust" for the Leftovers. It would constitute sweet revenge for good ol' Morganna the Kissing Bandit, except that the ladies who managed the team might well decide within a matter of weeks that, unlike their highly protuberated precursor, they really didn't like every ballplayer that they happened to meet.

So many social problems to solve, and so little time!! Merry Xmas, and don't forget to doctor that egg nog...