As a general manager, especially for small-market teams, the best way to succeed is to find underrated players and sign them for less than they are worth. That is the concept Billy Beane has used with the Oakland Athletics, having some of the most cost-effective teams in the MLB since he became general manager. In fact, they may have been the most cost-effective teams, such as the 2006 Athletics who had the fifth best record in baseball despite ranking 24th in payroll.
The Pirates opened the season with the league’s lowest payroll, at $51.93 million, but have the fifth best record in Major League Baseball.
Part of the reason for the Pirates being very cost-effective this season is due to the players who are making the league minimum – Neil Walker, Michael McKenry, Alex Presley, Josh Harrison, Jared Hughes, and Drew Sutton, just to name a few. Neal Huntington does not have a good track record with bringing in MLB talent via free agency and trades. Last season was a prime example of that, as Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz were jettisoned out of Pittsburgh as soon as replacements were found, but this season was likely to be different. Huntington brought in Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas, and Erik Bedard as free agents, as well as Casey McGehee and A.J. Burnett from trades with Milwaukee and the Yankees.
To measure the cost-effectiveness of each player on the Pirates roster, I first collected the salaries from Cot’s Contracts and prorated them to 92 games. After that, I compiled the DOLLAR statistic, based on WAR, and then subtracted the difference between the two.
What are these stats?
WAR is an acronym for “wins above replacement.” A player with a 0.0 WAR is a replacement player, or a waiver claim like Mario Mendoza or John Bowker. The league average is around 2.0 for starters and below 1.0 for bench players and relief pitchers. A superstar will have a WAR in the neighborhood of 5-6 and an MVP-caliber player will have a 6+ WAR.
The DOLLAR statistic measures how much money a player is worth based on WAR. The salary a player will make is about $4.5 million a season for one WAR, so someone with 10 WAR will be worth $45 million.
What are the results?
Not surprisingly, the most cost effective-player on the Pirates is Andrew McCutchen. He has made $280,000 this season, but with his .372/.427/.642 slash line along with 22 home runs and 14 stolen bases, he would be worth $24.4 million in the free agent market if the season ended today. The least cost-effective player is Clint Barmes, who has been paid $2.84 million to date. Barmes is hardly hitting above the Mendoza line, at .207, so it does not come at a surprise he is worth “negative” dollars at -$4.04 million, meaning it would be hard for him to find a team to sign with in a fair free agent market, even for the minimum salary.
Neil Walker, who has been in McCutchen’s shadow all season, would be worth $13.8 million in free agency, or $13.57 million more than the $230,000 he has made this season.
The least cost effective group of players on the team has been the players who have already made $2 million or more.
A.J. Burnett has been the best acquisition Neal Huntington has brought in during his tenure as general manager. Surprisingly, despite making $5 million per annum, he has also been the most cost effective player Huntington has acquired. Barmes, as noted earlier, has not been worth his salt this season, being worth -$4 million less than what he is being paid. Erik Bedard is still riding his spectacular beginning of the season to be worth about $2 million more than his $2.25 million salary to date.
There is also a pretty nice group of players who are making more than $1 million but less than $2,000,000.
Kevin Correia is the only player in that range who would fetch less on the free agent market than he is worth. Jeff Karstens has played very well since returning from the disabled list, and a team would sign him as a free agent for $3.45 million more than the $1.76 million he has made to date. The trade for Casey McGehee was a good move considering his offensive and defensive output, leading to his cost effective season. However, one player who is making just above league minimum is worth more than the $1-2 million range combined.
Andrew McCutchen is just an incredible human being and does not need any explanation. James McDonald, who is “top three in Cy Young voting”-worthy this season, could be signed for $9.5 million more on a free agent market than he has been paid so far this year, as is the case with Pedro Alvarez, who has nearly identical numbers. A nice surprise this season has been the performance of catcher Michael McKenry, who was acquired during the revolving door of catchers last season. The difference between his DOLLAR stat and his actual salary is a cool four and a half million dollars. Even Jordy Mercer who has seemingly not played since his call-up has a positive differential.
If the Bucs want to continue their success, they will need to extend those of the core without long-term deals (Walker, McDonald, Alvarez) and hope to find some underrated free agents who will sign for less than they are worth.