I have a little theory I choose to believe because it keeps me warm when times are cold. That theory is that, in every offseason, there’s a championship team to be built, and to be built reasonably, without costing an unrealistic amount. It’s not something that can ever be proven, and it’s not even necessarily interesting if you consider an offseason has virtually infinite possibilities, but I like to think the pieces are always out there, no matter how bad a team might’ve been the year before. It allows for hope, independent of circumstances. If it wasn’t your year, it could be your year.
We can at least try to support the theory with numbers from 2014. On the one hand, we can’t say anything about winning a championship, because you can never predict how that’ll play out. But to compensate for that, why don’t we take the idea to the extreme? Let’s say the idea is to build a good team. Nevermind building a good team through a reasonable sequence of moves. How about building a good team through an impossibly cheap sequence of moves? How about doing that without any kind of foundation already in place?
The idea, in short: construct a good 2014 baseball team out of players that would’ve cost nothing or almost nothing to acquire before the season. I’m not going to worry about getting 25 guys; I’ll just fill the important spots. The theory holds up to some extent, as the team you see below would, statistically, be about as strong as the best in the league. The obvious caveat is that, under different circumstances, maybe these players don’t put up the same performances. Maybe they received particular instruction from their 2014 employers, that maybe they wouldn’t get in the hypothetical organization we’re running. Totally valid! And maybe Troy Tulowitzki would’ve busted had he been drafted by the Mariners. We can never really know anything, so let’s just keep things simple and have some fun before we’re all dead.
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Catcher: Caleb Joseph (1.1 WAR)
One of the reasons the Orioles are amazing is because of what they’ve accomplished without huge contributions from Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Ubaldo Jimenez. Wieters was lost early, and that’s when Joseph got a chance, but he was mostly thought of as organizational depth, and it took time to steal games from Steve Clevenger. Joseph’s bat runs about as hot and cold as you’d expect, but he’s shown a good arm and, more encouragingly, he looks good in the pitch-framing data. So Joseph’s a good handler of a pitching staff, it seems like, but he would’ve been totally gettable in February or March.
First base: Steve Pearce (4.8 WAR)
The Orioles are good, by the way. They actually dropped Pearce earlier this very season, albeit with the understanding that they’d try to bring him back. But Pearce was a journeyman who could’ve been had, stuck on the depth chart behind Chris Davis, who in spring training didn’t suck yet. All Pearce has done through almost 100 games is out-hit Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Bautista. He’s basically Davis, and Davis became basically Pearce.
Second base: Justin Turner (2.8 WAR)
Some of the names you’ll see are legitimate breakouts, and some are just probable flukes. Turner’s numbers are probable flukes, given that he hasn’t really changed his profile, but he’s still running an .867 OPS, after joining the Dodgers in February on a minor-league contract. He could’ve been flukey for our hypothetical team instead! Maybe this is kind of a reach, but middle-infield types tend to get scooped up and protected if they’re even half-decent.
Shortstop: Dee Gordon (3.6 WAR)
I’m cheating, and I’m cheating my own rules. First, Gordon hasn’t been a shortstop at all in 2014. Second, he wasn’t by any means freely available in spring training. But he was dreadful in the recent past, and the Dodgers had spent good money on Alexander Guerrero. Gordon would’ve cost something to acquire, but he wouldn’t have cost all that much, so consider this dumping value into getting a shortstop. The hardest thing is finding a free shortstop.
Third base: Yangervis Solarte (1.7 WAR)
Solarte was nothing. He was a minor-league acquisition who people didn’t know even after he broke the roster of the Yankees. He started well before petering out, and people figured he’d just lost the magic, but he’s resumed producing with the Padres, providing a league-average infielder for free. Minor-league acquisitions usually don’t work out this well, but Solarte is both solid and completely unexciting.
Left field: J.D. Martinez (3.7 WAR)
Two facts that are funny now: the Astros gave up on Martinez in spring training, and Tigers fans, for a time, panicked over the loss of Andy Dirks. Martinez completely changed himself as a hitter, effectively doubling his power output, and the last time I checked, which wasn’t long ago, Martinez had more WAR than all of the Astros’ 2014 outfielders combined. This is kind of like the new Jose Bautista.
Center field: Sam Fuld (2.7 WAR)
Fuld was so highly regarded he signed with the A’s on a minor-league contract. He was so highly regarded that, in April, the A’s designated him for assignment. One thing Fuld doesn’t do is hit for power, and another thing Fuld doesn’t do is hit for average, but he runs well and he walks and he plays some good defense, and there are worse outfielders starting in the middle.
Right field: Brock Holt (2.3 WAR)
Before there was a legend, Holt was an organizational utility type buried by the acquisition of Jonathan Herrera. To get him, one would’ve had to give up something, but the price would’ve been light, and now Holt’s through 492 plate appearances with a .331 OBP. He’s playing right field for us, but he’s more versatile than that, so you can swap him around if you’re in the mood.
Designated Hitter: Chris Coghlan (1.3 WAR)
Coghlan signed a minor-league contract with the Cubs in January, and in March, he lost a position battle to Ryan Kalish. Since returning to the majors, he’s reminded people that at one point he was the National League Rookie of the Year. He’s certainly not just a DH! It’s just, he could DH, given the roster we’re assembling.
Starting pitcher: Collin McHugh (3.3 WAR)
McHugh’s an example of a guy who might not have worked out as well anywhere else. The Astros liked what they saw from his curve, and they instructed McHugh to use his fastball higher in the zone. So, the Astros liked him, but then again, he was supposed to just be a spot-starter in a time of need, and the Astros have been as surprised as anybody by McHugh’s emergence into a real quality arm. You want McHugh in March? Doesn’t cost a lot to get McHugh in March.
Starting pitcher: Jacob deGrom (2.8 WAR)
I’m cheating a little again. deGrom wasn’t nothing before the year — he ranked among the bottom half of the Mets’ top prospects. But, he wasn’t one of the Mets prospects people talked about, and he was an old 25, coming off a minor-league ERA in the mid-4s. To get deGrom, you would’ve had to give up a live arm or some kind of mediocre outfielder, probably, but deGrom wouldn’t have been very expensive, relative to what he’d be now.
Starting pitcher: Matt Shoemaker (2.6 WAR)
Shoemaker wasn’t on anybody’s radar. People would make fun of the Angels’ starting rotation depth, because a guy like Shoemaker wasn’t on anybody’s radar. He turned 27 last September, and in about 400 triple-A innings, he’d yielded 251 runs. The thing people missed was the quality of Shoemaker’s splitter, but the quality of that splitter was a hell of a lot less apparent in Salt Lake.
Starting pitcher: Aaron Harang (2.4 WAR)
You don’t need me to tell you about Aaron Harang. He’s Aaron Harang. Always has been. The Braves scooped him up for free at the end of March when they came to terms with the desperate state of their injured rotation. Harang hasn’t been an ace, but you don’t acquire Aaron Harang looking for an ace. You acquire Aaron Harang because a starting rotation has five pitchers in it and you need five pitchers.
Starting pitcher: Vance Worley (1.0 WAR)
Not only did the Twins waive Worley in spring training — he cleared waivers, before being given to the Pirates for cash considerations. His 2013 almost literally couldn’t have been worse, but this year his deception’s returned, and he’s gone right back to making a living on called third strikes.
Relief pitcher: Pat Neshek (1.7 WAR)
I guess we can think of Neshek as the closer, since he has a few saves, and since he’s been good against lefties and righties alike. A minor-league contract brought him to the Cardinals, and as I write this Neshek has 64 strikeouts and six unintentional walks. He’s relying more on a harder fastball than he used to have, and he’s averaging about a hit allowed every other appearance. Remember when Neshek was a sensation with the Twins? Right now he’s reminding everybody.
Relief pitcher: Zach Duke (1.2 WAR)
Duke joined the Brewers for almost nothing. It’s not a surprise he’s been good against lefties — he’s a lefty, and he’s always been more successful against lefties. It’s a surprise he’s been good against righties, with an identical 34 strikeouts and eight walks. It’s possible he just really likes throwing to Jonathan Lucroy, but then our team has Caleb Joseph, and he’s a pretty good receiver himself! Synergy!
Relief pitcher: Tony Sipp (1.0 WAR)
Sipp signed a minor-league contract with the Padres, then later on he opted out and joined up with the Astros for a song. He’s allowed a batting average of .148, an OBP of .229, and a slugging percentage of .259. Like Duke, he’s a lefty, but like Duke, he’s been real good against righties, so it’s not like this bullpen would be super exploitable.
And that’s it. Fill the rest in yourself. The other roles are less important. That’s a surprising team, and that’s a good team, at least as far as the 2014 numbers are concerned, without making any adjustments for playing time or innings or what have you. Most of the players could’ve been had for nothing. A few, like Gordon and deGrom, would’ve cost an actual asset, but it wouldn’t have been a high price to pay, so I’m going to allow myself to bend my own rules. The sum of the numbers above? About 40 Wins Above Replacement. That’s a team that’s about dead-even with the Tigers. And then our team, instead of the Tigers, would have J.D. Martinez patrolling a corner. I don’t know if it’s possible to build a contender for free every season. But it seems like it might’ve been possible this season. Probably makes the Yankees feel kind of silly.