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Roster Construction of the Playoff teams (and the Nats)

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Curtis Granderson was in the middle of a trade that affected 3 of the 8 playoff contenders. Photo unknown credit via

One of my pet projects over the years has been to analyze the Roster construction methods that successful teams use, in order to determine if there’s any trends or patterns to be had (some of the 2010 rosters are here in this Google spreadsheet).  Now that we’ve got our 8 playoff teams set for the 2011 season, here’s a quick run down on the way these teams arrived at their core rosters.

In the 2011 spreadsheet (available online via the links section along the right hand side of the blog, with sections cut-n-pasted below), I’m only looking at the core of the roster: the starting 8 out-field players, the 5 man rotation, the setup and closer, and (if in the American League) the DH.  So each team has either 15 or 16 players categorized.  The player acquisition is broken down one of four ways:

  1. Draft: The player is with the original team that drafted him.  In the case of international free agents, if they’re signed as prospects they are considered in this category as well (i.e., Ichiro Suzuki is not a developed player, but an international Free Agent).  It could be better defined as “Club developed players.”
  2. Traded MLBers: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading an established MLB player.  Most of the time these days, this means the player was acquired as a prospect (since most trades seem to be of the prospect-for-established player kind).
  3. Traded Prospects: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading prospects.  This is essentially the reverse of #2.
  4. FA: The player was acquired in free agency.  This category also includes two other types of acquisitions: waiver claims and cash purchases.  These three categories are lumped together since all three indicate that a team has acquired a player with zero outlay in terms of development or prospects.

Here’s a breakdown of your 8 playoff teams:

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl
2011 NYY 7 0 0 9 16
2011 Tampa Bay 9 0 3 4 16
2011 Texas 5 0 7 4 16
2011 Detroit 5 2 3 6 16
2011 Philadephia 9 3 0 3 15
2011 St Louis 7 1 2 5 15
2011 Milwaukee 6 5 0 4 15
2011 Arizona 6 1 6 2 15

A couple of quick notes on these numbers:

  • One of Texas’ “drafted” players was a Rule-5 Draftee (Ogando).   Likewise, Philadelphia has one rule-5 draftee as well (Victorino).   I probably should re-classify rule5 draftees as FA acquisitions, but for now it counts in the draft.
  • Just in case anyone forgot, the Mark Teixeira trade netted Texas their #2 pitcher (Harrison), their starting SS (Andrus), their closer (Feliz) and Boston’s current starting catcher (Saltalamacchia).  This is lesson 1-A in why teams should really rethink deadline deals.  Imagine if Atlanta still had all these guys..
  • Tampa’s roster did NOT include Matt Moore initially but it wouldn’t have changed this analysis; all 5 of Tampa’s primary starters this year were Drafted and developed in house, as was Moore.

From looking at this data, and looking at some of the ways other near-playoff teams have built, there’s some clear strategies for building rosters.  I’ll summarize them as follows:

  1. Method #1: Build from within 100%: (Tampa Bay).  Tampa’s current owners bit the bullet, started over from scratch in terms of the MLB roster, invested in player development and now have a perennial playoff team with the lowest payroll in the majors.  9 of their core 16 players were developed in house, with another 3 acquired by flipping veterans for prospects.  They augmented their core with 4 fringe FAs (Kotchman, Damon, Peralta and Farnsworth) to complete the squad.  Note those four FAs are playing 1B, DH, setup and closer.
  2. Method #2: Ride your developed Core and use your prospects to acquire big names: (Philadelphia, Milwaukee): 3/5ths of Philly’s vaunted SP core was acquired through prospect trades (Halladay and Oswalt) or through free agency (Lee).   They also burned high-end prospects on Hunter Pence to fill the RF hole left by the departing Jayson Werth.  They may now be a big payroll player, but lots of that payroll is spent to lock-up home-grown players, giving the team credit where credit is due for building from within.  Meanwhile Milwaukee went all-in this year, burning their own prospects to acquire Greinke, Marcum, Bentacourt, K-Rod and even bit-player Nyjer Morgan.   These guys add to an excellent crop of home-grown players (Braun, Fielder, Weeks, Hart and Gallardo) that will slowly start to break up over the next few years, likely leaving Milwaukee thread-bare and in last place for a while.  So be it; they made the playoffs this year and still look strong for 2012.
  3. Method #3: Go Young and grow up strong (Arizona, Texas): both these teams went on a trading spree, flipping established major leaguers for up and coming talent.  Now they’re starting to see the benefits of this talent.  In Arizona’s case, they’re young, cheap and cost contained.  Texas added $30M of payroll from last year and will continue to rise as local TV deals start to pour money into their coffers.
  4. Method #4: Spend what it takes to win: (New York, St Louis, Detroit).  Clearly the Yankees are in this boat, with their $200M payroll.  They have 7 home-grown players, but three of them (Jeter, Posada, Rivera) have been around for 15+ years.  When they retire, look for more FA acquisitions to back-fill.  Detroit may not seem like they’re in the Yankee’s category, but make no mistake they’re a big payroll player.  They also made a very shrewd trade and acquired 3 core guys (Jackson, Scherzer, Coke) in the 3-team trade involving (among others) Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson.   Lastly the Cardinals; they bought their two biggest hitters not named Pujols (Holliday, Berkman) in the FA market, they bought their ace starter (Carpenter) and two other starters.

Here’s a quick look at some other targeted teams, to see how they fit into my four construction theories above:

Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl
Boston Red Sox 7 3 0 6 16
Atlanta 10 1 3 1 15
New York Mets 7 1 0 7 15
Florida Marlins 6 0 6 3 15
Kansas City Royals 9 0 2 5 16
Seattle Mariners 5 1 6 4 16
  • Boston: they’re a combination of Method #2 (trade prospects for stars) method and the “spend what it takes” method #4.  They can afford to basically do both since they’re rolling in cash and have a fantastic player development system.  What has to really burn Theo Epstein though is just how badly they’ve done in the FA market; their 6 FAs of the core are: Scutaro, Crawford, Drew, Ortiz, Lackey and Wakefield.  Scutaro was bought to replace another FA shortstop, Crawford had a rough first season, Drew puts up good numbers but you’ll definitely hear about his lack of clutch play, and Lackey has just been a disaster.
  • Atlanta: Amazingly, they’re in Method #1 mode and even have more home grown players than the Tampa Bay Rays.  They depend on exactly one FA in their core 15 players (Derek Lowe, who is clearly replaceable from within from one of several rising starter prospects the team has).  Atlanta’s entire pitching core is home grown, young and cost contained.  This is the nightmare NL east executives keep having at night; after 2012 they’ll shed most of their payroll but have more-than-able replacements for the most part, putting them in position to be the team to beat for a while.
  • NY Mets: They’re attempting to be in Method #4 but have shown themselves to be so incompetent on the FA market that they were one of the worst under-performing teams by payroll this year.  The numbers above (7 home grown, 7 FAs) would look more skewed if one took into account the lost years of Johan Santana and Oliver Perez, two more failed FAs in their arsenal.  The Mets that took the field towards the end of the season looked more like a AAA team than a team with a $140M payroll.
  • Florida: seems like they’re perpetually in Method #3 mode, but not for the same reasons as Texas.  Florida routinely trades away its rising veterans to save a buck, not necessarily to try to win.  They’ve cruised along for years pocketing untold millions in revenue sharing while barely trying to improve on the field.  Dumping Cody Ross on a waiver claim just to save a few million in salary?  Par for the course.  Demoting Logan Morrison because you didn’t like something he said on twitter?  Sure.  Releasing a respected player in Mike Cameron over something petty?  No surprise.  Bud Selig should have a tough time looking at himself in the mirror for gifting this franchise to Loria and his snake partners.
  • Kansas City is one of the few teams in Method #1 mode right now; they’ve got no less than 9 spots filled with developed players, most of them rookies or near rookies this year.  If these guys pan out like they should, KC could be a monster.  They still need more pitching to develop though; their track record developing pitchers isn’t nearly as good as the positional player development.
  • Seattle is transitioning to Method #3 as we speak.  They’ve acquired guys like Smoak, League, Vargas, and Carp by trading off established vets in an effort to go younger and cheaper.  They’ve also got a fantastic young core of starting pitchers to build on and a rookie-of-the-year candidate in Dustin Ackley.  They may be a force to be reckon with once Suzuki hangs them up and they can replace his spot and payroll with someone younger and better.

Lastly, here’s three looks at your Washington Nationals.

Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl
Wash (2011 opening day) 6 2 1 6 15
Wash (primary Roster for season) 6 2 2 5 15
Wash (end of season) 9 1 2 3 15

The opening day roster (line 1) depended on stop-gap FA signings (LaRoche, Pudge, Ankiel, Marquis) but also featured a strong core of home-grown players.  The core of the season (line 2) though saw LaRoche on the DL, Pudge on the bench and an all-FA outfield of Nix, Ankiel and Werth.  This should tell you what you need to know in terms of how the Nationals are developing outfielders lately.  We’ll likely be in the same boat next year as well, until Harper arrives and/or Rendon either moves to LF himself or forces someone else out there.  However, the bulk of the team that went 17-10 in September (and, more tellingly, 16-7 after Livan was shut down for the season) was (per line 3) heavily home grown, especially on the pitching corps.  Our best 2012 starting 5 could all very well be drafted and developed in house in the last 5 years.

So what “method” does the Nats fall into?  They are trying to be the next Method #2 team to make it big, following clearly in the footsteps of Philadelphia, building from within but not afraid to spend money when its needed.

Written by Todd Boss

October 4th, 2011 at 9:44 am

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  1. […] about a favorite topic of mine w/r/t the current Nats 40-man roster and its construction.  See here for a similar discussion of the 2011 Nats (along with analysis of the 8 playoff teams) from last October.  Clearly the more […]

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