Smartbuilding #11: Roster Construction | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Watching Jake Arrieta dominate over the last couple of years for the Cubs should present a great lesson for Brewers fans: forget the draft/develop fetish. Seeing Edinson Volquez turn his career around in Pittsburgh, or even Francisco Liriano (and Francisco Cervelli), should do the same: keep an open mind to all possible roster building scenarios. Jose Bautista in Toronto; or John Lackey (shockingly!?) and Jason Heyward (or even Adam Wainwright) in St. Louis, or Didi Gregarius in New York; or Delino DeShields, Jr. in Texas; or Hector Rondon with the Cubs (and others still!) should provide valuable roster building lessons.

Teams don’t need to center their clubs around drafting & developing talent in order to build playoff teams.

  • The Pirates have maintained one of the most valuable roster cores in the MLB by augmenting their aggressive international development with buy-low free agents or trades, and developing those players’ traits according to their system and scouting strategies.
  • The Blue Jays developed a juggernaut with trades galore.
  • The Astros (and Cubs, to a lesser extent) used their rebuilding status to their advantage over the last few years, stockpiling a set of Rule 5 and Waiver players alongside their trades, free agents, and homegrown players. The Cubs gained their closer from this strategy, and the Astros’ “other” transactions were more valuable to their 2015 pitching staff than trades and free agents combined.
  • By contrast “hard homegrown identity” clubs like the Cardinals and Mets use so many drafted & developed players that their marginal roster value becomes questionable: by ignoring other routes to talent acquisition, one can question whether those clubs most effectively used their resources (and anyway, two traded players were most valuable to the 2015 Cardinals, and a free agent bat was the best for the 2015 Mets).
  • Even the praised young roster core for the Royals would not be in their current position without a set of key traded batters/fielders and a group of free agent pitchers (their most valuable segment of arms).

In a sense, this should all be obvious, but even over the last few years there is evidence that the Milwaukee Brewers shied away from all possible routes of talent acquisition. I mention this because incoming GM David Stearns famously mentioned that free agency is not the way to sustained winning during his press conference; judging from the Astros’ acquisition record, he knows better than that. In this regard, Stearns intriguingly mentioned acquiring controllable players for a sustained playoff run was his goal; coming from Houston, he, more than anyone, will know the value of scrounging the earth for every possible source of talent.

If it seems obvious to fans that a team should do whatever it takes to build a winner, I want to highlight the actual roster composition of 2015 playoff clubs (which includes a few current and budding dynasties) in order to emphasize the diverse strategies that can be used to win. It is a popular fan refrain to say “the Brewers need to develop pitching,” for instance, but Milwaukee has developed pitching over the last five years, and perhaps relied too heavily, too consistently on homegrown pitching. In this sense, they missed out on a crop of Arrieta, Volquez, Rondon, Nathan Eovaldi, Colin McHugh, or even Carlos Martinez, just to name a few relatively low-risk non-homegrown acquisitions. In this environment, an acquisition like the Wei-Chung Wang Rule 5 pick is flat-out brilliant and radical, leaving one to desire more of those aggressive, low-cost gambles.

The point is to refrain from one specific talent acquisition mantra.

Playoff Batting Roster Construction (#) Trade # (WAR) Free Agent Draft / Amateur FA Other
Astros (39) 16 (8.5) 10 (3.7) 9 (14.1) 4 (0.0)
Yankees (49) 12 (5.7) 15 (11.1) 19 (4.3) 3 (0.0)
Cubs (50) 19 (14.2) 16 (0.6) 10 (8.0) 5 (0.2)
Pirates (46) 16 (3.4) 9 (3.3) 12 (15.7) 9 (-0.9)
Rangers (50) 18 (6.1) 13 (9.3) 13 (5.7) 6 (1.9)
Blue Jays (40) 18 (18.7) 9 (8.5) 8 (8.6) 5 (2.0)
Royals (35) 10 (9.2) 12 (0.3) 13 (15.9) – (-)
Mets (48) 11 (5.5) 9 (4.3) 23 (9.6) 5 (0.0)
Dodgers (55) 25 (11.5) 12 (4.3) 15 (8.2) 3 (-0.3)
Cardinals (46) 10 (9.0) 12 (1.6) 24 (9.2) – (-)
Playoff Pitching Roster Construction (#)Trade # (WAR) Free Agent Draft / Amateur FA Other
Astros (24) 8 (0.1) 8 (4.8) 4 (10.0) 4 (5.5)
Yankees (33) 8 (4.9) 8 (0.1) 13 (8.7) 4 (-2.3)
Cubs (29) 12 (12.8) 11 (4.6) 1 (-0.6) 5 (1.8)
Pirates (21) 8 (4.5) 5 (5.2) 4 (8.4) 4 (1.7)
Rangers (31) 11 (6.7) 7 (1.4) 10 (3.8) 3 (1.7)
Blue Jays (28) 8 (8.9) 6 (1.0) 10 (2.1) 4 (0.7)
Royals (24) 4 (1.6) 10 (8.5) 10 (5.4) – (-)
Mets (26) 6 (2.6) 5 (-0.3) 13 (12.3) 2 (1.9)
Dodgers (31) 11 (-2.1) 10 (10.8) 8 (9.7) 2 (1.3)
Cardinals (23) 6 (7.9) 6 (6.5) 11 (15.2) – (-)

Putting names to this table, here is each club’s batting & pitching MVP, as well as some notable players from other transaction-types:

Playoff Roster Notes Pitching Batting
Astros Fiers trade/McHugh & Harris waivers. MVP drafted (Keuchel) Marisnick & Valbuena trade. MVP amateur FA (Altuve)
Yankees Eovaldi trade / $54M on 0.1 FA WAR. MVP drafted (Betances) Gregarius trade. MVP FA (Texeira)
Cubs Rule 5 closer. MVP from trade (Arrieta) Rizzo/Russell/Fowler trade. MVP drafted (Bryant)
Pirates Burnett/Liriano free agency. MVP drafted (Cole) Kang FA / Cervelli trade. MVP amateur FA (Marte)
Rangers Martinez&Kela drafted / Tolleson waivers. MVP from trade (Gallardo!!!) Fielder & Andrus trade / Moreland drafted. MVP FA (Beltre)
Blue Jays Sanchez/Stroman/Cecil drafted. MVP from trade (Estrada!!!) Encarnacion/Martin FA. MVP from trade (Donaldson)
Royals Young/Volquez FA. MVP from trade (Davis) Moustaskas/Hosmer/Gordon drafted. MVP from trade (Cain!!!)
Mets Syndergaard from trade/Gimartin Rule 5. MVP drafted (deGrom) Cespedes via trade. MVP FA (Granderson)
Dodgers Kershaw drafted / Howell & Anderson FA. MVP FA (Greinke) Turner FA/Pederson & Seager drafted. MVP from trade (Gonzalez)
Cardinals Martinez FA; Garcia/Lynn/Wacha/Rosenthal/Siegrist drafted. MVP from trade (Lackey) Carpenter/Wong drafted; Peralta FA. MVP from trade (Heyward)

Adding pitching and batting slots together, here’s how each playoff club fares in terms of homegrown roster value.

HomeGrown Value % Draft & Amateur FA (WAR) #2 #3 #4
Cardinals (69) 50.7% (24.4) 26.1% FA (8.1) 23.2% trade (16.9) n/a
Mets (74) 48.6% (21.9) 23.0% trade (8.1) 18.9% FA (4.0) 9% other (1.9)
Royals (59) 39.0% (21.3) 37.3% FA (8.8) 23.7% trades (10.8) n/a
Yankees (82) 39.0% (13.0) 28.0% FA (11.2) 24.4% trade (10.6) 8.5% other (-2.3)
Rangers (81) 28.4% (9.5) 35.8% trade (12.8) 24.7% FA (10.7) 11.1% other (3.6)
Dodgers (86) 26.7% (17.9) 41.9% trade (9.4) 25.6% FA (15.1) 5.8% other (1.0)
Blue Jays (68) 26.5% (10.7) 38.2% trades (27.6) 22.1% free agency (9.5) 13.2% other (2.7)
Pirates (67) 23.9% (24.1) 35.8% trade (7.9) 20.9% FA (8.5) 19.4% other (0.8)
Astros (63) 20.6% (24.1) 38.1% trade (8.6) 28.6% FA (8.5) 12.7% other (5.5)
Cubs (79) 13.9% (7.4) 39.2% trade (27.0) 34.1% FA (5.2) 12.7% other (2.0)

Putting these sources together, one can begin to understand which playoff clubs produced the most efficient rosters. I bolded each team’s two most valuable sources of talent (arguably), and italicized especially valuable acquisitions.

  • The Cardinals arguably overused their homegrown acquisition strategy, to the extent that their draft & amateur free agent WAR is basically equal to two other clubs that used half as many homegrown players. (For those inclined to believe I’m simply picking on St. Louis, I’m not; this is a real issue. Given that the Cardinals featured a notably below average offense, it is worth questioning their talent acquisition strategies).
  • The Cubs arguably maximized their homegrown talent: basically, they graduated stars to bolster free agents and trades. There is arguably no more efficient way to employ homegrown talent than through this method.
  • Both the Blue Jays and Cubs received more value from their trades than any club received from their homegrown players.
  • The Cardinals trades are arguably more impressive than their homegrown assignments.
  • For all the “Big Market” moaning and groaning, the Yankees and Dodgers arguably used their free agents in efficient ways (although it’s hard to ignore the Yankees spending more than $40 million on two ineffective free agent starters). The Yankees’ trades were also arguably efficient.
  • Houston absolutely smoked every other playoff club with their Rule 5, waiver, and “purchased” acquisitions. Not only did no other team come close in terms of their “other” transactions, but the Astros’ “other” acquisitions outplayed some teams’ free agents and trades.
  • Toronto, Houston, Pittsburgh, the Cubs, and arguably the Rangers constructed the most “balanced” rosters, both in terms of the balance between transactions and the balance between WAR.
  • St. Louis, Kansas City, the Mets, and the Dodgers produced the most imbalanced rosters, relying on one area of talent acquisition for more than 40% of roster space, or refusing to use “other” transactions. The Cardinals, Mets, and Dodgers were unable to match other teams’ value with their most-popular transactions, and the Dodgers’ trades are probably the most inefficient use of resources of any club (luckily they can simply spend away those inefficiencies in other areas).

When you’re considering the best possible way to build a baseball roster, it’s best to avoid general sayings or one route to talent acquisition. Of course, it’s difficult to quantify the idea that each GM should find the best possible talent through every possible avenue. GMs will have different information, they will have different communication routes, they will have different budgets, and different organizational outlooks. Each of these issues should underscore the conditions of scarcity facing teams.

For those inclined to scoff at “Moneyball” language like “market inefficiencies,” the reality of scarcity (of talent, resources, and information) should showcase why it is important to exploit certain avenues. Compare the Cardinals and Mets to the Astros and Cubs, as an example: if the Mets and Cardinals insist on developing through their own draft, international signings, and systems, that opens potential under-the-radar trades, Rule 5 claims, budget free agents, or waiver claims. This is the genius of the Cubs and Astros roster construction, even if one only focuses on a specific player here or there: nabbing an Arrieta or McHugh is a really, really big deal when there is a win at stake in each game. This is where the Brewers need to excel: if there are teams that ignore certain avenues, the Brewers need to exploit those inefficiencies.

Should the Cardinals or Mets win the World Series, it will be a triumph for homegrown pitching, and Jacob deGrom or Michael Wacha or Jaime Garcia will be celebrated. Fans will repeat, “the Brewers need homegrown pitching.” But, the opposite lesson is most important: should the Cubs or Astros win, the diverse roster strategies must be praised. What the Brewers need is the best possible players with the most efficient use of resources: no pressure!

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