The recent release of the World Baseball Classic rosters, along with a news cycle saturated by salary arbitration news, got me thinking about who are the best players at each position throughout MLB who are still toiling away at their craft with dreams of future 8 figure salaries, while making just the league minimum. The minimum salary for a player in the major league was $480,000 in 2012. Certainly more than most people will see in even 10 years of work. But it is a paltry sum in the context of the flush-with-cash world of professional sports. A 25 man roster composed entirely of players making the minimum salary would garner roughly $12 million in total payroll. I suppose, much like Martin Luther King Jr., Jeffery Loria also has a dream...but I digress. So, who are these players? And what would a lineup of them look like? Let's go around the diamond.
There are a number of good, yet unspectacular, young catchers at the moment. Jesus Montero is probably the most recognized name, but he has yet to live up to expectations he generated as a prospect. For the past two seasons J.P. Arencibia has been a steady backstop for the Blue Jays both offensively and defensively. His bat is limited to his ability to hit for power (career .211 ISO) but that is a pretty useful tool to have. Defensively, he rates around average to slightly above average in most stats. Most notably, he maintains a career 27% caught stealing rate. Wilin Rosario can smash the ball with his bat (.260 ISO) and throw runners out on the basepaths (32% CS). He cannot, however, catch the ball very well (21 passed balls and 63! wild pitches allowed). Others of note include: Devin Mesoraco, Wilson Ramos, Derek Norris, and Hank Conger.
A lot of talent here. Mark Trumbo. Eric Hosmer. Freddy Freeman. Allen Craig. Anthony Rizzo. Yonder Alonso. One can dream on what Hosmer could become, but last season was an unequivocal disaster for him. Rizzo and Alonso are young and full of promise, but neither has proven themselves over the course of two or more seasons.Trumbo swings the biggest stick of the group but his defensive better left unspoken of. Craig is an Allen Wrench of a player as he can hack it in the outfield corners as well as throughout the infield save for shortstop. Freeman is the most balanced of the choices, and would thus get the starting nod were I building this squad. Decent left handed pop in his bat, he's put up OPS+ numbers of 116 and 113 the past two seasons. He's not a gold glover in the field, but he's passable, and certainly more competent than Trumbo or Craig.
A rather sparse crop here. Highlighted by Jason Kipnis who was one of the few bright spots on a lowly Indians club in 2012. His 3.7 bWAR ranked 2nd among players making the minimum, trailing only Darwin Barney (4.6 bWAR). But while Kipnis is a more balanced player, Barney derives the bulk of his value through his slick fielding which netted him a well deserved though still somewhat surprising Gold Glove award last season. Others of note include Danny Espinosa, Josh Rutledge, and Jose Altuve.
Some tremendous top end talent here, along with some solid depth options. The stud is Brett Lawrie (4.1 bWAR in 2012). He has the bat to be a potential future MVP candidate, plays exciting full-throttle defense, and a heapin helping of attitude. The other star-in-the-making is Mike Moustakes. Him and the previously mentioned Eric Hosmer did a neat little double switch from 2011 to 2012. In 2011, Hosmer came up to the bigs and mashed while Moustakes struggled to adjust. Then, in 2012 they reversed roles as Hosmer disappointed while Moustakes put up a solid 2.9 bWAR season. The depth at the position comes in the form of 2012 Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier, Kyle Seager, and Will Middlebrooks. Each of whom put up +1.0 or more bWAR seasons in 2012. Ah...but you may be wondering why I left out a certain name from this discussion...
And that is because Manny Machado, who would be another of the 'studs' in the 3B class, is fully capable of handling shortstop. And it is at shortstop where I would have him starting were I picking the players for this club. He's great. And he has proven that he can handle the pressures of holding down an MLB job. But, like 3B, there is a tremendous amount of depth here. Jurikson Profar is the top prospect in all of baseball at the moment. Andrelton Simmons is probably the best defensive SS in the majors already. Didi Gregorious basically netted Trevor Bauer in a trade this off season. Reuben Tejada and Zach Cozart each had roughly 2 bWAR seasons in 2012.
One would think this would be the easiest part of the field to fill. Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Giancarlo Stanton. Duh. Well, technically, Bryce Harper isn't eligible. He signed a major league deal upon being drafted and will be making $2m+ each of the next three seasons before becoming arbitration eligible. So, while Trout and Stanton remain as no-brainers, it leaves one open spot to be filled by a number of really good players. Do you want a player with power? Josh Reddick fits the bill. Or how about a defensive whiz? Peter Bourjos or Anthony Gose, then. A speedster? Desmond Jennings and Ben Revere burn up the basepaths. A huge upside prospect? Wil Myers has it in spades. Or how about just an all around good player? Jon Jay is just that. In the end, I'd select Josh Reddick as the left fielder. Huge left handed power along with a cannon for an arm.
With all of the defensive positions filled, it leaves a slot for a DH. Mark Trumbo probably has the best bat of the players not selected as of yet. And having to face him and Stanton would likely put the fear of whatever deity the pitcher worships into him.
TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. There is also not much in the way of stud young pitchers who are only making the league minimum salary. Seems logical that most of the high end talented pitchers would seek some semblance of security and a hedge against potential injury by signing deals with their clubs as soon as possible (such as Matt Moore or Madison Bumgarner). But there is the making of a pretty decent rotation to be found. Hell, the O's could field 4/5ths of an entire rotation for the low low cost of roughly $2 million. Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, and Miguel Gonzalez are all still pre-arbitration eligible in 2013. But none of them crack the best-of-the-best rotation. For that would line up as so: Chris Sale (5.7 bWAR), Jarrod Parker (3.8 bWAR), Jeremy Hellickson (2.9 bWAR), Wade Miley (3.2 bWAR), and Matt Harvey (1.6 bWAR). Tillman (1.5 bWAR) certainly has a case to be the 5th starter, as Harvey has pitched all of 59 innings. But Harvey has electric stuff and he basically dominated all of those 59 IP. Tillman has, frankly, been incredibly inconsistent and my personal preference would be to go with the youngin with the howitzer of an arm. A name not previously mentioned, Brandon Beachy, would definitely be the 5th starter, but he shredded his elbow last June.
How is Craig Kimbrel still only making the minimum??? Utterly unsane. That being said, as good as the rest of the squad has shaped up, the bullpen may just be the strongest and deepest collection of pre-arb players. Headlined by the best reliever in the game, Kimbrel (3.2 bWAR), you find a litany of power arms who throw baseballs for dirt cheap rates. Vinnie Pestano (2.1 bWAR), Kenley Jansen (1.9 bWAR), Ryan Cook (2.6 bWAR), Jake McGee (1.8 bWAR), Robbie Ross (1.9 bWAR), Tom Wilhelmsen (1.8 bWAR), Ernesto Frieri (1.3 bWAR), Greg Holland (1.6 bWAR), Alexi Ogando (1.5 bWAR), and Pedro Strop (2.4 bWAR) are but a smidgen of the pre-arb bullpen arms to choose from.
The Roster and Lineup
So, 25 of the best (as well as cheapest) players in the game. Who ya' got (OBP / SLG are 2012 numbers):
- (R) Mike Trout (CF), .399 OBP / .564 SLG
- (L) Freddie Freeman (1B), .340 OBP / .456 SLG
- (R) Brett Lawrie (3B), .324 / .405
- (R) Giancarlo Stanton (RF), .361 / .608
- (L) Josh Reddick (LF), .305 / .463
- (R) Mark Trumbo (DH), .317 / .491
- (L) Jason Kipnis (2B), .335 / .379
- (R) J.P. Arencibia ( C ), .275 / .435
- (R) Manny Machado (SS), .294 / .445
- ( C ) Wilin Rosario. (R) .312 OBP / .530 SLG. 32% CS. The 'catching' part of the job is somewhat of a concern though, granted.
- (CIF) Allen Craig. (R) .354 OBP / .522 SLG. Of his 223 career games played, 98 have been at 1B, 110 at corner outfield, 9 at 2B, and 4 at 3B.
- (MI) Darwin Barney (R) .299 OBP / .354 SLG. +29 DRS over 2400+ innings at 2B. Also has 130+ innings of positive DRS at SS.
- (OF) Desmond Jennings (R) .314 OBP / .388 SLG. 31/33 SBs in 2012. +13 DRS over roughly 1400 innings played in LF.
- (OF / Pinch Runner) Ben Revere (L) .333 OBP / .342 SLG. 40/49 SBs.
- (L) Chris Sale, 192.0 IP, 3.05 ERA, 9.0 K/9
- (R) Jarrod Parker, 181.1 IP, 3.47 ERA, 6.9 K/9
- (R) Jeremy Hellickson, 177.0 IP, 3.10 ERA, 6.3 K/9
- (L) Wade Miley, 194.2 IP, 3.33 ERA, 6.7 K/9
- (R) Matt Harvey, 59.1 IP, 2.73 ERA, 10.6 K/9
- (R) Craig Kimbrel (Closer). 16.7 K/9. 1.01 ERA. Average fastball velocity of 96.8 mph in 2012.
- (R) Vinne Pestano (Set Up). 9.8 K/9. 2.57 ERA.
- (R) Greg Holland (7th inning). 12.2 K/9. 2.96 ERA. AFV of 96.1 mph.
- (L) Jake McGee (LOOGY). 11.9 K/9. 1.95 ERA. AFV of 95.5 mph. .289 wOBA vs. lefties.
- (R) Alexi Ogando (Long man). 9.0 K/9. 3.27 ERA. AFV of 96.9 mph. Made 29 starts in 2011.
- (R) Pedro Strop. 7.9 K/9. 2.44 ERA. AFV of 96.4 mph.
So there is my optimal 25 man roster of players making just the league minimum salary in 2013. These players combined to produce 79.6 bWAR in 2012. Now, obviously, playing time would change if all these players were to be on the same team for a full season. Some (Machado, Harvey) would see much more playing time than they did in 2012, and thus could likely produce even more bWAR than they managed to in their limited exposure. Others (all the bench players) would see their playing time cut from 2012 levels, and thus wouldn't likely produce as much bWAR as they did while starting. But if you operate from a starting point of 47 wins for an all replacement level team, this is a squad that would still look nearly certain to win 100+ games. I'd buy that for a dollar.