MLB Team 2011: Best players money can buy
MLB Team 2011: Best players money can buy
(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — The price of remaining competitive is going up; that’s hardly a secret in baseball.
But the task of balancing quality and cost got significantly more difficult this year. At least that’s the message from Team 2011, our annual exercise in putting together the best team at a reasonable price.
We think we’ve done it again — assembled a championship-caliber team on a budget — but it got more difficult.
Take our three repeaters from Team 2010: right fielder Jose Bautista, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and first baseman Joey Votto. They cost us a total of $21 million this year, compared with $6.4 million a year ago.
That caused more juggling of players than in recent years to meet our self-imposed limit, the 2011 median major league team payroll of $86,763,646. That caused us to lose some stars we wanted, beginning with Amiercan League MVP Justin Verlander.
But that’s reality — and the beauty of the exercise.
1. 2B Dustin Pedroia
2. 1B Joey Votto
3. RF Jose Bautista
4. LF Ryan Braun
5. CF Matt Kemp
6. DH David Ortiz
7. SS Troy Tulowitzki
8. 3B Evan Longoria
9. C Alex Avila
This is not an All-Star team but rather a selection of a realistic 25-man roster: a No. 1 starter, No. 2 starter, No. 3 starter, etc.; a bullpen with each role covered; a starting lineup; and a complete bench.
We pick a manager, hitting coach and pitching coach.
Every year, we cap our team’s payroll at the major league median, the number halfway between the 15th- and 16th-highest payrolls in the majors. This year’s payroll is up $2.4 million from 2010.
This year, we ended up selecting a group with an $86,373,085 payroll, and it required dropping at least four players from what would have been the optimum team. Having the limits also tilted some difficult decisions in favor of the lower-salaried players.
This year’s bullpen made the difference, a six-man group coming in at just more than $4 million, down from nearly $10.8 million in 2010. That allowed us to increase payroll in every other area, especially our $21.9 million rotation that cost more than $9 million more than a year ago — and, remember, that’s after we couldn’t afford to keep Verlander ($12.75 million) on our roster.
In the end, we have a remarkably versatile offensive team, with plenty of position flexibility — not just a nice group on paper, but the kind of roster that could successfully navigate the six-month season.
Read on to see how we settled on our team.
Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers
The 24-year-old’s first season as a full-timer was eye-opening. He was baseball’s dominant offensive catcher, the only one among the nine in the majors with 500 plate appearances to have a slugging percentage of .500.
With a salary that is $11,000 over the major league minimum of $414,000, Avila is the best bargain in our starting lineup.
•Last year:Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
Some of the numbers changed, but Votto is back in circumstances similar to a year ago.
In 2010, we lamented that Votto’s bargain status was about to go away. We chose him and his $525,000 salary a year ago to solve most of our payroll issues, a nice alternative to Miguel Cabrera’s $20 million.
This year, Cabrera was still making $20 million, and Votto was up over $7.4 million. But that was a big enough gap to overcome Cabrera’s statistical edge.
Votto isn’t exactly a big fall-off. His 29 home runs, 103 RBI and above-average defense put him in the mix with the game’s elite at the position.
•Last year: Votto
Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox
Pedroia’s $5.75 million salary ended a debate involving 2010 pick Robinson Cano, who made $10 million, leaving the Texas Rangers’ Ian Kinsler as the only challenger.
Pedroia’s .307 batting average (52 points higher than Kinsler’s) was the difference. Kinsler had a 32-21 edge in home runs but just a three-point edge in slugging percentage.
•Last year: Cano, New York Yankees
Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies
Like Votto, Tulowitzki is a repeat pick who costs more.
Fortunately, Tulowitzki remained a relative bargain at $5.5 million, up from 2010?s $3.5 million, despite signing a contract extension in the meantime to lock him up through 2020. Alas, he’ll be paid $20 million a year from 2015 to 2019.
•Last year: Tulowitzki
Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria’s on-field excellence and team-friendly contract make him a perennial contender, enough so this year that he returned to our squad after a year’s absence and kept Texas’ Adrian Beltre from being a repeat selection.
Longoria made $2 million to Beltre’s $14 million, and his 31 homers and 99 RBI ranked second to Beltre among full-time third basemen.
•Last year: Beltre
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
The National League MVP remains our choice while we await the completion of the process surrounding his possible violation of baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
His performance positioned him above the rest of the field, but if it turns out to have been an enhanced performance, we would be willing to move on to the Kansas City Royals’ Alex Gordon, who makes nearly $3 million less than Braun, posing no problem for our payroll.
•Last year:Josh Hamilton, Texas
Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
The man with the best offensive statistics in the NL lost out to Braun in the MVP voting, so we were determined not to let him be forced off our roster.
Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury was a tempting alternative at $2.4 million to Kemp’s $7.1 million, but Kemp led the NL in RBI and led center fielders in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.
•Last year:Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
The other 2010 repeater, Bautista led the majors in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) and won a second home run championship, easing the increase in his salary from $2.4 million to $8 million.
Bautista’s OPS was 97 points higher than any other major league right fielder.
•Last year: Bautista
David Ortiz, Boston
“Big Papi” continued to put up solid numbers at 35, but $12.5 million is getting to be a hefty price at this position.
The problem is, the few remaining full-time DHs are just as well-compensated and/or less productive. Ortiz wields an impact bat and is a left-handed hitter in a lineup that leans to the right.
bullet>Last year:Vladimir Guerrero, Texas
No. 1 starter
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
The statistical comparison between the two Cy Young Award winners was close enough that when our payroll issues became apparent, this was a place to save. American League MVP Justin Verlander and his $12.85 million salary fell victim. Kershaw’s $500,000 was an attractive number, but so were the ones that got him the pitching Triple Crown: 21 victories, 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts. Plus, the 23-year-old won a Gold Glove.
bullet>Last year: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
No. 2 starter
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Plenty of No. 1 starters would take a 2.40 ERA with 17 wins and a major league-leading six shutouts, but such is the quality of the Phillies’ rotation that Lee clearly is No. 2 behind Roy Halladay. And that makes him clearly the best in the majors in that role. The next-best choice is the Los Angeles Angels’ Dan Haren, but he wouldn’t provide any bargain as he made more than Lee’s $11 million.
bullet>Last year:Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
No. 3 starter Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
More of the trickle-down effect of the Phillies rotation, Hamels finished second in the National League in WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning) — to Kershaw — and just ahead of Lee and Halladay. Hamels’ career-best 2.79 ERA was built around a continuing improvement in limiting baserunners. His hits, home runs and walks per nine innings also were the best he has compiled in his six seasons. Hamels also became a more economical pitcher. Though his strikeout rate dropped a full strikeout per nine innings, his 4.41 strikeout-walk ratio was the best of his career.
bullet>Last year:Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
No. 4 starter
Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers
The most difficult part of this choice was deciphering where Harrison and Derek Holland line up in the 3-4 spots in the Rangers rotation. Whoever fell to No. 4 was our winner here. With two fewer starts and 12 fewer innings, we went with Harrison. His 14 victories were a big plus for the AL champions in his first full season in a major league rotation. His stiffest competition came from Ryan Vogelsong, a revelation for the San Francisco Giants in his return to the majors.
•Last year: R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
No. 5 starter
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers
Manager Ron Washington made this part of the Texas pecking order obvious when Ogando was the one left out of the postseason rotation. But he wasn’t forgotten in a 13-win season and All-Star selection in his first full season. He also finished in the AL top 10 in WHIP and filled out a rotation in which all five guys had at least 13 victories.
•Last year:Wade Davis, Tampa Bay Rays
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
The NL rookie of the year led the league with 46 saves at the bargain price of $419,000. He stepped into the Atlanta job and pitched like a right-handed version of Billy Wagner, the retired lefty. His walk rates were lower than they had been in the minor leagues, and he led major league relievers in strikeouts (127) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.84) and percentage of batters struck out (41.5%). If there was any negative, it was that he blew three saves in the final three weeks of the season. But a factor in that fade could have been his 77 appearances, most among closers.
•Last year:Rafael Soriano, Tampa Bay Rays
David Robertson, New York Yankees
There’s no concrete answer to who will succeed Mariano Rivera as Yankees closer. But Robertson made his case with a 1.08 ERA and 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He moved ahead of Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano, the closer for our Team 2010, in the order as the season progressed. He’ll start 2012 as the eighth-inning man.
•Last year: Joaquin Benoit, Rays
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
The Royals were determined to build a young bullpen in front of closer Joakim Soria. Hard-throwing Holland’s breakout season as a 25-year-old included 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, and he showed durability, pitching more than an inning in 20 of his 46 appearances. He also had four saves.
•Last year:Mike Adams, San Diego Padres
Sean Marshall, Chicago Cubs
He was the most effective left-handed reliever in any role in 2011, pitching so well in two consecutive seasons that thoughts of putting him in the rotation were set aside. Marshall, traded to the Cincinnati Reds, had the ability to get plenty of ground balls, which made him especially valuable at Wrigley Field. He made a solid lefty-righty tandem with Kerry Wood in front of closer Carlos Marmol.
•Last year:Hong-Chih Kuo, Los Angeles Dodgers
Joe Paterson, Arizona Diamondbacks
Paterson found a significant role, allowing two runs (in one game) and nine hits over his final 24 appearances. The selection was the final concession to payroll. The one situational lefty who outpitched Paterson was the Florida Marlins’ Randy Choate, but Paterson made $414,000, Choate $1 million.
•Last year:Joe Thatcher, San Diego Padres
Long reliever/spot starter
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
He made 12 September appearances, accounting for 25 of his 114 innings, as he finished with 10 victories, matching a career high from 2009 with the Yankees. He had a 1.80 ERA in September and held batters to a .209 average. He allowed 84 in 114 innings in 2011.
•Last year:Brian Duensing, Minnesota Twins
Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers
Some wonderful circumstances conspired to give us a deluxe backup. Napoli, who caught 61 games to Yorvit Torrealba’s 98, also plays first base and — by the way — hit 30 home runs in 369 at-bats.
With a young guy such as Avila as our starter, we don’t need the traditional backup who provides rest. Plus, Napoli can handle the positions filled by the lefties in our lineup: catcher, first base and DH.
•Last year:Ryan Hanigan, Cincinnati Reds
Emilio Bonifacio, Florida Marlins
One of the game’s fastest players, he did everything but pitch, catch and play first base in 2011.
Bonifacio was the primary fill-in when shortstop Hanley Ramirez was injured and also showed he has the range to handle center field. Plus, his .296 batting average and .360 on-base percentage easily were career highs, as were his 40 stolen bases.
•Last year:Omar Infante, Atlanta Braves
Daniel Murphy, New York Mets
With Murphy playing 24 or more games each at first base, second base and third base, his .320 batting average becomes even more valuable. The Mets’ injury issues had the 26-year-old playing regularly at each position at various junctures.
Most notable was a 20-game stretch May 24 to June 13 when Murphy hit .423 after taking over at first. He was at a season high when he injured a knee Aug. 7 and missed the rest of the season.
•Last year:Wilson Betemit, Kansas City Royals
Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals
The question about Craig coming through the minor leagues was whether he would find a defensive position. It’s still not settled where he’ll end up — and he could eventually be Albert Pujols’ long-term replacement at first base.
But Craig showed he can handle all three outfield positions and even spent time at second base and third base.
But he spent most of his time in the outfield and showed the power — 11 homers and 40 RBI in 200 at-bats — that all along was his ticket to the major leagues. And he proved during the postseason he could handle the big stage, with four homers in 37 at-bats, including three in the World Series.
•Last year:Michael Morse, Washington Nationals
Matt Downs, Houston Astros
Downs will get a chance to compete for the second-base job in the spring. But he made the most of limited time in 2011, compiling an .864 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) and driving in 41 runs in 199 at-bats. He hit .349 as a pinch-hitter and, among major leaguers with at least 20 pinch-hit appearances, his three homers, 15 RBI and 1.136 OPS all were highs.
•Last year:Eric Hinske, Atlanta
Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays
He’s routinely asked to do more with less than most of his American League East foes, but Maddon’s task was particularly difficult in 2011 after he lost almost his entire bullpen to free agency. How significant were those losses? Tampa Bay’s closer and top setup man from 2010 — Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit — were members of our 2010 team. Maddon’s hold on the clubhouse was underlined in 2011 when the Rays kept battling through September after seeming hopelessly behind the Boston Red Sox for the wild card. The Rays won it on the final day of the regular season with improbable rallies.
•Last year:Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants
Kevin Long, New York Yankees
One of Long’s strengths has been the ability to win the confidence of the veteran and accomplished hitters who usually populate the Yankees roster. It’s been more than minor tinkering that has been crucial to moving the Yankees offense forward. He worked extensively with center fielder Curtis Granderson to improve his results against left-handed pitching. Plus Granderson’s power increased to the point that he was in the MVP conversation. Long’s annual program of winter visits to players to work on their swings and changes to their approach at the plate has been a key the last several years.
•Last year:Dwayne Murphy, Toronto Blue Jays
Mike Maddux, Texas Rangers
Note that the fourth and fifth starters in our rotation are Rangers. And Derek Holland, Texas’ No. 3 starter, had a breakout season, plus Colby Lewis emerged as a more than respectable No. 2 after returning from Japan two years ago. Even 2011?s No. 1, C.J. Wilson, now a Los Angeles Angel, was converted from a closer. Maddux is very much an intelligent and hands-on coach whose name began popping up in managerial searches. He was seen as valuable enough that the Rangers signed him away from the Milwaukee Brewers after his success, and he has had the complete blessing of and shown the ability to work with team President Nolan Ryan.
•Last year:Roger McDowell, Atlanta Braves
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