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Building a team out of the worst contracts in baseball

If you owned a team and took on some of the worst deals around both leagues, how well would you do?

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Pretend you just bought a major league team, and that almost all of your players are close to replacement level. Let's call this team the "Philadelphia Phoals." It's the beginning of the offseason, and while this team has a couple of good players, your first step is to trade them all immediately for shiny prospects. Your next step is to sit back and watch the team lose, over and over again.

Unless ...

Warning: This is a remarkably stupid exercise. Oh, there's a possibility it's the new Moneyball and I'm a hot-dang genius, but this is probably a thought exercise that's going to end with you closing the tab and never, ever, ever reading one of my articles again. I'm okay with that. I make sacrifices for my art.

Recently, someone who subscribes to my brand on told me of a dream he had, a dream that involves an entire team of grossly overpaid players. It was an amusing thought ... unless it was a strategy.

See, most of these players could be traded if their old team would pay part of their salary. Their old teams would pick up a substantial chunk of their salary, and some of them might pick up the player's entire salary. They would do that even if the player in question is fifth on the all-time home run leaderboard, to pick one completely random scenario.

What kind of team could you build from the worst contracts in baseball? How much would you have to pay them, and how well would they produce?

We'll do this the old-fashioned way: by guessing and making stuff up.

First baseman - Ryan Howard

But he's already on the Phoals, you cry! Shhhhhhhhhh. Pretend you couldn't crack the code of this expansion team's name, and that you're in charge of a team without any of these players already. We're picking Howard over Pujols because we absolutely know that Howard would be available, and even if the Angels would pick up half of Pujols' deal, it would still be an insanely long and expensive deal.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
We know that. Two years, $10 million.

Second baseman - Brandon Phillips

He's still worth about two wins per season, as I'm sure he already knows, but he's due $39 million over the next three years, and the Reds would love to be free of that obligation before their best pitcher goes on the open market.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
If the Reds could save $19 million in exchange for a prospect or two, it would be reasonable to assume they would consider it. This puts him at three years, $20 million.

Shortstop - Elvis Andrus

This is one of a couple big-ticket items, as the Rangers might eat some of the huge contract, but not most of it. He's owed $118 million over the next eight years, but the Rangers wouldn't give him away until it was clear that last year's defensive shortcomings were a blip, not a trend.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
Wild guess -- wilder than the others, even -- but we'll settle at an average of $12.25 million per season, or $98 million.

Third base - Alex R

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
His old team would pay almost his entire salary, and they've already accepted, no backsies.

Stop that.


Third base - Alex Rodriguez

He's owed $63 million over the next three years with the potential to earn $30 million in marketing bonuses for reaching home run milestones. And, hey, that money will just come right back to the team if they market him correctly!

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
It's such a weird contract. But I'll guess $51 million, with some concessions made if any of those marketing milestones are reached. You know, 3,000 hits is just around the corner!

Catcher - Brian McCann

Normally, I would have started this list with catcher. It would have been a natural way to structure the article. However, catcher is the most problematic position, and it would have been silly to lead the article off with "I don't think the Yankees are really itching to get rid of him, but pretend ..." So I cheated. I hope this doesn't break some sort of unwritten rule.

I don't think the Yankees are really itching to get rid of McCann, but pretend they are. By June, they might be. The Yankees need every last overpaid veteran they have, considering their organizational plan is to keep acting like a win-now team until it's clearly unsustainable. Until it's obvious that they're trying to hotwire a corpse and call it a Lamborghini, they'll keep building a roster like the GM is an exceptionally wealthy MacGyver.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
A lot less if he has another down year. For now, we'll guess $14 million per season if a C-prospect goes the other way. Again, this is the bizarro offseason, so this deal would give the Yankees more money to spend on free agents. It's not just going to Hank's slush fund.

You can probably replace McCann with Jeff Mathis or something, and use the savings to swap Ryan Howard out for Prince Fielder, who still has a chance to hit. So many options!

LF/CF - Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier

Package deal! If a GM calls up the Dodgers on November 1 and says, "We're interested in Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, both. How much of their salary would we need to be responsible for?" the person taking the call would do that frantic EVERYBODY GET IN HERE move that people on the phone do (think cops getting a call from the killer). If you call them now, they wouldn't be as interested, at least in parting with Crawford. He's a part of their plans, and there aren't a lot of ways to spend the money at this very second.

Instead, pretend it's November 1. The Dodgers are very, very interested in having you pay for these players, even if it's just a portion.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
Crawford is a oft-injured two-win player, and he's owed $64 million over the next three years. Let's say the Dodgers pick up $30 million.

Ethier is owed $56 million over the next three years, so let's pretend the Dodgers absorb the same amount of salary. He isn't much of a center fielder, but he didn't embarrass himself last year. "We probably won't embarrass ourselves," is the Phoals' motto this year! What a coincidence.

RF - Shin-Soo Choo

Still angling for that first All-Star team. Still with six years and $116 million left on his deal. This might be #1 on the list of deals teams would control-z, and it just started. But it's not like the Rangers would just pay $100 million of it after his lousy season, just to save $16 million. There's value in seeing if he can rebound. Then, if the Rangers aren't contending, at least he would be more attractive to teams.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
You want Choo? It's not like he's going to be major-league-minimum cheap. If he were on the market after last season, I could still see him getting $60 million on the market, just in case. Think of the Chase Headley deal, which is one that still holds out a little hope for a renaissance. I'll guess the Rangers eat $40 million, which puts him at six years, $76 million. Still steep. Not that steep, though.

SP - Justin Verlander

Ah, the difficulty of doing this with franchise heroes. How badly do the Tigers really want out from this deal? How much would it be worth it for them to be the team that enjoys his comeback season? Doesn't he have 17 different password-protected no-trade clauses in a deal this size? Don't worry! Everyone wants to play for the Phoals! The Tigers are interested, if only because they want to keep David Price. Verlander is interested, if only because he wants a change of scenery. You've suspended your disbelief this far, so ...

Let's see, he's owed ...

/takes sip of coffee

... hold on, let me find it ...

/takes really big sip of coffee

... almost there ...

/I mean, really packs the coffee in there, cheeks bulging and everything

$140 million over five years!

/calmly swallows coffee

That's a lot of money! That contract looks really, really bad! Oh, my stars, I hadn't noticed the precipitous drop in strikeouts, either.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
Maybe the toughest one to gauge. The Tigers probably don't want to just shoot him into the sun, and they're keen on watching Verlander succeed again. On the other hand, if he were on the open market, I'm not sure he would come close to nine figures. He probably wouldn't go for much more than a year just over eight figures, trying to get on the market quickly. Unless he's from the Phil Hughes school of risk aversion, it's impossible to guess at the long-term deal Verlander would sign after last season.

Guess that it would be worth $40 million for the Tigers to avoid being on the hook for five years, then. The $100 million they save could go straight to Price. You're paying that $100 million now.

SP - C.J. Wilson

His deal isn't that absurd, not for a rich, win-now team. He's owed $38 million for the next two years, and the Angels would probably pay that tax for a chance at an above-average pitcher.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
They'll eat $4 million, but they're not running a charity, here.

SP - Ricky Nolasco


How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
He still has three years, $37 million to go. I'll guess that the Twins would pay at least $12 million at the beginning of the offseason to free up the rest.

SP - Ubaldo Jimenez

At least this one made a little sense when the Orioles offered it. They were supposed to contend, after all, and they did. They just did it without the help of this guy, and it's one of the reasons they sat this past offseason out.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
He's basically free to a good home. Three years, $35 million would be three years, $15 million.

SP - Edwin Jackson

Lotta choices for this last spot. There's Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia, but I think their teams have an attachment to them, or at least an attachment to their best-case scenarios. Before Dan Haren was sent to Miami with his salary taped to his back, he would have been a fine choice. Instead, we'll go with Jackson because the Phoals aren't made of money, and we're spending a lot on Andrus and Verlander and oh my goodness this team is going to lose 100 games anyway.

How much would he cost if his old team picked up some of his salary?
Boy, it sure seemed like a sensible deal at the time, and two years, $26 million isn't a roster-crippling sum, even now. The Cubs would pick up $16 million in our game, which leaves Jackson on the equivalent of a two-year, $10 million deal. The Ryan Howard, they call it.

Roster, with cost to new team in 2015

C - Brian McCann, $14 million
1B - Ryan Howard, $5 million
2B - Brandon Phillips, $6.7 million
SS - Elvis Andrus, $12.25 million
3B - Alex Rodriguez, $4 million
LF - Carl Crawford, $11.3 million
CF - Andre Ethier, $8.7 million
RF - Shin-Soo Choo, $12.7 million

SP - Justin Verlander, $20 million
SP - C.J. Wilson, $17 million
SP - Ricky Nolasco, $8.7 million
SP - Ubaldo Jimenez, $5 million
SP - Edwin Jackson, $5 million

Total: $130.35 million.

Say, not bad for a team that combines for 46 All-Star appearances. You'll have a little wiggle room to build your bullpen and bench, too. You'll have faces to put on the billboard outside Phoals Phield, and you're excited for the upcoming season!

But, uh, how awful/respectable would this team be? For that, we'll use Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections, add up the WARP, and see if they come close to the totals of anyone considered a contender.

Brian McCann .244 .319 .428 24 2.5
Ryan Howard .234 .312 .415 19 0.4
Brandon Phillips .258 .305 .336 10 1.6
Elvis Andrus .269 .324 .337 2 2.3
Alex Rodriguez .247 .324 .409 10 0.8
Carl Crawford .269 .307 .404 8 1.9
Andre Ethier .264 .335 .414 8 0.9
Shin-Soo Choo .264 .366 .405 14 2.7

That adds up to 13.1 WARP. Now for the pitchers.

Justin Verlander 217 3.30 203 63 3.4
C.J. Wilson 174 3.64 153 70 1.3
Ricky Nolasco 174 4.94 122 38 -0.5
Ubaldo Jimenez 110 3.78 106 51 0.8
Edwin Jackson 120 4.14 102 40 -0.2

That's a total of 4.8 WARP. I will take the over on some of those (Brandon Phillips) and the under on more than a couple (Justin Verlander), but we'll just add them all up like we don't notice. It's not like we've been following the scientific method to this point, so drink up.

Let's start by comparing that WARP with the projected WARP for some of the worst lineups in the game. First, the Phillies:

Phillies 2015 lineup, projected WARP: 11.4

And the Braves:

Braves 2015 lineup, projected WARP: 11.3

Got a win or two on both of those suckers. But what about an iffy lineup, not an obviously wretched one?

Royals 2015 lineup, projected WARP (no DH): 15.2

Scores of millions don't exactly buy you the kind of thunder you might get with the Royals. So we have to turn to the pitching. What sort of production might you get from the worst projected rotations around the league? First up, the Rockies:

Rockies 2015 rotation, projected WARP: -1.1

Good gravy. The Diamondbacks?

Diamondbacks 2015 rotation, projected WARP: 2.2

Get those Royals back in here.

Royals 2015 rotation, projected WARP: 0.0

What about prognosticator favorites, the Red Sox?

Red Sox 2015 rotation, projected WARP: 1.5

The Mariners?

Mariners 2015 rotation, projected WARP: 6.6

Finally, one that trumps the all-bad-contract team. The caveats are obvious: Verlander is carrying a lot of the weight, even though a) the Tigers wouldn't trade him at a steep discount and b) he just might not be that good again. Replace him with, I don't know, Dan Haren, and you have a realistic rotation that's a lot closer to the Diamondbacks and Royals.

Still, you've spent $130 million on your team, and you have a bunch of familiar faces. You also have a team that's good for 90 to 100 losses. Oh, and some of those contracts are really, really lengthy. Choo might help you with this experiment in 2015, but he'll be murder in 2020, which is why the Rangers were willing to absorb money in the first place.

I should point out that you bought the Phoals with money that you've inherited. You don't know how to relate to people, especially the poor ones, and your temper is legendary. You embarked on this strategy because you don't understand baseball, and you wanted a collection of All-Stars to announce your alpha-male ownerness. You should probably not have anything to do with baseball operations, but it's too late, and everyone is laughing at you.

It would be fun to watch, though. And the poker games in the clubhouse would have some seriously high stakes. Clubbies would get nice tips. There are benefits to this approach. Winning baseball games isn't one of them. We tried. But at least we made 10 teams very, very happy along the way.