Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Roster That's Fun For All Ages

Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh have a terrific podcast at Baseball Prospectus. Recently, Sam joked that MLB should have a rule that prohibited teams from carrying two players of the same age on their 25-man roster.

That is just awesome, so I tried to see what kind of team I could put together under these rules. Obviously, if the whole league was doing this, I couldn't construct a roster as talented as this. For the purposes of this exercise, the player's age for the upcoming season is their age on June 30, 2014. 

Pos Player 2014 Age
C Yadier Molina 31
1B Joey Votto 30
2B Matt Carpenter 28
SS Andrelton Simmons 24
3B Adrian Beltre 35
OF Andrew McCutchen 27
OF Mike Trout 22
OF Yasiel Puig 23
DH David Ortiz 38
B David Ross 37
B Adrian Gonzalez 32
B Carlos Correa 19
B Derek Jeter 40
B Byron Buxton 20
B Raul Ibanez 42
SP Clayton Kershaw 26
SP Chris Sale 25
SP Max Scherzer 29
SP Jose Fernandez 21
SP Bartolo Colon 41
RP Darren Oliver 43
RP Craig Breslow 33
RP Brad Ziegler 34
RP Joaquin Benoit 36
CL Koji Uehara 39

I chose one player of every age from 19 to 43 because I just couldn't coax a 44-year-old Mariano Rivera out of retirement. Many of the ages in the middle have so many great players, I could have made a bunch of different teams. Let's take a deeper look at this squad.

Age 19: Carlos Correa

The first-overall pick of the 2012 draft, this shortstop is going to be a cornerstone in the Astros rebuilding efforts. He was born on September 22, 1994, during the time that the players were on strike and Ken Burns' Baseball was airing on PBS.

I saw him play very briefly during at the end of the 2012 Appalachian League season. I was the play-by-play voice of the Bluefield Blue Jays and after he moved up from the Gulf Coast League, his Greeneville Astros hosted the Jays for the final series of the year. Starting the first game of the set, made an error in the top of the first inning, struck out in the bottom half and was taken out of the game. He didn't play in the last two contests so that was it for me, but he had a big 2013.

Last year in the low-A Midwest League, he hit .320/.405/.467  for the Quad Cities River Bandits. In a league filled with players three or four years his senior, he finished in the circuit's top ten in most offensive categories. He's not quite ready for the big leagues, but I bet he's the top 19-year-old in pro ball.

Age 20: Byron Buxton

When Correa was taken first overall in 2012, the Twins snagged Buxton with the very next pick. I saw him that August in Bluefield when he was manning center for the Elizabethton Twins. One time he beat out an infield single on a routine grounder to short. Dude is fast. Last year he moved up and split time between low-A and high-A, totaling a .334/.424/.520 slash line with Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers.

I also considered top prospects Miguel Sano (Twins 3B), Francisco Lindor (Indians SS), Albert Almora (Cubs CF) and Max Fried (Padres LHP) . But I think Buxton is the best fit in terms of talent and slotting in as a backup outfielder.

Age 21: Jose Fernandez

His 2013 was one of the great 20-year-old pitching seasons in baseball history. Among qualified 20-or-younger hurlers since 1901, his 176 ERA+ trailed only Dwight Gooden's 229 in 1985. Also, only Gooden, Bob Feller, Christy Mathewson and Bert Blyleven topped Fernandez's 6.3 bWAR.

This age 21 spot made for a very difficult decision, which speaks to the phenomenal group of young talent in the game today. I could have easily made a case for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, plus up-and-comers Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar and Taijuan Walker. I just chose the pitcher over the position players.

Age 22: Mike Trout

Come on.

Apologies to Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez .

Related: The Cardinals will continue to be good.

Age 23: Yasiel Puig

Three terrific pitchers stood out with Shelby Miller (another freakin' Cardinal?!), Julio Teheran and Gerrit Cole. But with Fernandez already in tow, I'll focus on position players instead. Wil Myers and Nolan Arenado would be fine choices, with Nick Franklin and Billy Hamilton in the mix as well. But Puig had a monster 2013 in which his 160 wRC+ was fourth in the majors behind Miguel Cabrera, Trout and Chris Davis (min. 400 PA) . I don't know if he'll be quite as good over a larger sample, but it'll be a thrill to see what he can do in a full season.

Age 24: Andrelton Simmons

Defensive metrics have their flaws, but watching him play shortstop and looking at his stats makes you go, "Yeah that sounds about right." Baseball-Reference pegged his defensive WAR at an all-time single season record 5.4. Of nerdy-nerd stuff ain't your thing, how about this:

I considered the guy who is often on the receiving end of Simmons' throws, first baseman Freddie Freeman, as well as Royals catcher Salvador Perez . Simmons only hit .248 with a sub-.300 OBP, but his marvelous glove secures this spot. Still, he's got some pop (17 homers last year) and if he improves even to .260 or so, look out.

Age 25: Chris Sale

Starling Marte, Elvis Andrus and Willin Rosario are strong position players, but this choice came down to two ace pitchers. Stephen Strasburg and Sale had identical strikeout percentages, but while the Nat leads in home run rate and opponent batting average, Sale walked far fewer hitters and worked nearly 30 more innings. Along with Strasburg's injury history and the fact that Sale is a southpaw, I went with the White Sox lefty. I guess you could say he makes hitting (puts on sunglasses)...a nightmare.

Age 26: Clayton Kershaw

One of the easiest choices, even with Paul Goldschmidt and Craig Kimbrel available. He and Trout were the first people I put on the team.

Age 27: Andrew McCutchen

The reigning National League MVP edges Buster Posey and Yu Darvish for this spot.

Age 28: Matt Carpenter

Madness. Felix Hernandez, David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Chris Davis, Evan Longoria, Carlos Gomez, Josh Donaldson and Carlos Gonzalez are all entering their age 28 season. So how in the world did I end up with Carpenter?

I passed on the pitchers with Kershaw, Sale, Fernandez and Scherzer in my rotation. There are a lot of infield combinations you can make with ages 28, 30 and 31. You can do Davis-Pedroia-Cabrera or Longoria-Votto-Cano. I went with Carpenter-Votto-Molina to squeeze value out of the catcher spot. Ask me tomorrow and I probably go with some other combo that involves Posey over McCutchen. This exercise drove me nuts.

Carpenter is slated to move to third base this season, but for this imaginary team I'm keeping him at the keystone corner.

Age 29: Max Scherzer

Troy Tulowitzki was very tempting here, but I chose Simmons and Scherzer over Tulo and say, Madison Bumgarner. Tulowitzki's injury concerns also kept me away from the Rockies standout. Justin Masterson is probably the runner-up among pitchers at this age.

Age 30: Joey Votto

Anibal Sanchez, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and Doug Fister are all solid 30-year-olds, but with a Kershaw-Scherzer-Sale-Fernandez rotation I figured I was set with pitching. The Reds first baseman has led his league in on-base percentage for four consecutive seasons, something only Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs and Barry Bonds have done. I gave Dustin Pedroia a long look here and Jacoby Ellsbury is worth mentioning as well, but went with Votto's power and on-base ability .

Age 31: Yadier Molina

Should I be thrown in jail for not having Miguel Cabrera on this dream team? Perhaps, but the drop-off from Cabrera to fellow 3B Adrian Beltre (or Longoria or Donaldson if you'd like) is offset by what I gain behind the plate. Fellow 31's David Wright and Joe Mauer are overshadowed by Miggy and Yadi at their positions, and Robinson Cano got serious consideration as well. The pitching side features Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver. Not too shabby .

Age 32: Adrian Gonzalez

The top choices here were Adam Wainwright, James Shields, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli and Gonzalez. I thought the righty-hitting Napoli would be a good choice to join the lefty-swinging Votto at first base, but instead I just went with the guy with the longer track record. I could have also picked one of the starters to finalize my rotation, but as you'll see later, I was hamstrung with my fifth-starter spot.

Age 33: Craig Breslow
The youngest of my five relief pitchers, Breslow is probably the biggest surprise here. Hisashi Iwakuma, Jonathan Papelbon, Shane Victorino and Ben Zobrist would all be good ones in this slot, but I need a few set-up guys so I took one of the best bullpen southpaws in the game.

Age 34: Brad Ziegler

Another relief arm comes aboard. With my lineup nearly full, I didn't choose Matt Holliday or Albert Pujols or Coco Crisp. Pitching is pretty thin in this group. I considered Neal Cotts, who is a great comeback story with the Rangers, but went with the righty Ziegler. He finished the season as Arizona's closer and his 70.4 ground-ball rate led all qualified relievers in 2013.

Age 35: Adrian Beltre

Still one of the most underrated players in the game. I surely lose some offense in the Beltre-over-Cabrera move, but I get a lot back in the field. From 2010-2013, he's right behind Miguel Cabrera in WAR (28.6-26.0 in bWAR, -7.3-23.5 in fWAR). I hope Beltre has a few more big seasons to boost his Hall of Fame credentials. Cliff Lee, John Lackey, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth are all worthy 35's as well.

Age 36: Joaquin Benoit

The top position players in this spot are Marlon Byrd and Nick Punto, soooooooo let's look at pitchers. Benoit and Grant Balfour were neck and neck for this spot. Their K-rates were almost exactly the same last year, but Balfour issued walks at a higher clip. Benoit also did a better job of keeping the ball in the park, except against David Ortiz. It was close, Benoit was just a little better than Balfour in most categories. I didn't really need a lefty here, but Javier Lopez is worth mentioning.

Age 37: David Ross

I need a backup catcher and Ross is as good as any. Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett are the best moundsmen at this spot, while Carlos Beltran and Mark Ellis are the top position players. If I could take an outfielder, I'd go with Beltran and look elsewhere for a second backstop, but Ross is solid behind Yadi. A.J. Pierzynski would be a good choice as well, but defense wins out at this position.

Age 38: David Ortiz

Staying in Boston, I might as well go with the World Series MVP to be my DH. With Benoit and Ortiz on the same team, there are no more game-tying grand slams for Joaquin to give up. The immortal Randy Choate was considered for the bullpen and batters included Alfonso Soriano, Torii Hunter, Marco Scutaro and Alex Rodriguez .

Age 39: Koji Uehara

Another Red Sox player? Fine, but only because Koji is suddenly Superman now. He hasn't walked a batter since August 3rd, spanning 127 batters faced. Sure he walked Martin Prado that night, but he then got Cody Ross to ground into a double play. His previous walk before that was on July 3rd! May 15th was the last time he issued a free pass with less than two strikes. I am very happy with him as my closer.

Age 40: Derek Jeter

This was slim pickings. The only other players available that were active in 2013 were reliever Tim Byrdak (7.71 ERA in eight games), the suspended Miguel Tejada, the retired Todd Helton, Jamey Carroll and Ichiro Suzuki . With Jeter, I get leadership and clutchiness and knowshowtowinitude.

Age 41: Bartolo Colon

Only four 40-year-olds saw time in 2013: Derek Lowe (13 IP), Ramon Ortiz (25.1 IP), LaTroy Hawkins (pretty good relief season with the Mets) and Colon (outstanding season with Oakland). Colon was so good, I knew I could take him as my fifth starter here and go with position players at many other age slots.

Age 42: Raul Ibanez

Henry Blanco is still kicking (signed a minor-league deal with Arizona), but Andy Pettitte and Chipper Jones are retired. Ibanez grabs the last bench spot not only because he kinda has to, but because he still has some power left in his bat. Last year he tied Ted Williams' record for most homers by a player who was 41 or older (29 HR). Only Darrell Evans (34 in the 1987 rabbit-ball year) hit more at 40 or older . Maybe he can still do this or this. I was at both of those games and he is the man forever.

Age 43: Darren Oliver

The 25th man is the just-retired lefty. The last spot was either going to be an 18-year-old minor leaguer or Jason Giambi. I need a tenth pitcher and Mo just wasn't going to give back all that stuff he got during his retirement tour. I could have gone the Satchel Paige route and brought back a 59-year-old Dennis Eckersley or Jack Morris. Even though he's 48 and hasn't pitched since 2008, how about newly-elected Hall of Famer Greg Maddux?

Oliver pitched for so long that this is what happened in his major league debut on September 1, 1993:

It was the bottom of the tenth inning of a 5-5 game at Fenway Park. Tom Henke gives up a two-out single to Billy Hatcher, so Texas skipper Kevin Kennedy called on Oliver to face lefty Mike Greenwell. Hatcher stole second on his first big league pitch (a ball), so Kennedy had Oliver throw three more wide ones to put him on intentionally. Mike Schooler relieved him after just one batter. Both teams scored twice in the 11th before Texas scored two in the 12th to win 9-7.

Since (at least) 1916, he is the only pitcher to face one batter in his major league debut and intentionally walk him.

He had a great end of his career, striking out Wil Myers and Evan Longoria during a 1-2-3 inning.

Hopefully he'll come back just for the sake of my silly thought experiment.

How would this team do? The Steamer and Oliver projections are on Fangraphs right now and each player's 2014 WAR is listed below (except non-starting position players).

Pos Player 2014 Age Steamer Oliver 2013 fWAR
C Yadier Molina 31 3.9 4.2 5.6
1B Joey Votto 30 4.9 4.3 6.2
2B Matt Carpenter 28 3.9 4.8 7.0
SS Andrelton Simmons 24 4.0 5.4 4.7
3B Adrian Beltre 35 4.5 4.1 5.2
OF Andrew McCutchen 27 6.6 6.8 8.2
OF Mike Trout 22 9.0 9.6 10.4
OF Yasiel Puig 23 4.6 4.7 4.0
DH David Ortiz 38 2.4 3.3 3.8
SP Clayton Kershaw 26 3.7 5.8 6.5
SP Chris Sale 25 4.6 3.7 5.1
SP Max Scherzer 29 4.2 4.6 6.4
SP Jose Fernandez 21 3.4 2.6 4.2
SP Bartolo Colon 41 2.2 1.7 3.9
RP Darren Oliver 43 0.2 0.2 0.1
RP Craig Breslow 33 0.2 0.5 0.7
RP Brad Ziegler 34 0.3 0.5 0.6
RP Joaquin Benoit 36 0.7 0.4 1.6
CL Koji Uehara 39 1.4 1.3 3.3

The bench is tricky. As far as 2014 is concerned, Correa and Buxton are likely minor leaguers in real life (AA or AAA?). Steamer and Oliver peg Ross at .8 and 1.9 fWAR in 48 and 143 games, respectively. Jeter was sub-replacement in an injury-marred 2013 and is projected for 0.1 fWAR. Ibanez is said to be exactly at replacement level. Gonzalez should be a two-to-three-win player in 2014, but on this hypothetical team, he'd never play enough to accrue that much value. How often would any of these guys play anyway?

Let's say he's a three-win player in 600 plate appearances. If we give him 100 PA between pinch hitting and spot starts for Votto and Ortiz, that gives him 0.5 wins. Put Ross in for 20 or 30 games and he gives you another half-win. Put Jeter and Ibanez at replacement level and Correa and Buxton slightly below and let's just call it a wash with the bench. Exactly 0.0.

Fangraphs has calculated replacement level at 47.7 wins over a full major league season and the correlation between WAR and actual record at .83. The Steamer projection of 64.7 wins comes out to a 101-61 record. The Oliver projection of 68.5 wins comes out to a 105-57 record.

How would this team have done based on the players' 2013 performances? The group above posted a total fWAR of 87.5, meaning their record over a 162-game season would have been a record-breaking 120-42! Makes sense when you have a lineup that looks like this:

Matt Carpenter
Mike Trout
Joey Votto
Andrew McCutchen
David Ortiz
Adrian Beltre
Yasiel Puig
Yadier Molina
Andrelton Simmons

And a Kershaw-Scherzer-Sale-Fernandez-Colon rotation, with Koji closing out games. This roster wouldn't even be that expensive. Their combined salary is just over $166 million, which would have been the third-highest in the game last year, but still behind the Yankees and Dodgers.

Putting this team together was a fun project. If I had put more time into it, I'm sure I could've maximized my combined WAR and perhaps assembled a better team, but for now I like this one.

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