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checking the ledger

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Update [2006-7-12 11:6:19 by lboros]: espn radio is reporting that the astros acquired aubrey huff from the devil rays for two minor leaguers. here's a link from the 'stros official site.[end update]

halfway through spring training i ran a post titled, simply, "moneyball". it analyzed the st louis payroll using a pricing paradigm that cardinal stat consultant mitchel lichtman -- better known as mgl -- had described in an interview. i'll reprint the relevant passage:

Mitchel: I try to counsel the Cards not to spend more than $200,000 per marginal run (on the free agent market). I consider anything less than that to be somewhat of a bargain. Less than $150,000 is a real bargain, and less than $100,000 (almost impossible) is an absolute steal.
the concept of "marginal runs" is pretty standard by now, but just in case you're not familiar with it: a "marginal run" is the production a player contributes above and beyond what a replacement player -- a guy like john gall -- would contribute. if john gall were to play every day at 1st base, he would provide a certain level of production; albert pujols exceeds that level by about 90 runs per year, so we say that pujols is worth 90 marginal runs. at mgl's preferred rate -- ie, $200,000 per marginal run -- the cardinals would have to pay about $18 million per season to acquire comparable production on the free-agent market. the cardinals are only paying pujols $14 million in 2006, which means that in addition to ev'ything else he does, no. 5 is saving the company $4m a year.

we all good with the concept? let's proceed.

baseball prospectus has a variety of metrics to evaluate how many marginal runs a given player is contributing. the most straightforward is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), an expression of the marginal runs a player contributes with his bat or his pitching arm. then there's FRAR (Fielding Runs Above Replacement), which attempts to capture the player's marginal-run production with the glove. neither metric is perfect, but both are free and readily accessible; just go with them, with the understanding that they're merely estimates.

if we sum a player's VORP and FRAR, we get a rough figure of his value in marginal runs; multiply by $200,000, and you can determine whether or not he is paying his own way. keep in mind that the $200K-per-marginal-run pricing structure applies only to players who are free-agent eligible; the market is obviously a lot cheaper for players who are unable to sell their services to the highest bidder.

let's start with the new acquisitions -- guys jocketty acquired this past off-season. the "marg runs" column in this table contains full-season numbers, extrapolated from each player's performance through the first 87 games. the "value" column represents the player's worth at $200K per marginal run. here we go:

2006
marg runs
value actual
salary
credit/
debit
hancock 25 $5m $327K $4.7m
zpiezio 22 $4.4m $327K $4.1m
looper 18 $3.6m $3.5m $100K
ponson 4.2 $840K $1m -$160K
bennett -4.6 $327K $800K -$450K
spivey --- $0 $1.2m -$1.2m
encarnacion 10.6 $2.1m $3.5m -$1.4m
rincon -- $0 $1.9m -$1.9m
TOTAL $3.8m

basically, walt had a lousy winter but redeemed it with two heads-up acquisitions in spring-training. the looper and encarnacion contracts will both get worse over time, as their dollar values increase and the dividends in marginal runs likely decrease. but for this season, neither one is a disaster. the bottom five guys on this list -- from ponson on down -- consumed $8.4 million (nearly 10 percent of the payroll) without raising the team much above replacement level. but hancock and zpiezio are making significant contributions for the minimum wage, balancing out the ledger sheet nicely. i'm being generous to include hancock and zpiezio on this list, because neither was a free agent in the way we normally think of them -- that is, they weren't productive players who became eligible to sell their services to the highest bidder. they were, on the contrary, expendable players who got released and were fortunate to latch on with another major-league team. but i've got them on the list because they were shrewd value moves, and the point of the exercise is to gauge how well walter is deploying his financial resources.

now we'll turn to the holdover free-agents -- guys on multiyear deals that they signed as free agents before 2005:

2006
marg runs
value actual
salary
credit/
debit
edmonds 37 $7.4m $12m -$4.6m
rolen 96 $19.2m $11m $8.2m
carp'ter 62 $12.4m $5m $7.4m
is'hausen 20 $4m $8.5m -$4.5m
eckstein 45 $9m $3.5m $5.5m
suppan -9 $327K $4m -$3.7m
TOTAL $8.5m

that's very good, especially when you consider the very large number of marginal runs these guys contribute. as a group, they're worth more than 250 marginal runs, or roughly 25 marginal wins over the course of the season. it's the core of the team -- with one very large exception -- and walter has them locked in at very attractive prices.