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How much does a win cost?

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In which we examine the going rate for MLB talent

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s one of the questions you have likely seen asked countless times across the baseball blogosphere: how do we quantifiably value players? With the upcoming cycle of trade deadline rumors not too far off the horizon, so too will come the good ole “surplus value” tables used to evaluate potential deals at sabermetric-slanted websites like yours truly. At its core this methodology for player valuation attempts to weigh a player’s projected level of future production relative to the cost to acquire said player’s services.

While we can utilize a catch-all metric like wins above replacement (WAR) to establish some sort of tangible barometer for on-field prowess, there is still a critical missing piece to the puzzle: how much teams are willing to pay for one of these “wins” on the open market. By taking a quick look in the rear-view mirror, namely, at last offseason, we can hopefully ascertain a better sense of how front offices value potential acquisitions at the deadline or otherwise.

Prior to Opening Day, 35 free agents had inked a multiyear deal (the data can get considerably more hairy and prone to fluctuation when trying to sift through a barrage of single-season flier contracts), but we drop down to 34 after omitting now-Padres hurler Garrett Richards, who even at the time of his signing was already expected to miss 2019 in its entirety recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Using FanGraphs’ preseason depth charts projections and a generic aging curve to apply to 2020 performance and beyond, I calculated how many WAR a player was in line to produce over the life of their contract when it was signed and then compared that to the overall salaries of each deal.

The results? The 34 agreements combined for approximately $1.54 billion in total dollar amount for a projected 190.3 WAR. In other words, a win in free agency cost roughly $8.1 million apiece. Regarding potential applications we can alter that $8.1 million figure in whatever manner seems apt, but determining a concrete baseline price for a win was the first step. For example, there is research suggesting that teams are willing to pay around double the regular amount of surplus value for a win in July as contending clubs position themselves for the pennant chase.

Looking past this season, if we assume the generally accepted $/WAR inflation rate of 5%–give or take a percentage point–that cost-per-win mark is slated to climb to about $8.5 million for the impending free agent period and somewhere in the ballpark of $8.9 million in the year to follow that.

One more brief aside that could easily stand as a whole article on its own: the five most “inefficient” free agent contracts from the 2018-19 winter all belonged to relief pitchers. Moral of the story: don’t break the bank on relievers, kids. Their performance is far too fickle for pouring such immense resources into the bullpen to be the optimal roster investment.