The Most Important Winter of All Time

What's the most important play in a soccer game, asked the wise old coach.  The young arms shot up.  The save?  No.  The goal?  No.  The corner kick?  Again, no.

What's the most important play in a soccer game, asked the wise old coach.  One arm slowly rose.  The next play?  Very good, son.

The interested observer witnessed it all.  Nonsense, he thought.

Normally, this would be the space in which we examine the past 18 games, but that has been pulled for something approaching ACTUAL ANALYSIS.  Semi-approaching pseudo-analysis, I'd call it.  If you simply must know, the Reds went 8 - 10 over the last 18, and did not make the playoffs.  Brandon Phillips hit well, Drew Stubbs didn't, and Bronson Arroyo left the pitching skillz on the boat. 

For the 22 teams which have seen their season end, the road towards next year is well underfoot.  The thesis of this piece is that this coming winter is the most important in modern Reds history, which for now we'll define as being the last 30 years or so.  It's a non-provable theory, but a little sensationalism never hurt anyone.  At the very least, I'd claim it to be the most important since the Griffey Junior era began.

The key to the study is that the Reds compete with other teams in a division and should be judged relative to the expected quality of those teams.  Donations for this kind of insight should be sent via PayPal.  The full shakedown on methodology, projections, expectations, and conclusions...after the jump.

Methodology summary

Project, for each team, prior to any potential acquisitions, the payroll budget, the 25-man roster, and the expected quality level.  Also project the expected budget available to spend on off-season acquisitions.  Translate the combined on-roster quality and purchasable wins to project a high-level projection on team wins.

Assumptions

  • Each team's 2012 payroll budget set equal to a 2.5% increase over the greater of 2011 payroll or the 3-year weighted payroll (50% x 2011 + 33% x 2010 + 17% x 2009).
  • Players who were on the roster as of year end are assumed to be available for 2012, except for those players who are entering free agency.
  • Non-free agents are given a projected 2012 WAR, set equal to each player's 2011 WAR, except: if the player's 2011 seasonal age is less than 27, up to 0.5 WAR is added to the 2011 total, with the magnitude of the add on being proportional to how full of a season the player played.  A similar downward adjustment is made to players with a 2011 seasonal age greater than 28.
  • Team options are projected to be accepted if the projected WAR is greater than prospective salary divided by 5.4.
  • Any plate appearances or innings pitched consumed by players who were: A) no longer on the team roster by year end; B) are entering free agency; or C) are projected to have a contract option year declined are re-allocated to remaining players.
  • Players receiving playing time allocations receive a new WAR projection equal to the original 2012 projection plus the increased playing time multiplied by an average of the player's 2011 WAR rate (i.e. WAR per PA or WAR per IP) and the league average WAR rate.
  • If the 2012 salary for a given player is not contractually set already, the 2012 salary was set equal to 110% of the 2011 salary if the player is not yet arbitration eligible.  A default salary of $455K was used for players with salary info missing on Cot's.  Players entering an arbitration year were projected to receive a salary equal to the greater of: A) $1M; B) 110% of the 2011 salary; C) the projected 2012 WAR times $5.4M times (40% for 4th year players, 60% for 5th year players, 80% for 6th year players).
  • At the team level, all 2012 WAR projections were summed up for available players, and assumed to be baseline quality level for the team.
  • A 25 man roster was projected, and only those projected salaries were counted against the projected payroll budget.
  • The difference between the payroll budget and the 25-man salary projections are assumed to be spent on players, at a rate somewhere less than one win per $5.4M spent.  Usually around 80%-90% of a win, to try and account for the idea that a free agent often won't be replacing a true replacement player.  It's probably a bit granular for this kind of high-level thing, but whatever: it's in there.
  • Per Baseball Reference, replacement level was set at a .320 winning percentage.  However, WAR wins seemed to outpace actual and Pythagorean wins for most teams by, like, quite a few, so consider WAR to be optimistic in all circumstances.  Perhaps take this all as a rosy projection across the board.

If you're still with me, let's get into the team-by-team breakdown.

Houston Astros

2011 Wins: 56

2011 Pythagorean Wins: 62

2011 Team WAR: 15.1

2011 WAR estimated Wins: 67

Contract status

Players

Cumulative PA

Cumulative IP

Cumulative WAR

Mid-year exits

Michael Bourn,

Bill Hall,

Jeff Keppinger,

Hunter Pence

1,233

0

7.3

Pending free agents

Clint Barmes,

Jason Michaels

664

0

1.9

Team-held contract options

None

0

0

0

Entering arbitration year

Nelson Figueroa,

Jeff Fulchino,

J.A. Happ,

Joe Inglett,

Humberto Quintero,

Wesley Wright

363

230.3

-2.8

Player names in bold are projected to be retained for 2012.

 

2011 Payroll: $76.97M

Weighted 3-yr Payroll: $86.52M

Projected 2012 Payroll: $88.68M

Projected 2012 salaries of standing 25-man roster: $58.42M

Projected 2012 WAR of available players: 15.7

Projected WAR to be added in offseason: 4.6

Projected 2012 win target: 72

Other notes: Not much to say here, for what may be MLB's least interesting team.  I've already noted that each projection should be assumed to be on the optimistic side, but this one might be doubly so, given that payroll has been steadily dropping, and is unlikely to increase by 15% for next year.  Additionally, a good chunk of the 2012 WAR projection comes from playing time increases allocated to Bogusevic and Bourgeois, who played well in 2011, but are lacking pedigree and track record.  There are no impact prospects knocking on the door, although they will be able to draft Andrew Luck in June, if they are so inclined.  The Astros will not be a factor in the 2012 race.  As such, I am also of the opinion they should not be moved to the AL.  Let's move on.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2011 Wins: 72

2011 Pythagorean Wins: 70

2011 Team WAR: 22.7

2011 WAR estimated Wins: 75

Contract status

Players

Cumulative PA

Cumulative IP

Cumulative WAR

Mid-year exits

Joe Beimel,

John Bowker,

Matt Diaz,

Lyle Overbay,

Tim Wood

642

33.3

-1.6

Pending free agents

Derrek Lee,

Ryan Ludwick

246

0

0.7

Team-held contract options

Ronny Cedeno,

Ryan Doumit,

Paul Maholm,

Chris Snyder

862

162.3

6.0

Entering arbitration year

Jose Ascanio,

Brian Burres,

Jason Grilli,

Joel Hanrahan,

Jason Jaramillo,

Garret Jones,

Jeff Karstens,

Evan Meek,

Charlie Morton,

Ross Ohlendorf,

Garrett Olson,

Steven Pearce,

Chris Resop,

Jose Veras,

Brandon Wood

1,027

660

8.3

Player names in bold are projected to be retained for 2012.

2011 Payroll: $42.05M

Weighted 3-yr Payroll: $42.16M

Projected 2012 Payroll: $43.21M

Projected 2012 salaries of standing 25-man roster: $54.63M

Projected 2012 WAR of available players: 25.7

Projected WAR to be added in offseason: -2.4

Projected 2012 win target: 75

Other notes: You are going to find this hard to believe, but the Pirates appear to be facing team construction problems of their own making.  To wit, the sheer volume of arbitration-eligible players is staggering.  If Hanrahan, Karstens, and Morton are in line for the salary increases I've penciled in, the payroll crunch will be significant.  Also, having the two primary catchers up for option decisions at the same time seems less than optimal.  Worse, both catchers are decent, but not $7M decent, which is the neighborhood of both option values.  Bottom line: either the Pirates join the rest of the division in semi-respectable payroll land, or they look forward to yet another losing season.  What's devastating for the franchise, and their fans, is that the Buccos have the single most valuable asset in the entire division in Andrew McCutchen.  And yet, nearly hopeless.

Chicago Cubs

2011 Wins: 71

2011 Pythagorean Wins: 70

2011 Team WAR: 24.1

2011 WAR estimated Wins: 76

Contract status

Players

Cumulative PA

Cumulative IP

Cumulative WAR

Mid-year exits

Doug Davis,

Kosuke Fukudome

358

45.7

1.4

Pending free agents

John Grabow,

Reed Johnson,

Rodrigo Lopez,

Ramon Ortiz,

Carlos Pena,

Kerry Wood

908

244.3

3.1

Team-held contract options

Aramis Ramirez,

Jeff Samardzija

630

88

4.6

Entering arbitration year

Jeff Baker,

Blake DeWitt,

Matt Garza,

Koyie Hill,

Luis Montanez,

Geovany Soto,

Randy Wells

1,260

333.3

4.1

Player names in bold are projected to be retained for 2012.

2011 Payroll: $134.00M

Weighted 3-yr Payroll: $137.59M

Projected 2012 Payroll: $141.03M

Projected 2012 salaries of standing 25-man roster: $112.66M

Projected 2012 WAR of available players: 28.0

Projected WAR to be added in offseason: 4.7

Projected 2012 win target: 85

Other notes: In the grand scheme of things, the Cubs don't lose much this year, but have a gaping hole at first base, plus potentially $30M to spend on shiny new toys.  To me, the biggest question surrounding the Cubs is who takes the GM job.  The splashy Pujols acquisition is the obvious move; a more skilled GM with a long leash may scale back for a year or two while trying to awake the sleeping bear out of hibernation.  All things being equal, this franchise should dominate the division perennially.  Thankfully, they're the Cubs.  There will be brighter moments for this team, even soon, but for now there are simply too many anchors on board to reach anything close to acceptable cruising speed.

Milwaukee Brewers

2011 Wins: 96

2011 Pythagorean Wins: 90

2011 Team WAR: 42.1

2011 WAR estimated Wins: 94

Contract status

Players

Cumulative PA

Cumulative IP

Cumulative WAR

Mid-year exits

Brett Carroll,

Danny Herrera,

Sergio Mitre,

Wil Nieves,

Jeremy Reed

66

34.7

-0.8

Pending free agents

Craig Counsell,

Prince Fielder,

Jerry Hairston,

LaTroy Hawkins,

Mark Kotsay,

Felipe Lopez,

Takashi Saito

1,323

75

7.4

Team-held contract options

Yuniesky Betancourt,

Francisco Rodriguez

585

29

1.9

Entering arbitration year

Carlos Gomez,

Sean Green,

George Kotteras,

Kameron Loe,

Shaun Marcum,

Casey McGehee,

Nyjer Morgan,

Mike Rivera,

Josh Wilson

1,569

284.3

7.5

Player names in bold are projected to be retained for 2012.

2011 Payroll: $83.59M

Weighted 3-yr Payroll: $85.30M

Projected 2012 Payroll: $87.43M

Projected 2012 salaries of standing 25-man roster: $93.39M

Projected 2012 WAR of available players: 40.4

Projected WAR to be added in offseason: -1.1

Projected 2012 win target: 91

Other notes: Sometimes, you go for broke and it works.  But the broken pieces still need to get picked up at the end of the night.  Or something to that effect.  Anyway, look at all the bold names above, and know that at least one of them (Marcum) is going to get paid like a bandit.  The Brewers spend their money wisely...all of their big ticket players are of value, but there's just not enough money to fill all the holes.  Know that with all the projected player losses above, the Brewers have lost the equivalent of over three full time players on offense alone.  And already have more money committed than they're likely to spend.  The team will still be decent, but expect one or more of the solid players to be dealt to begin the rebuilding effort.  As the old baseball adage goes, when you play for one run, that's usually all you get.

Cincinnati Reds

2011 Wins: 79

2011 Pythagorean Wins: 83

2011 Team WAR: 35.0

2011 WAR estimated Wins: 87

Contract status

Players

Cumulative PA

Cumulative IP

Cumulative WAR

Mid-year exits

Jonny Gomes,

Jeremy Hermida

283

0

0.2

Pending free agents

Ramon Hernandez,

Edgar Renteria,

Dontrelle Willis

695

75.7

2.5

Team-held contract options

Francisco Cordero,

Brandon Phillips

675

69.7

6.5

Entering arbitration year

Jose Arredondo,

Homer Bailey,

Bill Bray,

Jared Burton,

Carlos Fisher,

Paul Janish,

Fred Lewis,

Nick Masset,

Edinson Volquez

659

441

1.8

Player names in bold are projected to be retained for 2012.

2011 Payroll: $80.83M

Weighted 3-yr Payroll: $78.06M

Projected 2012 Payroll: $82.85M

Projected 2012 salaries of standing 25-man roster: $71.30M

Projected 2012 WAR of available players: 40.6

Projected WAR to be added in offseason: 2.0

Projected 2012 win target: 94

Other notes: For a team with this kind of mediocre payroll history and target, this is shaping up to be a near-perfect situation: no one is leaving the team that will devastate the W/L ledger, and no one is due the kind of salary raise that will turn the green eyeshades blue.  For a team with the kind of conservative acquisition and turnover history that the Reds do, this is shaping up to be a near-disastrous situation: I count nine names above who the Reds can probably do better without, from a strict dollars vs. wins perspective.  The prevailing winds of team management would lead one to believe that the preferred path of least resistance might ensure a good chunk of these guys will come back, perhaps at a discount.  Screw the discounts; it's time to get bold. 

St. Louis Cardinals

2011 Wins: 90

2011 Pythagorean Wins: 88

2011 Team WAR: 40.9

2011 WAR estimated Wins: 93

Contract status

Players

Cumulative PA

Cumulative IP

Cumulative WAR

Mid-year exits

Miguel Batista,

Ryan Franklin,

Trever Miller,

Colby Rasmus,

Brian Tallet,

Raul Valdes,

P.J. Walters

388

95

-1.6

Pending free agents

Edwin Jackson,

Gerald Laird,

Corey Patterson,

Albert Pujols,

Nick Punto

1,011

78

7.7

Team-held contract options

Octavio Dotel,

Rafael Furcal,

Yadier Molina,

Arthur Rhodes

737

33.3

5.6

Entering arbitration year

Kyle McClellan,

Jason Motte,

Skip Schumaker,

Ryan Theriot

925

210.7

2.5

Player names in bold are projected to be retained for 2012.

2011 Payroll: $109.05M

Weighted 3-yr Payroll: $100.69M

Projected 2012 Payroll: $111.78M

Projected 2012 salaries of standing 25-man roster: $94.59M

Projected 2012 WAR of available players: 41.1

Projected WAR to be added in offseason: 2.9

Projected 2012 win target: 96

Other notes: First things first, either Pujols is gone, or drastic changes are coming.  As you can see above, my rough financial projections don't leave room for a Pujols-worthy contract.  If they want to keep him, then the purse strings get hella loose, or they shed big chunks of the roster to make room.  Second things second, the big wild card here is Adam Wainwright.  The club owns a $9M option on his 2012 services that automatically vested with his top 5 finish in the 2010 Cy Young voting.  However, the option is voidable if he's on the DL at the end of 2011.  Which clause wins out?  Google is of little help, so I've taken the approach that the vesting will stand.  So $9M is locked in...what will the team get out of him?  The third big unknown is Shelby Miller, who is the best prospect in the division, and one of the biggest potential game changers in the mix.  On the other hand, Homer Bailey was once a top pitching prospect too.  Finally, I'm not sure I've ever seen a team get so much value out of so many unheralded players for such a sustained period of time.  Seriously, Allen Craig?  I don't have a projection model built for karma yet, but if I did, this team has to be due for a course correction.

***

At the end of it all, the interested observer asked the wise old coach what the most important play in a soccer game is.  The next one, the wise old coach slyly responded.  Nonsense, said the interested observer. 

The most important play, explained the observer, is the one you make when you have the opportunity to win.

The Reds aren't the best team on paper heading into the winter, but they're close...possibly as close as they've been since some unknown 28 year old third baseman named Albert Pujols showed up in Cardinals camp all those years ago.  The void the team has been waiting for has arrived, and it's time to take advantage.  I don't know right now which opportunities will be there.  Which free agents, which trade targets to chase will be tackled in time.  For now, a hope and a plea: the goal is again within range.  Take the shot.

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