Can’t Get Great Players? Just Stop Playing Terrible Ones

Consider this a companion piece to last Thursday’s question of where the Dodgers expect to find a big bat, and thanks to Kirk in the comments of that post for the inspiration.

As we covered on Thursday, it’s unlikely that the Dodgers are going to pull a rabbit out of their hat and import some megastar this winter who instantly makes the club better. Albert Pujols isn’t coming. Prince Fielder isn’t either, nor is Jose Reyes, nor is C.J. Wilson. Aramis Ramirez might, maybe, but it’s arguable whether investing $30-$40m there is the right call. And unless you’re the world’s biggest Scott Van Slyke fan, there’s no new minor league hotshot that we haven’t seen already busting down the door.

So if you’re not able to import positive value, how do you improve your team? This is going to sound overly simplistic, but a pretty good start would be to simply stop giving playing time to players who are awful. If that sounds foolish, it shouldn’t; it’s the exact formula (well, that and unexpected life from James Loney) the Dodgers used in their second half turnaround:

As it always seems to be, the answer lies on the field, because the difference here is largely that the roster of the Dave Hansen Dodgers simply isn’t the same as the roster of the Jeff Pentland Dodgers.

Hansen has benefited not only from not having to look at Uribe, Gibbons, Thames, Blake, Furcal, and Navarro, he’s had nearly 200 plate appearances of Juan Rivera‘s 119 OPS+ that Pentland didn’t. He’s had the one hot streak that Rod Barajas runs into every year. He’s had Sands and Gordon return with a better idea of what they need to do. He’s been able to get the injured Ethier out of the lineup. The roster, overall, is simply a better collection of players (both health- and talent-wise) than it was earlier in the season, and that, more than anything, is the reason for the rebound.

So if you can’t get a player who’s going to give you 5-7 wins above replacement, which ideally you’d be able to obtain, then the next best option is to simply replace those who are dragging you down with players who can at least contribute 1-2 wins. That might not sound too sexy, and it’ll be hard to sell to casual fans, but if you’re using that decent player to replace someone who killed you, it’s a pretty easy net gain at a relatively low price.

That’s a strategy that could serve the Dodgers well next season, since they received 0.0 rWAR or less from 12 different non-pitchers with at least 10 plate appearances this season, the third most of any team in baseball. That’s a neighborhood that’s better than only the Rockies and Pirates, and is tied with the Orioles, Twins, Athletics, and Mariners. Not exactly a collection of teams you should be proud to be sharing space with, is it? (I realize that WAR is not perfect, particularly on defense, but it’s the best tool we have right now, and is sufficient for this surface-level analysis.)  All told, the Dodgers gave 1,183 plate appearances to players who were replacement level or below, and that number would have been 1,673 if not for the fact that Aaron Miles was all of 0.1 WAR above the threshold, a number so slight that it’s essentially meaningless.  If the Dodgers hadn’t spent so many at-bats on Dioner Navarro and others like him – players we knew wouldn’t perform and didn’t – they could have easily been improved without spending a good deal of additional money. (And in some cases, less money.)

So perhaps Ned Colletti isn’t as far off as we liked to joke when he said this team doesn’t need a major overhaul. Looking at the list of hitters who provided negative value this year, most – Navarro, Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, Rafael Furcal, Eugenio Velez etc. – won’t be back. With the exception of Furcal, none were expected to produce much (and they delivered), and they can easily be replaced on the free agent market by low-cost players who can provide value, even if it’s not a sexy Pujols-esque splash. Two on the list – Jerry Sands and Juan Uribe – are almost universally expected to improve, if only by default for Uribe, hopefully providing an additional boost.

So maybe names like Chris Heisey, Kelly Shoppach, and Chase Headley (to pick a random sampling of names from the 0-2 rWAR group, though I know they’re not all specifically available) aren’t as fun to think about as Prince Fielder. But you could probably get 5 of them for 1/5 of Prince’s cost, and the simple act of playing them rather than relative zeroes like Navarro, Gibbons, and Miles could be a simple, easy way to pick up the marginal wins that just aren’t efficient or available in the upper reaches of the free agent market.