Creating a roster from scratch is an entertaining endeavor, which is why fantasy baseball and computer simulations like Out of the Park Baseball are so popular. There’s quite a bit more on the line when it comes to Major League Baseball, however, and you can see it on Theo Epstein’s face and hear it in his words when he says he’s worked harder this offseason than ever before.
The goal, of course, is to create the best possible 25-man roster (maybe eventually 26) through any and all of the six avenues of acquisition. Players can be added as either minor or major league free agency, the draft (both amateur and Rule 5), international free agency, trade, and waiver claim. No roster is constructed in the same manner, so it’s fascinating to see how those different avenues are utilized.
H.W. Linwood of checkswings.com recently published a research project aimed at breaking down how each team was constructed, using WAR to review which means of acquisition provided the most value during the 2018 season. It was split into internal (draft, international signings and undrafted free agents) and external (trade, waivers, free agency, purchased, rule 5 draft) acquisitions.
In 2018, the Cubs got the most WAR from trades, early-round draft picks, and free agency, respectively. As I wrote back in October of 2017, the Cubs have struggled to get value outside the top of the draft. They received only 1.1 WAR from players drafted in the third round and later, which was essentially David Bote’s production. Compare that to the Cardinals, who got over 18 wins from players in that same sample.
And looking ahead to the 2019 season, there really doesn’t appear to be much more help coming outside of Trent Giambrone and Justin Steele. Hitting on middle-to-late round draft picks is something the organization is going to have to improve on in the future if they want to maintain their competitive window after 2021.
As seriously as the Cubs take international free agency, that channel was responsible for only 2.6 wins this past season. Of course, some of the international players they’d acquired in the past were involved in trades that in turn generated more wins. Justin Wilson and Jose Quintana were brought aboard in that manner, as were Alex Avila, Aroldis Chapman, and Wade Davis in previous seasons.
The transition in the Cubs’ international strategy has been very impressive. When it was lucrative to go over their budget, as they did with spending sprees in 2013 and 2016, they took advantage of it and netted Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, Jen-Ho Tseng, Miguel Amaya, and Aramis Ademan, among other. Due to the ensuing penalties, the Cubs couldn’t sign any players over $300,000 in the international market for the two subsequent seasons.
To bypass the penalty, the Cubs signed players from Mexico because MLB did not count the money withheld by the player’s local team — as much as 75 percent — against the bonus pool. With that loophole now patched up, the Cubs look to be shopping at the top of the class again, signing Richard Gallardo last year and remaining in the mix for more top names this July. Although their farm system may be in the bottom five of baseball, their international department has done a terrific job.
The Cubs were also one of the most “typically” constructed teams of 2018, defined as “the absolute value of the difference between team percent of value from each player acquisition method and league percent of value from that method for each avenue [added up], with the total difference being expressed as a percentage.” Other teams in the top five included the Astros, Dodgers, Phillies, and Red Sox. In terms of roster construction, it appears the Cubs are in pretty good company.
One more item worth note from Linwood’s research is how impressive the Brewers were this past season. Only 3.9 wins came from internal sources, the lowest mark in all of baseball. To make up for that, the Brewers got an MLB-best 39.2 wins from free agency, waiver claims, and trades. Even in this day of age, where many of baseball’s best practices are mimicked by every organization, it is still possible to build teams in different manners and have success.