Suppose you have a Toyota sitting in your garage. Since it’s a Toyota, it’s probably been there a while. It gets you to work and back, which is all you really need. But wouldn’t your life be better with a Mercedes? Of course it would!
So, you shell out about $60,000 for a new Mercedes, and as you’re driving to work the next day you notice that…it feels about the same as your Toyota. Maybe a little smoother and more comfortable, but when you think of the other things you could have done with that fifty grand, it’s kind of a bummer. That’s how it goes with free agents most of the time.
Yonder Alonso had a career year last year. Splitting the season between Oakland and Seattle, he posted an OPS of .866, which was more than a hundred points higher than he had ever done in a full season. Alonso will turn 31 right after this season starts. This is a grey area for players. He may have figured things out, or last year may have been a fluke. The Cleveland Indians are hoping it’s the former because they have signed Alonso to a two-year contract worth $16 million
Yandy Diaz posted an OPS of .914 at Columbus last year. He didn’t generate much power in the majors, but he got on base a ton. Diaz is 25, with 156 major league at-bats, so there’s reason to believe that he still has room to improve.
Here’s the big difference: Diaz will make about $500,000 this season if he makes the major league roster. How many games will Cleveland win this year with Alonso at first base that they wouldn’t win with Diaz? Well, in his career year Alonso posted a WAR of 2.0, so even if he duplicates that year and we assume that Diaz is a replacement-level player, they paid $8 million for two wins. Would those two wins keep them from winning the American League Central? According to every projection I’ve seen, probably not.
The reality is that a first baseman who hits 28 home runs is not a rare commodity, especially one who doesn’t walk a great deal, has no speed, has a huge platoon differential, and plays average defense. There are always four or five such players available at the trade deadline. The Indians could have begun the season with Diaz, Michael Brantley, or even Jason Kipnis at first base. If it didn’t work out, they could have remedied the situation at the trade deadline. As they did with Jay Bruce last year, functional bats can be found for practically nothing in July.
There’s an opportunity cost there because that $8 million could have gone to Bryan Shaw, the setup man who has appeared in more than 70 games for five consecutive years. Or it could have gone to any number of players who have better track records than Alonso. Maybe one of those players would have cost $12 or $14 million, but by signing Alonso those players were off the table.
Or they could have put it in the bank and used it toward an extension for Francisco Lindor.
There’s another type of opportunity cost for Alonso. He does one thing: play first base. He also only hits well against right-handed pitchers, so he will need a platoon partner. Probably Yandy Diaz, in fact. As we all know, the Indians carry a short bench because Terry Francona wants to have so many relievers. If Diaz and Alonso are both on the roster to play first base, that leaves only three more bench spots on the roster, and one of those will be a catcher. Another will be a right-handed hitting outfielder, because every starting outfielder hits lefthanded.
That doesn’t leave a lot of space for anyone else, such as Erik Gonzales, who is out of options. Roster spots are especially tight because the Indians have a spot dedicated to a designated hitter, whereas many teams rotate that spot among starting players and treat it as a day of rest. Not that Edwin Encarnacion isn’t worth a little inconvenience, but facts are facts.
Here’s the bottom line: If you created a bell curve of all the possible outcomes for how Yonder Alonso and Yandy Diaz might perform in 500 at-bats as the first baseman for Cleveland, those two bell curves would have a lot of overlap. Diaz might not be able to match Alonso’s 2017 stats, but he would be likely to match Alonso’s second-best year, 2015, when his OPS was .742. Is the most likely outcome for Alonso another year like 2017, or regression back to the rest of his career?
Teams do this all the time. Elite hitters that can impact a season are worth whatever they can get. But you can tell who these guys are by their WAR because WAR tells you how many wins they will add. A guy with a WAR of 2.0 in his career year is easy to find, especially one who plays first base. Why pay that guy millions when there are guys in the minors or on the bench who can either match his numbers or come close enough that spending the money somewhere else will let you end up ahead?