The Astros are going to have to indulge in the free agent market of 2010 in order to field a competitive team next season. I don't think that anyone here would try to argue that point. How and who are the two questions that go along with free agent signings, as in how much to spend, and who to sign?
Well, it's still too early to really get down to the nitty gritty of things, but what we can do is look back and identify bargains and trends in the marketplace. Sky Andrecheck of Baseball Analysts did just that in a recent post which looked at the free agent class of 2009 and built a team from those players. He describes his experiment much better than I ever could, but suffice it to say, bargains do exist.
Who did he select to be a part of the club?
Catchers: Gregg Zaun, David Ross
Infielders: Wes Helms, Felipe Lopez, Casey Blake, Juan Uribe Craig Counsell
Total $ spent: $15.3 million, Total WAR: 13.1
Outfielders/DH: Bobby Abreu, Juan Rivera, Scott Podsednik, Raul Ibanez
Total $ spent: $35 million, Total WAR: 23.6
Starting Pitchers: Mike Hampton, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, Randy Wolf, CC Sabathia
Total $ spent: $78.8 million, Total WAR: 35.3
That club is good for a 71-49 record through 120 games, solid enough for a playoff spot. Bargains are easier to find offensively than in pitching, so the Sabathia signing was by leaps and bounds the most outlandish contract he chose to take on.
Painfully, let's determine the Astros' team WAR, or at least a rough approximation of it.
Offensively: The entire Astros' offense (not counting the negative values that most of our pitchers/bench has contributed) is good for a WAR of 15.1. Unlike the all free agent team, the Astros offense has gotten 43% of its output from two players: Lance Berkman and Michael Bourn.
Sort of a "fun" sidenote: Pudge's WAR in total is .8, while his Astro-WAR is .6. He's added .2 WAR since joining the Rangers....less than 2 weeks ago.
Pitching: Just counting our starting pitchers' contributions, including the negative WARs for Brandon Backe and Felipe Paulino, the staff WAR is 7.5. Add it all up, and the Astros have a 22.6 team WAR, 12.7 wins less than Andrecheck's fictitious club. Drayton McLane has also spent roughly $20 million more on the players who I used in this article, not counting fairly large contracts for relievers like LaTroy Hawkins, Doug Brocail and Tim Byrdak, and bench players like Jason Michaels and Darin Erstad.
I come to the same conclusion as Andrecheck does: it's possible to build a playoff contender just in free agency, but it's too difficult without being able to look back on things. There are plenty of ways to be successful in MLB, but it's becoming obvious that the Astros aren't doing any of them.