The Latest Thing in Undervalued Commodities

On-base percentage? That's so five years ago.

Flipping a closer fresh off a great year for guys who are cheaper and more valuable? Check.

Hoarding potential starters? Only GMs who live in caves haven't tried or considered the idea.

Players with little major-league service time? Yesterday's news. (Or more accurately, today's news - and therefore, not undervalued).

So what's the latest (and maybe last) frontier in undervalued commodities?

Exploiting the 40-man roster. Update [2007-2-28 20:12:33 by notsellingjeans]: The conversation takes a turn down in the comments section of this diary with a discussion of how the A's should allocate any new additional funds they might enjoy after a move to a new stadium in Fremont. For example, if payroll increased 15 million, should that be spent on a.) one high-priced free agent? b.) more extensions for homegrown guys? c.) international scouting and signing? d.) the draft - picking more guys with "signability concerns"?

Every team obsesses over its 25-man roster. But league-wide, those last 15 spots are almost criminally neglected - littered with frustrating prospects who are four years away from blooming, or grizzled slugs doomed to a lifetime of AAA. And yet in an era where players can no longer take amphetamines or steroids to stay healthy, strong and fresh, the full 40-man roster is more important than ever.

How many teams go a full season without an injury to their 25-man roster? For teams that can't afford stars to be successful, they need to steal Win Shares where they can - at the back end of the roster.
And thus the A's have 30 major-league-ready players, while remarkably still having a lower budget than their competitors. They absorb injuries better than any team in the league because their "replacement-level players" simply aren't replacement-level - they're far better. In anticipation of injuries, they have arguably 15+ pitchers in the system who would be on the 25-man rosters of many other teams.

Examples of how the A's use their full 40-man roster better than any team in Major League Baseball:

Exhibit A:
Chad Gaudin.  

The Blue Jays, in their willy-nilly pursuit of free agents in the '06 offseason, needed to clear 40-man roster spots. Knowing this, the A's pounced and became the free beneficiaries of a 23-year-old pitcher who posted a 3.09 era over 64 innings for 380K. They'll have cost control over him for five more seasons.
These are the moves that win playoff berths and contribute to a decade of defying the odds with a lower budget.

Exhibit B(?):
Lenny DiNardo, Scott Dunn, Donnie Murphy.

All three are 40-man roster casualties of teams that didn't have the roster space this offseason.

-Donnie Murphy

When the Royals wanted to make a splash and sign Meche, they needed to open a 40-man roster spot. For petty cash, the A's acquired a second baseman who posted a .313/.523./.885 line at age 22 in AA. He'll be 24 next month, and has plenty of time to develop into a major league player.

-Scott Dunn

Courtesy of the DRays, who are short 40-man spots in part because of all the high schoolers they've had to nurse along who aren't ready for the league (but have to be protected on the roster for fear of losing them in Rule V). This 28-year-old posted a 2.73 era in AAA last year while striking out 70 in 66 innings. He has consistently struck out over a batter per inning throughout the minors. Maybe with a great A's defense behind him he can become a slightly-below average MLB reliever. Or he could have a great spring and become a trading chip.
And again, he was acquired for free.

-Lenny DiNardo

A roster spot casualty of the Red Sox's off-season largesse, this 27-year-old lefty couldn't hack it in 39 innings in the murderous AL East last year (7.85 era, 2.08 whip). However, he never had a defined role (6 relief appearances, 7 starts), and he was hurt for part of the year. In '05 he had a 3.15 era in 108 minor-league innings as a full-time starter in AAA, and he was lights-out in 8 appearances with the Red Sox the same year (1.84 era, 14 innings).
In an era when a few major league bullpens are lefty-less and Jamie Walker makes 12 million, can a team ever hoard too many potential quality lefty arms on its 40-man roster? Billy seems to have an answer to that question.

Dunn, Murphy, and DiNardo: If even one of these three becomes a major league player, it's a testament to brilliant scouting and management of roster space. All acquired for pennies.

Exhibit C:
Ryan Goleski, Jay Marshall,

The Rule V draft - One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Here's what happens when you're a major league team that doesn't manage your 40-man roster well:

1.Your 40-man roster is cluttered with players who are minor leaguers over the age of 29 (you'd be amazed how many teams have four Hiram Bocachicas on their 40-mans).
2.You have 3-5 Dominicans or Venezuelans who are 23 and have been on your 40-man for 2 years already (for fear of losing the next Johan Santana in the Rule V), yet they're STILL 3 years away from even potentially being a major league contributor. In the meantime, they'll eat up valuable 40-man roster spots - preventing you from acquiring above-replacement-level depth in case of injuries, and also preventing you from dipping into the Rule V draft. Unlike the A's, you rarely draft college players (21-22 year olds) who will have revealed their MLB potential by the time the team is required to protect them on the 40-man at age 25/26.
3. You also don't even leave an open roster spot to SELECT a Rule V draft pick, which would give you the extra time to evaluate him and keep or trade him in spring. Nobody knows why you do this - maybe because you choose to study your team only by reading the wisdom of Ray Ratto's column and the local sports page, or you just haven't learned how to email and use computers yet. Maybe you're afraid of Roman numerals. Again, no one's really sure what you're doing.

In short, you have either no balls or vision, or both, and your last name is Bavasi, Stoneman, or Hendry. Maybe a few others.

Here's what happens when you manage your roster better than any team in the league, and Michael Lewis follows you to the john:

You plan ahead to enter the Rule V draft with not one but TWO extra 40-man roster spots, planning to find hidden gems with meticulous research.
You research every 40-man roster in the league. Then you research every minor league system in the league. Using your own scouting department and metrics, you find the 41st-best player in every major league system (which, in a few cases, is in fact their 30-35th best player and the team hasn't evaluated its own talent well).
In your rigorous analysis, you decide the best unprotected player in baseball is Ryan Goleski. You are almost certain he's a future big-leaguer. So you pay the DRays 100K for the rights to a future major league player - a pittance in exchange for the incredible value of a player's 0-3 service years. And you pounce.
You don't have room in your OF, but you know that if Goleski's hurt, you can use a Rule V loophole to play up his injury, stash him on the DL for a whole year and wait until '08 when three of your outfielders are FAs (Bradley, Stewart, Kielty), and he's infinitely more likely to earn a roster spot.
If Goleski is healthy and productive, and the rest of the outfield is as well, he can be yet another trading chip at the tail end of spring.

For the coup de grace, you'll use your second Rule V pick on a LOOGY - the easiest type of Rule V player to stash for an entire year without stunting his development. If he proves to be overmatched, you can use him to mop up games; if he's decent, you can build his confidence by throwing him only in favorable matchups vs. lefties.
Jay Marshall may only have pitched as high as single A, but he does two of the most projectible things a pitcher can do - he induces a phenomenal number of groundballs, and he has a tremendously low BB/9 rate (8 in 62 innings last year).
Hmmm...undervalued side-armer in the White Sox system with great groundball and walk rates?

I'm experiencing Chad Bradford-induced deja vu, my friends - LEFT-HANDED Chad Bradford-induced deja vu. Except that it's without those silly foreign marks that are supposed to be above the letters in deja vu, because I don't know how to type them on a computer.

If even one of these five new additions to the 40-man roster pans out, the A's will earn an incredible return on their nearly free investments.
It's this type of creative, one-step-ahead-of-the-pack thinking that keeps our favorite team in perennial playoff contention despite their budget.