One of the inescapable truths of baseball, like other major sports, is that a player's salary and contract situation are key components of a player's value to a franchise. Even in a sport without a hard salary cap, franchises face their own payroll constraints, though this obviously varies from team to team. To put together an 88-win team, a franchise needs to cobble together roughly 40 wins above replacement from their major league roster. If a team tried to assemble a roster solely from free agency, baseball's retail market for talent, you'd expect them to have to shell out something in the range of a $260 million payroll. And that's assuming all that talent is actually available in free agency -- the yearly free-agent market is frequently thin at multiple positions -- and, of course, players must actually agree to sign with them.
The best way to win championships, obviously, is to have a good team, but it's hard to put together a good team without a number of good contracts. Could Kansas City have put together their World Series championship without having Lorenzo Cain for $2.7 million, Salvador Perez at $1.8 million and Mike Moustakas at $2.6 million (among other reasonably priced players)?
You hear a lot of talk about market inefficiencies in baseball -- that's the basis for the Moneyball concept -- but most inefficiencies tend to be self-correcting. At one time, on-base percentage wasn't highly valued in baseball, enabling a few teams to take advantage of that. But then the rest of the league caught on. There's a lot of chatter now about the importance of prospects and farm systems because that's a built-in inefficiency that is the product of the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the players' association; young players pre-free agency are the lifeblood of well-run franchises, simply because of the bang for the buck they provide.
So who are the most valuable assets in baseball, the players that if traded today, could go a long way to refilling a franchise's farm system by themselves? To answer this question, I started out with the ZiPS projections and calculated the difference between the projected long-term performance of every player in baseball, and how much a team is projected to pay for that performance, whether from a signed contract or from predicting arbitration-year salaries. That difference, which I call surplus value, is expressed in wins rather than dollars; raw dollars can be misleading given that a dollar committed for 2030 (see: Chris Davis contract breakdown) and a dollar committed for 2016 are two very different things.
As I noted when laying out MLB's top 25 albatrosses earlier this week, a computer is very good at sifting through large data sets, but can't know everything about a particular team's situation or how a player is perceived around the league, things that affect a player's ultimate value. So this list isn't ordered simply be computer readout. There's some personal judgment blended in here as well, which I note in each player's write-up.
With that, let's get to Major League Baseball's 25 best assets.
1. Carlos Correa, SS
Free agent after 2021 season
Surplus value: +26.2 wins
This 2015 American League Rookie of the Year posted a .279/.345/.512 line after his midseason call-up while playing solid defense at a key defensive position, and he wasn't even the legal drinking age until September. Impressive, but what makes him No. 1? Because the Houston Astros control Correa for the next six seasons.
The truly scary thing for the rest of the league is that, given his age and how quickly he advanced through the minors, he could actually improve. ZiPS projects Correa to be a 6-7 WAR player in his prime, and he's years away from the Astros having to pay him anything close to what that level of performance merits. Correa is the most exciting young shortstop in baseball since Alex Rodriguez, who, as you might remember, turned out to be a pretty decent player. The sooner the Astros make him filthy rich and lock him up long term, the better it is for the franchise. On a related note, anyone still wish the Astros had signed a bunch of mediocre free agents and tried to win 75 games in 2011 rather than finishing with the worst record in baseball, earning them the first pick in the 2012 draft? That's what I thought.