MEET BEN ZOBRIST. He's a utility guy—plays second, right, short, left, center, first, third and DH for the Rays. He's never hit 30 home runs in a season, never driven in 100 runs, and despite having the fourth-best OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) in the American League last year (.948), he didn't receive a single first-place MVP vote.
Yet in some sabermetric circles the versatile 28-year-old was the game's best position player in 2009. Zobrist—or Zorilla, as he's known in Tampa Bay—ranked first in a stat called Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the baseball version of physics' unified theory. WAR measures a player's total contribution (offense, defense, baserunning and pitching) and expresses it as the number of wins he adds to his team beyond what the average player would provide. A player with a WAR of 0 or 1 is easily replaceable; 4 or 5 is an All-Star; 7 and up is Albert Pujols.
WAR isn't perfect, but it's a great tool for comparing players' values on the field and the payroll sheet. In '09 Royals ace and AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke had the majors' best WAR, 9.4. Zobrist—he hit 27 homers, was on base more than 40% of the time and played superb defense all over the field—was second, at 8.6. (Pujols was third at 8.5.) Zorilla wasn't just MVP-caliber, he was the most payroll-efficient player in baseball. He made $415,900, barely above the minimum.
Zobrist, who will make $438,100 this season, is still a bargain. The following pages list the players with the top 2009 WARs at each position (excluding DH), organized by what they'll make in 2010. The result: an All-Star team at various price points—and proof that teams don't always get what they pay for. It's the old argument: Who's the most valuable player? Let the WAR begin.
WAR data from FanGraphs.com
Salary data from the website Cot's Baseball Contracts and published reports
2010 Salaries up to $1M
Photograph by WALTER IOOSS JR.
Photograph by TIM MANTOANI
Photograph by MICHAEL HEAPE
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER