How they rank: June 25 (this year’s best bargains)

We’re almost halfway through the 2011 season. Time for the midseason bargain report: who’s giving the best return for close to that paltry major league minimum (salaries according to This week’s rankings; previous ranking in parentheses. Stats through Friday’s games:

1. Philadelphia (1): The Phillies pay millions to their starting rotation to grace magazine covers and pitch; whatever’s left in the tip jar for Carlos Ruiz to catch them. For $2.7 million, Ruiz isn’t matching last year’s .302, but he gets on base (.367) — there’s higher-paid catchers who do less.

2. Boston (2): Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury topped most his 2010 totals by the end of April. Of course, so had the 25th man on the bench — Ellsbury’s 2010 was limited to 78 at bats, and bad ones at that. For $2.4 million, he’s en route to setting career highs in most offensive categories, although he’d be even better if caught stealings (10 in 34 attempts) wasn’t one of them (with no triples and a 30% caught stealing rate, someone is trying to tell him he’s slowed a bit).

3. N.Y. Yankees (4): The Yankees pay Bartolo Colon just $900,000; they should have paid that amount to a trainer to protect Colon’s overexerted hamstrings. Colon has been dominant when his legs didn’t yield — one completed shutout, one interrupted by an injury and another finished by Mariano Rivera; 5-3 with a 3.10 ERA overall.

4. Atlanta (5): Braves reliever Johnny Venters deals in small numbers, including the $429,500 the Braves pay him. Venters has been baseball’s best reliever thus far: 47 innings pitched, a .153 average against, a .418 OPS against and no home runs allowed.

5. Milwaukee (6): Ryan Braun signed a seven-year contract as a second-year player that was so lopsided even the Brewers gave him a new five-year extension. For $4.28 million, Braun is top 10 in MLB in OPS (.943) and RBIs (55), and near it in home runs (15), doubles (17)  and steals (16). Of course with Prince Fielder set to depart, the question is whether the Brewers are paying the right slugger.  

6. San Francisco (8): The Giants’ best reliever has a thick, dark beard, but it isn’t Brian Wilson. Sergio Romo has pitched 24 innings, allowed 16 hits and has  a 2.25 ERA, .530 OPS against and a 9-1 K/BB ratio. By comparison, Wilson has walked 21 and allowed 28 hits in 35 innings. And Romo’s beard is better, even if at $450,000, he can less afford the upkeep.

7. Tampa Bay (10): On a team where nearly every player is a bargain, Matt Joyce is the biggest this year, despite a bargain-basement 8-for-58 June. Joyce is a 26-year-old outfielder, who is hitting .309 and slugging .534, all for $426,500.

8. Arizona (11): Once the Diamondbacks had aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and threw so much money at them the resin bag could have been made up of $100 bills. This year the D’ backs’ Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy are a combined 17-7 and they’re being paid for the season — $419,000 for Hudson, $4,000 more for Kennedy — closer to what Johnson and Schilling were paid per start.

9. Texas (9): Over the last half decade plus, the Rangers have asked Alexi Ogando to move from outfield to the bullpen and into the starting rotation. Even at this year’s salary of $430,150, he’s complied with every switch. Why not? At 7-2 with a 2.66 ERA this year, the eventual payoff is going to be that much more for a starter.

10. St. Louis (3): The Cardinals pay $34 millions more to three pitchers than they do to 24-year-old Jaime Garcia, but for $437,000 Garcia is their ace. He wins (20-11 lifetime), keeps the ball in the yard (17 homers in 272.1) and gets batters out (.652 OPS against). And he’s young (24).

11. Detroit (7): The Tigers may have spent a lot of money on Victor Martinez, but it wasn’t to catch. For $425,000, Alex Avila can do that. Thanks to Joe Mauer’s injury and Carlos Santana’s slow start, Avila has been the best catcher in the American League this year. He’s hitting (.295), walking (.367 on base), slugging (.522) and throwing out 39% of would-be base stealers.

12. Cleveland (13): Even the Indians may not have anticipated the value of signing Asdrubal Cabrera at $2 million a year, but they surely do now: a .294 average, .495 slugging percentage, 12 homers, 19 doubles and 12-for-12 stealing bases. Try keeping his salary down like that at arbitration.

13. Colorado (14): Seth Smith waited while Dexter Fowler flailed, but the Rockies finally have their outfielders in their right places: right field for Smith, center field for Carlos Gonzalez and Colorado Springs for Fowler. Smith is hitting a team-high .312 and slugging .550 — all for just $429,000.

14. Cincinnati (12): Chris Heisey should have someone’s job, but the Reds can’t decide whether it should be Drew Stubbs’ or Fred Lewis’. Here’s an idea: How about both? Heisey has batted just 133 times and homered 8 times — three in one game. He’s batting .271 and can play all three outfield positions. Yes he’s fanned 35 times, but for $419,00 there’s going to be a hole in his game or his swing.

15. Toronto (15): There’s three Blue Jays who have made at least 14 starts this year, but only one the team is glad he has. That’s lefty Ricky Romero, who’s been the most reliable Jays starter since Roy Halladay left. Romero is having his best year this year, despite a 6-7 record. His ERA is 2.98, he’s fanned 91 in 102.2 innings, and he’s only costing the Jays $1 million. Canadian or American, that’s a bargain.

16. Chicago White Sox (16):  Philip Humber has been traded once, made a free agent once and waived twice. Understandable, given that his career ERA is 4.48 — in the minor leagues. But if Humber can’t get minor league hitters out, he’s had little problems getting major league hitters out this year. On a staff with six starters, he’s the best the White Sox have (7-3, 2.90 ERA, .570 OPS against), even if at $500,000 he’s the lowest paid.

17. L.A. Angels (17): The Angels have spent millions on relievers (Brian Fuentes? Fernando Rodney? How long can Scott Downs hold up?) to replace Francisco Rodriguez, when the best replacement came cheapest. Jordan Walden saves games (17) and money — he works for $414,000, and he keeps baseballs in play. He’s allowed no souvenirs on home runs in 33 innings.

18. Washington (24):  The Nationals paid $16 million to Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche to hit in the middle of their order. Michael Morse and Laynce Nix are doing it for $1.75. Only LaRoche’s season-ending injury pushed Morse ($1.05 million) off the bench to hit .308 and slug .561; Nix ($700,000) has long teased but never fulfilled with his power, but this year he’s hitting .284 and slugging .534.

19. Pittsburgh (19): On a team where no one makes more than Paul Maholm’s $6.2 million, no one is worth more than 24-year-old centerfield Andrew McCutcheon, who has quickly developed into one of the National League’s best players at any salary. McCutcheon is second in the NL and fourth in MLB in WAR, because of his balanced offense — a .286 average, 10 home runs, 43 walks and 14 steals — and excellent defense. He’s making $452,000 — Maholm won’t be the highest-paid Pirate for long.

20. Seattle (20): It’s going to be hard for Felix Hernandez to win another Cy Young Award when he’s not even the best pitcher on his own team anymore. Rookie Michael Pineda, 22, has been so far. Pineda is outperforming Hernandez in ERA (2.45 to 3.19), OPS against (.572 to .627) and WHIP (1.00 to 1.16). All for only $11.286 million less — Pineda earns but $414,000.

21. N.Y. Mets (18): Daniel Murphy doesn’t hit enough to move David Wright off third base, or to hold down a corner outfield position or first base. But he hits more than enough (.289 average, .401 slugging) to help displace Luis Castillo, who only made $5.77 million more than Murphy’s $422,000, from second base. With Ike Davis hurt, Murphy is the first baseman by default, but fortunately Castillo isn’t manning the position next to him.

22. Baltimore (22): The Orioles pay nearly $48 million to their starting outfielders and infielders, and no one gets less than Adam Jones, who gets $3.2 million. Naturally that’s inverted, because unless it’s shortstop J.J. Hardy, no Oriole regular has been better than Jones. He’s hitting .290, slugging 473 and plays a capable center field. Now, if he could only walk more than 16 times in 305 plate appearances.

23. Minnesota (28): All the Twins’ big hitters — Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel — are hurt or have been hurt, but they miss the small ones , too. Denard Span gets on base (.294 average, .361 on base) and plays center field, and his salary ($1 million) is as light as his power. Span is out with a concussion, and given the Twins’ experience with Morneau last year, no one knows better how uncertain his return is.

24. Florida (21): Two things are working against Gaby Sanchez making lots of money — his age and his team. Neither stops him from playing for the payday ahead. In his second year at age 27, Sanchez is the Marlins’ best hitter in 2011 — a .301 average, 13 home runs, 18 doubles and 36 walks. Hes’ earning $431,000 for the Marlins, but like Dan Uggla, he’ll probably go elsewhere to be rewarded.

25. Oakland (26): It’s harder to find unappreciated hitters now that everyone has read Money Ball, but Billy Beane can still find young pitchers. The A’s have two good, healthy ones in Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill (a third, Brett Anderson, is hurt). Gonzalez, 25, is 6-5 with a 2.59 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 94 innings for $420,000; Cahill, 23,  is 7-5 with a 3.24 ERA for $440,000.

26. L.A. Dodgers (25): If the Dodgers had a lot of bargains, MLB wouldn’t be running them. Here’s one: Clayton Kershaw, who just might win the NL Cy Young Award, would do so for only $500,000 (if he has a bonus, it might break the team). Kershaw is second in the NL in OPS against at .569, behind only Cole Hamels. That’s due to his progress in throwing strikes: after walking a batter every other inning his first two years, and one every two-and-a-half-innings last year, he’s cut that to one every 3.3 innings this year. If it gets any better, MLB won’t be able to afford him.

27. Kansas City (23): Alex Gordon, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, was supposed to have seasons like 2011 — .290 average, 22 doubles, .480 slugging — only as a third baseman and not now for the first time. Because he is, he’s doing it for $1.4 million instead of considerably more, which no doubt doesn’t upset the Royals.

28. Chicago Cubs (27): The Cubs don’t believe in bargains. How else to explain Carlos Silva, Milton Bradley, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzjia or Ryan Dempster at $14.3 million (or Carlos Zambrano at $18.8 million or Alfonso Soriano at $19 million or . . . should we go on?) But there’s still 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, even if he has more errors (16) than walks (14). He makes up for it by hitting .327 with 28 extra-base hits and 10 steals. His $20 million a year contract from the Cubs is upcoming.

29. San Diego (29): The Padres are 28th in MLB in runs scored, but they’d rank even lower if they hadn’t stumbled upon Chris Denorfia as an outfield option. After all else (i.e. Will Venable and Brad Hawpe) failed, Denorfia succeeded, hitting. 295 and slugging .443. For $800,000, he’ll fit right in on the Padres.

30. Houston (30): Bud Norris was a perfect Astro his first year-and-a-half in the majors, managing to produce less than his numbers projected he might. But after ERAs of 4.53 and 4.92 despite 212 strikeouts in 209.1 innings, Norris has improved his control enough this year (35 walks in 94 innings after 102 in 209.1) to improve his results. He has a 3.26 ERA and .675 OPS against and just a $437,000 salary hit; that he’s still only 4-5 is more the Astros’ fault than his.

Next week: worst bargains for 2011

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