How (Not) to Build For Depth

Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by major league teams’ depth recently. The reasons for my fascination are all over the map. I’m always interested in looking for blind spots in our playoff odds, and a conversation with the big boss (hi David!) at the Winter Meetings got me thinking about how teams allocate playing time between starters and backups. I was already independently digging into how team strength changes throughout the year as their roster changes. The plight of various injured pitching staffs – and the triumph of the always-adding Rangers – was yet another angle on the problem.

To that end, I started looking at how much of each team’s playing time and WAR comes from their Opening Day rosters every year. I was looking for interesting trends, though I wasn’t exactly sure where to find them, so my plan was to keep an open mind and see what jumped out at me. But, uh, I didn’t expect this.

See, my first check was what percentage of each team’s total WAR in a given season came from their initial roster. In a given year, you might have a very healthy roster like the Blue Jays’ (88.6% of their total plate appearances plus total batters faced came from players who were in uniform for the first game), and thus end up with 91.5% of your WAR coming from that group. You might make a series of call-ups throughout the seasons like the Reds (58.9% of playing time on the Opening Day roster) and end up with only 63.9% of your WAR coming from that group. I thought that by taking averages of these, I might be able to learn something.

Instead, I just ended up gawking at the White Sox. As you no doubt know, the White Sox were not good this year. They went 61-101 with a -200 run differential. In other words, they got the pants beaten off of them night in and night out. They also traded fairly heavily from their roster at midseason; they made deadline deals with the Angels, Astros, Dodgers, Marlins, and Yankees. But they were remarkably healthy – the second-healthiest team in the game, by some accounts – and so they ended up with a normal amount of playing time allocated to players on the initial roster despite all the fill-ins needed for the players who got traded.

In 2023, the average team gave 72% of its playing time to its initial 26 players, and those 26 produced 82% of the team’s WAR. The White Sox gave 74% of their playing time to their initial 26 players – and those 26 produced 102% of the team’s total WAR. That’s right – the players they called up throughout the season, in aggregate, were below replacement level. Those call-ups accounted for 3,030 plate appearances plus batters faced… and -0.3 WAR. Holy moly, that’s bad. In fact, it’s off the charts:

Depth, or Lack Thereof
Team OD Roster Playing Time% OD Roster WAR%
ARI 74.1% 96.5%
ATL 79.5% 96.1%
BAL 76.8% 80.1%
BOS 68.2% 74.7%
CHC 72.2% 77.5%
CHW 74.1% 102.1%
CIN 58.9% 63.9%
CLE 71.7% 71.1%
COL 65.6% 66.7%
DET 64.8% 50.2%
HOU 82.6% 85.1%
KCR 64.5% 58.3%
LAA 64.6% 98.2%
LAD 72.8% 87.1%
MIA 77.3% 86.8%
MIL 64.4% 72.5%
MIN 70.7% 71.1%
NYM 67.6% 82.9%
NYY 75.4% 89.6%
OAK 61.2% 82.9%
PHI 77.6% 75.9%
PIT 66.5% 93.3%
SDP 73.8% 79.0%
SEA 71.3% 79.9%
SFG 75.4% 90.7%
STL 75.7% 97.4%
TBR 70.9% 83.8%
TEX 80.6% 84.7%
TOR 88.6% 91.5%
WSN 76.7% 90.8%

How did the White Sox end up there? Well, it helps to come into the year with an atrocious farm system. We ranked Chicago’s farm 27th in baseball before the year, and that actually oversells how much of the org’s depth was ready to help the big club. That’s because more than half of the value in a bad-as-it-is farm system came from two players, Colson Montgomery and Bryan Ramos, who came into the season somewhat far from the majors. They’re both great, but they were never likely to help the big league club this year. That farm system ranking also included Oscar Colás, who made the big club to start the year and thus didn’t count as additional depth. That said, he was worth -1.3 WAR this year, so their statistics might have looked even more ludicrous if he’d started in the minors.

Okay, so that’s a start: a thin farm system whose best players are too far away to contribute today. But that description applies to plenty of teams; the Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, Tigers, Mariners, and Angels all mostly fit this bill. The A’s, Astros, Phillies, and Nationals, the other teams at the bottom of the farm team rankings headed into 2023, are similar. But those 10 teams got an average of 19.1% of their WAR from replacements, and that doesn’t change much if you exclude the playoff teams.

Bringing up your own prospects isn’t the only way to inject new blood into your roster to fill in missing playing time. You could also trade for players, though obviously Chicago’s swaps were mostly geared toward the future of the roster rather than its present. But you could trade for young players or veterans looking for a new shot. The Sox did just that, adding Trayce Thompson, Korey Lee, and Luis Patiño in trade throughout the year. One problem: Those three accounted for -1.0 WAR in Chicago.

When you’re a team with absolutely no depth, the waiver wire can be a fruitful avenue for supplementing your roster. Every year, relievers and utility infielders pass through waivers and end up helping a new team. The White Sox claimed five players off of waivers in 2023: Nick Solak, Touki Toussaint, Brent Honeywell, Deivi García, and Yohan Ramirez. Solak never played for them; he got claimed away by the Braves four days later. The other four combined for 0.2 WAR in a White Sox jersey. Toussaint looked like a reasonable fifth starter, but none of the rest of the group did much with their opportunity.

What about minor league journeymen, Quad-A types or older guys having resurgent seasons? Amazingly, the White Sox just didn’t have those guys. There were 252 players who batted at least 100 times in Triple-A last year and posted a wRC+ of 100 or better. The White Sox had just five of those – and that counts Colás, who was only in the minors because he got demoted for his early-season work. They didn’t even take advantage of the other four players, who combined for 78 plate appearances, with 76 of those coming from Clint Frazier. Colás is the only one of those five players who’s even still in the White Sox organization.

The team had more room on the pitching side for reinforcements, because they dealt away most of their bullpen and two starters at the deadline. But, well, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but they didn’t really have anyone available to call up. Only four White Sox pitchers threw 30-plus innings at Triple-A with an xFIP below 5.00. The team called up all four of those players – but they needed far more than that, so they also called up pitchers who didn’t clear my arbitrary bar for major league-worthiness.

I don’t have a lengthy database of rosters to run this check on, but I’m fairly sure that no one has managed such an impressive assemblage of below-replacement options in recent memory. Between promising minor leaguers and waiver wire churn, teams consistently manage to find someone to supplement their initial rosters, even if they don’t have a spectacular farm system. The ability to assign playing time helps, too: even if you whiff on five out of six dart throws, you can just play the sixth guy far more. Think Cole Ragans turning it on with the Royals and turning into their ace down the stretch, or Matt Wallner carving out a role in Minnesota.

The point is, it really isn’t easy to do what the White Sox did this year. So if you’re looking for a blueprint for how to get as little as possible to supplement the guys you start with, you’ll have to follow their plan quite closely. Start with no minor league depth. Don’t hit on any waiver claims. Keep your in-season trades focused on guys who aren’t ready yet – and for bonus points, play them anyway to rack up a bit of negative WAR. Don’t do too much churning of upper-minors options, either, lest you hit on a guy who really clicks.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek with this, because obviously no one plans to get so vanishingly little out of their depth. But we can answer a different question this way. Why did the White Sox fall apart so completely this year, from a preseason expectation of 80 wins to a 100-loss stinker? It’s because their team was uniquely vulnerable to a need to replace production during the season. Everyone has to do it – it’s a long season and roster moves are inevitable. How you handle those situations, and even how you build your organization with them in mind, can be the difference between a season where adversity helps you find new contributors and one where everything collapses.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Bud Smithmember
4 months ago

It’s fun to laugh at the White Sox, but from the chart the Dbacks and Braves don’t look so different. They got “vanishingly little” out of their depth and did just fine.

4 months ago
Reply to  Bud Smith

You can at least explain the Braves by saying their opening day roster was very healthy and had very high WAR totals. That’s less of a depth problem and more of a math problem. The denominator for their team WAR is high because Acuna is putting up an 8 WAR season with normal playing time, and the supporting cast was doing really well too, so depth guys just don’t contribute much to the overall percentage of their WAR. The white sox problem is that they’re just terrible.

4 months ago
Reply to  DLHughey

Hitters, sure, but in starting pitching especially the Braves both (1) needed a lot of depth and (2) that depth was rough. The top 4 starters contributed 11.9 WAR. The other 11(!) pitchers who started at least 1 game (incl. openers) combined for -0.2 WAR as SP. Essentially any SP inning that was not Fried/Strider/Morton/Elder was replacement.

I think the Braves used more starters last season than any other team. Some of those guys really needed all those runs the hitters scored…

4 months ago
Reply to  whatmonster

Let’s put it this way. If you “reallocated” half of Acuna’s WAR to a starter, he’s still a 4 WAR OF raising his team’s WAR ceiling. But it’s still a good point.

Frankly, I think the Braves are entering a sneaky period of pitching vulnerability and are about a year behind the 2024 Dodgers in this regard. They haven’t played in the free agent market, partly because they haven’t needed to but partly by design, and that frugality could be a 2025 and beyond issue. Fried is likely gone next year, Morton will retire at some point and has been declining, and Elder had a 17% K rate. You really have to buy Smith-Shawver to think this will be ok without a legitimate FA signing soon.

4 months ago
Reply to  DLHughey

No question about that, and I don’t think it’s sneaky at all to realistic Braves fans. And a pessimistic Braves fan (me) will even tell you it’ll be a miracle if Strider does not lose 1+ season to TJ surgery at some point in his contract.

Brian Reinhartmember
4 months ago
Reply to  Bud Smith

I think this is a lesson in how similar numbers can mean different things. With these numbers, a mostly healthy superroster of All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers (ATL) can look kinda like a mostly healthy roster that’s supplemented by weasels and gerbils (CHW).

4 months ago
Reply to  Bud Smith

 “vanishingly little” is okay. The problem is getting below replacement level from basically everyone not on OD roster.

4 months ago
Reply to  Bud Smith

Didn’t you throw a no hitter on Sept 3, 2001?