Is the End Near for Stars-and-Scrubs?

There are competing theories on how, assuming an imperfect supply both of resources and assets, to best build a team. For instance, construct a roster with stars and scrubs or pursue a more balanced approach? Chicago White Sox general manager Rich Hahn — and, I believe, most general managers — are entrenched in the balanced-approach camp.

Hahn has generally been praised this offseason as he’s embarked on a rebuild project, and deservedly so. He added the game’s No. 2 overall prospect according to Baseball America and, in Yoan Moncada and three potential impact arms in Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez in trades that sent Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals.

In making those deals, Hahn traded two players on team-friendly deals, in their primes, who accounted for nearly 40% of the team’s total WAR production last season. Hahn hopes that, in return, the trades yield the core of a team that enjoys a greater breadth of talent. Said Hahn recently to

“The last few years we’ve had a very top-heavy roster and the reason we haven’t won had nothing to do with the quality players at the top end of that roster,” Hahn said. “When the time comes that we are in a position to contend again, we are going to be approaching that with ideally a much deeper, more thoroughly balanced roster than what we had. It had to do with what was going on with not just one through 25, but one through 35 or 40. So now as we approach this, we have to build that organizational quality depth, not just insurance policies, but real high-caliber depth.”

The end is perhaps not quite yet here for the stars-and-scubs approach. The Angels have Mike Trout and everybody else and hope to contend with that arrangement. The Marlins have Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich but one of the game’s thinnest farm systems.

The White Sox could have elected to pursue a stars-and-scrubs approach in 2017. The top-end talent on their roster last season could hold its own with any in the game. Sale, Eaton and Jose Quintana — for whom it seems to be more a question of when rather than if he’s traded — accounted for 16 wins last season. They compared favorably or were demonstrably superior to the top-three WAR producers among all six 90-plus-win teams in the majors last season. Those six teams also happened to double as the winners of all six MLB divisions.

But more and more teams seem to prefer spreading risk. The White Sox are opting for a more balanced approach, what Hahn describes as trying to reach a “critical mass” of players. Rather than count on a small group of players to remain healthy and offer elite production, opting for a breadth of talent — even with a lesser top-end roster — spreads risk and allows a team greater flexibility in the face of a variety of potential scenarios.

Most of us are probably better off investing in an index fund rather than betting on a small number of stocks. While the Eaton-Sale-Quintana troika was great, it also accounted for 50.6% of Chicago’s WAR last season. The top-three WAR contributors from last season’s six division winners, meanwhile, ranged from 30.9% (Cubs) to 43.3% (Rangers). Four of the six teams, received less than 40% of their production from their top three players.

Talent Distribution of 2016 Division Winners
Top-Three WAR players Total WAR Top Three % of team WAR
Cubs 18.3 59.1 30.9
Dodgers 19.6 47.8 41.0
Nationals 15.8 46.6 33.9
Red Sox 18.2 52.5 34.6
Indians 16.2 46.2 35.1
Rangers 12.4 28.6 43.3

The White Sox simply didn’t have the depth around their core of stars, didn’t believe they could augment the core well enough to compete. They entered the offseason with one of the weaker farm systems in the game.

The White Sox rebuild isn’t aimed just at improving their farm system, it’s not just about moving assets like Sale and Eaton at peak value — players who might not be as productive or even under contract during the club’s next postseason run. The rebuilding philosophy is also geared toward creating a more talented but less top-heavy roster, as Hahn noted.

Every team must create such depth through their farm system, prudent trades and free-agent signings but having assets like Eaton and Sale to flip at peak value gave the White Sox the luxury not only of hunting for impact talent but of potentially improving their depth of talent.

Perhaps a different front office and ownership group would have kept Sale and Eaton and tried to build around them through free agency, perhaps another group would have tried to find more valuable scrubs to add to the former White Sox stars. And there was undervalued talent available this offseason in corner bats and low-velocity arms. Joe Blanton and Jorge de la Rosa remain available.

But it seems, more and more often, that teams are abandoning the stars-and-scrubs approach in favor of depth and versatility. Teams are preferring to spread risk rather than concentrate it.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Monsignor Martinez
7 years ago

I’m thinking that 2 teams could have the same total WAR, but the team that concentrates it on just a few star players could be pitched around in high-leverage situations, whereas the more balanced team wouldn’t have any real holes in their lineup and could not be pitched around. Although this wouldn’t make a substantial difference over the course of a full season, I could see it making the difference between being in the playoffs and just barely missing.

7 years ago

Interesting to approach WAR from a hitting perspective, when WAR isn’t really about that! Your “solid” group would almost certainly be a speedy, defensive group who knew how to take a walk as that is exactly how solid WAR guys often profile. They could be well below average at swinging the bat potentially.

I agree more or less with your assertion, but the flip side of that would be that those star players are the difference makers. Without them you can just skate through the entire lineup. Offensive star player have value to the lineup.