Stars and Scrubs and the Trade Deadline

While this is definitely a gross simplification, there are essentially two competing schools of thought on how to construct a roster: emphasize talent at the top of the roster — the Stars and Scrubs approach, as it is often called — or spread the wealth around to limit glaring weaknesses. To be sure, either approach can work, as the reality is that the total production level is more important than the distribution of that production within the roster, but there are certainly differing camps who prefer one strategy or the other.

The argument in favor of the Stars and Scrubs approach has a lot of overlap with the argument for the non-linear valuation of WAR. As the argument goes, one +6 WAR player is worth more than two +3 WAR players, because it is easier to upgrade on a +0 WAR player than a +3 WAR player, so if you start out with +6 and +0, you can upgrade the +0 guy to a +1 or +2 WAR player and come out with a higher overall level of production.

I think the theory has a few problems, however.

First, +1 to +2 WAR players aren’t free. You have to acquire them, which costs something, and unless they are pre-arbitration guys — who are very hard to acquire — then they’re going to make some kind of salary that’s likely more than the league minimum, especially if they’re closer to a +2 WAR guy than a +1 WAR guy. So while you’ll get a higher level of production from a +6 WAR guy and a +1 WAR guy than two +3 WAR guys, the +6/+1 duo may very well cost more as well, so the comparison is no longer apples to apples. When comparing pairs of players like this, you want to make sure you’re equalizing the costs.

Secondly, no team in baseball is ever in the situation where they need to make an upgrade but are limited because their roster is already filled with +3 WAR players. For one, a team with +3 WAR players everywhere wouldn’t need to upgrade, because it would be projected for roughly +45 WAR and would be the best team in baseball. But more realistically, no team can actually have above average players everywhere, as even if you managed to build that team in the off-season, injuries would create unforeseen holes, and you can’t just stash a an above average big leaguer on the bench to protect against injuries. Every team always has a spot where they can upgrade on a below average player, regardless of what kind of roster approach they take.

I’ve made this argument before, but now that we’re two days away from the trade deadline, I thought it’d be useful to revisit this conversation by looking at the ease of upgrades for teams who have taken different approaches this season. If the Stars and Scrubs benefit is true, the contenders that have heavily imbalanced rosters should be getting the most benefit this week, after all, because they’re the ones who have “easy upgrades” to make and can raise their overall production the most, right? So which teams should, according to the theory, be having the easiest time making upgrades to their roster right now?

To start out, let’s just look at position players. Due to injuries and performance variations, basically every contender always wants to add pitching, so the cost of pitching at the deadline is always exceptionally high. The benefit of swapping out scrubs for decent role players should come more on the position player side, since those guys aren’t going to command the same premium as a good arm in July.

In order to break down which teams are the Stars-and-Scrubbiest, I grabbed our depth chart projections data and looked at which teams are projected to give the most playing time to guys who the numbers think are worth +0 to +1 WAR per 600 plate appearances. I required at least 100 projected plate appearances going forward for each player, since basically everyone’s bench is full of scrubs, and I didn’t want to include reserves. When we talk about Stars and Scrubs, we’re talking about everyday players. These guys are the quintessential “scrubs”, and replacing them is path of least resistance for a contender looking to upgrade. So which teams have the most projected contributors who fit the “scrub” definition?

Far and away, the most obvious answer is the Mariners. Over the final two months, our depth charts project them to give 793 plate appearances to +0 to +1 WAR regulars, including two of the five players in MLB with current starting jobs who project as below replacement level: James Jones and Endy Chavez. Toss in Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales, and Logan Morrison — three guys sharing two jobs, essentially — and basically half of the Mariners line-up qualifies under our definition of a “scrub”.

The only other team within shouting distance of the Mariners in terms of scrubby regulars is the Reds, as they are forecast to give 720 plate appearances to these types of guys. A lot of that is injuries, though, forcing guys like Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena into expanded roles for which they were not acquired. And after their recent slide, the Reds probably aren’t buyers anyway.

Among other contenders, the Yankees are just over 500 PAs, thanks to their hole at second base and the fact that Ichiro is their regular right fielder again. They would have been pushing towards 700 PAs before the Chase Headley acquisition, which is perhaps exactly the kind of not-super-costly upgrade that a Stars and Scrubs philosophy makes possible. Of course, it’s worth noting that the Yankees will pay Headley about $3 million for ~70 games, and it cost them a pitching prospect that they invested $500,000 into a few years back, so he wasn’t exactly free.

But really, no contender is as good of an example of Stars-and-Scrubs as the Mariners. No contender has so many obvious places to upgrade. Just swapping out Jones and Chavez for two actual Major League players would be a real improvement. And yet, it appears to not be quite as as easy as one would assume. Here’s Jack Zduriencik on why he’s being linked to more pitchers than hitters as the deadline draws near.

“If you consider David Price a [grade] A and the only thing available to you as a hitter is a C-plus hitter, you are better off with the A pitcher,” Zduriencik said. “It really all depends what opportunity presents itself. What are you giving up to what are you getting back? It is clear you can’t win without pitching. And it is clear we need offensive help. There is a lot of jockeying going on right now [about what prices are for players]. Nothing is clear cut what we will do.”

Zduriencik is entirely correct that making an upgrade to a strength can be the appropriate course of action if the options available make that a more substantial upgrade than improving a weakness. But isn’t the entire benefit of a Stars and Scrubs roster supposed to be that upgrading weaknesses is easy? If the theory held, shouldn’t there be a slew of decent +1 WAR outfielders on the market, ripe for the Mariners picking?

There are +1 WAR outfielders on the market, certainly. The Rangers will probably trade Alex Rios. The Twins would likely move Josh Willingham. The White Sox have Dayan Viciedo, though he may be more of a +0 WAR guy. The Dodgers would probably trade any of their outfielders if someone would take them. But maybe it’s instructive that a team with two below replacement level outfielders is hunting for a starting pitcher instead of acquiring one of these marginal role player types. If they were as freely available as the the theory suggests, the Mariners probably would have acquired one or two by now.

Also worth mentioning; there’s basically no team in baseball that spent more time building a balanced roster than the Oakland A’s. Since they haven’t developed any home grown stars in a while, they built a roster full of interesting veterans with complementary skills. They entered the season with very few weaknesses, and as a result, they have baseball’s best record. And yet, they are the only team so far to make a trade for a legitimate impact player. The team with the most balanced approach to roster building is the only one who has managed to make a significant trade in July.

The Stars-and-Scrubs strategy isn’t a disaster, and as the Mariners are showing, if your stars are good enough, you can win even with some really awful players getting regular playing time. Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano can cover for a James Jones here and an Endy Chavez there. But if there’s additional benefit to this roster construction that allows teams like the Mariners to easily replace their scrubs and end up being better off overall, it hasn’t shown up in this trade deadline season yet. Maybe in the next 48 hours, the Mariners will find two decent outfielders who cost little to nothing and will provide a real upgrade. Or maybe those guys just aren’t as prevalent and available as the theory assumes.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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1) Many fantasy baseball concepts seem to apply nicely to real-world baseball
2) Stars-and-Scrubs works well in many fantasy formats because there’s usually a good pool of stars available mid-season.

But your Mariners example is a great one. In the real world, fewer players of value are available.