The Orioles Stars and Scrubs Problem

Whether you go by ZIPS or Steamer, the Orioles have exactly five good position players. In Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy, the Orioles have a core of talent that projects for roughly +15 WAR, meaning that they’d only need to get about +25 WAR from the other 20 spots on the roster in order to project as a legitimate contender for 2014. +25 WAR across 20 roster spots is not a particularly high bar, and with the head start that their Big Five give them, the Orioles should be a good team next year.

But right now, they don’t project as a particularly good team. Our forecasted standings based on the Steamer data (ZIPS will be included once all the team projections are finished) have the Orioles as a 78 win team, 10 wins behind the Red Sox and in last place in the AL East. Steamer thinks the Orioles are approximately as good as the Mets. The Orioles, as currently constructed, are a perfect example of why roster spots #6-#30 matter quite a bit, and why the Stars and Scrubs model of building a baseball team isn’t always all its cracked up to be.

Here’s the Orioles depth chart, from the ZIPS projections roll-out post that Carson did a few weeks ago.

Baltimore Depth

All of these numbers are rounded, but the Orioles should basically expect to get nothing or close to nothing from what they currently have at LF, 2B, DH, and RF. Right field is tough to do much about, because they’re already paying Nick Markakis $15 million, so bumping him to a bench role would be a tough pill to swallow for the organization. And besides, with the glaring holes at several other spots, replacing Markakis is hardly a priority, even though he’d be a problem on most any other contender.

But for a team that is currently projecting Nolan Reimold, Henry Urrutia, and Ryan Flaherty as opening day starters, Markakis looks like a non-issue. Sure, the Orioles have alternatives, but it’s not like the team looks a lot better if you swap in David Lough, Steve Pearce, and Jonathan Schoop. There’s some validity to taking a lot of crap, throwing it against a wall, and seeing what sticks, but that’s a better plan for a team that is trying to build for the future than a team that has five guys who would fit nicely on the best team in baseball.

The theory behind the Stars and Scrubs approach essentially boils down to the belief that “scrubs” are easily replaced with moderately useful role players, and because there is a greater supply of +1 to +2 WAR players hanging around, finding a few useful players to fill the gaps shouldn’t be particularly hard. It’s not so much that people believe that a few stars and a handful of terrible players will make a good team, but that those terrible players can be easily replaced by not terrible players and then you can have a roster stars-and-solids, which would make for a good team.

This is also the core belief that drives the idea that the value of additional wins is not linear, if those wins are contained within one player. There is certainly a strong sentiment that a +4 WAR player is more valuable than a pair of +2 WAR players, because having the same WAR total use one less roster spot means that your total potential value from the two spots is theoretically higher. After all, if you can come up with a +1 WAR player to fill the second player’s void, now you’re at +5 WAR, and since +1 WAR players are easy to find, it shouldn’t be hard to get to 4+1 instead of 2+2.

It’s a nice enough theory, and my understanding is that it works pretty well in fantasy baseball — which is where the “whoever gets the best player wins the trade” axiom was born — but I think the Orioles current roster is a pretty decent counter to the idea that filling holes is both cheap and easy. Because, for pretty much every team in baseball, the real constraint is not roster spots, but dollars, and stars are almost always expensive.

Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, and Manny Machado are all underpaid relative to their market values, but they’re still going to cost a combined $40 million in salary for 2014, and Nick Markakis is going to make another $15 million from a contract that was signed when he too looked like a future star. Those six are going to cost the team about $55 million of their roughly $95 million budget for 2014, leaving the Orioles with about $40 million to spend on the other 19 spots on the roster. Getting +20 to +25 WAR from 19 spots might seem easy on the surface, but it gets a lot more difficult when you require the team to spend about $2 million apiece to acquire each of those wins, especially when the market price of wins is over $6 million now.

Even including all of the guys making the league minimum and having their salaries held down by arbitration, the overall cost of a win is a little over $3 million now, and a lot of the guys who are productive and make no money aren’t available to acquire. In the market of available players, the going rate is much higher, and that’s the market that teams have to shop in if they want to improve their rosters in the short term.

Most observers, myself included, eventually expect the Orioles to eventually give in and sign either Nelson Cruz or Kendrys Morales to improve their offense; both are looking for multi-year deals in excess of $10 million per season, both will cost the Orioles a draft pick, and both project as roughly +1 to +2 WAR players for 2014 and even worse beyond that. These guys are very clearly not cheap. And while they will probably be the most expensive +1 to +2 WAR free agents to sign this winter, even guys like Justin Morneau, Nate McLouth, Rajai Davis, Michael Morse, and Garrett Jones suggest that there is not a large supply of cheap productive free agent hitters just waiting to be scooped up by a team that needs some better role players.

For a team that needs to get at least +20 WAR from 20 players, $40 million doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. You need a lot of guys to produce real value while making no money. The Orioles have a few, with pitchers like Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman, but even having a few average starting pitchers making the league minimum still doesn’t leave a lot of money left to upgrade the other spots that need upgrading. And as the current Orioles or the 2013 Brewers have shown, surrounding a half dozen good players with a bunch of bad ones isn’t a great plan for contention.

As it stands, the Orioles have the makings of a good team, but look to be 3-4 solid everyday players shy of being able to stand up to the best teams in the American League. And as the Orioles off-season is showing, it isn’t so easy to just add 3-4 solid everyday players to your roster. The Orioles probably didn’t mean to end up with a stars-and-scrubs roster, but even if you develop quality young players yourself, the reality is that stars are rarely cheap for long, and they will eat up a large chunk of your payroll.

The Orioles are at something of a crossroads, and the fact that they’ve reportedly been open to listening to offers for Matt Wieters suggests that they know that this kind of roster construction isn’t sustainable. With Wieters and Davis both in line for significant contracts in the near future, along with the money they’re already paying Jones and the raise they’ll need to give Hardy (or a Hardy replacement) next off-season, the Orioles Big Five is probably going to have to become a Big Four, or even a Big Three. Baltimore simply can’t afford to keep all of their stars and still have enough left over to put good players around them.

There are certainly scenarios where a +4 WAR player is worth more than a pair of +2 WAR players, but if the +4 WAR player costs twice as much as each of the +2 WAR players, then the added value of consolidating roster spots is a lot smaller than people think. It is simply not true that a team can easily go from +0 to +1 or +1 to +2 WAR with little cost or effort. Even marginal player role players cost money, and if the stars are taking up most of your spending allowance, adding enough role players to fill all the gaps can run through a team’s budget in a hurry. Stars and scrubs can work, especially if you have a really large payroll or a prolific farm system, but it isn’t a magic formula for success, and in some cases, it can even be the wrong path.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

I don’t see them giving up a draft pick for Kendrys or especially Cruz. I think the Mets at some point give in and get a little less for Ike.

10 years ago
Reply to  attgig

The Mets don’t have to get rid of Ike – that’s the thing. It makes more sense for them to carry him into 2014 than trade him for less than what they’d like.