Let’s build a baseball team from scratch. What’s the first thing you get? Probably an incredible hitter, easily among the best in the league and in the prime of his career. And on the other side of the ball, a legit ace, who has the ability to strike guys out but also pitches with a plan. Add a crack center fielder and an emerging young infielder, and fill out the rotation with some live young arms (along with all the upside that entails).
Seems like a pretty good start to a team, right? Probably! But a start isn’t always enough. The team, as the title suggests, is the Diamondbacks. And those players — Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke, A.J. Pollock, Jake Lamb, Robbie Ray, Archie Bradley, Taijuan Walker, and Shelby Miller — are all really quite good! (Part of the rotation maybe isn’t actually good, but some number of them will probably end up giving Arizona some good innings.)
But those stalwarts will almost certainly not be enough in 2017. Beyond their excellent players, the Diamondbacks have starters like Yasmany Tomas and Nick Ahmed, who... are not excellent. The Diamondbacks' roster falls off so quickly that, despite its lofty high end, both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs project the club to go 77-85. There’s something about the stars-and-scrubs approach to roster building that is very appealing; the stars are the hard part, and then you just need to get some not-entirely-scrubby-scrubs, and how hard can that be? Sometimes really hard, it turns out!
There are some other things that can go wrong in the stars-and-scrubs approach, and nearly all of them have gone wrong down in the Arizona desert. Let this be a cautionary tale to all who think this is the easy path to the playoffs:
Stars not good enough
Pretty descriptive title. Probably doesn’t need much of an explanation, but here goes. A team with a successful stars-and-scrubs approach needs a lot of stars, and needs them to stay good. The Diamondbacks’ stars are really good! But they’re not all as good as they were supposed to be when Arizona signed them, or all as good as they used to be.
Paul Goldschmidt, for example, is great! But he’s coming off the worst offensive season of his career since 2012, and he’s about to hit 30. Zack Greinke is the obvious name, though; after 222 2⁄3 innings with a 1.66 ERA in 2015, he threw 158 2⁄3 innings with a 4.37 ERA. That first ERA was definitely the product of some good luck, and the second ERA was definitely the product of some bad luck, so it’s not as if Greinke suddenly careened from best pitcher in the league by a big margin to sub-par at best. But he did careen from a very good pitcher to a pitcher who at least performed like something other than a very good pitcher, and most importantly, the Diamondbacks have promised to pay him like the best pitcher in the league. It’s not just that Greinke has been a disappointment; it’s the $34 million he’s owed annually even if he disappoints.
Then there are the other, supporting stars, guys like Pollock (who played only 12 games last year), Lamb (who had a nasty second-half slump), and Walker and Ray (who haven't pitched as well as their peripherals suggest they should). They're solid players, but the holes in their game prevent them from becoming truly elite.
This team-building strategy is predicated on the possibility of improvement at those scrubby positions, to move from “stars-and-scrubs” to “regular-baseball-team-that’s-pretty-good.” When your stars aren’t stars, and when they’re still paid like stars, that move is a lot harder.
No farm system
That title isn’t an exaggeration. Keith Law puts out an annual ranking of all the minor league systems; the Diamondbacks ranked exactly 30th. Per Law, it’s been “ritually disemboweled” over the last few years, and while the people responsible for those sacrifices to the gods of lopsided trades don’t have jobs in Arizona anymore, it’s gonna take a while for the system to recover. No Diamondbacks appeared in Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 prospects. One appeared in Baseball America’s Top 100 — Anthony Banda, a starter who first cracked AAA in 2016.
One of the ways a stars-and-scrubs roster can turn into a competitive squad is through graduation of players from the high minors. With a lowered bar for them to clear at the various scrubby positions, a guy doesn’t need to be a stud to constitute a real improvement. If the stars are good enough (see supra), just a few such improvements can put them over the hump.
The Diamondbacks aren’t close to the hump, as we’ve discussed. But even if they were, Anthony Banda and co. aren’t about to come give them another push. A decent farm system — maybe not with the high end of the very best systems, but with good depth and a lot of players who might be able to contribute — is basically a prerequisite for a successful stars-and-scrubs setup.
This is also a team-building method that’s uniquely dependent on the whims of the market. Imagine the Diamondbacks did have the high-end star power, and did have a broad and deep farm system, and thus are thinking about how to replace some of their scrubs as the season goes on and they try to push for the playoffs. Maybe they would have carefully planned years in advance, predicting the trades, contracts, and extensions and figured out which positions will have the most players available. Or maybe, because that’s impossible, they would’ve just hoped that things would work out.
The Diamondbacks’ primary second baseman is Brandon Drury, with some Ketel Marte thrown in. Neither is very good, and if the Diamondbacks wanted to compete, it would be an obvious area to upgrade. But the trade deadline options at the position this season look likely to be slim; a team can basically spring for Brian Dozier, hope that Brandon Phillips represents an actual upgrade, or plan for Brett Lawrie to be a really, really late bloomer.
There’s not much a stars and scrubs team can do in that situation. Marginal teams can’t be picky about where they get their upgrades. But a stars-and-scrubs team has to be picky, since it has some number of positions where improvement would be essentially impossible and at the very least crazy expensive. Even if everything else goes right, a stars-and-scrubs team needs to hit the market perfectly. If not, the better-than-scrubs that are available for cheap don’t match up with the the scrubs the team already has. The Diamondbacks shouldn’t be looking for a second baseman, but if they were, it’s not clear whom they’d be able to find.
Stars-and-scrubs is really attractive for a reason. It seems so easy! You just get great players, and then get some decent players (who should be lying around), and then you make the playoffs. But sometimes your great players aren’t as great as you thought, and decent players aren’t actually lying around, either in your farm system or on the market. In that situation, you’re the Diamondbacks, stocked with several great players but sunk by the scrubs that you have to start alongside them all season. It’s not as easy as it might look to build a competitive baseball team. If only someone had told Dave Stewart that.