There’s something about a “stars and scrubs” roster that really appeals to fans. There’s probably no single correct way to build a team. Too much depends on the individual players on a roster, the competition in the division and league, and the upgrades available via trade or free agency for there to be a single guiding principle for each organization. Nonetheless, people seem to love a team that focuses its value in a few positions and players, rather than spreading it out across the diamond. If you have a six-win player and a zero-win player, the idea goes, it should be easier to upgrade (since all you need to do is find a one- or two-win player), whereas upgrading on a pair of three-win players is much harder.
There are obvious downsides to such a strategy, of course. Your risk is concentrated to the same extent as your value; an injury to one of your few great players is a lot more damaging than an injury to one of your rivals’ several good players is for them. And, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has pointed out, it’s often not so easy to find one- or two-win players just lying around (or even above-replacement players), so there might not actually be much of an advantage.
But the reason for the appeal is obvious: If your stars stay healthy, and your scrubs aren’t too scrubby, and if you make it to the trade deadline having kept pace with your more balanced opponents, what might look like marginal upgrades can instead make a big difference. Those can be big “if”s, which is why it’s probably not worth intentionally pursuing such a strategy. But if a team finds itself in a stars-and-scrubs situation, it might mean they’re well-positioned for a season that goes better than expected.
The Detroit Tigers are in a weird place. It feels like we’ve been talking (somewhat callously) about Mike Ilitch’s impending death for years, as an explanation for why they’re steadfastly refusing to rebuild, and instead trying to extend their current competitive window for as long as possible. But despite a rebuild feeling inevitable for at least the last two seasons, the Tigers are currently projected (by FanGraphs) for 83 wins, right in the thick of the AL Wild Card race and, while underdogs (undercats?), within striking distance of Cleveland for the AL Central. And the way they’re doing it looks like the classic stars-and-scrubs model.
Here’s a chart with the Tigers’ projected fWAR by position. (Each projection was scaled to the average projected fWAR at that position, so that 0.0 is league average, to correct for the lower baseline of a position like 1B. Also, DH was scaled to AL teams only.)
Their roster is led by Miguel Cabrera, aging yet still unbelievably good, and his 4.3 fWAR as a first baseman is projected to be more than double that of the average first baseman. And while the Tigers’ 2.4 fWAR in left field might not look great (produced almost entirely by Justin Upton), that position has turned into a bid of a dumping ground across the league, meaning it compares quite favorably to Detroit’s peers. Then, at second base, Ian Kinsler is projected to make the Tigers about 30 percent better. (And that’s using only Steamer’s projection of 2.7 fWAR, which seems quite low; ZiPS — which the FanGraphs depth charts will incorporate soon — has him at 3.9 fWAR, which would push the Tigers up to 90 percent better than league average at 2B.)
But the Tigers’ fWAR as a whole is projected just slightly below league average, driven in part by the roster black holes at third base and center field. Nick Castellanos had a bit of a “breakout” last year, in that he posted the first positive fWAR of his career, but he still doesn’t seem particularly good, and third base is a position of uncommon strength at this point in time. Still, the 55 percent deficit compared to league average is nothing compared to Detroit’s situation in center field, where the plate appearances are expected to be split between Andrew Romine, Tyler Collins, and Mikie Mahtook, to a combined tune of 0.6 fWAR. That’s bad. That’s really, really bad.
As I said, though, the upshot is a roster that looks firmly in the mix for a Wild Card slot. If the Tigers make it to the trade deadline with Cabrera and Kinsler performing as expected, they should have several opportunities to make impactful upgrades at a relatively low price. As Steven Martano documented a couple weeks ago, there are a number of outfielders whose contracts expire at the end of 2017 who could be available at the deadline. The players on the high end of that list might come with a higher price tag, and given the sad state of the Tigers’ minor league system, such players are probably out of reach. But a half-season of, say, Rajai Davis (1.0 projected fWAR) or Carlos Gomez (2.2) is probably something the Tigers could afford, and could make a huge difference down the stretch. At third base, someone like Yunel Escobar (1.5 fWAR) or Jung-Ho Kang (2.4) will probably be available for relatively cheap, and if Castellanos falls back to his pre-2016 levels, they would provide a similarly large upgrade.
Plus, the Tigers have some upside at a couple of their more average positions. In right field, J.D. Martinez is projected for just 1.8 fWAR this season, which he could easily beat if (a) his 2016 defense (-21.5 UZR/150) regresses toward his 2014-15 level (3.7 UZR/150), and (b) his bat doesn’t decline from a 143 wRC+ to a projected 119. And Victor Martinez could bounce back at DH, after getting surgery on the hernia that hampered him last year. He racked up 0.9 fWAR in the first half of 2016 before a replacement-level second half; a clean bill of health could make him an average player once more.
Finally, although relievers don’t make a huge difference in terms of fWAR, Detroit could find a cheap upgrade there as well. The Tigers don’t have a great bullpen, but while we’ve seen trade deadline reliever prices skyrocket over the last few years, that inflation has mostly been concentrated at the high end of the market. A second- or third-tier reliever will probably be available for cheap, and given the Tigers current bullpen, would be a welcome addition.
Of course, not every team projected to be decent at third base and center field will be, and the Tigers will certainly face competition for even these mediocre players. Improving a team is never easy, even when starting at a low baseline. But it can be easier, and it looks like it might be for Detroit. If they’re in a passable position come July, it’ll be on the back of Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler. It doesn’t take much more than that to make a team playoff bound.