Schadenfreude is a wonderful thing. One of the secret joys I get out of looking over the All-Star ballot involves imagining which players are embarrassed to even see their names on there. Every season, MLB’s spirit of ‘inclusion’ (or at least, spirit of ‘trying to please as many people as possible’) means that the ballot features essentially every projected major league starter, whether that player has any business being on the ballot or not, or even whether they ended up seeing much playing time.
This year though, as I chortled in an unseemly fashion at the likes of Travis Lee or Brandon Watson being in a position to receive votes, it occurred to me that All-Star voters aren’t the only people who have to worry about dead spots. Over the last decade, major league rosters have been trending towards a regular 12-man pitching staff (with gusts to 13) accompanied by a corresponding loss of bench spots, and it’s a trend that has been taking a quiet, almost unnoticed toll on rotisserie owners.
In the Good Old Days of rotisserie, one of the most popular strategies was Stars and Scrubs. You spent most of your budget of the best of the best, and then filled in the holes with cheap players who could fill specific statistical roles. It was an especially popular strategy in keeper leagues, where if you got lucky with an end game gem you were that much further ahead for next year, with a Star locked up at a Scrub price.
In today’s game though? It’s nearly impossible. The Stars haven’t changed much, but finding Scrub hitters who could be worth even a dollar has become increasingly difficult. Rookies who might develop more playing time down the road no longer have spots at the end of the bench waiting for them; they’re mostly either thrust right into the starting lineup, or left to develop in the minors. And the platoon, long a good spot to fish for Scrubs because each player was being used in a way that accented his strengths and minimized his weaknesses, has all but vanished from the major league scene.
The effects go deeper than that, though. The shrunken hitter pool hasn’t just eliminated potential Scrubs, it’s also made injuries and sheer ineffectiveness more dangerous. In the past, a player like Pablo Ozuna who can contribute in one category (steals) while not hurting you in another (batting average) would make a decent reserve, someone you could plug into your lineup for a couple of weeks while one of your starters was nursing a groin pull. In an AL-only league of any depth today he’s a fifth outfielder or utility player, and that useful-in-a-pinch player no longer sits on your reserve list waiting for a call–leaving you without anyone to turn to when those groins get strained.
The natural answer, of course, is to not use a Stars and Scrubs strategy, but instead stick to the old roto adage that “playing time equals value.” A roster of solid citizens top to bottom has a better chance of avoiding holes that will cripple your chances, whether those holes are due to injury or a lack of options in the auction endgame. That strategy has more pitfalls than before, though. The lack of depth in the hitter pool gets people very skittish at the auction table when they can see the bottom of the barrel coming, and players who could be snuck through late for under their projected value are suddenly going for relatively astronomical rates, as other owners burn through their budgets on the Last Good Middle Infielder, or even the Last Non-Awful Power Threat. Those skewed price tags make it far more difficult to assemble the roster you want, when you’re forced to pay Star prices for mere Solid Citizens.
The final kicker is the effect all those new roster spots have had on pitching staffs. Rather than add more useful arms to the player pool, the trend has been towards more specialization and less value at the margins. The number of useful players has remained about the same, but from a fantasy perspective all those 25-man roster spots that have been shifted from hitters to pitchers have been lost to a limbo of LOOGYs and mop up men.
More and more, the key to winning fantasy leagues involves not hoarding positive value, but simply avoiding negative value. The next wave of successful rotisserie strategies will almost certainly focus here… at least until trends in the majors shift once again, and fantasy owners once again are forced to chase after them.
Erik Siegrist is a senior beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins and Nationals. He can be reached here.