I don't have the time (or the permission) to repost the entire article, but Nate Silver has a great piece up on BP right now about the makeup of teams in terms of production distribution. Mods, please remove the quoted section if I shouldn't be borrowing it from BP, but this pretty much tells the whole story.
As you can see from the attached image, the Reds aren't horrible in terms of raw total production. However, the Reds (to date in 2007) are the flattest team in baseball. That is, they have the least variation in their production base. As you can see, the most productive teams in baseball are the ones that aren't too "sharp" or too "flat". Why is this and why is it a problem for the Reds?The horizontal axis now represents run differential, with the better teams toward the right, while the vertical access now represents what I’m calling “sharpness”. A team is “sharp” if, like the Yankees, it has a large degree of variance in its talent base—some very good players, but also some very poor players. A team is “flat” if, like the Brewers, its value is distributed fairly evenly across its roster.
* 1F: Strong, Flat teams. These are clubs which have very few weak spots, but perhaps only an average amount of star-level talent. Examples: Brewers, Diamondbacks.
* 1N: Strong, Natural teams. Plain ol’ good baseball teams, with their share of strong spots and not too many weak spots. Examples: Mets, Tigers.
* 1S: Strong, Sharp teams. Perhaps the most interesting category, these teams have plenty of star talent but also a handful of grave weaknesses. Examples: Angels, Twins.
* 2F: Average, Flat teams. These are .500 clubs with well-rounded rosters but few All-Stars. Example: Orioles; the Giants are the only other club in this region, but that’s a bit strange considering that they have Barry Bonds.
* 2N: Average, Natural teams. Average in every way, shape and form, these teams have the usual array of strengths and weaknesses. Examples: Mariners, Blue Jays.
* 2S: Average, Sharp teams. Teams with plenty of star-level talent, but which have holes in the lineup that preclude them contending for a title. Examples: Yankees, Marlins.
* 3F: Poor, Flat teams. These clubs have no glaring weaknesses, but their distinct lack of star talent renders them below average. Examples: Reds, Astros.
* 3N: Poor, Natural teams. Standard-issue bad baseball clubs. Examples: Royals, Nationals.
* 3S: Poor, Sharp teams. Finally, we have those teams that are sort of half-full with star talent, but three-quarters empty of the average talent they need to build a winning baseball team. Example: Devil Rays.
The answer to the first question is easy.
- Hard to improve the team because it takes a very productive player to realize gains over a mediocre one (it's easier to upgrade over Tony Womack than Brandon Phillips). But you do have a solid base to work from.
- It's hard to "get hot" because it requires multiple people to all do well at the same time. Sure, you're also more slump proof, but being locked in to a level of performance is only good if you're the best team.
- Your production rides in the hands of a few select people and therefore is subject to random variation. Sure, they can carry you, but if they slump, you slump. If they get injured.... you become the Cardinals.
- Easier to improve the team because you can improve it at so many positions, however, if something happens to your star(s), you're in deep crap.
The Reds have the flat problem. How do we improve this team? We're "decent" almost everywhere, but not excellent anywhere. To truly improve over where we're at, we need stars to replace average guys. There are no more cheap incremental gains, outside of a few spots in the bullpen that are giving us horrible production. Unfortunately, stars are hard to come by and aren't cheap in FA. If you do develop stars as a small market team, you HAVE to hold on to them because you aren't going to be able to win without their production and you aren't going to be able to sign them in FA. I'm looking at you Kansas City.
Given finite resources, the Reds would be incredibly stupid to try and compete with a flat roster as they simply cannot afford enough production. Rather, we should be devoting good resources to some very good players and then trying to realize some incremental value out of the rest of the roster. Call it the Oakland or Minnesota approach (both 1S teams)... Right now, we're pretty much the opposite.