Even the duds have studs

The 2010 Kansas City Royals are going to be a mostly terrible baseball team. As such deformed beasts go, however, fans have good reasons to pay attention. Alex Gordon still has a chance, I suppose, and Billy Butler is one of the brightest young stars in the game. And, of course, Royals fans get Mozart on the mound every fifth day. So while the team won’t be competing for a playoff spot, it won’t be without its highlights. (This isn’t the case, of course, with all bad teams. Too many are bereft of both wins and star power.) Here, though, we’ll look at the best players from the five losingest teams of the 2000s.

5. 2005 Kansas City Royals (56-106)

Best player: Mike Sweeney

I don’t think the baseball community at large appreciates just how good Sweeney was in the early part of the last decade. From 1999 to 2005, he never posted a wOBA worse than .357. He was awesome! Sweeney’s problem was a frustratingly simple one: He had a tough time staying on the field. Only three times in his career did he play more than 147 games. In fact, he was able to play in just 122 games for that putrid 2005 Royals squad. I give him the nod, though, because there just aren’t any other options. If you want to restrict it to full-time Royals, the answer would be either Emil Brown or Mike MacDougal.

Yeah, let’s stay with Sweeney, who swatted his way to a .300/.347/.517 line. That guy would be an excellent player on any team.

The injuries kept on mounting and Sweeney’s career has come to a fizzling end, though he’s yet to realize it. It’s a shame; not only will Sweeney not be remembered as the force he once was, he might not be remembered at all outside of Kansas City. That 2005 team was a stinker, but Sweeney was the kind of bright spot you want to see on a bad team. While 2005 wasn’t his best season, it was a plenty good one. I don’t need to tell you the Royals never did build a good team around him, so he’s just another excellent player who never played tournament baseball.

4. (tie) 2002 Tampa Bay Devil Rays (55-106)

Best player: Aubrey Huff

All you really need to know about these Devil Rays is that something called a Brent Abernathy logged more than 500 plate appearances. Huff and the 2005 Sweeney had pretty similar years for their similarly-awful teams. Huff posted a .313/.364/.520 line—nearly identical to Sweeney’s 2005 effort. And, like Sweeney, Huff had difficulty staying in the lineup. He played just 113 games that season, though it’s not like playing all 162 was going to make a difference. Huff’s had an odd career; I wonder how many others have received MVP votes in just their age 26 and 31 seasons.

Huff did win the Silver Slugger award as an Oriole in 2008, presumably for his work as a part-time first baseman (24 games), part-time third baseman (33), and most-of-the-time DH (98). Milton Bradley was probably a little better (4.5 WAR to Huff’s 4.2), but he played one fewer game at DH than did Huff, so I guess that was the difference. Bradley was also a 2.6 run fielder that year, so maybe we give him the DH Gold Glove. In any case, by the time we can look back on his whole career, Huff probably will be even more forgettable than Sweeney. Not a bad guy to have around, though, most years.

4. (tie) 2002 Detroit Tigers (55-106)

Best player: Mark Redman

Just stretching their legs as a hideous embarrassment of a baseball team, the 2002 Detroit Tigers rank lower than Huff’s Devil Rays because their Pythagorean W/L was actually four games worse than their awful record. Their best position player, by WAR, was Shane Halter… who had negative value as a hitter. This was a truly terrible team. Redman, though, had a lot of value. Above-average on the mound (ERA+ 101…I’m looking for bright spots, okay?) in 2002, Redman’s value was mostly in his durability. His 30 starts led the team, as did his 203 innings. We’re starting to hit the skids, though.

Unlike Sweeney and Huff above, 2002 Redman would be described as no better than “useful” on a contending team. He certainly wasn’t a reason to come to the park or anything. He’s a lot like David DeJesus, really…plenty helpful on a good team, but completely miscast as a team’s best (or second-best, or even seventh-best) player. Redman went on to make the All-Star team as a Royal in 2006, when he had a 4.99 FIP. I know not everyone here is a stat-head, so I’ll translate: He wasn’t good at throwing a baseball in such a way as to get hitters out. This is a problem.

2. 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (51-111)

Best player: Randy Johnson

How in the world does a team that gets 35 starts of 2.30 FIPping Randy Johnson win 51 games? How is that possible? I’ve rarely been angry mid-article, but I am furious right now. How does this happen? And what’s more, Brandon Webb started 35 games, too!

Granted, there was just no offense whatsoever—Shea Hillenbrand came to the dish 604 times, and he was arguably their best hitter—but a team with two pitchers like that should never be this bad. Of course, the pitching after Johnson and Webb might have been worse than the offense. Caseys Fossum and Daigle combined for 37 starts, never a good sign.

As for Johnson, his 9.9 WAR figure that season has nearly broken my computer: 245.2 innings, 290 strikeouts, 44 walks. It was a season of video game numbers, punctuated by a perfect game in Atlanta. Johnson went on to have some more good seasons, but he never pitched at his 2004 level again. He is the prototype example of a transcendent player on a nightmarish team.

1. 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-637)

Best player: Dmitri Young

Okay, so the 2003 Tigers didn’t lose 637 games (really just 119), but it sure had to feel like it. The only other player besides Young to play even 140 games was Ramon Santiago, and I don’t mean to set that up like it’s a good thing. The team’s line at the plate that season was .240/.300/.375. In 2009, Yuniesky Betancourt, perhaps the most ridiculed player in the game, hacked his way to a .240/.269/.370 line. The 2003 Tigers: a little better than Yuni Betancourt! And the pitching was beyond pitiful as well; not a single pitcher who threw more than 65 innings had a positive ERA+. I’m not sure it’s that outrageous to suggest the 2003 Tigers squad was, as a team, below replacement level.

But Young was pretty good, going for a .380 wOBA in 155 games. He missed most of the 2002 season, represented above by Redman. In 2003, though, Young was probably the only thing keeping the Tigers’ win total from starting with a three. Another guy with an odd career, Young’s Baseball Reference comparable is Huff. As mentioned before, Huff’s 2002 was a ton like Sweeney’s 2005, so I’d consider all three of the hitters on this list linked. Not sure what it means, but it’s an interesting quirk.

Redman and Johnson are, how should we say, not so similar. But back to Young: 2003 was his best performance, and it’s almost entirely lost because of the pathetic void of baseball ability that was the other members of the 2003 Tigers. Too bad, as he’s had a not-terrible career.

Closing thoughts

I’m particularly struck by how forgettable good players, like the hitters above, can be if they did their best work for awful teams. But I guess that’s just the age we live in. Shawn Green was astoundingly good for even longer than the guys mentioned, and he’s barely a footnote to the last 10 years of baseball. Brad Radke was pretty darned fantastic for about a decade, and he and his change-up are largely forgotten. I suppose I shouldn’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for them… but, you know what, I feel a bit sorry for them.

Baseball is, at its essence, an individual sport. As the individuals above show, even the worst teams in baseball can offer high-level players. Four of the guys above could have been among the better players on a great team, and one of them—Johnson—was about as good at baseball as any player in the history of the game. Fans of terrible teams, take heart: you still have reasons to go to the ballpark. They just might not be remembered by 2020.

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  1. geo said...

    Please do not insult Mike Sweeney by mentioning Mike MacDougal in the same breath (even though 2005 was arguable MacDougal’s best season).

    And you should leave Dee Brown out of it entirely; he didn’t play in a single game for the 2005 Royals.

  2. Gerry said...

    The age we live in? I don’t think so. Who, other than obsessive readers of Bill James, has ever heard of Harlond Clift? Nothing wrong with his play, except that it was for the Browns. Know much about Danny Litwhiler? Jeff Heath? Bob Johnson? etc, etc.

  3. Patrick said...

    +1 to Gerry’s comment…

    +5 for the article (very fun)

    +50 for Randy Johnson (holy ####)

    -20 for the DBacks, -20 for the Tigers.
    Wow on both counts.

  4. Ari said...

    Though Randy Johnson’s season was impressive, I would say the “prototype example of a transcendent player on a nightmarish team” would have to be Steve Carlton in 1972, when he contributed nearly half of his team’s wins.

  5. Chris said...

    I’m failing to see how Sweeney was better than DeJesus in 2005, or Huff than Winn. Maybe in fantasy terms, but Sweeney/Huff were basically DHs with decent but not spectacular production, while DeJesus and Winn produced nearly as much offense while playing CF (very well according to URZ in DeJesus’s case).

    WAR gives DeJesus and Winn sizeable edges; what cancels that out?

    In fact, I don’t see the reason for the DeJesus dis in the Redman comment at all. No, he’s not going to lead you to the playoffs by himself, but if your 7th-best players has averaged 3.1 WAR over the last 5 years, you’re probably looking pretty good…

    And yet, unlike Sweeney, DeJesus probably doesn’t have to worry about being forgotten by people outside of KC—because most of them don’t know he exists in the first place…

  6. Nick Steiner said...

    Johnson was 10 WAR on the D-Backs that year.  A replacement level team should win about 48 games, so they should have won at least 58 games if nobody else on the entire team was above replacement level.  They won 51 freaking games.  I’m pissed too.

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