Race to the bottom

With the regular season nearly half over, we can start handicapping the quest for worst major league team. In spring training, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone willing to leave the Nationals out of the discussion. They aren’t out of the woods yet, but a handful of teams look even more hopeless than Manny Acta’s squad.

Going simply by wins through Wednesday’s games, the leaders (trailers?) in the clubhouse are the four teams that haven’t yet crossed the 30-win threshhold: the Royals, White Sox, Rangers and Reds. Barely out of that category are the Giants, Orioles, Devil Rays, Nats and nearly all the NL Central. But, of course, we can do better than simply using wins to date to predict the standings at the close of business Sept. 30.

More numbers

If we shift our focus to run differentials, the scoreboard takes on a new look. In the NL, the Nats prove the early pundits right, “deserving” only 27 wins. Right behind them are the Cardinals, with 28. Pythagorean wins also firmly remove the Giants and Cubs from consideration. In the AL, the Rays and White Sox fall to the bottom, with 28 Pythagorean wins each. Shocking as it is, the Sox are three games behind the Royals by that metric. Baltimore looks respectable enough to put aside for the moment.

If we look at the Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings, a similar picture emerges. Nats: bad. ChiSox: worse. The new contender emerging from that report is the Pirates, who have fewer third-order wins than anyone else in baseball.

Crystal ball of suck

The whittled-down field, then, consists of the Royals, White Sox, Rangers, Reds, Pirates, Devil Rays and Nationals. Any of those teams could finish the year with 90 or more losses and a few will pass the coveted 95-loss mark, but only one will be the losingest team in baseball this year.

If players never got hurt (and well again), there were no slumps or streaks, and transactions were banished by an edict of Bud Selig, we could look at those adjusted standings and answer my question much more quickly. As it is, of course, teams out of the pennant race can change drastically between June 15 and Aug. 1. Determining which team is likely to suffer the most hinges in large part on those changes.

Let’s take a quick look at our seven teams to see how they might fare for the rest of the season:

  • Royals: They’ve gotten surprisingly good pitching from Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and much of the bullpen. That can’t possibly last. On the flip side, Alex Gordon is finally beginning to look like a major league hitter and Billy Butler could soon do the same. They’ll likely lose a few players to trade, but none who contributed much to the team’s success so far.

  • White Sox: Of all the teams on this list, this is the one that could be decimated by a July fire sale. Clearly Kenny Williams didn’t build this team to lose 90 games this year, but as is, there’s little reason to keep guys like Mark Buehrle and Jermaine Dye around unless he intends to resign them. If this team gets 150 combined starts from Darin Erstad and Scott Podsednik, plus 10 or 12 outings from, say, Charlie Haeger, it could be right in the thick of things. It doesn’t help that the Sox will play a lot of games against the Indians, Tigers and Twins.
  • Rangers: It’s hard to imagine Texas being dismantled the way the White Sox could be, but Mark Teixeira could be wearing a new uniform in a couple of weeks. Despite a rough start, Tex has turned it around and contributed five win shares above bench; the Rangers don’t have an in-house option likely to come close. What I think will keep this team respectable is that a starter or two (Robinson Tejeda? Please?) will look like a major leaguer again. Really, that’s all it would take.
  • Reds: Another year, another round of Griffey trade negotations likely to go nowhere. That said, Adam Dunn could be shipped off any day now for this year’s version of Gary Majewski. If the Reds are going to return to respectability, it’ll depend on Bronson Arroyo doing so himself; if he goes to the DL for any substantial length of time, it would take one heck of a rookie campaign from Homer Bailey to keep Cinci out of this discussion. And that’s if everything else goes well, too.

  • Pirates: If it weren’t for Ian Snell and Tom Gorzellany, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write this article. The conclusion would’ve been too obvious. As it is, Snell has been nearly as good as Zach Duke has been bad. What might end up saving the Pirates from ignominy isn’t any talent they have stashed in Triple-A; it’s their mediocrity. After all, do you see anybody bowling over Dave Littlefield with an offer for Xavier Nady? Or .220-hitting Adam LaRoche? And if so, would it matter? This will be a bad team, but like last year, it’ll finish out of the money.

  • Devil Rays: As entertaining as it would be if it came out that the Rays lost their 101st game last year solely to have a shot at David Price in this year’s draft, it’s more likely they did it because they weren’t very good. St. Pete’s finest still isn’t about to play with the big boys of the AL East, but there’s just too much talent here for another 100-loss season. Not only are B.J. Upton and Delmon Young finally in the lineup, but there’s enough pitching charging through the system that Joe Maddon might actually get bullpen help from within. Last place is a reasonable expectation; worst in baseball is a stretch.

  • Nationals: As soon as this year’s roster began to take shape, I began to have a soft spot for the Nats. While Jim Bowden did a lot of things right—the Rule 5 selection of Jesus Flores and the signing of 327 journeyman starters, among others—I didn’t really think those things would translate into wins. As with the Pirates, it’s tough to imagine the Nats losing much talent at the deadline. If Felipe Lopez were hitting, he might be a prize; Bowden has shown before that he overvalues Chad Cordero; and we can only hope he’ll continue to hold on to Ryan Church. Finally, it isn’t a big factor, but the Nats may get Nick Johnson back one of these days. Dmitri Young has filled in very nicely, but Johnson would provide a nice boost to the offense in the spot where Young can be expected to come back to earth.

On talent alone, the Nats are the favorites to out-lose the rest of the baseball, closely followed by the Pirates, who probably have too much young pitching to garner this honor. As shocking as it is to say, the Royals and Rays probably have too much talent to find themselves among this year’s worst. It isn’t exactly an endorsement, but I think we can say the same about the Rangers, if only because of some nasty underperformances so far.

That leaves the Reds and White Sox. Either team has some decisions to make in the next few weeks: Do you just trade the obvious candidates (Dunn, Buehrle) or do you decimate and start over? Whichever team sends the most starters packing has a real shot at catching the Nats. But if Trader Jim Bowden ditches all of his veterans, too, he may well hold on to the honor pundits have been predicting for him since the beginning.

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