The race to the bottom

It’s early in the season, but already the standings are beginning to shake out. While a number of teams are still in the running, a few have begun to separate themselves in the hopes of achieving the most coveted honor of the year: the worst record in baseball, and a shot at the top talent in the 2014 MLB draft. While a lot can change in the year-plus from now until the draft, in early June of 2014, the early frontrunner for that selection is N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon.

The 6-foot-3, 234-pound lefty features a mid-90s fastball, an excellent slider, and a developing change-up, all rolled into a physical and muscular package that suggests durability, projection and stamina. Last season’s National Freshman of the Year had a rocky start to the season, leading to a less-than-dominant 4.48 ERA in 60.1 innings through last weekend, but his 95 strikeouts and 22 walks suggest that he’s continuing to progress as a starter. So, which team will have the honor of calling the name of Rodon, or whichever player they deem to be the most promising amateur in the country?

The Astros are the clear frontrunner, after paring their player payroll down to just over $26 million this offseason. With a 5-14 record (through Monday) to start the season, Houston is on pace for a 43-win season that would almost certainly make it the first team to make three consecutive first overall selections. Yes, it’s a little silly to be talking about pace 19 games in, but it should give you an idea of how poorly this team has played without any obvious areas of likely improvement. Houston ranks a respectable 17th with 75 runs scored, but at 115 runs allowed its pitchers have been the most generous in baseball to opposing offenses.

Astros pitchers have totaled a pitiful 103 punchouts while giving up 75 free passes. A revelation last season, Lucas Harrell must be extremely excited about the prospect of pitching alongside Rodon in the rotation, as he’s walked 13 batters and allowed 12 runs on five taters in his first four starts, totaling 21.2 innings. Phil Humber’s lost all four of his starts, giving up 14 earned runs in 19 innings for a 6.63 ERA. Many probably saw that coming after he put up a 6.44 for the White Sox in 102 innings last year. With an FIP of 4.51, some improvement may be expected, but he’s still among the worst members of any rotation in the game.

Finally, the pitchers are receiving some serious veteran leadership from Erik Bedard, who in 11.2 innings has allowed 10 hits, eight walks, and eight runs, for an ugly 6.17 ERA. When you take a 55-win ball club and move it into arguably the toughest division in the better league, things tend to get a little ugly.

Houston, however, will have some competition. The Marlins’ 4-15 record has them on pace for a 34-win campaign. This prompts the question: “If a team fails to win more than a quarter of its games, but no one is there to see it, did it really happen?” While their reported attendance average of 19,586 (pictures of the team’s home games make this a dubious figure) isn’t currently last in the league, the Marlins have the honor of bringing up the rear in a number of other categories.

While Houston at least has some young players of interest, the Marlins employ slugger Giancarlo Stanton, rookie hurler Jose Fernandez, and essentially no one else of even remote interest. The team’s 43 runs scored, or 2.3 per game, is by far the worst in baseball, and seven individual players have out- homered the Marlins, who have only six longballs. With 89 runs allowed, the team is also the fourth worst in run prevention in the early going, making the Marlins the clear challenger to the Astros’ supremacy.

Two other teams are among the worst in baseball so far, with the Padres at 5-14 and the Cubs at 5-13. The Padres moved their fences in over the past offseason, hoping that the change would lead to more offense. Unfortunately for the team, that hasn’t exactly gone as planned, as San Diego’s opponents have been the main beneficiaries in the early going. San Diego has scored 3.6 runs per game so far, a decline from the Padres’ average of four runs per contest last season, while opponents have put up 4.6 after averaging 4.4 in 2012.

The Cubs have been middle-of-the-road in run prevention, but their 61 runs scored (3.4/game) are among the worst in baseball. Dale Sveum recently suggested that a continued lack of performance from the team’s star hitters could find them in the minors, but it seems likely that he’s simply trying to offer them a little extra motivation. Regardless, barring major injuries, there’s simply too much talent on both of these teams for either to seriously figure in the Rodon sweepstakes.

Finally, while the Twins currently stand at a respectable 8-7, Minnesota could be a dark horse to challenge Miami and Houston. While the team has long employed a pitch-to-contact philosophy, it’s seemingly taken that to the next level, with the Twins’ 87 strikeouts lagging well behind any other staff in the league. Amazingly, this actually represents a 0.2 percent improvement from last year’s major league-worst 15.2 percent strikeout rate. Joe Mauer’s hot start is carrying an otherwise anemic offense, so if he cools down or a pitching staff that tabbed Vance Worley as its Opening Day starter fails to continue its stingy start to the season, the Twins could quickly plummet to the cellar in what looks to be a moderately tough division.

That said, however, the battle for the chance to select Rodon will likely come down to Miami and Houston. These two rebuilding franchises have made an effort to stock their farm systems with talent at the expense of their major league product, and if Rodon maintains his stock over the next year he will immediately become a top prospect in either farm system. While the teams battling for playoff seeding and a shot at the World Series will rightly receive more attention, there’s also quite an interesting prize for the victor in the race to the bottom.

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  1. Dave Cornutt said...

    It’s going to be interesting to watch the Astros and Marlins challenge the Bill James Axiom: “At the beginning of each season, it is known that every team will win at least 40 games and lose at least 40 games.”  At least the Astros appear to have a plan going forward; they’re going to suffer for 2-3 years while they build a talent base in the minors.  The Marlins, after their most recent attempt at a rent-a-team championship fell on its face, are just going to trade all arb-eligible good players for the foreseeable future.  Maybe it’s a good think baseball teams can’t trade draft picks, so that we don’t have to witness the Marlins trading down every year.

  2. Jim said...

    Just before opening day, I heard an interesting prop.  Will the Astros win more games than Giancarlo Stanton will hit homeruns?  I see Giancarlo (I love that name) is having problems without any protection, so maybe it could be changed to the MLB leader in home runs.  Upton perhaps?

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