The Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers start a four-game series tonight as the two worst teams in baseball during a season in which the difference between the top-tier clubs and those on the bottom rung has never been more pronounced.
As the worst of the worst square off, we got to wondering: Is there hope for the have-nots? We take a closer look at the state of the standings, predict the future of a handful of the most non-competitive franchises -- and debate what the disparity means for the game.
The Orioles and Tigers are putting up historic numbers for losses/run differential. Where do they rank among the worst teams you have ever seen?
Jeff Passan: They're not even the worst Orioles and Tigers teams of the past 20 years. Even though the 2019 Orioles might end up with an inferior run differential, the 2018 club lost 115 games. And may we never forget the 2003 Tigers, losers of 119 games and in the worst-team-ever conversation.
David Schoenfield: Look, these Orioles are particularly unwatchable because of all the home runs they've allowed. They broke the single-season record with more than a month left to go in the season. They don't have any particularly compelling young players who you think will develop into a future star. The Tigers are also particularly unwatchable, with an offense that once you adjust for the current environment rates as one of the worst of all time. They also don't have any particularly compelling young players you think will develop into a future star. Remarkably, however, neither is the worst team I've seen. Jeff points out the 2003 Tigers, an amazingly awful team that was outscored by 337 runs. Most amazing of all, they were in the World Series three years later.
Bradford Doolittle: Relatively speaking, even with so many teams buried in rebuilding programs right now, there is more parity than there used to be in baseball. The amateur draft, revenue sharing, free agency -- none of these things used to exist, and so the game is more competitive top-to-bottom than it was in the era before divisional play. There have been 74 teams since 1901 to have posted run differentials that translate to fewer than 57 Pythagorean wins per 162 games. Only 15 of those (20%) have appeared during the 51 years of divisional play, or just under one every three years. This season, both the Tigers and Orioles could get below that 57-win cutoff, though Baltimore still has a chance to eclipse it. I've seen both teams play at least three times in person and you can't really tell the degree of their awfulness by watching. It's more like a situation arises, you see who is coming up to the plate or in from the bullpen, scan the scorecard for better options, and then think, "Good god. This team stinks." There are teams every season that give you that feeling. It's hard to rank such a thing, so I have to default to metrics. The Tigers' pace of 50.9 Pythagorean wins per 162 games would be the second-worst result since 1975, behind Detroit's 2003 season. So that's pretty bad. But the Orioles show up in that group of sub-57-win teams twice -- last year and this year. As a matter of extended putridness, I don't think we've seen anything like the two most recent Baltimore teams in a generation or two.
Eddie Matz: Slightly south of the Washington Generals, and just north of the Bad News Bears.
Let's put you on the spot: Quick, one reason to watch the O's take on the Tigers this weekend that has nothing to do with win-loss records?
Doolittle: Miguel Cabrera. Every hit and home run he gets moves him closer to historical milestones and who better to pad a hitter's numbers than the Orioles' pitching staff?
Matz: Both teams feature orange in their uniforms. Orange is a happy color. (Not that you need more reason beyond happiness, but ... we could call it the Orange Bowl, in which case maybe Capital One would come on as a sponsor, just like they do for the CFB Orange Bowl.)
Passan: Edwin Jackson is pitching Sunday! And even if he has a 9.76 ERA and has been worth -2.3 WAR -- the worst mark in MLB this year -- he's still Edwin Jackson! In his 17th year, pitching for his major league-record 14th team -- Rays, Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, White Sox, Diamondbacks, Braves, Cardinals, A's, Padres, Orioles, Marlins, Blue Jays and Tigers -- Jackson might be nearing the end of his career. And considering the journey that's been the 2019 season is likewise at its end, who better to watch than the journeyman of journeymen?
Schoenfield: What, the Aaron Brooks-Jordan Zimmermann matchup doesn't get you excited? OK, how about tuning in to see Hanser Alberto's pursuit of the batting title. Who? Yes, the guy who hit .192 in parts of three seasons with the Rangers and was waived four times in the offseason -- by the Rangers, Yankees, Orioles (who later picked him up again) and Giants -- could win a batting title. He enters Thursday hitting .320, 13 points behind Tim Anderson. Thirteen points can evaporate in a matter days with a few 0-for-4s and the other getting hot. So, Hanser Alberto, the potential most unlikely batting champ of all time!
Which of the five worst teams in baseball (Tigers, Orioles, Marlins, Royals, Blue Jays), do you think is the closest to making the playoffs?
Passan: While it's far from foolproof, the most successful down-to-the-studs rebuilds have erected themselves around a core of young position-playing talent. The Tigers don't have that. The Orioles don't have that. The Marlins don't have that. The Royals sort of have that, though Whit Merrifield (30), Jorge Soler (27) and Hunter Dozier (27) aren't spring chickens. That leaves the Blue Jays and this bunch of 25-and-unders: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen and Rowdy Tellez. With less than $75 million committed over the next half-decade, the Blue Jays are ripe -- or at least ripest among these five -- to build something special.
Doolittle: I'll go with the Marlins with a slight edge over the Blue Jays. Teams, including the 2003 Marlins, can go on shocking runs if they are able to gather a bunch of productive young arms, and Miami appears to be on the verge of doing that with their rotation. Even in 2019, it's a great foundation from which to make a short-term leap. An astute front office can piece together a league-average offense with plus defense and a steady bullpen with targeted aggression in the free-agent market to augment what's already on the roster. I'm not saying the Marlins should go all-in or anything, but their rotation has the most potential for near-term, postseason-level success than any other position group among these teams.
Matz: The O's and Jays have promising farm systems, but for purposes of this question, that's offset by the fact that they share a sandbox with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. The Marlins' pipeline is strong, too, but it's hard to trust the front office given the team's recent history. That leaves the Tigers and Royals, both of whom will benefit by playing in the watered-down AL Central. Detroit has the better farm system, and historically, has been looser with the purse strings. So I guess I'm hitching my wagon to the Tigers.
Schoenfield: The Tigers at least have the potential of a rotation to build around in the near future, with current big leaguers Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Morris, plus prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning, two of the top 10 pitching prospects in the minors. They do have the advantage of playing in the AL Central. Unfortunately, they also have little in the way of position players and I don't have a lot of faith in the current front office or if Christopher Ilitch will be willing to spend on payroll like dad did. So, umm, I'll lean to the Blue Jays even though they're in a tough division. It looks like they have two young studs to build around and, in theory, they're a big-market team that has the ability to spend big if they want to win.
Which of the five worst teams in baseball (Tigers, Orioles, Marlins, Royals, Blue Jays), do you think is in the worst shape for the future?
Doolittle: Have to go with the Tigers. Nobody's nadir should be this bad, though Astros fans will tell you that it doesn't make any difference. Detroit has drafted a couple of exciting young arms, but it's a drop in the bucket and for a team that has sunk this far, their payroll situation isn't all that great, either. On top of that, I haven't picked up on much to suggest the Tigers' baseball operations are operating on the cutting edge -- taking advantage of their current plight to modernize how they do things. This year should be rock bottom but I couldn't guarantee that it is.
Passan: Much of the Tigers' rebuild looks pitching-dependent, and that's always troublesome. The Marlins are stocked with boom-or-bust position players, and that's a scary proposition. A too-large group of Royals position-playing prospects bombed out this season, and that's scary and troublesome. But the Orioles are in an American League East with a fully functional Death Star Yankees team, a Red Sox cash cow, a Rays crew that's good and filled with major league-caliber prospects, and the aforementioned Blue Jays. So no matter how astute GM Mike Elias and assistant GM Sig Mejdal are, their mountaintop is a mile higher than the other four teams'.
Matz: The Royals have the weakest farm system of the bunch. It's possible that the recent ownership change, combined with a new TV deal, could make them more prominent players in the free-agent market. But in the interest of not overthinking things here, I'll go with K.C.
Schoenfield: The Marlins haven't finished above .500 since 2009, nobody goes to their games, the offense is horrible, the farm system isn't that impressive, they're behind other organizations in analytics (although finally starting to ramp up) and the fetish for toolsy position player prospects who can't hit is a boom-or-bust approach that usually leads to bust.
Let's pretend we just put you in charge of one of MLB's worst teams, what's your first big move as GM?
Matz (Orioles): Move back the fences. Unless and until that happens, it's going to be damn near impossible for the O's to convince A-list free-agent hurlers to set up shop at Camden Yards. I wouldn't move them back too far, for fear of spooking A-list free-agent hitters, but just far enough away so that both pitchers and hitters feel confident in their ability to do their job at the home office. Maybe my first big move, even before moving back the fences, would be to hire a vice president of home run distance -- a bright young analytics mind whose sole responsibility would be to tell me exactly which numbers to paint on the outfield walls.
Doolittle (Tigers): Well, first of all, thanks for giving me Al Avila's job. Your confidence in me is much appreciated. I probably won't have it for long, because I'm in a place where I really want to push against baseball's current trend toward lockstep. Too many teams are doing too many things in similar ways and coming to similar conclusions, which leads to an alarming amount of team-to-team conformity when it comes to the end product on the field. There has to be new inefficiencies being created. Here's what I would try in Detroit, especially since right now, it looks like the future starting rotation has the most potential for high-impact production: I move the fences at Comerica Park back to where they were when the park opened, when you had to use FedEx to get a ball into the outfield seats. I target as many athletic line-drive hitters with good contact rates and walk-to-strikeout ratios as I can find. I try to construct a 1930s-style lineup where most of my position players are upper-crust defenders who battle pitchers, get on base without striking out and are threats when they get on the bags. I reserve my first base and DH slots for good, old-fashioned thumpers, whose exit velocity makes the generous dimensions of my ballpark largely irrelevant. As was the case long ago, the idea is to funnel RBI opportunities to these sluggers, and manufacture runs at the bottom of my lineup. Fans would love it. But if it doesn't work, I'm back to floating hackneyed theories for ESPN.
Schoenfield (Marlins): I hire Joe Maddon as manager after the Cubs fire him. Nothing against Don Mattingly, who has done the best he can with the limited talent on hand. Maddon would be a statement hire: Enough of this nonsense, we're out here to win. It would remind me of when the eternally losing Mariners hired Lou Piniella in 1993 and gave the franchise some instant credibility. All the Marlins would need next is their Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez.
Passan (Royals): Trade Whit Merrifield. It will hurt, of course, because Merrifield might be the most popular Royals player, and he's quite excellent at baseball. He is also incredibly valuable because of the contract extension he signed over the winter that will pay him $14.5 million for the next three years and includes a 2023 option for $6.5 million. It's the sort of deal that could fetch the Royals an absolute ransom when the free-agent class at second base and outfield, not to mention the utility role, is perilously thin. Here's what seals it: At earliest, the Royals are primed to contend in 2021, and by that time Merrifield will be 32 years old. Cash in now, let another team bear the risk that Merrifield defies the aging curve.
The 2020 MLB draft is loaded at the top, is there any one player you'd be eyeing as the fan of a team in contention for a top pick?
Matz: In the first 40 years of the draft (I'm ignoring the past five years because it's too soon to evaluate), a pitcher was selected first overall on 15 different occasions. Five of those guys either never made it to the majors or compiled a career WAR that was less than zero. Five out of 15! That's one-third, which, if we're talking about the top pick, is way too much volatility for my taste. All of which is to say, all things being equal, I'd go for the non-pitcher. That means passing on Emerson Hancock -- the University of Georgia hurler who sits atop most 2020 mock drafts -- and taking either a masher like ASU first baseman Spencer Torkelson, or an ath-o-lete like high school outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong.
Passan: Hancock is the odds-on favorite and has everything teams want: a projectable body (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), right-now stuff (mid-90s fastball that touches 99 alongside a slider, curveball and changeup) and SEC pedigree (he's coming off a sub-2.00 ERA sophomore year at Georgia). Torkelson is a relatively short (listed at 6-foot-1), right-handed-hitting first baseman, which in the past might have disqualified him from going 1-1. But the bat is special -- maybe, one evaluator said, the best in the draft since Kris Bryant. One dark horse -- and it's very dark, since no high school right-hander ever has gone with the first pick: Mick Abel, already hitting 97 mph and with plenty of room to pack muscle and velocity onto his 6-foot-5, 185-pound frame.
Schoenfield: When in doubt, I would always lean to the position player. Jeff just mentioned Kris Bryant, a reminder that the Astros passed on Bryant with the first pick in 2013 and took Mark Appel. Imagine the Astros with Bryant. OK, maybe we shouldn't. Anyway, if Torkelson is that special -- I'm a little skeptical since he had more strikeouts than walks as a sophomore, which shouldn't be the case with an elite college hitter (as a point of comparison, Andrew Vaughn, just drafted third overall by the White Sox and playing in the same conference, had almost twice as many walks as K's) -- he should be the guy.
Doolittle: Well, if I still have Al Avila's job, part of my formula is having a couple of big-time sluggers, so I would have to look very closely at high school corner player Blaze Jordan, whom Baseball America gave an 80-grade for his raw power. The safer pick would probably be Georgia's Emerson Hancock, who, if he gets through the next NCAA season in one piece, has all the earmarks of a future ace. Add him to a future rotation with Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal and suddenly the kind of team you're building starts to come into focus. For the Orioles, I'd probably lean toward Hancock as well. Though if you're trying to build up the middle and want a high-level prospect to piggyback on 2019 No. 1 pick Ashley Rutschman, I might go with high school center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong.
We could have as many as five 100-loss teams this season. What do you think is the primary reason we're seeing so many teams that are this bad at one time?
Passan: Tanking saves money, offers executives job security and has proven a viable way to build World Series-winning teams. The question isn't why so many teams are bad at once. It's how many teams have to be bad at the same time before MLB and the players overhaul the system so losing isn't the clearest path to winning.
Doolittle: It's just a glut of teams who dove into the same kind of tear-it-down-to-the-studs rebuild at the same time. Among other things, that thins the market for serviceable stopgap players, the kind of which the Orioles have done a decent job of finding this year (Hanser Alberto, Renato Nunez). There are a lot of Triple-A players getting big league innings and at-bats in 2019.
Matz: According to the Rogers Innovation Curve, 2.5% of people are innovators. In terms of MLB franchises, that's roughly equivalent to one team -- namely, the Astros. The next stage of the curve belongs to early adopters, who comprise 13.5% of the market. That's another four teams that are following in Houston's footsteps (i.e. -- tanking), which is about where we are now. The stage after that is the early majority, which would be another 10 teams (34%). If MLB follows the Rogers model, we'll have a completely binary league in which half the teams are trying and the other half aren't. In fact, you could argue that we're kind of already there (just because you don't lose 100 games doesn't mean you're trying to win). I guess what I'm trying to say is that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow should be feeling pretty good about himself right about now.
Schoenfield: What Eddie said.
Among the biggest problems baseball is facing right now, where does the issue of non-competitive teams at the bottom of the standings rank?
Passan: Rebuilding is nothing new and not particularly unique to baseball. Because analytics pervaded MLB earlier than the other major sports, though, the game has spent years embracing ruthless efficiency and the process-over-outcome dictate. If there were a clear, demonstrable downside to tanking -- let's even take the pejorative out of this and say, simply, losing -- teams wouldn't do it. But the predictability of fans makes it possible. Because here's the ultimate truth on which every team that decides to tank lands: No matter how lean the years leading up to it, a winning team is a panacea, and nearly every market will let bygones (or 100-loss seasons) be bygones (or 100-loss seasons) and rationalize that the rebuild was causative of future success and not just correlated to it. In other words, it'll all be worth it.
Doolittle: Baseball's biggest problem is the plague of rantings about how baseball has big problems. However, there does need to be some reform regarding how elite draft picks incentivize teams to discount short-term wins. And they need to fix service-time manipulation because it is a cheat to fans of a team when they and everyone else knows that the best 25 players in an organization are not on the big-league roster. How fun would it be for White Sox fans to watch Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal play alongside Eloy Jimenez, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada this month?
Matz: It's up there, no doubt. But to me, the biggest problem is that baseball no longer has a captive audience. Back in the 1970s and '80s, it wasn't the only game in town, but it wasn't far from it. If you were an athlete, there was a damn good chance baseball was one of the sports you played. These days, there are so many more viable alternatives that, quite frankly, are way more conducive to holding the attention span of a young mind. Basketball. Football. Soccer. Lacrosse. E-sports. And once you lose the kids, you lose everything. We haven't reached the point of no return -- not yet, anyway -- but if MLB wants to compete for mindshare and remain culturally relevant, it'll have to get way more creative than it has gotten thus far.
Schoenfield: You know, it's kind of a damn miracle that the average attendance across the majors is still over 28,000 per game -- and that's with awful teams in markets such as Toronto, Seattle and Detroit that have drawn well at some point in the past. The Blue Jays led the AL in attendance in 2016 and 2017 (and six straight years from 1989 to 1994). The Tigers are at half where they were in 2013. Seattle led back in 2001 and 2002 and will support a winning team. Anyway. The '80s were great? Peak attendance was 26,198 game. The '70s were the best? The peak was 20,748. Don't even bring up the '60s. All that nostalgia about the 1950s? The best figure was 15,000 fans per game in 1959. My point: Baseball is healthy. Admitting you're not trying to win, however, is not the best marketing gimmick.
If you were in charge of baseball, what would you do (if anything) to curb tanking in MLB?
Passan: Anti-tanking measures need to be part of a far broader economic reimagining. But for starters:
Uncap amateur spending to allow all teams -- not just the worst -- to allocate significant capital toward building strong farm systems.
Get rid of draft penalties tied to free agency.
Incentivize teams to roster their best players regardless of service time.
Make teams contribute a larger portion of local revenues to split evenly.
Offer restricted free agency after a player's fourth season (which would benefit the players as well as potentially the large-market teams giving up more of their revenue but getting access to star players in prime seasons).
In a nutshell: Get rid of reasons for teams to stink, pay players what they deserve, let the economic giants flex, and offer the capacity to freely maneuver around that flexing.
Doolittle: I would like to see a system in which rebuilding teams are rewarded for trying, perhaps while lending a bit of extra interest to late-season matchups that aren't relevant to the playoff race. Basically, I want to order the teams out of the race based on how many games they win after they are out of the race. Here's more detail on the proposal.
Schoenfield: At the simplest level, don't reward teams in the draft for being bad. There are several ways you can do this. Institute a draft lottery, like the NBA. Or maybe if you lose a set number of games (say, 95 or more) you drop 10 or 15 spots in the draft. Imagine the excitement of bad teams trying to avoid 95 losses at the end of the season! Maybe draft order is based on a three-year running record, so you really have to be bad for several years to "earn" the top pick. Brad's idea is also interesting. Yes, one draft pick won't turn a franchise around, but there is still that incentive to lose, get a top pick, and draft Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa or Bryce Harper (or, umm, Mickey Moniak or Mark Appel or Tim Beckham).
Matz: I would create a system in which the team that ends up with the top overall draft pick doesn't necessarily have that much of a better chance of getting a great player than the team with the fourth or seventh or ninth pick. A system in which you could have, say, the 25th overall pick and still manage to land a guy like Mike Trout. Oh wait, that already exists. Look, it's not like MLB execs think they're going to change their franchise by getting a top pick. They're smarter than that. It's more about not spending needlessly during a rebuilding period in which ownership knows it can't compete. Teams can afford to do this -- with little to no regard for fan perception and/or attendance figures -- largely because of the crazy cash flow that regional TV contracts create for clubs. I guess what I'm saying is that the only way to stop tanking is to ... stop televising baseball. But that's a horrible idea. So instead I'll go with my plan B: Institute a payroll floor.