The Astros might have a bright future. But not in 2013, when they should be one of the worst teams in baseball. Will the Marlins prevent them from being the worst, though?
Right around now would usually be a good time to start thinking about which team has had the best offseason in baseball. Except that contest ended over a month ago. The top five offseasons in baseball:
1. Toronto Blue Jays
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. Toronto Blue Jays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Toronto Blue Jays
There's a corollary to that, though. If the Blue Jays had the best offseason, does that mean the Marlins had the worst? It's hard to imagine a serious threat to the Marlins' claim to that honor. They were a bad team last year, then jettisoned most of the pieces that prevented them from being an awful team.
Repeat: Almost everything good about the Marlins last year is gone. The 93-loss Marlins are significantly worse. The ace of the current staff posted the second-lowest ERA of his seven-year career last season. That's good! The ERA was 4.48. That's bad. Behind him is Henderson Alvarez and Wade LeBlanc. The #5 hitter is a 30-year-old first-time regular who hit much better last year than ever before. Juan Pierre is leading off, and Placido Polanco is hitting second. The bottom of the order should be a wasteland that occasionally includes Jeff Mathis.
They should be bad. But do they have a chance to be the worst team in baseball now?
While it would be fun to go through a list of teams also contending for that title, we should probably just concede that the Astros haven't done anything to lose it. If that upsets the Carlos Peña fans reading this, don't worry! He's projected to be the Astros' best hitter! Which is sort of the problem. The ZiPS projections in that link also projects every Astros pitcher, save for Wesley Wright, to be worse than league average.
Wright is a left-handed relief pitcher.
ZiPS likes Jed Lowrie well enough, but he's made of wet Pocky and painter's tape. Jose Altuve isn't supposed to improve, necessarily, but he is expected to contribute. Other than those two and Peña (111 OPS+), the rest of the offense is supposed to be pretty wretched. Add it all up, and the Astros have a chance to have the worst pitching staff and the worst lineup in baseball. That's a tough carrot for the Marlins to chase.
First off, the difference between the Marlins and Astros last year was 14 games. That's a ton. That's exactly the difference between the Brewers and the Reds, and it's nearly the difference between the Royals and the Tigers. Losing a player or two isn't going to be enough to drop 14 games in the standings.
Except the Marlins didn't lose a player or two. They've lost a regiment of their best players since last summer's trade deadline. The list, with their wins above replacement with the Marlins in parentheses:
Jose Reyes (2.8)
Omar Infante (1.8)
Hanley Ramirez (0.5)
Josh Johnson (3.1)
Mark Buehrle (3.2)
Anibal Sanchez (1.4)
John Buck (0.4)
Those totals are just with the Marlins, mind you. And that's about 12 or 13 wins the Marlins would have lost if they replaced those players with replacement-level types. While it's too early to know exactly who will replace all of those players in the 2013 season, we know a couple of the replacements. Here are the two who played a full season last year, with their WAR in parentheses:
Placido Polanco (0.3)
Henderson Alvarez (0.1)
Two players is not a trend, but that's exactly what can't happen if the Marlins want to avoid the worst-team title. Losing Buck, who was worth a half-win, isn't a big deal. Until you realize that would have been one of the better seasons of Jeff Mathis's career. Donovan Solano filled in admirably at second after Infante's trade, but nothing in his minor-league career suggests he can continue to hit that well. Adeiny Hechavarria has the inside track on the shortstop job, and nothing in his minor- or major-league career suggests he can do much more than replacement-level work right away. They could all do replacement-level work.
There are other possibilities. Juan Pierre was worth two wins last year; maybe he went palling around Florida with Ponce de León. Maybe Justin Ruggiano really is this good, and maybe Logan Morrison turns into the hitter he was supposed to be. Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi still have the latent talent that inspired the Marlins to trade in the first place, and it will possible that Giancarlo Stanton has a transcendent season at any point over the next 15 years. There are all sorts of permutations.
The main point is this: The only way the Astros were going to have competition for the worst team in baseball is if a team like the Marlins took almost everything good about their team and replaced it with replacement-level players. And that's kind of what happened. It was pretty clear entering last season that the Astros were the worst team in baseball, and they ended up as the worst team in baseball. It follows that, absent any improvements, they should be the worst team in baseball again.
But don't sleep on the Marlins. Or do, rather. Because with the absence of any luck, they could be just as bad. It was a lofty goal, catching the Astros. But with hard work and perseverance, Jeffrey Loria and crew just might have done it. Congratulations?