Back in the early off-season, when the discerning baseball fan wanted to laugh at a team with dismal prospects, he or she would pick on the Houston Astros. Sure, the organization has hired smart people from all around the baseball universe, and their future seems bright. But in the short term, it looked like the Astros were going to have a tough time. Almost certainly the toughest time in baseball.
Then the Marlins happened.
That led to an open question: Could the Marlins catch up with the Astros? The Marlins shipped off almost every valuable player they had, and their biggest free-agent acquisitions were Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco. Suddenly, they had a roster that could compete with the Astros, by which we mean they couldn't compete, just like the Astros.
If you follow that link, don't pay attention to the part where I gush over the Blue Jays' off-season. I was young, inexperienced.
Both teams are bad, as expected. Amazingly, they might even be worse. Both teams are on pace for 116 losses. I know that on-pace stats can be a little deceptive this early in the season, but that's still a stunning pace. The good news for us, though, is that their starts are so similar that there's still a chance to discuss which team will finish the season with a worse record. C'mon, you jackals! Let's pick over some bones!
There isn't an especially scientific way to do this, but we can at least break the teams into categories to see if we can see any separation between the two. The categories:
Here's the thing: Neither one of these teams has any hitters who should hit better. As in, there aren't a lot of unmitigated disasters in either lineup. For example, the Dodgers' Luis Cruz has a -38 OPS+. If he played every day for the rest of the season, he wouldn't finish the season with a -39 OPS+. He probably wouldn't finish with a 39 OPS+, a 59 OPS+, or even a 69 OPS+. He is currently hitting like Matt Garza with an iron deficiency. He's better than that.
The Marlins don't have anyone like that, really. Greg Dobbs currently has a .549 OPS, which is about 100 points lower than his career mark. But he's 34, so this might be the real Greg Dobbs. Adeiny Hechavarria is hitting .207/.254/.369 at short … which isn't that far from what his minor-league stats suggest he would hit. You can play this game up and down the roster. There are bad hitters. But there aren't gawdawful hitters who can aspire to be bad.
When it comes to the players who should be hitting better, the conversation begins and ends with Giancarlo Stanton, whose body is betraying him. Unless you want to argue for Polanco or Pierre as great bets to be as good as they once were. Which you don't.
The same thing applies to the Astros. Like, almost close to the same thing. If anything, the Astros are filled with players who might be overachieving, if just a touch. Ronny Cedeno isn't as good as he's shown, and any time Carlos Peña hits over the Mendoza Line, you have to wonder if it will hold. You might expect Jason Castro to make fewer outs. That's about the end of the expected improvements.
So, go ahead. Pick some Marlins and/or Astros who you think will get better. It's hard. Absent any improvement, then, you'll have to assume the Astros are the better offensive team. They're almost slugging .400, after all. The Marlins have a chance to be one of the worst-hitting teams in recent baseball history. They're hitting .222/.283/.319, and their .601 OPS would be the 10th-worst mark in history. And that means …
A partial list of teams with a staff currently performing worse than the Marlins' rotation:
The Marlins have been quite good, considering. When compared to your typical last-place team, at least. Ricky Nolasco is enjoying his best season since 2008, Kevin Slowey is enjoying his only season since 2010, and Jose Fernandez is a Rookie of the Year candidate. Placeholders Alex Sanabia and Wade LeBlanc haven't been that bad. And the team's cumulative ERA+ is 95 -- 18th in baseball. That's not a historic pace.
Houston's ERA+ is 78, worst in the majors. Their pitching has allowed 5.91 runs per game, easily the most in baseball. Seven pitchers have made a start for them; two have an ERA over 6.00, two have an ERA over 9.00. They have prospects. They don't have a lot of prospects who should help right away.
Giancarlo Stanton is hurt. Jose Altuve isn't. When healthy, Stanton is enough to put the Marlins over the Astros. When healthy.
Likelihood of losing players at the deadline
The Marlins are likely to trade Nolasco and possibly Slowey. It's hard to see another team wanting any of their hitters except Stanton, who seems more like an offseason trade than mid-season.
The Astros will lose Bud Norris? Lucas Harrell? They'll probably get worse at the deadline, don't get me wrong, but it's not like they're the 1993 Padres trading away their only good player.
Prospects who could go nuts
Christian Yelich is still lurking for the Marlins, who have a highly regarded farm system. The prize of the Astros' system is Jonathan Singleton, who is serving a suspension for prohibition-related offenses. The former is the better prospect, but the latter is closer to the majors and expected to contribute sooner.
If either team had a high-level pitcher ready to contribute, he would be in the rotation by now. Jarred Cosart is pretty close, though, and he's probably the single prospect on either team who could make a big difference in 2013. He's not exactly setting Triple-A on fire (over a strikeout per inning, but four walks for every nine innings pitched), so he might be a September call-up at best.
Yelich is the best player in either system, he's hitting well, and the Marlins are crazy enough to call him up soon. When he enters his arbitration years in his early-to-mid 20s? That'll be the problem of the team trading for him, right?
The Astros will finish with the worst record. There's no real reason to be supremely confident about this, but the Marlins at least have the pitching. A decent Nolasco and healthy Slowey go a long way. And while that offense should be bad, it's never a good idea to bet on historically bad. If Slowey is healthy, Fernandez remains effective into the summer, and Nolasco's half as good as he was always supposed to be, the Marlins should avoid 115-loss ignominy. They might even avoid 100 losses if Stanton comes back and gets hot.
They probably won't avoid 100 losses. These teams are awful. Awful enough for me to write a column like this and not get attacked in the comments by too many fans of the two teams. Because they know. Oh, man, how they know. I'll take the Astros for now, but if Stanton doesn't come back ... oh, I can't decide. This is like a Sophie's choice, but if both of Sophie's kids wouldn't stop learning how to play banjo in the middle of the night.