Most days I try to be more optimistic than this, but today it's cloudy
and rainy and I'm in a down mood, so naturally it occurred to me to
write something about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Call me masochistic.
No, really, it's simpler than that: Someone asked me who I thought the
worst team in baseball was. I had a healthy debate with a friend on
this subject; he conceded that the Pirates figure to be just as awful
as they've been every year since 1500 B.C., but the Giants are lined up
to be truly, historically execrable.
To my thinking, there are four teams in serious running for the worst
record in baseball in 2008 and the resulting #1 draft pick in 2009: the
Baltimore Orioles, the Florida Marlins, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the
San Francisco Giants.
- The Orioles won't get there because, even after
trading Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard away, they're still better than
the other three teams involved. They still have Nick Markakis and Adam
Jones, mad Dr. Angelos has apparently ordered Brian Roberts to stay
right where he is, and their pitching staff is reasonable. Yes, they're
in the AL East and that sucks for them, but they're merely a bad team,
not a truly terrible one. They'll win 68-70 games, which won't get them
to the #1 pick.
- The Marlins have Hanley Ramirez on
the team. He alone pretty much ensures they won't be the worst team in
baseball, unless he gets hurt and misses most of the season. Then we
can talk. Again, they'll be bad, but Ramirez by himself is worth a good
7 or 8 wins, meaning they'll win 69, not 62.
That leaves the Pirates and the Giants. Let's break this down into the three basic categories: Offense, defense, and pitching.
Offense is the easiest to analyze. Here are the PECOTA-projected VORPs for the starting lineups:
* (Doumino is an unholy amalgamation of Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino.
Their VORP projections are pretty close to the same, though PECOTA is
projecting Paulino to get more time.)
This is how terrible the Giants' lineup is, folks—even assuming Brian
Bocock's involvement will end very soon, they're a whopping five and a
half wins worse than the Pirates. There's one important mitigating
factor, though: The Pirates have no depth anywhere besides first base
(Steven Pearce) and center field (Chris Duffy). An injury to any of
their other six starters will be disastrous to them, as the
organization has nobody above replacement level to plug in. The Giants,
on the other hand, thanks to Brian Sabean's particular taste for
lunacy, have several guys on their bench or in AAA (Fred Lewis, Kevin
Frandsen, Rajai Davis, etc.) who are still in their 20s and thus
ineligible to play for Brian Sabean's team, but nonetheless better
players than the guys in the lineup. An injury in any of the corner
positions is likely to improve their lineup.
And then there's defense. The Giants have a pretty good defensive team;
all of their fielders rate as plus gloves at their positions except the
totally deep-fried Ray Durham. Their outfield, in particular, is very
good. The Pirates, on the other hand, are quite the opposite: Everyone
in their lineup except Jack Wilson and maybe Jason Bay is average to
below-average with the leather at his position. Jose Bautista is
particularly terrible (-23 at third base last year).
Stories you may have heard about the Pirates' excellent young pitching
have been exaggerated by writers who are trying very hard to find
something nice to say about the worst-run franchise in professional
sports. When you take the time to look under the hood, what you find is
underwhelming. The Pirates have one good pitcher, Ian Snell, and one
average or slightly above pitcher, Tom Gorzelanny, whose peripherals
lagged behind his ERA last year and suggest an average pitcher, not an
ace in the making. Beyond that, they have one sort of acceptable
mediocrity (Paul Maholm) and nothing else; Zach Duke, who looked so
brilliant a few years back, appears to be on his way out of the major
The Giants are similarly thin in the pitching staff, but much better at
the top. Whereas the Pirates have two pretty good pitchers, the Giants
have two awesome, legitimate aces in Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and
one sort of acceptable mediocrity, The Barry Zito Contract. (mlb.com
and espn.com and such should change Zito's name in his profile to The
Barry Zito Contract. This would also be a pretty good name for a rock
band; maybe Zito can start that band himself?) Beyond that, the Giants
have pretty much nothing. The Pirates figure to have a better bullpen
than the Giants, but both 'pens are comprised of guys you've never
heard of, and bullpen performance is volatile.
On balance, the Pirates stand to score 5-6 wins' worth of runs above
the Giants, but the Giants are going to take all of that back, and
perhaps more, by preventing runs. Between their, on the whole, mediocre
pitching and their bad defense, the Pirates are likely to be near the
top of the league in runs allowed. Tack on the horror that ensues if
the Pirates lose, say, Jack Wilson or Freddy Sanchez from their lineup,
and I like the Pirates' chances of finishing 2008 with the worst record
in baseball more than the Giants' or anybody else's.
One more piece of evidence before I go: Look at last year. Jason Bay
collapsed last year, but just about everything else went right for the
Pirates—Gorzelanny and Snell stepped forward, Jack Wilson had another
career year, Adam LaRoche was pretty much as advertised on balance,
Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth and Freddy Sanchez had good years,
everyone stayed health. And the Pirates went 68-94.
Well, this year, they've brought back exactly the same roster; there
are no changes of significance. I don't think it's likely they'll be as
fortunate with health or performance as they were last year, and I
don't think Jason Bay's coming back around, either, at least not back
to a star level. It doesn't take much—an injury to Snell, for instance,
or Jack Wilson, will do it—to make the 2008 Pirates worse than the 2007
Pirates; 63-65 wins is a distinct possibility here.
This is the thing that makes the Pirates and Giants so much worse than
everybody else around: The Orioles and Marlins may be terrible, but
they're also young, and some of their players are projectable. The
rosiest scenarios for them get them conceivably as far as 80 wins. The
Orioles, for instance—the best-case scenario for the Orioles is
Markakis and Jones immediately become stars, Roberts has a strong year,
the pitchers are above average, the bullpen pitches well—that gets them
into the 80s in the win column.
The Pirates are not only terrible, but they aren't young. Most of their
regulars are at or past their prime already. And the Giants are not
only terrible, but they're the oldest team in the league, a management
failure of catastrophic proportions; there's no rational explanation
for why Brian Sabean still has his job. What's the absolute best-case
scenario for the Giants? That Zito finds the magic again and Cain and
Lincecum turn into Glavine and Smoltz, and they allow the fewest runs
in the league. Even in this scenario, and even assuming perfect health
for their entire lineup, they're still going to score the fewest runs
in the league, and the team's absolute ceiling, if everything goes
right, is maybe 76, 77 wins.
The Pirates, same thing. Almost everything went right last year, and
they won 68 games. There is not a single player in their starting
lineup, except Bay, who can reasonably be expected to perform better
this year than he did in 2007, and Jack Wilson can reasonably be
expected to perform worse. And in the pitching staff, Snell and
Gorzelanny may improve, but just as likely one or both of them will get
hurt, simply because that's what young pitchers do. Paul Maholm and
Zach Duke give us no reason to expect improvement, and the Pirates'
bullpen was actually pretty good last year; the guys that pitched the
important innings (Matt Capps, Damaso Marte and John Grabow) pitched
very well. You can't expect improvement there, either.
Truthfully, just on the (relative) strength of the Giants' division and
weakness of the Pirates' division, it's going to be hard for the
Pirates, or anybody else, to finish 2008 with the worst record in the
game. But on balance, you can't expect improvement from this year's
Pirates; in fact, I think you have to project a little bit of decline.
From 68 wins. And that's why the Pirates, despite playing in baseball's
weakest division, are your best bet to finish 2008 as the worst team in
baseball, even if the Giants manage to ace them out by a game or two in
the L column thanks to their schedule.