Quick, name the worst team in baseball right now. The Houston Astros are a good choice, as they have lost at least 100 games in three consecutive seasons and are currently tied for the worst record in baseball. The Chicago Cubs are also a candidate, given that they are tied with the Astros in the win column and just traded away two of their best starting pitchers, weakening their roster going forward. Both teams are deep in rebuilding mode, and they are paying the price on the field each day.
However, I’d like to suggest that 2014’s worst team might not be either of these rebuilding clubs, but instead an organization that entered the year with high hopes of contention.
At 38-52, the Texas Rangers are just a game ahead of the Astros in the AL West standings, so if you were just judging by wins and losses, you wouldn’t put them behind Houston just yet. However, since the difference between a win and a loss can often come down to whether one crucial play gets made or not, a team’s record can be a bit misleading. Teams are more effectively evaluated by removing the context from when events occur, and just looking at the value of positive or negative events a team is involved in without regards to the situation of when those events happen.
At FanGraphs, we measure team performance through a model called BaseRuns, which calculates the number of runs a team would be expected to score and allow based on a normal distribution of events. With these expected run differentials, we can calculate team records based on overall performance without the influences of clutch performance, which is generally random and mostly beyond a team’s control.
And BaseRuns thinks that the Rangers have been baseball’s worst team so far this year, without any reasonable contender even coming all that close to their marks of futility. Based on their total performance to date, we would have expected the Rangers to have been outscored by 105 runs, or a deficit of more than a full run per game played. The next worst total belongs to the Arizona Diamondbacks, but their expected run differential is only -62 runs. If you translate these expected runs scored and allowed totals into wins, the model would forecast the Rangers for a 34-56 record, four games worse than their actual record. As bad as they’ve played, the Rangers have actually been lucky to not be even worse off in the standings.
The obvious culprit is the pitching, and more specifically, the starting rotation. As a group, their 4.93 ERA is second worst in baseball, as everyone not named Yu Darvish has been universally lousy. Starting pitching was supposed to be their strength, but injuries have hit hard, pushing planned starters Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Martin Perez to the disabled list. Even the guys replacing the injured guys have gotten hurt, as the Rangers have used 12 different starting pitchers this year, and we’re not even to the All-Star break yet. Of those 12, Darvish is the only one with an ERA under 4.00.
This disaster of a rotation is hard to watch on a nightly basis, but in some ways, it also provides a little bit of hope; it is much easier to upgrade from disasters like Joe Saunders and Nick Martinez to something resembling a respectable Major League pitcher than it is to upgrade a team that is uniformly mediocre across the board. Simply by not giving the ball to guys who don’t belong in the big leagues, the 2015 Rangers should expect to see pretty dramatic improvement.
But while it is almost a near certainty that their 2015 rotation will be better than their 2014 rotation — it’s hard to imagine how it could be worse — an organizational plan based around waiting for injured guys to get healthy might not be a very good one. For one, injured guys don’t always get healthy, and even the ones who make it back often don’t perform as well as they did before they got hurt. There’s no guarantee the Rangers will get Matt Harrison and Martin Perez back next year, and even if they do, they can’t know that they’ll be the pitchers that helped push the team towards the top of the standings last year. And, realistically, this team wouldn’t be very good even if those pitchers hadn’t gotten hurt.
For instance, the offense is vastly overrated. As a group, their position players have a wRC+ of 91, meaning that their hitters have been nine percent below average this year. That puts them in a tie for 25th, with the also-offensively-challenged Royals. At least the Royals position players make up for their lack of hitting with best-in-baseball defense; the Rangers suck at that too, ranking 24th in UZR. Combining their offensive and defensive performance, the Rangers hitters have combined for just 5.9 Wins Above Replacement, ranking them ahead of only the White Sox, Astros, Phillies, and Padres. You will note that none of those teams are in the playoff race either.
Even if you gave this group a fully healthy and effective rotation, you’d still be looking at a team that would struggle to win games, because outside of Adrian Beltre, their hitters just aren’t very good. And unfortunately for the Rangers, some of these non-star hitters are also extremely expensive.
The decision to trade for the overpaid and overrated Prince Fielder looked like a mistake from day one and doesn’t look any better now that he’s out for the season with a neck injury, but throwing $140 million at Shin-Soo Choo might prove to be an equally poor decision. Choo was supposed to set the table for the team’s big sluggers, but instead, he’s declined across the board, hitting just .250/.373/.393. He’s not a defensive asset, and at 31, he’s not the base stealer he used to be either, so Choo has to justify his salary by hitting the crap out of the ball. He’s better than he’s shown in the first half of the first year of his contract, but he’s unlikely to ever be the star that the Rangers were hoping for.
And it’s not just Choo and Fielder; Elvis Andrus signed a $120 million extension last year that hasn’t even started yet. Between these three, the Rangers have committed over $50 million in salary next year to three players who are, at best, merely above average contributors, not any kind of real difference making stars. Overall, the Rangers have already committed $110 million in salary for next year, and that doesn’t include a $7 million option they will hold on closer Joakim Soria if he isn’t traded by the end of July.
The team had an Opening Day payroll of about $135 million this year, so if they keep Soria around or replace him with an equivalently priced free agent, they’ll have about $18 million to spend this winter to get back to this season’s budget number. Even if you think that number might rise somewhat — and I’d say that’s far from a sure thing, given the team’s performance and how poorly the team has spent on big ticket items of late — they’re still going to need to spread their available cash around to get an outfielder to replace Alex Rios, acquire a new catcher, find a better first baseman than Mitch Moreland, and obtain at least a couple of decent starting pitchers to shore up the rotation. At minimum, they need five new core players, and even if they had $30 million to spend, getting five good regulars in the free agent market would be an unrealistic long-shot.
The Rangers have some good young pieces, but the disaster of 2014 isn’t just because a lot of guys got hurt, and getting those injured guys back won’t fix the underlying problems with the offense. Given the strength of the A’s and Angels, plus the no-longer-awful Mariners and an Astros team that is at least climbing towards respectability, the Rangers need to do a serious evaluation of whether they really think they can fix all of their current problems this winter. Because if they can’t, then it might be time to at least think about whether the best path forward includes trading Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish rather than trying to win with a roster that might not be good enough to do so anymore.