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February 16, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

The Race to the Bottom in 2012

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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With under two months to go before the beginning of the 2012 regular season in late March, there’s less certainty than usual at the top of both leagues. The Yankees go into camp with a rotation bolstered by the addition of young ace-in-waiting Michael Pineda from Seattle but face a division even stronger than last year’s—and last year, three AL East teams won 90 games. The Detroit Tigers lost Victor Martinez for the year with an offseason knee injury and responded by signing free-agent slugger Prince Fielder to a nine-year megadeal; they seem poised to dominate a weak AL Central, but the young Kansas City Royals are coming up fast in rearview mirror. In the West, the Rangers signed Japanese pitching phenom Yu Darvish to headline their rotation and fill the hole left by C.J. Wilson’s departure. He didn’t go far, though—the ace of the Rangers’ 2011 staff will be the third starter for their main rivals in Los Angeles next year. He’s not the only new Angel, either; Albert Pujols will bring his talents to first base in Orange County starting next year as well, and he won’t be going anywhere for the better part of a decade.

The National League is in a state of similar uncertainty. With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Phillies should win the NL East, but the now-Miami Marlins have spent a whole bunch of money to try and make things interesting, and the Braves should be in the Wild Card hunt again, too. The NL Central lost perhaps the two best right-handed bats in the game, but between the Reds, the Brewers, and the Cardinals, the division will be a three-way race—and the Chicago Cubs are under new (and newly-competent) management. Out in the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks are the defending division champions; they stand a pretty good chance of repeating, but Brian Sabean’s Giants could pitch their way into the conversation, and the Padres have quietly turned into one of the more interesting young teams in the majors.

So yes, the pennant races should be fun. But who cares about those? True legends are not made at the top of the standings. They’re made at the bottom. And in 2012, there are only two credible contenders in the marathon of failure that ends with the first overall pick in next year’s Rule 4 Entry Draft.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Houston Astros and the Baltimore Orioles.

First things first: Why the Astros and the Orioles? The Astros are a fairly clear choice. They lost 106 games last year, most of which came before they traded Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, their two best hitters. They also have no real high-end prospects of note. Former general manager Ed Wade took Delino DeShields, Jr., with the organization’s first-round pick in 2010; Kevin Goldstein does not have him ranked among the top 101 prospects in the league. The first Astro to appear on the list is Jarred Cosart at 48; he spent last year in High-A before receiving a late promotion to Double-A. The other two Houston prospects on the list, George Springer and Jonathan Singleton, have not played above Low-A and High-A, respectively. Help is not coming soon to the Astros franchise as currently constructed.

But going by straight win-loss records from 2011, why the Orioles? Why not one of the other teams at the bottom of the league, like the Mariners or the Twins?

While the Mariners lost 95 games last year to the Orioles’ 93, they also have a strong minor-league system replete with high-end pitching prospects and just traded one of their developed young pitchers for an elite hitting prospect, Jesus Montero. Their major-league roster is of dubious quality, sure, and general manager Jack Zduriencik’s acumen has at times seemed questionable, but the talent is there at the lower levels in ways that it’s not in the Orioles’ farm, and the team has Felix Hernandez at the top of its rotation. Hernandez is one of the best five pitchers in baseball over the past three years, full stop; his ERA last year, 3.47, was pretty good all by itself, but it was inflated by almost a run. With essentially the same peripherals over the last couple seasons, Hernandez was posting ERAs in the 2.20s. The smart money is on his being back below 3.00 and in the conversation for the Cy Young Award next season; after all, the young man from Venezuela hasn’t posted a FIP above 3.15 since 2008, and at only 25 years old he might only be entering his prime.

The Twins, on the other hand, were as atrocious as they were due to crippling injury issues. They won’t be a good team in 2012, by any means, but with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau returning from their assorted ailments, they shouldn’t be in the cellar. Their minor-league cupboard is nothing to envy, and their organizational fetish for makeup and the hit and speed tools to the exclusion of all other concerns will likely cause them problems down the road, but that’s a few years off.

So yes, it’s possible that either of these two teams could surprise everyone and surge past the Orioles or Astros in the loss column, but it’s not likely. In fact, all things considered, this is really the Astros’ race to lose—the Orioles happen to be the team best-equipped by circumstance to give them a run for the first overall pick. Sure, the Mariners can’t hit, the Pirates can’t pitch, and the Twins can’t do anything particularly well on a consistent basis besides bunt and get hurt, but the Orioles have two things going for them that none of those other teams does: the lowest berth in the most competitive division in professional sports and an organizational commitment to a philosophy that has consistently resulted in top pick after top pick.

That said, the Orioles have a lot of work to do if they want to catch the Astros. Below, I’ve profiled the top three returning players on each team in last year’s race for the first overall pick, three new faces on each team that could contribute immediately to the cause, and three on each squad that need to step up their commitment to drafting early and often.

The Chaff

Baltimore

Brian Matusz
Matusz is the unsung reverse-ace of this unit. Very few players can do as much to boost their team toward the first pick in the draft in under 50 innings as Brian Matusz did in 2011. His 10.68 ERA was the highest in history of any pitcher with 10 or more starts, and he made it through the year with a WHIP over 2. Honestly, having watched most of his starts, it’s a testament to his wizardry on the mound that a WHIP over 2 seems low. No one is really sure whether he can put up a repeat performance of 2011 or whether he’ll return to being a somewhat pedestrian fastball/changeup pitcher with moderate flyball tendencies, as he was in the previous 200 innings of his major-league career, but the Orioles are going to give him every opportunity to find out.

Brian Roberts
Roberts’s presence here is surprising, since in years past he was one of the few men on the Baltimore roster who hasn’t fit the mold of a starter on one of the worst teams in the league. Perhaps that’s why the Orioles tried to trade him to Chicago, then to Atlanta, then to Chicago again, then to the other Chicago. Baltimore put the incessant trade rumors to rest after the 2009 season by giving him a four year, $40 million “reward” extension; Roberts promptly lost his ability to hit for power the next year, concussed himself by hitting himself in the head with a bat repeatedly, reconcussed himself by sliding into first base headfirst and then, in spring training last season, re-reconcussed himself by…wait for it…sliding into first base headfirst again. Robert Andino has taken over as the starting second baseman.

Mark Reynolds
Reynolds is a tricky one. The unpracticed eye looks at his numbers and sees a moderately competent Three True Outcomes power hitter who strikes out a bit too much but walks and homers at a decent enough clip to make up for it. What the numbers don’t show at first glance is that this man also insists he is a third baseman, a position he is so abysmal at that he gives much of his value right back. Reynolds was an atrocity at the hot corner by any standard in 2011, and at Baltimore’s FanFest this January, he informed fans that he’s getting in shape to go out and do it again. Add that to such poor contact skills that even his elite eye couldn’t get him on base more than a third of the time against American League pitching last year, and it looks like Reynolds is ready to deliver more of the same, which bodes well for any Baltimore aspirations for the first overall pick.

Houston

Humberto Quintero
In a year of poor catching dominated by Drew Butera, the innovations in the field offered in 2011 by Houston’s Humberto Quintero are easily overlooked. That’s partially because while after Mauer’s injury Butera was given free rein of the Minnesota backstop to craft his masterwork on replacement level catching, Quintero had to share time with the equally overmatched Carlos Corporan and J.R. Towles. Don’t worry if you don’t know who those two men are; they won’t come up again. Quintero, who has been catching in Houston for seven years now and getting about half the starts behind the dish over the last two or three, should see his playing time reduced with the signing of actual, real life major-league catcher Chris Snyder but will probably still end up playing in 80 games somehow when Jason Castro re-destroys his knee.

Brett Wallace
Once upon a time, Brett Wallace was a super prospect. That was before his hips got too wide, or his swing developed boulder-sized holes, or whatever it was that turned him from a great power prospect into a guy who was traded three times in as many years, ended up in Houston, and could slug only .481 in the launching pads in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and .369 in the majors in 2011. The Astros sent him back down to the PCL near the end of the season, but he’ll be back; he has to be, since the only other first baseman in the organization with any sort of pedigree is Jonathan Singleton, and he’s all of 19 years old. It’s much less likely that he’ll be impressive, or that his stock will ever be higher than it was when he was the main piece of the trade that sent Matt Holliday from the Oakland Athletics to the St. Louis Cardinals.

J.A. Happ
Once upon a time—and I know some of you will find this story difficult to believe, but bear with me—the sports fans of Philadelphia overrated a young rookie pitcher based almost entirely on sports radio canards and Just Wins Games confirmation bias. His name was J.A. (pronounced “Jay”) Happ, the year was 2009, and his luck was almost as ludicrous as his insistence that his first two initials formed an acronym: on his way to a 12-4 record with a 2.93 ERA, he stranded 85 percent of runners on base while having a .266 opposing batting average on balls in play—league average hovers around .300, though it has been as low as .297 in recent seasons. Now, the interesting thing about Happ during his tenure in Philadelphia was that his obscene BABIP seemed to be repeatable: it was .266 in 2008, then .266 again in 2009, and then .262 (!!) in 2010. Maybe he actually was able to control the sort of contact he got on the baseball and pitch in such a way that batters put a lot of balls in play but only as easy outs—but no, 2011 came, and in his first full year as a Houston Astro, Happ’s BABIP was .297, right around league average. When it was all said and done, he went 6-15 with a 5.35 ERA, and Phillies fans were pretty happy they traded him for that Roy Oswalt guy, all things considered. Just like he wasn’t as good as his 2.93 ERA in 2009, Happ probably wasn’t as bad as his 5.35 ERA last year, but his true talent level lies closer to the latter than the former.

The Change

Baltimore

Matt Antonelli
If Matt Antonelli’s name isn’t familiar, congratulations: you’re not a Padres fan. Antonelli was the 17th pick of the 2006 draft and never lived up to his billing even a little bit. His only major-league plate appearances came at the tail end of 2008 with a dismal San Diego club that lost 99 games, when he hit .193/.292/.281 in 65 tries. The Orioles took one look at that isolated plate discipline and snapped him up; he joins Andino, Ryan Adams, and Ryan Flaherty in the fight for the starting second base role that Brian Roberts will likely vacate due to post-concussion syndrome. Antonelli is an Oriole because Baltimore was the only team to offer him a major -league contract, meaning that he will either be on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster or he will be a free agent. Smart money is on the former.

Jason Hammel
Hammel came to Baltimore in the Jeremy Guthrie trade, which is somewhat appropriate, because he’s essentially been the same pitcher as Guthrie but for 30 fewer innings per year. He is also coming off a season where his peripherals utterly collapsed and he lost the ability to strike anyone out—and that was when he was pitching in the NL West, where he got to face pitchers and James Loney. First basemen in the AL East are not so forgiving (unless, of course, they play for Baltimore).

Endy Chavez
Everyone loves Endy Chavez! Especially Mets fans, due to that amazing catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Even Cardinals fans can’t hate him that much because, well, they won that game. As warm and fuzzy as all of our feelings for him are, however, he is a speedy fourth outfielder on a team with no speedy leadoff man, and as Corey Patterson and the 2010 Cincinnati Reds showed, this can be a very, very dangerous combination to give to a manager who believes he needs speed to lead. If Chavez gets more than 300 plate appearances next season, he’ll be helping the first-pick cause—even more so from the top spot.

Houston

Jed Lowrie
Following the 2011 campaign, veteran shortstop Clint Barmes departed for chillier, better-paying climes in Pittsburgh, veteran owner Drayton McLane sold the team, and veteran general manager Ed Wade was summarily fired, leaving the Astros without a major -league shortstop but on the whole better off than they were a year prior. The only true shortstop on the major-league roster when incoming general manager Jeff Luhnow arrived was Angel Sanchez, which would have helped Sanchez’s case for starting Astros shortstop in 2012 immensely, were it not for his performance as an Astros shortstop in 2011. So Angel Sanchez was designated for assignment, and Luhnow traded Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for alleged shortstop Jed Lowrie. Lowrie can certainly hit well enough to hold down the position; so can anyone able to OPS over .650 at the major -league level. The knock on Lowrie has always been his defensive ability; given his previous track record, Lowrie is likely to make Astros fans pine for the days of Miguel Tejada, which would be an accomplishment.

Chris Snyder
There’s a pattern of irksome competency to the Luhnow regime’s offseason moves that says, “Perhaps it wouldn’t actually be something to brag about if we lost 106 games again,” and signings like Chris Snyder emphasize that. Snyder was the starting catcher for the Pirates last season and is in town on a one-year bid to build his value as he matures into the age group that Brian Sabean and Ned Colletti prefer. He’s not going to help the Astros’ quest for the first overall pick, but he won’t pull them the other way, either. Snyder is just sort of there for now, and pretty soon, he’ll be gone. And only Humberto Quintero shall remain.

Livan Hernandez
Hernandez, on the other hand, is going to fit right in with the likes of Brett Myers in the Astros’ rotation. Myers is six years younger than the former Washington Nationals starter, but both men were similarly ineffective in the National League last season, posting near identical 4.46 and 4.47 ERAs. While “yes please, more of that” is not something that jumps to mind when one considers Brett Myers—for instance, there are plenty of perfectly serviceable fringe starters on the market who don’t have a history of serial domestic assault—Hernandez is only in town on a one-year deal as well, so he play out his deal and be on his way.

The Cream

Baltimore

J.J. Hardy
Before last season, Hardy’s value to a team trying to pick high was concentrated mostly in his inability to stay healthy and hitting at the same time. After what seemed to be a breakout 2008, when he recorded a .276 TAv and appeared in 146 games for the Milwaukee Brewers, he’d posted a .229 TAv in 115 games the next year and .261 in 101 the following season with the Minnesota Twins. He looked perfectly marginal and set the Orioles up well to cycle replacement-level players through the position—who knew, maybe they’d even be able to get Cesar Izturis some more playing time! Instead, Hardy was one of the best-hitting shortstops in the game last year. He doesn’t share sole blame for the Orioles picking only fourth overall in the upcoming Rule 4 draft, but it’s no surprise to see the Twins, who traded him to Baltimore last winter for a pair of minor-league relievers, picking two spots higher. Savvy move by former GM Bill Smith, who was relieved of his duties this offseason.

Matt Wieters
Matt Wieters came into the league with huge promise—so much so that it threatened to derail the Orioles’ burgeoning dynasty atop the draft boards. Luckily for those aspirations, Wieters cooled off quickly at the plate once he hit the majors, becoming a reliable, average everyday catcher. The threat is always there, though: catchers are expected to take longer to develop at the plate than other position players, and Wieters is still young yet. Last season, he was one of the top defensive catchers in the sport while also hitting fairly respectably for the position considering offense was down across the board. This season, who knows? He could continue being the same guy he’s been so far in MLB—a good piece, but not a star. Or he could turn into another 2009 Joe Mauer and mess everything up. If the Orioles are going to hang in the basement with the Astros, they can’t have guys like Wieters dragging them back up the cellar stairs.

Jim Johnson
Johnson, who led the American League in innings pitched by a reliever last year (or was second, if you count Red Sox spot-starter Alfredo Aceves, the majority of whose innings came in relief), has been discussed as a possible candidate for the Orioles’ starting rotation. This is somewhat concerning, because while Johnson is the team’s best reliever, he was a starter in the minor leagues and remains in the pen only because of how putrid that unit has been over the last few years. It’s possible that were he to return to a starting role, he could provide much more value to the team and perhaps keep the O’s in a few games they wouldn’t be in otherwise. Luckily, Baltimore seems to have headed this off at the pass by acquiring a few more fifth starters in the past six months: Tommy Hunter, Dana Eveland, Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Alfredo Simon will be fighting for two spots in the rotation following Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada. Johnson will likely remain right where he is, in the setup role, eating relief innings. Why mess with success?

Houston

Wandy Rodriguez
The best thing Wandy can do to help the Astros tank is not pitch for them, and Jeff Luhnow is likely trying to facilitate that as you read these words. He wasn’t fantastic in 2011, but he’s a very workmanlike pitcher who throws a bunch of innings and strikes more than twice as many guys as he walks, and that has value. It probably has more value at the trade deadline, however, especially considering Rodriguez isn’t very likely to qualify for the revised Type A and B rankings under the new CBA, and thus it doesn’t really matter at what point in the season he’s traded. If and when he is traded, the Astros’ rotation will look something like Brett Myers/Bud Norris/Livan Hernandez/Zach Duke/J.A. Happ, which is a reward unto itself. I don’t think 20-year-old Jordan Lyles will be forced into action at the major-league level again as he was last season, though Luhnow will give him the chance to prove he belongs with the Astros in spring training.

Jose Altuve
Altuve is a fan favorite in Houston, mostly because he is a very tiny man who hits baseballs pretty well, and very tiny men who succeed in any aspect of baseball always win their fan base’s collective heart (see: David Eckstein; Tim Collins). He’s also a fan favorite out of necessity, because Ed Wade traded all the other ones for junk. It’s hard to say whether he belongs in this section or the first one, because he was not a very good player last year, but he was only 21 years old, and really there were so few genuinely good performances from young Astros last year that a middle infielder with a slugging percentage higher than his OBP makes it by default. It’s going to be very interesting to see whether he can handle a full season of work in the majors; I suspect he’ll help the Astros in their pursuit of the number-one overall pick more than he’d like.

Wilton Lopez
Show of hands: Who knew that Wilton Lopez was a thing that existed before reading this section’s header? Can you define Wilton Lopez? Can you properly use him in a sentence? I can. “If the Houston Astros trade Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris, middle reliever Wilton Lopez will become the best pitcher on the team by default.” You can check; the grammar is impeccable. More to the point, the Astros bullpen was hideous last season, and the only other bright point in it, Mark Melancon, is now a member of the Boston Red Sox. The Astros likely don’t need Lopez to regress to make relief outings of any sort an adventure, but come on, Wilton. You’re making Enerio Del Rosario look bad.

Related Content:  Baltimore Orioles,  Houston Astros

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