Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Which Last Place Team Is Most Likely to Turn It Around?

We now stand a little over a fifth of the way through the season, past the point were divisions can see a total flip-flop over night. They haven’t fully stabilized yet, though; it’s still only been just over 30 games, after all, and there’s plenty that could still happen. I decided to take this thought to the optimistic end and ask “Which team currently in last place is most likely to turn it all around?”

Right now, there are actually essentially seven teams in last in their divisions, thanks to a tie out east: the Orioles, the Red Sox, the Indians, the Athletics, the Phillies, the Brewers, and the Rockies. There are undoubtedly some good teams in the bunch, as is usually the case after only a month and a half of third. Heck, I even picked some of those teams as division winners. But is there any reason to expect differently now that they’re in last? Going over them one-by-one:

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are probably the least likely to turn things around, out of this seven. Right now trail the NL East, with an 11-23 record that leaves them 9.5 games back. For as bad as having the worst record in the Majors sounds, what makes it worse is that they’re still outpacing they’re Pythagorean record by two games. Even GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. admitted they’re a little outmatched. And if they decide to start trading off veterans like Cole Hamels, it’ll only get worse. So yeah, this one is probably a no.

Milwaukee Brewers
Technically not as bad as the Phillies, with a 12-22 record. But playing in the same division as the current best team in baseball leaves them even further behind, at 11.0 back. On top of that, they’ve already fired their manager and announced that they’re sellers this year. So, once again, it seems pretty unlikely here.

Colorado Rockies
While we’re on the topic trade rumors, there’s one going around now that Troy Tulowitzki will be demanding one out of Colorado soon. It’ll already be difficult for the Rockies to bounce back with him; they’re 11-18 and 9.5 back. I predicted them to be in the running for worst team in the Majors at the start of the year and they’ve certainly lived down to that expectation. Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado are a nice starting point, but their ace is 24-year-old rookie Eddie Butler and their number two is Kyle Kendrick.

Oakland Athletics
They’re 13-22, so a tad better than the other teams covered, and only 8.0 games out, so there’s less work to do. Also, it seems they have less to turn around than most last-place teams; the A’s are one of two last-place teams with a winning Pythagorean record (the other, funnily enough, are the O’s). So the talent definitely seems to be there (although losing Jarrod Parker to injury again hurts, seeing as he would have helped a rather thin rotation). (Edit: Also, they'll be getting Ben Zobrist back, which should be a shot in the arm.)

Cleveland Indians
They’re a little worse off than the Athletics, thanks to an 11-20 record and a 9.0 game deficit, but I also anticipated them being stronger in the pre-season than the Athletics. Yan Gomes’s injury hurts, but Jason Kipnis is bouncing back, and Michael Brantley, Ryan Rayburn, and Carlos Santana are staying strong. Their starting pitching seems to be doing okay (Fangraphs puts them tenth in WAR), so if the lineup and rotation aren’t the big issues, what’s wrong? Well, their bullpen (21st) and fielding (25th) are bad. Are those going to keep up? Maybe, but I’d imagine they’re easier to fix (whether through concentrated effort or just a change in luck, since they’re both rather tempermental) than the first two things. Still, that’s a big early hole. It can be done, though.

Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
These two are easily the most likely. Despite being tied for last, they’re both doing rather respectably (15-18 for Boston, 14-17 for Baltimore), and are fewer games back from first (5.5) than some second-place teams are (the Cubs and the Giants, specifically). Starting from that close is already a pretty sizable advantage when handicapping these things.
If you want to bet on a single worst-to-first story, one of these two is your best choice. But which one? Well, while they are “tied”, Baltimore seems much better positioned to strike than Boston. They haven’t been outscored nearly as badly (a 16-15 Pythag, to Boston’s 13-20). Plus, there’s help coming off the DL: the Orioles finally got back J.J. Hardy, will see the return of Matt Wieters soon, will hopefully move young starter Kevin Gausman to the rotation upon his return, and will get Jonathan Schoop back eventually. Add in that Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Ubaldo Jimenez seem to be having bouncebacks from weaker 2014 while the Red Sox struggle to find one above-average starter and that seems to make the difference. The Red Sox may also turn it around; even with their pitching weakness, they still have a lineup that can club any opposing team into submission. They just seem a little less well-rounded.

So there you have it. Maybe it’s partly my Orioles fandom clouding my judgment, but even trying to set that aside, no other last place team looks as ready for a turnaround.

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