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Comparing Losing

Associated Press via Huffignton Post

Sometimes, things are sad. When the San Diego Padres concluded their sweep of the Colorado Rockies on August 13th (and no, it wasn’t a Friday the 13th, just another day as a Rockies fan), it reiterated what had been a sad fact for much of August, that the Rockies had the worst win-loss record in all of baseball.

Editor’s Note: If you clicked on this post to read more about Jennifer Aniston, I’m afraid this note is the only reference you will get.

Let’s look back to July 8th, when Dick Monfort gave a series of interviews to the Denver Post where he told Patrick Saunders he “did not know how our record got to be where it is” and Mark Kiszla aptly wrote that the Monforts might be over their heads. The perception was that the Rockies had been unlucky with injuries and as players returned to health, the team’s record would improve. At the time, the Rockies were 38-53, a mere half a game better than the Arizona Diamondbacks and there were a total of five major league teams with 38 wins: the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs as well as the Rockies and Diamondbacks. Let’s take a look at each of those teams and what has happened since then.

Diamondbacks (38-54 on July 8th, 18-25 since July 8th, 54-81 now): Before July 8th, the most noteworthy fact for the Diamondbacks, besides their losing record, were their injuries to key players such as prime offseason acquisition Mark Trumbo. Eric Chavez and Daniel Hudson were the epitome of nonhealth and after Chris Owings‘ injury, even Cliff Pennington‘s loss was sorely felt. Disappointed with their horrible start to the season, on May 17th when their record stood at 17-28, they hired Tony LaRussa to shake things up. From May 18th to July 8th, they went 21-26… better but not all that hot. Meanwhile, LaRussa had been busy, signing 12 minor league free agents between his first day on duty and July 8th. The Rockies, over that time frame, signed 9, not that the Rockies _had_ to sign any minor league free agents, but they were having some injury issues of their own… Shortly before July 8th (because they don’t time their transactions around Dick Monfort soundbytes), the Diamondbacks started making moves with their major league roster. Ditching former closer J.J. Putz in the middle of June, they flipped Brandon McCarthy, Joe Thatcher, Tony Campana and Cesar Carrasco in a three day stretch from July 5th through July 7th. On the day of the trading deadline, they were sixteen games out of first place and eleven games behind the wild card. Deciding to take their ball and go home, they dispatched Martin Prado and Gerardo Parra at the trade deadline.

Summary: In the middle of a losing season, they traded away their starting third baseman, their starting outfielder, one of their best starting pitchers and a bunch of parts not to mention rebuilding their front office.

Astros (38-54 on July 8th, 20-25 since July 8th, 58-79 now): On July 8th, they were 20 games out of first place and a game behind the Texas Rangers for the worst record in the American league, thanks to an additional two losses. Channeling the Pittsburgh Pirates, they tore down their major league roster over the last few years, trading any nominal vet worth a package of peanuts for a grade B prospect (unless they could get better). Though they had the number one pick in the draft this year as they have had for the last few years, they still remained busy finding little pieces, scooping up a whopping 25 minor league free agents over that same Tony LaRussa time frame. They also promoted Jon Singleton to join with George Springer as graduates of their top rated farm system. Though the Rockies at one point tried to acquire Jarred Cosart, the Astros liked the position player depth that the Marlins anted up. They’re now ahead of the Rangers in the AL West.

Summary: They knew they were going to lose and though they didn’t do many trades, they did do one big trade and sent off one of their more valuable chips because, well, they got a lot of value back. Meanwhile, not satisfied with just grabbing elite young talent, they kept picking up minor league free agents.

Cubs (38-51 on July 8th, 23-23 since then, 61-74 now): The Cubs have been less lovable losers in recent seasons though Theo Epstein laid all his cards on the table as Rany Jazayerli. Trading every usable major league part for prospects in a teardown reminiscent of the Pirates and Astros, they took what they could get. The Cubs started the season with former Rangers prospect Mike Olt at third base, a dude who had solid secondary skills but in the majors made a poor showing of a primary skill, which for most hitters, involves putting the bat on the ball. However, unlike past Cubs hot prospects, when he failed, others in their system were able to step up, including Javier Baez and Jorge Soler who made their long-anticipated debuts on the heels of international free agent Armismendy Alcantara’s debut. Thus, Cubs fans are starting to enjoy the Cubs again and can even glimpse the foundation of “sustained winning” that Theo had preached, even if the results haven’t showed up yet in 2014. The Cubs were slow in the minor league free agent market, signing only seven during the TLR timeframe. However, you have a few familiar names such as Yorvit Torrealba and player-turned-player-coach Manny Ramirez. But as Rany noted in his article, the Cubs have done a good job at fixing other people’s castoffs and picked up Felix Doubront and, in recent days, picked up the aforeRanymentioned Jacob Turner for next to nothing. Oh yeah, they also kept flipping more players for prospects, including former Rockies hopeful (but maybe not at that price) Jeff Samardzija. They also flipped Jason Hammel who was one of those fixed castoffs from quite a few teams (including the Rockies).

Summary: Like the Astros, knowing they were going to lose, they stayed on plan which included trading their prime veterans for value while watching the young parts of the plan bear fruit. Meanwhile, they continue to acquire talent that they can keep recycling.

Rangers (38-52 on July 8th, 15-30 since then, 53-82 now): Ten minor league free agents during that TLR measuring stick, placing them above the Cubs and Rockies. Their July activity consisted of two trades, letting two relievers they acquired in 2013, Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor, depart for teams with better records. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same roster that they fielded in 2012 with the key departures of Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler and the additions of Shin Soo-Choo and Yu Darvish. That roster, two years older, now has the worst record in the American League and is only one game better than the 54-81 Rockies.

Summary: Beset by injuries, the Rangers have stood pat assuming they will return to contention in 2015.

Rockies (38-53 on July 8th, 16-28 since then, 54-81 now): While the Diamondbacks redesigned their front office and the Astros and Cubs kept making minor and major league movies, they signed nine minor league free agents during the “TLR period” and that’s about it. No deadline trades were consumated.

Summary: Beset by injuries, the Rockies have stood pat assuming they will return to contention in 2015.

In other words, since I already used the same words, of the five teams that were doing poorly in 2014 when Dick Monfort gave those interviews to the Denver Post, the Rockies plan of action has been less active than the Texas Rangers. Now, a win-loss record, a count of trades and minor league free agents using some amorphous Tony LaRussa time period isn’t the best measuring stick in the world. However, if one of the arguments about the Rockies being unsuccessful in 2014 is because of injury, then it makes sense to think that either some of the free minor league talent and/or some kind of transaction could have been done to plug those gaps. Aside from a few Jair Jurrjens non-quality starts (since Capuano was promptly sold to the Yankees), the Rockies have spent 2014 plugging the holes internally.

So the Rockies think they are contenders in 2015. We know the Astros and Cubs don’t think they are contenders in 2015. We don’t know what LaRussa’s plans are or how much they would differ from past Diamondbacks exploits, so let’s compare the Rockies situation with the Rangers to see if there is something compelling about comparing losing.

Let’s step back in time a little to the Rangers at the end of the 2012 season. On August 13th 2012, they were 67-47, 6 games in front of Oakland. As late as September 24th, 2012, they were 5 games above Oakland. Then, they fell, and fell hard, ending the season one game behind Oakland and were “rewarded” with a one game bounce out of the wild card. 2013 was a similar story as an early lead whittled away until they lost a one game playoff for a wild card tiebreaker in 2013, representing the downswing of their minor 2010-2011 mini-dynasty. As I indicated earlier, their basic roster between then and now is basically the same. Since 2012, the only move that has paid off has been signing Yu Darvish though they probably don’t regret letting Josh Hamilton walk either. Nelson Cruz broke form by missing games due to suspension instead of injury. Their prime offseason acquisition in 2014, Prince Fielder, got nicked (necked?). Their secondary offseason acquisition, Shin-Soo Choo is kinda getting on base for a hefty initial price of $14 million a year which escalates to $20 million by 2016. Alex Rios has morphed from erratic bouts of brilliance and balderdash to a diminishing older fogey. Jurickson Profar, the Rangers’ hot second base prospect who was supposed to replace Kinsler in 2014 (who was replaced to acquire Fielder’s bat but apparently wasn’t worthy enough to include his neck), is out for the year. Only Adrian Beltre, acquired in 2011, has remained solid.

As far as the roster in general goes, the Rangers have used 59 players and 36 pitchers in games this year. As much as the Rockies have been bit by injuries this year, they’ve only used 48 players and 26 pitchers. By a strict player count, the Rockies are sixth in the league in players used, behind teams with winning records such as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. On the age side of thing, the average age of Rockies hitters, as weighted by at-bats, is the fifth youngest in the league with 27.4, good for fifth in the league. Texas? 20th in the league at 28.8. Oh and those Astros are first at 25.7 and the Cubs third at 27.1.

The Rangers are paying for that losing too, with a payroll of $122.5 million according to Baseball-Reference. Five players make over $10 million: Fielder ($24 million), Beltre ($17 million), Choo ($14 million), Rios ($12.5 million), and Darvish ($10 million). Those five players account for 63% of the Rangers payroll with Beltre providing the most value in terms of WAR as calculated by Baseball Reference. He’s provided 5.8 WAR while Fielder’s been out, and Choo (-0.1) and Rios (0.1) have been at replacement level. On the pitching side of things, Darvish has earned his keep with 3.6 WAR though he has not pitched since August 9th and might not pitch again this season.

At a payroll of $90.4 million, the Rockies nonetheless have four players making over $10 million: Tulowitzki ($16 million), De La Rosa ($11 million), Gonzalez ($10.5 million) and Cuddyer ($10.5 million). Those players account for 53% of the payroll… but the Rockies have gotten more bang for their buck in terms of WAR, primarily because of Tulowitzki (5.6) but De La Rosa has also chipped in 1.7 WAR and Cuddyer’s also added 0.8 WAR. CarGo’s detracted with a -0.6 WAR.

In comparing the farm systems, before the 2014 offseason, the Rangers and Rockies were ranked similarly by Baseball Prospectus at 9th and 10th in the league respectively. Meanwhile the Cubs were 2nd and the Astros 5th. Things are drearier for the Diamondbacks at 15th but since LaRussa is new to the job, it is too early to evaluate him on that aspect yet. Furthermore, with Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray’s issues coupled with all the promotions in 2014 that didn’t pan out (with the exception of Tyler Matzek) the Rockies rankings might have fallen farther in 2014.

In terms of front office changes, the Rangers did little during the 2013-2014 offseason, except subtract as Nolan Ryan stepped down. On that note, he’s now with the aforementioned Astros who, as said before, are sporting a better record than the Rangers.

Overall while things have gone poorly for the Rockies, matters have been much worse for the Rangers than for the Rockies who have older major league players, have run through more players 2014 and gotten less bang for their buck for the players they do have. Yet neither team has done much to address their depth or talent issues in terms of trades or even acquiring minor league free agents, much less restructuring the front office. For teams like the Rangers and Rockies, this problem gets exacerbated as people are released from the organization to make room for more bodies on the 40 man roster. While things might not be as ominous in 2015 for the Rockies as it would be for the Rangers, the lack of activity, daresay, complacency, is troubling. Without some return to hot prospect status from Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray, suggests that while the Rockies should experience a little deadcat bounce upwards in the standings, the idea that the Rockies are contenders in 2015 is problematic, especially when, unlike other losing teams, they don’t have an elite farm system to hang their hopes on nor have done any transactions to address the issues.

About Richard Bergstrom

Originally from Chicago and after an extensive tour of most of the western United States, this is my second stint in Denver. I’ve lived here since 2004 and go to quite a few Rockies games, especially Rockies fireworks games! When I’m not writing about baseball, I enjoy karaoke downtown, a bit of poker and a bit too much of my iPad.

3 Comments on Comparing Losing

  1. I think the Rockies paralysis is more troubling/indicative than the Rangers because of the nature of what their respective injuries revealed and the rumors about how that will affect their offseason. Rangers started out the season as reasonable contenders – and were hammered by long-term injuries to core players in spring training. The Rockies started out the season as merely deluded about their chances (reinforced by an April that extended their delusion into May). Comparing purely ‘numbers of injury-replacement players used’ is not really right. What also needs to be compared is ‘reasonably expectable WAR that needs replacing’. The Rangers ‘injury replacement frenzy’ was a lot of low-probability individual outcomes (bench players who can replace Holland, Kinsler/Profar, Fielder for an entire year) that requires throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall and assuming most of it won’t stick. The Rockies ‘injury replacement frenzy’ was a statistical outlier – but at core it was far more predictable and an essential part of the FO job. Tulo/Cargo/Anderson are known high injury risks. Cuddy’s shoulder was self-inflicted by a FO that chose not to have a backup 3B on the roster – and hammy was self-inflicted by rushing him back in pointless panic. A 200IP Chacin should have only been ‘expected’ to deliver 140 IP this year. And most of the other injuries are to marginal players which should be pretty high probability individual events – assuming a FO has built a AAA team that is full of competent ballplayers who are itching for the opportunity to be a replacement or 1WAR player at the MLB level.

    Next year? The Rangers marginal components (bullpen/farm/bench) delivered OK. They’ll get their core back – they are still old and need SP – but basically they will truly be able to write off 2014 as an injury fluke. I can easily put together and envision a competitive 25-man roster for next year for them. And as evidence, the guy in charge of their farm system is now the GM of the Padres.

    And us? Our core is still injury-risk. Our bullpen not only failed to deliver a bit extra; they massively regressed and can only be seen as an unquenchable dumpster fire. Our bench delivered Dickerson and the farm delivered Matzek but other than that it was a huge less than nothing. I don’t see more than 15-18 current-MLB-level players in our system for next year. We seem to have no plan to get to the required minimum 25-man roster – we remain deluded about being ‘contenders’ – we reject all actions required to ‘rebuild’ – and the rumors (signing Cuddy, exercising option for Anderson, QO’ing JdLR) are quite simply insane. And I seriously doubt anyone in our FO has the remotest chance of getting a meaningful non-janitorial job with any other MLB team. And it is a real safe bet that no significant decision-maker will be fired either.

    So the offseason holds yet more delusion and blowing smoke up fans butts about how ‘our great farm system’ will save us.

  2. Jfree,

    While I can agree that the Rangers thought themselves as contenders coming into 2014, there is a heck of a lot that needs to change for them to leapfrog the A’s, Angels, Mariners and Astros and I don’t think a return to health will accomplish that 30 game swing in the standings. Sure they’ll gain about 10 or so and the rest of the AL West should go down a game or two, but similar to the Rockies where even the healthy players have underperformed, things need to change for the Rangers… but like the Rockies, they’ve stood pat.

  3. At core I don’t disagree that the Rangers aren’t as ‘contending’ as they might think – in a tough division – where in all likelihood they don’t do ‘aging fixed-contract payroll’ as well as say the Yankees do.

    But while the Rangers/Rockies are both ‘contending’ for the #1 draft pick next year, I don’t see any chance that the Rangers will also ‘contend’ for the #1 draft pick in 2016 as well. We can’t even contend in the weakest division – not even with the two other teams that are just now making the decision to tear-down-and-rebuild. I find it difficult to see how the Rockies won’t be contending to be the ‘worst team in baseball’ next year as well (along with maybe Phillies/Padres – Phillies being a more-deluded next-year version of the Rangers and the Padres/Diamondbacks in full tear-down-and-rebuild now).

    Considering also that we have now had multiple years of bad results (ie good draft picks), our farm system is truly NOT delivering anything beyond hype/BS. Our HS/Latin guys are doing well in A-ball (generally considered comparable to a low/mid-level NCAA program – but not a big NCAA program). Our college/bigbonus$ are still in AA and not exactly pounding the doors down (average results at that level is really not what should be expected from multiple years of well-above-average draft spending). Apart from that – utter crap.

    Our draft comparables for those years? Cubs are on the verge of complete MLB overhaul and infusion from farm. Twins/Astros/Mets are about 6 months behind the Cubs. Mariners/Pirates/Royals/Indians/Marlins/Orioles are already contending again (or at least flirting with .500 – which is better than we can even dream of or achieve with the current FO). IOW – among our draft comparables, we are clearly in last place in ‘delivered’ – or even near-term (2015/2016) ‘expectable’.

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