The 2013 White Sox are engaged in a dogfight with the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros for the worst record in all of baseball and the right to likely draft the next young phenom pitcher Carlos Rodon. They came into the season with the 28th ranked farm system by the two sources I tend to respect the most when it comes to such matters. Things aren't exactly looking the best. Yes, Chris Sale is becoming one of the elite pitchers in the game but it's hard to find anything else to get terribly excited about.
The rather anticlimactic trade deadline and numerous talking heads got me to thinking: do the White Sox really have the worst future outlook of all 30 teams? While they look to be at the bottom of the AL Central for the next season and a half at least (the Twins farm system is so much better that it's not even close), I just don't see them being the most screwed team. So for the purposes of this post, I went and chose each division's team about to entire their darkest timeline. The six teams are the Toronto Blue Jays, the Chicago White Sox, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the San Francisco Giants. Arguments could be made for other choices, but I feel like these are the bottom six.
Of the three American League teams, the Blue Jays were probably expected to have the best record. They added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Melky Cabrera, and Josh Johnson to what had already been a pretty strong nucleus. The payroll crossed the $100MM threshold for the first time in franchise history, coming in $22MM ahead of the previous franchise record of $97MM. On paper, this should have been a team contending for a wild card berth at worst.
So what went wrong? Jose Reyes resumed his nasty habit of playing very well but showing tremendous vulnerability to Earth's yellow sun. Melky Cabrera turned into the kind of hitter people who don't know a lot about science think someone going of PEDs magically turns into. The three starting pitchers they traded for have ranged in effectiveness from average (Buehrle, 98 ERA+) to disappointing (Dickey, 90 ERA+) to horribad (Johnson, 69 ERA+). Add in bad seasons from Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Brandon Morrow, and others and you have a 50-57 team in the hardest division in baseball.
Why do things look so bad? The Blue Jays have the misfortune of playing in the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox have the ability and resources to not stay down very long when they occasionally do hit the floor. The Rays are very well run and have a farm system that never seems to run out of prospects. The Orioles have a young core that is relatively cheap for the near future. Before arbitration, the Jays already have $110MM committed to payroll in 2014 and $91.2MM committed for 2015. That does not leave a lot of wiggle room. The farm system was one of the best in baseball but then the team decided to go for it and traded away most of the top young talent. There's the chance that all the major league talent could bounce back next year, but we're talking mostly about guys on the wrong side of the aging curve.
Other than losing A.J. Pierzynski and the half-season of Kevin Youkilis, the 2012 team that almost held off the Tigers was coming back almost completely intact. Chris Sale should show improvement along with last season's most pleasant surprise, Jose Quintana. Alex Rios and Adam Dunn seem to have shaken off their terrible 2011 slumps and returned to being good baseball players. Dayan Viciedo had a promising 25 homerun season and could grow into a middle of the order presence.
Well, that didn't quite go as expected. Sale and Quintana both held their ends up and then some, but Rios turned into an average hitter and Dunn is but a revenant of the fearsome slugger he once was. Paul Konerko's age ultimately caught up with him, Viciedo backslid, and pretty much every hitter failed to show up. Gavin Floyd blew out his elbow shortly before John Danks returned from his shoulder injury to pitch somewhat disappointingly. Things have just been bad.
But there is good news amongst the bad. The Jake Peavy trade freed up money, though the free agent market is nothing impressive and not at all like what it used to be. The Sox pre-arb payrolls for the next two seasons are $61.3MM and $37.3MM. Those aren't insurmountable figures and the 2014 total has a non-zero chance of going down with Rios disappearing. The farm system is still in the bottom third of the league, but it is improving. 2014 is going to suck, there's very little chance of it not sucking. But after that? Things could get better fairly quickly, especially with a strong 2014 draft.
The Angels barely missed out on the playoffs last season and had one of the most exciting rookie seasons anyone had ever seen. They magically managed to get out of the Vernon Wells contract while signing away one of their main rivals best hitters (Josh Hamilton). Sure, the A's and the Rangers would be tough but the Angels should be in the thick of it come September.
Except they aren't. And at 48-58, they aren't even close to pretending. Other than Jered Weaver, the pitching rotation has been pretty lackluster. C.J Wilson is being paid $11.5MM to be somewhat above league average. And the hitting. Dear lord, the hitting. Mike Trout has continued to be godlike. Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick are having pretty nice seasons as well. That's it. Albert Pujols is hitting just as well as Trumbo, whom he makes $15.5MM more than. And is DHing. Hamilton has recovered from a terribly bad start to be almost a league average hitter who currently makes $17.4MM.
I'm actually struggling for words trying to phrase how bad things are about to get for Anaheim. Three of their four most expensive players' salaries will continue to go up through 2016, despite the youngest of those three being 31-years-old. Pre-arbitration payrolls for the next three seasons? $126.5MM, $111.7MM, and $106.9. They tried to buy their way to a championship and it is going down like the Hindenburg and the Edmund Fitzgerald's lovechild. Throw in a farm system generally seen as even worse than our own and this tale has about as happy of an ending as Requiem for a Dream.
I don't really have anything good to write about the Phillies here. They won 102 games two seasons ago with a similar squad? Yeah, but they were a .500 club last year. Ruben Amaro doesn't seem to wholly understand this whole baseball team building thing. Dominic Brown should still be exciting? Chase Utley, though old, should still be a great second baseman? The pitching staff is composed of former All-Stars? Dammit Philadelphia, stop making this hard.
Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Brown, and Utley went right. Amaro signed Delmon Young and traded for Michael Young. To play. On a National League team. They deserve all of this. The non-Lee portion of the starting rotation fell apart/aged/broke/turned into garbage. For whatever reason, this did not lead to them selling off any parts. Ryan Howard continues to get paid like the 4+ WAR player that he hasn't been since 2009.
While none of the teams in the NL East are particularly fantastic, only the Nationals farm system is as weak but Washington has younger talent in the majors. Only three regular members of the starting lineup are younger than 32, and one of them is the aforementioned Delmon Young. The pitching rotation is also old and expensive. There aren't many impact prospects coming up and this is a group owed $104.5MM and $86.5MM over the next two years.
The Brewers came into the season with the chance at procuring the first three year winning streak in Milwaukee since the early 80s. Perennial MVP-candidate Ryan Braun is still in his prime. Carlos Gomez may have finally made good on his top prospect pedigree. Yovani Gallardo might not be an ace, but he's a pretty good pitcher anyways and surely they won't finish below the openly-rebuilding Cubs.
But then Braun was lost to the year for PEDs. And Gallardo pitched poorly and got hurt. Only Kyle Lohse pitched well for the starters, and he's too old to really matter. Combining a below-average offense with the NL's second worst pitching staff turned out to be a horrible strategy. Who knew?
The Brewers are in a different sort of quagmire than the other five teams in this exercise. Those teams play in large markets and possess, or at one time possessed, the ability to throw wild money at free agents. Milwaukee doesn't and can't. Their pre-arb payroll of $73.8MM for next season puts them $15MM below their current salary and is more likely to be up near $80 after arbitration. That doesn't really leave much wiggle room to buy a better 2014. 2015 is more manageable at $39.1MM, but the collapse will have happened. The farm system is in the bottom ten and all but devoid of impact talent. The Brewers might just be the next small market weakling for the next few seasons.
Sure the Dodgers have their own printing press now, but c'mon man. The Giants have won two of the last three World Series! That counts for many things! Buster Posey is one of the best catchers in the game. Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, and Hunter Pence are all solid contributors who should form a good offensive core. The young pitching has matured into dominant tossers in their primes.
About that... Posey and the hitters have been doing just fine. Posey himself has been amazing. The pitching staff other than Madison Bumgarner, however, has been terrible. Tim Lincecum looks cooked. Barry Zito is Barry Zito. Ryan Vogelsong lost whatever magic he had last season. Even Matt Cain has been scuffling. When Chad Gaudin is your second most valuable pitcher, you're not having a good year.
Flags fly forever, so fans might be more okay with what's about to happen on the Bay. The farm system is okayish, but only seems to contain pitchers of any renown and we all know about pitching prospects. The offense is below average with no help on the way from the minors. The pre-arb payrolls for the next two years are $84.5MM and $73MM, which aren't terrible on a team that just spent $136MM to finish fifth in their division, but aren't too helpful. This could be a moderate turnaround if they could just get some damn pitching and one more impact bat.
Sox fans under the age of 30 likely have no memories of the last time the franchise suffered through consecutive losing seasons. This will be the first time it's happened since 1988 and 1989. The awful stretch from 86-89 helped to restock the farm system and lead to the strong 90's clubs. I don't think the Sox will take as long to rebuild this time. And even if they do, there are worse situations to be in. They could be the Angels.