Why Are This Year’s Worst Teams So Bad?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve had depth on my mind a lot recently. That’s because a lot of us here at FanGraphs have, and it’s turned into some pretty cool work that I previewed last week. That’s probably the last you’ll hear about that little project for a bit while we keep refining it and trying to figure out how to use the general concept in different ways. But there was one takeaway in the comments section that I found pretty amazing and I’m going to riff on it today because hey, it’s still early March and baseball news is in short supply.

Remove the top 10 players from 28 teams in baseball – all but the Rockies and Nationals – and look at every team’s winning percentage against neutral opposition. The Rockies are projected 29th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the White-Sox-Minus-10s. The Nationals, meanwhile, are 27th, ahead of just the Angels-Minus-10s and then those Rockies and the Pale-Hose-Minus-10s.

That just sounds wrong. Remove the Mets’ best 10 players, to pick a so-so divisional rival for one of our benighted franchises, and their best remaining player would be either Brett Baty or Luis Severino, both projected for 1.6 WAR. Again, that’s their best player in this hypothetical world. And we have them down as a .425 team. We think the Nats are at .408 at full strength! It’s truly hard to wrap your head around how that could be possible.

That said, I think I might have found a way. It doesn’t involve any fancy algorithms or code you can’t see. It won’t fix our playoff odds. But it made this puzzle make sense in my head, so maybe it will for you as well. To figure out what the poor projections for the Nats and Rockies meant in context, I downloaded a great big list of the 2024 projections for every player in baseball. I removed relievers, for reasons that will become clear. Then I ordered them in terms of WAR per full-ish season.

What’s a full-ish season? I defined it as 600 plate appearances (540 for catchers) or 175 innings pitched. Seventy-four batters and 31 pitchers reached those milestones in 2023; Bryce Elder fell one out short of being the 32nd pitcher in the group. That’s a reasonable split between the two groups, as far as I’m concerned; roughly twice as many full-time batters as full-time pitchers makes sense given a five-pitcher staff and a nine-hitter lineup. Those are full-ish workloads, to me, and in any case this is a pretty hypothetical article so just go with me on this.

So how did they stack up? Ronald Acuña Jr. is first. Aaron Judge is second. Jacob deGrom is third – remember, this is based on playing a full season. It’s a list of the best players in baseball when healthy, in other words. The weirdest name in the top 25 is Patrick Bailey (25th), who has some absolutely gaudy defensive numbers; he’s projected for more defensive value than anyone in baseball accrued last year, period. That sounds kind of weird, and maybe that’s a question for our projections, but here’s the point: aside from some potentially sketchy catcher defense calculations, this method is straightforward and passes the sniff test.

The top 100 players, by this metric, are the kinds of guys who make teams great. Why do the Braves rock? Because they have seven of the top 50 guys and another two in the top 100. The Dodgers? They have 10 in the top 100, and they’re only behind the Braves when it comes to players in the top 50 by a single guy. After that are a bunch of American League contenders that look great at full strength – the Yankees, Blue Jays, Astros, Twins, and Mariners. The Rangers and Phillies only have four top-100 players, but Texas has three in the top 50 and Philadelphia has four.

The teams that don’t do as well on this list aren’t there for a lack of trying. Everyone is interested in drafting, developing, or acquiring top players, obviously. It’s hard to get your own, though, because the Braves and Dodgers are hogging them. Take away the 19 studs those two teams boast, and there are fewer than three per remaining team. I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say that these tremendous players are really important to roster building.

This article isn’t about those great teams, though. It’s about the other side of the league, the teams that are so bad that our projections like them even less than severely injury-compromised squads. Obviously, the Nationals and Rockies don’t have anyone in the top 100. But they’re not alone there; neither do the Pirates or the A’s. The Red Sox, Royals, Tigers, Angels, and Cardinals each only have one such player (it’s Nolan Arenado on the Cardinals, if you’re curious). “We don’t have any stars” isn’t great, but it’s not something unique to Coors or Nationals Park.

No, the Nats and Rockies stand out because they don’t have anyone in that next tier either, players 100-200. The Braves and Dodgers don’t do nearly as well in this category. In fact, Atlanta doesn’t have a single player between 101 and 200. Los Angeles has only two. Meanwhile, other contending teams load up here. The Cardinals lead all of baseball with eight, which (along with a weak division) is why they’re playoff favorites despite a lackluster top end. The Angels and Red Sox each have six.

Combine those two groups into the aggregate top 200, and you start to get an idea of which teams have playoff-caliber starting lineups. If you can get eight players in the top 200 of baseball, that might look like five excellent position players and three above-average starters. It might be a dominant rotation, or a mashing lineup. The worst team with at least eight top-200 players is the Mets, and while they’re certainly still the Mets, their squad looks fairly solid. The worst playoff odds among the other 12 teams to hit that mark belong to the Rangers at 37.5%, and they’re severely affected by injury in a way that this playing time-neutral idea doesn’t pick up.

Still, we haven’t gotten to what’s making the Nats and Rockies so bad relative to their peers. You won’t make the playoffs if your team’s best players are mostly in the 201-300 region, but those guys can be useful role players or luxury backups. You probably have an intuitive sense of who these sorts of players are and which teams they play for without me having to tell you. The Cardinals rank first again; they’ve always been amazing at building this type of roster depth. The Guardians, Diamondbacks, Giants, Royals, and Tigers aren’t far behind; those teams either have a crop of young regulars coming up who haven’t broken out yet, do a good job platooning and maximizing their roster, or both.

The Tigers and Royals in particular are instructive here. Look at each of their rosters, and you won’t see much game-breaking talent. Despite that shortcoming, however, they fare much better than some similarly top-end-deficient squads, both in our standard playoff odds and particularly in our depth-aware methodology. That’s because these mid-tier players fill in a lot of the gaps, at a rate not that far behind the stars of the game. We’re talking, here, about Jack Flaherty or Michael Wacha, 298th and 303rd respectively by this methodology. That kind of depth is undeniably useful. Give one of those two guys 30 starts instead of a random minor league call-up, and you’re probably looking at two extra wins over the course of a season.

You know who could use those infusions of extra wins? Teams like the Royals and Tigers. They can’t compete on the top end, so they’re making up for it by getting more than other teams when it comes to avoiding bad performances. Would you prefer to do it Atlanta’s way, where you avoid bad performances by giving playing time to bona fide stars? Of course you would. But not everyone can do that, and teams that are trying to be competitive have to avoid those performances somehow.

Not every team is built this way, however. The White Sox have only five players among the top 300. The A’s only have four. The Rockies have a measly three – Nolan Jones, Ryan McMahon, and Ryan Feltner, a projection darling (relatively speaking) with a career ERA over six. The Nationals somehow have only two – CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore. These teams not only aren’t in playoff position, they aren’t trying to pretend they’re in playoff position by raising the floors of some of their weaker positions. There are no Michael Wachas to be found on these rosters.

In a nutshell, I think that’s what my fun fact from up above – how bad the Rockies and Nationals fare relative to injured opposition – is really saying. Teams trying to make the playoffs, whether they’re dominant squads like the Braves or challengers like the Tigers, have a healthy spread of useful players. Sure, you get past those guys and you’re into replacementville. But those team’s replacements are completely acceptable. Are the Royals minus their top 10 players, nine of whom are in the top 300, a great team? Absolutely not — we think they’d be awful. But they’d look a lot like the Nationals, and as it so happens, we like their depth options a bit more than Washington’s.

Not every team is going to make the playoffs this year. All but four, however, have at least made an effort to patch holes in their roster. That’s why the Nats and Rockies look so bad in our playoff odds projections. That’s why the A’s and White Sox aren’t far behind them. Say what you will about the state of competitive balance in baseball, but almost every team in baseball has enough top-300 players to field a respectable squad. Just put the emphasis on “almost.”

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 months ago

The Nationals and White Sox and are bad because they don’t develop a lot of 1-win players. It’s a straight development disaster. I have long wondered how the Nationals and White Sox can have so many uninteresting players in their systems.

The A’s have a lot of interesting players in their system ready to get a shot at the big league level but their rebuild was a disaster, with a lot of the players they got back being not even at the 1-win level. A lot of the guys they had on hand, however they got them, had serious risk of being below replacement. And in 2023 they were, and weirdly a bunch of them are still around.

The Rockies are a little different. Part of it is that they sink huge amounts of money into players who are terrible fits for the positions they want to play them at, but they do pretty well at churning out depth. It is so hard to project what goes on in Colorado. The park adjustment is so big, and the defensive metrics appear to not be able to account for the huge outfield there (or the opportunities along the infield corners), and it seems like the Rockies have such good success at home (maybe because everyone else is exhausted up there or something). I think that the players are less terrible than the projection systems think.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Speaking on behalf of the Nationals, it’s entirely related to bad player development.

They are acquiring the same kind of players as everyone else: players who are generally well regarded. Elijah Green was a consensus top 10 draft pick in 2022, and now a year later, he’s at best a 35 FV prospect. Armando Cruz was consensus top 10/20 IFA signing in 2021, and got the third largest bonus. Now two years later, he’s also at best a 35 FV. You could write the same thing about a dozen other hyped players that turned into turds after joining the Nationals organization (and these are just 1st rounders): Mason Denaburg, Seth Romero, Carter Kieboom, Erick Fedde, and large bonus IFAs (>$1m): Edwin Solano, Andy Acevedo, Andry Lara, Pablo Aldonis, Yasel Antuna.

But what’s perhaps most disturbing is how already reasonably developed prospects have almost uniformly suffered upon joining the Nats: Robert Hassell fell from being a top 50 prospect designated as “low risk” with one of the most polished bats, to struggling to hit above the Mendoza Line. Jarlina Susana stopped striking out batters, and lesser rated prospects like Donovan Casey and Gerardo Carrillo (from the Turner/Scherzer deal) are no longer even with the club 2 seasons later. The MLB-ready guys haven’t fared better. Keibert Ruiz was a top 10 prospect upon acquisition, and just posted 0.0 WAR in 2023. Josiah Gray, a former top 20 prospect, posted the worst Pitching+ (91) of any pitcher to throw at least 100 IP last season. MacKenzie Gore, another former top 10 prospect, was only marginally more effective than Gray.

Even the successful acquisitions still have some major question marks surrounding them. CJ Abrams, a former top 5 prospect, seems to have turned a corner in 2023, after posting negative WAR in 2022. But still doesn’t even feature in the top 200 players. And James Wood, the centerpiece of the Soto deal, has stoked concerns about his hit ability with a strikeout rate, which jumped after the trade, but that was always a concern. Otherwise, they appear to be bucking the wider trend.

Not all these guys mentioned should be top 200 players (much less top 100), but at least a few of them should be with their extremely highly regarded pedigrees and scouting reports!

Whatever the opposite of a Midas Touch is, the Nats have it, and what’s most galling is they don’t appear to have identified scouting and development as the source of the problem. Yes, after a decade of almost no external hires, they shifted some guys around brought in a few outsiders this offseason, but that was done amidst a wider overall reduction of scouts and development staff, so I don’t see much room for optimism.

2 months ago
Reply to  willl

Most prospects are a disappointment relative to expectations, even highly rated ones like Hassell. Maybe even more likely, because the expectations are higher. But it’s impossible to ignore the problems with depth. If you scroll down to AAA you’ll usually see a handful of players who are “interesting”, guys who will probably bust but it’s worth seeing what they can do just in case their skill set translates better to the majors than we think. Aside from Drew Millas and Jackson Rutledge I don’t think they have anyone who fits that description. Jake Alu was that sort of guy last year, I guess. And it’s not because those types are all in the majors now, half their lineup is former Quad A types they picked up from other squads, some of whom have stuck and some of whom are hoping to stick.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I was just focusing on the premium, “can’t miss” prospects, but the player development issue is pervasive from the first round picks to the 20th rounders.

Here is a complete list of all Nats draft picks which have produced >1 bWAR (unfortunately, FG doesn’t make sorting by draft picks as easy as BRef) in their careers for the Nats over the past decade:

  1. Jake Irvin (1.1 WAR)

That’s the complete list. And Irvin did that last season.

It is worth noting, however, that are at least 8 players in the same period drafted by the Nats, who either didn’t sign or were traded away and produced >1 WAR for other teams. That’s not a coincidence, as other teams know how to produce “interesting” players, even those touched by the stench of the Nats org. The Nats are incapable of it, so it’s not surprising that there are so few of these types of players in their system. It’s a fundamental player development issue. They can’t even produce AA players, nevermind AAAA ones.

Jason Bmember
2 months ago
Reply to  willl

That’s a really comprehensive look at a decade of failure that you gave us above. Thanks for putting in the (admittedly depressing, if you’re a Nats fan) work.

Old Washington Senators Fanmember
2 months ago
Reply to  willl

The Nationals made fairly significant changes to player development at the top levels, mainly bringing in two top minds from the Orioles, who excel at this.

So, it may yet foretell a change, but they are light on number of personnel and depth in this area, not unlike the team itself.

Brian Reinhartmember
2 months ago

Was that this offseason or last offseason? I thought I saw that headline last year, before this summer’s continued gloomy forecast in the minors for guys like Hassell.

2 months ago
Reply to  Brian Reinhart

You aren’t mistaken. In 2022, there was a lot of fanfare around the restructuring of the Nats’ player development set up, when they promoted De Jon Watson to head it up. The following season, they trumped up creating new player development and scouting roles.

Well, now in 2024, Watson is gone, and they’ve hired Brad Ciolek from the Orioles. And those new hires? They announced scouting cuts this offseason. So you’re not wrong to be skeptical that this year’s shake up is anything other than media spin. You can’t credibly claim to be doing things on the development side better while simultaneously cutting its budget.

2 months ago
Reply to  willl

Green always had bust all over him. Athlete first – baseball skills second. Denaburg was always lacking in health and pitchability. I think they have done some bad drafting.. but that happens to all orgs. Signing Strasburg to a long term deal was straight absurd. They let all the other vets walk. They are not really even trying to compete but how many really are?

That said, I think that they have some pretty interesting players in the farm system. But beyond that, who cares? I am sure that everyone is in the org is cashing checks. They are not going to lose the franchise. Fan articles like this are the closest thing to accountability that the wealthy people running the org will ever have to deal with. If they ever show some signs of life, then communities like this will start saying how they are getting it right. Not long ago they had a miraculous season and were brilliant. I can’t understand how anyone still cares about a team being bad – the league is full of teams not trying to compete. The business is cashing checks not putting talent on the field.

Pepper Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It is kind of insane how the White Sox got SO LITTLE return in terms of wins and postseason success on their big fire sale a few years ago, when everybody at the time thought they’d pulled off a whole bunch of stunning steals that would lead them to World Series titles. Using bWAR because it’s easier, their return on these trades got them absolutely nowhere in the standings:

Return for Chris Sale:
Yoan Moncada: 14.4 bWAR
Michael Kopech: 4.4
Luis Basabe: 0.1
Victor Diaz: 0.0

Return for Adam Eaton:
Lucas Giolito: 14.1
Reynaldo Lopez: 6.0
Dane Dunning: 0.1

Return for Jose Quintana:
Dylan Cease: 11.7
Eloy Jimenez: 5.6
Bryant Flete: 0.0
Matt Rose: 0.0

Some very valuable players! Absolutely nothing to show for it.

2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

The value from those players they acquired is truly amazing. Each trade is headlined by a 10+ WAR player in return + a nice secondary piece. The A’s would kill for this kind of return from their recent fire sale. The problem with the White Sox is they develop no one on their own and don’t spend to supplement the stars they did have.

2 months ago
Reply to  Okra

Their problem was almost everything else. It didn’t help that they picked early in some very weak drafts, but can you imagine if they had even a handful of useful players from 2018-2020? Or if they had gotten any talent out of Latin America outside of Luis Robert in the years leading up to this? If I’m not mistaken, the only two players with +1 fWAR or higher out of those three drafts are Nick Madrigal (2.7, who they traded away) and Garrett Crochet (1.5, legitimately good reliever who might not be all the way back).

2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Making the playoffs twice isn’t “nothing.” Granted, it fell short of goals, but that’s not the same as “nothing” and better than some rebuilds do.

Their problem wasn’t the fire sale, it was an inability to develop enough other players, especially ones that they drafted, and an unwillingness to spend just a little more when they were contenders.

2 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

The White Sox had $190M payrolls in 22 & 23 and still have a $150M payroll this year. They spent mainly on locking up their own top 30 prospect/top 30 trade value guys (Moncada, Robert, Jimenez, Anderson) and then added pretty good veterans like Lance Lynn, Yas Grandal, and Liam Hendriks, and not-so-good ones like Kimbrel.

I don’t think this was a managerial failure at the MLB-level. They mostly did the right things. These dudes just imploded fast and they don’t have the minor league pipeline and player development to compensate. It’s a counterfactual, but I think a team with better player development would have gotten more out of Vaughn, Jimenez, and Colas. But maybe not, I’m hard-pressed to think of any prospects outside of years-ago trades of Tatis, Semien, and Bassitt that have gone on to flourish on other teams. They just haven’t picked very many. (Maybe Christian Mena is that guy on the Diamondbacks.)

2 months ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

The Sox failed to find supporting players. They had big holes in LF, RF and 2B and basically left them unfilled by spending on RP’s instead. It literally got to the point that positions 7,8,9 were automatic outs. Grandal and Anderson faded fast last year, and there was no backup depth to them on the team or at AAA. Lynn and Giolito faded, and they were replaced after they were traded by nameless AAA pitchers who got shelled. Again, no depth.

Would the Sox have had some 100-200rd full season guys instead!

Getz is trying to replace those AAA guys with some MLB level players at various stages in their career and then building up some depth in Charlotte while the younger AA/A+ guys develop. No GM could fix the Sox in one offseason, let alone one whose owner said cut payroll. 2024 is going to be ugly. We can see that already in ST.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Im pretty sure the A’s are bad because they get rid of all their great position players and get nothing in return.

After trading Chapman, Olson, and Murphy, the best players they have in return are two 2win players in Shea Langeliers and Esteury Ruiz.

They are also cheap and let their other players walk (see marcus semien and mark canha) altough they dodged a bullet not investing in their recent good pitchers Montas and Manea.

2 months ago
Reply to  CousinNicky

There are about 5 or 6 players that the A’s let walk who, collectively had a higher fWAR than their entire team last year. Still, if they had gotten any talent back…Esteury Ruiz is basically a 4th outfielder.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

In the Nationals’ case, it’s a combination of relatively poor player development and them starting their rebuild a year too late. The same system that churned out Harper, Strasburg, Rendon, Soto, Turner, etc. is way behind the curve. Couple that with them making a bunch of win-now moves throughout the decade they were a contender, Strasburg’s disaster of a contract extension, and Patrick Corbin forgetting how to pitch competently, it’s really no wonder they’re in a very bad spot. It’s the cost of chasing down a championship. If I was a fan of the Nats I’m happy to have that ring, but it’s also been 5 years since then and they’ve yet to climb out of the bottom tier.