Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have broken their losing streak, their postseason drought, and have the pitching to be a winning team for the near future, a spectacular question hovers over the baseball world:
Which team is now the loser of Major League Baseball?
I know: I’m mean. But it is fun to ponder what club gets the distinction of being the best at being the worst. It really is an art form sometimes to be that bad; how else did the Houston Astros set a Major League record for strikeouts in a season? It’s practically a championship.
But the Pirates were the easy choice as the sorry bunch for years. No playoff appearance since 1992; 20 consecutive losing seasons, a North American sports record; late-season collapses the last two years that prevented them from getting win number 82 – the Pirates were historically bad, so how could they have not been the losers? Sure, they may have not had the worst record in the Majors every season during that span, but at least most of those other teams had a postseason berth, and all had at least one winning season.
It would be easy to have the Kansas City Royals succeed the role: They haven’t made the postseason since they won the World Series in 1985, the longest playoff drought by far. But the Royals nearly made the playoffs this year, posting one of their better seasons in years. A pitching staff that allowed only 601 runs, a Craig Kimbrel-level closer in Greg Holland, and one of the better defenses in baseball led the Royals to compete for a postseason spot deep into September, something they haven’t been able to say in decades. More importantly, though, the Royals have the talent lined up to win next year, as they still have the bulk of their vigor in a weak American League Central.
So, what team has the greatest shame? Cubs, Mariners, Marlins, Padres, and Mets are all tempting choices, clubs with consecutive losing seasons and mildly-lengthy playoff droughts. No division title, no pennant, and no World Series title in 105 years are all cringe-worthy, nearly as bad as the Pirates’ 20 straight sub-.500 years.
But the discussion really comes down to two teams. You can easily guess one; the other one is so irrelevant that they fall out of talks: The Houston Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Many would automatically state that Houston is clearly the losers of MLB right now, on a level of horrid play that outshines even the Miami Marlins. At points in the last three seasons, the Astros truly did look like they would challenge the Mets’ 120 losses in 1962 for the modern MLB record of futility. The straightaway examination shows that they have set franchise records for losses each of the last three years. They kept consistent in 2011 and 2012, giving up a nasty 796 and 794 runs, respectively, and surrendered 848 runs this past season, which also would have been a franchise record, if it wasn’t for the peculiar 2000 Astros that posted a -6 run differential, but gave up 944 runs. A team batting average of .240, an on-base percentage of .299, and the yikes-is-that-even-a-Major-League-team? .375 slugging percentage round out the easy answer for the worst 2013 team.
But as bad as all of that is, the Blue Jays have been miserable for longer, including this year. It’s been two decades since Canada has had postseason baseball, one of the worst droughts in the game, and they have had next-to-no-hope the entire time and for the future, unlike the Royals. Since Joe Carter walked off the 1993 World Series, the Jays’ best divisional finish was in 2006 when they placed second in the American League East – only games and games behind the New York Yankees, who were tied for the best record in the Majors. That is why the Blue Jays’ big-spending 2012 off season was so shocking; the Jays actually tried to make big moves and made spectators realize that they could try to win. But then this season, the Blue Jays’ greatest aspirations in two decades were dashed early in the season, as their pool of talent that should have won the American League East was battered and underperformed. That’s cruel after so long without success.
But there can only be one – and it is the Blue Jays.
Proof? The Astros may have played in the easier National League while the Blue Jays have gotten beaten around in the AL East, but Houston have actually made the postseason at least once since 1993; six times, to be exact, even pushing the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in 2004 and then winning the pennant a year later. Even for a non-AL East team, that sounds much better than zero playoff appearances. 11 of the last 20 years, the Astros have given up at least 700 runs; the Blue Jays have 16 instances. And in the great test of ineffectiveness, over the last 20 years the Astros have had nine losing seasons; the Blue Jays have had 11. To put that into perspective, only the Royals’ 17 losing seasons over the past 20 seasons have been worse.
While the ‘Stros have not won a World Series, and only have a single pennant to their name, they have at least done something since 1993. They have had a dominant period in the last two decades, while the Blue Jays do not. From 1993 to 2005, with the exception of the 2000 season, the Astros competed every year. The Blue Jays, however, have gone so under the radar because they haven’t even had promising players for the most part. Outside of recent years, the Jays have had almost no outstanding players. Rogers Clemens had a brief strong stay in Toronto, and so did Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells, but Roy Halladay, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, have been Canada’s only significant stars since the last Toronto Fall Classic. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Mike Hampton, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Roger Clemens, and Michael Bourn, though, color the last 20 Astros teams
This past year was particularly telling of how unremarkable the Blue Jays are. After a huge winter in which they rolled in so many stars – R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle – Toronto still failed to make the postseason, even though most of the AL East scaled back. The Yankees were decimated by injuries and couldn’t hit homeruns, the Baltimore Orioles didn’t have much pitching, and the Tampa Bay Rays were up and down until the very end. Even before the season began, the Boston Red Sox looked like they would only be middle-of-the-pack. On paper, the Blue Jays were supposed to win. Their rotation was killer, with Dickey, Johnson, Brandon Morrow, and Buehrle up top, making one of the best rotations by names in the league. And their offense, while still not great run producers, had enough pop to get by because of the pitching. It was a team that looked like it would compete with the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for a spot in the World Series. Then it all shattered for John Gibbons’s club, as they finished 14 games under .500 – bad for even the AL East – posted a run differential of -44, and, besides a winning streak in the early going, had their aspirations maimed by the end of April. Failing so grandly after a massive off season just made them look like even bigger losers. There’s hardly no worse feeling as a club than when you amp up your team to great heights, have pitching depth, and see your competition that was overbearing for years rescind their spending and might – and then you tank early. It was the ultimate argument of the Blue Jays’ inability to be an elite team, the same problem they have had for 20 years, longer than any other club besides the Royals.
What really sets the Blue Jays apart, though, is that postseason drought. While Kansas City’s is longer, they will break through soon; the Jays still have yet to prove that they can win. Having a good team on paper just doesn’t seem to work for Toronto. Yes, they were hampered by injuries early, but both Dickey and Buehrle, two of their top pitchers coming into the year, were there the whole season and still couldn’t anchor the team, posting WHIPs above 1.2. While their starting pitchers were there, the Monday-through-Sunday arms, the arrow of the Jays, were stupendously bad, most of whom simply couldn’t stay in the rotation because they didn’t pitch well. So, with so many stars, the Blue Jays have to demonstrate that they can get them to win together, in order to play in October, while Dickey and Buehrle are older, and the offense gets on base but doesn’t drive the runners home. 20 years without a playoff appearance and nothing solid and concrete for 2014 and beyond to show? That’s depressing. Playoffs is key. You can give your fans so much hope if you at least just make October; just ask the Orioles and Oakland Athletics’ fans. You could have 10 straight winning seasons, but if your supporters don’t see some October baseball, they know there’s absolutely no chance to bring home a championship. That’s what the Blue Jays have missed over the last two decades: even a chance to bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy. Anything can happen in October; truly, anyone can win when there are so few games. Get in, get hot, and have a parade; the playoffs are that dependant on luck. And maybe one of the few possible guaranteed helpers in the postseason? Good starting pitching, which Toronto is supposed to have. If a team can’t even do that once in 20 years, that’s about as good of an indicator that they haven’t been managed right, dugout to front office. Even teams that aren’t expected to win can get into the postseason by utilizing the apt baseball mind tools, finding the right valued players; just ask the Orioles and Oakland Athletics’ fans.
Being the worst team in baseball is an art. It sometimes means hitting the fiscal bottom line with a positive mark but failing with the mad people bottom line, or just hitting the bottom-bottom with no sparkle of hope at all. From bad drafting, to injuries, to not understanding the market, to not understanding baseball, to not thinking ahead of your opponents, and, yes, to a lack of good fortune, unsuccessful management often plagues any sports team. And it really comes down to who makes the decisions. Being the worst team in any sport means you meet the grime with prowess; it has nothing to do with one bad season. A transient wave of first-round picks means nothing; the Indianapolis Colts are proof of that. One bad year means little to anyone other than those who have to count the bills. Wasted seasons come and go, but being bad could last forever, if no one grows any brains. That’s why you have to think about designating even more shame to the Toronto Blue Jays as the worst club, and why up until now the Pirates were so clearly the worst: being a bad baseball team stretches beyond having the worst record in MLB for one year. It’s about planning your National Football League parties three months early. It’s about sustained years of having one of the worst run differentials in the league. It’s about not even being to think “This is our year!” when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. It’s about making your farm system look childish for two decades. It’s about how depressing you are inside; and how quantitatively laughable you are outside. It’s not easy to do all that for 20 straight years, being the “best” of the worst. Yes, Toronto Blue Jays, if there was an award for the worst Major League Baseball team, it would be yours. Win?