I have said on several occasions this year that the bad teams around the league seem worse than usual. With apologies to Baltimore and Cleveland (who are two of the three teams with the fewest wins) I believe the four most hopeless teams right now are the Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners. But how bad are they really? I thought it might be fun to combine them into one team and see how they compare to the cream of the crop. Rather than juxtapose them with the New York Yankees I think we should compare them to another "small" market team. The Tampa Bay Rays have been the best team in baseball this year anyway, so they shall be the yardstick.
I'm going to call the hybrid team the Houburgh Royiners and am going to break this down position by position.
Tampa Bay - At this point the Rays have handed their starting catching job over to John Jaso. An offense-first catcher with excellent plate discipline but not a lot of power. He's a decent player but certainly nothing special.
Houburgh - The only catcher on any of these teams that is really of Major League quality is Ryan Doumit of the Pirates. He is also offense-first like Jaso, but clearly has more power and a more established track record in the majors. Consider how completely useless the rest of the candidates are at the plate, the choice here has to be Doumit, even though he's not a great defender.
Advantage - Slight edge to Houburgh
Tampa Bay - Carlos Pena is an all or nothing hitter who has been more on the nothing end of the spectrum for the majority of the season. He gets bonus points for being solid with the glove but even factoring that in, this is clearly a weakness on the Rays roster.
Houburgh - With Seattle and Pittsburgh throwing out sub-.600 OPS guys out there every day this comes down to Billy Butler and Lance Berkman. Although it is tempting to go with the power and track record of Berkman, Butler is the clear choice at this point.
Advantage - Large edge to Houburgh
Tampa Bay - It is actually Reid Brignac, not Ben Zobrist or Sean Rodriguez who has spent the most time at second base this year. Normally a plus defensive shortstop, Brignac should be able to handle second base once he learns the position more thoroughly. Offensively he has some pop in his bat but occasionally has trouble when he gets too aggressive at the plate.
Houburgh - The Royiners do not have any second baseman that are producing right now. Jeff Keppinger has been a league average player but I think the choice here is Chone Figgins. According to UZR he has been weak defensively at second base but his speed an on base skills still make him the most attractive option.
Advantage - Slight edge to Tampa Bay (Brignac has so much more upside both offensively and defensively than Figgins I would take him... if I was including the contracts in this discussion it would not even be close.)
Tampa Bay - The Rays boast probably the best third baseman in the sport. Evan Longoria is the total package as a player and has not reached his peak yet.
Houburgh - The only decent third baseman on any of these rosters right now is the surprising Alberto Callaspo. Callaspo is a nice player with gap power and an incredible ability to make contact, but that is about the sum-total of his ability.
Advantage - Huge, massive, ridiculous edge to Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay - 2009 is looking more and more like a fluke for Jason Bartlett as he has returned to his light-hitting ways. Although he has the reputation as a top-flight defender UZR sees him as below average the last couple years and that makes him a below-average shortstop overall.
Houburgh - This is frankly embarassing. I have no idea who to take from this motley group of craptacularly awful options. Seriously, between these four teams there is not one shortstop that I would even trust at AAA right now. Let's just move on.
Advantage - Tampa Bay... surprisingly
Tampa Bay - Carl Crawford has been one of the best all around corner outfielders in four of the last five seasons and this is shaping up to be his finest season yet. He lacks power but his speed and superb defense more than make up for it.
Houburgh - It is a testament to how awful these franchises are that I'm debating between Scott Podsednik and Lastings Milledge for this spot. Normally it would be Carlos Lee but he is sporting a .239 OBP right now and has the range of Michaelangelo's David so I cannot in good conscience choose him. It doesn't matter who I choose in the end, Crawford could run circles around all these guys, literally.
Advantage - Cavernous, Shockingly gigantic edge to Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay - It would be tough to find someone more critical of B.J. Upton than me the last couple of years but he is not a useless player. He has some pop, can be dangerous on the bases and can really throw.
Houburgh - Wow! I have legitimate options! For the first time since first base I have a choice between two guys I would not be embarrassed to throw out there! Franklin Gutierrez and Andrew McCutchen are both excellent players. In a one year scenario I think I would probably take Gutierrez for his insane defense but in the long run it would be McCutchen easily.
Advantage - Large edge to Houburgh
Tampa Bay - Zobrist's bat has fallen off a bit from last year's breakout season but he remains a premier defender. He has also replaced some of his power by becoming a very efficient base-stealer. Despite some offensive drop-off Zobrist has still performed at a very high level.
Houburgh - I have always believed in Hunter Pence and David Dejesus is one of the more underrated players in the game, but the choice here is clearly Ichiro. Mr. consistency has shown no signs of slowing down yet.
Advantage - Slight edge to Houburgh
Tampa Bay - Tampa Bay has some solid bench options in Pat Burrell and Willie Aybar. Dioner Navarro is a good backup catcher and Sean Rodriguez/Hank Blalock are not bad pinch hitting options either. Overall a solid group.
Houburgh - Alex Gordon, Rick Ankiel, Mike Sweeney and Steve Pearce seem to be the best options here... along with whatever terrible catcher you want. Gordon is nice but always hurt, beyond him it is difficult to really see much of a difference between the options.
Advantage - Push
Tampa Bay - Although James Shields started on opening day I am going to list pitchers in order of quality rather than seniority and that means David Price is Tampa Bay's top pitcher. The former first overall pick has rediscovered his slider this year and is starting to fulfill on his promise.
Houburgh - I'm amazed how good my options are here. Roy Oswalt is the third best choice. I think I will choose Zack Greinke over Felix Hernandez since they are performing at similar levels, but Greinke has a significantly worse defense behind him.
Advantage - Houburgh
Tampa Bay - Matt Garza comfortably slides into the second spot for Tampa Bay. He has struggled with his control occasionally this year but has maintained an ERA just above 3.00 and can match stuff with almost anyone in baseball not named Ubaldo Jimenez.
Houburgh - The only team of the four being combined here with more than one great starter is Seattle with Cliff Lee. He may have missed time to start the season but has been excellent since. With only three walks in and 0 HR allowed in 44.2 IP I'm surprised his ERA is as high as 3.22 and it surely will drop if he keeps this up.
Advantage - Push
#3, #4, #5 Starter
Tampa Bay - Tampa Bay has, in my opinion, the best back of the rotation in baseball. James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis are all league average starters or better. They also have Jeremy Hellickson, one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, ready to go at AAA if someone is injured.
Houburgh - If I was to take the 3 best pitchers overall among the back end of these rotations, I think I would end up with Doug Fister, Jason Vargas and Brett Myers. That does not exactly inspire confidence. In fact I don't think I would take any of those guys over any of Tampa Bay's trio.
Advantage - Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay - After 2009's struggles, the Rays splurged a bit (for them) and acquired Rafael Soriano to close. As a reliever, Soriano's career ERA is in the mid-2.00s and he has been extremely dominant; the only thing that has slowed him down has been injuries that cost him significant time in 2004, 2005 and 2008.
Houburgh - The best option here is clearly Joakim Soria, who has had some injuries of his own, but is even more effective when on the field than Soriano. Soria does not have typical closer velocity, but with three plus secondary pitches, he has a deeper arsenal than most starters.
Advantage - slight edge to Houburgh.
Tampa Bay - With J.P. Howell on the shelf, Tampa Bay's middle relief is nothing special. Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit have been excellent with Dan Wheeler and Andy Sonnanstine solid, but they do not have a reliable left-handed option.
Houburgh - Between the four teams it is surprising that a more impressive bullpen cannot be cobbled together. Evan Meek has been superb behind him most of the best options are retreads such as Kyle Farnsworth and Brandon Lyon. At least there is some solid depth here with the likes of Shawn Kelley, Javier Lopez and Joel Hanrahan.
Advantage - Slight edge to Houburgh, due mostly to Evan Meek.
Prospects - Just for fun I thought it would be interesting to compare farm systems to see how much help is on the way.
Tampa Bay - Wade Davis and Reid Brignac have graduated but they still have two top 10 prospects in Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson. Behind them there are a lot of high ceiling guys in the lower minors to get excited about.
Houburgh - Kansas City has a great farm system but no one that can match the top-two of Tampa Bay. Houston has two solid prospects, but again neither are of top 10 quality. Ditto for Seattle who has depth but little impact talent in the high minors. That leaves the Pirates who have one high ceiling guy in the high minors, Pedro Alvarez, but he has struggled a lot this season.
Advantage - Slight edge to Tampa Bay... you always take the potential stars over depth. If I could take the entirety of Houburgh's farm system over Tampa Bay's I would, but if you could only take the top 5 guys from Tampa vs. the top 5 guys from Houburgh, the Rays are the choice.
Tampa Bay has the advantage in 6 categories, two of which are extremely large advantages.
Houburgh has the advantage in 7 categories, two of which are large advantages.
If these two teams played against each other I would expect a tight seven game series, but would have to give the edge to Tampa Bay. The advantages they have in left field and at third base are so extreme they more than makeup for a few of Houburgh's slight advantages. So, basically what I am saying is that the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays have assembled a team better than the collective efforts of four other franchises.