5 Least Improved

In yesterday’s post, I took a look at my picks for the 5 teams with the most productive offseasons to date. Today, as a follow-up, I want to look at those teams that have taken the biggest steps backward, or at least those that have failed to take any steps forward. All of the following teams are ones I’d expect to lose position or games from their 2005 seasons, for any number of reasons.
5. Houston Astros
Players lost: SP Roger Clemens, RP Scott Strickland, IF Luis Vizcaino
Players gained: OF Preston Wilson
Though the Astros have remained more or less stable in their roster this offseason, one loss (which could be reversed come May) will be devastating: that of Roger Clemens, who was the best pitcher on a stunningly strong Houston staff. Clemens, at age 42, had one of the best seasons – if not the best season – of his storied career, going 13-8 with an amazing 1.87 ERA in 2005. His loss gives the Astros a major hole in their rotation, and a team that likely will not be able to score enough runs to make up the difference. The Astros and Cardinals have defined the last 7 years in the NL Central, with occasional appearances by the Cubs, but expect that perennial presence to be threatened by the improving Milwaukee Brewers in 2006. Houston, unless Clemens agrees to return to the club a month into the season, will not be able to make up for his loss.
4. Baltimore Orioles
Players lost: RP B.J. Ryan, RP Steve Kline, OF Eric Byrnes, SP Sidney Ponson, RP Jason Grimsley, OF Sammy Sosa, 1B Rafael Palmeiro, C Sal Fasano,
Players gained: 1B Kevin Millar, RP LaTroy Hawkins, C Ramon Hernandez, 1B/OF Jeff Conine, OF Corey Patterson
While the rest of the AL East improves around them, the Orioles just keep getting worse. Though they held 1st place in the division with a surprisingly fast start in 2005, they quickly fell to their now-familiar 4 hole with a bitter series of revelations and clubhouse spats that resulted in the firing of manager Lee Mazilli and the public trade request of star SS Miguel Tejada. Meanwhile, they lost the keys to their only bright spot in 2005: their somewhat effective bullpen. Closer BJ Ryan went north to sign a lucrative deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, while Steve Kline and Jason Grimsley will both join new teams in 2006. In their place, the O’s have added only RP LaTroy Hawkins, who will presumably audition for the role of closer – a role Hawkins has held repeatedly without success in his career. The O’s will also lose offense with the departure (near certain) of tarnished 1B Rafael Palmeiro, whose steroid-fueled 2005 fell off a cliff after his suspension and public shaming in August. Eric Byrnes, a midseason acquisition who played poorly in Baltimore but has shown signs of being at least a reasonably productive OF, will give way to Jeff Conine, who inherits BJ Surhoff’s spot as the holder of the Baltimore Chair of “That Guy’s Still Around?”. Expect the Orioles to lose runs on offense and allow more at the back end of games as they battle it out with the Devil Rays for 4th place in 2006.
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Players lost: SP Paul Byrd, SP Jarrod Washburn, OF Steve Finley, OF Jeff DaVanon, RP Joel Peralta
Players gained: 3B Edgardo Alfonso, RP J.C. Romero
What a bizarre offseason for the defending AL West champs. In 2005, their strength lay in their pitching staff, from Bartolo Colon all the way down to rookie Ervin Santana, and an unequaled bullpen. With Byrd – who had a career year with the Angels – off to Cleveland and long-time SP Jarrod Washburn signing with the Mariners, the Angels rotation has taken a significant hit, though the bullpen remains intact. Instead of addressing both the holes in their pitching and those in their anemic offense, the only truly beneficial acquisition the Angels have made is in their strongest part, their bullpen: JC Romero and Hector Carrasco will add help in an area of the team that needed it the least. Offensively, the team seems to have decided to deny 3B Robb Quinlan a chance at the starting job outright, bringing in the aging Alfonso, who hasn’t been productive for years. In trading Finley for Alfonso, the team virtually assures itself of stating Chone Figgins in center, leaving the light-hitting Darin Erstad to block rising star Casey Kotchman (who will likely see the lion’s share of DH opportunities in 2006). Expect the Angels to lose their hold on 1st place in the AL West to the Oakland Athletics, and possibly have to contend with the Rangers for 2nd place.
2. San Diego Padres
Players lost: 2B Mark Loretta, C Ramon Hernandez, SP Adam Eaton, 3B Joe Randa, 3B Sean Burroughs, OF Xavier Nady, C Miguel Olivo, SP Brian Lawrence, RP Rudy Seanez, RP Akinori Otsuka, RP Chris Hammond, 1B Mark Sweeney, SP Pedro Astacio
Players gained: OF Mike Cameron, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, SP Chris Young, 3B Vinny Castilla, C Doug Mirabelli, 2B Mark Bellhorn, RP Alan Embree, IF Bobby Hill, OF Termel Sledge, SP Dewon Brazleton
Another team with some massive turnover this offseason, the Padres may have added three members of the 2004 World Champion Red Sox to their team, but they’ve still taken a major step backwards from their 82-80 NL West-winning 2005 club. Kevin Towers has pulled off one good trade this offseason, jettisoning Eaton and Otsuka to Texas for Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez, and one decent deal, acquiring Mike Cameron from the Mets for Xavier Nady. The positive benefits of those deals pale in comparison, however, to the negative ramifications of their other three deals: Mirabelli for Loretta was a cost-saving move, but one which will hurt the team’s offensive capability. Brian Lawrence wasn’t a particularly good pitcher, but the return of Vinny Castilla is even worse; meanwhile, Burroughs was barely contributing, but one has to imagine even a low-level prospect would be more valuable to the club than allowing Dewon Brazleton to take up a roster spot. The Padres may be building for the future, but for the present they will sink into the middle of an already weak division.
1. Florida Marlins
Players lost: SP Josh Beckett, SP AJ Burnett, 3B Mike Lowell, 1B Carlos Delgado, CF Juan Pierre, 2B Luis Castillo, SS Alex Gonzalez, C Paul LoDuca, RP Guillermo Mota, 1B/OF Jeff Conine, OF Juan Encarnacion, RP Todd Jones
Players gained: IF Wes Helms, SS Hanley Ramirez, RP Joe Borowski, IF Pokey Reese, SP Yusmeiro Petit, SP Anibal Sanchez, C Miguel Olivo
Good lord god. It would be surprisingly easy to form a complete starting roster out of those guys that the Marlins have jettisoned this offseason. That’s not really even an exaggeration. They’ve lost a full infield, 2 OF’s, 2 starters, and two of their top relievers. Replacing them are a collection of spare parts and prospects, players who will either contribute very little or start contributing late in the season and in subsequent years. 2006, meanwhile, is looking like an amazingly bleak one for the Marlins, as they try desperately to get out of Miami.
To be fair, the prospects they did acquire are uniformly solid: Sanchez and Petit could hold down a rotation for years, while 3B Grant Psomas (from the Mets) and Hanley Ramirez could both become very valuable infield presences. Combine them with players from Florida’s own very deep and interesting farm system, and the Marlins might not be bottom-feeders for more than a season or two. But for this coming year… it’s very hard not to select them as the absolute worst club in all of Major League Baseball.