What's left to play for in this season for MLB's worst teams? A shot at the top overall draft pick in 2015. We take a look at the contenders.
The Texas Rangers hoped to be playing for something this year, coming off two pennants, a wild-card berth, and a season in which they weren’t eliminated until the 163rd game. As it turns out they are, but not what they expected. After being utterly devastated by injuries, the Rangers find themselves going from four-straight 90-win seasons to having the worst record and run differential in baseball. As a result, they are in the lead for a different prize: The top overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft.
Here’s a quick look at the current standings as they stand entering Friday’s action.
The Rangers’ lead in this race is slight, but there are many reasons to believe that it will prove insurmountable for the teams above them in the standings. The first is the Rangers’ run differential: At -135, Texas has been outscored by 34 more runs than any other team in baseball. The Diamondbacks are second at -101, but Arizona has played two more games than Texas to this point in the season, so it’s not even that close.
Go beyond simple run differential to third-order wins, which use the components of run scoring (hits, walks, outs) to project how many runs a team should have scored and allowed before converting that differential into wins and losses, and the Rangers’ margin increases even further. Using actual run differential, they are three games worse than Arizona. Using third-order wins, they are 3 1/2 games worse (the Rockies, meanwhile, are merely the fifth-worst team in baseball by third-order wins).
What really puts the lock on that top pick for Texas, however, is their remaining schedule. The Rangers play in what is arguably the best division in baseball this season. The AL West has three teams with a .540 winning percentage or better — only two other divisions have two such teams (both Central divisions) — and of the Rangers’ 36 remaining games, 27 of them come against intradivision opponents. Yes, seven of those 27 games come against the Astros, but here are the teams they will play in their nine remaining interdivision games: The AL Central-leading Royals (six games, starting with this weekend’s three-game set in Arlington), and the Braves, who have pulled out of their recent slump with wins in six of their last seven games, have a .523 winning percentage on the season, and are battling for a wild-card spot in the NL. As a result, 29 of the Rangers’ 36 remaining games will come against teams with a current winning percentage of .523 or better.
By way of comparison, the Rockies have 13 remaining games against the Diamondbacks and Padres and six more against the Mets and Marlins. The Diamondbacks have 17 left against the Rockies and Padres, plus a three-game set against the Twins, or 20 out of 34 remaining games against weak opponents. Even the Astros have those seven games against the Rangers, plus three against the Mets in the season’s final series and another seven against Cleveland, a team that is currently just two games over .500.
The second-toughest remaining schedule of the five teams listed above belongs to the Cubs; their six games against the Reds are their only remaining games against a team with a losing record entering Friday’s action. A steady diet of Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, supplemented by seven games against the first-place Orioles and Dodgers, gives the Cubs an outside chance of catching the Rangers at the bottom of the standings. Still, with a three-game set against the Blue Jays mixed in, the Cubs will play 15 of their remaining 35 games against teams currently sporting a .512 winning percentage or worse.
Of course, the Cubs are a team that has been improving over the course of the season, posting a winning record in June and a .455 winning percentage since the All-Star break relative to their .426 mark in the first half. The Rangers, by comparison, saw their winning percentage fall in each of the last three months, a trend reversed in August only because it’s hard to get much worse than their 6-20 performance in July.
The Rangers are also currently without ace Yu Darvish, who hit the disabled list with elbow inflammation last Wednesday. Darvish's MRI came back clean, and the Rangers are hoping he can return in short order (he’s eligible to do so on Monday, as his DL move was retroactive to Aug. 10). But there’s no reason to rush Darvish back just to play out the string. In fact, with the top overall pick in their sights, the Rangers have extra incentive to be extra cautious with Darvish.
If the Rangers to land the top overall pick, it will be the third in their history. It will also be the first since they notoriously drafted high school pitching phenomenon David Clyde with the top overall pick in 1973, then had him make his major league debut three weeks later. Clyde won that game despite walking seven Twins, but ultimately proved a bust, with many blaming his failure on the Rangers’ decision to rush him to the majors as a gate attraction.
Four years earlier, when the team was still the expansion Washington Senators, it drafted outfielder Jeff Burroughs with the top overall pick. Burroughs was also brought to the majors quickly, making his debut the following July at the age of 19, but he didn’t become a regular in the Rangers lineup until '73, when he emerged as a star with a 30-homer season. Burroughs led the league in RBI in 1974, which landed him an undeserved MVP award for his effort, and had two more star-quality seasons after being traded to the Braves prior to the 1977 season. The last time the Rangers had one of the top-five picks in the draft was 2001, when they selected Mark Teixeira fifth overall.