05 May 2008

Lehigh Valley IronPigs: Stinking Up the International League Since 2008...

They've got the best name in minor league baseball.

They might also have the worst team.


The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, in their inaugural season as the Philadelphia Phillies AAA affiliate (aPhilly-ate?) currently have a record of just four wins and twenty-eight losses, which easily makes them the worst team in the International League, and for that matter, at the moment, the worst team in all of Minor League Baseball.

How bad is 4-28? Well, their closest competition for the dubious honor of the worst record in baseball comes from south of the border, specifically from the AAA Mexican League Guererros de Oaxaca (Oaxaca Warriors). That team is currently 8-31, in dead last in thier division, or, roughly twice as good as the Iron Pigs (los Piggos de Iron...no, not really).

The IronPigs would have to rattle off 24 consecutive wins just to be able to call themselves "mediocre". That means they would not be allowed to lose another game until almost June.

On opening night, they were stymied for six perfect innings by Kei Igawa, who had a 6.25 ERA in the majors last year, and has a rather pedestrian 4.54 ERA against the rest of the International League this year.

A team this bad does not come around all that often, at least not without some extenuating circumstances. Sure, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134) might be the worst major league team in history, but they had a good excuse: Their owner bought them specifically so he could siphon off all their decent players to another team he owned. Which is why you're not allowed to do that anymore.

The 1962 Mets were an expansion team playing the year after the majors had just expanded by two teams, so the talent pool was pretty dry at the time. The 1998 Florida Marlins lost 108 games, just one year after winning the World Series, but this was due to their famous fire sale. The 2004 Detroit Tigers lost 119 games, but they were rebuilding and they did play in the World Series just three years later.

Those of course, are only a few examples from the majors. There are a lot more teams in the minors, not to mention all the independent league teams, so I'm sure you could find some examples of pretty bad teams. The Pennsylvania Road Warriors of the Atlantic League, for example, went 23-104 in 2004, worst in the league, mostly because

1) They had to play every game on the road, hence the name, and
B) They sucked.

But the 2008 Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, despite the new digs and the new name, are not a new team. The Phillies had a AAA team in Ottawa last season, a team that was bad, certainly, but not historically bad. They finished 55-88, last in the Northern Division, 29 games behind the first place Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees. The team relocated for the 2008 season, once the new stadium was completed, but most of them seem to have left their talent in Canada.

So far, 14 of the players who were on the team last year have made some, oh, shall we say...contribution? ...to this year's team. But among those 14, only four are 25 or younger and have any real potential to help a major league team someday. These are LHP J.A. Happ, catcher Jason Jamarillo, OF Javon Moran, RHP Joe Bisenius, and among those, only Happ even seems to be hinting that he might end up as something more than a middle reliever or a career backup.

Happ's 2.97 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 39 innings this year belie his 0-4 record, but the fact that he insists on walking a batter every other inning is going to keep him from getting a real shot at the majors anyway. There are also a couple of journeyman, 30-ish relief pitchers who haven't been all that bad this year, though in limited amounts of work.

Brian Mazone, another lefty starter, has three of the team's four wins (along with three losses) and his 3.32 ERA and solid control (only 5 walks in 38 innings) might get him called up to the big leagues some time soon. Already 31 years old, the future is now for Mazone. He's not really a prospect, just a potential stop-gap, and he probably knows that.

Nobody else on the roster is threatening to be good any time soon.

As a team, the IronPigs have a 5.00 ERA, roughly 3/4 of a run higher than the next closest teams, Durham, Columbus and Indianapolis. Pitching coach Rod Nichold played for seven years in the majors, his last in 1995, retiring with an 11-31 record. Like his charges, Nichols walked too many batters and didn't strike out enough, and was washed up by age 31. (At this rate, this will probably prove to be the fate of many of the players on his current team as well.)

If they played in Denver or Colorado Springs, you could chalk that up to the effect of the thin air, but they don't and the hitting is terrible, too.

The team does not have anyone in the top 25 in the International League in Slugging or Batting Average, and their only player anywhere near the league lead in OBP was Val Pascucci, a 29-year old journeyman outfielder, whom they released a few days ago, and who now toils for the Mets' AAA team in New Orleans.

First baseman Andy Tracy (34, a journeyman minor leaguer), leads the team with 5 homers and 16 RBIs, but is only hitting .233, so he hardly looks like a keeper. Another 30-something re-tread, firstbaseman Mike Cervenak, leads the team with 13 runs and is second with three homers. Nobody else has scored more than 7 runs or hit more than 2 homers.

The team is hitting .219 as a whole. Think about that for a second. Julio Franco hit .222 last season with the Mets and Braves, and he just retired. Granted, he is 49 years old now, but if you can't out-play a guy who's almost eligible for AARP, you should get out, dont you think? Players get released outright for hitting .219, and here we've got an entire team that bad. The next closest team is 20 points higher and .239 still sucks.

The IronPigs also have the worst on base percentage and the worst slugging percentage in the league, the fewest walks, fewest doubles, fewest triples, fewest steals, the second fewest homers (by one) and therefore have scored the fewest runs in the International League by a huge margin. Only 79 runs in 32 games, or 2.47/game. The Durham Bulls, the next team up, has scored almost 4 runs per game.

Of course, when you hire Greg Gross as your hitting coach, you're asking for trouble. Gross played for 17 years in the major leagues, and he hit for a decent enough average (.287) with some patience, but he didn't have any power at all. he hit 5 homers in 1977, when he was 24, and then one homer in each of two other seasons. That was it: Seventeen years. Over 4,000 plate appearances. Seven dingers. Seven. That may have worked in the '70s, but it's a different game now. You've got to be able to hit homers once in a while, and their hitting instructor wouldn't know a Home Run from a Home Depot.

So, what does this all mean?

Most teams have their top prospects in AAA, along with a crop of journeymen who have some major league experience, guys who can play in the majors for a few weeks without embarassing themselves, though nobody would expect them to duplicate the star-level production of whomever they're replacing. But the Philadelphia Phillies are basically on their own. If they have an injury to Cole Hamels or Ryan Howard or Pat Burrell, or (God help them) Chase Utley, they're done. There is no help in AAA, so don't come looking. Actually, the way Howard has been hitting, maybe a stint on the DL wouldn't be so terrible for the Phillies. But anyone else, forget it.

It also means that they don't have much (read: anything) from the IronPigs to offer other teams in trade, if they should find that they need a lefty bat off the bench or a short reliever or something for the pennant drive and want to make a trade before the July deadline. That forces them to surrender someone from AA or Single-A to get what they need, which means that they're giving up a younger player, one with more upside.

In the unlikely event that the Lehigh Valley IronPigs continue to lose games at this pace, that is, seven out of every eight contests, they will finish the season with 18 wins and 126 losses. Though it would be a lot of fun to have them to kick around all summer, this probably will not happen. They'll cut loose some of the dreck they've signed, like Oscar Robles and Steve Kline and Kevin Bierne, and as they already have done with Vic Darensbourg and Val Pascucci. They'll find that some of the guys they have in AA right now are worth promoting, and those guys may prove to better the team.

Plus, over 144 games, they're bound to get some breaks here and there. Thy've lost 28 games, but only five of those have really been blow-outs (losing by 6 runs or more, and before you ask, I just came up with that benchmark arbitrarily). They're not always competitive, but they've lost a lot of games by one or two runs, which means that they might have won them with a little luck, or someone coming through in the clutch once in a while.

I'm going to see the Lehigh Valley Catastrophes IronPigs in person this Friday night. Will keep you posted...

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