The Philadelphia Phillies are screwed.
You know it. The Phillies know it. Their three best players are 35. Their biggest contract belongs to Ryan Howard, who is 34 and not even slugging .400 anymore. Cliff Lee is gone, and who knows what he'll be like when he and his elbow come back. Other than Ben Revere's empty batting average and a couple relievers, there hasn't been a glimmer of hope from anyone under 30. Maikel Franco is their current great hope; his OBP in Triple-A was .299.
The Phillies are screwed. But are they the most hopeless team in baseball? Not likely. Let us search for teams more hopeless than the Phillies, in which "hopeless" is defined as an arbitrary melange of payroll concerns, young talent, and organizational reputations that suggests the next two to three years are going to be rough. Bad teams with easily identifiable young talent don't qualify. Good teams with bad farm systems don't automatically qualify. Here, let's break the contenders into categories.
Old teams in large markets with thin farm systems
This is where the Phillies are. This is where the Yankees are. Here be the White Sox. None of these teams have more than a handful of players whom you're expecting to contribute in 2016 or 2017. The minors might not be barren, but the upper minors mostly are, and a lot can happen on the way just to the upper minors, much less to the majors.
None of these teams will ever qualify for most-screwed status, though. The Yankees sure look like a mish-mash of once-weres, slowly tumbling down the cruel hill of time, but they have money. They have money and a frantic desire to tinker. That doesn't sound like much, but it's important to remember that a poor farm ranking in Baseball America or MLB.com is never synonymous with "completely unlikely to produce a single major leaguer." If a couple mid-level prospects hit -- and by "hit," I mean contribute at all -- it's far too easy for these teams to spend the money required to fill in the gaps.
Take the Tigers from a decade ago. They became relevant again because they had the money to sign Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, and the pieces fell into place around them. It's not just about free agency, either. The Yankees absorbed the Martin Prado contract because they could. The next time they need a player like that, they'll be able to absorb that contract, too.
These teams might be screwed for the next few years, don't get me wrong. But their large-market status will always guarantee that there's someone in a worse spot.
I think the Mets are here, too. Let's see if they spend when their wave of young pitching has a hint of polish.
Older teams in small markets
The Reds might really be screwed. They haven't spent that much, historically, so it's possible that their big free agent acquisition this offseason will be Joey Votto. Their big offseason acquisition in 2016 might be Joey Votto. When they handed him that extension, they might have tethered their hopes to him in a way that no small-market franchise had done since the Twins and Joe Mauer. And they are most certainly a small-market team. They usually act like it, too.
A lot of what makes the Reds a sorta-contender now, though, could still be good in the future. They're just under .500 now without Votto, without Brandon Phillips, and without Jay Bruce doing anything useful because of their (mostly) young pitching talent and younger contributors like Billy Hamilton and Todd Frazier. They should be a contender for the most-screwed crown. They have just a little too much going for them.
In about a week, the Brewers could be here. They've spent like a team in a market just a little bigger, and they're tied to Ryan Braun in a similar way the Reds are with Votto. A lot of their best players are still 30 or under, though, so I'm not sure if they're close to an "old" team just yet. Their farm system doesn't excite minor league wonks, though, and with every hole that comes up over the next few years, that'll become a bigger deal if it isn't fixed.
In which the Padres break hearts every year. The Royals would have been here once upon a time. The Orioles would have been here, too. The Pirates would have made the idea behind this article irrelevant. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been the Padres screwing up. Here's a headline from February, 2012:
ESPN.com’s Keith Law rates Padres as top farm system
It wasn't a controversial ranking. The Padres haven't turned those riches into anything yet, and they seem to be running a distribution center for sprained elbow ligaments. They still have a respected farm system, for what it's worth, and they have young talent on the roster. Heck, they're close to .500 right now because they've proven adept at developing pitchers, at least the ones who stay healthy.
They make the list, though, because they're the Padres. The uncertainty of the new regime combined with a long history puts them in the conversation, even if they might not be in the top 10 of a most-screwed power ranking.
Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
They get their own category because they win. What are the Rockies? Have you ever seen a team like this, a team so committed to its GM through 90-loss seasons, unless that's not really the GM? An owner who might be something of a meddler and whose brain might be filled with gestational YouTube comments that he filters through his fingers and shares with fans?
Their franchise players are chronically hurt, and they have a long track record of breaking young pitchers, both in body and spirit. Everything about them is a mess right now, from the top down. That's all before you get to the worst part: They already start with the biggest disadvantage in baseball, the thin air of Coors Field. For 20-plus years, the Rockies have diligently attempted to figure out a way for their hitters to survive on the road, just as they've tried valiantly to search for ways their pitchers can survive at home. They've tried sinkerballers and four-man rotations. They've tried a humidor and when they found a little success with it, they tried one with their Triple-A team.
Something might work, eventually. Something might turn the huge disadvantage into a sustainable advantage, a way to help the Rockies dominate at home and be a normal team on the road. That something hasn't been found yet. It's one of the Hilbert problems of baseball, except it's been the same mathematicians working on the problem for the last 15 years, and most of the available evidence suggests they're using a watch calculator with the "7" key missing. They might have the money to belong in the first group, the one with the Yankees and Phillies, but financial bullying in the past led to Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, and then they got out of the game.
The Rockies have a beautiful ballpark, an engaged fan base, a willingness to spend, one of the very best players in the game, and they've shown an ability to produce quality hitters over the years, so maybe we'll laugh at the stupidity of this article in 12 months. The odds are pretty good, though, that we'll be right here, wondering what in the heck they're doing.
Well, a mostly engaged fan base.
There are a lot of teams who look like they're in for a rough time over the next two or three years. They can all take solace in the lesson of the 2003 Tigers, but things still don't look good for these teams in the immediate future. The Phillies just might be screwed, but they aren't the Rockies.