The Atlanta Braves, who have baseball’s worst record, open a four-game series tonight against the Cincinnati Reds, who have the third-worst. (The other spot on this Bizarro World podium belongs to the Minnesota Twins.) Believe it or not, games such as these have meaning.
The Braves just picked Ian Anderson, a high school right-hander whom they like very much, with the No. 3 pick in the MLB draft. Had they held the No. 2 pick, they might have picked Nick Senzel, the Tennessee third baseman they also liked. (There’d have been your college hitter, folks.) Not saying they would have; just saying they’d have had that option.
As it was, Senzel went to the Reds, who stole the No. 2 pick by losing 14 of their final 15 games last September/October. The Braves, meanwhile, chose the absolute wrong moment to start winning again. Having gone 15-48 from July 8 through Sept. 18, they won 10 of their final 15 games. Had they won only five of those final 15, they’d have had the No. 1 overall pick in 2016.
If you’re a fan, you’d rather not see your team finish last, but finishing last has benefits. There’s no lottery in baseball. If you finish with the worst record, you’re locked into the No. 1 pick. If you’re rebuilding, you want the No. 1 pick. (And if you have MLB’s worst record, you’d better be rebuilding.)
As it stands, the Braves trail — or lead, depending on your perspective — the Twins by a game and the Reds by 5 1/2 games. FanGraphs’ projections have the Braves finishing 58-104 to the Reds’ 65-97 and the Twins’ 66-96, which is a fairly comfortable spread. But what if the Braves sweep the Reds? Then the lead’s down to 1 1/2 games and Katy bar the door, as it were.
Owing mostly to their home field, the Great American Bandbox, the Reds’ offensive numbers aren’t bad: They’re 16th among MLB teams in runs, 12th in homers and 14th in slugging percentage. (The Braves are last, last and last.) But the Reds — having divested themselves of Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman and seen Homer Bailey lost to a knee injury — are 30th in ERA, and their bullpen ERA of 6.48 is the worst in the majors by 1.57 over 29th-best Texas.
Given that the Braves could trade anybody save Freddie Freeman these next two months, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be much better over the final 100 games than they’ve been over the first 62. Then again, the Braves have played a bit better (9-16) under Brian Snitker than Fredi Gonzalez (9-28), and August/September could see the arrival of Dansby Swanson and/or Ozzie Albies and/or Rio Ruiz. And let’s face it: This being baseball, it’d be hard to do much worse than 18-44.
Granted, there’s also a real chance that the Redlegs could sell Jay Bruce, who has 14 homers — more than half as many as the Braves do as a team — and 44 RBIs, come July. But it’ll be harder to find a taker for Joey Votto and his contract, and Brandon Phillips’ value has cratered.
Put simply, neither of these teams has any reason to care much about its record any more. For them, the season is gone. The race, if that’s the proper word, for next June’s 1-1 pick will be fascinating, in the way that a horrible movie can be fascinating. (Think “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”)
Further reading: The Cubs show the Braves that it can be done.