The playoff picture is starting to take shape and some teams are clearly not in the running. However, what happens when several poor performing teams are grouped together in the same division? Brandon Magee introduces us to the worst division in baseball: the Southern Division of the International League.
While the 1994 Major League Baseball season will forever be known as the beginning of the end of the Montreal Expos, the cessation of play due to labor squabbles in August prevented another interesting storyline from fully developing. When the season ended, the Texas Rangers led a very close race in the AL West, with only 5 1/2 games separating the top-ranked Rangers from the fourth place California Angels. However, if the Rangers had not been in the AL West, their 52-62 record would have placed them dead last in both the Eastern Division (the last place Detroit Tigers would have held a 1/2 game advantage) and the Central Division (with the cellar-dwelling Milwaukee Brewers holding the same advantage as the Tigers). The 1994 season became the season without a world champion, but it could have instead been the season with a sub-.500 team in the playoffs, a scenario that has never happened in the big leagues.
It is unlikely that a below .500 team will make the playoffs in MLB this season, with all the divisions currently having at least a pair of teams on the positive side of the win/loss ledger, but the same cannot be said of the AAA International League. The 14-team league currently has half of the teams playing over .500 plus one more exactly at the .500 mark. None of those eight teams, however, play in the International League South, where the Charlotte Knights lead the worst division in baseball with a 35-39 record.
The Knights (affiliated with the Chicago White Sox), who currently hold a 1 1/2 game advantage over the Gwinnett Braves, would find themselves 9 1/2 games back – and behind five teams – in the IL North and five games back of the Indianapolis Indians in the IL West. Charlotte also holds the dubious distinction of having a losing record on the road (17-21) and merely holding serve both at home and against division foes (18-18 in each instance).
However, the Knights may not be in great position to continue to lead this division of lightweights. Their best hitter, Jason Coats (.355/.399/.567), is currently with the big-league club in Chicago. So too are veteran outfielder J.B. Shuck and shortstop prospect Tim Anderson. While the team is currently second in the league in offense – with a team line of .262/.332/.397 – will they be able to keep up the pace led by 34-year-old veteran Jason Bourgeois? The pitching staff is a mess, in last place in the International League with a 4.56 ERA, nearly 2/3rds of a run more than any other team in the league. Only Anthony Ranaudo – with his sterling 2.18 ERA – and Erik Johnson – now pitching poorly with the San Diego Padres – have shown any competence in the starting rotation. Their current five-game losing streak has put the rest of the division in the hunt for an improbable playoff spot.
The veteran offensive unit – averaging over 28-years-old – of the Gwinnett Braves may be best positioned to overtake Charlotte. The Braves hold the best divisional record of the group, going 21-15 against the rest of the South. Unfortunately, that means they are atrocious against the rest of the International League, with a 12-25 record outside of their own division. And while they happen to have a slightly positive record in Georgia (19-17), their record outside the state leaves much to be desired (14-23).
Of course, when the best offensive player currently on the squad is 30-year-old Matt Tuiasosopo – batting a robust .246/.355./.481 – it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Braves are mid-pack in the IL with a team OPS of .685. While the rest of the veteran crew – including the likes of Blake Lalli, Anthony Recker, Reid Brignac, Sean Kazmar, and Ronnier Mustelier – could pull the Braves into the playoffs, this is certainly not the team that will be featured in the new Cobb County digs next season.
The Braves pitching staff, 13th in the league with a 3.91 ERA, at least has a few younger pitchers that could help Atlanta in the future. Casey Kelly has returned to the starting rotation and has put up a 2.96 ERA and a 1.151 WHIP in nine appearances this season. However, he has not been able to generate strikeouts and has walked over four batters every nine innings. That’s better than Manny Banuelos, who has walked 18 in his 20 1/3 innings for Gwinnett. And with Tyrell Jenkins – who had a 2.91 ERA in 14 games for the AAA Braves – currently residing in the Atlanta ‘pen, the pitching staff may continue to exhibit mediocrity.
Could the Durham Bulls, winners of three consecutive and only two back of the Knights, actually be the team to beat? Like Gwinnett, they have performed well within the Southern division (22-18) with intense failure against the West and North (11-23). They have also suffered the indignity of loss after loss on the road (14-24) while enjoying a slight home field advantage (19-17).
The offense of the Bulls (the AAA affiliate of Tampa Bay) has been awful, with a league-worst line of .227/.303/.345 and a league-high 653 punch-outs. The best of the bunch is 28-year-old Cuban utility man Dayron Varona, who has put up an uneven line of .240/.282/.433 with 28 extra-base hits. However, with Jaff Decker and Nick Franklin both recent call-ups to the Rays, this already dysfunctional offense may get even worse in the short term.
The Bulls do boast the best pitching in the South Division, with a 3.64 ERA and a 1.279 WHIP. In particular, the starting staff has kept the Bulls in the game. Austin Pruitt, Blake Snell – currently in his second stint with Tampa Bay – Jaime Schultz, and Adam Wilk have all put up ERAs of no worse than 3.70 (Wilk) and WHIPs of no worse than 1.333 (Snell) in a dozen or more starts each. Unfortunately, the good pitching has resulted in a combined record of 15-20.
With more than two months and sixty-plus games to go, much can change in the topsy-turvy world of AAA baseball. It is likely that one of the Bulls, Braves, or Knights will find some consistency of play to finish above the .500 mark. However, there are no guarantees. Both the Braves and the Rays may continue to plunder their AAA affiliates for any and all youngsters deemed ready for major-league action. The Knights, too, may be scavenged by the White Sox for any player – young or old – that could bring the Southsiders back into playoff position. When Labor Day hits and the regular season ends, there is a good chance that five or more teams with winning records will not make the playoffs of the International League and the winner of the IL South will be going for the Governor’s Cup with a losing record.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.