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Are the Memphis Redbirds better than the worst MLB teams?

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Say, the Royals? The Tigers? They’re probably better than the Marlins...

Minor League Baseball: Nashville Sounds at Memphis Redbirds Yalonda M. James-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Memphis Redbirds — the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals — were the best team in AAA ball. Conclusively so. They had the best record in the Pacific Coast League by 11 games, and best in all of AAA ball by 5 games. And 5 games slightly understates it, given the shorter schedule of minor-league teams. The Redbirds’ .645 winning percentage was 35 points higher than the next-best AAA team, which would be 6 games better in a MLB-length season. They won the PCL playoff championship. And although they lost a one-game AAA “championship” game to the Durham Bulls, if you are reading this site and think one baseball game is a good marker of which team is better, you’re likely not going to be a long-term fan of our work here.

This year’s Memphis club figures to be even better than last year’s.

The farm system that produced the league’s best AAA affiliate in 2017 has graduated basically nobody. Yeah, Luke Weaver started 15 games there last year, and he was awesome, and he’s spending the year in St. Louis. But Jack Flaherty, who pitched a lot of 2017 in AA, is going to take those games this year, and he appears to also be awesome (as a AAA pitcher, at least). Other than that? The Redbirds will lose a good AAA player to the MLB bench, but they’ll gain Yairo Munoz. Or else Munoz will be on the MLB bench and they’ll lose nothing. And players in the rest of the farm system will continue to advance from below, which can only make the AAA team better yet.

Quick aside: sometimes people call this a “logjam” and treat it as a problem, but it’s not a problem. Or if it’s a problem, it’s a good problem. A great problem! Let’s have more problems like “there are so many talented ballplayers in this organization that they could field two credible MLB teams at once.” Problem accepted.

So, the Memphis Redbirds are going to be a fantastic AAA team again. How fantastic, though? In the comments yesterday, somebody suggested they might be, if they played their games in MLB instead of the PCL, not the worst team in the league. And while statements like that are usually hyperbolic, this one might not be. Let’s take a closer look.

First we need a point of comparison. Kicking the gutted Marlins while they’re down feels mean (whispered hint: I have already done the analysis and yes, they’re better than the Marlins). I’ll also leave the White Sox alone. Let’s set our sights somewhat higher: the 2015 World Series champions. The Kansas City Royals.

Just to be clear here and spoil the conclusion: the Memphis Redbirds, a minor-league baseball team staffed by guys being paid less than truck drivers and car mechanics, are probably not quite as good as the Kansas City Royals, a team that won the Major League Baseball championship less than three years ago. But man, look at that sentence, and then especially look at the words “not quite,” and... man. This is a crazy thing!

So let’s see the numbers.

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The Royals are projected* for 71 wins right now by FanGraphs. A team of all replacement-level players would project for 48 wins, roughly, so here is where the Royals get their 23 wins above that point:

*standard caveat with preseason projections: these have big error bars, so it’s best to think to think of these as predicting that a team will finish in a range of, I dunno, a half-dozen games or so on either side of the projected number.

  • 3 from catcher (mostly Salvador Perez)
  • 1.5 from 1B (mostly Lucas Duda)
  • 2 from 2B (Whit Merrifield)
  • 0.5 from shortstop (yuck)
  • 3 from 3B (Mike Moustakas)
  • 3 from the entire OF (Alex Gordon, Jon Jay, y los Jorges Soler and Bonifacio)
  • 0.5 from DH (yuck again)
  • 2.5 from SP Danny Duffy
  • 6 from the rest of the SP (700-750 IP)
  • 1 from the bullpen, almost all delivered via closer Kelvin Herrera

So that’s pretty bad. The position player side would be solid if not for those two gaping holes, but there they are. The pitchers are no good outside of Duffy and Herrera. It adds up to not the worst thing in the league (the Marlins project for just 65 wins, the White Sox for 66) but it’s not a good team.

Now here are the Memphis Redbirds But In The Majors, using an admittedly eyeballed blend of Steamer, ZiPS, and a light salting of personal beliefs, scaled to full seasons:

  • 2 from catcher (mostly Carson Kelly)
  • 1 from 1B (Luke Voit)
  • 1 from 2B (Max Schrock and Breyvic Valera)
  • 1 from SS (Valera and Yairo Munoz)
  • 1 from 3B (Munoz and Patrick Wisdom)
  • 2 from the whole outfield (Tyler O’Neill, Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, Oscar Mercado; Harrison Bader stays in St. Louis)
  • Nothing from DH
  • 2.5 from SP Jack Flaherty (175 IP)
  • 6.5 from the rest of the SP (700-750 IP)
  • No idea for the bullpen but call it 1

And the calculator says... 18 marginal wins, corresponding to a projection of 66 wins.

Okay, so the cold hard algorithms aren’t with us on this one. But it wouldn’t take much at all to get the Redbirds to 71 wins. The projections say only Kelly and Flaherty are average MLB regulars right now, but it doesn’t require that much squinting to take the over on the projections of guys like O’Neill, Garcia, or Munoz. 66 wins and 71 aren’t the same — one team has a clear advantage — but they aren’t so wildly different, either, given the inherent uncertainty of projections. You only have to take the over on a few Redbirds (or the under on a few Royals) to think the Memphis Redbirds and the franchise that won it all three years ago are essentially even on paper right now.

That is a crazy thing to say about a minor-league baseball team. We’re living in interesting times as Cardinals fans. Like John wrote this morning, the Cardinals’ seeming lack of a superstar talent holds them at merely good, not great. And yet they have a vast reserve of good talent. Maybe something great bubbles up before long, or maybe they make more consolidation trades.

Anyway, thanks for participating in this ridiculous thought experiment, during which we have learned that no, the Memphis Redbirds probably aren’t going to be as good as a garden-variety bad MLB team — the Kansas City Royals — this year. They could be, and that is in itself a strange and very funny thing, though. And they are approximately as good as the two teams expected to be worse than garden-variety bad: the Marlins and White Sox. Even in the supposed age of tanking, that’s pretty incredible.

(And also, congratulations to the citizens of Memphis, Tennessee, who will be able to get good tickets to see a genuinely MLB-caliber team play baseball against far lesser opponents for like fifteen bucks a pop all year. You are the real winners in all this.)