Four years ago Tuesday, at the 2014 trade deadline, the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals were in no position to sell. The Orioles were in first place in the AL East, with the highest playoff odds in the division; the Royals were in second in the Central, a few games away from the inside track on a division title or wild-card berth. In July and August, both teams made modest additions: Andrew Miller, Kelly Johnson, and Alejandro De Aza, in the Orioles’ case, and Liam Hendriks, Erik Kratz, Jason Frasor, and Josh Willingham in Kansas City’s.
By the time the dust settled on that regular season, the Orioles were AL East champions, with a double-digit lead. The Royals won the first wild card. That October, they met in the ALCS, and Kansas City swept. For years, the two teams mirrored each other’s success, exceeding dire preseason projections time after time. From 2013-16, the Royals and Orioles both made the playoffs twice and both won 351 games, tied for the sixth-most in the sport. The Royals last qualified for the postseason (and won the World Series) in 2015. The Orioles last appeared in the playoffs in 2016.
Life comes at you fast. This year, the Orioles and Royals have been baseball’s worst teams, both by actual record—32-74 for the Orioles, 32-73 for the Royals—and by whichever estimate of underlying, “deserved” performance one prefers: third-order record, PythagenPat record, or BaseRuns record. Their current winning percentages of .302 and .305, respectively, would both be the worst in a full season since World War II save for three teams: the 1952 Pirates, the 1962 Mets, and the 2003 Tigers. The not-so-subtle takeaway here is that the Orioles and Royals are, by big league standards, very bad at baseball. And at least in terms of true talent, they’re getting worse: In July, the belatedly rebuilding Orioles traded Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach, and the injured Darren O’Day, while the Royals—who got started by sending Kelvin Herrera to D.C. in June—moved Mike Moustakas.
Both the Orioles and the Royals reached this point through a combination of mismanagement, failures of player development, and the natural life cycle of once-contending clubs; everywhere except, seemingly, the Bronx and Chavez Ravine, teams sometimes have to be bad before and after they get good. At this stage, it makes perfect sense for the Orioles and Royals to trade impending free agents and seed their thin farm systems with players who could help them return to the playoffs one day (however remote that prospect appears) rather than try to win one or two more games in a lost season. But their sensible decision to deal allows us to dream about how historically terrible the two teams’ records could be by the end of this season. And it also inspires us to ask the majors’ most pressing question: Could the Orioles and Royals produce one competent team if we could combine both rosters?
Before we perform some Dr. Moreau–style surgery, we should note that the Orioles and the Royals haven’t been quite as bad as their winning percentages suggest, falling short of their “expected” BaseRuns records by six games and four games so far, respectively. Neither of these teams was projected to be nearly this terrible before the season started, and we know that preseason projections continue to be telling past the halfway point of the schedule. Prior to the Gausman and Schoop trades, Baseball Prospectus projected the Orioles and Royals to play .406 and .420 baseball for the rest of the year, even after being diminished by their earlier midseason swaps. Those were the worst two marks in the majors, but they would both be big improvements over the year-to-date tallies. In other words, both clubs can expect dead-cat bounces even without joining forces in our hypothetical bird-lion vivisection scenario.
If a low-.400s projected winning percentage is the baseline for each team on its own, then they should clear that comfortably with their powers combined. To find out whether the resulting Orioyals could crack .500, we need to determine which players would stick around from each squad and assess their collective talent.
For that, we turned to NEIFI, a strategic consulting firm that licenses projection and decision models to MLB teams. According to NEIFI cofounder (and former Brewers manager of research and development) Adam Guttridge, the system’s appraisals of the current Orioles and Royals are almost identical; as currently constituted, the two teams would be expected to win 64.4 and 63.4 games, respectively, in a full season in a schedule-neutral American League. (Those totals translate to winning percentages of .398 and .391.) One could, of course, quibble about how precisely to assign playing time to the Orioyals (or whether we should call them the Rorioles, or whether Buck Showalter or Ned Yost would get to fill out their lineup card), but the statistically optimal roster would look something like this:
Royals-Orioles Projected Starting Lineup
Royals-Orioles Projected Bench
Royals-Orioles Projected Starting Rotation
Royals-Orioles Project Bullpen
Upon scanning that list, it soon becomes clear that even the cream of the crop from these two teams is still lousy. According to Guttridge and NEIFI, the Orioyals—composed of 15 Orioles and 13 Royals—would have the American League’s eighth-best rotation, 11th-best team offense, 12th-best bullpen, and worst team defense. In the same schedule-neutral AL, they would be expected to win 73.8 games, for roughly a .456 winning percentage. That’s nine to 10 more games than either the Royals or the Orioles would win on their own, but not enough to vault them up to .500, let alone to make them a winning team.
If the real Orioles and Royals had stars-and-scrubs-style rosters, with elite-level players at some positions and disasters at others, then the Orioyals would benefit more from mixing and matching. As it is, the playing-time decisions in many cases come down to picking one below-average player over another, slightly further-below-average player. Blending the two rosters together improves the resulting team’s depth and helps shore up some subpar positions, but even the Orioyals lack a single player who could be considered a star, which imposes a pretty low ceiling on the squad. Guttridge notes that the Orioyals’ starting lineup would still be below-average in the AL at a majority of positions, and he adds that there are 12 individual MLB outfielders who would project to amass more WAR over a full season than the entire Jones/Mancini/Bonifacio Orioyals starting outfield.
Dan Duquette, #Orioles executive director of baseball operations: “I hear it’s easier to demolish the entire house and rebuild from the ground up rather than renovating one room at a time.” Machado, Britton, Brach, Gausman, Schoop, O’Day. The Great Baltimore Demolition of 2018.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 31, 2018
After several seasons in the sun, the two least-successful teams of 2018 are plummeting in tandem. While they’re starting to take steps to pull out of their freefalls, those steps have sent them so far into the cellar that not even an alliance and a flagrant flouting of roster rules could rescue them this year. Every MLB player—even the ones on what, to this point, have been two of the worst teams ever—is among the world’s most skilled members of a highly competitive profession. As one of the sport’s sayings goes, though, “The other guy lives in a big house, too,” and the Orioles’ and Royals’ houses are generally much more modest than their opponents’. The Orioyals could crush in Triple-A, but at the major league level, combining the current Orioles and Royals is a garbage-in, garbage-out exercise. Two terrible teams don’t make a winning one.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Joey Rickard as a member of the Royals.