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Polling those in the game: Which underachieving mess of a MLB team is the most surprising this year?

Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

It started with a casual conversation, and then became a curiosity.

Among other storylines, the 2023 MLB season will go down as the greatest collection of high-priced teams that, well, stunk.

Because baseball is unpredictable, it seems like every season there is a team or two with lofty payrolls and even loftier expectations that ultimately fall on their collective faces.

This year, though, there have been six clubs – one for each division – which had an abundance of talent to start the year and now head into September under .500 and likely out of the postseason picture.

They are the New York Yankees in the American League East; the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central; the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West; the New York Mets in the National League East; the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central; and the San Diego Padres in the NL West.

Only the Yankees and Padres weren’t sellers at the trade deadline. In retrospect, they should have been. All six clubs began this year with a top-half payroll. The Mets, Yankees and Padres were one, two and three, respectively, with the Angels spending the sixth most on player salaries.

This six-pack of disasters made me wonder which one is the most surprising disappointment. You can make an argument for each, whether it’s based on money spent, number of superstars or weakness of division.

My initial thought was the St. Louis Cardinals. They won 93 games last year, had a nice mix of young and experienced talent returning and are in a division seemingly there for the taking. I’m still not sure why the Cardinals were so uninspired and unsuccessful.  

Then I talked with a scout, who was adamant it should be the Padres. Or, on second thought, maybe the Mets.

A story was born. I took an unofficial poll of 10 people in the game: Talent evaluators, executives, scouts, players, media. And I asked a simple question: Of the six surprisingly bad teams in this group, which one’s struggles this year surprised you the most? I asked them to rank the six, from most surprising (1) to least surprising (6) in the ability to stink.

Five of the six teams picked up at least one first-place vote, further demonstrating that this is a unique season of high-profile busts.

Here are the results:

6. Los Angeles Angels, 52 points

2022 record: 73-89. Current record: 64-70. First-place votes: 0.

2023 beginning payroll: $212 million (sixth of 30).

Thoughts: The Angels are the only one of these six which did not get a first-place vote. They were fifth or sixth on every ballot but one. That’s likely because the Angels had the worst record of this group last year and haven’t made the playoffs since 2014.

Still, one member of the panel placed them second most surprising because, he figured, at least one time in the Mike Trout-Shohei Ohtani partnership the club would reach the postseason. And 2023 might have been the last try. “They have Ohtani and Trout. Those two are the three best players in the game,” he quipped.

los angeles angels
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5. Chicago White Sox, 49 points

2022 record: 81-81. Current record: 53-81. First-place votes: 1.

2023 beginning payroll: $181 million (14th).

Thoughts: The White Sox experienced their mini-implosion last year when they finished at .500 following a 2021 in which they won 93 games and had seemed to announce their return to prominence. But instead of 2022 being the outlier, a disastrous start to 2023 led owner Jerry Reinsdorf to clean out his front office and trade some valuable, short-term pieces.

One panel member said the White Sox fall is the most surprising because it signifies a shift in philosophy. Once again. “To have imploded the way they did, to be no-doubt sellers at the deadline, to the point that Reinsdorf finally felt the need for a change of baseball operations’ top people, is a complete collapse.”

chicago white sox
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3 (tie). New York Yankees, 34 points

2022 record: 99-63. Current record: 65-68. First-place votes: 1.

2023 beginning payroll: $277 million (second).

Thoughts: It’s hard to believe that this club, which won 99 games last year and has made six straight postseasons, could finish under .500 for the first time since 1992. But that is the reality that is staring the Bronx Bombers in the face.

One of the panel members warns that the Yankees still have some wins in them this year and that they aren’t as bad as the record indicates. But the lone voter that placed them first said simply, “The Yankees have been a complete failure on all levels.” Not much else to say after that.

new york yankees
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3 (tie). St. Louis Cardinals, 34 points

2022 record: 93-69. Current record: 58-76. First-place votes: 2.

2023 beginning payroll: $176 million (15th).

Thoughts: This team really has no excuses to be in last place in the NL Central. They had some injuries, but simply the team as a whole didn’t play well. Their stars have had mediocre seasons. Their young players have struggled with consistency. Their pitching, which seemed to be good enough going in, fell flat. Maybe the Cardinals have spoiled baseball fans over the years, but they look like a flawed, and relatively old, team.

The acquisition of catcher Wilson Contreras wasn’t a particularly good fit, and manager Oliver Marmol temporarily removed the veteran from behind the plate, shining more of a focus on potential roster dysfunction. “I think they missed two integral pieces in (the retired) Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina,” said one panelist. “They managed that clubhouse, and they didn’t need anyone else intervening. And then, this year, the manager messes with things in the first few weeks and it sets the tone.”   

st. louis cardinals
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

2. New York Mets, 24 points

2022 record: 101-61. Current record: 61-73. First-place votes: 2.

2023 beginning payroll: $354 million (first).

Thoughts: If this question were simply, “Which big-money team is the largest train wreck?” The Mets might be the unanimous top selection. The richest payroll in baseball history – by far – may yield a last-place finish.

The reason the Mets are only second here, though, is that they are the Mets. And, deep down, baseball observers expect them to screw up things. They can’t really use the surprise factor too much. Says one panelist: “A 101-win team signs Justin Verlander, spends half a billion dollars in free agency, rolls up the highest payroll in the history of sports and then finishes last? Ridiculous. How do I keep forgetting the Mets are gonna Met?”   

new york mets
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

1. San Diego Padres, 17 points

2022 record: 89-73. Current record: 62-72. First-place votes: 4.

2023 beginning payroll: $249 million (third).

Thoughts: The Padres made it to the NLCS in 2022 and then brought in Xander Bogaerts, Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo, among others, this offseason to join Manny Machado and Company. This season also included a full year of Juan Soto, a mostly full year of Fernando Tatis Jr., a formidable rotation and a bullpen led by stalwart Josh Hader.

This is arguably the best roster in the sport and yet the Padres appear to be buried in fourth. “The Padres are loaded, offensively, defensively. Something is wrong there with that clubhouse culture. But the scariest thing about the Padres is if they somehow made the playoffs, they could win it all. Really.”

san diego padres
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Connolly is an MLB Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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