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It could be worse: The 1899 Cleveland Spiders and 2016 tanking

Sure, the Braves and Phillies will be bad, but it could always be worse. And for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, it was.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason has had perhaps no buzzword more contentious than tanking. Some have claimed that it's harmful to baseball and unfair to fans; others have defended it as a pragmatic part of a rebuilding strategy. It's either a bug or a feature or, if you're Scott Boras, a problem demanding an intricate multi-layered solution.

But whatever your perspective on the strategy of teams who are expected to lose and lose badly, it's inarguable that there are a few teams who fit this description for 2016. The Braves, the Phillies, the Reds—teams whose upcoming season seems to exist not as the typical blank February slate shimmering with possibility, but as a foregone conclusion and a rather miserable one, at that.

The most common coping mechanism for fans in this position is to look to the more distant future. Close your eyes, tell yourself that the present suffering is in the name of eventual success, and imagine a world where prospects reach their ceilings and glorious victory comes at last. But not every fan can be quite so optimistic, and so for some, solace might lie not in a better hypothetical future but in a worse hypothetical present—the understanding that, no matter how bad it is, it could always somehow be worse.

And there is no better example of what that "worse" might look like than baseball's all-time worst team, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. After posting an unbelievably atrocious record of 20-134, the team was forced to fold at the end of the year. So in a year where tanking has become such a loaded term—heavy with questions about what a team owes its fans and players, about how much of the present can or should be mortgaged for the future—let's revisit the greatest tank in baseball's history and see how a similarly-constructed team might fare today.

Before the season began, the Spiders' owners made a series of moves that left no doubt about their intentions with the club. The Robison brothers, who had been part of the team's ownership since its establishment twelve years prior, decided to pursue an additional baseball opportunity—buying the bankrupt St. Louis Browns and rechristening them as the Perfectos, making their lofty goals for the team clear with a new name.But despite their new focus on the St. Louis squad, they did not relinquish control of the Spiders. This probably strikes you as a conflict of interest, and it very much is, which is why it's since been prohibited. But at the time, it was fair game, and the Robison brothers exploited the situation for all it was worth.

Less than three weeks before Opening Day, the brothers decimated Cleveland's roster, trading all of the team's most promising players to—you guessed it—St. Louis. It's a move that makes the Marlins' 2012 fire sale look modest. The Spiders offloaded Cy Young in his prime, along with fellow future Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace, and an astounding fifteen other players. In return, they got the dregs of the former Browns' roster, a ragtag mix of veterans who had aged less than gracefully and young players who showed little promise.

For good measure, the Robison brothers also tweaked the teams' schedules. The Perfectos and Spiders had been set to meet on Opening Day in Cleveland, but the brothers felt a game in St. Louis would draw a better crowd and changed accordingly. As expected, the Perfectos dominated, and the next morning's Cleveland Plain-Dealer minced no words with the headline "THE FARCE HAS BEGUN."

That Opening Day game, a 10-1 drubbing that had quite literally been wrested from the city of Cleveland and relocated to St. Louis, was as good a metaphor for the Spiders' season as any. They won back-to-back games just once; at one point, they lost 26 consecutively. A local sportswriter's list of reasons to follow the team included such encouraging points as "there is everything to hope for and nothing to fear" and "there is no danger of any club passing you."

Obviously, a situation like that of the Spiders could never befall a modern team (for one, no team could be forced to play 101 road games due to poor home attendance, let alone lose 101 road games). But for fun—at least, the weird sort of fun that we have to reach for in the baseball-hungry doldrums of February—let's see what a 2016 equivalent of the ill-fated Spiders would look like.

For each slot in the lineup, I searched for comparable active players based on WAR and OPS+ both for their career and their most recent year (meaning 1898 for the Spiders and 2015 for current players). For pitchers, I looked at WAR, ERA+, and WHIP (though the poor quality of the Spiders' pitching staff meant that their rotation was quite variable, so I only found modern equivalents for the team's top two pitchers). Players' ages were also considered.

These comparisons are looser than they are precise, and some of them required a bit more stretching than others—it wasn't easy to find a current outfielder who could match Sport McAllister's OPS+ of 50 (it's unclear how he got his nickname, but I'd guess it was from a sport other than baseball). Some of them, though, came rather easily. For instance, to fit a veteran first baseman who dominated early in his career but had struggled mightily in recent years, who else but Ryan Howard? And statistically speaking, J.P. Arencibia is almost a dead ringer for the Spiders' Joe Sugdan—the two catchers have posted an identically poor OPS+ of 80 and nearly equivalent WAR figures of 2.8 and 2.7, respectively.

The full lineup:

Position Player Current Team Projected 2016 WAR (Steamer)
C J.P. Arencibia TB 0.0
1B Ryan Howard PHI -0.8
2B Eric Sogard OAK 0.3
SS Cristhian Adames COL 0.0
3B Mike Olt CHW 0.0
OF Cole Gillespie MIA 0.0
OF Junior Lake TOR 0.0
OF James Jones TEX 0.0
SP Kyle Kendrick ATL 0.0
SP Jo-Jo Reyes MIA 0.0

Considering that the 1899 Spiders were pieced together quite literally from replacement players, it's not surprising that the hypothetical 2016 Spiders equivalent project as replacement level more or less across the board. But look at those names, and picture them—this weird, sad, fictional collection of major league flotsam and flameouts and let-downs—as an actual team, battling through a full 162 games together. Imagine Eric Sogard as the single most promising player on a squad. Imagine Kyle Kendrick (and that's current Kyle Kendrick, not 2007 Kyle Kendrick) as an ace.

In a simulated season against a major league-average team, run through SaberSim, the hypothetical modern version of the Spiders went 43-119—better than their 19th-century counterpart, and far worse than the teams with the bleakest outlook for 2016.

Which is all to say, even for the most pessimistic and downtrodden of Braves and Phillies fans—it could always be worse.

. . .

References:  Herzog, Brad. "Hard to Believe How Bad They Were," Sports Illustrated, April 19th, 1999.

Emma Baccellieri is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @emmabaccellieri.