The Baltimore Orioles were a bad team in 2011. Terrible, really. They won 69 games, finished last in the AL East, and allowed 152 more runs than they scored. If anyone other than Dan Duquette and the players' moms figured the O's could storm back, win 90-odd games, and make a run at the AL East title and maybe even a World Series, those true believers certainly kept their opinions to themselves.
Last year's Baltimore team — along with fellow sub-.500 clubs turned 2012 playoff entrants Washington, Cincinnati, and Oakland — offer hope for those teams already eliminated from postseason contention this year. With that in mind, let's take a look at the 16 teams whose playoffs dreams had been dashed as of Monday (i.e. not these guys), and see if we can find a candidate or two to be next year's Orioles.
Caveats: This is a highly, highly speculative exercise, especially this early. We don't know what team budgets will be, what their front offices have planned, and, in some cases, if the people currently in charge will still hold the reins a couple months from now. Not to mention becoming the next Orioles assumes that another team will put up one of the most unlikely seasons in baseball history. But hey, it's fun, and we're going to spend every day of the next month talking playoffs teams anyway. Might as well see what the Padres and Royals are up to, while we still can.
You have to figure the Astros are just finishing year one of a five-year plan. They're hiring a talented and eclectic mix of people, from PITCHf/x guru Mike Fast to former Baseball Prospectus prospect maven Kevin Goldstein. Their latest hire is Nationals third-base coach Bo Porter, who, if this Q&A is any indication, has some interesting and innovative ideas about how to run a ball club. The move to the AL West will make life that much tougher. But a new, lucrative TV deal and the upside of playing in America's fifth-largest market offer some exciting possibilities for the new regime.
The Rockies have had the advantage of playing in what's typically one of the weaker divisions in baseball. But the Dodgers' rainmaking, combined with a solid Giants roster and some sleeper potential for Arizona and San Diego, don't bode well for the Rockies. Plus all those factors are far less important to Colorado's chances when compared to the disaster that is the Rockies pitching staff. New man in charge Bill Geivett and the rest of the front office is on the case, but right now there are a lot more questions than answers.
The Cubs generate healthy revenue streams and have well-heeled owners. But it's going to take time for the current crop of promising prospects to develop, not to mention young major leaguers like Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson, Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija, and others. It's conceivable that Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein could pull a post-2003 Detroit Tigers and sign some useful veterans to expedite the rebuilding process. But it's tough to see everything come to fruition as soon as 2013.
The Indians look a little like the Rockies: several very talented position players, but also a starting rotation in complete disarray, between Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Dan Haren, and several other free agents, not to mention possible trade candidates like James Shields and/or whoever else the Rays decide to trade for a bat. It's also conceivable that Justin Masterson bounces back and Zach McAllister continues his development after an encouraging rookie season. With a nucleus of Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jason Kipnis, you can call a big 2013 a long shot for the Tribe, but not an impossibility.
Heading into Monday's games, the Indians had allowed the most runs of any AL team, with the Twins giving up just two fewer. Years of drafting soft-tossing arms with back-of-the-rotation potential, combined with failure to cash in on opportunities such as the Johan Santana trade, have left Minnesota wanting for high-impact starting pitchers. There are some bats here, led by Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham. But few teams would be more logical candidates to spend free-agent money on real pitching talent than the Twins; doubly so given the publicly financed gem of a ballpark that's lining the Pohlad family's pockets.
Time for a confession: I picked the Marlins to win the NL East this season. (Waiting for you to stop laughing ) (Still waiting ) (Come on now, this is just cruel ) (OK, done.) Hey, it made sense (in my mind) at the time. Who knew the Fish would score fewer runs than any NL team other than Houston, with Logan Morrison's season wrecked by injuries and several other players badly underachieving. Hanley Ramirez is gone, but Giancarlo Stanton remains, and a full season from him could one day net 50 homers. Also still around: Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and two more years of Heath Bell's $27 million contract, a.k.a. the world's greatest cautionary tale. The Marlins have urgently ordered deep payroll cuts just a few months after opening a $634 million stadium they bamboozled from feckless local politicians, so most of the improvement for 2013 would likely have to come from incumbent players.
The Mariners have King Felix, which is a hell of a start. Problem is, they'll be looking up at three teams likely coming off 90-win seasons. They also have a bit of an arrested development problem. Dustin Ackley looked like a budding star after a very good rookie season in 2011, but he's fallen off sharply this year (a 72-point drop in batting average on balls in play certainly played a role). Justin Smoak was the prize of 2010's Cliff Lee deal, but he's been terrible, other than a couple of short streaks. Jesus Montero, the prize of the Michael Pineda deal, has shown terrible strike zone recognition in his rookie year in Seattle. Still, Montero's 22 and gifted, it's too early to write off Ackley, and a trio of dynamic pitching prospects await in Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton. The Mariners could get a lot better quicker than most would expect.
Assuming Jeff Francoeur doesn't sign a lifetime contract, the Royals will, if not on Opening Day then soon afterward, have a starting nine in place that the team can control through 2015. The pending addition of super-prospect Wil Myers offers the potential for well, Mike Trout's 2012 is a once-in-a-lifetime rookie performance, but certainly something pretty great. The starting rotation remains awful, though, with prospects like Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi badly needed to produce in the relatively near future. Here's another team that would do well to spend some money on pitching. As a bottom-dwelling payroll team for years (fourth-lowest at just under $61 million this season), with a potentially explosive lineup, gaping pitching holes, and gobs of money streaming in between revenue sharing, national media deals, and other avenues, the Royals have no excuse not to get aggressive.
All of that pretty much describes the Jays, too. A healthy Jose Bautista combined with ascendant super-slugger Edwin Encarnacion give Toronto one of the best one-two power punches in the game. But while Ricky Romero offers the promise of better performance, Brandon Morrow better health, the Jays still sorely lack front-line starting pitching for 2013, as currently constituted. Trading J.P. Arencibia for an arm and handing the starting job to Travis D'Arnaud is a possibility, though the Jays probably aren't getting anything close to an ace for a catcher with very good power and horrific on-base skills. The offseason's most interesting subplot may well revolve around the many, many teams with starting pitching needs, the promise of an additional $26 million per team in TV money starting in 2014 could prompt some early (and surprising) shopping sprees.
You wouldn't know it by glancing at raw numbers, but the Padres starting rotation was terrible this year. Petco Park obscured some of the damage, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a potential ace in this bunch. A healthy Cory Luebke by mid-season would help a lot, and Casey Kelly could produce once he gets some innings under his belt. But there aren't many electric arms in the organization, whether at the major league level or the high minors. It's why the Padres saw fit to trade Anthony Rizzo for Andrew Cashner, and why after years of searching frantically for bats, we could see an offseason hunt for arms this time around. Trading Chase Headley would be one way to stock the system, but it would also likely eliminate whatever modest playoff potential the Padres might have for 2013.
The Red Sox have more resources to work with than anyone on this list. But the fierce competition in the American League, coupled with a team with thin starting pitching and a ton of turnover elsewhere on the roster doesn't bode well for a return to the postseason in 2013. The Adrian Gonzalez trade cleared a ton of payroll space, which should come in extremely handy as the Sox reload for the long haul. Again, we're making guesses and assumptions here, and there's plenty of incentive for Boston to attack the free-agent market and try to quick-fix their way back to October. But as things stand, many of the teams on this list are closer to that goal.
The Mets could boast one of baseball's best rotations next year. R.A. Dickey might start the season as the defending Cy Young winner. Jon Niese is quietly becoming one of the most reliable lefty starters in the league. And Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler offer top-of-the-rotation upside. The offense is much thinner, but the Swiss cheese outfield could get a lot better in a hurry, given the depth of the free-agent market at that position (Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, etc.). A bunch of things have to go right, but the Mets have a bit of a sleeper scent to them.
Right now, this is the prevailing feeling surrounding the Pirates. But a 20th straight losing season shouldn't obscure the positive steps taken by this team. Andrew McCutchen went from being a really good player to an MVP candidate. Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones (re-)found their power strokes. Neil Walker played extremely well when he was healthy enough to go. The bullpen looked excellent at times, and the A.J. Burnett–led starting rotation was very good for more than half the season. Ultimately many of these are moral victories. But when Starling Marte settles into an everyday job and Gerrit Cole cracks the rotation and other prospects finally make the big leagues, this team could become a lot of fun to watch. Upgrades at catcher and shortstop should be major offseason priorities.
Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Ruben Amaro Jr. will owe about $115 million to those three aces plus three more players next year, which makes filling out the rest of the roster a challenge but also establishes the Phillies as a threat to shake off an uncharacteristically poor 2012 season and contend again. Sadly, the core trio of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins isn't getting any younger, or better. Do the Phillies double down with a high-risk free-agent signing like Josh Hamilton, or even raid whatever's left of the farm system to pursue a possible blockbuster deal? Or do they tap the brakes on spending, given the specter of the luxury tax and their existing heavy commitments? Kind of feels like they should be pushing all-in, given how little time most of their veteran stars likely have left to remain solidly productive.
The Brewers showed there was life after Prince Fielder, and even after Zack Greinke, going on a furious late-season run that nearly ended with a miracle playoff berth. The highest-scoring team in the NL this year should be well-armed next season, with Rickie Weeks hopefully not spending months hitting like a poor man's Doug Flynn before rediscovering his stroke and a healthy Mat Gamel adding depth. A full year at short for Jean Segura could bolster the team's defense. And there's a lot to like about the young pitching, with Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Tyler Thornburg, and Wily Peralta all showing flashes of greatness that could generate some young depth behind Yovani Gallardo.
Daniel Hudson's season was destroyed by injuries, Justin Upton fell off sharply thanks to a sore thumb and other problems, and the left side of the infield was a mess. But many of the Diamondbacks' problems are fixable, from Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Patrick Corbin taking their place in the rotation behind Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and Wade Miley, to Upton benefiting from a few months of rest and some likely regression, to Kevin Towers the deal-hunter going after infield upgrades, whether by trading one of Arizona's many capable starting pitchers or opening the checkbook for free agents. The D-Backs' underlying numbers didn't support 2011's 94-win season, but they also probably deserved better than this year's .500ish finish. Ninety wins and a return to the playoffs are a very real possibility.
The Brewers and Diamondbacks were too good this year as also-rans to qualify as Orioles-level stories in 2013 — though they'd be the best bets right now to make it back to the playoffs next year.
But if you're looking for that one, out-of-nowhere story, it just might be the Mets. You never know what the Wilpons' ongoing financial crisis might do to the team's finances, and David Wright, Johan Santana, and Jason Bay will make an ungodly amount of money, with only one of those players likely to produce a full year of above-average results. But 350 innings of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler could produce electric results, and the Mets' biggest weakness — its barren outfield — matches up perfectly with the free-agent market's biggest area of depth. Just an early hunch before we embark on our final, monthlong scramble until the crowning of this year's champions.