The Astros were in the postseason this year, but they just barely squeaked in because the Rangers won the AL West. This is not a sentence that you were expecting to read six months ago. Frankly, you're being a little too sanguine about this.
Remember that face you made when you found out that "eleven plus two" is an anagram of "twelve plus one?" You should make that face every time you remember the Astros and Rangers were both in the postseason, a year after losing 92 and 95 games, respectively. The Astros and the Rangers, man.
It's not that rare for a team to go worst-to-first or make the playoffs after a last-place finish, though. In the 20 seasons since the start of the Wild Card Era, there have been 13 teams to go from last place to the postseason. Three teams did it in 2007, and there's been an average of one every year for the last five seasons. People aren't complaining so much about parity these days, I'm noticing.
It's time to pick the last-place team that finishes first in 2016. We did this last year and everyone assumed that the Red Sox were going to be the team that made the jump. Let's go through the last-place teams and see who the Red Sox of 2016 will be.
Dammit, Red Sox.
Yet again, though, they're the obvious pick. They have the youth, with Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts turning into stars and an enviable farm system. They'll have the money to throw at players they need to fill in the cracks. And they'll have the confidence that there's absolutely no way that Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez could possibly be that bad again. Right?
/cough from back of room
Well, it would be hard for them to be as lousy, at least.
The reasons to pick the Red Sox for the postseason next year were the same to do it last year, except this year they have added humility and Dave Dombrowski. The patchwork he's-the-ace rotation isn't something they'll try again, and they're probably done with wacky experiments like Ramirez in left.
Picking the Red Sox to go worst-to-first (or worst-to-wild, at least) is like picking the Cardinals to win the NL Central. It's the easy pick, and you're awarded no bonus points.
The Reds have a chance to finish last for the next five years, really. It's hard enough to predict the next week of baseball, much less the next five seasons, but there are so many warning signs. You know, uh, red flags. The world-class rotation from 2012 is almost entirely gone, save for the expensive pitcher recovering from Tommy John. Joey Votto is a perennial MVP candidate until further notice, but that's the big contract for the Reds for the next eight years or so. They're a small- to mid-market team, and they're already tapped out on the payroll side.
They're also chasing the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates, who have youth, talent, and smarts on their side. So this isn't looking good.
But this isn't an article meant to depress fans! This is an article meant to offer hope. So what if the Reds lost 98 games even though they got 40 solid-to-great starts from Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto, with Votto having one of the best seasons of his tremendous career? So what if that's all probably not going to happen again, which means the Reds are actually crawling out from a deeper hole than a 98-loss season would suggest?
I have nothing. I'm sorry. For all the talk of how there's a worst-to-first team every other year or so, it's worth noting that there were a ton of teams that repeated their last-place finish every year. The Reds might not be shoo-ins for that dark fate (thanks, Brewers!), but any miracle renaissance would have to include Votto doing unbelievable things and them getting 40 to 50 excellent starts from two or three of their young pitchers, and that's basically what they already had last year.
This is probably the least likely of the six last-place teams.
Like the Red Sox, the Tigers were a reasonable pick to win their division. Also like the Red Sox, the Tigers were crushed by a falling safe as they were walking down the street.
They did a fantastic job of getting reload-not-rebuild prospects at the deadline, though. While that took a hit with the horrible news about Daniel Norris, they can still build a competent rotation out of a rejuvenated Justin Verlander, one or two of the youngsters, a hopefully not-completely-useless Anibal Sanchez, and whatever they can snag on the open market.
If they can do that, the lineup should score enough to contend. Miguel Cabrera is a heckuva start to any team with postseason aspirations, and it's not like he's surrounded by Rule 5 picks. They won't be favorites, and they shouldn't be, but they're probably the most analogous team to this season's Rangers -- the stumble into last place was a nightmare, but the core talent is still impressive enough to surprise.
In six months, Sonny Gray is going to be on the Brewers, the A's will have Carlos Gonzalez starting at second base, and the roster will look like a contender. Don't ask me how. Don't work out the permutations in your head. Even though Billy Beane technically isn't the GM anymore, this is how the A's work.
Okay, fine, let them keep Gray. If they're going to go worst-to-first, they'll need an ace like that, and he's probably a year away from the A's organizational philosophy of trading a player a year too soon rather than a year too late. The A's will need to rediscover their touch for turning unwanted pitchers into solid contributors, or they'll need to find a bargain like Scott Kazmir on the open market, or both.
And they'll need to find some hitters. Giving 1,500 at-bats to Eric Sogard, Sam Fuld, and Billy Burns probably isn't a path to success, especially if the plan is for Billy Butler and Mark Canha to drive them in. Those names would all be worrisome if the A's were planning to stand pat ... but you know they have a seven-team deal plotted out on a whiteboard somewhere in their offices, and it looks like the timeline for Primer. They'll be creative.
Check that, they'll be pissed off and creative. I don't know if that's going to lead to lunacy or legitimacy, but it's impossible to imagine them having a boring offseason. They're your pick if you like danger and thrills.
Maybe they'll build a pitching staff.
That's it, that's the entire argument. They're already doing a lot of things well, spawning productive outfielders and developing All-Stars. Nolan Arenado is one of the most complete threats in baseball, and he has help in the lineup. Maybe they'll build a pitching staff.
It's not out of the question. Jon Gray looked promising in his trial, and Jeff Hoffman isn't too far behind. Add in the sleepy competence of Jorge De La Rosa and maybe a free agent, and you've got a stew, baby.
Just ignore that most free agents will always and forever eliminate the Rockies as a destination unless they're truly desperate, and we'll be fine.
A trade, then. A trade for a starter that works out in their favor, combined with their young pitchers developing. Remember, they don't have to beat out the Dodgers (or the rest of the NL West); they just have to squeak into the fifth-best record in the league. It's far-fetched, but it's 2015 Astros far-fetched, not 2015 Phillies far-fetched. It's not unthinkable.
This was unthinkable last year, and for good reason. However, the Phillies didn't lose 100 games. You might think that's a low, sad bar to clear, and you're right. But good gravy, the Phillies didn't lose 100 games with that Opening Day roster, and that's something of a feel-good story.
Can they build on it? They did have positive developments, you know. Odubel Herrera showed off some skills and produced far more than a raw, toolsy player coming straight up from Double-A should have. Maikel Franco looks like a future star, as does Aaron Nola. Aaron Altherr should be a low-cost, medium-value outfielder for a few years, one of the players who allows the Phillies to spend a little. Ryan Howard is the only lousy contract left, and he just has a year remaining.
The Phillies could be the Padres of this offseason. Except in a successful way.
Wackier things have happened! Their defense is an H.R. Giger painting, but the new regime should figure out some quick fixes, and they'll have a little money to do it. The emergence of Nola answers one big question, and the ultimate wild card in the lousy-to-respectable journey these days is apparently a highly regarded 20-year-old shortstop prospect. J.P. Crawford could be as established as Carlos Correa at this time next year.
You could do worse than picking the Phillies in this exercise, even if they're an overwhelmingly solid bet for fourth or fifth place.
It's time to pick. You have a poll. This is the moment of truth. Me? I'm going with the Reds because screw you, baseball, I'm wise to you. I've already pre-written my "How the Reds fixed Tony Cingrani" draft. All it needs is the answer, and it's good to publish.
Congratulations, Reds, 2016 postseason team. No one believed in you, but I did. Even if it wasn't because of logic and tangible evidence, I believed in you. Now shock the world.