In 2017, there were six teams that tried really, really hard and failed. They failed more often than some of the other bad teams in their own division. They lost and lost and lost some more, and by the end of the season, they had earned a distinction that no team wants.
These are the last-place teams. They will wear their shame forever. Their Baseball-Reference page will never change. They will always finish in last place.
There is good news, however! In the 22 seasons since the start of the Wild Card Era, there have been 15 teams to go from last place to the postseason in one year. In the Second Wild Card Era, it’s happening nearly every season:
Diamondbacks - 2011
Orioles - 2012
Red Sox - 2013
Rangers, Cubs - 2015
Red Sox - 2016
Twins - 2017
Every year, there’s usually at least one team that collects their books from the ground, dusts themselves off, and kicks the school bully right in the beans the next year. Although, I’m not sure if a second wild card really counts as a kick to the beans. It’s more like “starts a pernicious rumor on social media that doesn’t go away.” Still, it’s happening more and more.
Which means it’s time to figure out which last-place team will make the postseason this year. It seems ridiculously unlikely, but so did the Twins. There were six teams that finished in last place last year. One of them will make the postseason next year, and we should guess which one will do it.
One of the most inspiring stories of the 2017 season was just how effectively the Tigers tanked at the end. Through most of July, they were four or five games back of the second wild card spot. While that’s mostly because the American League wild card race was exceptionally sloppy and hilarious, there was still that hope in the back of the mind of the most optimistic Tigers fans. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll go on a little run.
Oh, they went on that run, alright. After a garden variety kind of bad month in August, they peeled out and zoomed past every other team in baseball to finish with the worst record and the first-overall pick. It took a 6-23 finish and a Pablo Sandoval walk-off homer to get there, but they did it. They were rewarded for slipping in the mess on the sidewalk and landing in the mess on the sidewalk and getting the mess in their hair and on their clothes and oh god it’s everywhere. That’s how perfectly imperfect their September was.
Since then, they’ve traded Ian Kinsler. They might score 600 runs, but it’s not a given, and they’ll probably allow 800, but only after the sixth inning.
This is not the team we’re looking for.
They are the deep, resigned sigh of baseball. The Orioles are a collection of 25 men from all over the world who make you suck in a deep breath and exhale theatrically, possibly with your lips making a boat sound. This is what they’ve been for the last couple of years. This is what they will always be.
Except, waaaait a minute. This is still the team with Manny Machado and Adam Jones, right? There might not be a lot of teams that would like to pay Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis their current salaries, but there are plenty that would be in favor of having them hit 90 combined homers for them, which is a distinct possibility. Jonathan Schoop still might be this generation’s Alfonso Soriano, except he can play a mean second base. This might be a solid lineup. This might be an excellent lineup. It just needs a few things to break right.
But it’s here that I must include my favorite fun fact about the 2017 Orioles. Wade Miley was 8-15 with a 5.61 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez was 6-11 with a 6.81 ERA. Both of them started and finished the season in the rotation. They were there the whole time. And neither of them had the worst ERA in the rotation.
Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are a fine start to a rotation, but until there’s any reason to be confident about the Orioles’ ability to find pitching — like, one single reason — it’s going to be hard to predict them for a postseason run, especially with an unbalanced schedule in the relatively tough AL East.
One of these days, I’ll get around to writing my appreciation for the Reds’ deft rebuild, where they added more value from trading away marginal assets than they had a right to add. They still have Joey Votto, and their rotation is more promising than you might think, even if they will allow another 500 homers or so.
It’s tricky to see a postseason run against the Cubs, Cardinals, or Brewers, though. It’s certainly not impossible, and we’ve seen teams win with the “have an unreal superstar and maybe some pitchers surprise idk?” before, like the 1997 Giants and the 2013 Pirates.
Still, the Reds’ current roster is pegged by FanGraphs to finish with the same record as the Tigers, who will have Jim Flansten hitting cleanup and playing second base, just as soon as they can find someone named Jim Flansten with working thumbs, so I wouldn’t consider the Reds a favorite for a postseason spot. But they give me that 2017 Twins vibe, where it’s easy to overlook what’s going right for them (Votto, Luis Castillo, pitchers returning from injury) just because of how much is expected to go wrong.
It used to be the A’s were the kings of Better Than You Think. Look at their roster for their first-place 2013 team and be impressed. They squeezed a lot of contributions from players who weren’t destined for extended success, and they supported them with legitimate superstars. It felt like they did that every year.
They might be doing it again. Matt Chapman’s defense makes him a poor man’s Manny Machado already, and it’s possible that he’s just scratching the surface. They finally got Khris Davis out of the outfield, and Stephen Piscotty was a tremendous buy-low acquisition for a lineup that’s supremely underrated. Or, at least, it’s an underrated lineup if Matt Olson really is a future superstar and dinger machine, which he might be.
Still, it’s all going to depend on the rotation, which is currently set up like this:
- Kendall Graveman
- Sean Manaea
- Daniel Mengden
- Andrew Triggs
- Jesse Hahn
There’s potential up there. Manaea is a sleeper pick this year, Gravemen’s floor is “boring competence,” both Mengden and Triggs impressed in their limited time last year, and Hahn is a perfect high-upside pitcher for the fifth spot if he wins the job.
There’s also potential for a sea of ERAs over 5.00 and two steps back, as there is with every rotation that’s relying on leaps forward instead of established reliability. The A’s probably won’t make the postseason next year.
But I like their team at the start of the season better than I liked the Twins’ last year. Better than I liked the Rangers’ roster before 2015. All the A’s need is some pitching, and it’s not like they’re relying on, I don’t know, Ubaldo Jimenez cleaning up his mechanics. They have reasons to try with these pitchers.
The immolation of the Phillies’ rotation last year was horribly discouraging. They were supposed to have the hard part done first, which would allow them to get enough offense to contend immediately. They had found a young rotation filled with pitchers they could trust.
Well, there’s your first problem. You can’t trust any young pitchers. None of them. That one you think you can trust has your wallet right now, and he’s about to take the credit cards out and throw it off a bridge. Imagine trusting young pitchers. You absolute buffoon, why would you do that?
At the same time, Aaron Nola looks pretty danged reliable. Maybe Vince Velasquez rediscovers his command and control, and maybe Jerad Eickhoff finds whatever it is that he lost last season. Nick Pivetta was at least a touch unlucky last year, and maybe it will all work out? Please note that you have to read “maybe it will all work out” in an uptalking voice without any conviction.
But there’s certainly hope for the lineup now, what with Rhys Hoskins’ emergence and the signing of Carlos Santana. From Nick Williams through Jorge Alfaro, the bottom of the lineup will be stacked with young players who might be on the cusp of breaking out, and considering the NL East is basically the Nationals and the husk of the Mets right now, there might be enough there to rack up 87 wins and have a fun summer.
Just as long as the young pitchers are OK. Which, sheesh, that sentence is never comforting.
San Francisco Giants
If you’re into the FanGraphs’ projections, this is a boring pick. This is the safe pick. This is basically cheating. That’s because they’re already projected to win the second wild card by the computers, and they still might add a fifth starter and another outfielder.
If you watched the Giants play last year, this is not the safe pick. This was their entire 2017 season:
Everything went wrong last year. Some of the good players were bad, and most of them were hurt. Their ace fell off a dirtbike — not a metaphor! — and their co-ace never seemed right after his blister problems. When they had a young player show a smidgen of promise, he was sucked out of the depressurized hole in the airplane. Even the minor leagues were a mess of players who had disappointing years.
Their plan this year is to not have all of that happen.
It’s not a bad plan! It was certainly the only plan that made sense, and they’re doing it with conviction. A lineup that features six or seven hitters who should be at least league average, but have the potential to be much better, is a pretty fair start. Then you get to the top of the rotation, which has three pitchers who project in the top 50, and you start to see the wisdom. There’s a reason why there weren’t a lot of “this is the season the Giants almost lose 100 games” articles at this time last year. They had good players who were expected to help them contend.
They still have those players and got other good players. Are we so blinded by recency bias that we can’t believe in anything other than their last three halves of baseball?
Those three halves were really, really, really bad, though. So while the Giants are the easy pick for the projection junkies, it’s probably safer to focus on what will go wrong. The bullpen is still uninspiring. The depth is lousy, which is a huge concern for a team filled with 30-and-older players. The back of the rotation is a mish-mash of replacement-level talents unless there’s an unexpected development with one of their young pitchers.
Still, the last time I did this exercise was in 2015. The boring choice was the Red Sox. I picked the Red Sox. Almost everyone voting in the poll picked the Red Sox. It turns out the answer was the Red Sox.
It’s probably the Giants.
[Brandon Belt is bitten by a sewer alligator on road trip to New York]
Yeah, probably the Giants.
[Hunter Pence hits .200/.290/.300 in 670 plate appearances]
They’re the safe pick.
[Every single minor league hitter has exactly 8 home runs and a .240 batting average]
I would take out a second mortgage and go to Vegas with this information if I were you. The Giants are totally going to win the second wild card. You read it here first.
Which last-place team from 2017 will make the postseason in 2018?
This poll is closed