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February 21, 2010

You Could Look It Up

Get Back in Line, Part 2

by Steven Goldman

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Continuing our backwards countdown of the franchise's that have gone the longest between rings.

Mets (1986)
Years since last championship: 24
Reason for gap: Gerry Hunsicker, Al Harazin, Joe McIlvaine, Steve Phillips, Jim Duquette, and Omar Minaya… And the ownership that hired them. Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, and Tom Edens for Juan Samuel. Vince Coleman. Mackey Sasser being unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Gregg Jeffries failing to live up to the hype. Dallas Green. David Cone to the Blue Jays for Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson; Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino to the Indians for Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza. Anthony Young. We're only up to 1993. The Mets always seem to be trying draw to an inside straight, forcing things, and are either overly concerned with the effects of player personality or totally ignorant of it. This off-season's signing of Jason Bay is a great example. He doesn't really change the team outlook and is a poor fit for the park, but they had to do something. Changing the height of the center-field fence is another of those moves that directionless teams sometimes try, tending to forget that such changes often hurt the home pitching staff as much as they help the home hitters.
President the last time they won: Ronald Wilson Reagan, bombing Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack. Given later events, no criticism implied.
Talk around the water cooler: Seven percent unemployment; the space shuttle Challenger tragedy; the Chernobyl disaster; Iran-Contra; the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
Top of the charts when they won: "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper.
Closest they've come since: They dropped to the 2000 World Series to the Yankees, 4-1. They've also lost the National League Championship Series three times, twice in the seventh game.
Chances of winning this year: The Phillies aren't going anywhere, the lineup is very soft after the top four, softer still for however long Carlos Beltran is out, and the starting pitching depth just isn't present. They're going to have a hard time making the postseason.

Royals (1985)
Years since last championship: 25
Reason for gap: Ewing Kauffman died and the team wasn't run with the same largesse. The team has failed to find a general manager who could grow the team through the farm system or canny trading despite the club's low-budget ceiling. All areas of the game have been marked by failure. In the last 20 seasons, the Royals have ranked 12th, 13th, or 14th in a 14-team league in EqA 13 times. They last ranked higher than ninth in 1990 and have not ranked higher than 13th since ranking ninth in 2003. The starting rotation, a strength during the first three-quarters of the 1990s, collapsed in 1998 and, though it has shown improvement in recent seasons thanks to Zack Greinke, has ranked higher than 10th in SNLVAR just once (2003; they ranked eighth) since 1997. The bullpen has ranked 12th, 13th, or 14th in WXRL 11 times since 1995. Over the last 20 years, they've had an average rank of ninth in defensive efficiency, but have ranked last in three of the last six seasons, including 2009.
President the last time they won: Ronald Wilson Reagan, off to Bitburg with a wreath.
Talk around the water cooler: Mikhail Gorbachev gets the top spot in the USSR; Rock Hudson's death from AIDS; the bombing of MOVE by the police in Philadelphia; the terrorist attack on the Achille Lauro; "Live Aid" and "We Are the World."
Top of the charts when they won: "Saving All My Love for You" by Whitney Houston
Closest they've come since: They've come close since? They've had a couple of second-place finishes, but not in over 20 years. They finished two games out in 1987 and seven games out in 1989. They also finished four games out during the abortive 1994 season, and seven games out in 2003, ending both seasons in third place. The '94 team didn't have much in the way of offense, but boasted a strong starting rotation headed by Kevin Appier and David Cone, and the deepest bullpen in the league. The 1993 team, which had roughly the same cast, finished 10 games behind the White Sox. Both teams led the league in WXRL and placed second in SNLVAR but failed due to the worst offense in the league.
Chances of winning this year: If they have the slightest, non-zero hope it's only because the division competition is unmotivated, having seemingly been crippled by economy-induced malaise.

Tigers (1984)
Years since last championship: 26
Reason for gap: It's difficult to encapsulate this franchise's lost years in just a paragraph, but let's try: The 1984 club was a great team that relied on a lot of fluke elements. Cy Young and MVP winner Willie Hernandez had never come close to being a 6-WARP player before and he never would again. The club had no regular first baseman, no regular third baseman, and the primary left fielder hit .239/.302/.342 against right-handers. The club made up for this in part by getting terrific production out of role players like Ruppert Jones, Johnny Grubb, and Rusty Kuntz, players who wouldn't synch up again, and got just-good-enough production from hitters like Howard Johnson (who would be traded to the Mets after the season in a deal the Tigers would regret), Darrell Evans (who had a rare off-year), Barbaro Garbey, and Tom Brookens, as well as pitchers like Milt Wilcox, players who couldn't be relied upon for the future. The Tigers had some very good core players in Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Chet Lemon, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, and Dan Petry, but they weren't enough. The farm system had flat lined, especially where pitching was concerned, and as the core aged out of its prime there was little to augment or replace it. The team picked up a few momentarily decent young players like Matt Nokes and Darnell Coles in trades, but for the most part the strategy was to just hold on to the core (collusion helped greatly in this effort) and watch as it aged. For several years after a last-hurrah 98-win season in 1987 (they lost the American League Championship Series to the Twins), the Tigers stayed relevant, if not hugely competitive, due to strong, walk- and power-heavy offenses. This phase finally coughed itself to death in 1994, when Travis Fryman was virtually the only player on the roster closer to being a rookie than a grandfather. After having won 85 games in 1993, a dozen years would go by before the club posted a winning record, putting together one of the worst teams of all time in 2003. Six-plus years of GM Randy Smith's tinkering failed to solve the problems of prospect development and most, if not all, of his trades were losses-notable accomplishment: four separate deals involving Brad Ausmus. The team's revitalization has been premised on good pitching supported by a respectable offense, but the finer points, like a full-service bullpen and a deep rotation have not always been there over the last four years, and the offense hasn't been sufficient to make up the difference.
President the last time they won: Ronald Wilson Reagan. There's a bear in the woods, America.
Talk around the water cooler: The withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Lebanon; the Russian boycott of the Olympics in Los Angeles; the selection of Geraldine Ferraro to be Walter Mondale's running mate in the presidential election; the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands; George Orwell's 1984 vs. the actual 1984.
Top of the charts when they won: "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder. Not his best, alas.
Closest they've come since: In 2006, they returned to the postseason for the first time in 19 years and reached the World Series, losing to the Cardinals 4-1.
Chances of winning this year: The division is soft, the starting rotation intriguing, but there's just not enough offense here.

Orioles (1983)
Years since last championship: 27
Reason for gap: More than anything else, the O's have had to deal with failures of ownership. Edward Bennett Williams's last years were about fighting cancer, not running a ballclub. Eli Jacobs wasn't particularly invested in winning ballgames. Peter Angelos stubbornly refused to rebuild until the team was far down a deep, dark well. The 1998 Orioles had no regulars under the age of 30 and the weighted average age of its position players was 33.3. The pitchers were slightly younger at an average of 30.2 thanks to the presence of Sidney Ponson (21) and Armando Benitez (25). The problem with having a roster this old is not only the risk inherent in having your entire club get feeble at once, but that there's nowhere to build from; old guys have limited trade value, and they don't leave as Type-A free agents either. If there was a category for Type-A retirees, the Orioles would have been golden. The Orioles also perfected the other half of a historically poor run, a dead farm system. The club had a nice run of first-round pitching draft picks from 1987-90 with Pete Harnisch, Gregg Olson (Arthur Rhodes was the second-round pick), Ben McDonald, and Mike Mussina, but the list of starting pitchers developed by the Orioles from then until 2008 is frightening. It includes Ponson, Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Rick KrivdaJimmy Haynes? It's a spectacularly short list for a period of nearly 20 years.
President the last time they won: Ronald Wilson Reagan, embracing "Star Wars."
Talk around the water cooler: Terrorist bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; KAL flight 007 shot down by the Russians; US invasion of Grenada; Terms of Endearment, the Big Chill soundtrack, Return of the Jedi; the Hitler Diaries.
Top of the charts when they won: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler. Turn around, bright eyes.
Closest they've come since: The O's last reached the postseason in 1997, losing the ALCS to the Indians in six games.
Chances of winning this year: They've finally turned the pitching spigot back on, but they still have some work to do to catch up to the Red Sox and Yankees.

We'll conclude the series with Part 3, which will cover the teams in the three-decades-and-up category, plus still-virginal expansion franchises.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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