March 23, 2010
You Could Look It Up
Get Back in Line, Part 4
By popular request, the last set of capsules covering teams with the longest wait since their last World Series win. In the previous installment, we reached all the way back to the Cubs. For this final entry in a series that I feel like I undertook back when I was about 13, the expansion teams that have never won:
The Wait So Far: 12 years.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Birth Year: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
Best Actor Oscar: Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful.
Reason for the Wait: Let it be said for all of these clubs that no team comes out of the expansion draft ready to take on the ’27 Yankees. That said, not all expansion teams were created equal when it came to management. The Royals, Mets, and Blue Jays got to the playoffs in less than 10 seasons, while the more fluid team-building environment created by free agency and the amateur draft allowed the Diamondbacks to make it in two seasons, the Rockies in three, and the Marlins in five. Clearly, a decade-plus of struggling is not something to which a team should be automatically resigned. This makes the case of the Rays all the more appalling. While their sister franchise the Diamondbacks won a World Series in four seasons, it took 11 seasons for the Rays to post a winning record.
As has been a recurring theme throughout this series, the then-Devil Rays were handicapped by clueless leadership. Even before the expansion draft, they erred in making the assumption that Tropicana Field would support a speed and defense approach like that of the old Cardinals. In doing so, they misread both the park and the offensive era in which they played. Then, in a jerking counter-reaction, they acquired Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla, and Jose Canseco and actually got worse.
Closest They’ve Come So Far: They were runner-up in the 2008 World Series, natch.
Chances of Winning This Year: On paper, the Rays are as good as any team in baseball. Unfortunately, so are the Red Sox and Yankees.
The Wait So Far: 33 years.
Top of the Charts at First Game: “Rich Girl,” Hall and Oates.
Died so that the Mariners Might Live: Elvis Presley.
Reason for the Wait: Weak, underfinanced owners in the early years, a bad ballpark through 1999, but mostly poor product. Seattle supported the Mariners with strong attendance despite the Kingdome once the team began winning. On the field, until this century the M’s struggled to put together teams of any kind of depth. Some very good players played for the Mariners and had big seasons in the losing years—first baseman Alvin Davis was the team’s best hitter before Junior Griffey and Edgar Martinez arrived; Ken Phelps an iconic three-true-outcomes slugger; Phil Bradley an all-around speed, patience, and power threat; and Tom Paciorek, a generally unmemorable, positionless hitter, hit .296/.343/.460 in four seasons with the team. Unfortunately, the lineups lacked depth, so for every Davis hitting .284/.391/.497 there was a Darnell Coles hitting .161/.259/.196 (in fairness to the Mariners, in the year in question, Coles wasn’t their only problem at third base; players at the position hit an aggregate .220/.261/.320, the principals being Coles, Jim Presley, and Larry Milbourne). Catcher has been a strange position down to the present day; the Mariners have yet to have a backstop have an offensive season of much better than league-average quality. Yet, pitching staffs were a larger problem than the offenses. The Mariners had many talented starting pitchers in the years before Randy Johnson, but few developed. You can count Mark Langston and Floyd Bannister among the success stories, but so many others—Bill Swift, Mike Moore, Mike Morgan, Rick Honeycutt—had to find stability elsewhere. As for their franchise closer, they’re still working on that.
Closest They’ve Come So Far: The Mariners have lost in the second-round of the playoffs three times: 1995, 2000, and 2001. In that last they squandered a record 116 regular-season victories.
The Wait So Far: 41 years.
Top of the Charts at First Game: “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. Roe had three other gold records, including 1970’s “Jam Up and Jelly Tight,” which isn’t as dirty as it sounds, and “Sheila,” which sounds like a rejected Buddy Holly song.
Best Actor Oscar: John Wayne, True Grit.
Reason for the Wait: The easiest and shortest way of saying it is that once the great late ‘70s-early ‘80s core of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, et al had passed its prime, Bud Selig was better at impressing his fellow owners with his anti-labor chops than he was at giving his customers a solid ballclub. Let us also acknowledge the team’s existence-long problem of developing starting pitching. Aside from Ben Sheets, the franchise leaders in wins and ERA haven’t been around in 100 years (Teddy Higuera, Jim Colborn, Mike Caldwell, Jim Slaton) and with the exception of Higuera, who had his arm pitched off by Tom Trebelhorn, they weren’t exactly commanding Cy Young candidates.
Chances of Winning This Year: They still lack starting pitching depth, and after Ryan Braun and Price Fielder, lack offensive depth, too.
The Wait So Far: 41 years.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Birth Year: Collected Stories, by Jean Stafford.
Should Have Gotten the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Birth Year: Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.
Reason for the Wait: It took the Expos 10 years to emerge from their expansion-era doldrums. When they did, with players like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, and Gary Carter, they were never able to put together a complete club. For example, the 95-65 1979 club was probably a couple of lucky bounces and a quality middle infielder away from passing the Pirates. The dispersal of that club roughly coincided with the team passing from original owner Charles Bronfman to a consortium headed by Claude Brochu. Shortly thereafter, the team’s last great hope of winning was aborted by the 1994 work stoppage. Handicapped by a bad ballpark, fan disinterest or disenchantment, and shallow pockets, the Expos traded off their best players. The shell of the club passed into the hands of carpetbagger owner Jeffrey Loria and from there became a foster child of Major League Baseball. Sold to Ted Lerner in 2006, the Expos/Nationals are now essentially going through a second post-expansion period.
Chances of Winning This Year: Next to none, but let’s talk again a few years into Stephen Strasburg’s career.
The Wait So Far: 41 years.
Unemployment Rate at Birth: 3.5 percent.
Top Beatles/Stones/Archies Singles: “Get Back”/“Honky Tonk Women”/“Sugar, Sugar.”
Reason for the Wait: Their first ownership was financed by promissory notes and tissue paper. Then Ray Kroc of McDonald’s stepped in at the last minute to save the club from relocating to Washington. Kroc and his wife Joan were obviously well-heeled, and the club improved under them, going to the 1984 World Series, but the team never again climbed to the top of the division pile due to age, drugs, political, and personality conflicts; at times certain Padres seemed more interested in extreme right-wing politics than baseball games. Subsequent owner Tom Werner saw the team acquire strong players like Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez, and Gary Sheffield, but in the 1993 season called for a fire sale that stripped the roster and sent the club into a temporary tailspin. The team rebuilt surprisingly quickly under GM Kevin Towers, reaching the postseason in 1996 and the World Series after a surprising 98-win season in 1998. Since then, however, the Padres have failed to win more than 89 games, though they nonetheless won the NL West with a pathetic 82 wins in 2005. In recent years they have again been undone by ownership as the divorce of John Moores hamstrung the club’s operation and caused good players such as Jake Peavy to be dealt away.
Closest They’ve Come So Far: The Padres have twice lost the World Series, having the misfortune to run into historically great AL teams in 1984 (lost in five games to the Tigers) and 1998 (lost in four games to the Yankees).
Chances of Winning This Year: They’re more likely to lose 90 than win 90 as the club will be shaky in all phases of the game.
The Wait So Far: 48 years.
Top of the Charts at First Game: “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares.
Best Actor Oscar: Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird.
More Important Stuff Going On: The Cuban Missile Crisis.
Reason for the Wait: The Astros traded off a good team in the 1970s under GM Spec Richardson, who ran the club for eight years beginning at midseason 1967. Richardson did make some good moves, but they were vastly outnumbered by disadvantageous trades, many of which seeded divisional rivals with the talent they’d need to beat the Astros. Mike Cuellar, Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, John Mayberry, Jerry Reuss, Jimmy Wynn, Lee May, and Mike Easler were all dealt. What should have been a golden age for the team was squandered. The club briefly emerged from its disco-era doldrums in 1979, going to the playoffs in 1980 and 1981. That club, which had an outstanding outfield of Terry Puhl, Cesar Cedeno, and Jose Cruz, was allowed to age into irrelevance. Several members of the ’80-’81 unit were still around for the 1986 division winner, which was not a new beginning but rather a last gasp for players such as Cruz, Denny Walling, Craig Reynolds, Alan Ashby, and Bob Knepper. The club’s best chance to win after emerging from a long rebuilding phase in the late '90s and prior to their World Series trip was in 1998, when a 102-60 club led by Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Shane Reynolds, and Billy Wagner failed to push past an inferior Padres team in the first round of the playoffs. Other recent Houston clubs have been a mixture of the sublime and Brad Ausmus.
Closest They’ve Come So Far: The Astros were swept out of the 2005 World Series by the White Sox.
Chances of Winning This Year: The Astros are in a soft division and their starting rotation could be reasonably solid, but offense seems like a lot to ask for from this weak assemblage and depth is purely notional.
The Wait So Far: 49 years.
Top of the Charts at First Game: “Blue Moon,” by the Marcels.
Reason for the Wait: The easiest way of putting this, without rehashing our essay from Baseball Prospectus 2009, is that the Rangers have been saddled with a collection of pathetic owners who were more interested in shady real-estate deals than winning. Thanks to their efforts, the Senators II/Rangers have been a relentlessly mediocre team. Since the immediate expansion period (1961-65), the club has twice lost 100 games and lost 90 games 10 times. Conversely, they have never won 100 games, topping out at 95 wins in 1999. They also won 94 games in 1977 and 90 games in 1996. That’s it. The team’s average record has been 76-86. They have had miserable timing. They have (rarely) had great pitching staffs unsupported by offensive talent. They have had great offenses but no pitching. Only in the late 1990s did they manage to have a semblance of both at the same time, but weren’t able to capitalize.
Closest They’ve Come So Far: The Rangers have never won a postseason series, having lost the ALDS in 1996, 1998, and 1999.
Chances of Winning This Year: They stand a very good chance of making it the postseason in a wide-open division, but barring Rich Harden and Neftali Feliz putting together a Koufax/Drysdale run through October, they seem unlikely to advance far into the playoffs.