In the wake of just getting by

The Cardinals are the latest in a fairly short line of Discount Division Winners. These are the teams that were fortunate enough to be on top when the smoke cleared after an especially uninspiring divisional battle. The predominant thinking this year is that it’s not going to take much to win the National League Central again this year. What has happened in the past in these instances?

Not including strike years, there have been only two teams to have won their divisions with worse records than the ’06 Cardinals, and another four that did so with 86 wins or fewer. This is nothing like a decent sample size, but at least we can see if we should automatically assume that 2007 is going to bring another discount championship to the Central Division. What follows are the six teams who managed to win their divisions with 86 wins or fewer, followed by their record the ensuing year. Also included are any other teams that bettered their record from the previous season. In other words, did more than one team trend upwards after a season on the skids?

2005 San Diego Padres (82-80)
Next year: 88-74, won division
Other improved teams? Los Angeles Dodgers, 88-74 (wildcard)

With the exception of Brian Giles, the Padres got a lot more production out of their plate-appearance leaders in 2006 than they did in 2005. With Sean Burroughs and Phil Nevin gone and Ryan Klesko shelved, new guys Mike Cameron, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Barfield, and Mike Piazza all upgraded their respective positions. The Padres improvement was even more marked than it appeared, as they’d overshot their projection by five games in 2005. The Dodgers, meanwhile, experienced one of the great playing time turnover ratios of modern times after an injury-strewn 2005, and rode it to a 17-game improvement.

1973 New York Mets (82-79)
Next year: 71-91, fifth place
Other improved teams? Pittsburgh Pirates, 88-74; St. Louis Cardinals, 86-75

It’s been well over three decades since these Mets took down the Reds in the NLCS and came very close to punching a hole in the A’s dynasty in the World Series, yet there are still people who haven’t bought into the postseason-is-a-crapshoot program. Alone among the discount division winners, the ’73 Mets took a dive the next year. They made very few changes to the pitching staff; 94.4 percent of the innings thrown in ’74 were by men who were with the team in ’73–a very high figure. That stands to reason, as they allowed the third-fewest runs in the league in ’73. Even more stable was the lineup, as 97.7 percent of the plate appearances were made by position players who had been with the team the year before. Unfortunately, they were next-to-last in runs scored in ’73, and repeated that standing the following year, losing an additional 36 runs in the process.

1997 Houston Astros (84-78)
Next year: 102-60, won division
Other improved teams? Chicago Cubs, 90-73 (wildcard)

Among the discount division winners, the ’97 Astros made the greatest leap forward the following year. In ’97, their offense consisted mostly of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, aided by a surprising turn from Bill Spiers in a part-time role. The next season nine players reached double figures in VORP, and even Derek Bell popped some NoDoz and contributed. Big changes were made in the outfield as Luis Gonzalez, Chuck Carr, and James Mouton were all shown the door, and Moises Alou and Carl Everett were brought in and contributed. Only Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds remained from the ’97 rotation as Darryl Kile and Chris Holt departed making room for Jose Lima and Sean Bergman. Though they would have won the division without him, the late arrival of Randy Johnson really put the shine on their final won-loss record.

1984 Kansas City Royals (84-78)
Next year: 91-71, won division
Other improved teams? California Angels, 90-72; Chicago White Sox, 85-77

For the Royals, it was improve or perish, as the whole division improved by 48 games over 1984, and both the Angels and White Sox won more than the Royals did in their discount division win. How mediocre was the division in ’84?
Not a single team had a Pythagorean projection over .500, and all seven teams were bunched between 72 and 80 Pythagorean wins. There really was nowhere to go but up from there.

1987 Minnesota Twins (85-77)
Next year: 91-71, second place
Other improved teams? Oakland A’s, 104-58

The team whose “Worst World Champion” crown was stolen by last year’s Cardinals did what it could the next year, but the A’s exploded, improving by 23 games to lap the field. On the offensive side, the Twins made no significant additions: the only players with anything like decent playing time who weren’t on the ’87 World Champs were Tommy Herr, John Moses, and Brian Harper. They combined for 752 plate appearances and a VORP of 31.2. As for the holdovers, they all played significantly better. Kirby Puckett and Gary Gaetti made especially great strides, while Dan Gladden went from terrible to marginally acceptable (-6.2 to 16.7 VORP). Randy Bush, Tim Laudner, and Gene Larkin parlayed increased playing time into increased productivity. On the pitching side, Frank Viola was great both years, but Bert Blyleven slipped magnificently in ’88 and Les Straker came back to reality. The addition of Allen Anderson made up for it, though, and Jeff Reardon did an even better job in the closer’s role than he had the year before.

1997 Cleveland Indians (86-75)
Next year: 89-73, won division
Other improved teams? None

The Indians allowed a whopping 815 runs in ’97 and still came within two games of winning it all. The following year, the rest of their division stayed asleep at the switch, and their modest three-game improvement proved to be unnecessary. In fact, they could have regressed and still won the division as, for the second year in a row, no other team managed to get to .500. (That streak would run to three years in ’99, when the Indians jumped another 10 games and really ran away with things.) If anything, the division was even worse in ’98 than it had been the year before, as the Brewers departed for the National League and were replaced by an inferior Detroit Tigers squad.

So, there are three possible futures facing the ’07 Cardinals, provided they remain competitive:

  • The ’98 Indians scenario: the rest of the division continues to be non-competitive
  • The ’88 Twins scenario: another team blows the rest of the division away
  • The ’05 Padres scenario: another team rises up to make improvement necessary for survival

The second one is probably out of the running–it does not seem likely that any other team in the National League Central is going to get into the low- to mid-90s or beyond in 2007. Does there appear to be a 93-win team in that division at this juncture? That leaves the first and third scenarios as the likeliest candidates. None of the NLC clubs underperformed especially in ’06. If anything, they overshot their Pythagorean marks. The Cardinals don’t look especially better on paper, although they could improve from within, much like the ’88 Twins. Given that and the fact that a number of teams were close last year, the ’05 Padres scenario seems like the most likely for 2007.

Roto spring

Let’s face it: anybody can play regular season fantasy baseball, but it takes a real player to draft a team just for the spring–especially if you require each roster to have a minimum quota of NRIs. It’s too late for this year, but try it next year and see how you do. Get your hardcore friends and draft rosters made up of equal parts of rookies, NRIs, and returnees, and see what happens. Might be cool. Might be stupid.

Pro-poor tourism, baseball style

For the uninitiated, pro-poor tourism is the act of visiting impoverished places so that your tourist dollars will help local, downtrodden economies. This means that, instead of visiting Monte Carlo, you spend a week in a shantytown somewhere in the developing world, buying local crafts and spreading your money among those who need it most.

Many of you are, no doubt, planning baseball-themed trips this summer. I am advising you to take pro-poor tourism to heart when you do so. As much as you might want to see Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, or Wrigley Field, do you really think the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs need your pecunia turista? No, they don’t. The places you need to visit on your summer baseball jaunts are Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Florida. Go spend a week with the Royals, and make sure you buy an abundance of souvenirs to bolster the team’s coffers. Split a week in Florida between Miami and St. Petersburg, throwing around your traveler’s checks like a benevolent saint, anointing the Marlins and Devil Rays with your largesse. Why not spend late June and early July with the Pirates as they host the Nationals, Brewers, and Cubs during a 10-game home stand? You could really give them a boost by taking all your meals at PNC Park!

Why do people engage in pro-poor tourism? The reasons are many, but guilt and self-fulfillment are certainly two of the reasons. What better way to assuage the shame you feel for being born lucky than blowing your entire vacation budget on those that need it most? Imagine the sense of pride you’ll feel as you head back to work on June 18, having just spent the previous 10 days in Kansas City watching the Royals take on the Phillies, Cardinals, and Marlins. And when you get the credit card bills from your trip a couple weeks later and see how much money you tossed at the less fortunate, you’ll be overcome once more with a wonderfully smug feeling of self-satisfaction. Let your co-workers have their little trips to Cancun or Paris. You’re helping those who need it most!

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