100 Years of Solitude? In their quest to end their century-long title drought, the Cubs finish the season with the majors’ top run differential (+184) and home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Nonetheless, questions abound regarding the health of Carlos Zambrano (two disaster starts totaling 13 runs in 7 1/3 innings since his no-hitter), the amount of gas left in their bullpen’s tank (6.02 ERA in September), and the status of Kosuke Fukudome (.217/.314/.326 in the second half), particularly in a lineup that’s above-average at every spot, but heavily righthanded. Late note: It doesn’t end well.
Raysed Expectations: In their 11th season, the Rays surprise the baseball world (but not us) by not only posting their first winning record but taking home the AL East crown. Years of stockpiling talent and making astute deals help them field a rotation that’s third in the league in SNLVAR and a bullpen that’s tops in the majors in WXRL, and they can thank a defense that improved by a record 64 points in Defensive Efficiency. Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Longoria and Manager of the Year candidate Joe Maddon may be feted when the season’s over, but in the meantime, the Rays have some post-season business to attend to.
Thanks to a 13-3 finishing kick and an 11-homer September from Ryan Howard, the Phillies capture their second straight NL East flag. Their potent offense draws most of the attention via the league lead in homers and a second-place showing in scoring, but the emergence of Cole Hamels (third in SNLVAR) as a bona fide ace and the return to form of Brad Lidge (the majors’ topWXRL) play their part as well. Howard’s narrative and gaudy 48 HR/146 RBI totals will draw MVP support, but his defensive shortcomings and contact woes leave his 5.4 WARP3 well behind that of teammates Chase Utley (10.6), Hamels (8.2), Shane Victorino (7.6), Jimmy Rollins (7.4), Jayson Werth (7.1) and Pat Burrell (6.0).
Despite the heroics of Johan Santana on the season’s penultimate day, the Mets are eliminated from contention on the last day of the season for the second year in a row due to the latest in a long line of bullpen failures. Adding insult to injury, they schedule the closing ceremony for Shea Stadium until after the game, ensuring that the grubby ballpark’s final day will be remembered with all the fondness of a scar from a rat bite.
A victory on the season’s final day makes the Angels the sole 100-win team of the season and the winningest squad in franchise history. Perhaps of more note, they finish 16 games ahead of their third-order projection, obliterating the previous record in that department (12.7 by the 2004 Yankees). Their pitching is as good as ever; aside from a record-setting save total from Francisco Rodriguez, they get a pair of top 10SNLVAR showings from Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders. But not even the tremendous showing of Mark Teixeira (.358/.449/.632 and 37.0 VORP, second on the team) can prevent the offense from its lowest EqA since 2001, and that rates as a problem going forward—both into the playoffs and beyond this season.
A 6-1 run over the final week helps the Brewersclinch their first playoff berth in 26 years on the season’s last day. Walk-off homers from Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and a pair of wins by CC Sabathia on three days’ rest punctuate a dramatic week that helps erase the stigma left by the firing of Ned Yost and ease the sting of losingBen Sheets to injury and likely free agency (caveat emptor). Sabathia, who finishes the year with the major league leads in SNLVAR, innings pitched, and complete games, may be gone all too soon, but the vast majority of the franchise-record 3,068,458 fans who filled Miller Park this year would agree that acquiring him for a run at the postseason was worth it.
A five-game losing streak—including a sweep by the Twins—forces the Sox to win a rainout makeup on the day after the regular season ends just to tie for the AL Central lead, and then to win a one-game playoff with the Twins to claim the division flag. They come from behind in the first game, beating the Tigers thanks to an Alexei Ramirez grand slam (his fourth of the year, tying a rookie record) and then ride the stellar performance of John Danks (8 2 0 0 3 4) and a 458-foot solo homer by Jim Thome into the playoffs. Their first post-season appearance since their 2005 World Championship run guarantees a few more days of Ozzie Guillen quips, but the losses of Carlos Quentin and Joe Crede and the entry of Nick Swisher into the Federal Witness Protection program leave the team incapable of putting their best nine on the field.
Hank Steinbrenner chafes as Joe Torre pilots the Dodgers to their first division title since 2004. The team closes the regular season with a 19-8 finish after August 30, while Manny Ramirez winds up with a .396/.489/.743 line, 17 home runs, and a team-high 47.6 VORP in 53 games since his trade. After a year which sees the Dodgers lose an MLB-high 43 percent of their payroll to the disabled list, they’re getting healthy just in time, with Rafael Furcal returning to the lineup after a four-and-a-half month absence, and Takashi Saito back in the bullpen after missing two months.
Not even a six-game winning streak to close the year can prevent the Cardinals from finishing fourth in the NL Central, albeit eight wins better than last year. Tony LaRussa’s club loses 1,520 days and over 30 percent of its payroll to the disabled list, with the absences of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter looming large in their failed wild-card bid. Albert Pujols—himself no stranger to the DL—posts a major league-leading 96.7 VORP, the 23rd-highest season total since 1954—and that’s with an elbow that may need Tommy John surgery eventually.
Despite sweeping a three-game series from the White Sox during the final week, the Twins wind up on the outside of the postseason looking in after they lose a one-game playoff by a 1-0 score, a matchup that could have been prevented given a quicker hook of Livan Hernandez in favor of Francisco Liriano back in July. Joe Mauer wins his second batting title in three years while finishing with the league’s highest WARP3 total, but his relatively modest counting stats (9 HR, 85 RBI) may be overshadowed by teammate Justin Morneau (9.7 WARP3 on 23 HR and 129 RBI) in the MVP voting.
After a year in which they came within one win of a trip to the World Series, the Tribe winds up with a .500 record thanks to a torrid 34-21 run over the final two months, tied for third-best in the majors. Injuries to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez and the trades of CC Sabathia and Casey Blake rank among the season’s bitter memories, but perhaps the biggest is the bullpen’s decline from second in the league in WXRL to last—a drop of 14 wins. On a brighter note, Cliff Lee finishes the year with the AL lead in SNLVAR as well as wins and ERA; he’s a good bet to win the Cy Young award and could garner the MVP trophy as well.
The Diamondbacks roll snake eyes in their quest to catch the Dodgers in the NL West race, though they have only themselves to blame after going 62-72 from May 1 onward while averaging just 4.14 runs per game on .247/.323/.403 hitting. Brandon Webb and Dan Haren finish sixth and seventh in SNLVAR, but their good works are done in by a bullpen that finishes 10th in the league in WXRL and a defense that allows a .316 BABIP after losing Orlando Hudson for the year on August 9, compared to .295 before.
A four-game losing streak to start the season’s final week costs the Marlins an admittedly long shot at the wild card, but they end the year as they did 2007, by eliminating the Mets from playoff contention in Shea Stadium. Hanley Ramirez finishes second in the league in VORP, part of an infield that falls one Jorge Cantu homer short of finishing with at least 30 apiece. While the pitching staff finishes the year only 11th in ERA and 12th in SNLVAR, the performances of rookie Chris Volstand and Tommy John survivor Josh Johnson (a combined 5.7 SNLVAR and 3.26 ERA in 29 starts) offer promise of a stronger rotation and a faster start next year.
Too Little, Too Late: Despite an MLB-best 36-18 record after July 31, the Astros fall short of a wild-card berth. They wind up 10.2 games above their third-order projection, however, good enough to tie for 16th all-time, though GM Ed Wade would do well to remember the lesson of the similarly overachieving 2007 Mariners: this team is more than a minor touch-up away from another contending bid. Roy Oswalt bounces back to ace form in a strong second half (2.24 ERA), and while Lance Berkman finishes fourth in the league in VORP, his 217-point drop in slugging between the first and second halves (.653 to .436) is cause for concern, as is the declining performance of Miguel Tejada (.283/.314/.415 for a .254 EqA, his lowest in a decade).
D For Detention: As if their 74-win season weren’t disheartening enough, the Tigers are forced to stay after the final day to play a makeup game with the White Sox. Ticketed for 1,000 runs by some (but not PECOTA), the lineup falls 179 short of that goal, but it’s the pitching that’s really at fault; the struggling staff finishes 27th in the majors in runs allowed and 29th in combined win expectancy. Rookie Armando Galarraga turns in a surprising 31.2 VORP, but the projected starting five combine for -18.2, with Dontrelle Willis failing to manage even a single quality start.
A Tale of Two Seasons: Only a late 8-1 run can keep the A’s from posting the worst second-half record in the majors; as it is they finish an abysmal 24-42 after a 51-44 first half. Don’t chalk it all up to the trades of Dan Haren, Rich Harden, and Joe Blanton; the pitching staff finishes fourth in the league in combined win expectancy. The real culprit is an offense that finishes last in the league in scoring, batting average, and slugging, and 13th in OBP while getting sub-zero VORPs from five positions. Billy Beane‘s rebuilding effort should pay further dividends; disbanding this godforsaken lineup might be the first.
For the 11th year in a row, the Orioles post a losing record, and you have to admire their consistency; every year since 2000 they’ve spent at least the first few months flirting with .500 before dropping from the sky. Pick your split—26-53 after June 30, 22-45 after the All-Star break, 16-37 after July 31, 5-20 in September—these birds are the worst. The offense posts a middle-of-the-pack finish in scoring and EqA on the strength of strong seasons from Aubrey Huff, Nick Markakis, and the still-present Brian Roberts. Alas, the pitching staff ranks 28th out of 30 in combined win expectancy. Jeremy Guthrie and Jim Johnson account for 8.2 of the staff’s 10.9 wins above replacement while combining for a 3.26 ERA, while the rest of these turkeys put up a 5.57 ERA.
The post-Bonds era begins with a whimper, as the Giants finish second-to-last in the majors in scoring and second-to-last in the league in EqA. Barry Zito puts up an ugly 5.15 ERA and a sub-zero VORP, while a quartet of shortstops combine for -24.0 VORP themselves. Not all of the news is bad, however; the team goes 28-27 over the final two months (albeit with a -33 run differential), Tim Lincecum finishes second in the majors in SNLVAR and first in strikeouts, and late-season callup Pablo Sandoval hits .345/.357/.490 in a scalding cup of coffee.
100/100: With 14 losses in their final 18 games, the Mariners make history by becoming the first club with a payroll above $100 million to reach 100 losses. A spectacular misappraisal of their 89-win season results in the job losses of GM Bill Bavasi and skipper John McLaren, gambles on Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva don’t pay off, and the mid-summer overhaul yields lousy dividends via the struggles of Jeff Clement (.235 EqA) and Wladimir Balantein (.206 EqA) and the platooning of Miguel Cairo as a first baseman. If there’s consolation to be found, it’s in the healthy season of Felix Hernandez, who sets career highs for innings and VORP. So they’ve got that going for them.
The Players Association grievance involving Pedro Alvarez is resolved, with the Bucs shelling out additional bucks via a major league contract. Despite the settlement, it’s clear that the Pirates lost, no surprise for a team that now holds a professional sports record with 16 straight losing seasons. The new regime may offer some long-term optimism, as do the futures of players like Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, and Paul Maholm, but a deluge of setbacks—from the combined 5.90 ERA and -13.0 VORP from Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, to the frigid post-trade performance of Andy LaRoche—serve to remind that things can still get worse before they get better.
Our National Nightmare: A disheartening year ends with the Nationals losing 14 of their last 17 and crashing through the 100-loss barrier. Avec l’histoire des Expos, it’s the franchise’s lowest win total since 1976. Their new ballpark is of little consolation, as the team draws only 2.3 million, the lowest inaugural season of any of the post-Comiskey II wave of parks dating back to 1991. Despite a few bold gambits by GM Jim Bowden (e.g., trades for Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge), the decision to field a team on the cheap may have damaged their relationship with the fans. This long Nationals nightmare ain’t over ’til it’s over.
The Prospectus Hit List rankings are derived from Won-Loss records and several measurements pertaining to run differentials, both actual and adjusted, from Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings through the close of play on every Sunday.