If you're a Major League Baseball fan who likes to see the small fish eat the big fish every once in awhile, then this could be your year.
Three teams from smaller markets that are starved for a World Series title—or even a playoff berth—are threatening to make a big postseason splash this year. The Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals could each witness several years of rebuilding translating to several months of winning throughout the 2012 season.
The Kansas City Royals were an expansion franchise founded in the 1969 season. They brought baseball back to Kansas City after the Athletics moved to Oakland two years before. The glory days of the Royals franchise were in the 1980s, when they appeared in two World Series. They won the title in 1985 but have not made the playoffs since. They have had only one winning season since 1993.
Recently, the Royals have had nowhere to go but up. Before 2002, they had never lost 100 games in a season in franchise history. Starting that year, the Royals achieved this dubious distinction four times in the next five seasons. Their only choice was to rebuild.
The 2010 season saw the Kansas City debut of manager Ned Yost, who led the young Royals to a 67-95 record. Last season, the Royals improved slightly to finish at 71-91. But there was renewed hope with the successful debut of two prized prospects—first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas.
The Royals have witnessed the rise of other young stars, like pitcher Greg Holland and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. And Kansas City added veteran pitchers Jonathan Sanchez and Jonathan Broxton during the off-season. All these factors combine to make the Kansas City Royals a dangerous team in the AL Central.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have existed since 1887 and have won five World Series titles. But, they have not won the World Series since 1979, and they have not made the playoffs since 1992. That season marked their third consecutive trip to the NLCS—all three of which failed to yield a World Series berth. Since then, the Pittsburgh Pirates have set a North American professional sports record with 19 consecutive losing seasons.
The 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates came close to breaking that mark. A young, talented team led by All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen was leading the NL Central on July 18th—the latest such lead since 1997. But during a July 26th game in Atlanta that lasted 19 innings, a blown call on a play at the plate cost the Pirates the game and their momentum. They won only one game from that day until August 8th and never recovered. They eventually ended the season below .500, breaking their own record for futility.
But during this offseason, the Pirates management surprised many baseball fans—even their own—by signing Andrew McCutchen to a long-term contract and thus preventing him from signing elsewhere. They also traded with the New York Yankees to acquire starting pitcher AJ Burnett, who unfortunately was injured during spring training. But nevertheless, the message was sent that the Pittsburgh Pirates are serious about winning baseball games, and it should continue this year.
Although the Pittsburgh Pirates may have the best chance for success this year due to lessons learned from last season, the Washington Nationals may have the highest expectations. The Washington Nationals franchise was born in 2005 when the Expos moved from Montreal, bringing baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time since 1971.
As the Washington Nationals, the franchise has not had a winning season. Their best year was actually their first, when they finished at .500. But that team relied heavily on veterans and free agents and was quickly dismantled under new ownership as the rebuilding process began in earnest.
This rebuilding period saw the blossoming of young stars such as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Drew Storen and starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. But it was also very painful.
In 2008, the Nationals lost 102 games. In 2009, they finished on a seven-game winning streak—but still lost 103 games. But the 2010 season showed a 10-game improvement, and by 2011, the Washington Nationals effectively ended their rebuilding period.
The Nationals won 80 games amidst a managerial change that saw the return of Davey Johnson to Major League Baseball, earning the team instant credibility and respect.
The Nationals' offseason began in disappointing fashion when they missed out on prized free agents such as starting pitcher Mark Buehrle and first baseman Prince Fielder. But general manager Mike Rizzo worked some more of his magic with a blockbuster deal that landed All-Star starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics.
The Nationals' starting rotation now includes Zimmermann, Gonzalez, prized-phenom Stephen Strasburg and veteran Edwin Jackson. This fearsome foursome has helped fuel talk of playoffs—and beyond. There's even talk of Washington's first World Series title since 1924. In fact, expectations for the Washington Nationals are so high that Davey Johnson said he should be fired if this team does not make the playoffs.
The Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals should make this Major League Baseball season very interesting. With small fish like these, the big fish better watch their tails.