The Perpetual Struggles of Five MLB Teams Wondering If Next Year Will Ever Come

Craig MeyerCorrespondent IJuly 15, 2009

CHICAGO - MAY 27: Manager John Russell #7 of the Pittsburgh Pirates (R) takes pitcher Jesse Chavez #43 out of a game against the Chicago Cubs as catcher Jason Jaramillo #35 watches on May 27, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Pirates 5-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In the midst of the All-Star Break and with the MLB trade deadline fast approaching, baseball fans are given time to look back at the first half of the season.

At this point, we can all begin to reasonably determine which teams are in contention for the playoffs and may have a shot at a World Series title.

But on the other hand, we can also weed out the teams that have stumbled their way through the season and will have better luck stockpiling and reloading for the years ahead.

While high-payroll teams like the Yankees and Red Sox tend to be in the playoff hunt year in and year out, a substantial number of teams fall into the latter category.

In some cases, certain teams have been in rebuilding mode for the greater part of the decade, having been unable to crack a winning record season after season. It may seem hard to believe, but there are currently five MLB franchises that have not finished with a winning record in the past five seasons.

What I will try to do is examine each of these teams and review what got them to where they are today. But I will also offer reasons to hope that these five franchises can not only do better in the win column, but maybe even make the playoffs someday as well.


Case No. 1: The Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos

Last Year at .500 or Better: 2003

At the moment, the Nationals are the laughingstock of MLB, with a league-worst 26-61 record entering the All-Star Break. Although this is a historic low for the franchise, things weren't really much better before this year, seeing as the last time that the Nationals finished above .500, the team was playing north of the border.

In hindsight, it's pretty surprising that the Expos even finished above .500 in 2003. At the time, the team was owned by the league and was effectively forced out of the wild card race because ownership could not afford to call up top minor league players for their expanded September roster.

Futility on the field and shamefully low attendance (crowds at Montreal's Olympic Stadium averaged around 10,000 a game in the Expos' final years) forced the franchise to move to Washington, where the on-field product has been no better, due in large part to inept front office management.

High-priced players like Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez, and Livan Hernandez were unloaded years ago in widespread salary dumps, and rebuilding efforts haven't yielded many results thus far.

Deposed GM Jim Bowden acquired a glut of outfielders, causing a logjam of unproven, inexperienced players. The organization has not produced a quality group of pitchers either.

Things may seem bleak for the Nationals right now, but there is reason to believe that they can turn things around (at some point).

They have found a young star in Ryan Zimmerman to try to build around, they play in a gorgeous (albeit fairly empty) new ballpark, and the new management has made some good moves, including the acquisition of Nyjer Morgan from the Pittsburgh Pirates (we'll get to that later).

All in all, though, don't expect to see much from the Nationals in the next few years, at the very least.

Projected Year When They Get Over the Hump: 2014


Case No. 2: The Kansas City Royals

Last Year at .500 or Better: 2003

It's pretty hard to believe that a little more than 20 years ago, the Royals won the World Series. The figure above may be a little misleading because the Royals' decline began long before 2003, a season in which the team drastically overachieved to reach an 83-79 mark.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Royals have been plagued by something that a lot of small-market teams have to deal with: not being able to sign and hold on to top players who would command high salaries in free agency. 

Rather than paying All-Stars like Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, and David Cone, the Royals traded away these players for prospects before inevitably losing them to higher-payroll teams in free agency.

Some may point to the decline of the organization having been a byproduct of unsteady ownership since the death of Ewing Kauffman in 1993. Like many other teams highlighted in this article, consistency has been hard to achieve, as GMs and managers seem to stay no longer than a few years.

Despite being in fourth place in the AL Central at the All-Star Break, the Royals have given their fans some signs of hope for their future. They finished the 2008 season at 75-87, the Royals' best mark since 2003. 

This year, they have seen their ace, Zack Greinke, mature into one of baseball's best pitchers. With a 10-5 record and a 2.12 ERA, he is one of the leading candidates for the AL Cy Young.

Joakim Soria has become one of the better closers in baseball, and even though his first stint in the major leagues wasn't very productive, third baseman Alex Gordon still has the potential to become a superstar.

Projected Year When They Get Over the Hump: 2011


Case No. 3: The Cincinnati Reds

Last Year at .500 or Better: 2000

The franchise known most fondly for their dominating run through the 1970s, with a superstar-laden cast and one of baseball's most famous monikers, the Big Red Machine, has fallen on hard times this decade.

The organization had a pretty good run through the 1990s, highlighted by the team's surprising run to the 1990 World Series title.

At the end of the decade, owner and self-professed Hitler apologist Marge Schott sold her stake of the team, and 1999 NL Manager of the Year Jack McKeon was fired after the Reds finished the 2000 season with an 85-77 record, the team's last season in which they finished over .500.

The Reds invested a lot of money at the beginning of the decade in high-priced players like Ken Griffey, Jr. and also gave lucrative extensions to Barry Larkin, Sean Casey, and Danny Graves. The team did this in large part to compensate for Schott's refusal to invest in the Reds' farm system, leaving the team very thin in talent.

With Griffey's numerous and extended stays on the disabled list, Larkin's retirement, and Casey's departure, the Reds chose to focus on building the team around a young nucleus of Adam Dunn, Ryan Freel, and Aaron Harang.

While the three of them (especially Dunn) have had relatively successful careers thus far, none of them was the kind of player that a championship club is built around. 

Dunn has since been traded away, as were Griffey and Freel, with the once promising prospect of success for the Reds having dwindled in the wake of an eight-year string of losing seasons.

Under manager Dusty Baker, the Reds have now become a significantly younger team, with the help of a deep farm system that is widely regarded as being one of the best in baseball.

The building efforts are now predicated upon young arms Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, as well as a slew of talented young position players, like first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips, and outfielders Jay Bruce and Chris Dickerson.

Right now, the Reds are a shade below .500 at 42-45, but they are in an NL Central without a dominant team, and their young nucleus will only continue to develop. Of the teams in this article, it looks like Cincinnati is the closest to achieving a winning record.

Projected Year When They Get Over the Hump: 2010


Case No. 4: The Baltimore Orioles

Last Year at .500 or Better: 1997

I guess you could say the recent misfortunes of this franchise can be attributed to Jeffrey Maier and that fateful night in October of 1996 when his now-famous fan interference incident very well could have cost the Orioles a trip to the World Series.

Since the playoff seasons of 1996 and 1997, the Orioles have been undergoing a slow and steady downturn that they have yet to rebound from.

A lot of the blame could understandably be placed on owner Peter Angelos, who has caused a lot of the turnover that the franchise has experienced, having gone through a long series of GMs and managers over the past 10 to 15 years.

For the longest time, the Orioles were the only professional baseball franchise in the Baltimore-Washington, DC area, but the addition of the Nationals in 2005 has cut into not only the franchise's fanbase, but the team's revenue as well.

The Orioles' longtime franchise player, Cal Ripken Jr., retired in 2001, and in the years following his retirement, Baltimore has been unable to fill the tremendous void that Ripken left.

The organization brought in several high-profile additions in this time, including Albert Belle, Sammy Sosa, and Miguel Tejada, but none of them was able to help build the Orioles into a championship contender in the brutal AL East. 

All of those players have been unloaded, and Baltimore has spent the last few years attempting to rebuild around a group of talented young players.

Brian Roberts has been one of the more productive second basemen in the AL over the past four or five seasons, and outfielder Adam Jones has had a breakout year, emerging as one of the premier center fielders in the game. A little over a month ago, the Orioles called up catcher Matt Wieters, who some scouts have likened to Joe Mauer.

The pieces seem to be in place for the Orioles to compete, but it's hard to ascend in the standings in the AL East, so this team should be given a little more time.

Projected Year When They Get Over the Hump: 2011


Case No. 5: The Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Year at .500 or Better: 1992

By virtually all accounts, the Pittsburgh Pirates are the longest-suffering franchise in baseball, at least for this generation of fans. An organization with a storied history of World Series championships and Hall of Fame players (Honus Wagner, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, and many others) has become nothing more than a punch line over the past 17 seasons.

Many people believe that it all began with Pittsburgh's heartbreaking loss in the 1992 NLCS to the Atlanta Braves, with a Pirates team loaded with star-studded talent, including players like Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke.

But following the 1992 season, Pirates management and then-manager Jim Leyland set out to rebuild the team for future success. Bonds left to sign a lucrative deal with the San Francisco Giants, and many of the team's other high-priced players were either shipped off or allowed to go elsewhere through free agency.

Many talented, young players have come through the Pirates' organization in this period of time, like Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, Oliver Perez, and Jason Bay, but ownership has appeared to be stingy. 

The Pirates have become notorious for their large-scale salary dumps, shipping off emerging talent and on-the-cusp stars in exchange for packages of prospects, in a perpetual retooling mode that is designed to save the franchise money at the expense of success on the field.

This seemingly endless cycle of trades has disillusioned many Pirates fans, and understandably so, as they see the team's ownership as not being committed to fostering a successful product.

The trades have only intensified in the past couple of seasons. Last year at the trade deadline, the Pirates shipped outfielder Xavier Nady to the Yankees and sent Bay to Boston as a part of the blockbuster deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers.

This season, Pittsburgh unloaded the team's star, Nate McLouth, to Atlanta in exchange for minor league players. In the past few weeks, outfielder Eric Hinske was traded to the Yankees, and Nyjer Morgan, an emerging star in the Pirates organization, was traded to Washington.

These trades can only help but make Pirates fans fantasize about an array of outfield combinations that would feature Nady, Bay, McLouth, and Morgan teamed up with rookie sensation Andrew McCutchen had the team remained intact these past few years.

The rebuilding continues in Pittsburgh, and it seems like in this case, the efforts are focused on building around the speedy McCutchen, who is a leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year. 

The Pirates have the fortune of a loyal fanbase and one of the best ballparks in the majors in PNC Park, but until ownership gives some tangible evidence that this next crop of talented Pirates players won't be traded away, fans may have to wait a while longer to see a winner.

Projected Year When They Get Over the Hump (assuming they don't trade away McCutchen and any other potential stars in the coming years): 2012


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