Empty Eight: The 2011 World Series Chances of Teams That Have Yet to Win One
With the San Francisco Giants relishing the glory of winning their first World Series since arriving in the Bay Area in 1958, that leaves only eight franchises that have yet to experience the emotional release of becoming World Champions.
As the final chapter is closed on the 2010 season, we take a look at the remaining Empty Eight and analyze their chances at escaping the purgatory that comes from not giving their city a day off to celebrate with a downtown parade.
8. Seattle Mariners (61-101 In 2010)
Oh, So Close: Lost to Cleveland in the 1995 ALCS; the AL record-tying 116-win team went out meekly to the emotionally charged Yankees in 2001.
2011 Outlook: The Mariners have nowhere to go but up following a horrific campaign that saw them ranking at or near the bottom in almost every offensive category except ear hairs, nose picking and dirty nails. The M’s hit just 101 homers and batted .236 as a team en route to putting up some of the worst offensive numbers in the DH era.
Even with potential Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, Seattle is light years away from serious contention, especially in an AL West that has the defending league champs in Texas, a young Oakland team on the rise and a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim franchise that will put owner Arte Moreno’s checkbook to good use this winter.
If Not Now, When? Don’t expect the Mariners to become serious contenders until 2013. By then, 1B Justin Smoak should be established as one of the top power hitters in the game, 2009 first-round pick Dustin Ackley will reside atop the order, while Hernandez could still be atop a rotation that should get help from a bushel of hurlers who toiled in the lower minors this season.
Seattle fans may not want to consider this, but if things don't get better, forcing King Felix to abdicate his throne via trade may be the best move available to revive the lagging spirits.
7. Washington Nationals (69-93)
Oh, So Close: The then-Montreal Expos lost the decisive game in the 1981 NLCS. Of course, there was the 1994 club that tore through the National League with a 74-40 record before the lockout killed the season and effectively killed baseball in the city.
2011 Outlook: With ace P Stephen Strasburg healing from Tommy John surgery, the enthusiasm surrounding the club will be slightly muted, but the Nationals are on the right track, especially if 1B/OF Adam Dunn and his 38 homers return to the nation’s capital. Ryan Zimmerman is arguably the best third baseman in the game, while OF Roger Bernadina, SS Ian Desmond, 2B Danny Espinosa and closer Drew Storen provided glimpses of their potential. P Jordan Zimmermann rebounded from injuries and has the potential to capably fill in for Strasburg as the Nats’ ace.
If Not Now, When? This could be a very interesting club come 2013. Strasburg should be near top form, Jordan Zimmermann will be at his peak and super-prospect Bryce Harper will be joining Ryan Zimmerman (and perhaps Dunn) in the middle of a potent lineup. If everything falls into place, liberals and conservatives will agree that the Nationals could take the torch from the Phillies in the NL East.
6. Houston Astros (76-86)
Oh, So Close: After years of playoff heartache, the Astros won the NL title in 2005, but they were overwhelmed by the White Sox in a sweep from which the franchise has yet to fully recover.
2011 Outlook: A strong stretch of play from early August to mid-September offered hope that the Astros could be next season’s version of the Padres.
But anyone believing that is delusional at best; Houston lacks anyone with the game-changing presence of Adrian Gonzalez, as the lineup features just one player (RF Hunter Pence) with above-average offensive upside, while the pitching staff is filled with question marks, let alone anyone who could rival the likes of San Diego’s Mat Latos.
Since they reside in the NL Central, the chance for a Padre-like leap to playing meaningful games in September is slightly higher, but general manager Ed Wade and owner Drayton McLane would have to reverse their recent skid of foolish transactions and strike gold with a hitter (preferably a catcher) that can improve an offense that was almost as putrid as Seattle’s.
If Not Now, When? Houston is in the opening stages of retooling one of the game’s worst minor league systems, so it will take time before the likes of SS Jiovanni Mier, OF Jay Austin and P Jordan Lyles will make a reasonable impact. At best, 2013 appears to be the time when the Astros can make fans remember the club is more than just a bridge between the end of the Rockets’ season and the start of the Texans' training camp.
5. San Diego Padres (90-72)
Oh, So Close: The club had bad timing in its two World Series appearances, serving as sacrificial lambs for two of the greatest teams in the last 40 years, the 1984 Tigers and the 1998 Yankees that rolled through the Padres by a combined 8-1 margin.
2011 Outlook: Much (OK, well everything) depends on if 1B Adrian Gonzalez is in the opening day lineup. The All-Star slugger is entering the final year of his contract, and it’s no secret the financially cautious Padres will struggle to keep the San Diego native in town beyond next October. Closer Heath Bell and his 47 saves are also on the market, while 3B/SS Miguel Tejada (free agent) and OF Ryan Ludwick (likely to be non-tendered) are not expected to return.
San Diego had one of the worst offenses in the majors, but trading Gonzalez and/or Bell would likely net a bat or two. P Mat Latos is close to becoming an elite starter, but it would be asking a lot of the bullpen to repeat the same magic that helped carry the Padres to 90 wins.
If Not Now, When? Despite the surprise postseason near-miss, GM Jed Hoyer has the club focused on improving through its minor league system, but the likes of OF Jaff Decker, 3B James Darnell and OF Rymer Liriano still need time to develop. If the Padres stay the course, 2014 could signal the dawning of a golden period.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
Oh, So Close: Since losing Game 7 of the 1982 World Series, the franchise has enjoyed only one postseason berth.
2011 Outlook: Like the Padres, the future depends on the availability of a first baseman, in this case, Prince Fielder. Like Adrian Gonzalez, Fielder is in the last year of his contract and would net the caliber of pitcher the Brewers lack beyond Yovani Gallardo. The team could also consider moving 2B Rickie Weeks or RF Cory Hart to help fill holes in the bullpen and behind the plate.
Unless the club makes a shocking run at Cliff Lee, dealing Fielder may be the only way to rectify a pitching staff that finished 26th in ERA and next to last in walks allowed.
If Not Now, When? Milwaukee went 26 years without a playoff game; if the club doesn’t want a repeat of that drought, the Brewers must make hard decisions on the direction of the franchise. The minor league system doesn’t appear to be of help, which could force Milwaukee’s fans to start counting down to training camp for the Packers sooner than they’d prefer to.
3. Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)
Oh, So Close: Seemed like yesterday that the Rays shocked the baseball world and won the AL pennant in 2008 before falling to the Phillies in the World Series.
2011 Outlook: A mandate to pare salary will cost OF Carl Crawford, 1B Carlos Pena, closer Rafael Soriano and (likely) OF B.J. Upton this winter, but Tampa has enough assets in place to defend its first AL East title.
P David Price is one of the game’s elite hurlers; P Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter among his 15 wins, and the minor league system—which delivered Jeremy Hellickson this summer—has several more arms with which manager Joe Maddon can restock the staff. Talented rookie OF Desmond Jennings is ready to step in for Crawford, and as long as 3B Evan Longoria’s name is in the middle of the order, the offense should stay in tune.
If Not Now, When? The Rays may actually take a step back next season in order to move forward in 2012. Much will depend on whether RF Ben Zobrist’s power can return to the 27-homer form from his breakout 2009 instead of the 10 homers he smacked this past year. Sean Rodriguez has tremendous skills and if Tampa keeps him in one position, he will easily improve the .251-9-40 totals he put up this season.
2. Colorado Rockies (83-79)
Oh, So Close: The 2007 World Series sweep at the hands of the Red Sox barely overshadowed the drama that defined Colorado's mad dash to the postseason.
2011 Outlook: So good, it's scary.
In SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies have two elite sluggers who have yet to hit their primes. Had Tulo not missed nearly six weeks, it might have Colorado—instead of San Francisco—spraying champagne in Texas. P Ubaldo Jimenez was the game's best starter in the first half, and the 19-game winner has the downright filthy stuff to dominate again. Minor league lefty Christian Friedrich and his wicked curveball could do for Colorado what Madison Bumgarner did for San Francisco.
The Rockies do have holes, namely the mammoth contract with 1B Todd Helton's name on it. The franchise icon hit just .262 with eight homers, and the time has come for Colorado to find a way to increase production at the position while also giving Helton a proper departure from the starting lineup.
If Not Now, When? With Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Jimenez, the Rockies have the foundation that will provide one of the biggest threats to San Francisco's grip on the National League. The window is open for Coors Field to host at least one or two "Rocktobers" in the next five seasons.
1. Texas Rangers (90-72)
Oh, So Close: Rangers fans can bask in the afterglow of a magic ride that ended prematurely. But, hey, at least they're not the Cowboys!
2011 Outlook: Re-signing ace lefty Cliff Lee is priority No. 1. If he’s donning Rangers gear on opening day, Texas will be favored to repeat as AL champs. If not, then the Rangers will revert to trying to pound the daylights out of opposing hurlers.
A lineup that features likely MVP Josh Hamilton, Vladmir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and a full season of Ian Kinsler would ease the loss of Lee, C.J. Wilson showed ace-caliber stuff at times, while Rich Harden, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter provide the foundation of a solid rotation to go along with flame-throwing closer Neftali Feliz.
If Not Now, When? “Wait ‘til next year” could be reality for the Rangers if Lee returns. With New York (pitching), Boston (hitting) and Tampa (financial strains) in various stages of retooling and Minnesota unable to get over the LDS hurdle, Texas would have a clear shot at completing its unfinished business next October.