Projecting When MLB's Longest Playoff Droughts Will Be Broken

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMay 19, 2021

Projecting When MLB's Longest Playoff Droughts Will Be Broken

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Some fanbases are far luckier than others.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have not missed the postseason since 2012 and have won three National League pennants and a World Series in that time frame. Conversely, the Seattle Mariners are fighting to avoid missing the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season. What about some of the other franchises yearning for October baseball? 

    Let's take a look at some of the longest playoff droughts in MLB and when they might end. These timelines were devised through an assessment of current MLB rosters and players under club control, as well as the expected arrival and development of top minor leaguers.

    For clarity's sake, no team on this list has made the playoffs since 2016. Easy enough, right? Well, maybe not for the following clubs.

Baltimore Orioles (Last Playoff Berth: 2016)

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It wasn't all that long ago the Baltimore Orioles were a contender in the American League East, though it probably feels like eons to O's fans. 

    Baltimore has been the second-worst team in the majors since the start of the 2017 season, behind only the Detroit Tigers. The O's won 47 games in 2018, the lowest tally since 2003 until the Tigers won the same number the following season. 

    There's still a ways to go.

    Center fielder Cedric Mullins (.889 OPS) is looking more and more like a legitimate building block, as is left-hander John Means (1.21 ERA). The Orioles could look to extend Trey Mancini at some point, or possibly deal him for more young talent.

    Baltimore will likely hope Ryan Mountcastle (.578 OPS) can recover from a slow start and build on his strong 2020 showing. It would be nice to get Anthony Santander back to see how he progresses. Austin Hays (.805 OPS) is quietly having a strong season. Top prospect Adley Rutschman could be up before the end of the year.

    The positional foundation is decent, especially when considering Heston Kjerstad is also in the pipeline along with talented shortstops Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg.

    Still, Baltimore's progression is likely dependent on the growth of young arms like Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. Can one of those develop into a frontline starter? Maybe, but it's too soon to tell.

    The Orioles are amassing young talent. But it'll take time to cultivate that talent and bring everyone through the system. It's also difficult to project their future competitiveness in a crowded AL East. 

    When the drought ends: 2025

Detroit Tigers (Last Playoff Berth: 2014)

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    We alluded to how badly Detroit Tigers fans have suffered in the slide above. It's not looking any better in 2021 or the near future.

    Detroit has the third-worst record in the majors. The offense ranks last in the American League in runs scored and last in the majors in OPS while the bullpen also has the worst ERA in baseball. When will things get better?

    The Tigers do have some reason for optimism. Casey Mize is building on the experience he gained in 2020. Spencer Turnbull has had early success after a strong 2020—he no-hit the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday—and is controllable through 2024, making him valuable as either a future piece or trade asset. Matt Manning has shockingly given up eight homers in 12.2 innings at Triple-A this year but still has good upside.

    Is there enough positional talent to shrink the timeline? Probably not. Jeimer Candelario might be the only guy on the MLB roster who legitimately looks like a building block. Akil Baddoo's slug (.488) has been impressive, but he strikes out a ton and is still dipping his toes in.

    The system is intriguing. Last year's No. 1 overall pick, Spencer Torkelson, dominated at Arizona State and could progress through the system in a hurry if he starts to hit. Outfielder Riley Greene should be up sooner rather than later. Catcher Dillon Dingler is off to a great start (three homers) in High-A.

    That said, the absence of young and productive players on Detroit's MLB roster lengthens the timeline a bit. It also hasn't been encouraging to see left-hander Tarik Skubal continue to be victimized by the long ball and have command issues.

    When the drought ends: 2026

Kansas City Royals (Last Playoff Berth: 2015)

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    What started as a seemingly promising 2021 has since turned sour for the Kansas City Royals after they lost 13-of-15 from May 2 to May 16. Still, Royals fans shouldn't despair. 

    Let's start with the biggest positive: Kansas City has a strong farm. Bobby Witt Jr. dominated in spring training and figures to get his shot at big league pitching soon. Kyle Isbel is thriving in Triple-A (.412 OBP) after a brief stint in the majors to start the season. International signee Erick Pena has plenty of tools and could develop quickly. 

    The arms are legitimately good. Opponents teed off on Daniel Lynch in his final starts before being optioned, but the Royals remain high on his upside. Left-hander Asa Lacy has power stuff and a plus changeup, all of which could be assets if he can work on his command issues. Jackson Kowar's fastball-changeup combination make him MLB-ready.

    As for the MLB roster, Salvador Perez is (.828 OPS) is one of the best backstops in baseball and is locked up through at least 2025. Andrew Benintendi (.283 BA) has shown signs of bouncing back from a horrendous 2020. Don't forget about talented shortstop Adalberto Mondesi.

    Right-hander Brady Singer has a 3.96 ERA and good peripherals. Meanwhile, left-hander Kris Bubic has been fantastic in a pair of long relief outings, throwing at least five innings out of the bullpen on May 8 and May 13 and dialing up six scoreless innings in Tuesday's start against the Milwaukee Brewers.

    One more thing to consider: The Royals can add to their pipeline by dealing the likes of Danny Duffy later this summer, though he was recently placed on the injured list with a forearm strain. Other possible moves could make a deep farm system that much better.

    When the drought ends: 2024

New York Mets (Last Playoff Berth: 2016)

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The New York Mets are built to win now, and they're doing just that.

    New York is atop the National League East despite horrendous offensive numbers and injuries to key players such as Jacob deGrom (side) and, more recently, Michael Conforto (hamstring), Jeff McNeil (hamstring) and Taijuan Walker (side).

    The Mets have an elite rotation with deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Walker at the top. That unit gets even better with the eventual returns of Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard. However, the bullpen has probably been even more impressive. New York's relievers rank fifth in xFIP.

    A strong pitching staff gives the Mets an excellent chance to end the drought this season. Things should even out on the offensive end, as well. 

    New York has the fourth-highest difference between xwOBA and true wOBA. That's even with the Mets still ranking 15th in xwOBA, which is unusual given the team's offensive potential. The offense can only go up, which is good news for a team already in first place. 

    Expect the Mets to play October baseball this year.

    When the drought ends: 2021

Los Angeles Angels (Last Playoff Berth: 2014)

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Like the Mets, the Los Angeles Angels are also a team with a concerted interest in winning now. The Halos have the best player in the game in Mike Trout and maybe the most gifted baseball player ever in Shohei Ohtani. 

    Unfortunately for owner Arte Moreno and the Angels fanbase, nothing about this pitching staff suggests this team is ready to contend in 2021.

    Los Angeles' starters rank last in the majors in ERA. The bullpen hasn't been much better, ranking 27th in ERA and 17th in xFIP.

    There's good and bad news for the Angels. The good news is the positional group is intact for years to come, with Trout, Ohtani, Anthony Rendon and Jared Walsh providing a tremendous core. Jo Adell has four homers at Triple-A and could still profile as a top masher. Brandon Marsh should join Adell in the Angels outfield sometime soon. 

    On the flip side, the Angels have had a hard time developing starting pitching and lack young talent. Dylan Bundy will be a free agent after this season, as will Andrew Heaney.

    However, this might force Moreno and general manager Perry Minasian to be more aggressive in pursuit of pitching.

    Veteran arms such as Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw should all be available this winter. The Halos could and should pursue at least one of those guys, if not Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Lance Lynn and a host of others.

    If the Angels have a big winter in the pitching market, and it's likely ownership will be eager to do so, it's not impossible to envision L.A. getting back to the playoffs next year.

    When the drought ends: 2022

Philadelphia Phillies (Last Playoff Berth: 2011)

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    It's kind of incredible the Philadelphia Phillies went from being on the cusp of a possible dynasty at the end of the 2000s to having a mostly regrettable decade in the 2010s. Will the second-longest playoff drought come to an end soon? That's hard to say.

    On the one hand, the Phillies are built to win now. Bryce Harper and J.T Realmuto are two of the best players at their respective positions. Other veterans like Jean Segura (.320 BA) and Andrew McCutchen (110 OPS+) are producing. Rhys Hoskins is a slugging first baseman. Alec Bohm's batted ball numbers are encouraging, even if the results haven't been there. That bodes well for his future upside.

    Then there's the top three in the rotation—Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin—all of whom have performed admirably thus far and are controllable in the coming years. That all sounds great, right? Especially with an ultra-aggressive president of baseball operations (Dave Dombrowski) likely to make win-now moves.

    Well, yes. However, the Phillies are still competing in a crowded division. There also has to be some consideration for the top-heaviness of the NL West, which might only get better in the coming years. The bullpen could also be volatile, while the rotation needs help at the back end.

    Much will depend on Philly's young arms. If right-handers Spencer Howard and Francisco Morales (maybe even Mick Abel, though he's just 19) can make gains this season and show they're ready to compete at the big league level, the drought could end within the next year. It would not surprise if Dombrowski tried to swing catcher Rafael Marchan for pitching help, either.

    Still, it's hard to say that is imminent given the Phils' division. The Mets and Braves both have pretty bright outlooks.

    When the drought ends: 2023

Pittsburgh Pirates (Last Playoff Berth: 2015)

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Pirates fully committed to a rebuild ahead of the 2020 season, not that they had much choice. It should be a fairly long journey. 

    The Bucs have good talent in the system. Ke'Bryan Hayes' wrist injury has been a source of frustration, but JT Brubaker's development (2.58 ERA) has been a positive. Right-hander Wil Crowe, acquired in the Josh Bell trade, has shown he can compete. Top pitching prospect Quinn Priester has good life with the fastball and a sharp curveball.

    Bryan Reynolds (.871 OPS) has regained his 2019 form. There is a wealth of infield talent, including Nick Gonzales and Oneil Cruz. Both Hudson Head and Travis Swaggerty are worth watching in the outfield.

    The Pirates will also be active sellers with assets to spare. Closer Richard Rodriguez could be on the move, and it's possible to see Adam Frazier and possibly Jacob Stallings heading elsewhere. 

    It's going to take time for the Bucs to realize their full potential. But there's an intriguing blend of talent, plus the NL Central is a wild card of a division going forward.

    When the drought ends: 2025

San Francisco Giants (Last Playoff Berth: 2016)

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants have their share of skeptics as they sit atop the NL West. Indeed, a 6-3 record against the Colorado Rockies is aiding a strong start.

    That said, there are reasons to believe the Giants are for real. For example, they have a winning record against the San Diego Padres and are 7-6 in one-run games while carrying a 4-1 record in blowouts. More importantly, San Francisco's rotation leads the bigs in ERA and ranks fourth in xFIP.

    Kevin Gausman has a 1.84 ERA, while Anthony DeSclafani's was at 2.14 before he had another strong outing (7 IP, 1 ER) Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds. The Giants can go six deep in the rotation when everyone's healthy, too. Alex Wood (1.75 ERA) has cut his walk rate and is excelling in a more spacious Oracle Park. Logan Webb has been excellent (12 IP, 1 ER) in his last two outings

    The Giants also rank fifth in the NL in slugging (second in homers) and a fifth in OPS. Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt both have OPS marks above .830. Buster Posey has a 1.093 OPS. Mike Yastrzemski (.822 OPS) is red-hot as of late.

    Is this not a team capable of making a playoff run? The Giants are competitive enough to contend now, but they could also pick from a slew of farm assets in the event they choose to buy in pursuit of a playoff berth.

    I'm buying the Giants as legitimate playoff contenders in 2021.

    When the drought ends: 2021

Seattle Mariners (Last Playoff Berth: 2001)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The Seattle Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the majors. Fear not, M's fans. October baseball could be on the horizon.

    For starters, the Mariners are playing .500 ball and hanging tough against top American League contenders like the Houston Astros and Cleveland. That's in spite of an offense that ranks 14th in the AL in OPS.

    However, there's hope for that offense. Mitch Haniger (.894) is healthy and at the top of his game. Jarred Kelenic should grow more comfortable as he gets more MLB at-bats. Kyle Lewis is getting back into the swing of things after missing the early part of the season and remains immensely talented. 

    Other youngsters are coming in a hurry. Julio Rodriguez has five homers at High-A. Taylor Trammell had four homers in his first five games at Triple-A. Cal Raleigh has the look of an offensive-minded catcher the Mariners have needed for years.

    The arm talent is also spicy. Logan Gilbert has arrived. Right-handers Emerson Hancock and George Kirby could be fast risers. Those guys supplement MLB arms like Chris Flexen, Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield, all of whom should continue to grow alongside veteran left-handers Yusei Kikuchi and Marco Gonzales.

    The next couple of years will be important for Seattle's young talent. The Mariners could be a sneaky dark horse, especially in 2022, but 2023 is the year they have a more realistic chance of making a playoff run.

    When the drought ends: 2023

Texas Rangers (Last Playoff Berth: 2016)

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    The Texas Rangers' future looks far more appealing than it did at the start of the 2021 season.

    Nate Lowe, Nick Solak and Isiah Kiner-Falefa make up a talented infield, with Kiner-Falefa ranking inside the top 20 in fWAR. Top prospect Josh Jung awaits in the minors too, with catcher Sam Huff also likely to return to the majors at some point after a brief stint in 2020.

    In the outfield, Adolis Garcia (.933 OPS, 11 homers) is a top AL Rookie of the Year candidate and also ranks in the top 20 in fWAR. Texas could probably net a good haul for Joey Gallo, or attempt to extend the polarizing star in the hopes he has yet realize his full potential. Willie Calhoun (.828 OPS) can play outfield, if necessary.

    Indeed, the positional talent would seem to be there. Things are less optimistic on the mound.

    Dane Dunning is the only projectable member of Texas' future rotation. Right-handers Yerry Rodriguez, Cole Winn and Hans Crouse are the other members in the Rangers' top 10, per Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter, but all Reuter labels Rodriguez a "Tier 2" prospect while Winn and Crouse are "Tier 3." They might not have the most exciting upside.

    It can be difficult for an up-and-coming team to really make a splash without a good base of young and talented pitching. The Rangers lack quality depth in that area, which could mean Texas is still years away from a playoff berth. 

    When the drought ends: 2025


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on May 18.