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Fourteen teams had losing records last season. Two or three of them will be in the playoffs this year, if form holds. This is your annual cheat sheet for identifying those sleeper teams.
The baseball world turns over faster than ever, thanks to parity, revenue sharing, local television money (welcome to the high-stakes table, Arizona!) and wild cards. Since the debut of the wild card format in 1995, 46 of the 176 playoff teams had a losing record in the previous season. That’s slightly more than one quarter of all playoff teams (26%). The rate of turnaround teams has jumped to 33% since the second wild card was added in 2012. You’re virtually guaranteed that at least one of those losers from last year will be playing this October. Only once in 21 wild-card years has the playoff field not included at least one turnaround team ('05).
How does a team turn around from a losing record one year to a playoff spot the next? Some of the most common elements were a change in managers (common to 39% of the playoff sleepers), a poor record in one-run games in the previous season and an upgrade in defensive efficiency.
Using those and other guidelines, I picked the Mariners, Giants and Angels in 2014 as the three most likely turnaround teams, and hit on the latter two. In 2015, I picked the Red Sox, Cubs and Mets as the three most likely playoff sleepers—hitting on Chicago and New York (but missing on the Rangers and Astros, who were part of a record-tying four turnaround teams in one postseason).
This year, starting with the 14 losing teams from 2015, I tossed aside the Phillies, Reds, Braves, Brewers and Rockies—all of whom lost 94 or more games last year—because they have too much ground to make up. Then I dismissed the Athletics, Padres and White Sox because they are among the worst defensive teams in baseball.
That left me with six losing teams from 2015 that are the most likely candidates to reach the playoff teams in '16. Two of them could be this year’s version of the Cubs and Mets by reaching the league championship series. And don’t rule out a pennant: Three straight World Series have included a team that had a losing record the previous season (2013 Red Sox, '14 Giants and '15 Mets).
So here they are: the top six playoff sleepers for 2016, listed in likelihood of reaching October.
1. Boston Red Sox
I admit I don’t have much confidence in this pick, because Boston has a trap-door scenario in which it gets off to a poor start, manager John Farrell's job is imperiled, and panic leads to the team being re-cast yet again. Questions abound. Nobody behind David Price in the rotation is a given. Rusney Castillo still has to prove he can hit a good fastball. Pablo Sandoval cannot keep his third base job if he doesn’t improve defensively. Hanley Ramirez, 32, cannot stay on the field as he has aged and added bulk (averaging 106 games the past three years). And how’s this for volatility: Even including their 2013 world championship season, since '11, the Red Sox are 405–405, and have done so with this odd win pattern: 90, 69, 97, 71, 78.
And yet, Boston did go 51–46 last season after starting 27–38. It also added one of the best starters in baseball (Price) and one of the best relievers (closer Craig Kimbrel), and has a solid core of young, everyday players (outfielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, catcher Blake Swihart) and tremendous depth (Ryan Hanigan, Brock Holt, Travis Shaw, Chris Young). The Red Sox' season will be determined by their bullpen, which last year went 19–24 and ranked 25th in strikeouts per nine and WHIP. The forearm injury to Carson Smith is a big blow. I would make use of Joe Kelly’s lights-out stuff by turning him into a 90-inning “super reliever” who can go multiple innings.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
If Tampa Bay, which ranked 14th in the league in runs scored last year, becomes at least a mediocre offensive team, it should be in the playoffs. The defense is top-notch, and the pitching staff could be spectacular. The Rays finished fourth in ERA last year despite getting only 24 starts from Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly. Give those pitchers about 50 more starts—Cobb should be back in the second half from elbow surgery, Moore should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and Smyly (2.52 ERA in 19 starts since being traded from Detroit to Tampa Bay in 2014) is a breakout star—and you can see a 10-win improvement. This team already has one of the game’s best pitchers (Chris Archer) and one of its best pitching prospects (Blake Snell).
Corey Dickerson and Brad Miller should help an offense whose leading lefthanded home run hitter last year was Kevin Kiermaier (10 homers). The Rays do have better depth on offense. But the great unknown is Tampa Bay's bullpen. Manager Kevin Cash went to it too quickly and too often last year. The Rays believe in getting starters out as the lineup turns over a third time, but they just don’t have enough quality arms in the bullpen for the formula to work over six months.
3. Seattle Mariners
This is a bet on past form. Seattle is the only possible turnaround team this year with a new manager (Scott Servais) and a losing record in one-run games last year (28–29). The Mariners have five new players in their batting order, with the net effect likely to be an improvement on their 13th-place finish in the AL in runs scored in 2015.
A few years ago, Seattle talked to the Rockies about trading pitching prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to Colorado for star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Now it’s time for Walker, 23, and Paxton, 27, to deliver on their promise. As rated by adjusted ERA, for which 100 is considered league average, neither Walker (83) nor Paxton (97) met that modest standard. Paxton couldn’t even make the roster this spring, squandering his chance with a 10.80 ERA. And the clock is now ticking on Felix Hernandez, who turns 30, is coming off his worst year since he was 20 years old and threw more innings through age 29 than any pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela (1980–90). Starting pitching must carry this team.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
Each morning when spring training began, pitcher Josh Collmenter, a Central Michigan graduate, would gather some pitchers around a dry erase board and give a lecture on academic topics, such as physics and history. Here’s a math lesson he could have dropped on them: This team is five to 15 games better than it was last year, when it won 79 games.
The entire everyday lineup is between 24 and 29 years old, the traditional prime years of a player; that equates to more durability, athleticism and speed than most teams. The 72 starts made by Collmenter, Chase Anderson, Jeremy Hellickson and Zack Godley (Arizona was 32–40 in those games) now go to Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin.
But here’s another lesson: Arizona could improve by 10 games and still miss the playoffs. The Diamondbacks upgraded into contention, but their offense is still lacking in depth, and the rest of the rotation is questionable. Arizona is, as one NL general manager put it, “a team of stars and scrubs” that is not as deep as San Francisco or Los Angeles.
5. Detroit Tigers
Year-to-year bullpen performance tends to be unpredictable, but then you have the Tigers. Their bullpen is consistently bad. Since Detroit reached the World Series in 2006, here is where its bullpen has finished in ERA among all major league teams: 23, 27 (tied), 22, 14, 25, 16, 24, 27, 27.
Next up at the back of the Detroit 'pen are Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson. They will need to be very good because the rotation has questions throughout, including Justin Verlander (33–32, 3.84 ERA in three seasons since turning 30), Jordan Zimmermann (changing leagues after posting a career-worst 3.66 ERA with the Nationals in 2015) and Anibal Sanchez (32 years old, frequently hurt and still without a 200-inning season). Offense will have to carry Detroit, which was an odd club last year: It led the majors in batting average but was just 15th in runs scored. On their best days, when at full health, the Tigers can stomp teams with the power of Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton.
6. Miami Marlins
Like Arizona, Miami is top-heavy with stars but lacks depth to withstand injuries. The core of Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich and Jose Fernandez is exciting and only now entering its prime years. And maybe hitting coaches Frank Menechino and Barry Bonds—who ranked first and second in the majors in 2001 at taking the most pitches—can make an impact on a team that drew the fewest walks in the majors last year and ranked next to last in runs. But a shallow bullpen behind a rotation that doesn’t eat up many innings is a dangerous combination over the long season.
The Marlins have been a boom-or-bust franchise. They’ve won two World Series, but those are their only postseason appearances in 23 years of existence, and both came after a losing season the previous year. They don’t look like a playoff team today. But if Miami can hang in the race for three months, it could be transformed by deadline deals, just as the Mets, Blue Jays and Rangers were last year.