Are you ready for the 2014 World Series between the Pirates and Royals? It could happen. I'll admit that it sounds insane. Aren't the Pirates and Royals two small-market teams that just spent the last decade or two in the cellar? Can I really be talking about the same two inept franchises who don't spend much money and whose farm systems are just so-so? Aren't these two teams the same clubs that just lost 99 and 97 games respectively? Even the most optimistic fans in Pittsburgh or Kansas City might concede that there's little hope for contention any time soon. So why on earth would I be predicting a World Series involving these two clubs in just five short years?
First of all, let me say that I'm not predicting it. But I'm also saying that such a matchup is not out of the question. Granted, there's not presently a lot to like about the those two teams, but as bad as their fans feel now, it's actually a good bet that a downtrodden club like the Royals or Pirates can turn it around within the just five years.
Flashback to 2004, when there were eight teams that seemed similarly comatose. Coming off several poor seasons in a row, they were reluctant to spend money, resided in small markets and had dwindling fan bases. Indeed, fans of the Expos, Reds, Rays, Tigers, Brewers, Rockies, Royals and Pirates had little hope of brighter days in the near future. What happened, though, was that four of these teams had remarkable success, turning their franchises around and making the playoffs within five years. What's more, three of the teams (Rays, Rockies and Tigers) went to the World Series in that time period.
While it's no guarantee, of course (the other four teams, including Pittsburgh and K.C., continued their ineptitude), previous history shows that it's possible for even the most despondent of clubs to claw back to not only respectability, but to greatness in a short period of time. How did they do it? The same way every team tries to turn it around: good drafts, good player development, good trades, key free-agent signings and a heavy dose of luck all contributed to these teams' remarkable turnarounds. The point isn't how they managed to do it, but the fact that they did it at all. What's more, none of these worst-to-World Series teams had great farm systems in 2004 to help them along. The Rays had the No. 9 ranked system according to Baseball America. The Rockies had the No. 15 ranked system, and the Tigers were ranked No. 22. In short, there was nothing that indicated at the time that these teams would soon be doused in champagne. Nevertheless, within five years, they were waving pennant flags.
While the turnarounds of the Rays, Rockies and Tigers was remarkable, those of you more statistically inclined won't be content to stop at just anecdotal evidence from the previous five years. Building on some work I did over at Baseball Analysts, I developed a rough statistical model for predicting future team performance five years down the road. What's surprisingly unimportant is a team's history of winning or losing. In other words, no matter how good or bad your favorite team played last year or last decade, it won't have much of an effect on its performance five years later. This gives hope to every perennial loser, from Washington to Kansas City. Simply put, the fact that your team stinks, and has stunk throughout its recent history, becomes irrelevant in just five short years. While conventional wisdom might say that you can write off a team that has lost year after year, the data (as well as the Rays, Rockies and Tigers) show that, in fact, they've got a shot to be good just like everybody else.
So if recent success has no impact on future performance, then what does? There are three main factors that affect a team's future. First is a team's market size. As you might expect, teams from a big market are predicted to perform better. In general, teams playing in a big market can expect to gain three to five additional wins when looking five years down the road. A nearly equally important factor, however, is a team's farm system. Looking at Baseball America's rankings from 1984 through 2009 shows a strong correlation between a team's farm system today and its performance five years from now. A good farm system can also boost a team's future prospects by another three to five wins. The third important factor, though not as important as the other two, is a team's recent spending history. Not surprisingly, teams which tend to throw money around are expected to do a couple of games better in the future. Their willingness to sign free agents and break the bank to sign a winner bodes well for a team's chances in the future. The other finding, is that, not surprisingly, baseball is unpredictable. Even teams which seem to be sitting pretty now could fall apart in just five years. In statistical terms, the standard errors of any five-year predictions tend to be quite high, meaning that anything can happen.
The good news, for teams such as the Pirates and Royals, is that their putrid recent history will be irrelevant five years from now. The bad news is that money and market size matter, neither of which are their strong suits. However, earlier this year John Manuel of Baseball America put both the Pirates and Royals in the top half of all farm systems. Considering that farm system talent is a strong indicator of future performance, that's good news.
Factoring in everything, the statistical model predicts that the Royals and Pirates will win just three fewer games than the average team in 2014. This means that even considering all that has gone wrong for these clubs over the past two decades, their chances to contend in 2014 are pretty similar to every other team. In other words, they've got a chance. Given the high degree of variability in these predictions, it's not at all out of the question to predict that one of these clubs will be a contender or even go to the World Series within the next five years.
How do the Royals and Pirates' chances compare to some of the most successful teams in the major leagues? Surely you would expect the powerhouse Dodgers to far surpass the expectations of the Pirates or Royals. While it's true that L.A. is indeed expected to perform better -- it's predicted to win 85 games -- the Bucs and Royals are just seven games off that pace. It's not at all unreasonable to think that with a bit of luck, the Pirates, laughingstock of the National League, may actually best the mighty Dodgers come 2014. In fact, the probabilities would give them about a one-third chance to do so. While it's hard to fathom that a team as woeful as Pittsburgh could actually overtake a powerhouse like Los Angeles in five years' time, history shows that it can easily happen. Back in 2004, nobody thought that a team like Tampa Bay would best the mighty Red Sox to go to the World Series just four years later -- but it happened -- and something similar will likely happen again.
Of the other glamour franchises, the Yankees clearly are the most likely team to stay successful going forward. Given their huge market, big-spending ways and above-average farm system, they pull far ahead of the pack, and are predicted to win 93 games in the 2014 season -- by far the most of any team. Showing the importance of a strong farm system, the Rangers are the next most likely contender for 2014. The Rangers haven't been to the playoffs in years, but that doesn't matter. What does is their recent No. 1 farm system ranking by Baseball America, as well as their decent market size and spending habits. However, they still don't rank up there with the Yankees, coming in at an expected 87 wins. The next most likely are other usual suspects, including the Phillies, Mets and Red Sox, followed by the San Francisco Giants on the strength of their highly-rated farm system. While these big-name clubs are expected to do a bit better than average, their advantages are still relatively small, and there is certainly no guarantee of their future success. On the other end of the spectrum, there are actually several other teams which are expected to have worse fortunes than the Pirates or Royals. The Astros, D'Backs, Brewers, Reds and Padres all rate slightly worse than either Kansas City or Pittsburgh in their forecast for five years from now.
The point is that no matter how bleak things seem today, and no matter how many consecutive losing seasons a team has suffered, there's ample opportunity to turn things around within just five years' time. All those past losing seasons quickly become irrelevant, and if a perennial loser has a good farm team or an owner who is willing to spend some money, a losing team can actually have a better than average shot at winning in the future.
As the Rays, Tigers and Rockies showed last decade, even if the team has every factor working against them, baseball is unpredictable enough to allow a franchise to turn it around in spite of the disadvantages. The results are good news for down-and-out teams such as Pittsburgh and Kansas City, as well as other perennial disappointments such as Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Given the forgiving nature of the game, I wouldn't be surprised at all if one or more of these clubs made a playoff or World Series run within the next five years. Sure, it seems awfully unlikely now, and it probably won't happen in the next year or two, but baseball has shown that a losing past doesn't mean a losing future.
After 17 straight losing seasons, Pittsburgh fans might be tempted to take a proverbial nap of Rip Van Winklian proportions. After all, it doesn't appear they will be contending any time soon. Likewise for the long suffering Royals fans, who have seen just one winning season since 1994. But as history shows, such a slumber could cause them to miss a not-so-improbable return to glory.