The Diamondbacks are on the verge of becoming baseball's latest Cinderella, sitting on a five-game lead in the NL West a year after finishing last with a 65--97 record. Small divisions and parity have put such a turnaround in any team's reach. Here are how this year's last-place teams are shaping up for 2012, when they'll try to emulate the Snakes.
The Mover: Florida
The Marlins were 31--22 before injuries began chipping away at a thin roster, leaving them without stars Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez for most of the season and taking away supporting players Chris Coghlan and Logan Morrison at times as well. That core should be back next year, when increased revenue from the team's new downtown stadium will allow Florida to fill a few holes—and take a step toward challenging the Phillies' aging dynasty.
The Enigma: Baltimore
September 25, 2011
The Orioles' 34--23 finish to the 2010 season, combined with a glut of young pitching talent, heralded a breakthrough year—or at least respectability. That optimism went down with the pitchers: Chris Tillman (5.52 ERA) and Brian Matusz (9.84) failed to hold down rotation job. G.M. Andy MacPhail is rumored to be stepping down after the season, and his successor will have to figure out why the organization's young pitchers have stalled upon reaching the majors. The O's are at least a couple of years away in the deep AL East.
The Sleeper: Seattle
With their spacious park and stellar defense, the Mariners have shown they can cultivate solid pitchers. On the flip side, playing in Safeco Field means that Seattle needs top-tier hitters, and right now it has just one: second baseman Dustin Ackley. (No, that's not a misprint; Ichiro Suzuki is no longer a star, especially for $18 million a year.) But in the game's smallest division, the Mariners could make a little noise if they could find bats in leftfield and at DH.
The Veteran: San Diego
They've done it before; the Padres went from last in 1997 to division champs (and pennant winners) in '98. Their situation is similar to the Mariners': Decent pitching (led by Mat Latos), but their hitters struggle in their cavernous park. The Padres have the most strikeouts and lowest slugging percentage in the NL, suggesting that sacrificing contact for power isn't working. Complicating matters is free-agent-to-be closer Heath Bell, who has indicated he'll accept an arbitration offer rather than hit the market. That would stick the Padres with a high salary and deny them the compensatory picks they'd receive—and so desperately need—if he signed elsewhere.
The Longest Long Shot: Houston
To their credit, the Astros have finally committed to a complete overhaul of the roster. But a thin farm system will mean a few hard years of losing. The few reasons to watch: line-drive machine Jose Altuve, young power arm Jordan Lyles and a couple of good starting pitchers in Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez.
The Favorite: Minnesota
So much of the Twins' failure this season was injury-related. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, who represent a third of the team's payroll, combined to play in 151 games and hit just seven home runs. Jason Kubel, Denard Span, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, key contributors in 2010, when Minnesota won the Central, also spent long stretches on the DL. The Twins can help themselves by putting a better defense on the field: They are last in the AL in turning balls in play into outs this year, and the staff is last in the league in strikeouts. But if Mauer and Morneau are healthy—and hitting—in '12, the Twins have the best chance to go from cellar dweller to champagne popper.