Welcome to the era of the one-winter rebuild. Which team can call itself a true contender with a straight face? Save yourself some time and count the ones that can't
THE INITIAL sales pitch went over about as well as a robocall at dinnertime. When White Sox general manager Rick Hahn phoned Peter Greenberg, the agent for outfielder Melky Cabrera, upon the opening of the free-agent shopping period last fall, Hahn didn't have a chance.
"With all due respect," Greenberg told him, "you guys have a fair amount of needs, and Melky wants to win."
Needs? Hahn's club stood closer to irrelevance than to the postseason. Over the previous two seasons Chicago had lost 188 games—the franchise's most losses in back-to-back seasons since 1970 and '71—and finished a combined 47 games out of first place. The White Sox not only missed the playoffs for their sixth straight season in 2014 but also sold fewer tickets for their eighth straight year. They'd lost 44% of their paying customers since 2006.
About six weeks after that phone call, on Dec. 11, Hahn texted Greenberg while sitting on a plane in San Diego, preparing to fly home from the winter meetings. By then Hahn had traded for starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija and spent $86 million on free-agent first baseman and designated hitter Adam LaRoche and relievers Zach Duke and David Robertson.
Greenberg texted back: "Let's chat."
Just five days later, Cabrera signed with the White Sox for $42 million over three years.
Press 1 if you plan to be in the playoffs within the next year....
THE BASEBALL world these days doesn't turn over as easily as the push of a button; it only seems that way. Thanks to two wild cards in each league, spending limits on amateur talent designed to thwart big-market advantages and a boom in local television rights—and fresh off the first World Series between two teams that each failed to win 90 games in a full season—a championship is within realistic reach of more teams than ever.
Over the past decade 27 of baseball's 30 franchises have played in the postseason, and the three wallflowers were among the busiest teams this off-season: the Blue Jays, Mariners and Marlins. Just about every club thinks it's the next version of the 2014 Giants, who, coming off a 76--86 season, slipped into the playoffs through the second wild-card door with only 88 wins and rolled to the title with a 12--5 record in October.
The list of starry-eyed teams includes even San Diego, which won 77 games last year in a fourth straight losing season while batting .226—the lowest average in MLB in a full season since the inaugural Padres of 1969. Rookie general manager A.J. Preller, padding his frequent flier account to three million miles and typically operating on four or five hours' sleep, escorted San Diego into the ranks of postseason hopefuls with a front-office version of speed dating: He acquired or traded 29 players in 12 days in December. Among the acquisitions were outfielders Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp and catcher Derek Norris—and, after pausing for a metaphorical nap, Preller signed free-agent righthander James Shields to a four-year, $75 million deal, the largest in team history. For those of you scoring at home, that's four All-Stars and a Rookie of the Year (Myers) in Preller's first winter on the job.
"Now it's not about hope," says Padres lead investor Peter Seidler. "It's about an expectation we're going to be a competitive, winning team this year and again, year after year."
Hope is so 2011. The 89-win Royals of last season are proof that you don't need to build a superpower to win a pennant. In fact, you can play mediocre baseball for three months (they started 48--50) and still be one good run away from a wild card (they won 22 of their next 27 before coming back to earth).
The new magic number in baseball is 88. In three years with the second wild card, 30 of 33 teams with at least that many wins made the postseason. Compared with a three-year window a decade ago (2002 through '04), when eight such teams were left out in the cold, the chance that 88 wins could get you into October improved to 91% from 75%. (Going back 30 years, it was a coin flip: just 50%.)
Playoff hopefuls also are emboldened by the extinction of "superteams," which largely corresponds to the decline of the I-95 Corridor of Power: the decline of the Phillies and the Yankees and the waffling of the Red Sox. Then, too, there are the financial measures pushed by former commissioner Bud Selig to create more parity: the competitive balance tax, caps on draft spending and penalties on international signings. From 1997 through 2005, 17 teams won 100 games. In the nine seasons since, only three teams have, including none in the past three years—the longest stretch without a 100-win team in a full season since the 162-game schedule began in '61.
Without these Goliaths, the incentive to quickly upgrade mediocre teams is stronger and the prospect of advancing in the postseason less daunting. Over the past four years the playoff teams with the fewest victories in each league have fared better than the teams with the most, going 40--35 and taking 12 of 20 series.
"Certainly if you are a true 83-win team, there is enough variance where you may jump up and win 87, 88," Hahn says. "But Detroit has won our division four times in a row, and the AL champs play in our division. So we view it as we have to get to the 90s to be in this mix. If we fall short of 90 wins, yes, there are opportunities with the wild cards to get to the promised land."
Two weeks after winning just 73 games last year, the White Sox convened an organizational meeting with the team's top executives and staff, including owner Jerry Reinsdorf, executive vice president Kenny Williams, Hahn, assistant general manager Buddy Bell, manager Robin Ventura, pitching coach Don Cooper and hitting coach Todd Steverson. Even with Rookie of the Year first baseman Jose Abreu, now 28, and ace Chris Sale, now 26, the news was grim. The system, which hasn't drafted a homegrown All-Star position player since third baseman Joe Crede in 1996, offered little immediate help.
Even Reinsdorf walked out of the room saying, "We have more holes than I anticipated." He gave his staff a directive: "Address as many as we can and as quickly as we can."
ONE OF the first things Hahn did was reach out to a 31-year-old who only 15 months earlier had been an unwanted middle reliever with a career 4.60 ERA. "It was August, I was in Triple A with the Reds, and I had an opt-out clause," Duke says. "I figured somebody in a pennant race would want a lefthanded reliever. Nothing. No team called. My only option was to go back to Triple A with the Reds. I realized then I had to change something."
That night Duke decided to throw sidearm in a bullpen session for Ted Power, the pitching coach at Triple A Louisville. "That stuff is really good," Power said. Duke promptly reinvented himself from a conventional pitcher to one who throws any of six pitches from multiple release points, including sidearm. Over the last two seasons—a late 2013 call-up by Cincinnati and a strong '14 with the Brewers—he had a 2.21 ERA and increased his K/9 from 4.7 to 10.5. The White Sox signed Duke for $15 million over three years, more than he had made in his 10 previous seasons combined.
"The different mix of his pitches and Zach's feel for why he was having success gave us as much comfort as you can have with a reliever going forward," Hahn says.
The Chicago bullpen was ghastly last season—it walked the most batters in baseball, struck out the fewest and lost the most games—so Hahn wasn't done. He signed Robertson (four years, $46 million), who, at 29, is the youngest of only 10 pitchers to appear in at least 60 games in each of the past five years.
Hahn also addressed the rotation by trading for Samardzija—a righthanded complement to lefthanders Sale and Jose Quintana—and balanced the lineup by signing the switch-hitting Cabrera and the lefty LaRoche (two years, $25 million) to bat on either side of Abreu. The moves increased the payroll from $90 million to $115 million—still below the club record of $128 million four years ago.
"This winter," Hahn explains, "was about not squandering the primes of careers of players like Abreu, Sale, [outfielder] Adam Eaton and to a lesser extent [outfielder] Avi Garcia. It was about having a Cy Young candidate in Chris and an MVP candidate in Abreu signed reasonably for the foreseeable future and not feeling comfortable about, Let's take another two years and build up the core around them."
THE PADRES will carry a franchise-record payroll of about $97 million, though only up from $91 million last year. The renovation job actually began last Aug. 6, with the hiring of Preller. "What became obvious was we needed a difference maker," says executive chairman Ron Fowler. "And we found one."
Preller, 37, grew up a Don Mattingly fan on Long Island and talked himself into an internship with the Phillies as an undergrad at Cornell, which led to jobs with Major League Baseball, the Dodgers and then the Rangers. In Texas he taught himself Spanish, rose to assistant GM to his college roommate, Jon Daniels, and flew so often in search of talent that he needed neck fusion surgery to correct the damage from the awkward sleeping positions on flights. "A.J.'s been working 20 hours a day—on a slow day—to get us where we are," Seidler says.
Says Preller, "There was never just one plan. Each move we made was because we thought it was a good fit—not just for this year. This is about building something sustainable. We're going to have one of the youngest teams in baseball. Matt Kemp, at 30, is our oldest regular. Myers has five years of control at 24. Norris is a 26-year-old All-Star. [Third baseman] Will Middlebrooks is 26. Upton is the one guy with potentially one year of control, and he's 27."
Upton, Kemp, Myers and Middlebrooks present San Diego with power that's been as rare as rain. Since PetCo Park opened in 2004, Padres fans have seen their team score two runs or fewer in 40% of their games while failing to hit a home run in virtually half of them (444 of 891).
"Before, it was always, get a guy on base, try to go first to third, bunt, move him over, do whatever little thing you could do to score a run," says manager Bud Black. "Now we have power at every position except shortstop."
The revamped lineup does have several potential flaws: no true leadoff hitter, little speed and a lack of quality lefthanded hitting. Myers will not only have to move from right to the spacious centerfield at PetCo but also have to jump-start his offense after batting .222 in a season plagued by a right wrist injury.
"I played a lot of centerfield in the minors, and I've always felt like it's my best position," Myers says. "The biggest thing will just be getting used to PetCo. This winter for the first time I hired a trainer to work with me on my speed and running."
At the very least the Padres have become relevant. "There is a lot of pent-up frustration with this team," says CEO Mike Dee. "San Diego is not a small market. We have the population base on both sides of the border to draw three million." Indeed, although attendance for the past seven seasons has averaged 2.2 million, the Padres drew three million when PetCo opened.
SAN DIEGO and Chicago did their part in one of the most rip-roaring hot stove seasons in memory. According to MLB, at the start of spring training 292 players on 40-man rosters reported to a different team, roughly a 25% turnover rate. Many extreme makeovers are doomed to fail; just look at the track record of some recent teams with especially active winters, such as the 2012 Marlins, the '13 Blue Jays and the '14 Yankees. But this much is almost certain: Some club, if not more than one, will stage a dramatic turnaround this year. Every year but one in the 20 seasons with the wild-card format at least one team—and two on average—has made the playoffs the year after finishing with a losing record. The trend is even more pronounced since the second wild card was added: Nearly one-third of all playoff teams (nine of 30) qualified the year after fielding a losing team, including the past two world champions, Boston and San Francisco.
The system allows teams to dream big with just 88 wins in their sights—the equivalent of between one and two games better than .500 each month of the season. This year the White Sox, Padres and 13 other teams can pull off the now-common trick of instantly turning a losing club into a playoff club.
It's easy to see their motivation: They might be Giants.
DEATH OF THE SUPERTEAM
In MLB's Age of Parity, ultradominant clubs are nearly extinct