In the past six seasons, the gap between baseball's contenders and pretenders has steadily increased. Many teams aren't committed to competing, and MLB lacks the parity the NFL enjoys. In 2019, four teams lost 100+ games; six others lost more than 90 games. Only four non-playoff teams missed the postseason by five games or less.
The Cubs and Astros (though perhaps they're not appropriate models now) are proof tanking can work over the long haul. Both teams picked shrewdly in the draft and followed well-conceived plans (and in the Astros' case, banged a few trash cans) to reach the summit of the sport. But tanking is also the source of a lot of the problems baseball faces.
It's hard for younger fans to become seriously invested in a team that's out of the race before Memorial Day. And it's difficult to sell patience in a what-have-you-done-for-me lately society.
How bad are the teams projected to finish last in their division? Let's examine baseball's dregs and provide a timetable for their rise.
TIGERS (AL Central) | 2019 record: 47-114 | 2020 projection: 58-104
Why they stink: The Tigers spent too many resources trying to win a championship in the first half of the last decade, but they did it for the right reason. Beloved owner Mike Ilitch was suffering from failing health, and they desperately wanted to bring him a title before it was too late. Unfortunately that dream never came to fruition; Illitch died in February 2017, and today's Tigers are still paying the price for the pedal-to-the-metal efforts. Bloated contracts, not enough draft picks and a poor farm system have doomed Detroit.
Silver lining: All eyes on Mize! Detroit selected Casey Mize first overall two years ago, and they're counting on the right-hander leading their return to relevance. He mastered Class AA last season (6-3, 3.20 ERA), and his eventual big-league promotion should come later this summer. And, hey, having the top pick in this June's draft doesn't hurt.
Will be competitive in: 2024? Mize is not the only exciting first-round pick bubbling to the surface of Detroit's system. But it's going to be difficult for the Tigers to supplement their roster while they're still paying declining 1B Miguel Cabrera $30 million/year.
PIRATES (NL Central) | 2019 record: 69-93 | 2020 projection: 67-95
Why they stink: They're not trying to be good. Only two clubs have a lower payroll than Pittsburgh, who spent most of the winter shedding as much salary as it could. Former GM Neal Huntington's awful trade that sent young centerpieces Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow to Tampa Bay for declining pitcher Chris Archer sure didn't help either.
Silver lining: Is there one? Before making the postseason in 2013, the Pirates suffered through a 20-year postseason drought. There's a long way to go before they'll sink into that level of mediocrity ... perhaps. The best Pirates are 27-year-old first baseman Josh Bell and 25-year-old outfielder Bryan Reynolds. They won't be in Pittsburgh the next time this team is relevant. The most important thing Pirates fans should hope for in 2020 are successful breakout seasons from top prospects Mitch Keller (pitcher) and Ke'Bryan Hayes (third baseman).
Will be competitive in ... 2026? Let's throw them a bone here and not subject them to another two-decade streak of disappointment. New general manager Ben Cherington took over a turmoil-riddled Red Sox team and earned a World Series title in 2013. Of course, Boston is a bigger market, and its ownership is willing to spend. But let's trust Cherington to build this thing from the ground up, and have faith that ownership will give him the resources he needs.
ORIOLES (AL East) | 2019 record: 54-108 | 2020 projection: 55-107
Why they stink: Their highest-paid players, 1B Chris Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb, have been among baseball's least productive players the past two seasons. In 2020, Davis unbelievably managed to hit just .179 with 12 homers in 307 at-bats. Cobb, who had a half-dozen solid seasons in Tampa Bay, has a 5-17 record and 5.36 ERA with the Orioles. They will earn $30 million of the O's projected $50 million payroll. Yikes.
Silver lining: It's actually not that difficult to envision a scenario where the O's are relevant in the relative near future. Adley Rutschman, whom they picked No. 1 overall last summer, is widely considered the top catching prospect to come out of college in years. Pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, as well as first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, are also ranked among the top 64 prospects in the league. Baltimore owns the second overall pick in June, and should add another impact talent to their system. In addition, 1B/OF Trey Mancini and pitcher Mychal Givens should land quality returns at the trade deadline.
Will be competitive in ... 2023. Davis comes off the books after 2022. He'll lose his starting position to Mountcastle, perhaps this season. When Davis and Cobb are gone, Baltimore will have much more flexibility to build. Baltimore is a really good baseball town, and its ownership won't shy away from shelling out big bucks.
MARLINS (NL East) | 2019 record: 57-105 | 2020 projection: 62-100
Why they stink: When Derek Jeter and his ownership group took control of the Marlins following the 2017 season, the Marlins had just finished second in their division. But the new decision-makers quickly decided the team's finances needed a reset. In the span of a few weeks, Miami traded OF Christian Yelich, OF Giancarlo Stanton, 2B/SS/CF Dee Gordon and OF Marcell Ozuna. The following winter, catcher J.T. Realmuto was sent to Philly. This organization has successfully rebuilt after tearing everything down before, but it faces a significant uphill battle.
Silver lining: The returns in Miami's big trades have largely been underwhelming. Stanton was essentially a salary dump. The headliner of the Yelich deal, outfielder Lewis Brinson, has been incredibly underwhelming. Ozuna brought back a solid starter in Sandy Alcantara, but not much else. But things got better after that. Realmuto was exchanged for one of the better starting pitching prospects in the sport, Sixto Sanchez. The Marlins drafted outfielder J.J. Bleday fourth overall out of Vanderbilt last June, and scouts consider him one of the best offensive prospects in the minor leagues. This will take time, but if they can continue to draft well and develop their own players, they have a chance.
Will be competitive in ... 2025. Jeter & Co. can probably be trusted to draft well over the next several years. Miami's biggest obstacles will be payroll and their division. The new ownership group has said the right things about being willing to spend, but that's never really happened in this organization's history. The NL East is also a significant obstacle. Atlanta is loaded with young core talent. Same with the Mets. Both will be difficult for the Marlins to leap past.
MARINERS (AL West) | 2019 record: 68-94 | 2020 projection: 69-93
Why they stink: They got tired of being stuck in the middle and finally committed to a full scale rebuild. Over the past 18 months, the Mariners have traded big names Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz, Edwin Encarnacion, James Paxton, Jay Bruce, Alex Colome, Mike Zunino and Mike Leake. In return, Seattle got a horde of high upside young talent, headlined by OF Jarred Kelenic, pitchers Justus Sheffield, Taylor Guilbeau and Justin Dunn, 2B Shed Long, SS J.P. Crawford, OF Mallex Smith and catcher Tom Murphy. Those young guys, along with OF Kyle Lewis, 1B Evan White and whomever Seattle drafts at No. 6 overall this summer, will be tasked with eventually ending the longest postseason drought in American sports (18 years).
Silver lining: Unlike Miami, the Mariners really hit on some of their big trades. Particularly their Cano/Diaz swap with the Mets that landed Kelenic and Dunn. Their system is loaded with talent that most teams would envy. With all the drama the Astros have gone through lately, it's not hard to envision the AL West being up for grabs soon. Seattle is positioned to take advantage.
Will be competitive in ... 2022. Of all the teams listed here, Seattle is the closest. Their system is terrific, they have a GM (Jerry Dipoto) who's unafraid to make big trades, and their division is potentially the most up for grabs. Their position players are ahead of their pitchers, but if Dunn and Sheffield pan out. Seattle will have a good start.
GIANTS (NL West) | 2019 record: 77-85 | 2020 projection: 68-94
Why they stink: They drastically miscalculated their postseason chances last summer. Clinging to faint wild-card hopes last July, San Francisco should have traded pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith at the deadline. Instead it tried to push for a final playoff appearance with their veteran core, but the season blew up on them. Bumgarner (Diamondbacks) and Smith (Braves) signed elsewhere, and took with them the last bit of hope this Giants team had.
Silver lining: Two words. Joey Bart. The Giants drafted the young backstop No. 2 overall two years ago, and he has shot up prospect rankings. He made it to AA late last season and could potentially reach the big leagues as early as September.
Will be competitive in ... 2024? San Francisco won three titles in five years with its core, but the Giants got older together and some are no longer with the team. Time to reload.