Everywhere you look, there are power rankings, lists, indices, and other ways to put teams, players, mascots and logos in some sort of order. What I’m trying to accomplish here is a little different. It’s a nebulous concept that can’t be wrapped up in a neat bow. I tried Fans’ Organizational Power Rankings, which was close (and could be packaged as FOPR!). But that doesn’t quite get us there. Alternatively, I thought about a Hope Index or Misery Rankings. But neither of those are quite right, either. There are teams sort of high on this list that can’t realistically hope to compete very soon, and there are consistent winners relatively low.
What I’m going for is this: Heading into 2010, how happy is a fan with an organization? Everything counts. Wins and losses are big, but so is the ballpark experience. The past matters only to the extent that it affects the future. A GM who has shown a pesky tendency for awful moves counts (sorry, Royals fans). Curses and a mostly irrelevant history of losing doesn’t (looking at you, Cubs fans). I suppose another way to look at this is that the higher your team on the list, the less justified you are in complaining about the state of the franchise, at least to a fan of a lower-ranked club.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the top 10, which was led by the Phillies, Yankees and Mariners. Last week, the middle tier began with the Braves and Dodgers and concluded with the White Sox and Royals. Today, we’ll hit organizations 21-30. The “Grumbling about” feature of the last two installments will be replaced by something a little sunnier. Some of these organizations aren’t far at all from rapid ascents up the ladder, though the same can’t be said for the true bottom feeders.
21. Washington Nationals
The Nats are one of the toughest teams to place. On one hand, they’re just awful. Or, at least, they have been. And I pity the poor fans who followed the team through the Montreal-Washington transition; they’ve been a fan of a bad team for longer than almost any other fans in baseball. What’s more, the team has remained putrid despite a saccharine infusion of hope due to the fresh start.
But all is not lost. There’s Stephen Strasburg, of course. That sort of beacon of hope can lift a fan base out of the depths (see Zack Greinke). Conversely, Strasburg could become simply another tragic figure in a tragic history (see Mark Prior). There’s more than Strasburg, though. Quietly, the Nats have assembled something resembling a workable core of a team, and the young talent is intriguing. While they’re not likely to rise to power in the next half-decade, they sure could. That counts.
22. Baltimore Orioles
You know how as a non-fan, you can still like a team? Well, I like the Orioles. Always have. And it’s hard not to like a core built around Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters, even though Markakis had a bizarre 2009. I like the pitching, too; there’s enough pieces that it’s reasonable to think enough of them will pan out to make for a decent rotation.
So why aren’t they higher? It’s simple, really: the AL East. They’re just in such a deep, deep hole. So the ballpark experience is great, there’s exciting talent, and the organization seems healthier than it’s been in recent years. All that, though, just won’t be enough. To contend in that division, so many players will have to progress at unlikely rates. Because that’s, well, unlikely, I can’t move the Orioles any higher.
23. Milwaukee Brewers
Another team that just feels too low, but I’m not as high on the Brewers as some. Yes, Prince Fielder is a monster. And he’s affordable—for now. And who doesn’t like Yovanni Gallardo and Alcides Escobar? There are pieces all over the place, but something just bothers me about the Brewers.
Maybe it’s Carlos Gomez. You know the decision-making matrix with a quadrant for “bad decision, bad result”? Well, Carlos Gomez is a baseball analog. He looks bad to the naked eye, and even a cautious, furtive look at his statistics sears the brain. Yeah, I know he’s entering his age-24 season, and he’s obviously physically gifted. I’m just not sure he’s physically gifted in ways that will ever make him good at baseball. It’s a long way to the top of the six-team NL Central, and I’m not sure the Brewers will threaten soon. Let’s see what they get for Fielder.
24. Cincinnati Reds
I think it’s a testament to baseball that, this far down, there’s an organization with significant cause for hope. It’s not just Aroldis Chapman, either, though he helps. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are fun, and there’s some interesting pitching.
From a decision-making standpoint, though, I just wonder about the Reds. A team in their situation has no business signing Scott Rolen as a free agent, let alone giving anything of value for him. He’s precisely the sort of player that shouldn’t be on the payroll (and occupy a roster spot). I know he’s not terribly expensive after 2010, but the commitment runs through 2012. I love Rolen as a player, but this is just a bad fit. I probably over-penalize general managers for putrid single deals, but I see them as canaries in the coal mine. If you’re operating on limited resources and more than a few wins away from contention, you don’t sign Scott Rolen through 2012.
Smiling about: Adding Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman in the same year. Homer Bailey‘s signs of life.
25. Toronto Blue Jays
I should be clear: the Blue Jays are much better than the 25th best team in the majors. Organizationally, they’re much stronger than that, too. It’s just that when you’ve jettisoned the best player on your team, no amount of good young major leaguers like (Adam Lind or Travis Snider) or exciting prospects (too many to list) can rescue you from the pit of hopelessness that is the bottom of the AL East.
Here’s why: there is no plausible scenario by which this team can expect to contend in the next several years. The Yankees and Red Sox aren’t going anywhere. The Devil Rays might have the best young core in the game. And even the Orioles have pieces. It’s not that the Blue Jays are going to be bad. They’re just not going to be nearly good enough.
Smiling about: Gobs of young talent. Kenny Williams.
26. Cleveland Indians
Call this a local floor. I don’t expect the Indians to stay this low. But what’s there to be hopeful about? Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, and Victor Martinez are gone. Matt LaPorta was the only super-premium prospect to return in those deals. Heck, it could be argued the Indians got more value for Casey Blake (catching prospect Carlos Santana) than for Martinez (Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price). I’m not suggesting that Mark Shapiro got fleeced in these deals. Just that you can’t suffer that kind of talent drain and feel too rosy about the immediate future. Especially considering you owe Travis Hafner $40.25 million through 2012 (safely assuming the club pays his $2.75 million buyout instead of a $13 million team option for 2013). Jake Westbrook ($11 million) and Kerry Wood ($10.5 million) are the team’s next two highest-paid players in 2010. Yeesh.
Smiling about: Hafner’s possible rebound. Grady Sizemore‘s nearly certain bounceback. Manny Acta! And the kids.
27. Oakland Athletics
I know I divided this series into tiers of 10, but I’d like to note that this spot is a pretty stark dropoff from the one above. Yes, Oakland did a very good job of getting both quality and quantity back in its recent purges. But have you looked at the major league depth chart? I’d avoid it if you’re allergic to terrible baseball.
Throughout the Beane era, the Athletics have always been a sort of Frankenstein-inspired creature. Pieces didn’t seem to fit, there were nuts and bolts visible, and the whole thing was an experiment. Moneyball didn’t fail, of course. Indeed, it was too successful. As the organization adjusts to a world where Beane can’t just trick everyone else, the team on the field will suffer until the kids are ready. Something called a Cliff Pennington looks to open the season at shortstop. The outfield has about as much power as a watch battery, unless you put Jack Cust or Jake Fox (same guy) out there. This team really is going to struggle to score runs. Oh, and the ballpark just stinks.
Smiling about: Gobs of pitching. Help on the way. And Mark Ellis is better than he played in 2009 (probably).
28. Pittsburgh Pirates
Many, many people might have the Pirates on the bottom of this list. Not me. You must take in a game at PNC Park. And, you know what, at least there’s a plan. As has been beautifully detailed, Neal Huntington blew this roster to smithereens to acquire a boatload of good-but-not-great prospects. While I’d already call this plan a good decision, those more concerned with outcomes than process will take a wait-and-see approach. It will be several years until the fruits of Huntington’s labor might bear fruit, and I hope he’s still around to see the results. There’s a long, long way to go for Pittsburgh fans, but you avoid the bottom.
29. San Diego Padres
Rough times in one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The only significant reason for hope I can see is a potentially rich haul for Adrian Gonzalez. Other than that, I don’t like much.
Kyle Blanks and Donavan Tate are interesting, I guess. And Mat Latos seems intriguing, though he’s thrown barely more than 200 innings as a professional. The Padres’ problems are compounded by the division—there’s remarkable young talent everywhere, and I just don’t see how the Padres will rise to the top in the near future. They avoid the bottom because the game day experience is, by all accounts, outstanding. And there’s some pitching depth, especially after the Jake Peavy trade. The bottom line is that the Padres need to come out well on the eventual Adrian Gonzalez deal.
Smiling about: Well, it’s at least amusing to watch David Eckstein shot-put a baseball across the infield, isn’t it? Too bad he’s playing second base, now, though.
30. Houston Astros
Houston is not the worst team in the majors. But it might well be the most rudderless. Carlos Lee is owed $18.5 million (!) through 2012 (!!) when he’ll be 36 (!!!). Roy Oswalt is blessedly owed just $33 million (including a $2 million buyout) through 2011. Lee and Oswalt were just 2.5 and 3.1 win players, respectively, and they’re both on the frowny-face side of 30. Lance Berkman, owed $14.5 million in 2010 with a $15 million 2010 club option, represents just as onerous a financial burden as Oswalt and Lee.
Mercifully, that’s where the big contracts end, but not in time to keep Houston from a bad, bad place in 2010 and 2011. And though the drafts have improved recently, the system is still awfully thin on impact players. Thank goodness Drayton McLane’s looking to get out. That might be the best news out of this club in a while.
There we have it, all 30 teams. If I’ve learned one thing from this exercise, it’s that baseball is a remarkable game. Even the teams on the bottom tier of this list have good things going for them, and reasons for fans to come to the ballpark or watch on TV.
While it’s still a system of haves and have-nots, even the best teams will win only about 60 percent of the time, and the worst will lose about that much. If I’m a fan of a bottom-dwelling team, I feel thankful compared to my spiritual cousins, the Chiefs, Raiders, Browns and Rams fans. And fans of the teams that top my list should remember that the margin between good and bad teams in baseball is not so great. A few wise choices and some luck along the way, and even the lowliest bottom-feeder can rise to the highest reaches of fan satisfaction. Ask the Rays faithful.