As we near the stretch run in major league baseball, teams on the fringe of the playoffs begin to load up in hopes of earning their way into the postseason. Two teams faced with a tougher dilemma than most are the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.
Both franchises have been relegated to watching the playoffs from home for years. The Orioles haven’t made the playoffs since 1997 and have been in only twice (the other time in 1996) since winning the World Series in 1983. As a member of the AL East—the toughest division in sports—they have had little room to breathe in the past 15 years and finally have put themselves in a favorable position to make the playoffs in 2012 by way of the Wild Card.
For the Nationals, things are even more dire. Going back to their time in Montreal where they played as they Expos, the franchise has been desperate for any sort of hope. The team has made the playoffs once in its history (1981) since 1969. Now, as the Nationals, they sit atop the NL East and will look to become a mainstay in the playoffs thanks to their loaded development system.
With this in mind, we see that both franchises have been faced with decisions to make on the personnel front as they fight their own history by trying to make the postseason and capture a World Series title.
The Orioles have called up top position prospect Manny Machado in an effort to inject some talent into the lineup without giving up any resources. It was a heavily scrutinized move, as the belief is that Machado is nowhere near ready to fit into a major league lineup at this stage of his development. Thus far the move has paid off as Machado is making big contributions offensively, producing five extra-base hits (including three home runs) in 16 plate appearances.
Sure, small sample size, but the move was meant to raise the ability of the lineup and appears to be beneficial for the team though potentially harmful to his development.
The Nationals are faced with a different type of dilemma. Ace Stephen Strasburg was believed to be on a closely monitored workload to preserve his arm in 2012. Tommy John surgery ended his 2010 season and cut down on his appearances in 2011. It was believed that the Nationals would clamp down on Strasburg’s workload for health reasons, but now that the team is nearing a playoff berth, the Nats would be hard-pressed to go without Strasburg.
The question becomes whether the Nationals can afford to go on without him in a short playoff series and deep into the playoffs.
Regardless of how we as fans, analysts and observers want to view the wisdom behind these moves, the rationale is quite clear. No matter what the official documents say, managers, general managers and executives at-large operate on one-year deals in baseball. Produce and show progress or look for a new job. There isn’t much room for error. For franchises that are prone to failure, these moves make perfect sense. Frankly, they don’t know if or when they’ll be back.
Since 2002, 24 teams have made the playoffs&mdash, 10 in the American League and 14 in the National League. Despite the percentages at play here, both of our examples have found themselves outside of the playoffs for years.
While a handful teams sit on top of the league as playoff regulars—the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Anaheim Angels, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have all made the playoffs five or more times in this span—the flux among those who have not made it is very interesting.
Four teams have made only one playoff appearance in this time: the Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and then-Florida Marlins. Of the remaining 13 teams that have made the playoffs two to four times, eight have gone to the playoffs in consecutive years, and some had long waits before they returned. In the case of the Giants, for example, it was a seven-year lull from 2003 to 2010 after making the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 2002 and 2003.
What does this all mean? For the teams that have made the playoffs in the past 10 years, at least one has found itself on the outside looking in one year later. For the Orioles and Nationals, this is something they know all too well, and it must be avoided at all costs.
The O’s and Nats have reached a stage where they need to win, and win now. Quite simply, they don’t know when they’ll be back—assuming they are at all—and need every advantage they can get.
If it means calling up a blue-chip prospect in Machado and perhaps even Dylan Bundy for the Orioles or, in Washington’s case, sending Strasburg out to pitch in the postseason to earn a deep run—regardless of what the original plan was—they need to do it, just like three other teams that haven’t made the playoffs in this span—Kansas City, Seattle and Toronto—would if they had the chance.
Pittsburgh has loaded up for a second consecutive year to try to get the job done in the dichotomy that is the NL Central. The Pirates learned the difference between knocking on the door and breaking through a year ago. Baltimore and Washington ought to be striving not to learn the hard way.
It may not make long-term sense as we see it, but these are franchises that have been waiting on the long term for long enough. You just don’t know when you’ll get another chance.
References & Resources
Team histories come courtesy of Baseball Reference.