When the Red Sox left Philadelphia this afternoon, having taken two of three from the Phillies, both teams were right where they were prior to and throughout the series- in last place. The Phillies, though, stand at 21-21, and were 21-19 as of yesterday afternoon. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have won eight of ten to crawl back to within one game of .500, and within one game of the fourth-place Yankees. Few fans expect either team to finish last in their division, but in both cases, we’re left wondering whether a very talented team might wind up in the basement.
In the National League East, the Braves are 26-16, have outscored their opponents by 40 runs without much starting pitching beyond Brandon Beachy, and look like the best team in the NL if the starters come around. The Nationals’ pitching may be in the same stratosphere as the Phillies’, and they’re 24-17 despite several injuries to key offensive players. The Marlins added Jose Reyes to their offense, have excellent pitching, and are 22-19 despite not having taken off until Giancarlo Stanton started hitting in early May.
If we assume the Phillies will outpitch just about every team in baseball and will see an uptick in their offense when Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Placido Polanco return from various injuries, that leaves the Mets as the most likely tenants of the cellar at season’s end. There’s not much to be excited about on the Mets’ roster, and they’re the only team in either East division that’s been outscored this season, but there have been enough bright spots, including David Wright’s resurgence and Johan Santana’s reinvention, to suggest that they might not lose 90 games.
If I were to hazard a guess at this point, I’d say the Marlins finish around .500 in fourth place, and the Mets finish 74-88 after an August swoon. Still, there’s a chance the mostly-young Mets continue to improve and finish with a winning record.
In the American League East, the Rays look like the best team, as their pitching begins to live up to its potential, and their offense, full of players currently overachieving, may keep up this pace (4.3 runs/game) when Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings return. The Yankees and Red Sox are a combined 41-41, but unless Boston’s pitching reverts to its September/April form or New York can’t find the pitching depth to replace Michael Pineda and Mariano Rivera, there’s no reason to believe one of those teams will finish with a losing record. The Blue Jays have finished at .500 or better five of the last six seasons, have surrounded Jose Bautista with some offensive depth, and are watching Brandon Morrow blossom into the ace we all thought he could be. They’re 23-19 with the division’s best run differential (+35).
That leaves the Orioles, still the presumptive last place finishers. The only problem with that assumption is that Baltimore sits atop the division with a 27-15 record. They’re 13-7 in division games- the ones they’re supposed to lose without putting up a fight. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters have developed into two of the best players in the game. The rotation, led by Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, is adequate, and the bullpen has been dominant.
Despite their hot start, I see the Orioles finishing in last place. It’s unlikely that they’ll keep scoring enough runs for Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz to keep beating the Yankees and Red Sox. Chris Davis and Robert Andino are unlikely to keep up BABiPs over .350. Jim Johnson will blow a save someday soon and the foundation may start to crumble. Still, the Orioles are 12 games over .500. Even if they go 20-25 over the next month and a half, they’ll be 47-40 in July and will likely be buyers at the trade deadline. An 82-80 finish is not out of the question.
What if 82-80 is good for fifth place in the brutal AL East?
No team has ever finished over .500 and still wound up last in their division. Through 1968, of course, there were no divisions and no interleague play, so every league was always in balance. If a last place team finished at .500, that meant the whole division finished at .500. Impossible.
Through 1993, there were two six-or seven-team divisions. Only once did a last place team win as many games as it lost. The 1991 California Angels went 81-81 in an oddly excellent division, in which only the Twins won more than 87 games.
Since 1994, with five- and sometimes even four-team divisions, interleague play, and unbalanced schedules, it’s been more possible, though still unlikely, that a decent team could finish last in its division. Again, only one .500 team has finished last. The 2005 Washington Nationals lost a jam-packed NL East, finishing just nine games out of first, but two games out of fourth.
If we limit the competition to these two teams (and no other last-place team has ever won more than 78 games), it’s no contest as to which was the best last-place team ever. The ’91 Angels outscored their opponents by four runs. With a break or two here or there, they could easily have finished third or fourth out of seven. There was no interleague play then, but the AL would begin a three-year winning streak in the World Series (which doesn’t say much, but it’s only happened once since), and it’s pretty clear that their AL West competition was stronger than any other division.
The ’05 Nationals, in contrast, were lucky to reach .500. They were outscored by 34 runs (the run differential of a 77-85 team) in a year in which the National League finished 20 games under .500 in interleague play, suggesting that, while their division may have been strong, they benefitted from playing in the weaker league.
So we’ve established that the 1991 Angels were the best last-place team ever. What made them so adequate? Their rotation was led by Mark Langston, Jim Abbott, and Chuck Finley, who had 466 career wins (and five hands) among them. Bryan Harvey was lights-out in the bullpen, with a 257 ERA+ and .864 WHIP. The offense was anchored by Wally Joyner and included a still productive Dave Winfield (120 OPS+) and a last-gasp from Dave Parker (76). They were the division’s lowest-scoring team, but also surrendered the fewest runs.
It’s a little early to try to compare the teams that will finish last in this year’s NL or AL East to the ’91 Angels, since we don’t know who they’ll be. If the preseason “favorites” find their way to the bottom, the Mets might be known as a bad team who overachieved, more like the ’05 Nationals, but the Orioles may be the team that finished last one final time before achieving sustained excellence in the years ahead, when Jones and Wieters start building Hall of Fame credentials and Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz break out in the rotation.
If another team, like the Marlins or Blue Jays, finishes last, they’ll have more star power (add Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson to Reyes and Stanton or Ricky Romero and Brett Lawrie to Bautista and Morrow) than the average last place team, but time will tell whether they’ll compare favorably to the ’91 Angels.
If one of the current cellar dwellers finishes last at .500 or better, it’s quite likely that they’ll be the best last-place team ever. In Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, and Joe Blanton, the Phillies again have the best rotation in the Major Leagues. Throw in one of the best closers in Jonathan Papelbon, historical excellence in Utley, Howard, Jim Thome, and Jimmy Rollins, and a solid middle of the order in Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, and expectations for this team have to be high, even if Utley, Howard, and Rollins are all finished as productive players.
The Red Sox, if healthy, have the best offense in baseball, with Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, and Carl Crawford forming perhaps the best ever ‘six guys on the same team but never in the same lineup’. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz are all a year or two removed from being aces, and Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard may have solid careers ahead of them.
Between Howard, Utley, Thome, Crawford, Youkilis, Ellsbury, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Andrew Bailey, the Phillies and Red Sox have over $105 million in 2012 salary on the disabled list at the moment. If those players return healthy and productive, we may laugh at this blog post at the end of the year, but if the season plays out as it has so far, we may be watching the best last-place team ever this season. In fact, we might have watched the two best on the same field today.