At this time last year, the Toronto Blue Jays had missed 20 consecutive postseasons, the longest active streak in Major League Baseball.
The Houston Astros had been absent from nine straight playoffs. The New York Mets? Eight. The Chicago Cubs? Six.
Now, cathartically, their Odometers of October Longing have rolled back to zero.
In that spirit, here are five teams that missed the playoffs in 2015 and have the best opportunities to end their droughts (however brief) this year.
You probably expect me to point out that this is an even-numbered year, and we know what that means! But that’s not necessary. Really. The simple truth is that the Giants have the most balanced roster in the National League West. The numerology of the ’10, ’12, and ’14 World Series titles is fascinating and all, but abundant talent and organizational continuity are the reasons Bruce Bochy’s team will make it back to the postseason after a one-year October hiatus.
The Giants know who they are, which means they’ve addressed their 2015 deficiencies through the signings of Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. With Cueto and Samardzija joining Madison Bumgarner, Jake Peavy, and Matt Cain, the Giants’ rotation has comparable depth to the Kershaw- and Greinke-led groups in L.A. and Arizona. And the Giants have the best lineup among the likely NL West contenders, particularly with Hunter Pence and Joe Panik healthy again.
All four of the Giants’ everyday infielders are homegrown, as is catcher Buster Posey, the perennial MVP candidate and onetime winner. John Barr, the team’s vice president in charge of the draft, is one of the best executives in baseball.
The Rays’ pitching will be sturdy enough to put them in the postseason this year, but that’s hardly news. Their run prevention was playoff-caliber last season, when they surrendered fewer runs than two AL division champions. That advantage should become even more pronounced in 2016 with greater contributions from a healthy Matt Moore and the anticipated arrival of top pitching prospect Blake Snell.
Matt Moore’s return to health will boost the Rays.
With above-average pitching, the Rays’ lineup needs only to be average for them to reach the postseason. That should be the case in 2016, after an offseason of meaningful (though not attention-grabbing) upgrades: Corey Dickerson, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce. A bounce-back season by left fielder Desmond Jennings (limited to 28 games last year) would be a huge development.
In all likelihood, the Rays still won’t score a ton of runs this year. But they won’t have to.
Once the Blue Jays clinched last year’s AL East title, Seattle (reluctantly) took ownership of the majors’ longest playoff drought. The Mariners were supposed to do away with the streak last year — yes, I had them winning the World Series — but a down season by Robinson Cano and inconsistent pitching resulted in the firings of general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon.
New GM Jerry Dipoto dramatically remade the roster during his first offseason in charge, and a critic might say the Mariners will struggle to develop chemistry early in the season. But take a closer look at the roster. The core is effectively the same as the one that created so much hype one year ago: Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma lead the rotation, ahead of newly acquired No. 3 starter Wade Miley; Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager remain the lineup cornerstones, only now they’ll be supplemented by Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin and Chris Iannetta. Two relievers with closing experience, Steve Cishek and Joaquin Benoit, have joined the bullpen.
As long as the Mariners have Felix Hernandez, they have a chance at the postseason.
So perhaps the 2015 playoff prognostications weren’t wrong. They were just one year early.
The Tigers were lousy in 2015, probably worse than you realize. They finished last in the AL Central, with the league’s second-worst record. They surrendered 803 runs. That was the most in the AL. They managed to score only 291 runs after the All-Star break. That was the fewest in the AL. The general manager was dismissed. The manager was nearly fired. The depth of ineptitude was jarring for a franchise that had won four consecutive division titles.
There’s a wide chasm between where the Tigers were in 2015 and must be in 2016, if their postseason sabbatical is to remain brief. But the Tigers have a group of pitchers and position players for whom performing at 80 percent of their peaks should be good enough to qualify for the postseason: Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez in the rotation; Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth inning; Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton in the everyday lineup.
Concerns about age and health are valid, but the Tigers are well-positioned for a playoff spot if even a handful of key questions are answered in the affirmative.
Miguel Cabrera remains at the heart of a powerful Tigers lineup.
I considered a number of teams for this final spot. The Boston Red Sox believe they’ve addressed their woes through the acquisitions of two pitchers (David Price and Craig Kimbrel) and anticipated improvement from last year’s free-agent disappointments, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. The Arizona Diamondbacks now claim one of the top five pitchers (Zack Greinke) and top five position players (Paul Goldschmidt) in the sport. But the Nationals are my pick, for reasons external as much as internal.
The NL East is home to two rebuilding teams, the Phillies and Braves, and another (the Marlins) that could trade ace Jose Fernandez if they’re out of the race in July. The combined impact of those factors is that the Nationals have an easier path to October than many other teams in the majors.
The Nats aren’t as talented as they were one year ago, when they were a popular pick to reach the World Series. But they still have the NL’s best player, Bryce Harper, and a rotation led by Max Scherzer (two no-hitters in 2015), Stephen Strasburg (in a contract year) and Gio Gonzalez (84-55 with a 3.31 ERA since 2010). Dusty Baker is, in many ways, an ideal manager for this team.
One more thing: Closer Jonathan Papelbon has vowed to be on his best behavior. You see, there is no limit on optimism at this time of year.
The Nats have the NL’s best player in Bryce Harper and one of the easiest paths to the playoffs.