The chic question to ask in spring training this year was this: Who’s going to be the next Tampa Bay Rays? In other words, which team was going to emerge from the depths of despair and mount a playoff run.
Tampa Bay last year won 97 games and the American League pennant one season after losing 96 (and two seasons after losing 101, and three seasons after losing 95, and four seasons after losing 91, and five seasons after losing 99…well, you get the picture; the Rays had never come close to a winning season in their franchise history, a fact that greatly aided their turnaround by virtue of all those high draft picks finally coalescing).
Every losing team harbored secret, or not-so-secret, hopes of orchestrating a similar renaissance, buoyed by statistics that showed how possible it is in the modern era: 29 out of 112 playoff teams since the expanded format began in 1995 (26 percent) had losing records the previous year. (But, ominously for the Mariners, none had lost more than 97).
Nearly halfway through the season, it looks like the Detroit Tigers are on their way to being the Rays of 2009. After losing 88 games and finishing last in the AL Central, they are now 43-34 and lead the division by four games.
The Giants are also in the running. They lost 90 games last year, but this season they are 43-34, in second place andcreeping up on the Dodgers, now six games behind. And the Giants have taken over the wild-card lead in the NL.
If the season ended today, thus, two teams with losing record last year would be in the playoffs — right on average since the playoffs expanded. And three others are still in the fight — the Rockies, Rangers and Mariners.
Seattle, however, has the distinction of being the team in line to make the greatest improvement from last year. After going 61-101, they are currently 39-37, on pace to win 83 games. That would represent a whopping increase of 22 victories from last year. Next on the list is the Giants, on pace to improve by 18 games.
So even if the Mariners don’t hang around in the AL West, it’s hard to deny they’re on the right track.
Here are all the teams with losing records last year, their current record, their standing, their pace, and what sort of improvement or decline that would represent (ranked by improvement):
Seattle 61-101 (.377) last year, 39-37 (.513) this year, third place, 3 1/2 games behind in AL West, on pace for 83 wins (plus 22).
San Francisco 72-90 (.444) last year, 42-34 (.553) this year, second place, 6 games behind in NL West, on pace for 90 wins (plus 18).
Detroit 74-88 (.457) last year, 43-34 (.558) this year, first place, 4 game lead in AL Central, on pace for 90 wins (plus 16).
Colorado 74-88 (.457) last year, 41-36 (.532) this year, third place, 7 1/2 games behind in NL West, on pace for 86 wins (plus 14).
San Diego 63-99 (.389) last year, 34-42 (.447) this year, fourth place, 14 games behind in NL West, on pace for 72 wins (plus nine).
Pittsburgh 67-95 (.414) last year, 36-41 (.468) this year, sixth place, 6 games behind in NL Central, on pace for 76 wins (plus nine).
Texas 79-83 (.488) last year, 41-35 (.539) this year, second place, 3 games behind in AL West, on pace for 87 wins (plus eight).
Baltimore 68-93 (.422) last year, 35-42 (.455) this year, fifth place in AL East, 12 games behind in AL East, on pace for 74 wins (plus six).
Cincinnati 74-88 (.457) last year, 37-38 (.493) this year, third place, 4 games behind in NL Central, on pace for 80 wins (plus six).
Atlanta 72-90 (.444) last year, 36-40 (.474) this year, fourth place, 4 games behind in NL East, on pace for 77 wins (plus five).
Kansas City 75-82 (.463) last year, 33-43 (.434) this year, fourth place, 9 1/2 games behind in AL Central, on pace for 70 wins (minus five)
Oakland 75-86 (.466) last year, 32-44 (.421) this year, fourth place, 10 1/2 games behind in AL West, on pace for 68 wins (minus seven).
Washington 59-102 (.366) last year, 22-53 (.293) this year, fifth place, 17 1/2 games behind in NL East, on pace for 48 wins (minus 11).