Congratulations to the Texas Rangers (shown celebrating above in the Associated Press photo). Now the race is on between the Mariners and the Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos) to see who can avoid being the only team in baseball to never make the World Series (unless they tie and get there the same year, of course).
Many teams have been crossed off the no-pennant list in the past decade — the Rays in 2008, the Rockies in 2007, the Astros in 2005, the Angels in 2002, and the Diamondbacks in 2001. Now the Rangers in 2010.
Only the Mariners, born in 1977, and the Expos/Nationals, born in 1969, remain on the outside, looking in. The Expos nearly got there in 1981, a season split into two halves by the strike. The Expos, second-half champs, beat the first-half (and defending NL) champion Phillies in the first round, three games to two, and then went to a decisive game five against the Dodgers in what was also a best-of-five NLCS. But as Geoff Baker and every other Expos fan sadly remembers, Rick Monday’s ninth-inning homer off Montreal ace Steve Rogers lifted the Dodgers to a 2-1 win and the NL pennant.
And that was their one and only postseason appearance. The only other sniff of a potential World Series came in 1994. An absolutely loaded Montreal team had the best record in baseball at 74-40 (.649) when the strike end the season in August. And, for that matter, it essentially ended the Expos’ chances of making a go of it it in Montreal. They dumped most of their best players the next year and never regained their fan base, leading to the franchise shift to Washington in 2005.
The Mariners, meanwhile, have made it to the ALCS three times — in 1995, 2000 and 2001. In ’95, they lost in six games to the Indians; in 2000, in six games to the Yankees; and in 2001 — the year they set an American League record with 116 wins — they lost in five games to the Yankees.
No need to remind Mariners fans of the disrepair the franchise has fallen in since then — five last-place finishes in the last seven years, including 101 losses in both 2008 and 2010.
The Nationals, meanwhile, finished last in the NL East in 2010 with a 69-93 record — and that represented a 10-game improvement over their 59-103 record in 2009. They lost 102 in 2008, and haven’t had a winning record since going 83-79 in 2003, while in Montreal.
So, who’s better positioned between the two? The honest answer is, “neither.” The outcome will likely depend on whose farm system produces the most talent the quickest; the Nationals would seem to have a pretty good head start by virtue of landing two of the most heralded amateur players in history in two consecutive years. That would be, of course, Stephen Strasburg, who will be sidelined for most or all of 2011 after Tommy John surgery (and who very nearly was Mariners property, had they not swept the final series of the 2008 season), and slugger Bryce Harper, who hasn’t yet turned 19. If Strasburg comes back healthy and Harper develops into the stud that scouts predict, they’ll have two monsters to lead them out of the wilderness.
The Nationals believe they have other keys to their future either newly arrived or on their way, such as reliever Drew Storen, shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa, catchers Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris, and outfielder Roger Bernadina. They are convinced they have a franchise cornerstone in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. But without Strasburg, their starting pitching is a wreck, and they made more errors last year than any team in baseball. Adam Dunn, their best power hitter, is probably going to leave via free agency.
The upshot is, they don’t have a team right now that can think seriously about a World Series. Much will depend on the acumen of GM Mike Rizzo, who last week was given an extension through 2015 and promoted to executive vice president. In the wake of the recent resignation of hands-on team president Stan Kasten, it’s pretty much Rizzo’s team now. Here’s how the Nationals blog FJB assessed the Kasten regime in a post headlined “Stan Kasten failed”:
“The franchise has dark days ahead. Nevermind Stan’s happy talk and MLB.com’s silly cheerleading. The decisions made under Kasten’s watch will keep the team in the cellar for the foreseeable future.”
Obviously, many — if not most — Mariners fans hold similarly gloomy opinions about Seattle’s future. Again, the rate of their recovery will depend on just how quickly Jack Zduriencik can churn out productive major-league players from the farm system he’s been boasting about, and the development of the young players who have already arrived. The Mariners have a tremendous piece to build around in Felix Hernandez — but they’re only guaranteed to have him through 2014 (by which time Ichiro, who turned 37 today, will have hit 40). Can they build a championship team in four years, before Felix can flee? Sure, they can. The Tigers lost 106 games in 2002, and 119 games in 2003. I’m sure at that point, Tigers fans would have laughed you out of the state of Michigan if you talked about a World Series in their future. But that’s exactly where they landed in 2006 — a mere three years after being the laughing-stock of baseball
Yes, team’s fortunes can change in a hurry. Heck, the Giants lost 91 games in 2007, 90 in 2008, and now they’re on the doorstep of joining Texas (which went 75-87 in 2007) in the World Series.
But right now, neither the Mariners or Nationals is remotely of championship caliber. Let’s check back in a year and maybe we’ll have a better idea who gets off the schneid first.