What you're about to read is ridiculous. Let's just put that out there right from the start.
On the heels of the just-completed 2014 World Series, which the Giants won in scintillating Game 7, I'm going to pick 10 Major League teams most likely to reach the 2015 World Series, and then I'm going to rank them in order of their likelihood of winning it all.
The reason this is ridiculous is that I'm the first to admit I'm not qualified to even pick next year's postseason field, let alone its World Series inhabitants. Nobody is, really. If you can find me one analyst who had the Giants and Royals in this year's World Series as recently as the end of the regular season, let alone the start of '14, I'd love to see the link to this prediction, because I definitely missed it.
That said, maybe there is something we can learn from recent history. So rather than just spew out some totally subjective list, I'm going to use two guiding factors to help me select a list of 10 that will only be, like, 98-percent subjective.
1. Payrolls. For the record, I think payroll is increasingly insignificant in this discussion, given a number of factors, including the reliance on young talent, the fragility of arms, and the decline of offense. Again, though, I'm trying to let history speak to me and give me some sense of direction.
So what does history say about payroll? Well, interestingly, from 1996-2001, every single team that reached the World Series had an Opening Day payroll in MLB's top 10, per data on Baseball Reference. Those were the days when this experiment was a heck of a lot easier to complete correctly. But revenue sharing first instituted in '96 eventually began to help change that outlook in the new millennium. From '02 through '14, just 11 of the 26 participants (or 42.3 percent) had a payroll in the top 10, and six of those 11 had a payroll in the top five.
On the flip side, just four of the last 26 participants (15.4 percent) had Opening Day payrolls in MLB's lower third. So teams like the '08 Rays (29th) are pretty rare.
All told, in the full scope of the Wild Card era, the average World Series participant had a payroll ranking ninth among the 30 teams. If we go back just to '02, though, the average payroll rank rises to 12th.
We obviously won't have '15 payroll figures for quite a while, so for now I'll just have to (wrongly) assume static status on that front, as there's no other way to do this. And with all of the above as a background, I'm going to pick two or three teams with a projected top-five payroll, two or three more from the top 10, at least two more from the top 15, and -- against my own wishes -- no more than one or two from the top 20 and from the lower third.
2. Past performance. You might think that this year's standings might be pretty predictive of next year's participants, but that's not always the case. Of the last 38 World Series participants in the Wild Card era (I'm excluding '95 from this discussion, as there was no postseason in '94), 20 (or 52.6 percent) weren't even playoff clubs the year before, and nine of those 20 had sub-.500 records the year before.
One caveat, though: Four of those 20 teams would have made the playoffs had the dual Wild Card system been in effect. But even if we account for them, that's still 16 of the 38 (42.1 percent) World Series teams that were coming off non-playoff years and 23.7 percent that were coming off losing seasons.
So four of my 10 will be non-playoff clubs from '14, and at least two of those four will be sub-.500 clubs.
There's also the repeat factor: Only four Wild Card-era teams went to the Series in consecutive years -- the 2010-11 Rangers, the 2008-09 Phillies, the 1998-01 Yankees and the 1995-96 Braves. We've already established that the period from 1995-01 was different in terms of the ability to "buy" your way to the World Series stage. So that's just two instances since '02. I don't know about you, but I have significant questions about the ability of the Royals and Giants to get back here next October. They won't be on my list.
All right, you got all that? Me neither. But here's how my list breaks down:
Top five (projected) payroll teams (three)
Explanation: I'm ignoring the Yankees and Phillies, until further review. The Red Sox will be an extremely popular pick to get back to October on the heels of this year's hangover. Andrew Friedman will make the necessary adjustments to maintain the Dodgers' regular season clout. And while I know the Tigers are due to show their age here very soon, I don't see them totally falling off in '15, when Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander will both be further removed from their core muscle surgeries.
Top 10 (projected) payroll teams (two)
Explanation: The Nats are as deep as anybody, with few glaring roster concerns going into the winter. The Blue Jays are simply due, though there are still questions about whether they'll make the necessary signings or trades to support Jose Bautista and Co. I've eliminated the Giants, for the reason explained above, the Rangers, who have a lot of questions to answer after the train-wreck of '14, and the Angels, because it remains to be seen if they can patch their rotation back together.
Top 15 (projected) payroll teams (two)
Explanation: Gee, speculating that the Cardinals, who have been to four straight National League Championship Series rounds and two of the last five World Series, might be an October factor next year? How bold of me. The Orioles might have to replace Nelson Cruz and/or Nick Markakis, but if they got as far as the American League Championship Series without Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, I like their chances of getting back with those guys. I'm snubbing the D-backs, Braves and the Reds, all of whom might have the core to contend. It's nothing personal, fellas. In fact, consider it a favor.
Top 20 (projected) payroll teams (one)
Explanation: The Mariners knocked on the door in '14, and they appear willing to spend to make the necessary adjustments to knock it down in '15. The Royals have already been yanked from consideration, and the Brewers, Rockies and Twins don't move me at the moment.
Lower third (projected) payroll teams (two)
Explanation: The Cubs! They've got a lot of dead money coming off the books (in fact, they might be able to make some big investments and still be in the lower third), and they'll be players in the Jon Lester, Max Scherzer or perhaps Cole Hamels markets. The concern, of course (beyond the obvious fact that they're the Cubs), is that they play in an awfully difficult division (hence the three teams on this list). But if I can't have fun with a year-in-advance World Series preview, when can I?
I also like the general chances of a Buccos team that was one of the hottest in baseball down the stretch this season before running into Madison Bumgarner in the Wild Card game. They'll have to answer the big Russell Martin question (he's a free agent), but I still think they're in a winnable window with Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, and Gregory Polanco.
Honestly, there were more teams from the lower third that I wanted to pick for this list than there were from the top 10. But I painted myself into this corner with the historical ground rules, so I've got to stick to them. The Indians, with their burgeoning rotation, and the White Sox, who will build around Jose Abreu and Chris Sale, might have a special opportunity in the AL Central if the Tigers fall back and the wear and tear of October catches up to the Royals.
The Mets and Rays might both have the pitching to contend. The Marlins might be ready to take the next step after a fairly frisky '14. The A's always adjust (even if they rarely advance in October). And I'm going to insert the words Padres and Astros here, just so that when one of them is in the World Series next year, I don't look like a total idiot for not at least mentioning them.
And within those 10 teams listed above, we also have the four non-playoff teams from this year that I had in my parameters (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Cubs and Mariners), two of which (Red Sox and Cubs) were sub-.500.
So there's the list. Yeah, I'm just as skeptical of it as you are.
But if I had to rank these 10 in order of actual World Series championship likelihood, I'd go with this:
10. Cubs. Their window is just opening.
9. Blue Jays. Their window could be closing.
8. Tigers. They need a bullpen.
7. Cardinals. Much emotional adversity to overcome.
6. Pirates. Good product, good pipeline.
5. Orioles. Improved health is key.
4. Red Sox. In Ben Cherington we trust.
3. Dodgers. In Andrew Friedman we trust.
2. Mariners. They smell like next year's Royals. The bandwagon starts here.
1. Nationals. Probably the least flawed roster here … not that it mattered this month.