By Matthew Kory
When the baseball season starts, every team is in first place. By the end, only six teams are still standing. Four more are wild card winners, and everyone else is a loser.
Okay, not really -- teams can have successful seasons and still not make the playoffs -- but for the purposes of this article, we'll be mean. Most teams aren't mathematically eliminated until the later months of summer or early fall, but that's just a technicality for many clubs. Often teams fall out of contention much sooner. In fact, a close look at the standings reveals there are many teams right now, just a bit over a month into the season, that are no longer playing for the playoffs.
Who are those teams? You will find them below. Each will be accompanied by an explanation. You may or may not see eye to eye with the author's opinion; feel free to voice your disagreement in the comments. I'd ask you to remember, though, that if I put your favorite team on the list below, it does not mean that I don't like your family, that I think you have a stupid face, or that I don't like you personally. Indeed I might like you personally. Maybe we could have a beer some time. That would be nice. You can tell me that it is I, in fact, that have the stupid face, and gentleman that I am, there is every possibly that I wouldn't dispute it.
Category 1: You Won't Yell At Me
This category is for the no-doubters. These teams aren't winning anything this year, and nothing we've seen this season has cast doubt upon that. That isn't to say these are badly run organizations that have no future; they may have a fantastic future, but that future is in the future, and well after the near future.
Some seasons feature surprise teams, teams that nobody thought would compete. The Astros could not be one of those surprise teams because they are transparently terrible. They are so by design, so this isn't really a criticism of the organization. Their front office is losing to build a foundation of success which, when you say it that way, sounds weird. In any case, nobody thought the Astros would win anything this year and nobody was right. Houston has the worst record in baseball, they've been extremely worthy of it, and the earth is as likely to crash into Venus as the Astros are to post a winning record, let alone make the playoffs in 2013.
Be horrendous, get public funding for a new stadium, sign high-priced free agents, remain bad, trade off all high-priced free agents and field a roster of cast-offs and Single-A All Stars, rinse, repeat, remain filthy.
There were years in the recent past when the Mariners could field, or pitch, or hit. Unfortunately, they occurred in separate seasons. Never did Seattle field a club that could do more than one thing, and sadly for the Mariners, winning baseball requires more than just one skill. Actually the Mariners have one more talent I forgot to mention: They are adept at ruining top prospects. All in all, not a recipe for the 2013 playoffs. (Safety tip for you aspiring GMs: that's not one of those skills you put on the bottom of your resume after "Microsoft Excel proficient; black belt in Kay-rah-tay; bakes a mean soufflé.")
The Cubs are, to coin a term, Astrosing, though Chicago is farther along the path to contention (a beautiful place where flowering trees line the streets, it's always sunny, and school children sing in unison wherever they go) than is Houston. Still, the Cubs have a ways to go before reaching the postseason and that ways will be covered by drafting, off-season signings, and development from the club's prospects. In other words, later.
Category 2: You Might Yell At Me
This category is a purgatory of sorts. I probably won't shock anyone with the teams on this list, but that doesn't mean they won't be somewhat controversial.
At this writing the Twins have a .500 record, and though many predicted they'd be abysmal this season, it is possible they won't be. Still, even if the Twins do manage mere adequacy in 2013 -- something that would surprise many analysts, considering the team's talent base, especially at starting pitcher -- there isn't a playoff spot waiting for them in the bottom of one of the fountains at the Mall of America. The mental gymnastics required to see the Twins beating out the Tigers require a strong Minnesota accent and an even stronger drink. That leaves the Wild Card, but are the Twins really going to beat out four of Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Oakland? Forget the accent, those mental gymnastics require too much drink to stand properly, let alone do summersaults.
This one is simple: The White Sox can't hit. Their pitching is fine, decent even, but they're currently 29th in baseball in runs scored. That's behind the Astros, and behind every single National League team's eight-man lineups except the Marlins (of course). It isn't just runs scored, either, because they're also 29th in team OPS behind the Astros and the entire NL (save the Marlins). The White Sox might not finish in the basement, but they'll finish close because, as I said above, they can't hit.
Matt Harvey is spectacular, but one young ace isn't enough on his own to propel his team into contention. The Mets face a tougher problem than the White Sox, namely they're in the same division with the Nationals and Braves, two teams much better than they are. If you give New York a third place finish, then to win a Wild Card they have to beat out all but one of (as the standings now sit) Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Arizona, and Colorado. That's a tall order for David Wright and one 24-year-old pitcher.
This was one of those teams for whom, if you squinted hard enough, you could see things working out. That they're currently a half-game out of last place, behind nine of the National League's 15 teams, means now you're likely squinting so hard your eyes are closed and you have a headache. The Padres probably aren't last-place bad, but with this start already in the bank, sneaking into the playoffs this season probably isn't going to happen.
Category 3: You Will Definitely Yell At Me
These are the strongest and thus the most unexpected members of this non-exclusive and undesirable club.
Sometimes things just don't work out. That's about where the Dodgers are right now. They assembled an impressive collection of talent and have watched as it has either been injured or underperformed. After losing Hanley Ramirez to a strained hamstring, and not counting minor-leaguer Scott Van Slyke's two games, the Dodgers' three best hitters are Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto, the hitters who came over from Boston last August … because of underperformance and injury. Other than the Boston Three, the Dodgers have received weak production from their offense, and their starting staff has been crushed by injuries. The Dodgers have also been among the worst in the league when it comes to turning batted balls into outs.
All of that is what has happened, and that isn't the same as what will happen, but the team's performance, mounting injury issues, and place in the standings make a post-season appearance improbable at best.
Like the Dodgers, the Blue Jays made big recent additions and were expected by many to be atop the standings. Also like the Dodgers, it isn't happening. The Jays also lost their star shortstop for a long time and have suffered through pitching injuries and under-performance from players expected to play a starring role. It seems we've hit upon a theme here. This isn't a newsflash, but when your players get hurt or don't play well, it's very hard to win, even with the gentle breeze of the national baseball press at your back.
Like Los Angles, Toronto faces an uphill climb in their division. Boston and New York look stronger than many anticipated (though the Red Sox have slipped a bit this month) and Baltimore has remained strong despite predictions of doom. The Rays have undeniable talent and one of the smartest front offices in the game working to upgrade the roster during the season. The Blue Jays aren't a last place club, but they are seven and a half games out of a Wild Card right now, and they're looking at the next several months without Jose Reyes and possibly Josh Johnson. Toronto is going to be a team many won't want to face, but they're just too far out, with too many good teams in between them and a playoff spot.
The last two offseasons have seen Angels owner Arte Moreno open up his considerable wallet and bring in the biggest of big-money free agents. First it was Albert Pujols, then Josh Hamilton. Since arriving in Anaheim, Pujols has looked to be on the downslope of his career, while Hamilton hasn't bothered with slopes, jumping straight to the bottom of the trench. Neither has met expectations to date, but the real problem hasn't been their failure (relative, in the case of Pujols), it's been the team's pitching, in particular their starters. After Jered Weaver's injury, the Angels have been running out a rotation that wouldn't be out of place in Marlins uniforms; indeed, the Marlins starters have been better by a good margin.
To pick the Angels to make the playoffs this season, one must pick in favor of good performances from Joe Blanton (5.66 ERA), Jason Vargas (4.26), Jerome Williams (5.73), and Barry Enright (13.50). Jered Weaver can come back healthy and effective and that still won't be enough. It seems the team's free agent acquisitions are no longer capable of clubbing the team into contention, so we're left with one question: where is the pitching going to come from? Here's guessing that'll be addressed this off-season, after the Angels miss the playoffs again.
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Matthew Kory is an author at Baseball Prospectus, a writer at SB Nation's Over The Monster Red Sox blog, a stay-at-home dad, and the author of the books "How Dare I: An Unauthorized Autobiography" and "The Best Things In Life Are Stolen Which Is Why You Just Paid For This Book," neither of which will ever be published. He lives in Portland, Ore.