This season's World Series champion Boston Red Sox were last season's dysfunctional mess. The Bobby Valentine-led 2012 Red Sox limped to a 69-win season, their worst in a full season since 1965, and good, if one can call it that, for last place in the American League East. This year's version, as everyone now knows, finished with the best record in the American League, and beat St. Louis for the franchise's third World Series title in a decade.
As you'd expect, the Red Sox aren't the first team to go from last place to World Series winner in one season. They're the second. The only other team to do it was the 1991 Minnesota Twins. More common is a last place team finishing in first the next season, something that has happened 11 times over the past 24 seasons.
Recent history says there's about a fifty percent chance one of this year's last place finishers makes the jump to first place in 2014. Who might that be? Let's take a look at the candidates, starting with those least likely to make the jump.
The Painfully Unlikely…
There are different classes of last-place teams. Some teams just have bad years for whatever reasons while others are in the midst of a teardown and rebuild. The Astros and Marlins, this year's last place finishers in the AL West and NL East, respectively, are decidedly in the second group. That's not to say either team is devoid of talent, just that the gap between them and the rest of their division is substantial. Like Grand Canyon substantial. So substantial, in fact, that it would take a minor miracle for either team to finish in first place next season.
You can't rule anything out, especially not the November before the season starts, so if you squint really hard, and then squint harder, and then squint so hard your eyes close, then poke yourself in the eyeballs repeatedly until you see little purple fireworks, maybe you'll see the Marlins making a run through the trade deadline. To get to a first place Marlins team in September, you'll need your head in a vice and at least one full rotation for each remaining month in first place.
That's almost impossible. I say "almost impossible" because I don't want, in any way, to challenge the baseball gods who abhor hubris. "Oh," say the Baseball Gods. "Kory doesn't think it's possible for the Marlins to finish in first place, eh? David Wright will slip on a banana peel, Gio Gonzalez is going to tear a rotator cuff cutting a cake, Bryce Harper has something to prove to brick walls everywhere, and the Philly Phanatic will drive his ATV over Cole Hamels' toe, and then while looking back at Hamels, crash into Cliff Lee. And the entire Braves roster will come down with the 4,320 hour flu. And while we're at it, send a dog to bite Kory's kneecaps off."
The Just Generally Unlikely…
The Rockies were one of only two National League offenses to score over 700 runs this season, but their pitching staff (and defense) gave up more runs than any other team in their league. So, as they say, the problem is obvious. Can the Rockies figure out a way to put even an acceptable pitching staff on the field, something that would be required to beat out the Dodgers, D-backs, Giants, and potentially a resurgent Padres team as well? It seems like a tall order.
As for the Cubs, rumor says they're no longer satisfied with losing. The not-so-new front office may be looking to make some moves to add talent either through free agency or trades. They certainly have the resources to add a top free agent like Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury, should they want to spend the money. Trading for David Price would be expensive, but would do much to improve one of the National League's worst pitching staffs. A big addition plus, taking a page out of the Red Sox playbook, adding a number of above average non-stars to the roster and rotation would do wonders for the Cubs chances. But even if the Cubs added all those players and more, is there a way that they beat out St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh next season? We're going to go with a 'no' on that one.
The Most Likely of the Unlikely…
The Blue Jays were the consensus favorite to win the AL East this season. This was in no small part due to picking up 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and shortstop Jose Reyes from the Marlins. Toronto even went a step further, adding outfielder Melky Cabrera to an already potent lineup featuring Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. It seemed like a sure-fire first place finish was in the offing, but instead the Jays collapsed in a heap of injuries and under-performance.
If that sounds familiar it's because a similar thing happened to Boston in 2012. That's not to say the Jays are ticketed for a World Series appearance in 2014, but there is talent on hand and more so than most last place teams. Further, other than Josh Johnson, all Toronto's best players remain under contract in the coming season. Healthy seasons from Reyes and Bautista will help but the real trick for GM Alex Anthopoulos will be assembling a pitching staff that isn't the baseball equivalent of a tire fire. There may be good news on that front, at least relatively speaking. Johnson, Brandon Morrow, and Dickey combined for 360 1/3 innings of 4.87 ERA ball last season. Unless they are injured, that kind of lousy performance is unlikely to be repeated. Injury is a serious problem, especially in the case of Morrow and Johnson, but it is one Anthopoulos will have the entire offseason to assess and prepare for.
The Blue Jays worst-to-first hopes are pinned on the success of their starting rotation making its own worst-to-first transformation. That Toronto plays in the AL East makes their hopes for a division crown that much more difficult to achieve, but at least the talent is mostly there. Off-season upgrades, some rebounds by known players, and a few strokes of luck could find the Jays at the top of their division in 2014.
In contrast to Toronto, Chicago's pitching was middle-of-the-pack fine if not any more than that. It was their hitting -- or lack thereof -- that relegated them to the basement. Finishing 29th in runs scored is awful on its own, but made worse by the fact that Chicago's home field is a hitters park, their division contains particularly bad (i.e. easy to score on) teams, and they have the benefit of playing in the league with the DH.
To Chicago's credit, the postseason hadn't yet expired when the White Sox began addressing their impotent offense by adding slugging (they hope) Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu. Abreu won't fix the team by himself, but he's not a bad start. He is, however, only a start, as the rest of the batting order badly needs strengthening as well. Rebuilding an entire offense in one offseason is a tough task, but one that is required in order for the White Sox to find themselves in first place when next season ends.
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The most likely of the group to find themselves in first place at the conclusion of the 2014 season seems to be Toronto. They've got talent on hand and money to spend, but even the Blue Jays aren't particularly likely. At least that's how it looks now. Things have a way of looking different a season down the line. Don't believe me? Just ask the Red Sox.