HOUSTON - Second baseman Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros can't handle the high throw from catcher J.R. Towles #46 as David Freese #23 of the St. Louis Cardinals slides into second base at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The Arizona Diamondbacks almost lost 100 games in 2010 before winning their division in 2011. Could something like that happen this season?
As the renaissance of the Arizona Diamondbacks was happening, you could understand where it was coming from. It took a couple of months, but after you got used to Josh Collmenter being good, Justin Upton being a superstar, and Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson at the top of a rotation, it wasn't that hard to see how they'd be good once they were good. It's the tautology of surprise contenders.
But last year at this time, the Diamondbacks were a last-place team. That was the only way to describe them, the only frame of reference you had. Their bullpen was something you'd describe in a dark tent holding a flashlight under your face. The rotation was going to rely on two unproven youngsters, and they wouldn't even have Dan Haren this time. It was impossible to look into the future and see how things shook out. In January of 2011, a joshcollmenter might have been something shiny and chrome that you were ogling in a Crate & Barrel catalog.
That's the challenge that we face trying to pick the contenders for teams that have a chance to go worst-to-first. It's not likely -- it's only the 11th time in history that it's happened, though it's an easier thing to do in the three-division era. Another difficulty: the Diamondbacks can't do it this year, and they're the ones who have done it more than a quarter of the time.
Here, then, is a quick look at the six last-place teams from 2011, in order of their chances to go worst-to-first.
If they were to do it -- if the Orioles could overcome the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees (not to mention a Blue Jays team that has more than a little talent), it would be one of the best baseball stories of the decade. Aces would emerge. Hitting stars would be born. Rock operas would be written. Constellations would be renamed.
But they haven't developed a processor that can calculate the exact number of things that would need to go right. There's too much to overcome in a perilously strong division. I could see them having an interesting year with a few breaks -- think the 2009 Reds, who took a big step forward just by not being bad. But 2012 AL East Champions, these Orioles are not.
The Rangers were already pretty danged good, and they got better. The Angels made one of the most important moves of the offseason, but I'm sure you're all sick of reading about Jeff Mathis. The Mariners would have to exceed expectations dramatically, and both the Rangers and Angels would have to have serious, unexpected problems. Probably not going to happen. As of right now, Jason Vargas is the Mariners' second starter. Kevin Millwood is a) still active, and b) the #3 starter. That's before you get to the offense, which probably just improved greatly with a Carlos Guillen signing.
The Prince Fielder deal dropped them a peg, but they still have Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Which might not mean anything. Which might mean as much as, say, the 2004 Pirates having both Jason Kendall and Raul Mondesi. This all depends on what you think Mauer and Morneau can still provide.
I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, though, if only because I want them to be good again. Even if they are, the rotation has exactly one pitcher that I'd trust, Scott Baker, and he hasn't thrown more than 200 innings in his nine-year professional career. Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis are the bookends of the rotation. Jeff Suppan must have switched phone numbers. We're a long way from Johan Santana and an unbroken Francisco Liriano being the most electric pitching duo in the sport.
When we weren't looking, the Padres acquired eight legitimate hitters. None of them are great; only a couple of them might be good. But there isn't anyone in the lineup that makes you furrow your brow in disgust. They did trade away Mat Latos, and that makes a surprise season that much more unlikely, but the Padres have a Geppettonian workshop in the bowels of Petco where they build annoyingly effective pitchers out of cadavers and rubber bands. Their pitching will be fine.
It's not especially likely that the Padres will contend, but the NL West isn't filled with juggernauts. It's certainly not impossible for San Diego to match their surprise success from 2010.
It'd be an expensive worst-to-first, but it still counts. Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle are fantastic additions. The rotation is deep, and the bullpen is improved. The lineup is solid throughout. One of these days, Mike Stanton will consume us all. There's a lot to like with this team.
Their biggest problem is with the division. The Phillies, Braves, and Nationals all have enough talent to win the NL East. The Phillies are the favorites, but the Braves aren't that far behind if they have a healthy Jason Heyward. The Nationals' front three is impressive, and they could improve substantially with their up-the-middle players. And the Mets are
The odds are pretty outstanding that none of these last-place teams will win their division, just like it was pretty unlikely for the Diamondbacks to jump ahead of the Giants. But it happened. And it could again with different teams. Even the Orioles.
Also, if the Orioles win the AL East, I will write The Wire: The Musical with a closing number titled "Just Say No ... No ... Nobody's Gonna Stop Us Now!" that's both uplifting and spectacular. So there's plenty to root for.