Roy Oswalt of the Philadelphia Phillies leads the team onto the field before the start of opening day against the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Of the teams who finished first in 2011, are any in danger of imminent decline? (There's a hint in the photo.)
On Thursday, Grant Brisbee wrote here about teams that could possibly go from last place in their divisions to first in 2012.
Unfortunately, the tweet that was sent out with the post, as well as the original headline (since changed), had it backwards:
First-To-Worst: Who Could Do It In 2012?
The point of all this is not to poke fun at Grant, but to say that it got me thinking: Could any first-place team from 2011 collapse to the point of finishing last? If your knee-jerk reaction is "no way", consider the Minnesota Twins, who won 94 games and the AL Central in 2010. They had made the playoffs six of the previous nine years, had just signed superstar catcher Joe Mauer to a megacontract, and clearly expected at least to contend, if not win their division again.
Instead, just about everything that possibly could go wrong in Minnesota did; Justin Morneau struggled to come back from his 2010 concussion; Joe Mauer had assorted knee injuries; the pitching was just north of horrific, and the Twins lost 99 games.
That's pretty rare; most first-place teams don't simply collapse the next season. But many have wound up with losing records (the 2010 Reds did that, too, as well as the 2007 Rockies, to cite two recent examples). Of the six teams that finished first in 2011, are any in danger of collapse this year?
It's tempting to say that the Yankees will continue doing what they've been doing since 1995 -- contend and make the postseason nearly every year. But they are getting old -- they'll have three starters in their lineup 32 and older this year (Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter), and Jeter's defense at shortstop at age 38 can't help them any. Since 2005 they have been eliminated in the first playoff round four times; of course, most teams would just like to get there as often. But with the Rays' smart management keeping them in contention, the Red Sox always dangerous, and the Blue Jays making noise like they want to contend, the Yankees do have some risk of having a sudden losing season. Last place? Surely, you jest. We'll always have the Orioles.
Not a chance.
The Phillies have had a nice run; nine straight winning seasons, five straight playoff years, and a franchise-record 102 victories in 2011.
Ryan Howard is going to miss an unspecified amount of time recovering from last October's Achilles injury. Those are tricky things, too; who knows how much of his power he might lose from not being able to push off his foot? Roy Oswalt is gone; though Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee appear to be rolling along, they are entering their mid-30s, when a sudden mediocre season isn't out of the question. Philly's offense was just a bit above average last season and though new closer Jonathan Papelbon has never really had a bad year, his reaction to blowing the Red Sox' shot at a tiebreaker game last year is still unknown.
Add that to the fact that the Braves barely missed the playoffs last year and the Marlins and Nationals both being significantly improved, and the Phillies will have a tough time in the NL East. They won't finish last -- the Mets will prevent that -- but I would not be surprised to see the Phillies start showing signs of decline, and perhaps even finish under .500.
The Brewers will show a very different face this year. Sure, they still have Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan and Rickie Weeks. They've acquired Aramis Ramirez to -- presumably -- pick up some of the offensive slack left by the departure of Prince Fielder. But will he? Ramirez has a reputation as being fragile, and he'll be 34 in June. Plus, it's still unclear what's going to happen with Ryan Braun's suspension appeal. If he misses 50 games, that's a big hit to Milwaukee's offense. Their pitching is still solid, and that will prevent them from any big decline. It's not likely they'll win anywhere near 96 games again, though.
Kirk Gibson brought this bunch from worst-to-first in 2011 with a 29-win increase. The red flag for Arizona is that they outperformed their Pythagorean W/L mark by six games. Teams that have that much of a difference tend to regress a bit the following year. The Giants should be improved and will likely give the D'backs a run for the NL West title, but that won't push Arizona to any sort of losing record -- they look like they could be starting a nice run of contending seasons.
As noted, it's rare for a team to go from first place to last, and we're not likely to have one of those this year. But watch out below, Phillies. It could be your turn to begin your way down the NL East ladder.