Manager Bud Black of the San Diego Padres looks on from the dugout against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
With the Super Bowl behind us, it's (un)officially baseball season. As we look ahead, who's going to be the runner-up to the runner-up to the runner-up to the runner-up to the ... who's going to be the 19th-best team?
At last the Super Bowl is finally, thankfully behind us. And where it used to be that the next major event after the Super Bowl on the sports calendar was the Pro Bowl, things have shifted around, such that the next major event on the sports calendar now is pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Or maybe it's Wednesday's game between the Chicago Bulls and the there's an NBA team in New Orleans? I don't know. I don't really understand basketball.
Attention is shifting to baseball. A good baseball fan would've kept his attention on baseball this whole time, licking up winter-ball footage on ESPN3 like congealed cheese on an old pizza box, but not everybody can be good baseball fans. Some people are just baseball fans.
And as attention shifts, we all begin to wonder about the season ahead. This season promises to be a good one. It actually doesn't promise to be a good one. It does promise to be a long one. This season promises to be a long season. It will be a long season involving some as-yet-undetermined amount of surprise and intrigue. There will be compelling stories. At least a few of them. Probably several hundred of them. At the end, there will be a champion of the baseball, for a few months until everything starts over again.
People have questions. Going into the season, who's the best team? Why, the St. Louis Cardinals are the best team, of course! It is the Cardinals who have most recently been crowned as champions! Going into the season, who's the worst team? The worst team is the Houston Astros and the less said about them, the better.
One question that isn't so easy to answer, though, is: Going into the season, who's the 19th-best team?
This one requires some thought. The answer to this one doesn't come right off the top of one's head. We could, naturally, refer to baseball's 19th-best team as baseball's 12th-worst team, but this is a time for optimism and hope. And changing the way we refer to the team doesn't make the identification of the team any easier.
To figure out what we could see in the future, we have to review what we've seen in the past. Shown below is a table including all of baseball's 19th-best teams since 2000. The sample size is only 12 teams, but I think it does the job as you'll find that 19th-best teams tend to remain pretty stable.
The lowest win total is 75, achieved twice, but both times came in 161-game seasons. The highest win total is 80, achieved once. The run differentials are pretty well grouped, aside from that one anomaly. In 2004, the Reds went 76-86 with a run differential of -157. In 2005, the Reds went 73-89 with a run differential of -69. Baseball! Neyer tells me I'm not allowed to say "baseball is weird" but he can't stop me from hinting at it.
So what we're looking for in a 19th-best team is a sub-.500 team. The 12 teams above averaged a record of 77-85, with a run differential of -36. They actually average out to a record of 77.079-84.921 with a run differential of -36.083, but baseball isn't played by computers. (Yet.)
The 19th-best teams don't necessarily share that much in common, besides record. For the 2006 Mariners, finishing 19th was a step up. For the 2010 Angels, finishing 19th was a step down. For the 2008 A's, finishing 19th was unremarkable since I'm kind of surprised the A's didn't finish 19th the last like eight years in a row. It's such an A's position.
Who's our favorite to finish 19th in 2012, then? Which team is going to end up a little below .500 and get outscored by five or six runs a month? If a few teams do that, which team is going to do it the most? I could walk you through the whole deductive process, or I could just give you the answer - the Padres. It's the Padres.
At first I thought it was going to be the A's, but it's the Padres. Southern California's A's, if you will. The Padres have quietly had a competent offseason. A competent offseason in which they've improved the organization's overall state. It's also been an offseason in which the Padres' most visible move was losing Mat Latos. This after an offseason in which their most visible move was losing Adrian Gonzalez. You don't get good quick by trading excellent players.
Last year, the Padres won 71 games. Their run differential suggests they should've been a little better than that. They've built a 2012 roster that's dreadfully light on star power, so one shouldn't expect a breakthrough. They've also built a 2012 roster that's fairly even and underrated. And the farm system is stocked with potential reinforcements.
You look at the 2012 Padres and you think "that team is okay." That's exactly how one describes a 19th-best team in baseball. It's good enough to pretend to contend into June or July. It's bad enough that every loss feels like the end of the dream. In time the dream does end, earlier than several other people's dreams.
Going into the season, who's the 19th-best team in baseball? It's the. I usually discourage people from placing bets on baseball since it's probably the most unpredictable sport in the world, but if you're going to place a bet on anything, this is the thing.