Picture an Olympic stadium, but not for skiing or skating or lugeing or curling. With pitchers and catchers set to report to spring training on Tuesday, it’s time to think of running.
That’s right — running. In Major League Baseball these days, it’s all about making a run. If you’re not on a run of success, you’re preparing for one. The way the sport is structured, most teams can be good for a while, then get too old or expensive, start losing and prepare for another run.
From our spot in the press box at this mythical stadium, we see eight teams sitting out the race — to be kind, let’s say they’re in training. Five teams are in the starting blocks, ready to run but not quite fast enough to threaten the field. Nine are in full stride, strong and (mostly) confident, with plenty of track in front of them. Eight are nearing the finish line, including some that are sputtering as they get there, wheezing and gasping as the field passes them by.
MARLINS: It was Derek Jeter’s best buddy, Jorge Posada, who dribbled the little grounder that made the Marlins champions on Oct. 25, 2003. Josh Beckett grabbed it, tagged out Posada, and celebrated a title at Yankee Stadium. The Marlins have never been back to the postseason, and now Jeter runs them. He’s starting over, shedding salaries and gathering prospects for what could be a long struggle to build a winning team and public trust with baseball’s most jaded fans.
PIRATES: The last time the Pirates started losing, in 1993, they kept doing it for two decades. They’re now into a two-year losing streak, but it shouldn’t last that long. They traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole this winter, but retain a solid core of young, major-league-ready talent. The question is whether the Pirates will spend big in 2019 if those players start delivering on their potential. The answer, alas, will most likely be no.
REDS: The Reds had their run from 2010 to 2013, but it was easy to miss: They won two division titles and a wild card without advancing in the playoffs. The good news: They have increased their scoring each season since 2014. The bad news: So have their opponents. The Reds allowed an NL-high 869 runs last year and added no new starters. Their rebuild could take awhile.
RAYS: When the Rays traded third baseman Evan Longoria to the Giants, for infielder Christian Arroyo, outfielder Denard Span and two pitching prospects, they lost the last link to their AL championship team of 2008. Longoria made his debut that April, and the third baseman the day before was Eric Hinske, now the Angels’ hitting coach. Hinske would make the last out of the World Series, and the Rays have not won a playoff series since. To have a chance to compete again, they may need to keep tearing down by dealing pitchers like Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome.
WHITE SOX: For a team that has won just two pennants in the last 98 seasons, the White Sox have rarely been this bad for this long. They have now strung together five consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1941 to 1950. They do have several high-end prospects, like Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech, so when they start to win, they could win big. But for now, the transition continues.
ROYALS: Boy, did the Royals ever make the most of their run. They reached the postseason only twice, but advanced both times to the World Series and won it once. Teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, Atlanta and Cincinnati have made more playoff appearances than the Royals this decade without getting past the division series. They’re starting over, but the warm memories will linger.
TIGERS: The Tigers supersized the Old English “D” on their caps, and changed their uniform “D” to match it; for years, the logos had been slightly different. Fans should have no worries about buying a new Miguel Cabrera jersey because he may be there for a long, long time. Cabrera, who turns 35 in April and hit a career-low .249 last season, has six years and $192 million left on his contract.
ATHLETICS: The A’s have finished last in each of the past three seasons, but things are starting to get interesting. Last season, 117 major leaguers hit at least 20 home runs. J.D. Martinez had the best slugging percentage, at .690, but Oakland’s Matt Olson came in second, just ahead of Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. Olson bashed 24 homers and slugged .651. The A’s don’t really do much besides hit homers, though, and that’s not too rare these days.
PHILLIES: After a few years of one-year investments in outside talent, the Phillies spent almost $95 million on multiyear deals for three free agents — Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. They won’t lift a 96-loss team to the playoffs, but after five losing seasons, the Phillies are subtly shifting their focus to the present. Their high-impact prospects are starting to arrive, and if he gets enough pitching, Gabe Kapler could make a strong debut as manager.
BRAVES: The Braves introduced a new mascot last month, a furry, portly, beige creature with googly eyes and red streamers that shoot from his ears. His name is Blooper, and he replaces a Mr. Met knockoff named Homer. The Braves ranked 28th in the majors in homers last season, and with 89 losses, they also had their share of bloopers. But their young talent is ready to spark a turnaround.
BREWERS: Before 2005, Milwaukee had endured 12 consecutive losing seasons. Mark Attanasio bought the team that year, and since then the Brewers’ longest streak of losing seasons has been two. After improving by 13 games last season, to 86-76, Attanasio invested $80 million in Lorenzo Cain and assumed the final five years of control on Christian Yelich’s affordable contract. General manager David Stearns will keep hunting for pitching as the Brewers try to begin something new: a sustained string of winning records. They haven’t had more than two in a row since the early 1980s.
TWINS: In the American League last season, you were either a losing team, a powerhouse … or the Twins. Every team besides Minnesota had a sub-.500 record or more than 90 wins. The Twins went 85-77 to earn a wild-card berth, so they’ve clearly started something. But they need more pitching depth for a real shot at ending their region’s 27-year title drought — the longest of all markets with teams in MLB, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL.
PADRES: The Padres were outscored by 212 runs last season, the worst differential in the majors. So they’ve got plenty of work to do, but their moves show that they think they’re close to contending. The Padres traded for the veteran infielders Chase Headley and Freddy Galvis and have pursued Eric Hosmer in free agency. They won’t have the majors’ worst offense again, but their pitching will keep them from bolting out of the blocks.
DODGERS: After five consecutive division titles, the Dodgers show no signs of slowing. Their roster is deep, young and versatile, their front office is smart, wealthy and creative, and they just won 104 games, their most since 1953. They do need to address Clayton Kershaw’s future: He turns 30 in March and can opt out of the final two years of his contract after the season.
ROCKIES: We’ll say they’re in stride, but after winning a wild card last year, the Rockies really need to get moving. Two of their best hitters, Charlie Blackmon and D.J. LeMahieu — the last two NL batting champs — are facing free agency after this season, and the sublime Nolan Arenado could follow after 2019. The Rockies just invested $106 million in three relievers (Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw) and will try to make consecutive playoff trips for the first time.
CUBS: The NL pennant has now been clinched three years in a row at Wrigley Field, though twice by the visitors. The Cubs mostly return the same group of players, but they’re now supported by a new group of well-regarded coaches, including Chili Davis (hitting), Jim Hickey (pitching) and Brian Butterfield (infield). They should only help the Cubs as they try to reach the postseason for the fourth year in a row, something the franchise has never done.
CARDINALS: In 2006, the Cardinals won 83 games in the regular season and won the World Series. Last year, they won 83 games in the regular season and went home. They drew 3 million fans for the 13th season in a row, and those fans expect more. But they also should realize how good they have it: the Cardinals are the only mid-market team that seems impervious to any kind of down cycle. They’ll be relevant again, with Marcell Ozuna bringing a presence to the lineup that’s been missing for years.
METS: For the next three seasons, at least, the Mets retain control of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto and Amed Rosario. That’s a solid core, if only the Mets could build around it. For now, their rotation is too injury-prone and their infielders are too old. But this is their run, and the Mets will trust a new manager, Mickey Callaway, and several new coaches to lead it.
YANKEES: After four seasons in a row without a playoff victory, the Yankees nearly stormed into the World Series. That will be the last time they exceed expectations for many years. After trading for Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees will do what they do best: command your attention and make you pick a side — love ‘em or hate ‘em. Either way, you can’t ignore them anymore.
RED SOX: The Red Sox have won consecutive AL East titles for the first time. That’s good. They’ve also lost in the division series in consecutive seasons for the first time. That’s bad. Whatever you emphasize, the Red Sox are in the middle of another run, with five everyday players and four starting pitchers in their 20s. But the absence of power in the lineup, and the Yankees’ ascendance, make for an uneasy feeling on Yawkey Way.
INDIANS: Their two best relievers, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, are facing free agency after the season, but the Indians retain control of nearly every other significant player through at least 2020. They’ve had winning records in each of the last five seasons, something only one other AL team, the Yankees, can match. The streak won’t end any time soon.
ASTROS: Houston teams don’t win much — but when they do, they win big. When the Oilers won the first AFL title, in 1960, they repeated the next year. The Rockets won the NBA crown in 1994 and did it again the next June. The Comets of the WNBA captured four titles in a row from 1997 through 2000. Baseball hasn’t had a repeat champion since the turn-of-the-century Yankees, but the young and resourceful Astros should have a good chance.
ANGELS: Things came a lot easier for the Angels with Vladimir Guerrero, who helped them reach the playoffs five times in six seasons on his way to the Hall of Fame. They’ve made it back just once in eight seasons since Guerrero left — but this is their run, such as it is. With only three more seasons before Mike Trout becomes a free agent, they’ve added Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart and Justin Upton since August in an effort to make something of it.
GIANTS: It’s easy to look at the Giants’ roster and remember how great all those players once were. It’s harder to predict how much they have left. Except for Joe Panik, all of their projected everyday players will be older than 30 by the end of April, including the newcomers Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. Two of their top starters, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and closer Mark Melancon are also over 30, and all struggled last season as the Giants staggered to 98 losses. This group might have one last run in it; no one is too far removed from stardom. It may not be getting better all the time, as the song goes, but perhaps it can’t get no worse.
BLUE JAYS: More than 3.2 million fans poured into Rogers Centre last year, giving the Blue Jays the highest attendance in the AL for the second year in a row. The team responded by sliding to 76-86 and has spent the winter adding complementary players like Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz and Curtis Granderson. That’s discouraging, but it underscores the trepidation of a front office that would probably love to rebuild, but it owes its fans an honest effort to win. The Blue Jays have a chance if their rotation is healthy — but only if they hit, and last year they scored only 693 runs, a 20-year low.
MARINERS: When the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs last month, it meant that Seattle took over the dubious title of the team with the longest postseason drought in the four major sports. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001, and they’ve been trying hard to get back since signing Robinson Cano in December 2013. Yet in four seasons with Cano, they’re somehow just six games over .500. The Mariners are running, but they’re basically just running in place — and now Cano is 35, and Nelson Cruz will be 38 by the All-Star break.
RANGERS: The Rangers allowed 816 runs last season, their most since 2008. They’ve made the playoffs five times since then, never winning it all but never failing to try. This winter, though, their efforts have been timid: They added the veteran starters Mike Minor, Matt Moore and Doug Fister. Minor was sharp in relief for the Royals last year, but has not started since 2014. Moore was 6-15 with a 5.52 ERA for the Giants, and Fister was the very definition of replacement level: After the Red Sox picked him up off waivers, he made 15 starts with a 0.0 WAR.
ORIOLES: The Orioles are shifting Manny Machado to shortstop, mostly because he asked. Machado will be a free agent next winter, and marketing himself as a do-it-all shortstop, rather than one of many slugging third basemen, could only raise his value. What’s in it for Baltimore? In theory, a happy and productive Machado can fetch plenty in a trade this summer. The Orioles have never solved their chronic rotation problems, so contention seems unlikely. But as long as they have Machado, they’re at least nominally going for it. The Orioles led the AL in wins from 2012 through 2016, but they never won a game beyond the division series.
NATIONALS: There’s enough talent in Washington for the Nationals to contend for a while. And with their willingness to defer money, they just might find a way to retain Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy as free agents after this season. But Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman will be 34 by then, and if they do lose Harper and Murphy, the Nationals might have missed their best chance for a title.
DIAMONDBACKS: The Diamondbacks have the most lopsided payroll in the majors; more than a third of it goes to Zack Greinke, the 34-year-old ace who averages more than $34 million per season. If they trade Greinke, they lose a top pitcher. If they don’t, they probably can’t afford much else. The slugger J.D. Martinez is a free agent now, with A.J. Pollock on deck next winter and Paul Goldschmidt after 2019. The time to win is now.