Grading 2016’s Non-Playoff Participants (Part 1)
The 2016 season is in the books, and the Chicago Cubs are World Champions. That is the headline, and it will be, rightfully, how we remember this year. A magical season for Chicago culminated with an epic Game 7 that stands as perhaps the most dramatic and compelling baseball game played in decades, if not ever.
Yet as always, countless other things happened over the course of 2016. October baseball stands at odds with baseball throughout the rest of the year, as the ending sprint obscures the marathon that occurred just before. Over the preceding months, 20 teams missed the postseason, failing to meet a standard parameter of success. But simply missing the playoffs doesn’t automatically make a season a failure. For some of 2016’s non-playoff teams, this season was unabated success.
As the season ends, let’s look back at the year that was, and hand out some pass/fail grades for the teams that missed out on October. Starting with the…
Houston Astros: 84-78, Fail
For Houston, missing the playoffs is enough to make this season a failure. After surprising all of baseball by securing a Wild Card spot in 2015, expectations were high for the Astros, and they fell short.
But even so, it is not a failure by much. The team buried itself with a dreadful start, and was one of the best squads in the AL from May onward. They still have excellent young players with room to grow, like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman. Missing the playoffs was a disappointment, to be sure, but for a failed season, you could do much worse.
Seattle Mariners: 86-76, Pass
The Mariners look like a sort of inverse of the Astros, in that they receive a passing grade, but not by much. There were plenty of positive developments, from Robinson Cano’s return to stardom, Leonys Martin emerging as a quality outfielder, and Taijuan Walker and James Paxton flashing potential as starters.
What keeps 2016 from being a big success is: A) the lack of a playoff appearance and B) the fact that their window may already be closing. Seattle’s core of Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Felix Hernandez is aging, and without a great farm system, time is running short for the Mariners to break their playoff drought with this group of players.
Los Angeles Angels: 74-88, Fail
In Mike Trout, the Angels have the biggest head start in baseball. To have very likely one of the greatest players of all-time patrolling center field and to not make the playoffs is a failure pretty much every time.
Every season that passes without an Angels playoff appearance draws the clock closer to expiration on Trout’s time in Los Angeles, where he is signed to stay through 2020. In 2016, injuries to Garrett Richards, CJ Wilson, and others ravaged the pitching staff and left them without enough complementary talent to compete. The Angels must rebound soon, or risk seeing their generational talent skip town without so much as a playoff win.
Oakland Athletics: 69-93, Fail
This is another soft fail grade. With the advent of the 2nd Wild Card meaning that almost every team can talk themselves into going for it, the A’s were one of the few teams in MLB that probably would have admitted that this was a rebuilding season. So while 93 losses is tough to stomach, the A’s did at least lay some groundwork for the future.
They made an excellent move last offseason in signing Rich Hill to a 1 year $7 million deal, and it paid off when they flipped him and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers for a strong prospect return. It was a lost year for staff ace Sonny Gray, but Oakland did find itself some potentially intriguing arms in Sean Manaea, Andrew Triggs, and Kendall Graveman. It was definitely a bad overall season for Oakland, but one that was expected.
Detroit Tigers: 86-75, Pass
This was far from a rousing success for Detroit, but they did just enough to earn a pass. After selling hard at the trade deadline in 2015, the Tigers rebounded to stay in contention to the final days of the regular season. Young players like Michael Fulmer emerged, while veterans like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Ian Kinsler continued to produce at high levels even as they age.
Yet they fell short, and their window of contention closed a bit more. Verlander and Cabrera might be future hall of famers, but in their mid-30’s, they can’t be expected to play this well forever. Last week’s trade of Cameron Maybin could symbolize a slight change in direction for Detroit, as their chances of winning with this core start to fall.
Kansas City Royals: 81-81, Fail
The Royals used a red-hot midseason streak to remain alive in the playoff race until September, but they ultimately missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. After winning consecutive AL Pennants, such a result cannot yield a passing grade.
Still, it’s hard to be too harsh on a team that essentially played close to what preseason expectations were, at least according to many projection systems. They were struck with injuries to Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon and still managed to hang in the race. Unfortunately, several key players can become free agents after 2017, leaving to question whether 2016 was a crucial missed opportunity during the Royals’ current run.
Minnesota Twins: 59-103, Fail
The Twins’ season ranks among the league’s most abject failures this year. After exceeding expectations with an 82-win season in 2015, the Twins regressed massively.
Key young players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Max Kepler were solid but not great, and the only notable rebuilding move they made was the trade of Eduardo Nunez to the Giants. The future still looks okay for Minnesota, with some exciting prospects on hand, but 2016 was a clear step back for the organization.
Chicago White Sox: 78-84, Fail
Prior to 2016, Chicago made a number of moves to compete. They traded for Todd Frazier to fill a hole at third base, and held on to attractive trade pieces like Jose Quintana. Another below-.500 season followed.
The White Sox basically saw another season of Quintana, Chris Sale, and Jose Abreu go to waste. At this point, the team probably has to look hard at their roster and determine if there simply isn’t enough quality talent on hand to win right now. In a poor free agent market, Chicago’s controllable players would be highly sought after via trade, and the White Sox could undergo a huge makeover if they so choose. After another down year, such a change could be more likely.
New York Yankees: 84-78, Pass
It seems strange to label a Yankee season without a playoff berth as a success, but strangely successful is the only way to describe the Yankees’ 2016 campaign. They missed the playoffs with 84 wins, but miraculously stayed in the hunt deep into the season despite a trade deadline fire-sale.
And that fire-sale is what made this season so successful for New York. GM Brian Cashman was able to parlay Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran, and Ivan Nova (the latter three of which are now free agents) into a huge farm system overhaul. Now, the Yankees’ roster is far from barren, and their farm system is elite. With just one rebuilding summer, the Yankees managed to change the complexion of their future.
Tampa Bay Rays: 68-94, Fail
The Rays drifted even further from their 2008-2013 run of success as they missed the playoffs for the third straight year. They lost 94 games, though some of that was bad luck; by FanGraphs’ BaseRuns model, the Rays played well enough to win 81 games.
Regardless, 2016 was a wasted year, as another season of Evan Longoria’s prime went down the drain, and Chris Archer inched closer to free agency. The Rays still have plenty of young pitching talent even after trading Matt Moore at the deadline, but the lineup is lacking in star-power outside of Longoria. This isn’t a very bad team the way their 2016 record would suggest, but it’s not hard to see a team stuck in the middle right now.