The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #2: Contenders come from out of nowhere

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In 2014, the Chicago Cubs were 73-89, the New York Mets were 79-83, the Houston Astros were 70-92 and the Texas Rangers were way the heck down at 67-95. For their part, the Toronto Blue Jays were a relatively fat 83-79. None of them even sniffed the postseason. In 2015: all of them made the playoff dance.

There stories weren’t all the same, of course.

The Texas Rangers improved by 21 wins due to a number of factors. Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder were healthy and effective. As was the case across baseball, youth played a big part with second baseman Rougned Odor, 22-year-old reliever Keone Kela and 22-year-old Rule 5 pick center fielder Delino DeShields all contributing. Trades for Yovani Gallardo and Cole Hamels made a big impact in the rotation. It also didn’t hurt that the Angels, Mariners and A’s all took a step back, making the AL East a two-team show.

That other AL West team, the Houston Astros, finally saw a years-long rebuilding effort bear fruit. And bear fruit way earlier than many outside the organization figured it would. While everyone scoffed at Sports Illustrated playfully declaring the Astros the 2017 World Series Champions on a cover a couple of years back, that may have a pessimistic assessment. The improvement wasn’t all Carlos Correa and a cast of rookies, however. Veteran pickups like Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis aided the effort and, in the space of six months, Astros fans all but forgot those three straight 100+ loss seasons and 2014’s 92 in the tank.

The New York Mets didn’t improve by as many wins as the Rangers and Astros did — “only” 11 more than in 2014 — but they certainly flipped the script on the general Mets narrative and the NL East as a whole. The Nationals’ collapse certainly helped them, but the real story of the Mets’ season was the return of Matt Harvey the continued dominance of Jacob deGrom and the emergence of Noah Syndergaard and, late in the season, Steven Matz. A nice improvement from Curtis Granderson, the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and, in the second half, the return of David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud from the disabled-list made a huge difference as well. A club which, in the middle of the year elicited the familiar “LOL Mets!” was, by October, National League Champions.

Finally, the Toronto Blue Jays who only improved by 10 games, but certainly changed the dynamic of the organization and their division. The big splash came last offseason when GM Alex Anthopoulos straight up stole Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics, only to see him put up an MVP season. He and newcomer Russell Martin joined Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista to keep the Jays at the top of the Hit List and leading all of baseball in runs scored. The runs weren’t the only story, however. The second half improvement, much like the Mets’ improvement, was. They picked up David Price from the Tigers and Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies in twin splashes. Less splashy but nonetheless important were the additions of Ben Revere and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe. Starting in August the Jays sped away from the rest of the division and electrified Toronto. The Jays were GOING FOR IT. There are two World Series title banners hanging in Rogers Centre and Joe Carter once hit a walkoff World Series-winning homer, but Jose Bautista’s bat-flipping Game 5 ALDS homer ranks right up there in all-time franchise highlights.

Can we draw any larger lessons from these teams coming from, seemingly anyway, out of nowhere to contend? Perhaps a couple.

First, we are reminded just how much parity there is in Major League Baseball these days. Not just in the sense that, in any one season, teams are closer together than they used to be, but in the sense that season-by-season win totals can vary far more than they used to. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it just wasn’t logical to expect that a club could improve by 20 games. “Worst to First” really meant something. Now? Anything is possible, it seems.

Another lesson, more applicable to the Astros and Cubs, is that a wholesale rebuild — complete with “tanking,” even if that word seems somewhat inapplicable to baseball in the way it is to basketball — works. As the great Joe Sheehan notes in his newsletter today:

Whether Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers in Houston, or Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in Chicago, the stars of those teams were explicitly the product of losing lots of baseball games. You can see the next wave behind them; the Phillies won’t win this year, but they have Aaron Nola and J.P. Crawford and Cornelius Randolph and a 2018 payroll of nothing. The Braves have Dansby Swanson because they were willing to punt 2016. The Reds and the Rockies could be next in line. Until and unless MLB changes its rules to lessen the incentives teams have to lose 105 games rather than 95, we’re going to see 10% of the league going Sixers at any point in time, because it works.

It remains to be seen if the Phillies and Braves can do what the Cubs and Astros did. It likewise remains to be seen whether such “tanking” is truly a problem in baseball from the fans’ perspective. We all want to see enjoyable baseball, but there’s likely some fair disagreement among fans regarding whether watching a 105-loss team is appreciably worse than watching a 95-loss team if the 105-loss team has a better argument for contention in X number of years. But he is absolutely right that neither the Cubs nor the Astros enjoy the 2015s they did if they didn’t have to endure some pretty crappy years before it.

That stuff aside, it was an exciting year in baseball, as some long-time also-rans and never-rans catapulted into contention awakening fan bases which had long been dormant. It was a lot of fun, dadgummit, and isn’t that the point of it all?