Keston Hiura

The Nationals won their first title. Who’s next?

18 Comments

When I was a kid there were two immutable truths about baseball: the Boston Red Sox were cursed and the Chicago Cubs were losers, however lovable they might be.

Four World Series titles in the bag make that Red Sox curse seem rather quaint. The Cubs’ 2016 title — and four or five straight years with them considered rich and powerful contenders — put that lovable loser thing to rest. Time marches on and the stuff you believed about the world when you were a kid becomes inoperative as you grow older.

Young baseball fans today carry with them a different set of assumptions about who are baseball’s haves and who are baseball’s have-nots. To them the Sox and Cubs are and always have been alpha teams. Those powerful Braves and Indians teams from the 90s are only vague memories. The Dodgers have replaced the Braves as that great regular season club that can’t seem to get over the hump. And, of course, there are a handful of losers, some lovable, some not-so-lovable, that seem destined to never win it all.

Last night’s win took the Nationals out of that category. Their October surge — complete with five wins in elimination games in which they trailed at some point — forever vanquished the narrative about how they had never won a postseason series and kicked the memory of those 90-100-loss Nats teams from the first several years of their existence into a deep, deep hole.

Washington is now officially in the Champions Club. A club which now contains 24 of the 30 big league teams. That leaves six teams who have never hoisted the trophy. Six teams who, for today’s younger generation of fans, are viewed differently from all the others.

Which of those six will be the next to leave the sad sack club and give their fans the feeling of exhilaration Nats fans are feeling today, the morning after their first World Series title? Let’s take a brief survey, shall we?

 

TEXAS RANGERS

The Rangers were, actually, Washington’s second big league franchise, beginning as the expansion version of the Washington Senators when the original Senators decamped for Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961. Their futility, and subsequent move to become the Rangers before the 1972 season, left D.C. without a team for over 30 years and, eventually, paved the way for the World Series Champion Washington Nationals — that still sounds odd, doesn’t it? — to set up shop there in 2005.

The Rangers have actually had a good degree of success in Texas. They’ve been to the postseason eight times and have won two pennants. In 2011 they were not just one out but one strike away from winning the World Series. They’ve been good and they’ve been close. They won 95 games as recently as 2016 and, while they’re currently in the midst of a rebuild, they’re a big market team with a front office group that is considered quite competent and they’re moving into a new stadium next season. They’ve never been truly terrible — they haven’t lost 100 games in a season in nearly half a century — but they certainly have their work cut out for them given how the club is currently constructed.

Wild Guess as to when they break their World Series Title Drought: Not before the mid-2020s, I’d guess. They’re still at least a couple of years away from sustained contention.

 

SAN DIEGO PADRES

The Padres were established as an expansion team in 1969 and, for most of their history, they’ve been an afterthought. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, a grizzled manager in Dick Williams and some aging stars led them to a pennant in 1984, and Gwynn and a pre-Giants Bruce Bochy led them to a pennant and three other postseason appearances in the 1990s, but they’ve only had two winning years in the thirteen seasons since Bochy was fired and took over the Giants. In that time there have been multiple unsuccessful stabs at rebuilds, multiple questionable re-brandings and multiple changes of ownership. The Padres have captured the full attention of San Diego on only a few fleeting occasions during the entirety of their existence, with the now-departed San Diego Chargers and more interesting things like, I dunno, fish tacos and good craft beer doing a better job of defining the city than its local nine.

Things are looking up, though. This most recent rebuild seems more promising than the previous ones. There are a ton of young stars led by Fernando Tatís Jr., Chris Paddack and a loaded farm system. Last winter’s acquisition of top free agent Manny Machado gave them credibility and star power they have not had since Gwynn retired and 2020’s return to their classic brown uniforms, to be unveiled in November, might just give something of an identity to this often bland and anonymous team.

The Padres were a 90-loss team this year, but there’s good reason to believe that members of the first Padres team to win a World Series title have already played in a good number of games for the San Diego Padres.

Wild Guess as to when they break their World Series Title Drought: It wouldn’t be totally shocking if they turned on a dine and contended next season. I could totally see them winning it all any time from 2022-on.

 

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Like the Padres, the Seattle Pilots were born as an expansion club in 1969. They lasted one year in the Pacific Northwest before they were purchased by Bud Selig and moved to Milwaukee. It’s been a generally successful club, all things considered. They have only won one pennant, in 1982, but they’ve made the playoffs six times and, even when they lose, they are well-loved in Milwaukee. The Brewers fanbase is an often frustrated one, but not as long-suffering as some others. They have had a lot of fun teams, a handful of really good teams and a good many great and beloved players to enjoy.

Right now, though, Brewers fans are probably worrying a bit. For the second straight year they watched a team that could very well have won it all if they got a few breaks fall in disappointment in October. This year they fell in the Wild Card game to the eventual champion Nationals despite holding a two-run lead over them with six outs to go and their all-world reliever, Josh Hader, in the game. It had to sting for them to see Washington go on to win it.

Craig Counsell’s current Brewers team still has MVP candidate Christian Yelich, the young Keston Hiura, Brandon Woodruff and Hader in the fold and should still be good for a few years, but they no doubt need some reinforcements this offseason if they want to keep in contention and, possibly, win one before this window closes.

Wild Guess as to when they break their World Series Title Drought: Christian Yelich is under team control for his age 28, 29, and 30 seasons, after which he can become a free agent. Milwaukee can certainly win the World Series in that time if they play their cards right, but if they don’t, they may be thrust out into the wilderness of non-contention for some time after that. Which is to say: 2020-2022 or bust.

 

SEATTLE MARINERS

The moment the Nationals won the pennant a couple of weeks ago the Mariners — established in expansion in 1977 — were left as the only team to never even play in the World Series. They went to the playoffs three times in the Ken Griffey Jr./Alex Rodriguez/Randy Johnson years and one time in their magical, Ichiro-fueled 116-win 2001 season, but outside of that they have been fairly dreadful. In the past 16 years they’ve lost 90+ games seven times. Following a brief blip of near-contention a couple of years ago they’re back in yet another rebuild which, at the moment, seems years and years away from bearing anything close to championship fruit.

Given how different the world is now, how hard it is for any given media narrative to take hold, and how they don’t play in a city that gets the kind of sports attention 20th century Boston or Chicago got, I don’t think today’s kids will think of the Seattle Mariners as the kind of cursed and tragic club that my contemporaries considered the Red Sox and Cubs to be. But their pennant drought — now over 40 years with no end in sight —  is notable in its own right and constitutes the current gold standard for baseball futility.

Wild Guess as to when they break their World Series Title Drought: I’d be shocked if they do it in the next decade, frankly. Anyone who predicts that they will is very truly guessing, because at the moment the talent to win a title is simply not present in the system. Let’s check back in 2031 and see what’s shakin’.

 

COLORADO ROCKIES

Established in 1993 — a pennant winner in 2007 — but a club defined more by its battles with its environment than its on-field success. There have been some good Rockies teams. Indeed, they, along with the Marlins and Diamondbacks ripped up the old script about how expansion teams should be expected to stink for a decade or more before contending. They just weren’t able to get over the hump the few times they’ve been decent and interesting and after rolling back a bit they’ve fallen, over and over again, into the mire of trying to develop enough pitching to be successful in a stadium a mile high up in the mountains and the sorts of hitters who could smash both at home and on the road.

At the moment they also seem stuck in a different kind of roster-construction problem: they have a couple of big, big stars in Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon who could theoretically be the best player on a World Series champion but they’re surrounded by total dreck. Blackmon is entering his age-33 season in 2020. Arenado will only be 29 next season and just signed a huge long-term contract but there is already buzz about trading him and starting over from scratch. Given how little else, besides lock up those two, the front office has done in recent years, it’d shock me greatly if either of those two are around the next time the Rockies are contenders.

Wild Guess as to when they break their World Series Title Drought: They feel like they’re on the Mariners’ track. If they pull off a Herschel Walker-style trade of Arenado by eating a lot of his contract in order to get a number of prospects in return they could goose the next rebuild pretty good, so let’s be optimistic and say, oh, 2028. If they simply dump his salary and get little in return, I may be drawing Social Security before they’re back in the Fall Classic. I’m 46 now.

 

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Initially the least successful of the four 1990s expansion teams, the Rays spent 1998-2007 as laughingstocks before turning it around and winning the 2008 pennant. Since then they have been consistently respectable, occasionally excellent and always dangerous to greater or lesser degrees. They are loaded with talent with more on the horizon. They have an outstanding manager and an outstanding analytics, scouting and player development operation. They took the eventual pennant-wining Astros to five games in the ALDS this season. It would not have been crazy if, in either of the past two seasons, they had found an extra gear, got some good luck and went on to win it all. It just didn’t happen. It could easily happen at any time in the near future, though.

They, of course, are also limited, as always, by a low payroll. It’s a payroll that most people assume is low by necessity due to the team drawing poorly and having a lower revenue than most other clubs. Some of us, however, are old enough to remember a time when there were stinkin’ rich team owners — and the Rays owners are, despite the perception they like to cultivate, stinkin’ rich — who would happily splurge for the chance to win a World Series and then let everything sort itself out later. To be sure, The Rays have been successful despite their owners not doing that and they can certainly win a World Series without Stuart Sternberg doing that. But one certainly wonders what would happen if he did, in fact, go all Ted Turner for even one damn year and decided that it was worth going in the hole for a brief time in order to win a championship.

Wild Guess as to when they break their World Series Title Drought: Could be 2020, actually, even if they do nothing crazy this winter. However, if they made even one or two moderately-out-of-character moves this offseason and signed a big free agent or traded some of their prospect wealth for a big name, they could start 2020 as the odds-on favorites.

In the meantime, though, all six of these teams get to watch the Nationals enter the Champions club while they stand on the sidewalk on the wrong side of that velvet rope.