Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Worst to first? It happens more than you think

2017 last-place teams will look to join 13 previous bounce-back division champs
January 17, 2018

Need a warm thought on a cold day?One of the great things about baseball is history almost never repeats itself. You can finish last one season and win a division title the next.That's happened 13 times since 1969, when Major League Baseball went to divisional play. The Red Sox did

Need a warm thought on a cold day?
One of the great things about baseball is history almost never repeats itself. You can finish last one season and win a division title the next.
That's happened 13 times since 1969, when Major League Baseball went to divisional play. The Red Sox did it in the American League East only two seasons ago, so it's clearly still part of the landscape. Maybe we can make it 14 next season.
And while we're dreaming, why not dream big? After the Red Sox went from last to first in 2013, they went on to finish the job, beating the Cardinals in the World Series. Five other last-to-first teams have reached the Series since 1969, most notably when Jack Morris and Kirby Puckett carried the '91 Twins to an out-of-nowhere championship.
You don't have to win a division title to celebrate, either. Coming close immediately after a dreadful season can bring its own delights.

The Twins went 59-103 and finished last in the AL Central in 2016, then jumped directly into the postseason as an AL Wild Card team last year. They were the fifth team to win a Wild Card after a last-place finish the season before.
As easy as it can be to pencil in teams like the Dodgers and Nationals to defend their titles, there could be magic to be made this year. The Giants are certainly thinking they can do something special, as they showed by adding Andrew McCutchen in his walk year.
It would be awfully fun to see Bruce Bochy back in the postseason with Madison Bumgarner healthy and dealing like he did in 2014. There's a long way between here and there, sure, but that distance can be covered in a hurry once the standings start changing daily.
In case you're wondering, here are the biggest year-over-year improvements in win totals:

  1. 1903 N.Y. Giants: +36 (48 to 84 wins)
  2. 1999 D-backs: +35 (65 to 100)
  3. 1962 Phillies: +34 (47 to 81)
  4. (tie) 1936 Boston Braves/Bees: +33 (38 to 71)
  5. (tie) '46 Red Sox: +33 (71 to 104)
  6. (tie) '89 Orioles: +33 (54 to 87)
    Here's a look at the last-place teams in MLB's six divisions from a year ago:
    NL West: Giants (64-98 in 2017)
    If it could go wrong last season, it did. The Giants won 23 fewer games than in 2016, when they fell in a dramatic NL Division Series against the Cubs after winning the NL Wild Card Game. Look for an almost automatic trampoline effect if Bumgarner and Buster Posey avoid injury.

Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans filled gaping holes by trading for third baseman Evan Longoria and McCutchen, who will move from center field to right field. That switch allows Hunter Pence to move to left, where he joins Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Marcell Ozuna and Yoenis Cespedes among the NL elite.
San Francisco is still shopping for a center fielder who excels at chasing down fly balls. Free agents Jarrod Dyson and Jonathan Jay (probably not Lorenzo Cain) are among the options, as is a possible trade. It makes sense that the Giants would pursue Jackie Bradley Jr. if the Red Sox sign J.D. Martinez, but it's not clear if they have the pieces to add Bradley or someone like Billy Hamilton.
NL East: Phillies (66-96 in 2017)
The Phillies haven't had a winning season since their five-year run of NL East titles ended in 2011, but ownership and the front office have signaled its time to kick it into gear. They changed managers, moving Pete Mackanin upstairs and rolling the dice on the out-of-the-box choice, Gabe Kapler -- a risky move, sort of like the Astros giving A.J. Hinch a second chance.

Only the Padres were younger than the Phils last season, and the experience gained by Aaron Nola and the other young starters could be a key for a step up. But the biggest addition is free-agent Carlos Santana. He'll play first base, shifting small-sample-size phenom Rhys Hoskins to left field. It's fair to say he'll be an All-Star there if he homers once every 9.4 at-bats, as he did in his 50-game debut (pretty sure Philadelphia would take a 1/15 ratio, though).
Pat Neshek returns on a two-year deal as the primary setup man for Hector Neris, and Tommy Hunter adds bullpen depth. Something to watch closely is how J.P. Crawford handles shortstop with Freddy Galvis being traded to the Padres. Galvis played all 162 games last season.
NL Central: Reds (68-94 in 2017)
Jared Hughes, the owner of one of the most dependable bullpen arms, is making the rounds of the NL Central. He signed a two-year deal with Cincinnati after stints with the Pirates and Brewers. He's a good addition to a bullpen that has power arms at the end (Raisel Iglesias , Wandy Peralta and Michael Lorenzen. The Reds are turning shortstop over to Jose Peraza and expect third baseman Nick Senzel, the second overall pick in 2016, to come fast, giving them redundancy alongside Eugenio Suarez.
AL Central: Tigers (64-98 in 2017)
Still in the subtraction phase of the rebuilding project that started with the trades of Justin Verlander and Justin Upton, the Tigers dealt Ian Kinsler to the Angels. They signed Leonys Martin to chase down balls in center field for priority arms Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd. Al Avila added some pitching depth by signing Mike Fiers and Ryan Carpenter, a 27-year-old lefty who could move to the bullpen if he doesn't win the fifth starter's job.
AL West: A's (75-87 in 2017)
There are so many good young hitters in this system that Ryon Healy was declared expendable. He was traded to the Mariners to make it clear that Matt Chapman is the third baseman and Matt Olson the first baseman. The rotation has major upside with Jharel Cotton, Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman ready to break out.

Oakland is looking for a bounce-back season from Stanford product Stephen Piscotty, whom the Cardinals dealt after adding Ozuna. Yusmeiro Petit, who is signed to a two-year deal, and Emilio Pagan, who was acquired in the Healy trade, add depth to a bullpen that needed help.
AL East: Orioles (75-87 in 2017)
It's looking like there was no fire to go along with the Manny Machado smoke, and otherwise it's been a very quiet offseason in Baltimore. Dan Duquette hasn't addressed the rotation void behind Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. One thing he has done is accumulate intriguing arms to be sorted out in Spring Training: Michael Kelly, Nestor Cortes Jr., Jose Mesa Jr., Pedro Araujo and Konner Wade. Outfielder Jaycob Brugman, who made his debut with the A's last year, was added as a depth option in the outfield.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for