Last year, thanks in part to the new playoff format, three of the five teams who had gone the longest without reaching the postseason finally ended their postseason droughts: The Marlins (who hadn’t reached October since winning the World Series in 2003), the Padres (last postseason appearance: '06) and the Reds ('13). Even with the new Wild Card Series, it felt like a breakthrough for each team. You never want to be in the wilderness for too long. Two of the three teams even won their playoff round, advancing to the National League Division Series. (Sorry, Cincinnati.)
That leaves six teams who have not reached the playoffs in the past five years. Not bad! That’s 24 teams who have at least a modicum of success over the past half-decade. There have been half-decades that have been a lot worse.
Still: We have to look at those six teams -- and, specifically, the likelihood of their playoff droughts ending this season. Obviously, we don’t have every transaction in the books right now, and it’s always possible that one of these teams could sign Trevor Bauer or J.T. Realmuto. But for now, here’s a look at the six teams with the longest playoff droughts in order of their chances of tasting the glorious nectar of the postseason in 2021.
1) Phillies -- last postseason appearance: 2011 NLDS loss to Cardinals
The Phillies have gone through a whole tear down and build up since that loss to St. Louis, and oh yeah, they signed Bryce Harper to a contract that will last well into the next decade, but still: No playoffs. Last year should have been a lock, all told, with the expanded playoffs and down years from the Nationals and Mets. But nope. We’ll see what happens with Realmuto, whom they are hoping to re-sign, and the bullpen issues may not be resolved, but regardless: No team has the combination of eagerness to win right now and closeness to a spot in 2020 that the Phils have. If they don’t snap this streak this year ... you have to wonder when, exactly, they will.
2) Angels -- Last postseason appearance: 2014 ALDS loss to Royals
In 2014, with an Angels team that had just won 98 games, and with Mike Trout in full bloom, it sure didn’t seem like they’d go six straight years without another playoff appearance. That’s what’s happened, though, and this is a reminder that it is absolutely unfathomable that the Halos have had only one winning season since '14 despite having Trout on the roster.
You would certainly think, when teams get around to actually signing players, that the Angels would pick up some more pitchers after adding José Quintana. But they are this high on the list because, sheesh, they’ve got Trout on their team. (And Anthony Rendon! And Shohei Ohtani!) This is also your regular reminder that Trout, unbelievably, still hasn’t won a playoff game. (He’s about to turn 30.)
3) Royals -- last postseason appearance: 2015 World Series champions
The Royals have made two postseason appearances in the past 35 years, but they sure made both of them count: Two consecutive World Series appearances, with a win in the second one against the Mets. They’ve gone back to the bottom of the AL Central since then, but there’s reason to be optimistic moving forward. Kansas City has some exciting young talent; it has brought in Carlos Santana, Mike Minor and Michael A. Taylor in the offseason; and there may be some room to maneuver in this division.
The Royals could probably use another starter or two until their young pitchers are ready, but whatever your thoughts about Mike Matheny as a postseason strategist (and Cardinals fans have many), he did guide St. Louis to four consecutive playoff appearances from 2012-15, including a World Series showing. The Royals look eager to make a move in the AL Central. It’s not unreasonable to think they could do it.
4) Mariners -- last postseason appearance: 2001 ALCS loss to Yankees
The longest postseason drought of the four major North American team sports still belongs to the Mariners, who have come agonizingly close a few times but not quite broken through. They at least gave their fans something to be excited about in 2020 -- any team in baseball would want Kyle Lewis -- and it’s worth noting that they finished a game ahead of the Angels last season, too. But they still look a year or two away from a serious run. If the Astros take the step backward many believe they will, there could be room for a surprise team in this fairly open division. Maybe it’s Seattle? (Our own Anthony Castrovince thinks so.) Perhaps no fan base would deserve it more.
5) Pirates -- last postseason appearance: 2015 Wild Card loss to Cubs
The Pirates' three-year surge ended with Jake Arrieta shutting them out in the NL Wild Card Game in 2015, and it has been barren since then. They keep shedding pieces and payroll, and while Ke’Bryan Hayes looks like a keeper, there isn’t much else to get too excited about, at least in '21. The reason they’re not last on this list, though? They’re in the NL Central, which just might be the weakest division in baseball this year. The Bucs are not likely to be much of a factor, even in that division. But right now ... could 85 victories win the NL Central?
6) Tigers -- last postseason appearance: 2014 ALDS loss to O's
The Tigers should be better than the Pirates, and you can make an argument they’re set up for more future success, too: They have a lot of young pitching to be excited about. But that still feels like a couple of years away. Meanwhile, the White Sox are supercharged, the Twins are the defending division champs, the Royals are adding pieces and the Indians still have more talent than you might think. Detroit has more quality teams to crawl over than Pittsburgh does. But if none of these teams make the playoffs in 2021, and we do this list next year … the Tigers likely won’t be last then.