This might be difficult to believe now, but heading into the 2017 season, the Baltimore Orioles thought they were legitimate contenders. They had won 89 games the season before and lost the American League Wild Card Game -- the infamous "Where’s Zack Britton?" game -- and they came into '17 thinking their core had one last run in them. One prominent '17 season preview said, “if Chris Tillman can stay healthy and Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy can emerge, the Orioles could have one of the AL's top starting trios.”
Suffice it to say, it did not turn out that way. The 2017 Orioles went 75-87, including a nightmarish 7-20 September, and they could no longer pretend they were contenders. By the beginning of the '19 season, they had a new manager, a new general manager and an entirely new philosophy and competitive timeline. Turns out that '17 was the pivotal season: The year that told them who they were and what they had to do moving forward. It was the make-or-break year. They broke. So they started over.
Teams don’t always break in their make-or-break year. You could make an argument that the 2019 Washington Nationals faced such a season; remember how everyone wanted Dave Martinez and Mike Rizzo fired in May? If things had stayed that lousy in Washington all year, it’s not a stretch to wonder if the Nationals might have done some house cleaning of their own. Instead? They’re World Series champions.
Make-or-break years are the ones when teams figure out who they are, one way or the other. It’s the pivotal year that tells them where to go next.
There are, to our calculations, five teams at this particular pivot point in 2020. Maybe they’ll go the Nationals' route. Maybe they’ll go the Orioles' one. But after this year, they’ll know.
The Brewers have made the postseason in two consecutive years for the first time in franchise history and, in 2018, came within one game of their first World Series appearance in nearly 40 years. But there are reasons to worry. They’ve lost several pieces from those teams, from Mike Moustakas to Eric Thames to Yasmani Grandal, and none of the pieces they’ve added (Omar Narváez, Avisaíl García, Eric Sogard, Justin Smoak) reach the quality of what they’ve lost. They’ve addressed their rotation, but with question marks like Brett Anderson and KBO import Josh Lindblom. And they reportedly spent a large part of their offseason listening to offers for Josh Hader.
Bottom line: The Brewers look worse than they did last year. They still have Christian Yelich for three more seasons, in a division that looks winnable. But if they’re talking about trading Hader, and they’re not adding to a team that barely made the playoffs, what happens if they fall back to .500 this year? If they’re not building now when they have Yelich in his prime, what makes anyone think they’ll be better in 2021 and '22?
The Brewers need to have something up their sleeve. Because the foundation looks a lot shakier than it did a year ago.
The Indians took a lot of heat for the Corey Kluber trade, but it is worth remembering that Kluber only threw 35 2/3 innings last year, and he struggled in those (5.80 ERA). Maybe he’ll recover from his injuries and maybe he won’t; he's about to turn 34 years old. The Indians’ inability or unwillingness to add to their roster last year probably cost them an AL Wild Card spot, and it’s not like they’ve stocked the roster this year, either.
But still: Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger all remain on this roster, which means they’re hardly giving up on 2020. The question is what happens if the Indians falter early. Do they start trading away people, beginning with Lindor, who'll be a free agent after the '21 season? Or do they fortify the roster for one last run?
If the Indians have a rough year, they, fairly or not, may start veering toward the Orioles' model more than any other team on this list. But if they start winning, particularly in a division with wins on the table, they could make any idea that they’d break this team up entirely sound silly. There may be no franchise with more on the line in 2020 than the Indians.
New York Mets
Say what you will about the Mets, but they are doing something that few teams in baseball try to do anymore: They are simply trying to win right now, with no handwringing about “competitive windows.” The question is whether that’s the correct strategy, or whether the people currently in charge are the ones who can best make that happen.
If this pricey, older roster falters, there could be a reckoning in Queens, or at least some longing glances in the direction of Jarred Kelenic, the prized prospect they sent to Seattle in the Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz trade. It’s great to try to win now. But eventually you do have to, in fact, win now.
San Diego Padres
You cannot say the Padres have not been trying. When general manager A.J. Preller came aboard in 2014, he immediately transformed the entire roster to try to win the National League West his first year, trading for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel, among others. When that plan flopped, he retreated and started over, pretty much from the top of the entire organization all the way down (and fleeced the White Sox in the James Shields-for-Fernando Tatis Jr. trade along the way).
The Padres might not tear down their whole organization if it goes badly this year, but something big will have to change -- something Preller surely knows better than anyone.
Did you realize the Phillies -- who haven’t reached the postseason since 2011 -- have the fifth-longest playoff drought in baseball, ahead of only the Mariners ('01), Marlins ('03), Padres ('06) and White Sox ('08)?
Considering how much money they’ve spent on this team and how much patience notoriously unpatient Phillies fans have had sitting through a rebuild, that is a long absence. (Particularly when the Nationals have won a World Series in that time, the Mets have reached one and the Braves have won the NL East three times.) The Phils have added again -- Zack Wheeler, Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius this time -- and they’ll have Andrew McCutchen back from injury. But are they better than the Nationals? The Braves? The Mets?
The Phillies are running out of time. If they fall as far as fourth in the division -- and they absolutely could -- there could be some drastic changes afoot. New manager Joe Girardi was brought in specifically to get the ship back on track. But that'll be no small task.