No, this isn’t about the teams that have made the largest improvements this season over last, or which of the good teams has taken the biggest step forward since last season. Nope. None of that.
This is about the leap each of this season’s top playoff contenders took when they first hit contention, whether this season is the first or the team has been in the mix for years.
Here we go.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have been legit contenders every season since they finished 86-76 in 2012, their third straight without a playoff berth. In July and August of 2012, the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, setting them up for a better following season.
In 2013, they won 92 games, qualified as a Wild Card teams and lost in the NLCS to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The jump was a mere six games, but they haven’t won fewer than 56% of their games in a season since.
San Diego Padres
The Padres won fewer than 48% of their games every year from 2011 until they went 37-23 a year ago and lost 3-0 in the NLDS.
What did the 2020 club have the 2019 team didn’t? A lot.
The 2019 club had Tatis Jr. for just half the season, have most of the second base PAs to Luis Urias and Ian Kinsler, and neither Wil Myers not Manuel Margot hit a whole lot for everyday players. The acquisitions of Cronenworth, Profar, and Grisham did wonders for the lineup that already had Manny Machado.
They’ve since added numerous additional talents to push the roster to another level, but their breakthrough year was 2020.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants ‘ third World Series in five years came in 2014 and incredibly they have three players left from that roster — Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Buster Posey. The rest, however, has been turned over the past seven years and until 2021 not much was working.
San Francisco won 84 and 87 games in 2015 and 2016, then dropped to 74, 73, and 77 leading into 2020 when they threatened .500. This season has been the big breakthrough, but it clearly started sometime last summer.
The biggest difference appears to be in the starting rotation where Kevin Gausman has assumed the role of staff ace. But for 2021, the Giants also added Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani. Right-hander Logan Webb had a great year behind the veterans but might be their second-best arm.
Milwaukee won 96 games in 2011 then struggled for five years before getting back competitive levels in 2017 with an 86-76 run that ended in a second-place finish.
The following season, the Brewers as we know them, again won 96 games and went to Game 7 of the NLCS vs the Dodgers.
They made the Wild Card game in 2019 and 2020 and are back on top in the division headed for their second division title in four years.
The 2018 team was the first in the run and the main addition prior to that season was OF Christian Yelich, who won the MVP that year and finished second a year later. But they also signed Lorenzo Cain, who was key for the Brewers his first two season.
The Braves went through a good old-fashioned rebuild 2014-2017 and went from 72 wins to 90 and a division title in 2018, their first of four straight NL East championships.
But the big gun was Ronald Acuña Jr., who burst into the scene in 2018.
While the roster has changed a bit the past few years, Houston remains strong. But they started to crawl out of their rebuild back in 2015 and 2016 when they won 86 and 84 games respectively before surpassing 100 victories three straight seasons and winning the 2017 World Series.
Most of the big-time changes were development related, such as Alex Bregman, and Dallas Keuchel, and the acquisitions of Brian McCann, Ken Giles, and Charlie Morton. The club would also pick up Justin Verlander on August 31.
It seems like the A’s have been at least good forever, but that isn’t the case. The current version broke through just four seasons ago.
After a run that lasted 2012-2014, Oakland won 68, 69, and 75 games before starting a run as one of the winningest teams in baseball that led to three playoff appearances and counting.
The A’s transition lasted three seasons and their big step that resulted in a 22-win increase coincided with the bats of Marcis Semien, Matt Chapman, and Matt Olson, plus the club’s young arms and role players producing.
Chicago White Sox
After seven seasons winning between 63 and 78 games, the White Sox’s rebuild hit it’s stride in 2020 and has continued this season.
Chicago had two winning seasons between 2011 and last season and until 2016 it wasn’t clear which direction they were headed. But they traded Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Adam Eaton after that season, jump starting their rebuild with young talent such as Michael Kopech, Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Dylan Cease and Lucas Giolito.
It’s one of the more talented rosters in baseball now, but just two years ago it was a 72-win team in need of a few veterans to serve as icing on the cake. Enter Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal.
Boston Red Sox
Things have started to come together again in 2021, despite Sale just having made his debut earlier this month.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays, much like the A’s, seemingly compete every single season, but they’ve had their pockets of rebuilding, too.
After four playoff appearances 2008-2013, Tampa failed to finish .500 or better for four straight seasons. They wouldn’t make the postseason again until 2019, but they broke through in 2018 with a 90-72 record in a tough American League East.
Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Rays turned over nearly their entire lineup and bullpen, and Blake Snell had a career year.
While nearly all of the 2018 club is gone, the Rays have moved around the puzzle pieces strategically since that season, and may be better in 2021 than the World Series club from last season.
New York Yankees
The Yankees slogged along for four seasons 2013-2016, winning no more than 87 games in that span and making just one Wild Card appearance.
Since then they’ve been to three ALCS and an LDS, winning 100-plus games twice.
The move from 2016 to 2017 came as Gary Sanchez took over full-time behind the plate, Aaron Judge was flying high as a rookie, and the starting rotation was deep enough to set up one of the game’s elite bullpens.
Toronto Blue Jays
They’re making noise in the Wild Card race now and added a significant piece over the summer that impacts 2022 in RHP Jose Berrios.
On the heels of the Padres for the No. 2 Wild Card this season, but with starting pitching a major strength and plenty of offense to lean on, a few key additions over the winter could put the Reds in a position to win the division.
Talent wise, they probably should be better, but they’re fringe good right now thanks to a middling offense and bullpen. More tweaks appear needed for the a real breakthrough.
Enough production from young players and those under club control suggest a significant move can be made next season.
Offense and relief pitching. Fix them and the division is within reach.
The White Sox, at least on paper, will be tough to catch anytime soon, but they’re the only clear road block for the Tigers starting next season.
Returning in ’22?
St. Louis Cardinals
They’re not having a bad 2021, but they’re short in most areas and have some work to do. But they’re not that far from a 90-win roster.
The offense needs a lot of helps and most of the farm help is more than a year away. Might they shop Jose Ramirez this winter instead of making the same mistake they did with Lindor in waiting too long?
They traded Jose Berrios in July and entertained the same for Byron Buxton, but it’s difficult to see exactly what the Twins are trying to do just yet.
They have enough young talent to compete now, but if Buxton is dealt over the winter it probably means the other veterans are gone, too, and 2022 will be a full-scale rebuilding year.
Jason A. Churchill
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