11/29/11 2:30 PM EST
Opportunity knocks for struggling franchises
Adding Wild Card teams gives certain clubs newfound hope
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement may have produced a distinct set of viewpoints, but nobody can argue that by adding another Wild Card team in each league, more clubs have an opportunity to be postseason-bound than ever before.
And even though it's ultimately just one additional game -- in the new system, the two Wild Card teams will face off in a one-game playoff before advancing to the traditional three-tiered system -- it could be enough to entice a few clubs to go outside their means this offseason and take themselves to the next level.
With that in mind, here are five previously out-of-contention clubs that could be just a big move or two away from suddenly being legit again. None have made it to the postseason in at least the last eight years, none finished any better than 16 games back of first place in their respective divisions in 2011 and only one (the Mariners) has ever sported a nine-figure payroll.
But all have some newfound opportunity.
OK, so perhaps they've already beat me to the punch. The Marlins -- out of the playoffs since 2003, 30 games out of first place last season and money-strapped since the dawn of their existence -- suddenly have an influx of cash with their new retractable-roof stadium opening up. With that, they've hosted Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and, on Monday, C.J. Wilson.
And now, they seem almost destined to come away with at least one of them.
The Marlins may have to play in the same division as the Phillies and Braves, but if they can get a full season of health from Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, and add a couple of impact free agents to a roster that's better than it showed while going 72-90 last year, they can compete.
Pujols isn't for South Beach. The Marlins can't afford to sign him to the contract he seeks and put a viable winning club around him. In an ideal world, they'd get Reyes to stabilize the top of the order and move Ramirez to third base, then use free agency or the trade market to add a proven starter and a proven closer.
That's a lot, sure. But for a club that's expected to increase payroll from $58 million to more than $85 million, it's doable.
We could be looking at one supremely competitive National League East next season if general manager Mike Rizzo gets what he wants. Washington -- absent from postseason contention for three whole decades -- is "serious" about adding Prince Fielder, according to FOXSports.com. It's an interesting move, considering Mike Morse excelled at first base last year and Adam LaRoche -- owed $8 million in 2012 -- is expected back healthy this spring. But things have a tendency to work themselves out for a player like Fielder.
If the Nats add Fielder's bat to a lineup that already includes Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Morse and (perhaps) Bryce Harper, they're as potent as they come. If they instead keep LaRoche and upgrade center field like Rizzo has suggested -- perhaps by signing Yeonis Cespedes, or trading for B.J. Upton or Denard Span -- they're also dangerous.
And if they can couple that with a proven starter to go along with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann -- Buehrle or Roy Oswalt surely would be nice -- they can make a case for a playoff spot as early as next year.
Suddenly it doesn't seem so threatening to play in the American League East. Now with up to three teams in one division being postseason-eligible, a team like the Blue Jays has a legitimate shot to return to the dance for the first time since winning it all for a second straight season in 1993.
The Blue Jays have returned to the classic-uniform look of that era, and most importantly, they have a solid foundation with the likes of Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, Ricky Romero, Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus and others. General manager Alex Anthopoulos is a master of the trade (see: Lawrie, Rasmus and Escobar) and can use a crowded outfield, some promising starters and a well-stocked farm system to add some impact players.
The best part: Thanks to the clearing of Vernon Wells' contract, the Blue Jays have the financial flexibility to take on salary in a deal for those impact players. That can go a long way in them bolstering their rotation with a big arm, or shoring up the back end of the bullpen with a proven closer, or getting another bat to protect Bautista -- or maybe even all three.
The Blue Jays have finished fourth in the AL East each of the last four years despite finishing no worse than .500 in three of those seasons. But they have a real shot to make some noise in 2012.
And that brings us to perhaps the most intriguing case of all -- a Royals team that has been absent from the playoffs since 1985, when Ronald Reagan was president and "Back To The Future" was new.
The Royals started strong last season, then quickly faded before finishing the year 71-91. But in a division where the White Sox are rebuilding, the Twins are a mess, the Indians are a mystery and only the Tigers are dominant, the Royals could be a couple of pieces away from contending again.
Their lineup is promising and young, with Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon already there, and Lorenzo Cain and Wil Myers up and coming. They just need pitching. Re-signing Bruce Chen was a good start; so was acquiring Jonathan Sanchez by selling high on Melky Cabrera; so was signing Jonathan Broxton to a little-risk contract on Tuesday.
But the Royals still need a proven, front-line, ace-material starter.
Their rotation had the least amount of wins and the second-highest ERA in the AL last year, and now they have the chips to acquire a starter -- perhaps Gio Gonzalez or James Shields -- via trade.
And it's one dominant starter that can take this team to a new level.
I know it's hard, but try to look past back-to-back seasons that saw the Mariners finish last in the AL West -- two seasons that saw them finish a combined 68 games below .500 -- and try to picture this squad with a big, left-handed, middle-of-the-order bat.
In other words, picture this club with Fielder.
With the trio of Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas, the Mariners have some solid starting pitching. With Brandon League, they have a good closer. With Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Mike Carp, they have nice young pieces in the lineup.
With Fielder, they may just have a shot to compete.
The Mariners have to hit better. Actually, after finishing dead last in the Majors in runs and OPS last season, they have to hit a lot better. And with the budget expected to be at about $95 million, Seattle figures to have roughly $15 million to spend on additions. That may make it tough to sign a guy like Fielder, but GM Jack Zduriencik can find creative ways to shore up a little more money if he thinks adding him would really be worth it.
Considering where Fielder can take the Mariners, it just might be.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.