Becoming a Contender

In my hope for a possible contenting season next year, I have started to wonder how exactly teams move from being bad into contention. Here I have looked at two different things. One is the records of teams before they move into contention. The second area is the acquisition of impact players prior to the first season of a contending run. I have attempted to come up with some observations and possible lessons we can learn from an in depth look at recent and current contenders.

If the Mariners are going to contend how could they do it? In order to get some ideas about this, I have looked at how teams have moved from mediocre to contention in one season. First we must establish where those teams were at before they contended.

Records Before Contending

I looked at this because over a 162 game season the records of a team can reflect their talent. Run differential might be a better choice but I just wanted a baseline and number of games won gives me a range of numbers that is easy to relate to.

What I have found is probably what most people intuitively know. It is very difficult to go from the bottom into contention. The question really is how far down can a team be before being on the level of contention?

I have considered 10 teams that either had some sustained success or seem about ready for sustained success and looked at their records in the years leading up to when they entered contention. I have not considered the Yankees, Red Sox or Cardinals as they have been solid contenders for most of the last ten years or longer. Each of these teams has had down years but never had a full scale rebuilding phase. Recent contending teams such as the Indians, Royals and Dodgers have not been good for a full season yet so I have not considered them, I did look at the Dodgers just for fun because it is clear they are going to get to the postseason.

A Quick Summary of the Teams

Providing Hope

The Rays, the Orioles, and the Nationals(sort of). These are the teams that really bad teams can look at and say "yes we can compete." The Rays went from 66 wins in 2007 to 95 wins in 2008 and prior to that had always lost at least 90 games in year. The Orioles went from 69 wins in 2011 to 93 in 2012 and were generally in the 60 win range before that. Both these teams played in the AL East where they would have to play against the Red Sox and Yankees on a regular basis which may have made their winning totals a bit lower. The Nationals showed progression as they went from 59 wins in 08 and 09, to 69 in 2010. In 2011 they were nearly .500 at 80 and 81 and then reached contention in 2012.

Those 70s teams

The A's, Reds, Rangers, and Giants are the best examples of teams rising from the 70 win regions to get into contention. Since 2000 the Reds were generally a team that won around 75 games a year. In 2009, the year before they won the NL Central, they won 78 games.

The A's lost their magic in 2007, and turned into a middling 75ish win team for 5 years. They managed a .500 record in 2010 but fell off to 74 wins in 2011, before contending in 2012.

The Rangers like the A's were generally in the 70 win range except they were in the higher 70s prior to 2010. In 2009 they won 87 games, I consider this the year they reached contention in 2008 they won 79.

The Giants, were generally a lower 70s win team from 2005 to 2008 in 2009 they improved from 72 to 88 wins. They finished 7 games out in the division but only 4 out of the wild card. In 2010 they really contented as they won the World Series.

Almost There

Braves Phillies and Tigers

Aside from one year (2008) the Braves have continued winning over 80 games since their amazing run ended. Their rebuilding period has been just a foray into mediocrity and not a complete drop off.

The Tigers went from 71 wins in 2005 to 95 in 2006 but fell off into mediocrity after that for the next five seasons mostly winning in the lower 80s. They were exactly .500 in 2010 before making the playoff in 2011.

The Phillies ran off an impressive streak of 6 straight years of over 80 wins without a playoff appearance between 2001 and 2006 before making the playoffs and beginning their sustained run of excellence.

So what can we learn from these teams? Looking mostly at the teams in the year in which they transitioned from also ran to contender I tried to see what they did. What kind of transactions they made or what player impacted the team the most. Is there anything we can learn from these teams or are there really a million different ways to build a contender?


I took the top 10 players by fWAR from both batters and pitchers (10 batters and 10 pitchers) on each of the above teams team from the year prior to contention and compared it to the first year of contention. I sorted out which players were acquired as free agents or trades during the previous offseason or the season of contention. I also sorted out the repeats of players in the top ten of WAR. What this tells us is who contributed most to the success of the team and helps us figure out how the team improved. My purpose was to sort out the impact players and determine how they were acquired. I wasn't too interested in how the players who were already on the team were acquired, just those changes right before the team became really good.

The Results*

*I bet there is a better way to share a spreadsheet but I am too lazy to figure it out.

Summary of Findings By Team

Atlanta Braves 2009 to 2010

Top Ten fWAR position player dropped from 23.3 to 22.7. Pitching dropped from 21.6 to 17.8

You could argue that the team was in contention in 2009 with 86 wins but I had to draw the line somewhere. Since they finished 12th overall and only a game ahead of the Mariners I considered this their last year before taking the next step. It is interesting that the fWAR provided by the top players dropped despite the team improving. This may help show that bench is important or it could be a quirk of fWAR.

Among the players with a top ten fWAR, three were acquired from outside the organization, Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito, and Derrek Lee. Lee was traded to the Braves in August and provided 0.7 fWAR over the last 40 games of the season.

The main new contributors to Braves were young players, this was Heyward's rookie year and he finished second with 4.7 fWAR. The pitchers were led by returning veterans Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson. Johnny Venters added 1.6 fWAR as a rookie from the bullpen. Overall this team was solid the year before and they stayed with their talent and moved into contention.

Cincinnati Reds 2009 to 2010

Top Ten fWAR position player improved from 17.5 to 31.9 Pitching improved from 10.4 to 13.1

The Reds made the transition with improvements from many players. The addition of rookie Travis Wood (2.2 fWAR in limited starts) helped, but mostly it was improvements from players already on the team. Both Votto and Bruce increased their fWAR by over 2. The only additions to the team in the top ten in batting, was Chris Heisey, a rookie, who added 1.4 fWAR and Orlando Cabrera, a free agent, who added .9 fWAR. The improvements with pitching also came from players already on the team or called up from within the system. The main free agent addition was Aroldis Chapman, who in a short time managed to contribute 0.6 fWAR.

Philadelphia Phillies 2006 to 2007

Top Ten fWAR position player improved from 28.3 to 33.7. Pitching fWAR fell from 13.6 to 10.6.

The new addition as a free agent was Jayson Werth who had not played baseball the previous year. Michael Bourne and Kyle Kendrick brought some production as rookies but mostly the team's improvements came from established players. Utley made a modest improvement but the real jumps were from Jimmy Rollins, who added almost 2 fWAR, and Aaron Rowand who improved from 1.4 to 5.6 fWAR. Like the Braves the Phillies were a solid team prior to their run, and modest improvements were able to put them into contention.

San Francisco Giants 2009 to 2010

Top Ten fWAR Position player from 18.7 to 28.2. Pitching fell from 19.5 to 18.8.

If you consider the 2009 Giants to be contenders the impact additions prior to that year were Juan Uribe and Andres Torres. I consider the 2009 team to be on the cusp and the transition to 2010 is what I focused on. You can see both on the spreadsheet. The main free agent addition was Aubrey Huff, however, Pat Burrell and Edgar Renteria also were in the top ten. Tim Lincecum declined but other pitchers (Cain, Sanchez, and Wilson) and rookie Madison Bumgarner picked up the slack. The pitching free agents mostly bolstered the bullpen. In looking at the transition from 2008 to 2009 you find even less contributions from free agents.

Washington Nationals 2011 to 2012

Top Ten fWAR position player improved from 17.6 to 24.6. Pitching improved from 12.2 to 20.5

The top fWAR batters all were returning members of the Nationals 2012 or stellar rookies (Harper, but also Moore and Lombardozzi). Also on the batting side, Ryan Zimmerman was good and Desmond made a huge improvement. The main additions came in the pitching staff, Gio Gonzalez came over in a trade from the A's and Edwin Jackson was signed as a free agent. Strasburg improved, Jordan Zimmerman was consistent and Detwiler emerged providing improvement from the pitching.

Baltimore Orioles 2011 to 2012.

Top Ten fWAR position player improved from 16.6 to 18.2. Pitching improved from 10.7 to 13.9.

We all know that the Orioles outperformed their run differential and overall they were 23rd in WAR so their numbers are a bit lower. Three of their top ten hitters were free agents but the best of those was Nate McLouth with 1.2 fWAR. They were really powered by the improvement of Jones and the full season of an improving Chris Davis, also Manny Machado. The pitching was held together by rookie international free agent Wei-Yin Chen and trade acquisition Jason Hammel. This team was able to add decent to good pieces to overcome losses and make improvements, especially on the pitching side.

Detroit Tigers 2010 to 2011.

Top Ten fWAR position player improved from 24.1 to 25.8. Pitching improved from 16.7 to 20.3.

You could argue that the trade for Miguel Cabrera made this team, however they did struggle for a couple of years with him. It was the addition of Victor Martinez and the re-signing of Jhonny Peralta that really turned the hitting on the Tigers. The improvement of Alex Avila also helped. On the pitching side the key addition was Doug Fister who provided 2.3 fWAR in about 2 months, other additions were the bullpen pieces of Al Albuquerque and Joaquin Benoit.

Oakland A's 2011 to 2012

Top ten fWAR position player improved from 12.4 to 20.5. Pitching improved from 16 to 18.2

If you are looking to find a team completely remade through trades and free agency this is the team. Only two hitter (Pennington and Crisp) stayed in the top ten fWAR. Rookies Josh Donaldson and Chris Carter contributed, but the real additions were free agents Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss, and Jonny Gomes. Josh Reddick who led the hitters in fWAR was also acquired in a trade. The top two pitchers, Parker and Milone, were both rookies acquired over the offseason. Aside from McCarthy, Balfour and Anderson the pitching staff was rookies and new guys, and often both.

Texas Rangers 2008 to 2009

Top Ten fWAR position player slumped from 25.4 to 18.8, Pitching improved from 10.6 to 17.2

The Texas Rangers made few changes from outside the organization between 2008 and 2009. The team began reaping the rewards of the Teixeira trade with both Andrus and Feliz contributing. Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones were the main hitting additions and Darren O'Day the only pitcher in the top ten from outside the organization, so you can guess not much there. In 2010 Vladimir Guerrero would be a slight impact as a free agent hitter and the additions of Colby Lewis and a half season of Cliff Lee would help the team to the World Series.

Tampa Bay Rays 2007 to 2008

Top Ten fWAR position player improved from 20.7 to 28.6. Pitching improved from 14.4 to 18.6

The biggest impact on the hitting side was the addition of rookie Evan Longoria (5.5 fWAR) and the continued success of B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, and Carl Crawford. New additions Eric Hinske (free agent) and Gabe Gross (trade) helped the bench but aside from Longoria, the improvements came from lesser known players like Jason Bartlett(trade) and Ben Zobrist. Matt Garza was the key pitching addition along with a surprising 3.7 fWAR from Andy Sonnanstine.

Some Stuff

Cliff Lee (3.2) and Doug Fister (2.3) have the most pitching fWAR for in season additions.

Casper Wells was top ten fWAR in both 2010 and 2011 for the Tigers.

The top free agent addition to contending teams was Aubrey Huff to the 2010 Giants with 5.9 WAR.

Teams won an average of 77 games prior to becoming contenders, improving on average to 92 wins.

Evan Longoria with 5.5 fWAR is the most impactful rookie on a newly contending team.


Nearly every team had an impact rookie. These rookies were generally a big source of improvement. From Evan Longoria to Buster Posey, the rookies who came up and hit were often an important piece to contending.

The biggest name free agent signed during these years by these teams, well I don't know. Guerrero was a big name but past his prime, also Texas was already pretty good. Victor Martinez was probably the biggest name but he only provided 2.5 fWAR hardly a guy to turn around the team.

If you are going to build with free agents and trades you need to be really smart. The A's are the only team that did it, they did it with unknowns and surprise players. Either they were lucky, used the players right, or really good at talent evaluation. It is probably a mixture of each and something I haven't mentioned.

If we add this year's Dodgers we can add Greinke as a big time free agent who actually provided real support. The Dodgers built their team with a ton of money and it might be unrealistic to build this way. Still their most important additions were Hyun-Jin Ryu who was a bit of an unknown and Puig who no one thought would do what he is doing.

The bottom players on teams not contending are often in the .5 fWAR range, sometimes this is an area of improvement that isn't as obvious. Sure we know this but bringing up the ability of the role players or platoon players might make the difference. Dave Cameron just made this point on Fangraphs, in regards to the A's.

Finally, free agents can shore up the bullpen. They don't normally come in as closers but can provide help making a solid pen. Darren O'Day shows up a couple of times on my sheet.

Remember I focused on the changes in these teams. All of these teams had homegrown stars, many who I did not mention. They form the foundation of the team and are rarely available. When they are they don't seem to end up with teams in this phase of development.

But I am a Mariner Fan, why does this matter?

First notice the winning percentages of teams making the jump. Unless you plan on magic, the Mariners need to be around 74 or 75 wins to be able to make the moves to improve. It isn't hopeless, as the Rays and Orioles show, but I as much as I love the Mariner's prospects I don't expect them to provide a Longoria or Machado next year. If they aren't already that good I don't know if the current players plus maybe a free agent could do enough. They need these young players to improve and Paxton or Walker to be an impact rookie if they are going to contend next year. A good finish this year would be a good start. However on the bright side, the Mariners have a large quantity of young players with the potential to improve, while one may not be a superstar if they all improve a bit this could be enough.

The Mariners probably should not sign a big name free agent if they expect to compete next year. They need to find the Aubrey Huff and the Brandon Moss types. Or was Moss good with the A's because of how he was used? The A's improved by making fantastic trades to get really good young pitching, and Josh Reddick. Cespedes was a great find and if the Mariners could find a good, ready international player it would help speed up the timetable to contention. This is very difficult and probably not realistic but it has been an important part for some teams. Overall it is not the big name free agents that drive the transition into contenders at least not in their first year. There are many reasons for this and not the least that generally big name free agents want to go to contending teams but the answer isn't going to be "sign Ellsbury and Choo," One this probably will not happen, and two, it will probably not end in the results wanted.

Unless you are the A's stability is the best course. Building the core and staying with it generally leads to success. Teams like the Rangers almost turn over that core without people even noticing, but there is a stable tradition there. I don't know how to assign a value to this, but it does seem like something is there. Only the A's and Giants had huge turnovers. However, the Giants have been pretty good at maintaining a solid pitching staff, and the A's seem on the way to doing that. If the team does decide to sign a big time free agent the rewards may not be immediate, if the expectation is that the free agent isn't going to turn the team around, but rather be a piece for 2015 or 16, then it could be a good move. I don't know who that is but I have concerns about Ellsbury.

It is probable that the Mariners are at least one more mediocre season away from competing. I am hopeful for luck but I don't see the young kids as the types to improve a bunch. If anyone is going to massively improve it might be Seager, and if the rest of the kids can improve a bit then maybe. I think it is going to take the pitching prospects actually developing and not just one or two but all three, if this team is going to be good next year. Finally the bullpen needs to be addressed.

The young players need to do well and show they can improve. That is why I can't just toss off these losses, these losses occur because at least some of the players who will be part of the core are not playing well. I want to see them succeed so that I can believe that they will improve. I would much rather see the team get better than secure a protected pick.

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