Even for Royals and Pirates, much can change in five years
A good farm system, smart player development and shrewd spending will help
Previous doormats like the Tigers, Rockies and Rays all made the Series recently
The Pirates and Royals have combined for one winning season since 1994
Are you ready for the 2014 World Series between the Pirates and Royals? It could happen. I'll admit that it sounds insane. Aren't the Pirates and Royals two small-market teams that just spent the last decade or two in the cellar? Can I really be talking about the same two inept franchises who don't spend much money and whose farm systems are just so-so? Aren't these two teams the same clubs that just lost 99 and 97 games respectively? Even the most optimistic fans in Pittsburgh or Kansas City might concede that there's little hope for contention any time soon. So why on earth would I be predicting a World Series involving these two clubs in just five short years?
First of all, let me say that I'm not predicting it. But I'm also saying that such a matchup is not out of the question. Granted, there's not presently a lot to like about the those two teams, but as bad as their fans feel now, it's actually a good bet that a downtrodden club like the Royals or Pirates can turn it around within the just five years.
Flashback to 2004, when there were eight teams that seemed similarly comatose. Coming off several poor seasons in a row, they were reluctant to spend money, resided in small markets and had dwindling fan bases. Indeed, fans of the Expos, Reds, Rays, Tigers, Brewers, Rockies, Royals and Pirates had little hope of brighter days in the near future. What happened, though, was that four of these teams had remarkable success, turning their franchises around and making the playoffs within five years. What's more, three of the teams (Rays, Rockies and Tigers) went to the World Series in that time period.
While it's no guarantee, of course (the other four teams, including Pittsburgh and K.C., continued their ineptitude), previous history shows that it's possible for even the most despondent of clubs to claw back to not only respectability, but to greatness in a short period of time. How did they do it? The same way every team tries to turn it around: good drafts, good player development, good trades, key free-agent signings and a heavy dose of luck all contributed to these teams' remarkable turnarounds. The point isn't how they managed to do it, but the fact that they did it at all. What's more, none of these worst-to-World Series teams had great farm systems in 2004 to help them along. The Rays had the No. 9 ranked system according to Baseball America. The Rockies had the No. 15 ranked system, and the Tigers were ranked No. 22. In short, there was nothing that indicated at the time that these teams would soon be doused in champagne. Nevertheless, within five years, they were waving pennant flags.
While the turnarounds of the Rays, Rockies and Tigers was remarkable, those of you more statistically inclined won't be content to stop at just anecdotal evidence from the previous five years. Building on some work I did over at Baseball Analysts, I developed a rough statistical model for predicting future team performance five years down the road. What's surprisingly unimportant is a team's history of winning or losing. In other words, no matter how good or bad your favorite team played last year or last decade, it won't have much of an effect on its performance five years later. This gives hope to every perennial loser, from Washington to Kansas City. Simply put, the fact that your team stinks, and has stunk throughout its recent history, becomes irrelevant in just five short years. While conventional wisdom might say that you can write off a team that has lost year after year, the data (as well as the Rays, Rockies and Tigers) show that, in fact, they've got a shot to be good just like everybody else.
So if recent success has no impact on future performance, then what does? There are three main factors that affect a team's future. First is a team's market size. As you might expect, teams from a big market are predicted to perform better. In general, teams playing in a big market can expect to gain three to five additional wins when looking five years down the road. A nearly equally important factor, however, is a team's farm system. Looking at Baseball America's rankings from 1984 through 2009 shows a strong correlation between a team's farm system today and its performance five years from now. A good farm system can also boost a team's future prospects by another three to five wins. The third important factor, though not as important as the other two, is a team's recent spending history. Not surprisingly, teams which tend to throw money around are expected to do a couple of games better in the future. Their willingness to sign free agents and break the bank to sign a winner bodes well for a team's chances in the future. The other finding, is that, not surprisingly, baseball is unpredictable. Even teams which seem to be sitting pretty now could fall apart in just five years. In statistical terms, the standard errors of any five-year predictions tend to be quite high, meaning that anything can happen.
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