Defining Success For Also-Rans

Commissioner Bud Selig is fond of saying that under his watch, revenue sharing and the addition of two wild cards have allowed more teams than ever to begin the season with at least some hope of reaching the postseason. Perhaps that’s true, but realistically it doesn’t apply to everyone. In five of the six divisions, there’s at least one team with almost no chance for glory in 2013.

Even if there’s little likelihood of success between the lines, these teams can — must, really — identify ways to make 2013 a successful season, rather than just marking time as endless games go by. These teams can learn more about what they have, what they don’t and what they need to do to get back into contention.

For these clubs, success this season will be defined in ways other than victories.

Miami Marlins

Attempt to win back some sort of public goodwill by proving that the latest fire sale brought back the core of the next good Marlins team.

The Marlins were rightfully flogged after the deals that shipped out Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Anibal Sanchez, raising the white flag after just a single season in their new publicly-funded park. That series of moves has shrunk the Opening Day payroll from just more than $100 million in 2012 to about a third of that this season, leaving them with only Giancarlo Stanton and what’s likely to be a whole lot of empty seats.

Miami fans might feel betrayed by the moves, but the Marlins can help redeem themselves this season by showing that the deals made sense from a baseball perspective, not just a financial one. Catcher Rob Brantly (.290/.372/.460 in 113 plate appearances after coming from Detroit), pitchers Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi (4.13 FIP in 22 starts between Los Angeles and Miami) and slick-fielding rookie shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria all arrived in the deals and will start the season with the Marlins. They’ll soon be joined by fellow trade acquisitions in outfielder Jake Marisnick and pitchers Justin Nicolino and Jacob Turner, plus two top prospects the team already had — pitcher Jose Fernandez and outfielder Christian Yelich.

It won’t be easy for the Marlins to swing the tide of public opinion back their way, but it’s important to remember this is a team that lost 93 games last season and 90 in 2011. For this to be a successful season in Miami, the Marlins can win a similar amount of games for a fraction of the cost and with a much brighter future.

Colorado Rockies

Sort out their organizational direction.

It’s one thing to say that the Rockies should just fix their lousy pitching staff, because that’s been an ongoing concern almost since the day they were born in 1993. This edition of the club has a larger concern to deal with — they’ve increasingly become one of the more oddly-run organizations in baseball.

In a five-month span last season, the Rockies ran through one of the more confounding stretches we’ve seen in years. In June, they announced plans to go to a four-man rotation and limit starters to 75 pitches per outing. While that represented admirable outside-the-box thinking, the timing of the midseason implementation was awkward, and players never seemed to buy into it. In August, the club raised the eyebrows of many by promoting assistant general manager Bill Geivett to perform the duties of a general manager without actually stripping incumbent Dan O’Dowd of the title. Geivett took that one step further, locating his desk within the clubhouse — a move nearly unheard of in the sport.

By September, they announced the four-man rotation idea would be scrapped for 2013. That was followed by a managerial shakeup in October, as Jim Tracy decided he’d had enough and quit. After a search that included an active player, Jason Giambi, they settled upon former shortstop Walt Weiss, who was previously coaching high school baseball.

The Rockies have plenty of problems on the field and are expected to finish last in 2013. The best thing they can do to change that for the future is to figure out their organizational philosophy and return the focus to building a winning team.

Seattle Mariners

Figure out if they already have the offensive core of the future, or if they need to find one.

Seattle lost 87 games last season and spent the winter applying patches to the offense, importing short-term fixes like Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse. There’s plenty of pitching talent on the way, with pitchers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker all likely to be ready within the year to join the newly-extended Felix Hernandez, but the Mariners need to understand if they have the pieces to upgrade that league-worst offense for years to come.

The team thought it might have done that already with youngsters second baseman Dustin Ackley, catcher Jesus Montero and first baseman Justin Smoak, but all three flopped last season, with Montero’s lowly .298 OBP representing the trio’s best mark.

There’s still hope here, because youth is on their side — none are older than 26 — and Smoak put up a red-hot September after switching to a lighter bat. This is probably his last chance to prove himself with Seattle, however, and the Mariners need to find out if Ackley and Montero are for real, as well.

New York Mets

Get the growing pains of their “big three” prospects out of the way in a low-expectation year.

After four straight losing seasons, the Mets head into 2013 with more problems than ever. R.A. Dickey is gone, Johan Santana might be finished and the team arguably doesn’t have a single big league quality outfielder. That’s going to make for a tough season against the powerhouses of the NL East, but Mets fans have a lot to look forward to thanks to a trio of ready-now young talent.

Matt Harvey made his debut last season and sparkled in 10 late-season starts, striking out 70 in 59 1/3; innings. He’ll be joined later in the season by fellow starter Zack Wheeler, one year younger but even more highly-regarded, and also by catcher Travis d’Arnaud, the main prize of the Dickey deal. All three should see considerable time in the big leagues this season. While that won’t be enough to allow the Mets to contend this year, there’s nothing better they can do than to get the trio fully acclimated to New York while the pressure is at its lowest.

Put another way: The Mets head into this season with Jeremy Hefner in the rotation and John Buck behind the plate. If the team does nothing else but replace them by beginning the careers of the core of the next good New York club, it’ll be a worthwhile endeavor.

San Diego Padres

Settle Chase Headley‘s future, one way or another.

Headley broke out in a huge way in 2012, finishing fifth in the National League Most Valuable Player ballot thanks to 31 home runs and 115 RBIs, along with solid defense. He’s set to earn $8.5 million this season and has one remaining season of arbitration beyond that before hitting free agency after 2014.

Unsurprisingly, that combination has had trade rumors swirling around Headley since last summer, especially considering how thin third base is and that large market teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees both need help at the position. The longer the Padres hold on to him, the lower his trade value becomes — especially if his 2012 was a mirage, considering he hit just four homers the season before — so it’s important to their long-term success that they end the questions and sign him or move him.

If there’s any kind of silver lining to the broken thumb that will sideline Headley for the first few weeks of the season, it’s that the Padres will get plenty of time to look at 24-year-old prospect Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko is a career .319/.385/.529 hitter in the minors with 55 homers over the past two seasons, but he’s been blocked at third base by Headley. With Headley and backup Logan Forsythe both injured, Gyorko is expected to see time both at second base and third base in San Diego this year; his performance will go a long way towards informing the Padres if Headley is expendable or not.

Minnesota Twins

Fully commit to a ground-up rebuild.

The Twins have lost 195 games over the past two seasons, in large part because no team in baseball had a worse FIP than Minnesota did in 2012 — no, not even the Rockies. Their last-place outlook doesn’t seem likely to change in 2013, and giving $14 million to Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey seemed like a large sum of money for an incremental improvement when similar placeholder types could have been found for a fraction of that.

The process of turning this team over began when outfielders Ben Revere and Denard Span were traded for pitching prospects Trevor May and Alex Meyer, along with back-end starter Vance Worley. It’s a good start, but the team needs to go further.

Outfielder Josh Willingham is coming off a career year (35 homers and an .890 OPS) and has a reasonable two years left on his contract; he’ll be more valuable as a trade chip than he will be on the field for a losing team. The same goes for longtime Twin Justin Morneau, who is headed into the last year of his contract and showed that he could stay healthy and reasonably productive in 2012. If they can get some value out of multi-positional types like Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit as well, all the better; none of these players will be around the next time the Twins see October.

The Twins cost themselves in 2011 by failing to trade Michael Cuddyer in his free-agent walk year, letting him move on to Colorado as a free agent for nothing. If the team plans to truly turn around what’s become one of the worst teams in the league, they can’t repeat that mistake.

Houston Astros

Find rock bottom this year.

You just can’t overstate how bad it’s going to be for the Astros in 2013. Take a team that lost 213 games over the plast two seasons, remove the only offensive player who contributed more than two wins above replacement (Jed Lowrie, at 2.6), switch them to one of the toughest divisions in baseball and what you have is a recipe for outright disaster.

GM Jeff Luhnow already traded off all of his respectable veterans last season, other than perhaps starter Bud Norris, so fans don’t even have that to look forward to.

What the team can do instead is to make sure that this season is as bad as it gets, and that next season starts the long climb back to respectability. That doesn’t mean it won’t still be bad — if the team is as awful as everyone expects this season, it could improve by 10 games in 2014 and still lose more than 100 — but now that the teardown is finished, the front office can see what’s left.

That means finding out if Brett Wallace is ever going to hit, or if Justin Maxwell can be a usable outfielder, and maybe even getting top prospect Jonathan Singleton up after his suspension is over. It’ll be ugly in Houston no matter what, but fans and players alike need to begin to see that there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or
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I really enjoyed this, thanks.