Expansion Teams – Win Now, Win Later, or Win Never?

Since 1961, we’ve been in the “Expansion Era” (among many), since that was the year that baseball moved past the ‘traditional’ 16 franchises to the 30 we have now. While some decry that ‘watering down’ of talent in the majors, they mostly can just yell at clouds and complain about the sex talk on Golden Girls. Baseball needed to expand. The population grew, markets have grown, and if they didn’t expand someone would have started another league to compete. (I can just imagine the franchises if they took after the WHA and ABA….)

Establishing a major league franchise is no easy task. Not only do you have to put a major league team on the field, but you also need to set up a franchise infrastructure, a minor league system, accessories and intangibles, and somehow make it all resonate with fans who may not be so patient with a young, struggling team. In the past, teams had to do that with little or no warning, and had just one league to choose players from. Now, teams have time (and money) to get it right, maybe.

There have been many philosophies in building an expansion teams. Taking old, established players for marketing value, or taking younger players to build a franchise, or going somewhere in between, or perhaps taking has beens, never would bes and flakes and calling it done.

Expansion teams aren’t expected to win right away (well, in the past at least), but they are supposed to be on the right path sooner rather than later. A successful expansion team not only builds a team that can compete soon, but also a system and pipeline that sustains that success. To look at this, I’m taking a peak at the expansion teams in year one, year five and year 10 with some highlights in between.

Los Angeles / California / Anaheim Angels:

Year One (1961) – 70-91, 8th Place AL

Year Five (1965) – 75-87, 7th Place AL

Year Ten (1970) – 86-76, 3rd Place AL West

On paper, the Angels succeeded in a five year plan, as they finished a surprising third in 1962 and were over .500 in 1964. They were an older expansion squad though, and one of their two offensive stars in 1962, Lee Thomas, absolutely cratered in 1963 and was traded in 1964. By 1965, they were a lot younger, especially on the mound. But it didn’t take, and 1968 and 1969 were pretty low points for the franchise. The 1970 team had promise, but was undone by a horrible 1971 on and off the field. They didn’t have back-to-back years over .500 until 1978 and 1979.

Washington Senators / Texas Rangers

Year One (1961) – 61-100, 9th Place AL

Year Five (1965) – 70-92, 8th Place AL

Year Ten (1970) – 70-92, 6th Place AL East

They had just one .500 season from their birth until 1974 (1969, the first year with Ted Williams as manager). The average age of the team in 1961 was 29, and their best offensive player was 38-year old Gene Woodling. By 1965, they were still trotting out some re-treads, but had one star in his prime (Frank Howard) and another rising star (Ken McMullen). McMullen struggled in 1966 but pulled out of it. His stats are obscured by the dominance of pitching in the late 60’s. The surprise of 1969 gave way to a 1970 that was full of pitching problems. Even a good trade (dealing McMullen for useful Rick Reichardt and young third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez) was undone in 1971 when they both were traded away for offal, waste and carrion. The trainwreck didn’t really end until the late 70’s, when they put together a couple of good years in a row. Even then, it took a long time for them to get truly established as a contender.

New York Mets

Year One (1962) – 40-120, 10th Place NL

Year Five (1966) – 66-95, 9th Place NL

Year Ten (1971) – 83-79, 3rd Place NL East

The Mets’ on field team was full of rejects and old-timers for a few years, but they were building something, slowly but surely, in their farm system. A few false starts later, and they won the 1969 World Series. So I’d say they had a successful ramp up. Many of the 1969 players were around in 1967 and 1968, losing and learning. After the World Series they kind of mucked around for a bit, cratered, and rebounded. But you can’t take away that 1969 trophy!

Houston Colt .45’s / Astros

Year One (1962) – 64-96, 8th Place NL

Year Five (1966) – 72-90, 8th Place NL

Year Ten (1971) – 79-83, 4th Place NL West

Young players will break your heart. Houston had a lot of talented youngsters come up early, but like many young players they were inconsistent, or just not big-league ready. Under Harry “The Hat” Walker, the Astros finally turned it around and contended for a while in 1969, but fell backwards in 1970 and 1971 thanks to pitching problems in 1970, and poor offense in 1971. That was the story of the franchise for years until 1979, when they finally put together a fairly decent stretch of years (with a couple of bumps in the road). BTW – Walker was fired in 1972, despite a 67-54 record, because he couldn’t keep up with the Reds thanks to a trade his front office made gifting Cincy Joe Morgan, et. al.

Kansas City Royals

Year One (1969) – 69-93, 4th Place AL West

Year Five (1973) – 88-74, 2nd Place AL West

Year Ten (1978) – 92-70, 1st Place AL West

They were off an running quickly. In 1971, they won 85 games. They slipped a bit the next season and in 1974, but starting in 1975 they had a great run in the AL West. The problem was that they couldn’t get past the Yankees in the ALCS thanks to luck (or John Mayberry’s issues, depending). The secret was that they identified young players hidden or buried in systems (think Lou Piniella and Amos Otis), and weren’t afraid to trade away players at the right time to get the best return. They also had a solid organizational philosophy for the 70’s – speed, defense and pitching – and stuck to it for the most part.

Seattle Pilots / Milwaukee Brewers

Year One (1969) – 64-98, 6th Place AL West

Year Five (1973) – 74-88, 5th Place AL East

Year Ten (1978) – 93-69, 3rd Place AL East

Unlike the Royals, they didn’t have much of an organizational focus early on except “This guy isn’t that good; find me someone who is.” For every hit (Tommy Harper), they had a big miss (trading away Lou Piniella in Spring 1969). They wanted ‘names’ early on, but by 1973 they went young with the requisite successes and failures. It was a rocky road for a while, because young players break your heart, but in 1978, with the right manager (George Bamberger) who just let it all hang out, and shrewd signings to go along with the home-grown players like Molitor, Yount, Lezcano, and Thomas, it paid off with the great, fun era between 1978 and 1983. Those teams helped Milwaukee fall in love with baseball, and they still love the Brewers despite it all.

San Diego Padres

Year One (1969) – 52-110, 6th Place NL West

Year Five (1973) – 60-102, 6th Place, NL West

Year Ten (1978) – 84-78, 4th Place, NL West

They didn’t have much time to scout and assemble a team in 1969, sure, but it was a disaster for a few years. They got lucky with Nate Colbert and Ollie Brown, and Dave Roberts and Clay Kirby gave them a few years on the mound. But despite that, and despite drafting Dave Winfield the rest of their youngsters didn’t pan out like they thought, and the pitching was always an issue despite having Randy Jones and his wonderful sinker. Players would be great one year and lousy the next. That 1978 team under Roger Craig was a flash in the pan – a woeful offense was helped by Gaylord Perry, Jones, Rollie Fingers and John D’Acquisto. It took some serious deals and Dick Williams as manager for the Padres to become consistently decent in the 80’s.

Montreal Expos

Year One (1969) – 52-110, 6th Place NL East

Year Five (1973) – 79-83, 4th Place NL East

Year Ten (1978) – 76-86, 4th Place NL East

The first Expos teams were built around Rusty Staub, Bob Bailey, Ron Fairly, and young pitchers. Gene Mauch did a great job getting the most out of mediocrity and they actually were in contention in 1973 and 1974 (though they finished under .500), thanks to a prescient swap of Staub for a package including Ken Singleton and having Steve Rogers as an anchor of the staff. They made some terrible deals, though, trading away Singleton and Mike Torrez for goop, and they bottomed out horribly in 1976. The hiring of Dick Williams, and the emergence of Gary Carter and the great Dawson / Cromartie / Valentine outfield spelled good times for a while, but it took until 1979 to grab a winning record.

Toronto Blue Jays

Year One (1977) – 54-107, 7th Place AL East

Year Five (1981) – 37-69, 7th Place AL East

Year Ten (1986) – 86-76, 4th Place AL East

They knew they’d take their lumps early, and developed a plan around building a good, solid franchise that over time would be solid contenders year over year. That started to pay off in 1982, really, with a 79 win season, and then from 1983 through 1994 they were never lower than 4th place, won two World Series and went to the playoffs three other times. That erased the era of Dave Lemanczyk and Dave McKay quickly.

Seattle Mariners

Year One (1977) – 64-98, 6th Place AL West

Year Five (1981) – 44-65, 6th Place AL West

Year Ten (1986) – 67-95, 7th Place AL West

Seattle, on the other hand, seemed to have no plan. Try as they might, they couldn’t get consistent seasons out of anyone, became impatient, and then they bet on older players who bottomed out quickly (Al Cowens, Richie Zisk, Willie Horton, Gorman Thomas). There was some hope in 1986, as the roster had Alvin Davis, Phil Bradley, Danny Tartabull, Ken Phelps, Mike Moore, Mark Langston, Bill Swift and Mike Morgan. But the Dick Williams treatment didn’t take, and they didn’t get over .500 until 1991 under Jim Lefebvre, who, of course, was fired right after the season.

Florida / Miami Marlins

Year One (1993) – 64-98, 6th Place NL East

Year Five (1997) – 92-70, 2nd Place NL East

Year Ten (2002) – 79-83, 4th Place NL East

Miami split the difference early, drafting some prospects (many didn’t pan out) and also grabbing some established big leaguers. The pool was larger, as they could draft from the entire universe of MLB instead of just the National League, thus their drafting of Jeff Conine and Bryan Harvey. They also had the chance to make some pre-arranged deals (such as grabbing Walt Weiss from Oakland for a catching prospect). They beat the Mets their first season, then went on a gradual spending spree, so that by 1997 they had a talented, veteran team. They also had an expensive team, so even though they won it all, they trashed it and started anew in 1998. The 2002 team was the prelude to the 2003 squad (which was younger and had their strength in pitching). Hooray for a plan. Boo for the destruction of the plan.

Colorado Rockies

Year One (1993) – 67-95, 6th Place NL West

Year Five (1997) – 83-79, 3rd Place NL West

Year Ten (2002) – 68-94, 4th Place NL West

Colorado also went towards a hybrid – grabbing younger players and filling in the roster with vets that had gone on hard times. They also signed Andres Galarraga as a free agent, one of the smartest signings ever for the Rockies. With Don Baylor at the helm, they made the playoffs in 1995 and kept on the fringes of contention for a couple of years, before collapsing in a ball of fire in 1999 as the pitching just didn’t develop. They tried to buy pitching, and that was a disaster (see Neagle, Denny and Hampton, Mike). Since their initial success, this is an organization whose only claim to fame has been an incredible hot streak that led to a World Series appearance in 2007, and another hot streak in 2009 that got them to the playoffs. Yet, they’re going to draw 2.5 million again.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Year One (1998) – 65-97, 5th Place NL West

Year Five (2002) – 98-64, 1st Place NL West

Year Ten (2007) – 90-72, 1st Place NL West

In their first season, they had some of the pieces in place already (Jay Bell, Matt Williams) that propelled them to their 1999 title. But unlike most of the teams above, they had the capital and the rules in place to go for it all as soon as they could, and they did. They signed a bunch of free agent talent, set up a farm system early, and sustained that methodology while their system built up. It was due to collapse, and their 2004 season was total garbage despite the presence of the Big Unit and Brandon Webb. (Members of the 2004 staff at one point or another: Elmer Dessens, Jeff Fassero, Shane Reynolds, Matt Mantei, Mike Fetters, Scott Service, Steve Sparks, Casey Fossum – now THAT’S an expansion team staff). They built up again, but didn’t reach the top, and have now fallen to a state of bleargh.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays / Rays

Year One (1998) – 63-99, 5th Place AL East

Year Five (2002) – 55-106, 5th Place AL East

Year Ten (2007) – 66-96, 5th Place AL East

Until Joe Maddon sprinkled his fairy dust on 2008, the Devil Rays finished out of the cellar exactly once, and that was in 2004, where a 70-91 record got them 4th place. Whatever the hell Tampa Bay was doing, it didn’t work. They went old,  they went young, they went pitching first, they went hitting first. They even hired Lou Piniella as manager. They stink, stank, stunk. You need to choose a path and evaluate talent for that path. Arizona used resources to grab the right talent. Tampa Bay grabbed Vinny Castilla, who out of Colorado hit like Bobby Castillo. Bobby Castillo was a pitcher.
So what does this mean? For one, the newer expansion teams should be able to compete quickly, thanks to MLB allowing teams a couple years head start on minor league affiliates and infrastructure. It’s a wonderful thing to not have six months and a Street and Smith’s to rely on when creating a major league franchise out of whole cloth. If and when MLB decides to expand again, I would think we’d have more teams win sooner (like Arizona and Florida, never mind the blowup) or build a team for long term success (like Toronto) than flail around like Washington and San Diego.

At least that’s the thought.

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