No matter the sport, it’s never easy going from last place to winning the division in only one season.
In baseball, it was almost unheard of for decades. However, parity has slowly but surely made its way to the majors. Helped along by more divisions and fewer teams in each division, MLB has witnessed 13 teams go from worst to first since 1990, which amounts to one team pulling off the feat almost every other year.
The 2016 Boston Red Sox are the most recent worst-to-first team in baseball, which could mean we’re overdue for it to happen again in 2021. If that ends up being the case, here are our rankings of the most likely candidates to pull it off.
6. Arizona Diamondbacks
It’s not that we don’t believe in the Diamondbacks' ability to bounce back from a disappointing 2020 season. It’s just too steep of a climb to the top of the NL West, a division that the Los Angeles Dodgers have won eight consecutive years.
The Dodgers are potentially better than they were a year ago, making another division title a safety bet. Even if Los Angeles falters, the San Diego Padres will be waiting to pounce. It would take a large-scale collapse of epic proportions by both the Dodgers and Padres for a team other than those two to win the NL West crown in 2021.
For what it’s worth, the D’Backs aren’t in terrible shape. They have an underrated rotation that looks solid. It’s just not going to match up well compared to what the Dodgers and Padres have in their rotations.
Arizona’s lineup also has a few heavy hitters like Christian Walker, Ketel Marte, David Peralta, Eduardo Escobar, and Kole Calhoun. However, that group doesn’t measure up to the Los Angeles or San Diego lineups, making a Wild Card Arizona’s only hope for a postseason birth.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
Most teams would kill for a chance to be part of the NL Central in 2021. While the St. Louis Cardinals look a tick above average, the division as a whole looks like a breeding ground for mediocrity despite the NL Central sending four teams to the postseason in 2020. Under different circumstances, the Pirates might have a chance to make some noise inside this division because only St. Louis looks improved on paper since last season.
Alas, the Pirates have sentenced themselves to a long rebuilding project over the next few years after a fire sale during the offseason. Pittsburgh’s pitching staff is severely lacking in proven options and high-end talent after trading away Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove.
Offensively, there’s some potential with some of the team's young players. However, trading Josh Bell deprives them of a proven hitter who can help anchor the middle of the lineup alongside Gregory Polanco, who remains a trade candidate.
Ultimately, the Pirates might put together a solid lineup, but they are also a strong candidate to lose 100 games, which means they won’t be going from worst to first in the ultra-mediocre NL Central.
4. Texas Rangers
Unlike the Diamondbacks and Pirates, the chances of the Rangers winning their division are actually slightly better than impossible.
The Astros aren’t the team they were a few seasons ago. The A's lack of spending power lowers its margin for error. Plus, the Angels have been perpetual disappointments, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll turn things around and live up to expectations despite another fruitful offseason.
On the other hand, the Rangers aren’t exactly in win-now mode. They traded away ace Lance Lynn this winter, meaning they’ll be reliant on a lot of young arms and a bounce-back effort from Atlanta castaway Mike Foltynewicz. The Texas bullpen is also lacking depth and proven options.
Offensively, the Rangers have some potential, as they’ve added Khris Davis, David Dahl, and Nick Lowe to the lineup in support of Joey Gallo. But Texas is still going to need to vastly outperform preseason expectations just to be in contention for the AL West title.
3. Detroit Tigers
The one thing the Tigers have going for them is that the AL Central is a balanced division that didn’t have a standout team last season.
In 2020, the top three teams were separated by just a single game after the 60-game season and all three teams were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. Also, the White Sox are the only team of the three obvious contenders that looks noticeably better on paper heading into the season.
At best, Minnesota is about the same while Cleveland is in danger of taking a step back. If Chicago fails to live up to expectations, the door is open for either the Tigers or Royals to make a surprising move.
The Tigers also have a roster that’s intriguing, if nothing else. Spencer Turnbull emerged as a quality starter last year while Michael Fulmer can be a frontline starter when healthy.
The X-factors are Matthew Boyd and Casey Mize, who are far better than their numbers last season would indicate. However, there are more than a few questions about how the Tigers will score runs in 2021.
There are some promising pieces, but Detroit is relying on far too many young players to make it likely that the Tigers can usurp Chicago, Minnesota, and Cleveland at the top of the division.
2. Boston Red Sox
In the last decade, the Red Sox have gone from worst to first on two separate occasions. They even won the 2013 World Series after losing 93 games and finishing last in the AL East in 2012. If nothing else, there’s far too much talent on the roster and too little talent in Baltimore for the Bo Sox to finish last a second straight year.
Of course, overcoming the favored Yankees, the reigning AL pennant-winning Rays, and the upstart Blue Jays is another topic. That will undoubtedly be a big hill to climb.
That being said, the Red Sox did a decent job this winter of filling out their rotation and improving their bullpen. There’s also a good chance that Chris Sale could return at some point this summer.
Offensively, Boston’s lineup still has plenty of potential with J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers. The additions of Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero add even more power while Enrique Hernandez should also be a regular contributor.
Obviously, they’ll need a little help, especially if they hope to overcome the rival Yankees. But the Blue Jays and Rays are far from sure things, even if they have a higher upside than Boston. That gives the Red Sox a thin path to go from worst to first but a path nonetheless.
1. Washington Nationals
From World Series champs in 2019 to the bottom of the NL East in 2020, the Nationals are the perfect worst-to-first candidate in 2021.
In fact, they have the third-best odds to win the division this season. Keep in mind that Washington could have one of the best rotations in baseball if Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin all stay healthy. The Nats also added Jon Lester this winter, although he has a lot to prove after a disastrous 2020 campaign.
Offensively, the Nats probably don’t measure up to the top teams in the NL East. But the additions of Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber should help take a little pressure of Juan Soto. Plus, Trea Turner is still one of the best table-setters in baseball.
If the bullpen holds up and the Washington lineup can at least be middle of the pack, the team’s rotation is good enough to put them on equal footing with the Braves and Mets.
If either of those teams fails to live up to preseason expectations, the Nationals will have a serious opportunity to go from worst to first.
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