The Kansas City Royals are the 2015 World Series Champions. They have changed the game by redefining what most people consider to be the formula for a winning roster. Looking for dominant starting pitching and power at the plate? The Royals lacked in both categories, but they had an amazing bullpen and were the best contact team in the league. Maybe the most impressive attribute is that they won a championship, arguably, without any superstars (though they may have a few in the making).
Typically, World Champion teams are catalyzed by star players. Just last year, the talents of Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey fueled the Giants. In 2013, the winners were a Red Sox team led by Jon Lester and David Ortiz. Go back as far as you’d like and you will find this to be the case in most instances.
In contrast, sometimes the league’s best players are not so lucky to be on a championship team. Many players have recently posted MVP or CY Young caliber seasons on squads that didn’t even come close to a .500 record. It’s not as if these seasons were a complete waste, as big numbers lead to big contracts. It’s just unfortunate that some the most spectacular season-long performances were not enough to push a team into the playoff race.
This list looks back over the past 15 MLB seasons and selects one player from each year who performed at a level that made you think they were too good to be stuck on that team.
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15 Alex Rodriguez - Texas Rangers
In 2009, Sports Illustrated reported that Alex Rodriguez was one of 104 players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003. However, there was no penalty for testing positive in 2003 and, especially from the mid 90s to early 2000s, it’s impossible to differentiate who was totally clean and who wasn’t. In 2003, Rodriguez led the AL in home runs (47), runs scored (124) and slugging percentage (.600), and finished second in RBI (118). In addition to winning his second consecutive Gold Glove award, he was named the AL MVP of 2003.
The Rangers finished 71-91 that year. It is a very rare occurrence when an MVP comes from a last-place team, so despite the PEDs, A-Rod made the list.
14 Jason Bay - Pittsburgh Pirates
In 2005, the Pirates were years away from the perennial playoff contender they have become at the present time and they finished the 2005 season 67-95. They did have one bright spot, however, in the form of 2004 NL Rookie of the Year, Jason Bay. Bay finished the 2005 season fourth in the NL in runs scored (110) and doubles (44). He placed in the top 10 in batting average (.306), slugging (.559) and on-base percentage (.402). Unfortunately, the Pirates never won more than 75 games during Bay’s tenure in Pittsburgh.
13 Jose Abreu, 2014 Chicago White Sox
Jose Abreu was unanimously voted the AL Rookie of the Year in 2014 and also received the Silver Slugger award for best hitting first baseman in the AL. Abreu led the league in slugging percentage (.581) and finished fifth in batting average (.317). Despite a stint on the DL, he ended the season third in the AL in home runs (36) and fourth in RBI (107) in one of the most impressive offensive seasons for a rookie in league history.
His teammate, pitching ace Chris Sale, had a phenomenal season as well, but unfortunately their combined efforts weren’t enough to push the White Sox to a respectable record. They finished the year at a disappointing 73-89.
12 Carlos Pena - 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays
In nearly every season since 2008, the Rays have fielded a competitive baseball team. It is easy to forget that for the first 10 years of the franchise’s existence, they were downright awful. Between the 1998 and 2007 seasons their highest win total was 70, in 2004. Unfortunately for Carlos Pena, they went 66-96 in 2007, even though Pena won the Silver Slugger award as the top hitting first baseman in the AL that season.
He finished the year second in the AL in home runs (46) and slugging percentage (.627) and fourth in RBI (121). Pena's career would last until 2014, but he never recreated the success he had in 2007.
11 Joey Votto, 2011 Cincinnati Reds
In 2010, led by MVP winner Joey Votto, the Reds cruised to 91 victories and won the NL Central. Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Phillies swept those Reds in the NLDS. Many expected the Reds to bounce back with a vengeance the following season, but instead they finished 79-83 in 2011. Votto was not the reason for their shortcomings, as he would lead the NL in doubles (40) and on-base percentage (.416). Votto also finished 2011 in the top ten in RBI (103), slugging percentage (.531) and batting average (.309). He also picked up his first Gold Glove award that year.
10 Tim Lincecum - 2008 San Francisco Giants
Tim Lincecum debuted in 2007 and by July 2008 he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Lincecum won the NL Cy Young award in 2008, in what was his first full season. The numbers were impressive to say the least, as Lincecum finished with an MLB leading strikeout total (265), along with placing second in the NL in wins (18) and ERA (2.62). Even with Lincecum’s incredible performance the Giants went 72-90 in 2008. Things turned around a few years later though, as San Francisco’s young star won two games in the 2010 World Series and led the Giants to victory over the Texas Rangers.
9 Miguel Cabrera - 2006 Florida Marlins
Miguel Cabrera made his MLB debut in 2003 at the age of 20 and by 2006 he was already considered one of the best hitters in baseball. He finished 2006 second in the NL in batting average (.339) and third in both doubles (50) and on-base percentage (.430). Cabrera won the Silver Slugger award as the best hitting third baseman in the NL that season.
As good as Miggy was in 2006, the Marlins still struggled, finishing the year at 78-84. He was indeed too good for the Marlins and was traded to Detroit in December of 2007. Heading into 2016 he continues to be one of the greatest hitters in the history of the sport.
8 Nolan Arenado - 2015 Colorado Rockies
The Rockies finished the 2015 season with a record of 68-94. As is typically the case with the Rockies, they had a few players put up very impressive batting numbers but pitching would be their downfall. It is well known that Coors Field can be quite friendly to hitters, but Nolan Arenado is a beast no matter what field he plays on.
The Rockies' young third baseman exploded in 2015 to lead all of Major League Baseball in RBI (130) and he tied Bryce Harper for first in the NL in home runs (42). Arenado finished second in the NL in both doubles (43) and slugging percentage (.575). There is hope, Rockies fans.
7 R.A. Dickey - 2012 New York Mets
Sabermetricians will argue that a pitcher’s win total has miniscule value when judging the individual success of one’s season. Yet when a pitcher wins 20 games on a team with a sub-.500 record it is a very rare feat. R.A. Dickey did just that for the Mets in 2012, as they finished 74-88 despite Dickey’s 20-win season. He finished first in the NL in strikeouts (230) and innings pitched (233.2), second in both wins and ERA (2.73) and his WHIP (1.05) was good enough for third place. It is easy to see why Dickey won the NL Cy Young award in 2012 despite playing for a weak ball club.
6 Jim Thome - 2002 Cleveland Indians
Jim Thome is one of the great power hitters in MLB history as demonstrated by his 612 career home runs, which have him sitting at seventh on the all-time list for that category. He made his mark as a member of the Cleveland Indians and had his best season in 2002, finishing second in MLB in home runs (52). He led the AL in slugging percentage (.677) and was second in on-base percentage (.445).
Thome was great in 2002, but the Indians were not and they finished the season at 74-88. Deservedly so, Thome wanted to play for a contender, and once hitting free agency after the 2002 season, he signed with the Phillies.
5 Mike Trout - 2013 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
A handful of players could be considered as the best all-around player in baseball, but one would be hard-pressed to make a solid argument against Mike Trout. In 2013, Trout finished second in MVP voting to Miguel Cabrera and won a Silver Slugger award as one of the best hitting outfielders in the AL.
Trout showcased his ability to do it all in 2013, as he led the AL in runs scored (109), finished third in batting average (.323) and recorded top ten numbers in RBI, stolen bases, slugging and on-base percentage. Even with one of the most talented young players in league history, the Angels finished the season with a record of 78-84.
4 Todd Helton - 2001 Colorado Rockies
In 2001, Todd Helton won a Silver Slugger award as the best hitting first baseman in the National League. He finished second in the NL in runs scored (132), doubles (54), RBI (146), and batting average (.336). Helton finished fourth in home runs (49), slugging (.685) and on-base percentage (.432). However, the Rockies ended 2001 with a record of 73-89. Truthfully, there were multiple years in which Helton could have made this list. He played his entire career in Colorado and churned out so many incredible seasons that the Rockies made his number, 17, the first number to be retired in team history.
3 Felix Hernandez - 2010 Seattle Mariners
Felix Hernandez has probably been too good for the Mariners his entire career, but particularly in the 2010 season. At the age of 24, King Felix won the American League’s 2010 CY Young award. He had the best ERA (2.27) in MLB and finished second in the AL in WHIP (1.06) and strikeouts (232). Despite his best effort, Felix only won 13 games due to a lack of run support from a Mariners team that finished the year with an AL worst 61-101 record. Hernandez has been one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball for almost a decade now, yet the Mariners have never made the playoffs with him as their ace.
2 Zack Greinke, 2009 Kansas City Royals
A far cry from the current Kansas City team, the 2009 Royals went 65-97, but that didn’t stop Zack Greinke from winning the 2009 AL Cy Young award. He won 16 games and posted an MLB best ERA (2.16), AL best WHIP (1.07) and finished second in the AL in strikeouts (242). In 2010, he made it clear that he didn’t want to be a Royal and KC made the best of that situation. They shipped Greinke to Milwaukee in a deal that directly included Alcides Escobar (2015 ALCS MVP) and Lorenzo Cain (2015 AL MVP finalist), as well as Jake Odorizzi, whom they later moved to the Rays as part of a deal that brought in Wade Davis (favorite to win 2015 AL Reliever of the Year).
1 Randy Johnson - 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks
Five-time CY Young winner and 10 time All-Star, Randy Johnson, won a World Series in 2001 with the Diamondbacks. By 2004 though, the Diamondbacks were a shell of that championship team and posted a downright embarrassing record of 51-111. Johnson deserved a better fate that year, as he turned in a very good season en route to winning 16 games (31.3% of the teams total wins).
He led MLB in strikeouts (290) and WHIP (.90) and had the best ERA (2.60) among pitchers who started at least 30 games. On May 18, 2004, at 40 years old, Johnson threw a perfect game. “The Big Unit” holds the record for most career strikeouts by a left-hander and is second only to Nolan Ryan in overall career strikeouts.
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