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Ranking the Rays and every MLB expansion team through their first 25 seasons

John Romano | After a rocky first decade, Tampa Bay scores surprisingly high among MLB’s 14 expansion franchises.
 
Tampa Bay’s remarkable turnaround, which coincided with Stuart Sternberg’s purchase of the team prior to the 2006 season, got us thinking as the team completed its 25th season: Where do the Rays rank compared to the first quarter-century of other expansion teams?
Tampa Bay’s remarkable turnaround, which coincided with Stuart Sternberg’s purchase of the team prior to the 2006 season, got us thinking as the team completed its 25th season: Where do the Rays rank compared to the first quarter-century of other expansion teams? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 27, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — In a previous life, they were baseball’s favorite punchline.

Back when their colors were garish and their name was hellish, the original Devil Rays were the most pathetic excuse for an expansion franchise in Major League Baseball history.

Tampa Bay had, inarguably, the worst first decade of any of baseball’s 14 expansion teams. Worse than Casey Stengel’s Mets. Worse than the Seattle Pilots, who fled to Milwaukee after a single season. It wasn’t just the unfathomable .399 winning percentage across 10 seasons, it was all the front office buffoonery and all the empty seats that distinguished the Devil Rays from your garden variety expansion losers.

And yet, look at them now.

From 2008-22, the Rays won more games than any team in the American League other than the Yankees.

Their philosophies and strategies have been widely emulated, and their eight postseason appearances are the most of any non-traditional franchise. The empty seats, regrettably, haven’t gone away.

Tampa Bay’s remarkable turnaround, which coincided with Stuart Sternberg’s purchase of the team prior to the 2006 season, got us thinking as the team completed its 25th season:

Where do the Rays rank compared to the first quarter-century of other expansion teams? Did the Rays do better than most, or did their ignominious first decade drag them down?

Obviously, the answer is subjective. So is the criteria. Do you put more weight on postseason success, or on the consistency of contending in the regular season? Should the eight teams from baseball’s first two expansions (in 1961-62 and 1969) get special consideration because they did not have the benefit of the free agent marketplace? Or how about the 10 teams that began in an era before there were wild cards?

Should teams get extra points for producing Hall of Famers? For MVPs or Cy Young Award winners? And what about division strength? There are four expansion teams in the AL West compared to two in the AL East.

Because, heaven knows, MLB’s traditional franchises have fared much better than expansion teams in the last 50-plus years. If you use 1969 as a starting point — which was the season the Mets became the first expansion team to win a World Series — there have only been 13 non-traditional winners in October.

That means the other 40 World Series titles have been split among baseball’s 16 original franchises.

Keeping all of these thoughts in mind, we have ranked the 14 expansion teams in order of the most impressive 25-year starts in MLB history.

(Numbers reflect only the first 25 years of the franchise.)

14. Texas Rangers (Washington Senators)

Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez reacts after tagging out the Yankees’ Tim Raines in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez reacts after tagging out the Yankees’ Tim Raines in Game 3 of the ALDS. [ ERIC GAY | AP (1996) ]

Years: 1961-1985

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Record: 1,759-2,211 (.443)

MVP: 1 Cy Young: 0 Rookie of the Year: 1

Postseason appearances: 0

Pennants: 0 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: What do you say about an expansion team that had a losing record in 10 of its first 11 seasons, then packed up and moved 1,300 miles away? Turns out, the air in Texas wasn’t any better because the Rangers went another 24 seasons without reaching the playoffs before finally breaking through in 1996. Six expansion franchises have never won a World Series (Padres, Brewers, Mariners, Rockies, Rays) but the Senators/Rangers have been at it the longest.

13. San Diego Padres

The Padres’ Tony Gwynn was a bright spot for a team that didn’t have many in its first 25 seasons.
The Padres’ Tony Gwynn was a bright spot for a team that didn’t have many in its first 25 seasons. [ LENNY IGNELZI | AP (1984) ]

Years: 1969-1993

Record: 1,783-2,203 (.447)

MVP: 0 Cy Young: 3 Rookie of the Year: 2

Postseason appearances: 1

Pennants: 1 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: The Padres do not get nearly enough acclaim for their awfulness. They went 52-110 in their debut season and did not have a winning record until their 10th season. They wondrously reached the World Series in 1984, but then went another dozen seasons without making the playoffs. Their saving grace was drafting the incomparable Tony Gwynn in the third round in 1981.

12. Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. tosses his batting helmet after grounding out in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians in an ALCS game on Oct. 13, 1995. The Mariners are still awaiting their first World Series berth.
The Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. tosses his batting helmet after grounding out in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians in an ALCS game on Oct. 13, 1995. The Mariners are still awaiting their first World Series berth. [ MARK DUNCAN | AP (1995) ]

Years: 1977-2001

Record: 1,831-2,094 (.466)

MVP: 2 Cy Young: 1 Rookie of the Year: 3

Postseason appearances: 4

Pennants: 0 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: It was tempting to put the Mariners at the bottom of this list. It was not just the fact that they did not reach the World Series in their first 25 years — and still have not — it was the idea that they were born during free agency. While expansion teams in the 1960s had to build the old-fashioned way, the Mariners had the same opportunities as the Blue Jays, Marlins, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Rays. And still did not capitalize.

11. Washington Nationals (Montreal Expos)

Montreal Expos slugger Gary Carter gives the clenched first sign to a roaring crowd as he rounds the bases after knocking out a two-run homer in Game 3 of the National League playoffs with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Montreal Expos slugger Gary Carter gives the clenched first sign to a roaring crowd as he rounds the bases after knocking out a two-run homer in Game 3 of the National League playoffs with the Philadelphia Phillies. [ BILL GRIMSHAW | AP (1981) ]

Years: 1969-1993

Record: 1,948-2,034 (.489)

MVP: 0 Cy Young: 0 Rookie of the Year: 2

Postseason appearances: 1

Pennants: 0 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: Fans in Montreal would argue that the Expos deserve to be higher on this list. And maybe they should. They drafted or signed a remarkable six Hall of Famers (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Randy Johnson, Tim Raines and Larry Walker) between 1972-1993. Yet for all their success in building a farm system, their only playoff appearance in their first 25 years was the strike-interrupted 1981 season.

10. Los Angeles Angels (California Angels, Anaheim Angels)

California Angels pitcher Nolan Ryan, 26, is shown during his no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on July 15, 1973 in Detroit. The Angels won 6-0.
California Angels pitcher Nolan Ryan, 26, is shown during his no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on July 15, 1973 in Detroit. The Angels won 6-0. [ RICHARD SHEINWALD | AP (1973) ]

Years: 1961-1985

Record: 2,059-1,921 (.481)

MVP: 1 Cy Young: 1 Rookie of the Year: 0

Postseason appearances: 2

Pennants: 0 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: The early Angels were something of a revelation. While New York, Houston and Washington initially floundered in the first round of expansion in the early 1960s, the Angels had two winning records in their first four seasons. And after that? Zzzzzzzz. They had a handful of stars (Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich) in the late 1970s, but always underachieved. Kinda like today’s Angels.

9. Houston Astros (Colt 45s)

Former Cincinnati Reds teammates,  Phillies' Pete Rose, left, and Astros' Joe Morgan stand together watching the Phillies finish batting practice before a National League playoff baseball game in Philadelphia.
Former Cincinnati Reds teammates, Phillies' Pete Rose, left, and Astros' Joe Morgan stand together watching the Phillies finish batting practice before a National League playoff baseball game in Philadelphia. [ AP (1980) ]

Years: 1962-1986

Record: 1,923-2,064 (.482)

MVP: 0 Cy Young: 1 Rookie of the Year: 0

Postseason appearances: 3

Pennants: 0 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: You could make an argument that the Astros have had the most success of any expansion team in history. They are the only one of those 14 franchises with an overall winning record. But the majority of that success has been built in recent seasons, not in the first 25 years. The Astros traded away their first two superstars (Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn) and went more than 40 years before winning a playoff series.

8. Milwaukee Brewers (Seattle Pilots)

Milwaukee's Robin Yount leaps over New York's Dave Winfield during a first-inning double play in the second game of the ALDS in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee's Robin Yount leaps over New York's Dave Winfield during a first-inning double play in the second game of the ALDS in Milwaukee. [ FRED JEWELL | AP (1981) ]

Years: 1969-1993

Record: 1,924-2,061 (.483)

MVP: 3 Cy Young: 2 Rookie of the Year: 1

Postseason appearances: 2

Pennants: 1 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: It would be facetious, but not entirely wrong, to say the most consequential thing to come out of the first 25 years of this franchise was Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s seminal diary of the lone season of the Seattle Pilots. The Brewers drafted a pair of Hall of Famers (Robin Yount and Paul Molitor) within four years of each other in the 1970s, but did not have too many other lasting moments.

7. Colorado Rockies

Colorado Rockies first baseman Andres Galarraga celebrates after the Rockies beat the Giants to clinch the National League wild-card playoff spot in Denver on Sunday, Oct. 1, 1995.
Colorado Rockies first baseman Andres Galarraga celebrates after the Rockies beat the Giants to clinch the National League wild-card playoff spot in Denver on Sunday, Oct. 1, 1995. [ ED ANDRIESKI | AP (1995) ]

Years: 1993-2017

Record: 1,871-2,117 (.469)

MVP: 1 Cy Young: 0 Rookie of the Year: 1

Postseason appearances: 4

Pennants: 1 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: The Rockies got off to a great start. They earned a wild card in their third season and had winning records in three of their first five seasons. For a while, they looked like the model expansion team. But the Blake Street Bombers kinda lost their vibe after that. Along with the Marlins, they remain the only current franchises to have never won a division title.

6. Miami Marlins (Florida Marlins)

The Florida Marlins celebrate their 3-2 11th-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series, at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, on Oct. 27, 1997.
The Florida Marlins celebrate their 3-2 11th-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series, at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, on Oct. 27, 1997. [ HANS DERYK | AP (1997) ]

Years: 1993-2017

Record: 1,870-2,111 (.470)

MVP: 1 Cy Young: 0 Rookie of the Year: 4

Postseason appearances: 2

Pennants: 2 World Series titles: 2

The rundown: They are farther down this list than you might expect for a franchise that won the World Series twice in its first 11 seasons, but the Marlins are a bit of an enigma. Those two championship seasons, when they were wild cards, were practically their only highlights. They had no other playoff appearances during that span. In fact, even today, the franchise has never won a division title.

5. Tampa Bay Rays (Devil Rays)

Rays starter James Shields tips his cap to the crowd after leaving Game 2 of the World Series agains the Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 23, 2008.
Rays starter James Shields tips his cap to the crowd after leaving Game 2 of the World Series agains the Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 23, 2008. [ Times (2008) ]

Years: 1998-2022

Record: 1,912-2,034 (.485)

MVP: 0 Cy Young: 2 Rookie of the Year: 4

Postseason appearances: 8

Pennants: 2 World Series titles: 0

The rundown: Despite a horrendous first decade of baseball and endless attendance woes, the Rays have more postseason appearances than any other expansion franchise through 25 seasons. In Stuart Sternberg’s 17 seasons as the team’s principal owner, the Rays have reached the playoffs eight times with a .525 winning percentage that is fifth-best in MLB during that span.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez celebrates after driving in the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against the New York Yankees on Nov. 4, 2001, at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
The Arizona Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez celebrates after driving in the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against the New York Yankees on Nov. 4, 2001, at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP (2001) ]

Years: 1998-2022

Record: 1,914-2,034 (.485)

MVP: 0 Cy Young: 5 Rookie of the Year: 0

Postseason appearances: 6

Pennants: 1 World Series titles: 1

The rundown: After 25 seasons, their regular-season record is almost identical to expansion twin Tampa Bay, and the Diamondbacks have fewer postseason appearances than the Rays, but that single World Series title carries enormous weight. Spending free agent money far more wisely than Tampa Bay in the early years, the D-Backs were world champions just four years into franchise history.

3. New York Mets

New York Mets catcher Jerry Grote embraces pitcher Jerry Koosman as Ed Charles, left, joins the celebration ater the Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the Game 5 to win the World Series at New York's Shea Stadium on Oct. 16, 1969.
New York Mets catcher Jerry Grote embraces pitcher Jerry Koosman as Ed Charles, left, joins the celebration ater the Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the Game 5 to win the World Series at New York's Shea Stadium on Oct. 16, 1969. [ AP (1969( ]

Years: 1962-1986

Record: 1,794-2,187 (.451)

MVP: 0 Cy Young: 4 Rookie of the Year: 4

Postseason appearances: 4

Pennants: 3 World Series titles: 2

The rundown: The original Mets of 1962 were a rag tag collection of former Dodgers and Yankees meant to appeal to wistful New York fans. Those “Amazing Mets” finished with a dreadful 40-120 record. Yet, from that inauspicious beginning, the Mets became the first expansion team to win a World Series, capturing the title in 1969 behind the pitching of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. (And a kid in the bullpen named Nolan Ryan.)

2. Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter celebrates his walkoff three-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies in Toronto on Oct. 23, 1993.
Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter celebrates his walkoff three-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies in Toronto on Oct. 23, 1993. [ MARK DUNCAN | AP (1993) ]

Years: 1977-2001

Record: 1,947-1,979 (.496)

MVP: 1 Cy Young: 3 Rookie of the Year: 1

Postseason appearances: 5

Pennants: 2 World Series titles: 2

The rundown: Under the direction of Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays methodically built a farm system that soon became the envy of baseball. Toronto finished above .500 for the first time in 1983, and that began a streak of 11 consecutive winning seasons that culminated in back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93.

1. Kansas City Royals

Kansas City Royals pitcher Bret Saberhagen, right, embraces third baseman George Brett  after pitching a shutout to give the Royals the World Series crown over the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 27, 1985.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Bret Saberhagen, right, embraces third baseman George Brett after pitching a shutout to give the Royals the World Series crown over the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 27, 1985. [ CLIFF SCHIAPPA | AP (1985) ]

Years: 1969-1993

Record: 2,059-1,921 (.517)

MVP: 1 Cy Young: 2 Rookie of the Year: 1

Postseason appearances: 7

Pennants: 2 World Series titles: 1

The rundown: The gold standard for expansion franchises. While three other teams won two World Series titles in their first quarter-century, the Royals were consistently in contention even before free agency provided a shortcut to winning. Lou Piniella was the AL Rookie of the Year in Kansas City’s first season, and George Brett was MVP in the team’s 12th season. The Royals are the only expansion team with a winning record through the first 25 years.

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