Greatest teams ever: The almost greats

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
1:12
PM ET
If you're an ESPN Insider, I hope you've been reading Buster Olney's "all-time greatest" series. He finished off today with his top 10 teams Insider, and the 1998 Yankees were No. 1. No big argument there.

When you see these lists, most experts usually go with the 1939 Yankees (Buster's No. 2 team) or the '98 club. Statistically, the '39 club was probably the most dominant team of all time, outscoring its opponents by 411 runs and featuring Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. The lineup featured five regulars with an OBP over .400 ... and imagine how many runs they would have scored if Lou Gehrig hadn't gotten sick and retired eight games into the season. (His replacement at first base, Babe Dahlgren, hit just .235.)

Now, that was a different era, before the game was integrated and in a time without the better parity we see today. The Yankees went a combined 37-7 against the woeful Athletics (55-97) and even more pathetic Browns (43-111). So if you like your greatest team to be a little more modern, the '98 Yankees are a good choice. The one knock against them is that their 114-48 record came in an expansion season, and expansion seasons always produce a temporary boost in wins for the best teams. The '61 Yankees, for example, won 109 games, the '62 Giants and Dodgers both won more than 100, the '69 Orioles won 109, the AL in '77 had two 100-win teams and two 97-win teams, and when the NL expanded in '93, the Braves won 104 and the Giants 103.

In that context, the Yankees' 114 wins is still impressive, if slightly less so than the 2001 Mariners' 116. Of course, that Mariners club didn't finish the deal, losing to the Yankees in the ALCS. As Buster writes, "I don’t think any team can really be considered for this list unless they won the World Series." I understand that argument, and most people would agree, although I would suggest that being a great team is a two-part equation: A great regular season and then a World Series title, although that second task is much more difficult now in the wild-card era, since you have to win three postseason series.

How do you balance the two? Buster didn't have any of the '72-'74 A's teams in his top 10 despite three straight World Series titles, which I agree with. Their regular-season records weren't historically impressive: 93-62, 94-68 and 90-72. Nobody considers the 2005 White Sox a great club, but they did win 99 games and had an even more dominant postseason run than the '98 Yankees, going 11-1.

Anyway, here are five great teams that didn't win it all but should be considered for all-time top-10 lists:

2001 Mariners (116-46)
As Buster wrote, the greatest run differentials of the past seven decades belong to the '98 Yankees (plus-309) and '01 Mariners (plus-300). OK, you all know I love the '01 Mariners, so here's my complaint to Buster: How could the team that won the most games ever not make any of the top-10 lists? Rotation, bullpen, infield, outfield, lineup? Not one?

At a glance, it's easy to see why Buster left them off: The outfield didn't really have a regular left fielder (Al Martin started the most games there) and the infield featured David Bell and Carlos Guillen, who didn't put up big numbers at the plate. But they won 116 games! They had to have an outstanding strength somewhere, right?

When Bill James wrote his "Win Shares" book in 2002, he ranked the 2001 Mariners as the fourth-greatest offensive team ever, behind the '32 Yankees, '13 A's and '28 Yankees. FanGraphs wRC+ stat has the Mariners at 116, tied for 19th. So the lineup is definitely underrated, in part because the Mariners played in Safeco Field, but they still scored 927 runs, had two .400 OBP guys in Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, had Ichiro Suzuki leading off and had Bret Boone having one of the greatest seasons ever by a second baseman (.331, 37 home runs, 141 RBIs). So it's probably borderline top 10.

The outfield doesn't rank with the hole in left, but what about the infield? There's no easy way to do a cumulative search for infield WAR, but on Baseball-Reference.com we can search and see the Mariners are one of 24 teams on which all four infielders had a WAR of 3-plus, and just one of 15 since 1950. So it's possible the infield should have been considered, even if it doesn't look that impressive on paper.

What about pitching? The Mariners allowed 627 runs and had a 3.54 ERA in the heart of the steroids era. Great staff, but I can't really justify putting the rotation or the bullpen in the top 10.

More than anything, the Mariners were a great defensive team. FanGraphs rates their defense fifth-best -- behind the 1973 and 1969 Orioles (Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, Davey Johnson), 1984 Twins (Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti, young Kent Hrbek) and 1990 A's (Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Mike Gallego, Mark McGwire).

1998 Braves (106-56)
The '95 Braves were the only Braves team from the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz era to win it all, so they are certainly worthy of top-10 consideration even if that team wasn't quite as impressive statistically as some of the other Braves teams of that era. The best one might have been the '98 Braves, who outscored their opponents by 245 runs. The lineup featured Chipper Jones (.313, 34 HRs), Andres Galarraga (.305, 44 HRs), Javy Lopez (.284, 34 HRs), Andruw Jones (.271, 31 HRs) and Ryan Klesko (274, 18 HRs). But the pitching staff was something else: All five starters won at least 16 games.

The Braves lost in six games in the NLCS to the Padres, getting shut out twice, scoring one run in a third game and losing another in 10 innings. At least they couldn't blame Eric Gregg that year.

1954 Indians (111-43)
The Yankees won nine pennants in 10 seasons from 1949 to 1958 -- and the team that won the most games actually finished in second. That's because the '54 Indians had one of the greatest seasons in American League history ... only to get swept by Willie Mays and the New York Giants in the World Series. The pitching staff of Bob Lemon (23-7, 2.72), Early Wynn (23-11, 2.73), Mike Garcia (19-8, 2.64), Bob Feller (13-3, 3.09) and Art Houtteman (15-7, 3.32), with Don Mossi (1.94 ERA) and Ray Narleski (2.22) in the bullpen, was one of the greatest ever. But the offense is often overlooked: Al Rosen hit .300/.404/.506, second baseman Bobby Avila hit .341, Larry Doby hit .272/.364/.484 and Al Smith had a .398 OBP.

1995 Indians (100-44)
This Indians team won 100 games in the shortened season, a record that translates to 112.5 wins over 162 games. The lineup -- Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Eddie Murray, Paul Sorrento, Omar Vizquel -- made Buster's top-10 list. The rotation was led by veterans Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser and the bullpen was lights-out, including closer Jose Mesa (46 saves, 1.13 ERA). The Indians ran into that '95 Braves team and lost in six games, hitting just .179. Maybe that's another reason to put the '95 Braves on any top-10-greatest-teams list: They beat another all-time great to win the World Series.

1953 Brooklyn Dodgers (105-49)
The Dodgers won their only World Series in Brooklyn in 1955, but this was the better team, behind another great offense that made Buster's top 10 lineups. They scored 187 more runs than the No. 2 club. Duke Snider hit 42 home runs, Roy Campanella hit 41 and Gil Hodges 31. Carl Furillo hit .344 to win the batting title, Jackie Robinson hit .329/.425/.502 and infielders Pee Wee Reese, Junior Gilliam and Billy Cox each posted an OPS+ over 100, meaning every regular was a league-average-or-better hitter. Twenty-game winner Carl Erskine led a pitching staff that led the NL in strikeouts.

Alas, the World Series was another loss to the Yankees, this time in six games. The Dodgers hit .300, but the pitchers walked 25 and the little rat Billy Martin hit .500.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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