A week into Spring Training, and we already know who’s going to be battling for the World Series. If you listen to the hype-generating media, the only teams with even a remote shot are the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Rangers and Angels in the American League and the Phillies, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Giants or D-Backs in the National League. But that’s just this year. After all, who predicted the D-Backs would win the NL West in 2011 or that the Rays would make a run to the World Series in 2008? There’s always a team on the horizon, ready to jump into the playoff picture at any moment. Here are your top five contenders for the future.
1. Chicago Cubs
They have literally nowhere to go but up. This is a large market team that can start spending large market money as soon as they find someone desperate enough to take Alfonso Soriano off their hands. They probably won’t be anywhere near competitive in 2012, but there’s a lot looking up for Cubs fans. First and foremost they have a solid front office with Theo Epstein and his pet Jed Hoyer. They’ll inherit a team with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro in the infield and those two have All-Star potential. But the real key to their ascension up the baseball ladder lies lower in the minor leagues. It starts with a pair of outfielders named Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur. Neither looks like an All-Star, but both appear to be major league regulars at the very least. Then there’s SS/3B Javier Baez whose bat speed and athleticism remind some of a young Alex Rodriguez. Four of five years down the road, it’s possible that the Cubs will have three All-Star position players and have signed three or four more free agent pitchers. That’s when they’ll really start contending.
Strengths: front office, big payroll.
Weaknesses: Little current talent, no pitching depth at major league level or minors.
ETA – 2015
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
This is a team with a plethora of loyal fans residing in the second largest media market in the country. The sale of the Dodgers will go through sometime within the next year and shortly thereafter they should be able to afford to buy some quality free agents. Whoever buys the team won’t have to start from scratch though. Matt Kemp will be the centerfielder for foreseeable future, and also may be the only player to predict a 50/50 season and not get laughed at. At shortstop, Dee Gordon has the looks of a potential gold glove winner and stolen base champion. Jerry Sands figures to begin the year in the outfield, but was an absolute masher in the minors as a 1B/3B. Andre Ethier is a perennial All-Star candidate in RF and if the Dodgers resolve their ownership issues they could end up re-signing him. On the mound, the Dodgers have the best young arm in baseball with Clayton Kershaw and a dependable two starter in Chad Billingsley. In the bullpen, they have another exciting arm in Kenley Jansen, who is perhaps the most volatile young reliever in the game today. The minor league system is stacked full of pitching depth like Zach Lee, Nate Eovaldi, Allen Webster, and Garrett Gould. If they land a marquee free agent or two in the next couple of years, they’ll be awfully difficult to beat.
Strengths: big payroll, good current talent, tons of pitching depth.
Weaknesses: ownership issues, not many position prospects.
ETA – 2014
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
The D-Backs are already a good team, but this is an organization that will remain in contention every year for the next decade. Their rotation is already one of the strongest in the game with Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter. But their minor league system has more pitching talent in it than any other in major league baseball, and it isn’t even close. Trevor Bauer projects as an ace, as does fellow righty Archie Bradley. Southpaws Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Chafin and Pat Corbin all project as mid-rotation or better starters. Bauer, Skaggs and Corbin should all be ready for a spot in the rotation within the next year or two. As unreal as it seems, their future rotation could end up being Kennedy, Bauer, Skaggs, Hudson and Bradley. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much rotation depth on one team before. On the offensive side, there isn’t much superstar potential outside of Justin Upton, but with all those pitchers being under team control, they D-Backs should have enough money to bring in some more bats.
Strengths: good current talent, pitching depth.
Weaknesses: smaller payroll capacity, lack of strong position prospects.
ETA – Right now
4. San Diego Padres
The Friars may not look like much right now, but give them a couple of years. Cameron Maybin looks like an All-Star, Kyle Blanks could smash 40 home runs, Chase Headley could hit .300 with 50 XBH, Yonder Alonso’s a top 30 prospect, Yasmani Grandal might be the best catching prospect in all of baseball and Andrew Cashner could turn into a front of the rotation starter quickly. And that’s just talent at or near the major league level. In the minors, they have four potential future All-Stars in 3B Jedd Gyorko, OF Rymer Liriano, 2B Cory Spagenberg and OF/3B James Darnell. There’s also a wealth of minor league pitching that projects into the front or middle of the rotation with LHP Robbie Erlin and righties Joe Wieland, Keyvius Sampson, Casey Kelly and Joe Ross. They should nicely compliment the current pitching staff that includes decent arms such as Tim Stauffer, Cory Luebke, Clayton Richard, Luke Gregerson and Josh Spence.
Strengths: pitching, good coaching staff, wealth of position prospects/players.
Weaknesses: low payroll.
ETA - 2013
5. Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays have apparently grown tired of finishing behind Boston, New York and Tampa Bay in the AL East and have decided to do something about it. On the big league club, LF Eric Thames, CF Colby Rasmus, RF Jose Bautista, DH Travis Snider and C JP Arencibia are all good young players that figure to remain with the team for the next few years. Down in the minors, the Blue Jays have made it their mission to draft every California high school prospect imaginable, and so far it’s working out great for them, as California produces more prospects than any state in the nation. C Travis D’Arnaud, OF Jake Marisnick, OF Anthony Gose, RHP Aaron Sanchez, OF Jacob Anderson and RHP Joe Musgrove all rank as a “B prospect” or above and are all from Southern California. They’ve also mixed in some pretty decent pitchers from other parts of the country as well (Noah Syndergaard, Daniel Norris and Deck McGuire).
Strengths: well-rounded current team, owner willing to spend money, lots of position and pitching prospects.
Weaknesses: playing in the AL East. Lots of good talent in system, but no real superstar talent.
ETA - 2014
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