Can the Cubs pull a fast turnaround like the Orioles have?
Predicted by most every presumed expert and pundit to finish last in the AL East, the O's are 5.5 games behind the New York Yankees for first place in the division as of Aug. 10. A mid- to late-season collapse has been expected for the Orioles, yet just when it appears that they might be out of the race, they rebound to stay competitive.
The Chicago Cubs will very likely finish last in the NL Central division next season, especially because the Houston Astros are moving to the American League. The Cubs currently sit in fifth place, 21 games behind the Cincinnati Reds and seven games below the fourth-place Milwaukee Brewers.
Contending seems like a longshot for the Cubs next year. Especially with the Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals ahead of them in the division. But wouldn't you have said the same thing about the Orioles this year, looking up at the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays?
The Cubs have several things in common with the Orioles, which might indicate that they can engineer a similar turnaround next season. Here are five reasons why the Cubs can do next year what the Orioles have done this year.
One catalyst for the Orioles' turnaround has been young stars Matt Wieters and Adam Jones.
Wieters is one of the best catchers in baseball, giving Baltimore a luxury many major league teams don't have. Add the fact that Wieters is only 26 and he's like gold for the Orioles.
Jones may not be the MVP candidate that he was earlier in the season. But he also provides the O's an asset most teams don't have: a young center fielder who has the five tools any club wants in an outfielder. Jones can hit for average and power, steal bases, throw well and cover a lot of range in center field.
The Cubs have a developing young slugger in first baseman Anthony Rizzo. In just 36 games and 150 plate appearances, he has nine home runs and 23 RBI.
Brett Jackson also gives the Cubs a potential star in center field. While he may not have Jones' arm, he shows good defensive range and should be able to cover plenty of ground at Wrigley Field and elsewhere. Jackson will also have to reduce his strikeouts to hit as well as Jones, but at 23, he has time to develop those skills.
The Cubs also have pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood in their rotation to build around.
That's an asset the Orioles haven't been able to develop yet.
It's amazing that the Orioles have been able to compete in the AL East as long as they have without top-tier pitching. Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel have been good at the top of the rotation, but the O's 2012 pitching staff is more notable for the young arms that haven't contributed.
Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta haven't been major league contributors this season. Nor has Zach Britton, but at least he had a shoulder injury to deal with.
Compare that to the previously mentioned Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood, who give the Cubs two young arms at the top of the rotation. Justin Germano has also shown promise since coming over in a trade with the Boston Red Sox.
The Cubs also have a No. 1 starter that the Orioles don't. Matt Garza might not be a true ace like Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw, but he'll be the top guy for the Cubs next season. (That is, unless he's traded during the offseason.)
He would certainly be the No. 1 on Baltimore's staff.
One big advantage the O's have over the Cubs is in the bullpen. Jim Johnson and Pedro Strop provide excellent late-inning relief, which has helped the Orioles win so many close games this season. That's been the difference in them contending this season.
Luis Ayala, Troy Patton and Darren O'Day also add depth, preventing Johnson and Strop from being overworked and giving the pitching staff a reliable bridge from the starting pitcher to the setup man and closer.
Compare that to the Cubs, who have Carlos Marmol. Marmol can strike out the side in the ninth inning, but he can just as easily walk three batters and blow the game. Shawn Camp and James Russell have pitched well this season, but they haven't been as reliable as the Orioles' middle relievers this season.
Another reason the Orioles have been able to contend in the AL East is that one of the division's usual powers has taken a big fall this year.
The Red Sox were expected to compete with the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, but have been Team Chaos since the end of last season and haven't played anywhere near expectations.
That opened a window for the Orioles to jump through in the division standings.
The Cubs may have a similar opportunity in the NL Central where the Milwaukee Brewers have slipped to the middle of the pack after winning the division last year.
The Brew Crew still have MVP Ryan Braun with Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy providing strong support. But the team had to deal away Zack Greinke before the trade deadline and could lose Shaun Marcum to free agency also. Milwaukee will have to retool next season, which may give the Cubs a chance to leapfrog them in the division standings.
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, getting past the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals in the NL Central seems highly unlikely for the Cubs next season. But wouldn't you have said the same thing about the Orioles elbowing through the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays this year?
The Orioles just made big news by promoting top prospect Manny Machado to the big leagues, hoping he can provide a boost at third base through the last two months of the season.
Calling a player from Double-A to the majors is putting a player through a big jump, but the O's obviously think he's an upgrade from what they currently have at that position on their major league roster and believe he can handle the transition.
The team that the Cubs begin the 2013 season with might not be the same one they have by midseason.
While it seems early to predict that 20-year-old Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler could be ready for the majors next season, the Cubs have already promoted him from their Arizona rookie league team to Single-A Peoria. That's the same level Machado played at last season.
Depending on where Soler begins next year—whether it's in Peoria or high-A ball in Daytona—he could transition to Double-A Tennessee early in the season. And if he makes enough progress at that level, maybe the Cubs would consider giving him a shot in the majors next August or September.
The likelihood of that could increase if they feel an urgency to use him in the outfield.
The same could apply to shortstop Javier Baez. If the Cubs don't like what they're getting at third base from Josh Vitters or whichever stopgap player might be there in his place, Baez could be in a position similar to Machado next year.
Baez is currently playing with advanced Single-A Daytona. Machado was playing at the same level at the end of last year. If Baez begins next season in Double-A, perhaps he could also skip over Triple-A and join the Cubs' major league lineup. He's hitting better at this stage than Machado was.
One major difference between the Orioles and Cubs is the level of experience each team has in its dugout.
Buck Showalter has been a manager at the major league level for 14 years and his tenures with the Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks show he's a turnaround specialist. He has demonstrated the ability to build a team up from the very bottom and shape a young club into a winner.
By comparison, Dale Sveum is in his first full season as a big league manager. Most of his major league coaching experience has been as a third-base coach with the Red Sox and Brewers. But he did manage the Pirates' Double-A team for three seasons, so he's not a novice in the dugout.
Where the Cubs have an advantage is in the front office. Including this season, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have a combined 13 years of experience running a major league team between them.
Epstein, of course, was GM when the Red Sox won World Series championships in 2004 and 2007. Boston was in the postseason six times during his 10-year tenure. Hoyer was part of that front office staff for five years, serving as Epstein's assistant from 2005-09.
Both have plenty of experience putting together winning teams, helping to make up for whatever Sveum might currently lack as a major league field manager.
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