With the 2011 MLB playoff teams essentially set, it's time to take a look at five teams that could make some noise in 2012. Many young teams have shown flashes of future success throughout the course of the season, but only the Arizona Diamondbacks have proven they have what it takes to last the entire season and into October.
Here are five teams who have a chance to build on this season and compete for a playoff spot in 2012.
(Note: StatSheet.com's metric for grading players, Batter and Starting Pitcher StatRank, have been taken into account when discussing players.)
A 17-game losing streak that spanned 20 days from July 6th-July 20th may have been a blessing in disguise for the Seattle Mariners. It was a losing streak that forced the Mariners to commit fully to a roster overhaul.
Before the skid, Seattle was a pretender clinging to veterans like Erik Bedard, Jack Cust and Chone Figgins, trying to hang on in a weak AL West.
Once the losing streak put the Mariners in their rightful place in the division, the front office began to make the necessary moves. Bedard was traded, Cust released, and Figgins benched. Now the youth could take over. In addition to top prospect Dustin Ackley (who was called up in June), players like Mike Carp, Kyle Seager and Trayvon Robinson entered the lineup.
While the Texas Rangers will likely be the class of the AL West once again in 2012, the Mariners have an opportunity to surprise. Ackley and Justin Smoak have the potential to produce in the middle of the lineup, while Felix Hernandez (SP StatRank #22) and Michael Pineda (SP StatRank #24) form one of the game's best young 1-2 pitcher combinations.
This isn't a team that will be ready to win a World Series in 2012, but one that at least appears to be headed in the right direction.
On July 18th, the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves in first place in the NL Central. The lead didn't last long, but it proved Pittsburgh can at least hang, if only for a short while, with division opponents. If the Pirates hope to have more lasting success in 2012, they will need their young offensive talent to improve, while the pitching staff will need to build upon it's successes in 2011.
The Pirates pitching staff currently ranks 12th overall in team ERA (3.84) in the MLB, led by Jeff Karstens (9-8, 3.32 ERA, 1.19 WHIP), James McDonald (9-7, 3.98 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) and Charlie Morton 9-9, 3.81 ERA, 1.54 WHIP). Joel Hanrahan (36 saves, 1.58 ERA, 0.99 WHIP) has proven to be a great pickup for Pittsburgh, becoming one of the most electric closers in baseball.
This is a staff that has pitched beyond what anyone expected, and will need to avoid a regression if the Pirates are to have a breakout 2012.
Offensively, the Pirates will need to build around Andrew McCutchen (Batter StatRank #38), Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez.
Alvarez, after enjoying a big September in 2010, has struggled mightily this season and will need to be the power-hitting, middle-of-the-lineup bat Pittsburgh expects him to be. It Pittsburgh wants to compete for a playoff spot next season, it may very well hinge on the development of this young third baseman.
When you are as bad as the Royals have been, for as long as the Royals have been, eventually some of the top draft picks you have stockpiled will begin to pan out. For Kansas City, that time is now. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are three elite prospects the Royals are dependent upon in order to be successful.
After a slow start to his career, Gordon (Batter StatRank #32) is finally playing up to his ability, while Eric Hosmer began hitting shortly after being called up. Moustakas has started slow, but his immense talent will take over at some point.
This trio of young players, combined with Melky Cabrera (Batter StatRank #40), Billy Butler (Batter StatRank #45) and Jeff Francoeur give the Royals one of the most exciting young offenses in baseball. Currently, they rank top five in the MLB in batting average, hits, doubles, and stolen bases. In addition, they are sixth in triples and 11th in RBIs.
If the pitching staff can improve upon a woeful 2011 (4.55 ERA, 29th overall), this is a team that could emerge in an AL Central division that seemingly produces a surprise contender every year.
When discussing the future of the Washington Nationals, it begins and ends with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Neither Strasburg nor Harper have had an impact on the 2011 season (aside from Strasburg's recent late-season return), and Harper may not even have an impact on the 2012 Nationals.
It doesn't matter—each of these players are once-in-a-generation kinds of talents, and have the potential to propel the Nationals into contention sooner rather than later.
While they are the premier names in Washington, they aren't the only young talents on the roster. Jordan Zimmerman (SP StatRank #33) will team with Strasburg to form one of those most impressive 1-2 starting pitcher combos in baseball.
Zimmerman, like Strasburg, has the ability to rack up strikeouts and has posted solid numbers as the ace for the Nationals in 2011. In 161.1 innings, he struck out 124 to go along with a 3.18 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are two top young bullpen arms.
While high-priced free agent Jayson Werth didn't have the kind of season expected of him, he teams with Michael Morse (Batter StatRank #18), Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond to give the Nationals a talented group of players to put around Harper.
Any team with Strasburg and Harper in its future has to feel good about where it's headed. At the very least, this is a franchise that will sell tickets.
If the Toronto Blue Jays were in any division outside of the AL East, they would likely enter the 2012 season a division front-runner. Jose Bautista (StatRank #2) is an AL MVP candidate, Ricky Romero (StatRank #19) is emerging as a top of the rotation anchor, and recent call-up Brett Lawrie has lived up to his top-prospect billing, hitting .330 in 115 at-bats with 21 runs, 8 HR, and 21 RBI since his arrival.
Lawrie's most recent home run was of the walk-off variety against Boston on September 5th.
While it's safe to say the Blue Jays offense is loaded (ranked in the top 10 in the MLB in runs, doubles, triples, RBI, home runs and stolen bases), their pitching staff outside of Romero has struggled.
In order to compete in the AL West, Toronto will need prospects Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek to emerge. Alvarez (2.95 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 36.2 innings) has pitched well since his arrival, while Drabek struggled in Toronto early on and hasn't fared any better for Triple-A Las Vegas.
Regardless of its struggles on the hill, Toronto will enter 2012 as one of the most explosive teams in baseball. When a team has the ability to put up runs like Toronto, they can never be counted out.