Major League Baseball 2012 and Beyond: 5 Young Teams on the Rise
It's that time of year again in Major League Baseball.
Division leaders and Wild Card hopefuls dominate the headlines as fans across the nation begin to anticipate the excitement of October pennant chases.
September is where legends cement their place, managers justify their contracts, role players previously shrouded in obscurity make their names known, MVPs and Cy Young winners bring home their hardware, headlines are stolen and franchise-crippling collapses are immortalized.
The most exciting month of baseball's regular season is where the pretenders and the contenders are finally separated as W's, X's, Y's and Z's begin to finalize the standings, granting a select few ball clubs the ever-so-elusive invitation to the sport's most exclusive dance.
Lost in the hype, however, as disgruntled fans of hopeless teams begin to switch the channel over to football are their first glances at a brighter future.
For those of us not lucky enough to construct our hopes around the boys in New York, Milwaukee, Texas, Arizona, Detroit or Philadelphia, September call-ups are all we've got left to give the tail end of the schedule some measure of relevance.
This is where the old Brooklyn Dodgers mantra of "wait till next year" becomes a battle cry, because unless your favored club is within a few games of a postseason berth, the future is your last resort.
Now, that's not to say that next year's prospects are looking too bright in every corner of Bud Selig's empire.
In remote ball-playing wastelands, such as Houston and Baltimore, it's going to take years of patience and good faith before the home team can even begin to see itself on the same page as the rest of its competition.
For these five clubs, however, grim outlooks need not be applied.
With the savvy dealing, creativity and patience of their front offices alongside the steady development of their promising talent on the farm, brighter days appear to be just on the horizon, merely awaiting a fresh 162 or two.
5. Kansas City Royals
I know what you're thinking. Save it.
These are not your older brother's Royals anymore. Gone are the Juan Gone and Jose Guillen contracts of years gone by. Far back in the rear view mirror are those lopsided trades which once sent the Jermaine Dyes and Carlos Beltran's of lineups past off to much greener pastures.
Bullpens in the blue and white are no longer infamous for turning late leads into third trimester abortions. At long last, hundred loss seasons are finally a nightmare this long-suffering fanbase can begin to wake up from.
While question marks still abound in both the on-field product (see: pitching, starting variety) and a bit of the approach of its architects (re-signing Jeff Francoeur for two more years?), the Kansas City Royals of the Second Decade are finally getting it right by drawing up a blueprint that calls for the in-house development of a fearsome core which will stick together years to come.
The 2011 edition of Kansas City's latest rebuilding effort already shows some promise. This offense has plated 703 runs, good enough for 8th overall in baseball, to the tune of a .274 team batting average (4th overall), a respectable .329 OBP (7th overall) and .413 slugging percentage (8th overall).
These are hardly the numbers of a team paying rent for the AL Central cellar.
Third baseman-turned-outfielder Alex Gordon, once the club's most highly touted prospect, has finally come out of his shell, launching 23 home runs with an .879 OPS, to lead these youngsters into the future.
Sitting at his right hand is designated hitter Billy Butler, he of the .828 OPS, while first baseman Eric Hosmer, second baseman Johnny Giavotella, shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez begin to fulfill their promise.
The bullpen, once known for trotting out has-been's, never-will-be's and psychologically unstable felons to their demise is now defined by the dominance of closer Joakim Soria and a combined 3.67 ERA.
Leads in the future will be safer than they've seemed in eons for the Kauffman Faithful and, barring another crippling bout with stupidity, lopsided desperation deals such as the godawful Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez's last legs swap won't ever seem necessary again.
Adding to the optimism, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress—a large chunk of the Zack Greinke haul—are still developing in the minors, but will soon provide the big league club with a double-dose of pitching and solid defense. They will accompany fellow works-in-progress Wil Myers in the outfield, John Lamb and Mike Montgomery on the mound.
The best part? Of all these position-player youths I've name-dropped, only Escobar and Gordon will reach free agent status before the 2016 season.
4. Cincinnati Reds
It already seems like ages ago that the Cincinnati Reds rode some impressive returns from a prior youth movement all the way to a surprising 91-win season, which in turn netted them the National League's Central division title. Just by looking at the club's mediocre performance in 2011, one would be a little hard pressed to believe that postseason appearance came just one year ago.
Now, that's not to say the Reds are already on the downswing, however, as such an assumption could not be farther from the truth.
Baseball fans along the bluegrass border still have some of Major League Baseball's most dynamic players on their side. For starters, the right side of the infield is more than secure with 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto and perennial All-Star candidate Brandon Phillips cementing their legacies at first and second base respectively.
How many teams can you think of that have been able to assimilate their future around a core of that caliber? Not many, I assume.
That's just scratching the surface.
Before straining his right lat muscle under his pitching arm on September 14th, 25-year-old staff ace Johnny Cueto was in the running for the NL ERA title with a paltry 2.31 to his name. Behind him in the Reds' rotation (despite the frustrations of having Goo Goo Doll Bronson Arroyo and his generous servings of home runs on the mound) are also the young arms of Mike Leake, Travis Wood and The Homer Bailey Reclamation Project.
If that's not enough, hitters may soon have to get used to chasing 100+ mph heat on a regular basis as it's shot from the cannon arm of Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman.
It's no stretch of the imagination to assume that Chapman has the potential to eventually establish himself anywhere between an Opening Day starter or a ninth inning nightmare.
With all this pitching, though, somebody else besides Votto and Phillips will have to help carry the offensive load, unless the team is looking forward to stacking up one-run losses all the way down to the division basement.
That's where the franchise hopes one of baseball's most dazzling collections of minor league talent will meet the steadily-developing potential of starters Drew Stubbs, Juan Francisco and Jay Bruce.
In Stubbs, manager Dusty Baker already has a player who could someday become a 30 homer-30 steals threat; but in the foreseeable future SS prospect Billy Hamilton will eclipse the young outfielder as Cincinnati's primary source for speed.
If you need some evidence to be convinced, check this out: Hamilton already has an electrifying 103 stolen-bases season under his belt in A ball. Although his career .338 OBP leaves something to be desired in the plate discipline department, it's no stretch of the imagination to assume that with some improved patience he could become a historically pesky terror on the diamond.
As early as Opening Day of next season, the aforementioned Drew Stubbs might find himself being flanked on the left side by another Havana-born weapon, this one named Yonder. Yonder Alonso, that is, the 24 year old first-baseman-turned-leftfielder who not too long ago was the franchise's number one overall draft pick.
In 83 at bats with the big club this year Alonso has already posted an impressive .337/.409/.566 line, giving fans a glimpse at what's to come.
Also joining Yonder for the ride in the very near future will be infielder Zack Cozart and prized catching prospect Devin Mesoraco, who has already made free-agent-to-be Ramon Hernandez expendable with his tools.
In what figures to soon become a very winnable NL Central division, the sky is soon to be the limit for baseball in southern Ohio.
3. Washington Nationals
Change is coming to our nation's capitol in the near future. No, you don't need to pinch yourself; you're still living in 2011.
If manager Davey Johnson can resist the temptation to grind his 23-year-old ace's multi-million dollar right arm into string cheese, baseball fans near the Potomac will be gifted with the once-in-a-generation opportunity to witness the young man who may very well develop into the city's most dominant pitcher since Walter Johnson took off right before their eyes.
And you know where it really gets scary for opposing teams? In a year or two, Stephen Strasburg alone won't be the only massive draw to Nationals Park.
Try Bryce Aron Harper out for size, the 6'3'' 225 lb. outfield roaming mega-prospect who could be traumatizing opposing pitchers with the big club as early as mid-to-late 2012.
For those of you curious as to how this once high school dropout turned anointed one is currently faring in his first taste of minor league baseball, here are the numbers between A and AA (although it should be noted that his A stats were significantly more impressive and provide most of the punch to these lines): .297/.392/.501 for a promising .892 OPS and 17 homers in 109 games.
In the span of three seasons, the Washington Nationals seem poised to have the rare and distinct privilege of debuting two of Major League Baseball's most hyped can't-miss prospects in recent memory. And once the big debut festivities are over they can start working on getting infielder Anthony Rendon, the man they chose sixth overall just this past June, up and contributing as well.
Not to be outdone, the 2011 edition of these Nats is already a fairly competitive squad on its own, sporting a 76-80 record, which is currently good enough for third place in the competitive National League East division.
To date, the team already boasts some serious talent via a pair of Zimmermanns (longtime third baseman/middle of the order threat Ryan and front-line starter Jordan), closer Drew Storen and power hitting first baseman Mike Morse.
As if that isn't enough, the front office is also doing its part in building a contender, with its spirited pursuits of both Denard Span and B.J. Upton this past summer, to inherit the land in center field.
Now if only they could start seeing some more sizable returns on last winter's mega-investment, Jayson Werth...
2. Cleveland Indians
Competitive baseball was not supposed to come knocking on Cleveland's doorstep in 2011. With the organization having fully committed themselves to hitting the reset button after their 2008 meltdown, fans of the Indians were all but told to keep their expectations at bay for at least another few years.
Then came the Tribe's baseball best 30-15 start and all of a sudden, the major league Indians were drawing steady comparisons to the Major League Indians. Had it not been for a seemingly never-ending string of injuries to most of the team's core veteran players (along with the single-handed dominance of division rival Tigers' ace Justin Verlander) these Cuyahoga kids could have provided the sports miracle their city has been desperately needing in the wake of LeBron James's "Decision."
As was to be expected with such an inexperienced lineup, however, the club's early season fortunes regressed and their hold on the American League Central division's lead was wrestled from their grasp.
That's not to say the season will end in failure, though, as the club still boasts a fairly impressive 78-78 record (already a 9 game improvement over last season's 69 win total) despite the prolonged absences of their entire starting outfield: drunk driving stalwart Shin Soo Choo, lefty Michael Saunders and fallen superstar Grady Sizemore.
On the mound 26-year-old Justin Masterson blossomed into a prime time ace for the club, posting a 3.21 ERA to lead the pitching staff while already having tossed 200+ innings.
While some might say they got a little carried away at the deadline in trading highly touted pitching prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz to Colorado for Ubaldo Jimenez, the addition of the former Cy Young winner will allow the Tribe to look into 2012 and beyond with two legitimate front-line starters in their rotation.
Even with the swap, there's no reason to assume the farm was at all depleted, as two of Baseball America's preseason top 100 prospects, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.247/.272/.414) and second baseman Jason Kipnis (.284/.344/.560) rose to the major league level and made their impacts felt on what was, at one point, a hotly contested battle for the AL Central crown.
With a second season to be under their belts next year, management has to be confident the untapped potential of these two promising youngsters will fully blossom alongside the team's 2011 breakout player Asdrubal Cabrera (.275/.334/.465 with 25 homers and 17 steals) at shortstop, the steady designated hitting leader Travis Hafner (.280/.361/.453 with 13 long balls) and their power-blessed young catcher Carlos Santana (.241/.351/.461 to match his 27 dingers) to give Indians fans a young, dynamic, high scoring offense worth paying for on a nightly basis.
A pair of aces can only hope.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
Sometimes I get a sneaking suspicion that Alex Anthopolous isn't the kind of boss who would run extensive background checks on his employees.
Not to suggest the Blue Jays' General Manager is in the wrong, as his method of turning one team's disgruntled trash into Canadian treasure has blessed baseball's final frontier north of the border with an unlikely, but promising core assembled through some of the league's shrewdest displays of bargain hunting.
To announce his arrival, Anthopolous took longtime ace Roy Halladay and made him a member of the Philadelphia Phillies startling collection of superstar hurlers in exchange for top prospects Travis D'Arnaud, a catcher, and Kyle Drabek, the son of former Cy Young winner Doug and a pitcher with ace-like potential on his own.
Before the pieces of his blockbuster deal were finalized, however, he had turned the third piece, outfielder Michael Taylor, into Oakland A's first baseman Brett Wallace and flipped Wallace to the Houston Astros for the speedy, defensive whiz minor league project Anthony Gose.
In the summer of 2010, the second-chance GM flipped his team's shortstop, Alex Gonzalez to the Atlanta Braves, who had run out of patience with their youngster at short, Yunel Escobar. In turn, Escobar rewarded his new boss's faith in him by upping his numbers to the tune of .275/.340/.356 upon arriving and then carried his improved production into the 2011 season, posting a line of .290/.369/.413 before getting hurt in September.
This offseason AA took what some considered to be another gamble by rewarding the breakout superstar of 2010, third baseman/outfielder Jose Bautista, with a long term contract after his 54 home run season. All Bautista has done since then is become arguably the American League's best hitter, batting over .300 with an on-base percentage above .400 and a .611 slugging percentage to match his 42 homers in 2011.
Not done yet, the progressive-minded GM somehow managed to find a partner in Los Angeles willing to pay for Vernon Wells's government-bailout-sized contract just in time to watch the bottom start falling out on the overpriced outfielder's career.
And then he gave the Milwaukee Brewers the kind of starting pitcher they craved (Shaun Marcum) in exchange for a power hitting Canadian star-in-the-making, third baseman Brett Lawrie, to pair up in the lineup with Bautista.
As July 31st approached in the 2011 season nobody expected the Jays front office to be an active player in the deadline deal market—considering their cozy spot at a distant 4th place behind the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays in baseball's crown jewel division, the American League East.
But that's exactly what Anthopolous was, first acquiring Edwin Jackson from the White Sox and then exploiting the St. Louis Cardinals' need for starting pitching, along with manager Tony La Russa's ongoing frustrations with Colby Rasmus, to acquire the five-tool center fielder.
In late August the Jays found a contender in a bit of a crisis, as the NL West leading Arizona Diamondbacks had just lost their shortstop for the rest of the year to an injury, so the team generously sent a chunk of its middle infield, shortstop John McDonald and second baseman Aaron Hill, to the desert in exchange for D'Backs second baseman Kelly Johnson.
Now Anthopolous has the option to let Johnson walk at the end of the season and pick up a compensatory draft pick in exchange for his one month of service to the franchise, or he could simply improve the Hill's old stomping grounds, both offensively and with the glove, by banking on a return to form and re-signing KJ on the cheap.
With top prospect D'Arnaud on the fast track to the majors, Anthopolous might have one more potential trick up his sleeve, as the catching position is already held down by promising rookie J.P. Arencibia.
If one of these two backstops can be taught the ropes at first base, though, all of a sudden the smoke-and-mirrors power swing of Adam Lind will be expendable, and the Jays will again have the green light to go on the trade hunt, this time maybe for a starting pitcher who can help staff ace Ricky Romero the weight of the rotation.
In the era of Billy Beane and Theo Epstein it's getting better every day to be a Jays fan, knowing the next big creative genius is making brilliant baseball moves in their own backyard.