Crystal ball sees new teams rising in '09
Reds, Rangers among clubs that could emerge as contenders
A year ago, baseball watchers and analysts were trying to find the next Colorado Rockies -- the next team to come from out of nowhere to make the postseason and perhaps roll to the World Series. Now they're looking for the next Tampa Bay Rays.
The thing is, you'd much rather be the new Rays than the new Rox. Colorado took a step back after its 2007 flourish, and it's not easy to envision the Rockies returning to the postseason in '09. The smart teams are looking to emulate Tampa Bay's model, which aimed not only to win for one year, but to sustain it.
The key in finding this year's Rays -- such as is possible -- is not just looking at a likely one-year bump. Because the Rays themselves were no one-year fluke. They were built to win over the long haul, not to take advantage of a brief window.
Thus, a team like the Giants is excluded. San Francisco has acquired some buzz as a possible surprise team, and with another addition to the offense, the Giants could well contend. Their rotation looks very strong, and they've made some interesting moves. But the long view for the Giants lasts until about September.
These are teams that not only could content in 2009, but could lay the foundation for a longer run of success into the next decade.
Orioles: It's easy to dismiss the O's, since for the past decade or so, they've been anything but a model franchise. Never mind the fact that the Rays' emergence makes Baltimore's road even tougher.
Even so, there's some interesting stuff going on at Camden Yards. Start with the man widely considered to be the best prospect in baseball, Matt Wieters. In his professional debut, the switch-hitting catcher decimated both the high Class A Carolina League and the Double-A Eastern League.
The Orioles have also locked up one of baseball's most underappreciated elite talents, Nick Markakis, for six years. Center fielder Adam Jones is a star on the rise, giving Baltimore a very exciting lineup core for years to come.
The other half of the ball is certainly iffier, but the O's made some interesting acquisitions this winter. Koji Uehara should help right away, while Rich Hill racked up 183 strikeouts just two years ago. There's certainly not the depth of pitching that Tampa Bay has, not to mention a couple of the other clubs on this list. But the Orioles are building a base for the long term, and if enough things break right, they could be a surprisingly competitive team this season as well.
Rangers: Texas is an interesting case, because it seems like the Rangers are more an interesting collection of parts than a cohesive baseball team. But they have enough valuable pieces that some shrewd dealing could forge a pretty intriguing club pretty quickly.
It starts with Texas' much-discussed depth at catcher, which is about the best position at which to have depth. The Rangers have as many promising young catchers as some entire divisions, giving them strength at a key position as well as value to trade for help at other positions.
Texas also, as always, has a compelling lineup core, with Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Chris Davis, Michael Young (even though he's aging) and hopefully hotshot Elvis Andrus.
The pitching staff, as is often the case, is a bit of a mishmash, but again, there are plenty of interesting pieces. The advantage Texas has over Baltimore is the competition. The Angels look likely to fall off, and while Oakland may rise again, the American League West definitely looks like a division that could be available for the taking.
The Rangers don't have the upside for a long run at the top that, say, Tampa Bay has. But they could break through this year, and it wouldn't necessarily be a one-year flash.
Marlins: Isn't Florida always eligible for a list like this? Well, yes. But that doesn't change the reality: the talent base here is fertile.
Look at the hitters that could anchor this year's Marlins lineup, and several to come: Hanley Ramirez, Gaby Sanchez, Jeremy Hermida, Cameron Maybin. Jorge Cantu, believe it or not, is still only 27 and brings serious power. Dallas McPherson could yet put it together at the big league level.
And as always, the key to the Fish is the mass of pitching. Nobody collects arms like the Marlins, and even after the trade of Scott Olsen, the stockpile is impressive. Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad could all start this year and for years to come. Anibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller are big-time talents, even if they're coming off rough years.
The Marlins follow that advertising adage: do one thing and do it well. They draft, trade for and develop young pitching, and there's always more at the ready. If they ever decide to try to keep some of their talent as it ages, rather than shipping it off, they could be set for a run to parallel their cross-state neighbors. And the stated hope is that a new stadium would allow them to do just that.
Reds: Maybe the most serious threat for short- and long-term success here, the Reds have a little bit of everything.
Cincinnati's calling card is its deep starting rotation, with a front four of Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. There are plenty of candidates to battle for the fifth spot, and somebody solid should emerge from the competition.
What will be interesting to watch, though, is how the club's front office and field staff handles its young hitters. Jay Bruce and Joey Votto should be lineup anchors for the next five years, while the hope is that Yonder Alonso won't be far behind. Yet the Reds will surround their dangerous core -- which also includes Brandon Phillips -- with low-OBP players like Willy Taveras and Alex Gonzalez.
Still, the lineup could be potent if some things go right -- like a change-of-leagues bounce for Ramon Hernandez and another good year for Edwin Encarnacion. The Reds may have the best chance of any of these four teams to play in October this year, and they also have many of the central pieces of a good team in, say, 2011 as well.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.